GP wins Tories’ experiment with open primaries

Author: By Nigel Morris, Deputy Political Editor

Dr Sarah Wollaston comfortably beat two well-known local Conservatives to clinch the nomination for Totnes in Devon in a postal vote of its entire electorate regardless of political allegiance. Nearly a quarter of the electors in the true-blue constituency took part in the “open primary” that followed the decision of its long-standing MP, Anthony Steen, to retire at the election over his expenses claims.

After local Tories drew up a short-list of three potential candidates, ballot papers were sent to all 69,000 registered electors in Totnes. Dr Wollaston topped the poll with 7,914 votes, ahead of Sara Randall-Johnson, the leader of East Devon district council, on 5,495 votes and Nick Bye, the Mayor of Torbay, on 3,088 votes.

Dr Wollaston made a virtue of her status as the political outsider in the contest, arguing it was time for an “ordinary person” to stand up for the concerns of local people.

The Conservatives spent £38,000 on the primary ? equivalent to £2.30 for every vote cast ? but declared that the experiment in democracy had been a success in engaging the constituency’s electors. They said they wanted to repeat the experiment in other seats before the next election ? if the cost to the party could be reduced.

Dr Wollaston, 47, a GP in Chagford, has been a doctor for 23 years and also worked with Devon and Cornwall Police as a forensic medical examiner. During a hustings session she was asked whether she would be at a disadvantage taking and throwing the punches in political exchanges. She received spontaneous applause when she responded that she had no appetite for that sort of thing.

Dr Wollaston fought on a strongly Eurosceptic platform and campaigned on health ? notably alcohol-related problems. A Tory source said: “It may be a combination of reasons that she won ? that she was a fresh face, she was a woman and she was well-known and respected locally.”

Dr Wollaston’s victory means that she is almost certain to be heading to Westminster after the next election.

Totnes has been held by the Conservatives since the 1920s. Their majority over the Liberal Democrats dropped to 1,947 at the last election, but party sources insist that it should soar with a change of candidate.

Eric Pickles, the Tory chairman, described the vote as “a great success for democracy”. But John Stafford, the chairman of the Campaign for Conservative Democracy, denounced the exercise as another “nail in the coffin for party membership and party democracy”.

He told the BBC: “It is a gimmick, frankly, because at a cost of £40,000 I can’t even think of half a dozen constituencies in the country that could possibly afford that sort of money.” The Tories decided to stage the primary after Mr Steen was forced to resign over claims totalling £87,729 over four years for the upkeep of his Devon country house, including payments for inspecting the 500 trees surrounding the property.

The MP blamed public “jealousy” over his wealth for precipitating his departure and insisted taxpayers had no right to know details of his expenses payments.

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