MagazinePerspectivesTotnes Town

Choosers, not beggars. South Devon Primary- a return to Democracy?


How the South Devon Primary offers democratic choice as a path to unity

For most of this month of March, there is an amazing news story happening across South Devon. Opposition political parties will be taking part in the South Devon Primary Town Hall events, organised by regular South Devon citizens who are keen to see democracy in action. Their watchword is ‘unity’.South Devon Primary Logo

This is my take on why the South Devon Primary is such a potentially fabulous event – and why we should all celebrate it.


South Devon Primary’s message is clear; “South Devon Primary is designed to unite the progressive majority around a single candidate to stop the Conservatives winning with just a third of the vote.” The initiative is being billed not as one of division but of unity – of progressive parties with one goal. Unfortunately, the poisoned politics of the past 14 years – based on division and ‘culture war’ – has been somewhat successful in clouding concepts of what ‘unity’ means in its fullness. To reclaim the word ‘unity’ for a moment:

Anthea Simmons of South Devon Primary
Anthea Simmons

Unity is not just simply ganging together. It is a coalescence of negotiation, acknowledgement, trust, listening and understanding. Unity is not blind agreement through fact of having no other options.

Pitching up

During this coming month Parliamentary Candidates will make their pitches, explain party positions and take questions from a live audience in South Devon Primary Town Hall events right across the constituency. It will be fascinating to see how these candidates appeal to each other’s voters and work hard to ensure that everyone feels valued.

Because however much we have been collectively taken for a ride by the Conservative administration, we are not beggars.

We should expect those who want our votes to work hard for them. We are lucky that the forum for this has been created by the Primary and filled willingly by the candidates.

Ben Long of South Devon Primary
Ben Long

The Vote- our most precious gift

People who go through the effort of casting a vote, really do care. They care because their vote is partly their identity. Our vote is representative of who we think we are, who we think we should be – or could be. Our vote is a tool for change.

Division or Unity

We have seen how effectively this Conservative government polarises what voters ‘care about’ to polarise the electorate. That’s why the South Devon Primary candidates need to demonstrate both artistry and skill – and above all, authenticity. They should campaign – but campaign generously. They should campaign to win- but through consensus. And it’s why they explain themselves publicly in debate. To find common ground.

Simon Oldridge of South Devon Primary
Simon Oldridge

Slogans about ‘unity’ only go so far: but the democratic, in-person discussion between parties offered by the Primary Town Hall events promises to take it to another level entirely. Candidates might well find that some audience questions are hard to answer. Other questions might be more straightforward. But when voters are looking for a new politics, they will want to see evidence of a new way of doing politics.

To me, the Primary isn’t just about winning over votes- it’s about winning over people.

Our backyard

Striving for change is hard. It places people at great psychological risk. There is no clear roadmap for change. Real change involves changing mindsets, challenging norms, accepting challenge- and meeting it. Real change involves putting yourself out there. And so – without any organisational backup, no vast organisational safety net- three regular local people have put themselves on the line to create the framework for a new change.

South Devon Primary Democracymeter
That Democracymeter

These co-founders of the South Devon Primary have stuck their heads above the parapet. They have made it  known they are working for something – a powerful idea. Thank you Anthea Simmons, Ben Long and Simon Oldridge. And thank you all who stood in the rain, spoke with people and carried the South Devon Primary ‘Democracymeter’ across South Devon, hung banners on street corners, gave out leaflets, and work at the technical equipment (every event will be live streamed). Thank you candidates. The fact that it is happening at all is extraordinary- and it matters.

Changing the narrative

Frankly – how cool is that? Right here, in our neighbourhoods – a piece of local political history. And this idea has reached far and wide; if you visit the South Devon Primary ‘X’ thread you will see how many other constituencies have already taken on their initiative.

