By Paul Goodman
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Mark Pritchard is right. He is right to say that CCHQ should not "fast-track favoured ethnic minority candidates over equally talented white-British candidates". Right to say that it is "politically naive to think that by merely increasing ethnic
representation within the Parliamentary Party…Asian and Afro-Caribbean
voters across Britain will experience some sort of ‘political epiphany’
and suddenly begin voting Conservative". Right again that tokenism can go "disastrously wrong as different religions, sects, and schisms within the
same ethnic communities emerge over an election campaign". And right, too, that "voters from all ethnic backgrounds mostly share the same
‘needs and wants’ as one another….The
Conservative Party must not embark on an ethnic beauty parade."
The shocking news, though, is that CCHQ is more than halfway to agreeing with him.
To my way of thinking, Pritchard's robust article in today's Politics Home, from which those quotes are taken, highights the errors of the old A-list – or, at least, some of the ways that CCHQ carried on during the last Parliament. It's true that the A-list was not simply composed of – to quote the illuminating words of John Hayes – the "pseuds and posers of London's chi-chi set". Jonathan Isaby's sleuthing for this site in 2006 found the following listed as members: Howard (now Lord) Flight; the decidedly Thatcherite Conor Burns; Susan Williams, the leader of Trafford Council, and Chris Heaton-Harris, the Euro-sceptic former MEP: no poseurs, these. None the less, there were occasions in the last Parliament when ethnic minority candidates from that list with no local connection were "introduced" to Associations selecting in Conservative-held seats.
However, my sense is that, before the last election, the wiser heads in Downing Street and CCHQ grasped that the publicity about the A list was doing the party no good and that, last year, the departure of Louise Mensch and the Corby by-election helped to kill the idea off altogether. CCHQ now says that the selection process is roughly as follows in the 40 non-Conservative seats that it is targetting as part of its 40/40 strategy. Senior Association members from the constituencies in question draw up a list of up to 15 possible candidates before meeting with senior party members, including Sarah Newton (MP for Truro and Falmouth) and Carlyn Chisholm, the joint Chairmen of the candidates commitee. They are then given a demographic presentation of how the constituency breaks down.
This is not, repeat not, confined to ethnicity and religion, and obviously includes information about as employment rates and the provision of public services. CCHQ claims that it might advise the Association to have a look at some local candidates, but no more. ConservativeHome has reported to date the selection of Mary Robinson, a Ribble Valley councillor, in Cheadle; Hannah David, another councillor, in Harrow West (she is another councillor, this time in Hertsmere, and a Hendon Ward Chairman), and Mark Isherwood, a Welsh Assembly, in Delyn. Readers will note that all of them have a track record of serving as elected Conservatives, and none of them sound like members of any chi-chi set to me. At any rate, CCHQ says that in each case to date the Association has voluntarily altered its longlist after the presentation and briefing.
Significantly, those MPs praised by CCHQ for their work in marginal seats with a high percentage of ethnic minority voters tend not to be members of ethnic minorities themselves (at least, as far as I know): the names of Gavin Barwell – who wrote recently about the importance of winning more of such voters on this site here and here – and Bob Blackman keep coming up. The workload in marginal seats may be larger, but the means of digging in is the same: commitment. It may of course be that CCHQ is saving up a diversity push for safer seats. But my sense is that now that the number of ethnic minority Conservative MPs has risen from two to eleven (Pritchard's figure) CCHQ is more relaxed about the matter than it was. The biggest candidate problem now, to my mind, is the plight of poorer would-be candidates – one common across all parties.