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Is this messing with democracy?

Peter Shearn meets with the founders of South Devon Primary during their campaign visit to Totnes to learn more about what they stand for and trying to achieve.

 

Who are South Devon Primary?

The group was set up by Ben Long, Anthea Simmons & Simon Oldridge. All three founders are tired of tribalism in the centre and left of politics. They have each campaigned and voted for Labour, Lib Dem and Green in the past, according to which one had the greatest chance of victory.

 

It’s a dark, dank late October morning and firstly I see Simon Oldridge and ask why they’re here… Whilst keen to emphasise that as a group, they are party neutral, (he takes a moment to point out that their logo includes the Conservative blue), Simon emphasises that the project is to make democracy work more effectively. He has campaigned in the past for more than one party so it seems his motivation is manifesto based, rather than having a particular affiliation. He tells me “The most asked question during campaigns in constituencies that are considered to be safe seats is “I want, the sitting MP out, but who do I get behind?” with multiple candidates splitting the vote.”

South Devon Primary is an interesting approach as to how one might use the term “democracy”

I asked Ben Long, what the very well populated dotted boards represent and how they work. “These are an invention of Anthea’s” he says proudly “You can see them in action by many groups up and down the country now”. The methodology is extremely simple. With just three responses Yes, No or Don’t Know, passers by can place a mark in the box answering an unequivocal question such as “Do you trust your Conservative MP to act in your best interests?” ( 1 x Yes, 3 Don’t Know & 38 x No for the board in the picture )  It’s not scientific but it was interesting to see how cathartic it seems for several participants. It also creates a very social-media friendly image with impact.

So if this group are party neutral, why are the questions clearly challenging our Conservative MP? Anthea Simmons explains that in the absence of a fairer proportional representation method of vote counting, this is about enabling people power to count in the existing voting system. She tells me that our MP Anthony Mangnall won 39.7% of the vote in the last election (This figure appears to be based on population as the actual referendum has it at 53.2%). “In other words, not a majority“. A large problem she tells me is that 60% didn’t vote at all; “A lot of this is down to people thinking that their vote doesn’t count because it has been a safe seat for so long.” she continues, “Our aim is to make this a fair fight. We’re evening up the odds”.

What is the response the group get from the public when they turn up with these street campaigns? Anthea explains; “A lot of people will want to walk away saying – ‘I’m not political’ but once engaged vitually all of them see these questions and respond ‘ …actually, I do have an opinion on this.’ “

Anthony Mangnall is not enthusiastic about the group. On the BBC West Politics show he declared that “It’s a perfect embodiment of Socialism. We’ll select one candidate for you and then ask you to vote for them.”  Simon Oldridge appears to find this amusing; “We’ve been accused of several things, ‘Socialism’, even a ‘Lib-Dem Plot!’. It isn’t our decision who we suggest as the best prospective candidate in any region.”

Richard O’Connell is the president of the South Devon Conservative Association, his view reflects Anthony Mangnall’s: “The South Devon Primary is an interesting approach as to how one might use the term “democracy” to influence a political election outcome.“, he continues; “The District elections in May this year saw South Hams council switch from being Conservative controlled to now being controlled by the Liberal Democratic party. There are also Green, Labour and Independent councillors in the present chamber. It was a free and fair election with no outside influence and the Conservative Party lost control.

Richard seems to disagree that the SDP is a democratic movement; “The Conservatives regularly enter candidates for Totnes and Dartington in these elections with little chance of winning a seat. They do this because everyone should have a free choice of who they vote for, and should have the chance to vote for the party or candidate they support.

So if the group don’t select a candidate, who does?

In spring next year, the group will be hosting several town meetings around South Devon where everyone is invited to see parliamentary candidates from all parties answer questions put to them. A kind of multi-party hustings. At the end of the evening everyone attending is asked to vote and the votes from all the town meetings will define the successful winner who will be SDP’s campaign candidate most likely to challenge our sitting MP.

