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Sensemaker: Who gets to choose?

Sensemaker: Who gets to choose?

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Britain’s inflation entered double digits for the first time since 1982 at 10.1 per cent, as most of the country’s rail network grinds to a halt due to strikes.
  • Mike Pence called on Republicans to stop attacking the FBI after it searched Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.
  • Tanzania installed high-speed internet on Mount Kilimanjaro to allow climbers to share their ascent on social media platforms.

Who gets to choose?

Next month Conservative Party members will choose the UK’s next prime minister. By 5 September they will have cast perhaps 160,000 ballots but the party reveals nothing else about them – and, as far as we can tell, makes little effort to vet new members. 

We have registered as new Tory members:

  • a pet tortoise
  • two foreign nationals
  • a fictional Margaret Roberts (Margaret Thatcher’s maiden name)

A £25 membership fee was accepted in each case, a membership number issued and all have been invited to introductory meetings and election hustings. To be clear, these new ‘members’ will not be able to vote in this leadership contest, as they needed to have registered three months before the ballot closes on 2 September.  

Tortoise has sought legal advice and sent a letter to the Conservative Party seeking to address three issues:

  • the integrity and security of the leadership election given there is no public assurance of independent oversight of compliance with party rules or validation of voters;
  • the bizarre anomalies by which under-age voters and non-UK citizens can vote for the next prime minister but not for an MP; and
  • the public interest in knowing more about the people who have given the new prime minister her or his mandate.

The Conservative Party is running the election of the prime minister and, according to a senior former national security official, it is not equipped for an exercise of this importance: “Corporate organisations and institutions like the Conservative Party are not designed to have ballots of this gravity, securely,” he said, adding that the party’s assurances of a clean vote aren’t remotely comparable to those provided in national elections.

The Conservative Party does not reveal any details of who votes in the leadership election or what efforts it makes to ensure those voters are who they say they are. It does allow non-UK citizens and people under 18 to vote.

The Conservatives, like other parties, are bound by campaign finance rules and GDPR data protections. Membership of a political party is a private matter, not least because its disclosure could lead to discrimination. But, Professor Tim Bale of Queen Mary, University of London, says the parties “operate like private clubs”.

The Tories’ members’ list is so closely held that even leadership contenders don’t see them. Solid numbers and anonymised data on age, gender and geographic distribution aren’t shared with academics, let alone the press. 

When we sought this data through normal channels we were stonewalled. Given the clear public interest in knowing more about who’s choosing the next prime minister, Tortoise has, after taking legal advice, set out to the Conservatives that they are acting as a public body in running this election, and sought more information under common law and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

We have requested, among other things:

  • anonymised data on the age range, gender balance and geographic distribution of Conservative members;
  • data on how many are foreign nationals;
  • explanations of how the party checks new members are who they say they are and what third-party system oversees those checks;
  • explanations as to why non-UK citizens are eligible to vote and why GCHQ intervened to advise the party on its distribution of ballots; and
  • confirmation that members under the national voting age can vote in this election.

No major party campaigns for more transparency, Bale says. Rather, they all jealously guard their right to run internal elections by their own rules. “They are a law unto themselves.” 

But they shouldn’t be, at least when it comes to the de facto election of a head of government. As our letter to the Conservatives’ CEO argues, the common law principle of open government recognises a presumption that where there is a clear public interest in disclosure, “a public authority or body exercising a public function will release the information”.

The letter also

  • notes that the GDPR gives no good reason for withholding anonymised data;
  • asks the party to provide the information requested within seven days; and
  • notes that a refusal to comply with the principle of open government, or with the Human Rights Act 1998, can be challenged by judicial review.

The party, which received the letter yesterday, has said it would reply in full in due course. Bale sees its reticence so far as significant. If systems were in place to check every member against the electoral register, he says, “they would be telling us”. 

Nor is the central role of members in choosing their leader a longstanding tradition. It dates from a rule change under William Hague in 1998 and gives unprecedented power to what one former chief executive calls “a distilled version of the party” – very socially conservative, very pro-Brexit, older than the average voter and “not typical of the 20-odd million people who might vote Conservative”.

