Two weeks ago, I found myself entangled in a debate about how we should select our candidates for the London Assembly. I had taken the viewpoint that we should seek to engage our list candidates more effectively, not, on the face of it, a terribly unreasonable concept.
The proposal has been somewhat controversial, as I indicated a fortnight ago. There has been some enthusiastic lobbying from certain parties (and not only the ones you might expect, either), and I must admit that I have been swayed. Ironically, it isn't particularly due to the lobbying, more the simple fact that the initial proposal doesn't actually achieve what I want.
So I have a dilemma. If you are campaigning in a list system, how do you encourage those candidates high up the list, and thus almost certain to get elected regardless, to campaign actively across the Region? Can you, or should you, use the selection system for punitive purposes? Alternatively, should you, or can you, create a structure to monitor the performance of your elected representatives, so that you can measure their success against quantifiable targets? If the latter, who should do this, and what authority should they have?
Taking the question of manipulation of the selection system first, I had initially thought that you could use it as a tool to encourage those likely to be elected from the list to campaign in somewhere other than the heartlands, at least for some of the time. However, there are two obvious arguments to the contrary. First, if candidates high up on the list have no incentive to campaign actively across the city, on what basis might you assume that they would have an incentive to campaign in their constituency? Secondly, and this is quite important, Liberal Democrats are philosophically opposed to manipulating the electoral system to get something socially beneficial. We prefer to address the underlying causes of underachievement to lift overall standards. So I am now minded to avoid manipulation of the list places.
As for performance monitoring, there is an argument that this is the role of the electorate at large, and I agree to some extent. However, it is possible for someone to be a very good elected representative and yet, from the perspective of the Party, be a disaster. In order to benefit from the support, reputation and activity of the wider organisation, a candidate should accept a degree of supervision (and I use that in its widest sense) by senior members of the Party. Most local councillors have to go through a process of reapproval before being allowed to stand, and in such instances, they are weighed against a set of agreed, preferably quantifiable, criteria. Any who fail don't get to run again, at least, not as a Liberal Democrat. All political parties have to answer the same difficult puzzle, but for Liberal Democrats, opposed as we are to coercion, it is particularly tricky.
I'm guessing that this question will exercise a number of people in coming weeks, if only because I'm intending to put it on the table. Fortunately, I'm catching a flight this evening to somewhere far away, so if there is a desire to put a horse's head on my pillow, someone will have a long way to come to do so!