Richard O’Connell doesn’t approve of this methodology; “Just a small number of these people will be used to determine which candidate will represent the opposition in the next general election. But what of the other candidates, who may be Independents, who are told at the hustings that they are losers, even before they have started campaigning?

South Devon Primary attest that; “Opposition to our chaotic Government is fragmented. Under our broken voting system, the largest party in each constituency wins, and all other votes are ignored. This self-serving Government will blunder from crisis to crisis, impoverishing the vast majority until we work together to remove them”

To achieve this aim in around spring next year they are running public meeting events Brixham, Kingsbridge, Dartmouth & Totnes. Where opposition parties, excluding the Tories, can set up their stall as to why they will serve the region better and a majority vote will decide who gets the full support of the group at the next election.

 

Do keep an eye on the Totnes Pulse event listings for advance information ofn this and everything else happenings around here.

What are your thoughts – Democracy in action or voter manipulation? Feel free to comment below.

 

 

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Laurie Taylor
Laurie Taylor
2 months ago

Another aspect of all this is …something I found particularly infuriating at the election in 2019….attachment to ideology.
My apex ideology is anti-Tory. At heart I’m basically a leftie Corbynista Green type voter. I’ve voted tactically for the last 46 years.
Something that often people don’t understand is that we don’t have a General Election…we have 650 specific ones. In Totnes constituency for the last 100 years voting anything other than Tory has been A WASTE OF TIME AND EFFORT. That non-Tory vote has counted nowhere! ABSOLUTELY NOWHERE!
At the 2019 GE we had the unedifying spectacle of Labour and Libdems squabbling and fighting …..for the inevitable second place.
A lesson to be learned from the recent Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election: the Tories won by 496 votes (I think I’ve got that right from memory), which then set off the anti-ULEZ petrolhead nutters in government. 893 people voted Green …and got what they really didn’t want. If just 500 of them had voted Labour…they’d have got want they DID want!!
Getting rid of a Tory representing Totnes and South Devon is vital as another step towards PR. With Reform standing around the country there is the possibility of the Tories suffering an FPTP-induced wipeout. They might be interested in PR! 😊

Laurie Taylor
Laurie Taylor
2 months ago

Of course, in my opinion, South Devon Primaries is all about formalising tactical voting. Tactical voting is a product of our dysfunctional FPTP voting system…it is estimated that 30% of all votes in the country are tactical. So why not use that dysfunctionality to game the system? And, yes, it’s all a bit mad…SDP is just a reaction to a grotesquely unfair, broken and undemocratic voting system. The problem is not SDP…it’s FPTP. When we have a proportional system tactical voting…including brilliant initiatives like SDP….will be a thing of the past. And then we will be able to vote with our hearts, not our heads…

Laurie Taylor
Laurie Taylor
2 months ago

I have just emailed Richard O’Connor separately suggesting that we might meet up for an exchange of views. What doesn’t he, nor David, understand about the unfortunate need for tactical voting…this has been practised for a very long time…which our grotesquely undemocratic First Past The Post voting system necessitates? When we have a proportional voting system…like about 90% of Europe and 85% of OECD countries…we will be represented fairly and democratically without the need for ‘gaming’ an idiotic voting system. South Devon Primaries is showing the way forwards. Well done Simon, Anthea and Ben!

Simon Oldridge
2 months ago

Many thanks for this Peter. Just a few clarifications:

1) We’re neutral as to which opposition party is chosen, but we are absolutely clear that we are determined to stop the Conservatives winning again here, like they have for 99 years – this time with an expected vote of only about 33% (enough to win under our rubbish #FPTP voting system).

2) We include blue in our logo because many Conservatives voters feel completely left behind by a corrupt Government which has lurched rightwards, and they are interested in hearing from the opposition candidates at our Town Halls.

3) The 39.7% was Anthony Mangnall’s share of total registered voters at the last election. It would be even less calculated based on the total electorate. 25% of people registered to vote didn’t bother (not 60%) – and we don’t think that’s a surprise when there’s been no chance of change due to our dysfunctional voting system.

