By Mark Wallace
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In October, CCHQ announced that it was launching a 40/40 strategy aimed at winning the next election – based on holding 40 marginal seats and winning 40 target seats. We've been reporting on candidate selections over the last few months, and now 40 are in place there is an opportunity to give an overview of the PPCs who will be fighting in some of the key battlegrounds of the general election campaign.
Before we go into detail on the candidates, it's worth looking at the 40 constituencies which have selected so far (a full list is enclosed at the foot of this post). For a start, we cannot be certain that they are all among the 40 target seats mentioned above – one, Cardiff North, is held by a Conservative, Jonathan Evans, who will be stepping down at the next election, while some of the others have very high majorities.
Not that a high majority automatically rules a seat out from the 40/40 strategy. According to the original briefing last autumn, those being chosen are not simply the most marginal on paper. Analysis has also apparently been done to pick out seats which are undergoing major demographic changes which favour Tory candidates, seats where unusual circumstances affected the last election and seats whose MPs who win on the back of personal loyalty rather than party success may be standing down.
Much of this reasoning may well never become public, but some seats do leap out. The ultra-marginals like Bolton West are there for obvious reasons, as are high profile marginals like Morley and Outwood where Ed Balls hung grimly onto his scalp last time round. There are personality politicians like Alan Beith in Berwick, whom some speculate may retire in 2015. And there are anomalies like Portsmouth South, where party strategists are understandably keen not to be caught short without a candidate in place should Mike Hancock have to resign for whatever reason.
What we do know is that the majorities in the seats where candidates have been selected so far range from 0.1% in Hampstead and Kilburn to 21.8% in Corby and East Northamptonshire. When we discount Cardiff North, the average majority to be overturned is 5.38% – or in 2,400 votes. Many are undoubtedly tough nuts to crack, hence the candidate selection taking place more than two years before the election.
Hitting the Lib Dems
One thing sure to please those concerned that Coalition has softened the party's attitudes towards the Lib Dems is the party split. 19 of the seats are held by Liberal Democrats, and 20 are held by Labour – representing a disproportionate focus on putting candidates in place early in Lib Dem seats. One in three yellow MPs have Conservative candidates on their patch, breathing down their necks, whereas for Labour that number is less than one in twelve.
Whether that disparity is due to awareness that the conservative grassroots have no great love for the Lib Dems, or the feeling that 2015 may offer a once in a lifetime opportunity to winkle some of them out of their strongholds, the intention is there to fight them properly, rather than give them an easy run.
So what does the cohort of Conservative candidates look like?
Eleven of the 40 are female – a ratio which exceeds the current Parliamentary mix of 22% without the use of positive discrimination. All but one of these candidates are standing against male incumbents.
Judging by those whose age is publicly available, the new Conservative candidates are a surprisingly young group, too. The average age is a few days short of 40. There is a wide range of experience, from 24 up to 66, but a definite predominance of those in their late 30s and early 40s, old enough to have done something in their lives.
And the things they have done are reassuringly varied. There are two former soldiers and two engineers, two career paths which have been sadly lacking on the Conservative benches in recent years. A quarter run their own businesses, three are lawyers, two journalists, two teachers and one local postman.
This scatter is a sign of a shifting campaign strategy. Just as the party has looked again at its choice of seats to target, it has started to wake up to the importance of having candidates drawn from a broad variety of backgrounds. While Ed Miliband has made great play of his aspiration to have a wide range of candidates at the next election, it seems the Conservatives have stolen a march on him by putting such candidates in place.
There is a clear pattern in the political experience of these PPCs, too. Relatively few of them will have their first taste of electioneering in 2015, meaning most have been through the mill and have sharpened their skills over the course of years.
A new strategy
13 have stood for Parliament before, many of them in the seats they have now been selected to fight again – such as Royston Smith in Southampton Itchen, Rowena Holland in Nottingham South and the excellent Anne-Marie Trevelyan in Berwick. It is right that the selection process should recognise not only the dedication involved in having run for Parliament in the past but also the electoral benefit of sticking with candidates who have made in-roads into a sitting MP's majority. Far too often in the past we have thrown away progress made by good candidates in tough seats and put new faces to work regaining ground lost since the last election.
That isn't the only good news. The bulk of those who have not previously been Parliamentary candidates have experience of local politics – there are two Members of the Welsh Assembly, as well as numerous councillors and group leaders on the list. Combine that with the fact that around three quarters are local candidates, so far as I can ascertain, and there are signs the selection process is properly recognising the benefit of experience, local knowledge and name recognition.
The A-list experiment was a well-publicised mess in the run up to the 2010 General Election. The feeling that it was a mechanism for parachuting or forcing preferred candidates into seats without the due groundwork or elbow grease was hugely damaging to grassroots relations as well as public perception.
Judging by these early selections, some hard lessons may have been learned from what went wrong. Picking local candidates, entrepreneurs, councillors and experienced campaigners do not guaranteed victory but it certainly helps – particularly in the midst of a backlash against the Westminster elite.
Improvements to be made
There are certainly areas where things could improve further. Gathering the information for this article revealed that most of the candidates still lack their own website, and some Associations in what should be front line target seats evidently lack the resources to keep their own sites up to date. If these seats are due for extra campaigning funds, then they ought to start receiving them soon to make the most of the early selections.
40 candidates will only ever be a foretaste of the hundreds of selections which will take place in the run-up to 2015. However, if these PPCs are anything to go by, the Conservative slate in 2015 is set to be a lot more appealing to party members, a lot more effective on the doorstep and, hopefully, a lot more successful at the ballot box.
Over the next few weeks we will be running a series of quick-fire interviews with as many of these 40 PPCs as possible. The full list of those selected so far is enclosed below.
Berwick upon Tweed: Anne-Marie Trevelyan
Birmingham Northfield: Rachel Maclean
Bolton West: Christopher Green
Brecon and Radnorshire: Christopher Davies
Cardiff North: Craig Williams
Cheadle: Mary Robinson
Cheltenham: Alex Chalk
Chippenham: Michelle Donelan
Chorley: Robert Loughenbury
Colchester: Will Quince
Corby and East Northamptonshire: Tom Pursglove
Delyn: Mark Allan Isherwood
Derby North: Amanda Solloway
Dudley North: Afzal Amin
Eastbourne: Caroline Ansell
Gower: Byron Davies
Halifax: Philip Allott
Hampstead and Kilburn: Simon Marcus
Harrow West: Hannah David
Hazel Grove: William Wragg
Mid Dorset and North Poole: Michael Tomlinson
Morley and Outwood: Andrea Jenkyns
Newcastle-Under-Lyme: Tony Cox
North Cornwall: Scott Mann
North Devon: Peter Heaton-Jones
North East Derbyshire: Lee Rowley
Nottingham South: Rowena Holland
Portsmouth South: Flick Drummond
Solihull: Julian Knight
Somerton and Frome: David Warburton
Southampton Itchen: Royston Smith
St. Austell & Newquay: Stephen Double
St. Ives: Derek Thomas
Sutton & Cheam: Paul Scully
Telford: Lucy Allan
Torbay: Kevin Foster
Vale of Clwyd: James Davies
Walsall North: Douglas Hansen Luke
Wells: James Heappey
Wirral South: John Bell