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« David Cameron calls for fixed-term parliaments and majority-elected Lords | Main | David Lidington MP: The Case for David Willetts MP »


Simon C

"On the subject of primaries my personal view is that if someone wants a say in how the party operates - they join and get invovled. I am very wary of going down the US route of primaries - as I feel it devalues membership."

In reality, Jonathan, whilst we still have the largest membership of any of the parties, numbers are still woefully down. Of course it would be wonderful if everyone joined our Party. But they won't. We need to engage with them and demonstrate that we value them - and what better way of starting to do that than through an open primary?

We may even find that we gain some more members as a result.

As to devaluing the membership - the current proposals do that in spades. We have been selling membership on the basis that members will have a direct say in the election of the party leader. If the current carve-up on offer is accepted, that no longer applies. As I have said elsewhere (and also, BTW, in my response to the 21st Century Party consultation) there is a basic issue of fair dealing here.

It took me a little time to come round to the primary idea. But I am now converted.

Jonathan Sheppard

Let me be just a bit michievous here (as this is a good debate).

Just how far down the line of primaries would you want to go. Use them for selecting all our paliamentary candidates? Council candidates?

There is the clear feeling that the membership is being neglected - but why should Joe Public get a say in choosing our candidates if they aren't prepared to put in the leg work, do the leafleting etc??

What makes you think a primary will lead to electoral success? Primaroes work in Presidential elections as you are voting for an individual. The Prime Minister as we know is first amongst equals - something very different.

Is there eveidence that those candidates chosen using the primary trials did any better than those who weren't?


Canada has a parliamentary system like Britain. But in Canada, the party leader (for example, Stephen Harper of the Reform Conservatives) is chosen via a national convention, the delegates to which are elected by the local party organizations. There is not even the MP "winnowing out" feature that the British Tories had when selecting IDS. Obviously, a parliamentary system CAN coexist with a national convention and a national party vote for leader. Leadership selection doesn't have to be an MPs only affair. For that matter, Canada has proven that leaders can be chosen from outside the ranks of the sitting MPs. Brian Mulroney, later elected Prime Minister by the largest landslide a Progressive Conservative ever received, was not a member of parliament when he was chosen PC Party leader.

Jonathan Sheppard

But the delegates would still be signed up party members?

James Hellyer

Primaries don't have to be open to all. Some US states operate primaries where only party members can vote, others require you to have registered your support for a party, others are open to all.

Jonathan Sheppard

So in effect we already have one type of primary for PPCs - they have to win the election where only party members can vote - before they are put to the public in the election proper.

James Hellyer

They have they have to get past the selection committee, which is hardly the same thing.

Simon C

I favour open primaries, by which I mean open to anybody who is a party member, or who is prepared to register as a Conservative voter. That would mean them signing a declaration that they are not members of any other political party and that they intend to vote Conservative in the forthcoming elections. Obviously a declaration of future voting intention would not be legally binding, but it would help to ensure that the electorate was a conservative one.

PPCs could certainly be chosen under such a system. As to Council candidates, I would be inclined to leave that to Associations at this stage whilst the primary idea takes root.

I think we only had 2 PPCs selected through a primary - Warrington South & one of the Reading seats. That's too small a sample to draw any fixed conclusions - but I hope that the associations & candidates are being asked for their views on the "primary effect", and how it might be capitalised on in the future. Fiona Bruce fought a strong local campaign in Warrington, and reduced the Labour majority by about 50% from 7000-8000, I think.

Jonathan Sheppard

A selection committe made up of party members. Explain why that right should be taken away from the membership? If you argue it is because they are not respresentative of society - isn't that the same argument that MPs are using to say members shouldn't vote in the leadership election?

Simon C

I am not arguing that it is because the membership is unrepresentative, although I would certainly argue that the membership is more representative than MPs.

My argument is based on the need for the Party to start engaging with the Country, and not spend its time talking only to itself.

A primary does not disenfranchise the membership - it merely extends voting rights to other people. It adds to democracy. The current proposals diminish it.

I live in Lincolnshire. There are 6 Conservative MPs in the county. Under the proposed rules, Lincolnshire will get 6 votes in the Leadership election. Sheffield, Newcastle, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, and Birmingham will between them have no votes whatsoever.

