As part of my article on the South Devon Primary I was fortunate enough to be able to interview Anthea Simmons, one of the three founding members of the campaign. A published author, Anthea is also editor-in-chief of a sister citizen journalism online paper, West Country Voices.
How the ‘Primary’ works is that a series of Q&A sessions will be held in public meetings around the South Devon constituency, each featuring the three ‘opposition’ candidates. The candidates will have the chance to explain why they are the best placed to defeat the Conservatives and will allow voters to get the measure of them. At the end of each session, members of the audience will be asked to vote for the candidate they think stands the best chance of defeating incumbent MP Anthony Mangnall. At the end of the process, all the votes will be added up and the winner will be declared the ‘People’s Champion’.
Candidates willingly take part in the process
Ben Smith: How difficult has it been to get the potential opposition candidates to the current incumbent to take part in the “Town Hall” process?
Anthea Simmons: Not difficult at all. First, because we’re not asking for anything of the candidates (NB: we are not asking ‘losing’ candidates to step down); but also these are not, in most cases, target seats for any of the parties. This process is only being run or proposed in constituencies where the Conservative is likely to win on a minority vote and where there is ambiguity as to which of the opposition candidates to back. In those circumstances, why would opposition candidates not participate in a process which significantly increases the chance of unseating the incumbent? Why would they not come and talk to interested potential voters?
An independent group mobilising a disillusioned and disengaged electorate and laying on a series of town hall events to allow candidates to showcase their offering, is an absolute gift to the parties. It costs them nothing and has the potential to transform their campaign. For the losers, there’s the benefit of clarity on where their resources and volunteers should be now directed – to seats where they have a chance – and the fact that their supporters had the opportunity to influence the promises made by the winning candidate to appeal to the broadest church. We will be recording those promises and holding the ‘champion’ to account when they are in Parliament.
BS: Do you believe that the opposition parties will issue instructions to their candidates not to take part if this movement spreads?
AS: No … because, as explained above, we are running primaries in constituencies that the opposition candidates had little or no hope of winning without the process. If one of them did decide to pull out, it would be extremely damaging for them. People are excited by the prospect of their vote counting for once and they want this process to succeed. Boycotting it will not exactly build trust in that party’s commitment to democracy.
Press coverage could encourage other constituencies to set up a Primary
BS: We’re potentially a year away from the next general election. Do you think there’s time for this campaign to have a significant impact on the next election?
AS: Definitely. If anything, the sense of urgency is creating more momentum – especially as this government hurtles at increasing velocity towards the far right.
What is more, each Primary that emerges is building national interest, and with more coverage, it becomes easier to spread awareness. From the conversations we’re having with voters on the high street in South Devon, we know there is a huge appetite for a Primary. Once our town halls are covered on national news (BBC News have said they’ll be covering one of them), the job of spreading the word about each new primary will become far easier.
Thanks to our press, there is a real underestimation of just how angry and hungry for change people are right now. The Primary offers real hope to the thousands of people who want their vote to count for a change. Many have been so disenfranchised by the scourge of the safe seat that they have not bothered to vote at all. Well, we’ve given them a reason to go out and reclaim their power and they are fired up to do just that. In the last election, taken as a proportion of total registered voters, the second biggest cohort after the 39.7% of Conservative voters in the Totnes constituency was the 25% of registered voters who didn’t vote. And who can blame them when the contest seems to be a stitch-up thanks to our dysfunctional first-past-the-post voting system?
Primaries can help towards electoral reform
BS: Do you think we will see PR happen within the next 10 years?
AS: In our view, we need PR to be introduced by the next government. Such is the poisoned chalice left by this administration that a progressive government, hammered by a dishonest right-wing press, may only get one term. If the Conservatives were to be re-elected in 2029, PR would be kicked into the long grass.
As we explain to people on the street, we don’t want to have to do this again. We want equal votes, fair representation. Nobody who cares about democracy and the future of this country wants to have to game the system.
BS: Your current process relies on people turning up in person to vote for the “People’s Champion” – are there any plans to expand this to an on-line voting system, or are the mechanics of making sure that this reflects the votes of actual constituents too difficult?
AS: We have taken advice from Make Votes Matter, and we would have loved to use an online voting system, but it’s just too high risk. What if the tech failed or we were hacked or drowned out by bots? It is essential that both the voters and the parties have full confidence in the process and that means ensuring that people who vote are in the constituency, that no-one can vote twice and that counting is overseen by the parties. In brief, attendees of the town halls will have a voting slip and will be asked to rank the candidates 1-3. Obviously, a single winner means that proportional representation is impossible, but the ranking will mean that most people’s first or second choice will be chosen to represent us all. The result will not be announced until after the last of the town halls. We will communicate the result and mobilise as many people as possible to ensure we get the desired outcome – in some instances, ending 100 years of Conservative representation.
BS: Would you like to see an “Electoral Reform” party emerge with the sole remit of tackling our electoral and democratic system – both of which appear hopelessly outdated? Can you think of a good leader for this, someone who is outside the current political system? And what is the likelihood of obtaining the sums required to make this a reality?
AS: A new party, let alone a single-issue party in a first past the post system? No. Won’t work. It will just lead to more division in the progressive vote. It’s wholly unrealistic. Get behind Make Votes Matter and the campaign for Electoral Reform and keep the pressure up on Labour to do the right thing by the country and introduce PR as soon as possible … in their first term!
We do need a real commitment to overhaul all aspects of our democracy. I think, for example, that a lot of us would like to see an end to the ludicrously damaging convention of allowing politicians to lie in parliament while their accusers get sent out of the House, and the hideous corruption and misuse of power evident in the appointment of cronies, donors and unknown 30-year-olds into the House of Lords.
But this is a massive subject for a whole series of articles, I suspect!