Anthony Mangnall MP for Totnes Constituency (now South Devon)
Anthony Mangnall

South Devon Conservative MP Anthony Mangnall’s spiteful sounding comments about the South Devon Primary being somehow ‘undemocratic’ seem hollow when you realise that its purpose has been to bring candidates and constituents together across communities. I realise how much I really hope the South Devon Primary can succeed because, if it does, there is the kernel of a model for how the huge voids of the shameful ‘culture war’ can be bridged through mutual trust. We get to see our political candidates stand by their principles and campaign with arms held wide.

What is ‘success’ for the Primary?

Perhaps ‘success’ for the Primary will look different to different people. One candidate – at the end of the month-long Town Hall events- will (we assume) take ‘the lead’ by becoming ‘the People’s Champion’. Perhaps success will be the galvanisation of an enviable ‘campaign army’ of people to door knock and leaflet South Devon, rebalancing through willing ‘people power’ the millions of pounds sloshing around a Conservative party already pushing misinformation and division campaigns.

Perhaps ‘success’ will not be felt here; but instead affect the outcome in another key constituency that has been inspired by the South Devon Primary to run their own, and see someone like Suella Braverman unseated. But for me, ‘success’ will be more than that. In my eyes this isn’t a mechanical process of calculate, vote and conquer. This is a process about people and values.

I see ‘success’ as a shared understanding of how we need to do things from now on. I hope that what ‘success’ looks like will emerge over the coming weeks of discussion, like a sculpture emerging out of stone.


And I hope that whoever ends up being the ‘People’s Champion’ will carry a deep sense of responsibility to live up to the trust placed in them by people who might have placed their most valuable inheritance- their vote- into their hands.

There’s a lot of trust that needs to go into that. Personally I would like to see principles writ large in candidates’ statements. And an assurance that we won’t quickly slip back into ‘cosy’ party-based politics- but stay focused on the needs of real people and the nation, not towing the party line, however hard that may be. Because if you cannot promise real, meaningful change now as a candidate, the pressure to be a ‘politician’ will double down later with its dampening effect. Now is the time to prove principle and mettle: now needs to be different.

And, even after all that, there are great risks: the rise of right wing ‘populism’ gaining visibility through bloated campaign funds; Reform UK, the weapons of racial and societal division, and of course the lurking long shadow of Nigel Farage.

Politics will play its dread hand one way or another.

Consensus-led tactical voting is a risk and a leap of faith for everyone. But I see South Devon Primary promising far more than ‘strategic voting’. I see it as offering an open, honest, transparent conversation with voters. It depends on winning people over so that unity is not achieved through others being left behind, sacrificing their values or ignoring their concerns. Unity will be achieved though political skill and understanding of the values of people.

George Monbiot
George Monbiot is hosting the Totnes Town Hall meeting

And if you are lucky enough to be at a Town Hall in person and have a vote in the exciting sounding South Devon Primary ‘secret ballot’* – cherish it, nurture it and cast it wisely.  Cast it for someone who cares for genuine change as much as you do. And you can cast it knowing that you have been appealed to, acknowledged and listened to. Your vote should be cast in the knowledge that unity might be achieved not just through basic necessity of removing a Conservative incumbent riding a split vote, but also through informed and willing choice.

Unity of Democratic will

My hope is that people will be united not solely because of desperation to save their public services, but because they have also chosen in full understanding and – for this time, and this time only – they might lend their precious vote in the trust that whoever inherits their support, will guard it wisely and mindfully.

Perhaps like many I see the logic and necessity for a ‘tactical’ vote. But I also want to be assured that my values and concerns are shared and acknowledged, and that the trust I place will not be for nothing.

I want to be assured that a strategic vote is not just because I have to, but because I want to.

Because from that comes the most powerful change of all – unity of democratic will.

This March we are all choosers, not beggars.


*the secret ballot is non-binding, and is purely used to inform the nominal ‘People’s Champion’. No candidate steps down from the ballot.


That’s Jim’s view. What’s your opinion on this? Comment below…


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