Liberator 314 included a piece critical of English Candidates Committee and of the selection process generally. Sadly, but inevitably, the Collective are not alone in their criticism so, perhaps, we need to have an open debate on our processes, what they seek to achieve, how they work and what key failings need to be addressed in order to move things forward.
I’ve been involved in the selection processes of the party as a Returning Officer since 1989 and as a candidate assessor since 1995. In that time I’ve seen huge changes in the Selection Rules and the candidate approval processes, very few of which have simplified the processes to be followed. With that complexity comes frustration, and not just for those wanting to be candidates or wishing to adopt one.
Unexpectedly perhaps, I share some of those frustrations, as the system by which we select PPCs places a heavy burden on our Local Parties, especially the smaller, weaker ones. Our selection rules impose costs, both financial and human, and where the number of likely applicants is small, that cost is a disproportionate one. So how did we get into this mess?
Principles can be an expensive luxury sometimes. As part of the merger agreement in 1988, it was accepted that we would steer a compromise course between all member postal ballots (the old SDP way of choosing parliamentary candidates) and hustings-only participation (the traditional Liberal approach). Accordingly and, I believe, sensibly, we chose to allow members to apply for postal ballots if they are unable to attend the hustings and we therefore need to allow sufficient time to notify members of the hustings meeting, and to allow for request, issue and return of postal ballots to those requiring them. We also ought to allow candidates time to canvass for support. The selection rules allow a minimum of twenty-two days from the issue of the calling notice to the date of the first hustings meeting. In addition, the mailing has to be printed and enveloped, usually by the volunteer selection committee, and the calling notice and manifestos must be approved by the Returning Officer, another volunteer. Add five days for that, making twenty-seven so far.
Ah yes, manifestos. We encourage candidates to produce them, and they’ve become increasingly professional over the years. Candidates need to be advised that they have been shortlisted and that a manifesto is sought. Allowing for time to write and post the invitation and a week to produce and submit the document for approval. Nine days seems reasonable, making thirty-six in total.
The selection committee have the right to interview all long-listed candidates as part of the short-listing process, and most members would reasonably expect their chosen representatives to do so. We need to invite the candidates, and a week’s notice seems to be eminently fair. After all, we need to give non-local candidates time to prepare, don’t we? The clock now stands at forty-three days…
For a potentially winnable seat, we may have meaningful competition for the selection. Therefore, we need to allow for a longlisting phase and now we’re talking about adding serious time to our schedule. The rules allow for a seven-day appeal phase for those candidates excluded at this point. Add two days for delivery of the letter advising applicants of the outcome, and you add nine days. You also need time to get application forms to the selection committee in advance of the longlisting meeting. For the purposes of this article, we’ll assume that the meeting takes place within forty-eight hours of close of applications. We’re now at fifty-four days…
Applications need to be advertised for, and we insist that Liberal Democrat News is the default medium to be used, at a minimum cost of £58.75 for a single constituency. We need to give potential applicants reasonable time to respond, be sent an application pack, complete their application form and submit it. Three weeks seems fair, and you need to give Liberal Democrat News at least a week’s notice for publication. Eighty-two days and counting…
To get this far, you need to find and appoint a Returning Officer, produce the application form, constituency profile (essential for anyone outside the constituency, and useful for some from within it), draw up selection criteria and agree the content of the advert, all of this assuming that selection committee members have been trained. This won’t happen overnight, as all of the key players are, and I don’t apologise for banging on about this, volunteers, most of whom have other roles within the Party and their local communities.
So we’ve established a timeline. What are the other factors that stand between East Bloggshire Liberal Democrats and their successful selection of their PPC? First, gender balance. There is no doubt that we have, in the past, failed dismally in selecting, and more importantly, electing, good women candidates. Despite efforts in institute quotas, a strategy that still has its adherents amongst the Parliamentary Candidates Association, we have so far opted for support, training and encouragement, an approach which, I believe, is respectful for our liberal principles although not the quick, philosophically bankrupt, fix that some senior members of the Party would like to see. That said, we do insist that selection committees make reasonable attempts to attract women applicants, particularly in potentially winnable seats. I support that, as it isn’t inconsistent with a merit-based selection system.
The second barrier is choice, something that our members seem to want, and certainly deserve. Is it healthy to allow members a choice between candidate X and reopen nominations? Does that encourage the candidate to work his/her patch in the (potentially) three-year lead-in to a General Election campaign? Is this the best possible field available to members, or will delay allow for a wider, more acceptable range of options? Yes, we have to balance these considerations against those of good campaigning practice, but is having any candidate at all the best outcome for an ambitious Local Party?
Which brings me to the third barrier, that of candidate enthusiasm. A mixture of anecdotal evidence from my fellow Returning Officers and my recent personal experience indicates a lack of willingness on the part of potential candidates to commit themselves to a potential three years of hard work, particularly in those seats where Conservatives are our primary opposition. In fairness, in those seats where we are challenging Labour, competition is much fiercer, and that seems logical, given the change in opinion polls over the past two years, and particularly since David Cameron became Conservative leader.
Finally, it is self-evident that selections are far more meaningful than they were. Twenty years ago, most selections gave the victor an opportunity to come a gallant third or, if you were very lucky, second. With greater credibility comes ambition and, if an applicant doesn’t like a decision by the selection committee or the Returning Officer, an increased likelihood of appeals. The damage done by appeals, and the delays caused, only serve to discredit our process, yet we cannot be so arrogant as to assume that selection committees and Returning Officers get it right every time, nor that candidates are entirely honourable and decent. A contentious appeal can take months to resolve, damage political careers and jeopardise potentially successful campaigns, yet we have a responsibility to ensure that justice is done.
In summary, our selection processes are the product of our principles as a political party, and reflect a responsibility to balance the needs of members, candidates and the Party generally. We’ve complicated matters by attempting a degree of social engineering and to apply natural justice, and then complained about the result.
Depressing though it may seem, we can do better. We need to communicate better, and to enable potential MPs and MEPs to plan their political careers better (and don’t ignore the fact that it is becoming a legitimate career for ambitious Lib Dems). I’m a firm believer that we need to open up the process, inform people as to how it works and of potential timetables, and to encourage greater participation in all aspects of the selection and approval processes.
And so I offer a friendly challenge to anyone reading this article, in fact to anyone in the party. If you have an idea to improve the way we approve and/or select PPCs, why not post a comment. I promise to respond meaningfully and tell you how to get your ideas debated. Why? Because it matters that members and activists have faith in our systems and that we select the best possible candidates for public office.