How are parliamentary candidates selected?
Public trust in politicians has declined, especially as a result of the expenses scandal, even though people are generally positive about their own MP and the work that he or she does. It is therefore important that the process of selecting parliamentary candidates helps towards producing a range of MPs with different backgrounds that the public can relate to. As over half of parliamentary seats are safe and always held by the same party the process of selection is, in effect, the process that elects the MP.
How the parties select their candidates
In the recent past, Conservative party selection was largely in the control of the local Constituency Associations. The central party kept an approved list of candidates but local parties did not have to choose from these and people were chosen for the final interview often on the basis of informal networks and contacts. Labour also had a central list but anyone could be nominated by ward and trade union branches and the final decision was taken by the Constituency General Committee, made up of delegates chosen by the branches. Both systems largely produced male candidates who were good at speaking at selection meetings. Changes since the 1990s have made the normal selection processes of the two parties more similar.
In 2001, the Conservatives replaced the approved list with a Parliamentary Assessment Board and candidates had an informal meeting and then an assessment. This involved not just speaking ability as before but skills such as working with others and writing and was designed to give a level playing field for women and ethnic minority candidates. Constituency Association could then choose a short list of applicants and a general meeting chose the candidate for the election. The central party also began to require women on the shortlist. In 2005 Cameron created an additional A list which gave positive discrimination to women and ethnic minority applicants and consisted of 152 people 51 of whom became MPs. These were pushed on local parties who often resisted, thinking that the A list people were Cameron moderates rather than the more right-wing candidates that they wanted. Some parties experimented with other methods:-
- A selection panel of local community representatives and the Executive of the Association taking the final decision.
- A primary meeting for voters to come along and listen to and vote on the applicants
- First tried in Totnes and Gosport before the 2010 election, all voters in the constituency were able to register and vote to decide the candidate.
Labour changed its procedures by, in 1994, giving the decision to all members to vote for the final selection of the candidate after a constituency committee had drawn up the shortlist of applicants. In 1993, the party required some safe constituencies to select only women candidates. Although this was suspended, in 1996, after a legal challenge, it led to the election of 101 female Labour MPs in 1997, when there had only been 60 women MPs of all parties in the previous general election. In 2001, Labour introduced a National Parliamentary Panel with assessments similar to those used by the Conservatives. They also started a Future Candidates’ Programme to encourage a wider range of people to apply. The National Parliamentary Panel was abandoned after the 2010 general election and applicants could apply direct to parties without central vetting.
Problems with Parliamentary Selection
- Although there has been considerable improvement in the number of women and ethnic minority candidates, these groups are still underrepresented in Parliament. In 1983, only 3% of MPs were women and this is now 29%. In the same year there were no black MPs and there are now 42, though this is still about half of what there should be if ethnic minority groups were to be proportionately represented. The changes have largely been because of initiatives by the central parties such as Labour’s All-Women Shortlists and Cameron’s A list, although some local parties have been keen to select women MPs and black MPs where there is a large ethnic minority population. There are openly gay MPs and MPs with a disability but the youngest and oldest groups of the electorate are poorly represented. There is an assumption that a Parliamentary career goes from the age of about 35 to about 65.
- Candidates are overwhelmingly middle class and university educated and so not socially representative of the general population. 32% of MPs went to private schools compared with 7% of the population, 90% are graduates (54% educated at Oxbridge or Russell Group universities) and only 4% are manual workers. Most new MPs in 2010 were paid more before they came into Parliament than an MP’s pay. A range of factors affects this:-
a) Applicants need to appeal to the audience that selects the candidate by standing up and speaking and people in occupations such as lecturer or barrister or public relations are used to doing this.
b) The central parties have widened the range of skills that are expected of applicants but even so some of these, such as writing a document quickly, are something that people in middle class occupations are more used to.
c) Where central parties are able to influence which applicants are shortlisted they are likely to favour people that they know and who are politically in the same wing of the party as they are. This has led to many special advisers to ministers becoming MPs.
d) The process of visiting constituencies to get on the shortlist and sending literature to party members is expensive and may take several weeks. People in many occupations and those not on a high income cannot afford to do it. Many Labour party applicants receive funding from a trade union to do this.
- Parties select candidates because of their party activity and because of their ideological position which excludes many people who have strong community roots but are not party activists. When the public are involved in selection of candidates, as in the primaries, they are more concerned to have a candidate with strong local connections and are not interested in party record and ideological views. However, running a primary may cost a local party as much as £40,000 and few can afford this. The only solution would be public funding.
- There is a deeper problem, not related to the selection process as such, which is that Parliament is seen as remote and difficult to understand for much of the population and so the idea of becoming a Parliamentary candidate is not something that they would even think of. This means MPs do not contain the range of life experiences that there is in the electorate as a whole.