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There's a revolution going on, and you're all invited!

Caroline Voaden and Robert Bagnall (Image courtesy: Guy Henderson)

'This is all about putting voting power back into people’s hands'

‘This is the face of new politics,” said the steward in the South Devon Primary sweatshirt.

Behind her, a couple of hundred people were filing out of the Arena theatre at Paignton Academy having cast votes in what one national newspaper calls ‘a little revolution’ happening in tranquil South Devon.

The local Conservative MP, Anthony Mangnall, isn’t engaging with it. He says this kind of voting is undemocratic, but then he would say that. Because the South Devon Primary is a movement dedicated to sending him packing.

Here’s how it works.

The Totnes parliamentary constituency, which Mr Mangnall won by nearly 13,000 votes in 2019, will expand slightly to become the new South Devon seat when the country goes to the polls this year.

It includes Kingsbridge, Dartmouth, Brixham and parts of Paignton, as well as Totnes and the rural South Hams.

Trade union firebrand Henry Vivian was the constituency’s last non-Conservative MP, but lost his seat in 1924. A century on, pundits predict the election could be a close-run thing this time.

The banner at the front of the stage read ‘Let’s End 100 Years of Conservative MPs in Totnes’, so it was little wonder Mr Mangnall chose to stay away.

The idea is to gather ‘progressive’ candidates from the centre and left-leaning parties for a series of public meetings across the patch, and let an audience of voters grill them for a couple of hours.

As they leave the venue, audience members cast votes for their preferred candidates, and when all seven ‘town hall’ meetings have been completed, votes will be totted up.

A ‘winner’ will be declared, and that person will be hailed the ‘People’s Champion’ for South Devon. The idea then is that everyone who wants to see Mr Mangnall ousted gets behind the champ as a kind of unified opposition, even if the champ represents a party they wouldn’t normally vote for.

It’s an idea that is getting traction across the country, with a number of other constituencies looking closely at what is being done in Totnes to see if it really makes a difference.

Liberal Democrat Caroline Voaden and Green Party candidate Robert Bagnall are doing the rounds of the primary ‘town hall’ meetings, with Exeter University lecturer and Sky TV election analyst Dr Hannah Bunting chairing the Paignton gathering.

Along with Mr Mangnall, two other parties were also absent. Labour has yet to select a candidate for the seat, and has said it doesn’t want to be part of the primary process. Reform UK wasn’t invited because the party positions itself to the right of the Tories, so there would be few shared values with those on the platform.

Around 200 people interviewed the candidates for the job of representing them, as Anthea Simmons of South Devon Primary put it. The first town hall at Totnes was a sell-out, as are some of the others on the tour.

The two candidates spent two hours answering questions on subjects ranging from climate change and immigration to taxation and the controversial Plymouth Freeport.

Afterwards both agreed that the exercise had been well worthwhile. 

“Anything that puts us in front of voters and enables us to explain our thinking is absolutely vital,” said Mr Bagnall. “This is good for democracy.

“It’s scaring some of the bigger parties, but I don’t know what they have got to be scared of.”

And Ms Voaden added: “If this is going to work anywhere, it is going to work in South Devon. Lots of good ideas have been born here in Totnes.”

Organisers said they were pleased with the Paignton turnout, and looking forward to the meetings still to come.

“This is all about putting voting power back into people’s hands,” said Ms Simmons. “In seats that have become stale, people give up voting. What we’re saying is that if we all are clever and vote together, we can have a different outcome.

“People are sick of being detached from it all. They want to get involved.”

Subsequent meetings are at Modbury Memorial Hall on Thursday 7 March; Kingsbridge College on Saturday 9 March; Townstal Community Hall on Sunday 10 March; South Brent Village Hall on Monday 11 March and Brixham College on Saturday 16 March.

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