But the truth is we don’t know who those people are. The Conservative Party is operating an election in secret.

Further reading: former Conservative Party Chairman Norman Tebbit in the Daily Telegraph on why leaving the election of the next prime minister to the Tory membership is undemocratic. 

Our letter to the Conservative Party headquarters


Cheap rail tickets
Britain’s rail commuters would be grateful for the chance to get on an overcrowded service today. Just 20 per cent of the country’s train service is running, as 45,000 rail workers go on strike to kick off three days of transport chaos. A €9 monthly ticket to travel anywhere on regional trains, as well as trams and buses, seems utopian. But this is what travellers in Germany enjoyed this summer, in a three-month experiment to help with the cost of living crisis and reduce car use. The result? Short-distance rail travel soared, with journeys up 42 per cent compared with 2019. It helped to limit inflation. A Munich study found one in five people were taking trains and buses for the first time. But it cost the government about €2.5 billion and only 3 per cent of people used their car less. The offer expires this month: the question is whether the government extends the deal or comes up with a modified version.


Ancestor hunt continues
It turns out that a tiny sac-like creature with a huge mouth and no anus is not our earliest ancestor. Research published in 2017 suggested that the 1.3mm-long Saccorhytus coronarius, which lived around 530 million years ago, was a common ancestor of deuterostomes, a large group in the animal kingdom to which humans, and all other vertebrates, belong. Now scientists say Saccorhytus is more likely to be part of a group of animals called the ecdysozoans, which includes insects, crustaceans and roundworms. A team led by Philip Donoghue, a professor at the University of Bristol and co-author of the new study published in Nature, said a series of holes around the creature’s mouth, previously interpreted as primitive gills, were actually teeth that had broken away. “Saccorhytus is only about a millimetre in size and looks like a tiny wrinkly ball with a bunch of spines and a mouth with rings of teeth around it,” says Donoghue. “I like to describe it as an angry minion.”

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Infected blood compensation
Infected blood victims or their bereaved partners will receive £100,000 in interim compensation, the UK government has announced, in what could be the first of a series of payouts. Between the 1970s and 80s, tens of thousands of people – mainly haemophilia sufferers – were treated with blood products that had been partially acquired from high-risk populations including prisoners, sex workers, and illegal drug users. More than 30,000 people became ill from contaminated blood; at least 2,400 eventually died from hepatitis or HIV. Survivors and their families are currently entitled to other financial benefits, which will not be impacted by the new tax-free payments. But parents and children of victims who died do not qualify: campaigners say there is more work to do. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Northern forests on fire
Boreal forests lost 8.55 million hectares of tree cover in 2021, 6.5 million of them in Russia, according to data from the University of Maryland and Global Forest Watch. Most of those coniferous trees were burned by record-breaking wildfires in Siberia’s peatlands – fires so large they could be seen from space, while the smoke covered much of Russia and reached the North Pole for the first time. There’s been no let-up this year: the Moscow Times reported earlier this month that at least 3.2 million hectares of forest had been burned by wildfires so far in 2022. What’s more, the military units usually brought in to fight Siberia’s forest blazes may not be there: researchers warn that the Ukraine invasion could mean fires raging unchecked as many troops currently fighting in Ukraine were drawn from Russia’s Eastern Military District, which covers Siberia and the Far East.


Saudi brutality
Salma al-Shehab, a Leeds University student and mother of two, has been sentenced to 34 years in prison by a Saudi court over her Twitter activity, as well as a travel ban which will confine her to Saudi Arabia for an additional 34 years after her prison sentence. Her activity on the platform included retweeting and following dissidents and activists, including advocates for women’s rights. It’s the longest sentence recorded for a peaceful Saudi activist – and it may have passed quietly if not for reporting from the Washington Post. The paper, which also employed murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, published a blistering editorial alongside their reporting of the case, calling on President Biden to forcefully demand Shehab’s release. Biden was criticised by human rights groups after “fist bumping” Saudi’s de-facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman when visiting the country. 

Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us what you think. Send an email to sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Giles Whittell

Additional reporting by Jessica Winch, Phoebe Davis, James Wilson, Asha Mior and Ella Hill.

Photograph: Getty Images

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