Monday, November 12, 2007

European Selection: a massacre of the innocents

It is all over, and now it is time to confess what some of my colleagues, Duncan Borrowman amongst them, have been saying all along. The system that we use favours incumbents. I’ve always known it, but it is not the kind of thing you say when you’re trying to encourage competition, and present yourself as a neutral arbiter of the process.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceAnd sure enough, the incumbents got in with, for the most part, huge majorities over their opponents, to the extent that they generally scored more than 60% of the all the first preferences cast, regardless of the level of competition (Sharon Bowles scoring 61% in a fifteen-way contest with the likelihood of the runner-up also getting elected in 2009 was particularly crushing).

However, I disagree with Duncan, in that I am yet to see even a glimmer of a system which would change this. Duncan (and others) would have you believe that some of our MEPs are less than stellar in terms of their performance, profile and contribution to the campaigning efforts of the wider Party and that may, or may not be true (I’m a bureaucrat, not a campaigner, regardless of what the Daily Telegraph says…). On the other hand, if they did all of the things that they are being urged to do, they would get even bigger majorities, as they would be high-profile and effective to boot. And then, of course, why would you want to get rid of them?

Regional fixed lists do have this effect, I fear, and until we move to an open list system, where voters can pick a Party list, and then number them in whatever order they like, then the electorate are going to be limited to a choice of how many of each Party they want, rather than whether they’d like a woman, an ethnic minority, or even a pro-European conservative. It does remove the element of personality and character from the business of representation, instead empowering a perhaps unrepresentative Party membership to, if you like, impose, their choice on the population at large.

To win, or at least succeed, in a Regional list selection, you need to start raising your profile early, very early. In fact, try very, very early indeed. Catherine Bearder, for example, has been working South East Region since 1998, Jonathan Fryer in London for even longer. Their results, Jonathan’s in particular, reflect the effort they have expended in visiting Local Parties, holding Regional office, organising campaigning, working in by-elections and the like. In Catherine’s case, that has entailed driving for hours in an area that stretches from Milton Keynes to the Isle of Wight, and from Newbury to Dover. Simon, her husband, has loyally supported her in that process, with a cost in time spent with family, in financial terms and in sheer wear and tear. Hopefully, she will be rewarded in 2009.

It is incredibly difficult, and very few people, seeing how difficult it is to dislodge an incumbent, will be willing to put the effort in unless there is some clear sign of a potential payback somewhere along the line. On the other hand, some, mainly younger applicants, will use it to raise their profiles, and the likes of Antony Hook, Rebecca Taylor and Ed Maxfield will now have a broader range of options and the chance to take another step up the ladder towards success, should they want it.

There are some elements that can and should be addressed. I would say that we should standardise the time at which MEP annual reports go out, i.e. with the summer draw mailing, not long after the anniversary of their election. The cynicism that was engendered by Sarah Ludford’s wilful use of her annual report in 2003, and echoed in 2007 (and not just by her, I must note), was entirely legitimate to my mind, albeit that she was adhering to the letter of the Selection Rules. Frankly, it cost her my vote, and didn’t make friends amongst the sort of people whose support might one day be appreciated.

We also need to rethink hustings. In Regions such as London and South East, the hustings are arduous and uninformative, with the ability of most members to absorb and properly compare fifteen speeches and fifteen sets of answers severely limited. Instead, we need to arrange more local, informal meetings, so that ordinary members might be able to turn up. Indeed, we could start them a bit earlier, even before nominations have closed, so that candidates could network and build up campaign teams much earlier in the piece. The ability to talk to candidates as individuals in a natural environment (I remain to be convinced that a formal hustings is in any way natural) is so much more informative. Call me old-fashioned, but I do like to look a candidate in the eye, shake his or her hand, and listen to them properly.

Finally, for now at least, I repeat my view that the endorsement rules are nonsensical. Third party endorsements are unpoliceable, and we should withdraw to a position whereby if you include someone on a leaflet, they are endorsing you. If you are challenged on that, and you can provide evidence that the endorsement is a genuine one, then no problem. If you can’t, then the punishment is a draconian one.

On the positive side, the timetable worked well, even if it was a little tight at times. This fact may seem to be a little unlikely, but it survived a general election that never was, a leadership contest which sucked most of the oxygen out of everything else, and a Royal Mail strike. Turnout was much as it had been the time before, so we must assume that ballot papers got to everyone (for the most part, nobody is infallible).

But turning back to the problem of incumbency, I have a rather different concern. If I was thinking about becoming an elected politician, I would be less likely to run for Europe now than ever before. I'm 43 (or at least, I will be tomorrow), and I'm not as fleet of foot as I used to be. My next opportunity to run will be in 2012 for the 2014 election, by which time I will be pushing 48. I'll need to spend the next five years building my profile and that will involve a lot of travelling, a lot of late nights, and a budget. I'm getting married next year, and feel that this should be my priority (unlike Ros, I can't multi-task). Even if I do this, if the incumbent runs again, I'm going to be hard-pressed to beat her, and there are still Jonathan and Dinti Batstone in my way (and she's younger than I am). Meanwhile, a horde of bright young things are emerging. Too much of a gamble, for too little potential reward, methinks. And I fear that a lot of other people are going to be putting together fairly similar arguments in the next few years...


Duncan Borrowman said...

Actually I don't think all our incumbents are bad. It is the system that gets me. I am delighted at incumbents who campaign hard and get reselected - no names no pack drill as there is inference by exclusion.

In the last year I have experienced more than I have ever seen the failings of all our selection processes and just hold my head in despair at how the structures created achieve precisely the opposite of what they are designed for. They fail on democracy, they fail on fairness, they fail on transparency and they fail on giving a speedy result.

The problem is that I think that to break down the present processes will mean breaking down the structures that created them (in the long run). Solution? Replace Federal Spring Conference with an English Conference that makes those responsible answerable and not elected by some remote process.

Stephen Robinson said...

I would really like to see us select the top three (or 4 in the SE) separately from the rest. A shortlist of, say, six could then really be "who would make a good MEP" and the contest would be more meaningful.

The rest of the list could be selected in the same way as we select candidates for the less promising development seats.

Duncan Borrowman said...