Justin Webb: What happened to giving power to the people?

"There are good reasons why open primaries might not be a great idea. But if an effort to open up politics is itself closed down, surely we ought to talk about it?"

Political question: what does the amiable and down-to-earth family doctor turned south-Devon MP Sarah Wollaston have in common with the pizza magnate and US presidential candidate Herman Cain?


Well, there is an obvious answer…

Exactly: both have an ability to say controversial things about food and drink. During his time as a long-shot candidate for the Republican nomination in last year’s American election Cain said little that made sense to most commentators, but on his special subject, pizzas, he was positively pellucid. “The more toppings a man has on his pizza, I believe the more manly he is, because the more manly man is not afraid of abundance. A manly man don’t want it piled high with vegetables! He would call that a sissy pizza.”

Sarah Wollaston is equally clear on her subject: alcohol and members of Parliament. “Who would go to see a surgeon who had just drunk a bottle of wine at lunchtime? But we accept that MPs are perfectly capable of performing as MPs, despite some of them drinking really quite heavily.”

So we have established that Cain and Wollaston have strong views on what we eat and drink. Neither is afraid to speak what he and she regards as an important truth – but there is another link. Both Cain and Wollaston are creatures of a politics created by popular vote rather than party machine.

Sarah Wollaston is the MP for Totnes because before the last election the local Conservatives held an open primary. Every person in the constituency was given a vote on who the Conservative candidate should be. The obvious choices lost the vote. Sarah Wollaston, a doctor with no previous political experience, won.

Ditto Herman Cain. Unlike Dr Wollaston he crashed and burned, but the people and the Republican party took notice as he aired his views on pizzas, taxes and more.

Both Cain and Wollaston came from outside some of the normal dismal channels of modern politics – perhaps a life of being a “special assistant” trying to get your boss onto the Today programme and then complaining about the damage John Humphrys did to him. And because they had both done other things they appealed to people. They spoke human. They had lived life as all normal people live it: outside the bubble.

And that was the thinking that led the coalition to make, in its programme for government published back in 2010, the following solemn promise: “We will fund 200 all-postal primaries over this Parliament, targeted at seats which have not changed hands for many years.”

You can’t be clearer than that. But nothing happened and this month in the document detailing the programme for the next two years of this government, the commitment has disappeared.


In a set of reports for Today in the coming weeks we are going to try to get to the bottom of why this might be. And let me make it clear that I’m not alleging any sinister change of heart. There are good reasons why open primaries might not be a great idea. They might be too costly; they might also throw up some characters we don’t want propelled into our national life. But if an effort to open up politics is itself closed down, surely we ought to talk about it?