4) I’m surprised that Richard O’Connell remains confused about the Primary. The Primary doesn’t restrict choice at all, as we’ve explained many times. The losing candidates have not been asked to step aside, and so people can still vote for whoever they want. But the majority of us, who are happy to gather around a single opposition candidate, will finally have a way to do so fairly and transparently. I’d be very happy to run through this with you Richard. You can find my contact details here: https://www.southdevonprimary.org/about

David Matthews
David Matthews
2 months ago

This arrangement, frankly, seems designed(consciously or not…) to engender a Lib Dem as Candidate. Very Probably. Not likely to change the World… What of Others, Independents, those not representing the comfortable status quo – (a point made by Richard O’Connell) – where do they feature in this ?

Simon Oldridge
2 months ago
Reply to  David Matthews

Hi David. We are seeking to reduce division amongst the opposition, not increase it. So we are keeping the Primary to the 3 main progressive parties. The comfortable status quo has existed in this constituency for 99 years. We think South Devon Primary is the best way to end it. We do hope to see our dysfunctional voting system replaced with proportional representation ASAP, joining other civilised nations. Once we have PR, we can all vote for whoever we want and know that our vote will be counted. In the meantime, we have to work within the existing system. Adding independents into the mix will not help that aim – even though we support their right to stand.

Richard O'Connell
Richard O'Connell
2 months ago
Reply to  Simon Oldridge

Simon. I assume you will also include Reform in your hustings as they now lead the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats in the national polls?

Last edited 2 months ago by Richard O'Connell
Anthea Simmons
Anthea Simmons
2 months ago

They are not a progressive party

Anthea Simmons
Anthea Simmons
2 months ago
Reply to  David Matthews

The result will depend on who people judge to be best-placed to win and who has the broadest appeal. Under our undemocratic first past the post system, we have to focus on existing parties with resources and track records. Once PR is secured, the field will be more open to Independents. For now, we are stuck with the system we have and are forced to ‘game’ it to give anyone any hope of change. The combination of the ‘safe seat’ and FPTP has led to disengagement and disillusion from an electorate that is, in fact, not Conservative at all, but a progressive majority. The Primary process mobilises people sick of wasting their vote or so disenfranchised as to decline to vote at all. That can only be good for democracy.

Louise Webberley
Louise Webberley
2 months ago
Reply to  Anthea Simmons

Sadly, this process doesn’t feel very democratic. I am wholeheartedly united behind getting rid of our self serving Conservative MP. With our deeply unfair FPTP system, I understand the rationale of groups such as South Devon Primary. However, as I have tried to explain to Simon Oldridge, the prospective parliamentary candidate for the Labour Party is usually not selected until very late in the game. In my case, as the PPC for the 2019 election, I was selected just 6 weeks before the election. This is not a level playing field. There will likely be no selected Labour Party candidate for the Town Hall meetings being set up as this piece suggests. This gives the greens and Lib Dems an unfair advantage. I also agree with David Matthews that an authentic democratic process would be inclusive of other progressive, independent, socialist candidates. I think prospective voters would have much more respect and faith in your aims if you were transparent that the South Devon Primary is a vehicle for tactical voting, for all the reasons as outlined by Laurie Taylor. Us progressives need to be united against the Tories, and any organisation trying to facilitate that process needs to operate with authenticity and transparency. That will go a long way to earn the faith and respect of prospective voters.

Laurie Taylor
Laurie Taylor
2 months ago

I just can’t agree with: ..”this process doesn’t feel very democratic”.
I’d like to reiterate that it’s FPTP voting that is undemocratic. A voting system that can be ‘gamed’ is simply unfit for purpose. PR can’t be gamed. (Well, hardly at all.) For me concentrating…by any reasonable means…on changing the problem ( i.e. FPTP) is totally acceptable.
If we continue to tolerate a primitive, dysfunctional and dangerous voting system …FPTP…because we can’t do the ‘right’ thing (or many right things) to get rid of it we shall continue to suffer the consequences of our collective malfunctioning actions.
I want to be part of the change.

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