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.