A glimpse of grass-roots politics with lessons for all main parties
Published in The Independent (1st December, 2014)
A successful politician once told me that when receiving invitations to events, he always imagines it is being held that day before deciding whether to attend. It was advice I regretted not following on Friday as I set off from London on a dank November night to moderate the final selection meeting for one of the safest Conservative seats in the country. And not just because after missing the last train back to London, I appreciated why the issue of local rail services provoked unanimity among the candidates.
But, although the meeting lasted more than three hours, I was glad by the end of it that I made the trip down to Bexhill and Battle. For the run-off between four highly contrasting candidates to succeed former energy minister Greg Barker gave a fascinating glimpse into grass-roots politics, revealing much about the problems facing mainstream parties as they struggle to stay relevant in a fast-changing world.
All four candidates – survivors from 92 applicants for a dyed-blue East Sussex seat where the Tories won more than half the total vote in 2010 – were impressive characters. There is no shortage of mediocre members of parliament – and that’s putting it politely – but any of this quartet would have boosted Westminster. Yet they were very different characters, as seen from their four-minute speech, six-minute chat about their lives with me and 20 minutes taking questions from the floor.
First to speak was a blue-suited banker who seemed a traditional Tory but spoke with passion about education and poverty. Then came a local councillor from just outside the constituency, who answered questions with unusual directness for a politician. Third up was a member of Boris Johnson’s team in London, whose mother was a nurse from Sierra Leone who became involved in politics because of the Tories’ failure to appeal to ethnic minorities. Last of the quartet was a confident young woman barrister, whose parents were Ugandan Asians expelled from east Africa.
These were not cartoon Conservative stereotypes. Huw Merriman, the local candidate, won on the second ballot to loud cheers. An ambitious and articulate lawyer unwinding the mess at the collapsed Lehman Brothers, he might seem on the surface a typical Tory. But his parents were both union activists, he went to a comprehensive after failing his exams and told me later he only really began working after leaving school at 16 and being inspired by a work experience stint at Abbey National. He is a name to watch for the future, although his habit of actually answering questions might upset some at Westminster.
Yet in many ways the audience was the most revealing aspect of the evening. Only 173 people turned out to choose an MP who, despite the unruly political climate, could have a job for life; even in Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide, the Tories romped home in Bexhill and Battle with an 11,100 majority. And as two questioners themselves pointed out, nearly everyone who had come out to vote had grey hair and they struggled to find younger recruits, something obvious from the stage. One official confessed the average age of members was 70.
This underlines the struggle of mainstream political parties to stay potent in the modern age. Inevitably this age bias was reflected in the questions – and, I suspect, the tone of answers from candidates. There was antipathy to Europe and immigration, despite the lack of migrants among the commuters, farmers and pensioners of the constituency. When one candidate said he backed David Cameron’s approach to Brussels, an audience member asked pleadingly: “Yes, but are you instinctively against Europe?”
Although there was discussion of social care, there were no questions on defence, housing, education or even the National Health Service, possibly the most vexatious domestic political issue of the next parliament. The candidates were equally surprised by these omissions; one admitted afterwards to having done lots of homework on health issues.
Then there was the unspoken issue of race, a core problem for the Conservatives given voting patterns and changing demographics. Only the two ethnic-minority candidates were asked how to prevent radicalisation of young Muslims. This may not have signified anything, for the audience was very welcoming and the next-door constituency of Wealden has just picked the party’s first female Muslim candidate in a winnable seat. Yet several people afterwards commented both would make fine MPs but were wrong for their seat; when I told a party official this, he replied the same used to be said about women.
Wealden chose the Kashmir-born Nusrat Ghani last year at a public meeting attended by more than 400 people, many not party members. Open primaries have thrown up several other mould-breaking candidates for the next election, as well as some of the most interesting – and independent-minded – among the current crop of Conservative MPs such as Sarah Wollaston (pictured) and Rory Stewart. Widening numbers involved in choosing candidates ensures those chosen are more diverse, more experienced in life and more forthright.
I very much enjoyed my trip to Battle. Typically, when one man learned I had missed my train he instantly offered me a bed for the night. Yet however strong the choice of Mr Merriman turns out to be, sitting with 173 elderly activists in a draughty hall did feel an outdated way to be choosing a political representative in this disruptive digital age.