James Hellyer

A selection committee is made up of *some* party members in a constituency. That is not the same as giving *all* the members in a constituency a choice - never mind all the supporters.

The issue with the proposed leadership rule changes is that rather than broadening our appeal and franchise to attract a wider potential membership, it seeks to disenfranchise the members, leaving core party decisions to its MPs regardless of the fact that in opposition they are hardly geographically or socially representative of the country as a whole.

Opposing this is in no way inconsistent with thinking that the selection process for MPs should be similarly widened beyond its existing selectorate.

Jonathan Sheppard

Simon - agreed. And my constituency will not get a vote, and as someone who was their parliamentary spokesperson I will not get a vote. BUT I would not want non members to get a vote in the leadership election, and therefore Im not sure I would want non members to choose our candidates.

Everyone is free to join - so perhaps the question needs to be asked why aren't people joining. Over 12,000 people voted for me. Therefore they are Conservative supporters. I do not however believe they automatically have the right to select the candidate in that seat.

Jonathan Sheppard

Thought needs to be given to the exisiting members. I certainly do not think it would go down well with many sections of the membership. If you turn round and tell them - that yes you have paid your £15, and delivered leaflets in the local elections in the pouring rain - but actually we want to let anyone who is a Conseravtive supporter to have the right to select a local PPC, then what incentive is there for those people to join in the first place.

We have rightly debated that members at present have precious little say in what happens - but wouldn't this be a dilution of what powers they have??

Mark O'Brien

"I live in Lincolnshire. There are 6 Conservative MPs in the county. Under the proposed rules, Lincolnshire will get 6 votes in the Leadership election. Sheffield, Newcastle, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, and Birmingham will between them have no votes whatsoever."

I agree that most of the plans put forward have major weaknesses, and as someone who lives in Leeds, I am, as you acknowledge, well and truly disenfranchised under the proposed plans. But is there some evidence to suggest that if we stuck to the system we used in 2001, this unfairness to supporters in parts of the country like mine with tiny numbers of Conservatives would be even stronger.

What I mean to say is this (and I don't like being too technocratic about what should be a matter of principle - standing up for party democracy): if the ratio of MPs in Sussex and Hampshire to MPs in South Yorkshire and Greater Manchester is, say, 10 to 1, maybe the ratio of grassroots Tories is much bigger than that. What I'm really asking is: maybe the grassroots are much more concentrated in the true blue South East than the MPs, and so if we kept the 2001 system, my region would be worse off and even less represented in the leadership election.

It's just a thought, and I concede it's rather irrelevant to the fundamentals of this issue, and what's more I'm falling into the trap of trying to support the system which could best elect one particular favoured candidate, but it's important to get the mathematics right with this, so that all the country is well represented, not just the affluent south east, who may turn out to think that the country's doing fine and we don't really need to rock the boat, and may take a safe pair of hands rather than somebody who sees the serious problems elsewhere in the country and is committed to fighting for the interests of those in my region who haven't got it quite so easy.

Jonathan Sheppard

Mark - Excellent comments (as always). I like you have been a Tory in areas that quite frankly probably haven't been visited by a Tory MP for years. It certainly gives you a diffent and quite frankly valuable perspective - as these are the areas the party need to re-engage with and win back.

Simon C

I was a PPC in a target marginal outside the South East in 2001. The membership of my association was more than double that of the membership in the Conservative-held constituency association I am currently a member of. I am not sure Mark's fears are as grounded as he might think.

In any event, it should be possible to do a breakdown of the areas where our membership lies.

However, there are some very Conservative wards in seats that currently look impregnable to us (as well as in our target marginals). The only way we can start motivating people in those seats is by showing that we value their support and opinions.

Primaries may not be perfect, but they are significantly less imperfect than either the 2001 system, or the proposed changes.

For those looking for the fabled "Clause IV" moment, a switch to primaries would demonstrate that the Party is more concerned with the country than itself. Michael Ancram had it spot on this morning.

As to incentives to join the Party - members did not have a say in the leadership election until after 1997. They still joined. I doubt that many would leave if primaries are introduced. As said before, primaries should enable us to attract new members. We would of couse invite every registered voter to join the Party.

