When TopOfTheCops covered the difficulties attending the selection of Michael Mates as Conservative PCC candidate in Hampshire, there was a flurry of responses. That flurry was not from Hampshire though, and not from Surrey, which had also been mentioned in passing, but from Sussex. A number of, as far as I can tell, quite independent individuals in Sussex Conservatives were sufficiently bothered by problematic Conservative selection procedures to try to draw my attention to this one.
Being a Northerner, my knowledge of Sussex and its geography is quite limited, so apologies for not picking up on some matters previously. Early on I had been told the selection meeting would be in Brighton on 14 July, and the date turned out to be right, but I didn’t cotton on to the significance of the final selection venue being announced as Burgess Hill. Please keep in mind that my only previous encounter with Burgess Hill is a passing reference in a poem by John Betjeman.
Not so for the winning candidate, Katy Bourne, though. Cllr Bourne represents the Cuckfield ward in Mid-Sussex. Should you choose to head over to the Election Maps site, choose Mid-Sussex District Council, search for the postcode of the selection venue (RH15 8WA), and then enable the Ward Map layer, (as I imagine most of you will have done a long time ago) you will see that the Triangle Leisure Centre appears to be but a stone’s throw from Cllr Bourne’s ward.
That’s right, with all of Sussex to choose from, an area covered by two County Councils and a Unitary Authority, the Sussex Conservatives Police Authority Organising Committee somehow managed to choose a venue right on the doorstep of one of the three candidates for the nomination.
I’ve done some sums. By my reckoning, the venue is 4 miles from Cllr Bourne’s home address, but clearly that’s OK, because obviously Sussex Conservatives would go to great lengths to choose a neutral venue for such a contest.
Well, it turns out that the venue is roughly 40 and 50 miles from the homes of the other two candidates, and therefore from the homes of their most natural supporters, which just goes to emphasise the level of bias inherent in the selection of such a venue.
This is quite important. They didn’t have to search far and wide for Conservative candidates in Sussex. There were 12-14 reported to me. They even didn’t put the Chair of the Police Authority, Steve Waight, on the shortlist, so packed was it with Tories who realised that this is pretty much as close as it gets to a safe seat, and who could be forgiven for thinking that the selection meeting was the real election for this £85,000 post.
I’m told there are something like 11,000 Conservative party members eligible to vote in this election in Sussex. That would have made for a good postal ballot to engage members in advance of the main election. So how many showed up on the day? About 390 apparently, although the number diminished as the day wore on. A batch apparently left when Anthony Kimber was eliminated, perhaps not appreciating that they could vote to choose between the remaining candidates before leaving. And given that he hails from the same area as the other defeated candidate, Peter Jones, it’s possible that the prospect of a 50 mile drive home may have drawn some support away from Jones at a key time, while Cllr Bourne’s near neighbours contemplated the stroll back to their nearby homes.
In the end Cllr Bourne secured what I am told was a slim majority over Cllr Jones, so there is every indication that the bizarre choice of venue had a critical effect on the result, and that a biased sample of less than 200 Conservative party members have chosen the Police and Crime Commissioner for 1.5 million people.
I have met and spoken to Cllr Bourne a few months ago. She seems like a personable and effective young lady, but any candidate favoured by such an unfair advantage finds themselves in an impossible position, even if they get every vote in the hall, which is why a most basic requirement of the selection process is that it should be even-handed to the various candidates.
Of course, I could be wrong about the critically unfair nature of the venue. To demonstrate my error all Sussex Conservatives would have to do is publish the membership and turnout figures for this election from each of the 13 Sussex Conservative Associations I am told could participate in this election. That would tell its own story and be a useful move toward open politics.
For completeness I should tell you that I have also received a number of other serious allegations which are difficult for me to investigate at a distance, but in my view, whoever is Conservative Party Chairman at the end of the week would be best advised to open an investigation into instances where selection procedures appear to have been handled badly, with a view to resolving the issues with a quick, open and thorough investigation. It’s getting beyond a joke.