Over the weekend, the Conservative Party held an open primary in Bracknell – the second time (I think) they have selected a candidate for the general election in this way.
The final three candidates were:
Iain Dale – doyen of the Conservative blogosphere.
Rory Stewart – an ex-diplomat who wrote a book about walking across Afghanistan in 2002 and the governed part of occupied Iraq .
Phillip Lee – a local GP.
I would have voted for either Dale or Stewart. Parliament badly needs people like Dale, who understand social media. Prospective MPs with direct experience of the two wars we’re fighting (especially the much-neglected civilian dimension) are at even more of a premium.
Bracknell, however, chose Lee, who ran on the platform “Local, Local, Local”. Primary voters were, I imagine, won over by his commitment to “making both the town and the surrounding villages better places to live in the future.” No coincidence, I think, that a local GP also won the Totnes open primary in August.
Let’s be clear – I am absolutely ignorant of Phillip Lee’s qualities. He may end up a fine Foreign Secretary, or a future Prime Minister, as well as being a dedicated constituency MP. But I am worried by the incentives that led him to stand on, and triumph with, such as local platform.
Look at his policy ideas presented to the primary and and you’ll find impressive, almost obsessive, detail on acute healthcare in East Berkshire. In contrast, on those ‘national issues that I know concern constituents’, there’s nothing more than a few bromides.
Lee wants the UK to pay off its national debt; reduce public spending; cut the state down to size; and get tough on Europe; while also delivering better education and health, and spending more on kit for the armed forces.
This is the wrong way round, I think. He’s running for a national parliament, not a local one. And if elected, he will arrive in Westminster at a time when the British political agenda is increasingly dominated not by local events, but by a morass of complex, interlocking global risks (discussed in more detail here).
In the first decade of this century, his prospective constituents have seen their lives shaped largely by global events, with three international emergencies (9/11 and the wars that followed, the energy and food price spike of 2008, and the worst economic crisis since the thirties) shredding cosy assumptions about the stability of contemporary globalization.
The next decade will be no different. Whether or not Bracknell is a ‘better place to live’ in 2020 will be influenced by what happens in Karachi, Lagos or Washington, as much if not more than it is by what happens in Berkshire itself.
So how do we increase the chance that MPs with global vision and experience will compete for, and win, Parliamentary seats? How do we select more politicians like Vince Cable (immensely popular less for what he does in Twickenham than for his grip on the world’s economic woes)?
Some thoughts on this in part two, tomorrow.