I would guess more are likely to leave because they have had a voting right taken away from them than would leave because the vote has been extended.

But we need to do more to engage our members, hence my suggestion elsewhere on this Blog that we reinvigorate political discussion at a local level and revitalise the Conservative Policy Forums.

Simon C

Jonathan, you seem to be coming dangerously close to accepting that the system by which we elect the Leader, Party democracy, and the current voting rights of members, do matter after all.

Jonathan Sheppard

Oh they do matter - but not to me as much as electoral success does. Only then can we deliver real change for the better.


How party conventions work in Canada (and I should preface this by saying I'm not Canadian and don't live in Canada) is that paid up party members vote in each constituency ("riding") to send delegates to the national convention. At the national convention they vote for a party leader. Those delegates must also be party members. In practice, this system energizes the individual candidates to sign up their supporters as party members, which increases the membership (at least temporarily).

In American, the individual states have primaries to nominate not only the party leader (president) but also the members of the legislature and the local offices. Most states have a system whereby a voter comes in on primary day and takes the ballot of the party of his/her choice. In this system, bored Democrats can "cross over" and vote for a favorite Republican, and vice versa--which many consider a drawback. Some states require that voters register in advance by party, and allow only those so registered to vote in that party's primary. This registration does not require that the individual have paid party membership dues, and such dues don't generally exist anyway.

In practice, the primaries attract hugely more voters that the IDS-Clarke "primary" of 2001. Just one state--Illinois, for example, with only a fraction of Britain's population--has many more Republican primary voters than voted in the IDS-Clarke runoff.

In most states, a candidate gets on the primary ballot by presenting to the election board the signatures of a small number of voters so requesting. There is NO "winnowing out" by the party machinery or by sitting MPs. Anybody who files with the requisite number of signatures is placed on the ballot.

Jonathan Sheppard

Quite interesting. Are there dangers with primaries of money being a much bigger factor in elections? In effect you have to spend hundreds of thousands to win even a primary when running for a state position. Plus doesn't it also lend itself to a presidential type of politics where individuals and personalities are more important that policies.

Just a thought.

James Hellyer

That's only because of the campaign finance laws they have in the US. It would be easy to limit expenditure if you wanted to. Obviously doing so would be a good idea, because it would stop anyone or their PAC buying Primaries as many claim Dubya did in 2000.

Jonathan Sheppard

Thats one of the benefits about our system. I know people who have run for City Council in the States who have spent thousands and thousands of dollars on campaigning.

I keep in touch with a former Congressman who can't get over what candidates are allowed to spend in a General Election.

James Hellyer

But you could cap spending with an internal rule, as was proposed in "A 21st Cebtury Party" (albeit with a ridiculously low limit.

As for Presedential politics, where personality matters more than policy, it strikes me that is exactly the tenor of DD's campaign. His focus has been heavy on biography and light on policy (or at least light on policy not scripted by Mick Herbert).

James Hellyer

Obviously "Mick" should read "Nick". Sorry.

Anyway, Nick Herbert's dabs being all over Davis's policy platform alarms me, because Reform's manifesto strikes me as offering the worst of both worlds.

Mark O'Brien

I'm strongly averse to big spending political campaigns. I keep peddling the line that voters have become much cleverer and have matured after years of being patronised by New Labour. Nowadays, they don't want a party that looks flashy but one that can help them the most, and parties that get the best hearing are the ones whose candidates meet and greet people, canvass on the streets and whose idea of campaign literature is not a glossy leaflet but a black and white sheet of paper explaining what they believe in and what they're going to do. Today, I watched some of the BBC's election night coverage from earlier this year (I do enjoy reflecting on events later on!!) and what struck me was that in those brief interludes when real people were asked how they voted, several voted Liberal Democrat at least partially because they gave the appearance that they didn't go in for flashy campaigning, but that they were down-to-earth and gave straight answers to straight questions, and that, after all, costs nothing!

And as far as Reform are concerned, I found that one advantage their manifesto does bring is to present Conservative principles in a positive and reasonable way, even if some of their ideas have slight faults. As far as the policy wonks are concerned, my position is this: take the policies of the Adam Smith Institute and the language of Reform, and we're on to a winner!

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