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Daniel Hannan MEP: A case for a decentralised Conservative Party and open primaries

Hannan_1Daniel Hannan is Conservative MEP for South East England, and writes columns for The Sunday Telegraph and the German newspaper Die Welt.

Any idiot can identify the problem: voters think the Tories are out of touch, in it for themselves, irrelevant to ordinary people, prepared to say anything to win. The diagnosis is easy; it’s the prescription that’s hard.

I mean, there are plenty of things that the Tories could do to correct these impressions if they were in office. But they won’t get into office as long as voters refuse to give them the benefit of the doubt. Catch-22.

Indeed, almost the only thing that is within the gift of an Opposition leader is reform of his own party. Tony Blair understood this, which is why he made such a big deal out repealing Clause Four. He wasn’t picking a fight for the sake of it. Rather, he was trying to give the country a token of his good faith, indicating in Opposition how he would behave in Government.

What is the Conservative equivalent? How can the party demonstrate that, rather than snatching at the levers of control, it would use office to push powers outwards and downwards? How can it show that it really is a party for everyone, and that its promise to empower the citizen is more than just rhetoric? Well, it can start by opening up its selection procedures.

Plenty of people have observed that the Conservative Party ought to look more like the country it aspires to govern. This is surely true, and has implications that go well beyond head-counts of female and ethnic minority MPs. A genuinely representative party would also more closely resemble the electorate in terms of age, professional background, geography, accent and – above all – outlook.

Here we come to a paradox. Those who have been arguing loudest and longest for diversity often go on to demand that party managers be allowed to impose candidates on constituencies. There is, of course, a logical flaw here. You do not make any organisation more representative by restricting the admission criteria. The 300,000 party members may not be typical of the country as a whole. But how much less so would be a small committee of party officials?

It would strange indeed for a party committed to decentralisation to micro-manage its own affairs from the centre. If we truly want pluralism, we should widen, rather than narrow, the selectorate. When a seat becomes vacant, local activists should present their short-list to all registered voters in that constituency.

Open primaries? In Britain? Could it really work? Yes. Indeed, it has already worked, with results that speak for themselves. At the last election, two Conservative Associations, Reading East and Warrington South opted to choose their candidates through open hustings meetings. Reading East was not a seat that the Tories ever really expected to win: it lay well outside the party’s top hundred targets. Yet, to everyone’s surprise, it is now represented by a first-rate Conservative MP, Rob Wilson. Warrington South was a no-hoper and, despite a swing of five per cent above the regional average, it remains in Labour’s hands. But its brilliant candidate, Fiona Bruce, gave Tony Blair his worst day of the entire election when she revealed that one of her residents, Margaret Dickson, had had an operation cancelled at the last minute six times. (The story had a happy ending: although Fiona didn’t win the seat, Mrs Dickson got her operation within hours of Michael Howard raising her case, public criticism being one of the few things that quangoes fear.)

The arguments for open primaries are, when you think about them, pretty obvious. They ensure that you have a candidate who is liked by a decent chunk of the constituency, not just by your activists. Those who participate in the selection process come to feel proprietorial about “their” candidate, and have a stake in his or her success: the Warrington South Conservative Association has 200 active new members as a direct result of the selection process. And, of course, the very fact of the primary generates an enormous amount of local media interest, thus giving the candidate a head-start.

True, primaries favour applicants with a strong local profile: both Rob and Fiona were well-known in their respective towns. But is this such a bad thing? The idea that a politician might aspire to a national career without having first proved himself in his home region would be bewildering to most Europeans, or most Americans – or, for that matter, most Liberal Democrats.

The US precedent is an interesting one. Like us, the Americans have a first-past-the-post voting method and, in consequence, a two-party system. But, for a long time, these parties used regularly to be displaced: a procession of Federalists, Whigs, Know-nothings, Anti-Masons and others trooped through Washington. From the moment that open primaries were introduced, however, the existing two parties were fixed in place, anchored by guy-ropes to public opinion.

Britain is in an anti-politics mood. No one who canvassed at the last election can have failed to spot it. Turnout is falling and, of those who do vote, record numbers are deserting the established parties. In other countries, Right-of-Centre parties benefit from anti-politician feeling. The problem for the Tories is that, despite having been out of power for eight years, they are seen as more Establishment than Labour. They are the party of London clubs, of public schools, of black-tie dinners, which makes it hard for them to tap into anti-government resentment.

In the middle years of the Twentieth Century, the US Republicans had the same problem. Since then, they have transformed themselves from an East Coast, preppy, country club party that kept losing into a Sun Belt, anti-government, populist party that keeps winning. How? By championing individuals against the government, and local traditions against Washington. It was their espousal of states rights that began their revival, serving to convince voters that the GOP was with “us” against “them” – with, that is, the people against the government.

I and a group of “localist” Tories spent the recent conference in Blackpool urging our party to commit itself to the wholesale devolution of power – to individuals where possible, but otherwise to towns and counties. A majority of delegates, including dozens of MPs, signed up to our agenda: pluralism in healthcare, elected sheriffs, self-financing local councils, school choice, the repatriation of power from Brussels and much else. But all of this is academic as long as the party is in Opposition. And no one will believe its promises unless it can convincingly demonstrate, though its own procedures, that it wants to decentralise power. That is why primaries matter. And, in case you think I am urging a policy on others that I would not accept myself, let me end with this suggestion: in advance of the 2009 Euro-elections, the Tories should allow all registered voters, not just party members, to rank their Euro-candidates as they please.

Click here to read about Daniel's 'We Must Quit The EU' article -  written for The Sunday Telegraph in August.


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