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Grassroots movement aims to make voting fairer and give a voice to the unheard

SA Updated
Grassroots movement aims to make voting fairer and give a voice to the unheard

A grassroots campaign has been launched to try and make voting in the Totnes Constituency fairer and reduce the number of people who have “wasted votes” at a General Election. 

South Devon Primary is growing a “ground up, voter-led movement” to be able to give people the choice to support a single opposition candidate to the “safe-seat” that the Conservatives have held for more than 100 years. 

The general idea is to hold town-hall type Q&A sessions for the three opposition candidates from the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Green Party.

After these meetings, as people have been able to ask questions of the candidates and judge their responses, they would be asked to vote for their preferred individual. Once this has been repeated at all the Q&A sessions that will be held, South Devon Primary will have a ‘winner’ or the candidate who resonated with most of the voters who attended.

This is the candidate that they will support, chosen by the people of the Totnes and South Devon constituency.

Simon Oldridge, South Devon Primary, said: “We shouldn’t have to game the system like this, we only have to because the system gives a perverse result. 

“We are the only country in Europe that uses the First Past The Post system, apart from Belarus, and our main intention is to make democracy fairer.”

It is an intricacy of our voting system that it creates ‘safe seats’ in areas, leading many people who wouldn’t vote for their incumbent MP to either not bother voting, or to be disappointed with a vote that doesn’t have an impact. 

This kind of “tactical voting” is not new, but can sometimes be haphazard and confusing. South Devon Primary is giving a vehicle to people to choose the candidate they prefer and getting the news out there, with a focus on fairness, democracy and giving people a voice that they don't think they have. 

Latest polling numbers show that the Conservatives would hold the seat in Totnes if the General Election was called right now, but with just 34 percent of the vote, meaning 66 percent of people wouldn’t vote for them. 

The effect is national too, in 2019, the Conservatives won just 44 percent of the vote, but received 56 percent of the seats in Parliament. It means that statistically, for a Conservative to win a seat it took 38,300 votes, but for a Labour MP to win a seat it took 50,800 votes. For a Lib Dem MP it took 336,000 votes and for a Green MP it took a whopping 866,400 votes to get one single MP. 

Simon used to run a manufacturing company and his wife is an NHS anaesthetist, so he knows all about the current NHS crisis from the inside. He now works with Zero Hour, working to get the Climate and Ecology Bill into law. 

He has come together with Anthea Simmons and Ben Long to create South Devon Primary, something that he says has grown out of his life-long “detestation of unfairness” and passion for the mitigation of climate change and its impacts. 

Simon explained: “We are building a movement from the bottom up, engaging voters face-to-face, not just on social media, and holding ‘roadshows’ where they go out and ask about current affairs to get people’s responses.

The results of a questionnaire at South Devon Primary's roadshow in South Brent in November

“Our roadshows show that there is more of a diversity of thought among the constituency than perhaps you might think there would be, if you just look at the GE results.”

Simon says that through his work campaigning for action on the climate crisis, he has found a network of passionate people who want to volunteer their time in order to have an impact, but without the Primary, when it comes to a General Election, they would end up working against each other, their support divided between opposition parties. 

“We have a network of people who are currently focussed on the Climate and Ecology Bill and getting that through Parliament. It would hold the Government to their pledges to cut carbon emissions legally, and to restore nature, but the Conservative Government has no plans to pass it. 

“In fact their own data shows they are expecting to miss their emissions targets by 100 percent by 2035. 

“The Lib Dems and Greens already support the CE Bill, and we expect Labour to join them, so we need a non-Conservative Government to get this bill through. I don’t think the diversity of thought across the Labour, Lib Dem and Green parties is any wider than that you see across the Tory party, but it is instead fragmented across three parties, so voters concerned about the environment would end up cancelling each other out come the next GE. 

“If we can focus their energy and their passion behind one candidate to go up against the Conservatives, they can volunteer to post leaflets, and have those doorstep conversations with people without a party political agenda, and I think that will be really effective.”

Talking about the support from the opposition candidates, Simon is already very positive and has been in productive talks with the main parties. “Why wouldn’t they be keen to take part?" he said. "If they think they’re the most popular candidate, then they can prove that at our Q&A sessions. At the very least it gets them another audience of potential voters to reach out to and to hear their views.”

While there is a breadth of thought in the Conservative Party that is usually spread across the other parties, many moderate Conservatives are feeling like they don’t feel at home in their own party. The recent Crime and Policing Bill, the Covid contract scandals and the “anti-strike” Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill as well as the disastrous premierships of both Boris Johnson and Liz Truss have caused waves in the party faithful - are people in the South Hams looking for something different? 

The General Election could be called with just five-weeks notice, meaning many candidates have just that short period of time to campaign, often while working their ‘normal’ job. South Devon Primary would like to be able to hold their first Q&A sessions much sooner, but before that, they have a range of roadshow events planned. 

The next one will be in Kingsbridge, nearby the Kingsbridge Farmers Market on Saturday, 18 February, so if you would like to find out more, pop along and see them. 

We reached out to the current Conservative MP for Totnes and South Devon, Anthony Mangnall, who said: “It is disappointing to see a group of people attempting to restrict democracy across South Devon by denying residents a wide field of candidates. While I applaud anyone for getting more involved in the democratic process, I think this campaign might be at odds with the wants and needs of South Devon residents.

“In the meantime, I look forward to continuing my work delivering for South Devon and helping all those in need.”

Of course, if Mr Mangnall believes he will be the most popular candidate Totnes and South Devon, he shouldn’t have anything to worry about. 


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