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South Devon Primary – Things are Hotting Up

No one (apart from Rishi Sunak, possibly) knows when the general election will be held.

Organisers of the South Devon Primary, which featured in the December issue of the Totnes Pulse, are not waiting for Rishi to make up his mind. Dates have been set for Town Hall meetings. Electors will be able to vote on their preferred candidate to stand against the sitting Conservative MP.

Always winning

In the South Devon constituency (previously the Totnes constituency), there is a consensus amongst polling organisations that the Conservative share of the vote is likely to fall by about 25% to less than 30%. In spite of this it is predicted that Anthony Mangnall MP will retain his seat, continuing more than 100 years of a Conservative MP in Totnes.

The remaining 70% of the electorate who don’t vote for Anthony Mangnall are likely to be represented by a Member of Parliament who doesn’t share their hopes and views. This is the reality of our first past the post electoral system. Anthony Mangnall is still likely to remain as the MP for South Devon even though a large majority will probably vote for candidates other than him.

South Devon Primary opinion board
South Devon Primary opinion board

A democratic system?

Many people think that the first past the post system is undemocratic. Most developed countries now use some form of proportional representation. In Europe only Britain and Belarus, not known for its democracy, rely on first past the post. One impact of the British system is that many people feel that their vote is wasted. They just don’t bother to vote. Many have turned to tactical voting. Rooting for the candidate who they believe has the best chance of defeating the incumbent. The problem with this is that there may not be agreement on which opposition candidate has the best chance of winning.

If you’re not a Conservative supporter, who should you vote for?

This problem is particularly acute in Totnes/South Devon. The centre and left of centre vote is shared between Liberal Democrat, Labour and the Greens. In 2019 the Liberal Democrats came second. Labour who took second place in 2017. In 2015 Labour led the centre/left vote, closely followed by the Greens. The Liberal Democrats were knocked back to coming third.

RElative percentage of votes in 21st century elections
It was this problem that inspired a group of people to set up the South Devon Primary. Since the Totnes Pulse report in December, things have moved on quite a lot. The ambition was to hold a series of public meetings. Prospective candidates  would explain why they are best placed to defeat the Torys and to answer questions from electors. Members of the public could then vote for the candidate they think stands the best chance of winning. All the candidates would remain on the ballot paper at the general election but tactical voters should have clear guidance on who to vote for.

Town Halls

There are seven public meetings scheduled for early March. The Totnes meeting, hosted by George Monbiot, on Saturday 2nd March is already fully booked. People can go to meetings at other venues or go on a waiting list. Those on the waiting list will be able to watch on line and then go along to vote at the end of the meeting.

The right thing to do?

Chart of South Devon Primary Meetings
Town Hall Dates

The South Devon Primary has not been without its critics. Anthony Mangnal’s view that it’s a “perfect embodiment of socialism”, has been widely reported. Presumably Mangnall thinks the same of the primary system in the United States. Louise Webberley, former Labour Party parliamentary candidate, is also critical of the process. The Labour Party hasn’t in the past selected a candidate until six weeks before the election. Consequently they won’t be represented at the Town Hall meetings. Interestingly, Richard O’Connell, president of the South Devon Conservative Association has suggested that Reform UK should be included in the town hall meetings.


Simon Oldridge, one of the organisers of the South Devon Primary, is keen to make the process as fair and transparent as possible. In order that supporters of all three parties can express their preference, the ballot papers will include the option “Labour candidate TBC”. Simon Oldridge has said that the decision not to invite Reform UK stems from the intention of the South Devon Primary to unite the voting power of a group of people who can coalesce around a set of shared values. These are likely to be far apart from those of Reform UK, which arguably is to the right of the Conservatives. See our interview with Robert Bagnall of Reform UK.

Get out and VOTE!

When the General Election comes, it’s going to be close run in South Devon. The most important thing is that as many people as possible vote. If you’re not registered to vote, it’s not too late to register and don’t forget on polling date you will need photo ID at the ballot.

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Evelyn Burges
Evelyn Burges
1 month ago

I hear that there is no Labour candidate yet in our constituency. Historically, our LP candidate is always selected late – due to national LP policy of prioritising marginals. South Devon Primary were told this, months ago, yet they have set up hustings and invited people to register, only recently saying that there would be no Labour representative. Apparently they will allow a vote for Labour, but that is hardly democratic. The electoral system is based on voting for an individual, not a party. For instance, there are many “shades” of Labour and Conservative candidate, so we need to hear from the individual selected. If SDP are allowing one rule for the Lib Dems and Greens (come hear them speak), and another for Labour (vote for them without hearing anything or being able to ask questions!), this is undemocratic and unfair. Bit of a shambles, SDP…

Richard Potter
Richard Potter
1 month ago
Reply to  Evelyn Burges

Evelyn, I’m sure you realise that division is what the Tory government wants and will get us no-where.
Having attended the first South Devon Primary hustings at Totnes in the full Civic Hall on Saturday, my own experience was that, despite the disappointment at the Labour Party choosing not to put up a candidate, the whole event was anything but a shambles.
I’m not sure I agree with your statement that our electoral system is based on voting for an individual, as the individual is normally expected to project the party policy, and change of government means change of party, thanks to our unfair first-past-the-post voting system.
If our voting system was fair, the South Devon Primary and tactical voting would not be necessary, so it’s up to governing parties to change the current fptp voting system. Labour could attract more voters if they proposed a change, but instead in the first Primary hustings at Totnes on Saturday, they prefered to sit on their hands and lose a golden opportunity to highlight their policies.
To not have a Labour candidate present on Saturday at the Civic Hall was a great shame and was unexpected, but the Labour Party was given every encouragement by the South Devon Primary to put up a candidate, at a very early stage in the campaign, when a May election was expected. I think anyone present who would normally vote Labour will have felt let down by the Labour Party and to not put up a candidate in itself could be considered a bit un-democratic. In the circumstances, retaining the Labour Candidate on the ballot paper under ‘tbc’ was the best solution, as abandoning the event whist Labour get their act together, would also have seemed un-democratic to some people.
Saturday was a great Totnes community event and I take my hat off to Simon, Anthea, Ben and all those fine people who are giving so much of their time to ensure that we can be all united in our goal to get rid of the Tories from Totnes/ South Devon once and for all.

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