Paul Abbott

Paul Abbott is Chief Executive of Conservative Way Forward and an Associate Director at Portland Communications.

With Lord Feldman’s much-needed Party Review on the horizon, ConservativeHome have asked me to scribble down a few thoughts each week, in answer to the question: How can we build a Conservative machine fit for the 21st century?

So far, I’ve looked at membership and IT systems. This week, it’s candidates.

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Holidaying in rain-soaked Somerset, I have been enjoying Boris Johnson’s rather good book about Winston Churchill. It zip-wires through the great man’s 64-year-long career with an astonishing array of facts. For instance: throughout his fighting years in WWI, Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was also the main political sponsor of the armoured tank. Who knew?

In 1915, Churchill appointed the “Landships Committee”: a group of boffins who oversaw the design and production of the first British tanks. He was a ferocious, demonic energy behind the project, firing an endless salvo of memos to overworked engineers, demanding ever-faster progress.

Then disaster struck. Churchill was sacked – effectively – over the Galipoli defeat. And, as Boris says:

“Without his creative drive, the Frankentractor languished. On the Western Front, men continued to go over the top, with hideous consequences. As far as the military top brass were concerned, the plans for a new machine were all but buried.”

Thankfully, the tank recovered – along with Churchill’s career. But, the lesson is clear enough. Delay costs lives. Never delay if you can help it. Forward!

So, consider then, the horrendous delay that we face in the Conservative Party, in our candidate selections – as we glimpse ahead to 2020. Just as in 2010, our selections are being temporarily kiboshed by a boundary review – while the Electoral Commission fiddles with the relative size of Grummidge West, and other such delicate matters. This boundary review is A Good Thing, because it means that every vote in Britain will have broadly the same democratic weight. But it is also a colossal inconvenience, because it means that we cannot begin to select our candidates until we know which 600 seats will be left, and where precisely they will be on the map.

This is frustrating. Right now – the summer of 2015 – is precisely the moment at which Labour are in maximum disarray. We should be hitting them as hard as humanly possible, while they squabble and fritter and share Dr Eoin Clarke’s infographics on Twitter. Now, while our old enemy is hypnotized by the lure of “Corbynonomics”, we should be rallying and charging at them again – and doing so on the ground, as well as in the air.

Our Party faces a choice. A fork in the road. Do we wait for the boundary review to conclude in 2018, before selecting any candidates? Or do we find a Churchillian-style fudge, to get moving faster? I strongly support the latter: we must keep up our momentum, and repeat one of best stealth tactics from the last Parliament.

Namely: the Party should appoint “nominated campaigners” to work locally in a brace of marginal seats, ahead of formal selections. The deal would be that they must start working immediately, and in exchange they get a guaranteed shot at the final selection hustings in 2018. It would be like an extended job interview. On this model, we could ratchet up our campaign output massively in the 50 most marginal Opposition-held seats – by Christmas. Including in every Liberal Democrat seat.

This tactic would have flaws, I accept. Some of these Conservative pioneers would find their potential constituency vanishing by 2018, for example. Which would suck. But they would be extremely well-placed for other nearby selections. And I believe the gains of momentum are worth this cost.

So, here is my first recommendation for the Party Review, when it comes to candidates:

1) Select 50 “nominated campaigners” immediately in Opposition-held seats, to build up local Conservative champions behind enemy lines. Given that we are likely to face boundary reviews in every Parliament to come, forever, we will need to adapt new tactics to get around it.

Having never been a Parliamentary candidate, however, I am not brilliantly placed to critique the process of getting selected, or organising once you are in situ. Thankfully, several Wise Old Owls kindly wrote to me last week, to give me their two cents.

They suggested…

2) Train candidates to fundraise, and help those on lower incomes. One Association Officer emailed me, to say:

“Associations wisely do not want to be selling nominations. But, for a small association with limited funds, it is unclear how the campaign is to be financed… The result is that a candidate may need to raise, or pay themselves, rather more than they were expecting… Some candidates in nearby seats dropped out because of the bills.”

Another former candidate warned:

“We did brilliantly to get more women elected, and we need more still. But, what about people who earn lower incomes? Most candidates it seems to me by nature of the cost to be a candidate are still very high earners. We need to look like, and be like, the majority of people who we aspire to represent.”

3) Find more local candidates, and select them early! In the words of one Deputy Chairman:

“We wanted an urban campaigner not a policy wonk… Seats like ours need a candidate in place early. Someone who can present the message locally, and campaign to the transient population.”

Or, as one campaign manager put it:

“I would make a general observation that those who were selected earlier and followed the ‘six point local plan’ did better. Name recognition and credibility is key! Parachuted candidates often came up against it. We should look at a locality rule, meaning that a candidate must have a strong enough connection to an area.”

(A short note on this. While it is a desirable goal, actually finding more local candidates is quite difficult. This has been the case for several Parliaments. If we want a broader geographic mix in the future, and less reliance on central London, then we will need a new mechanism to seek out good potential Parliamentarians in the regions. For example, our Candidate Assessors, more experienced Agents, and Regional/Area Officers, could all be paid a modest sum to spend time acting as “talent scouts” – travelling the country to tap people on the shoulder. Or something! But, we will need to put resources into this, if we care about it. It will not happen automatically.)

4) Associations with very small memberships should select via Open Primary. This was a common theme, especially from activists in urban seats. One ex-candidate sent me the following, somewhat frank statement:

“There are a lot of winnable areas, but they are being held back by their old and outdated Associations. Too many of our Associations are social clubs, run by a clique who are only interested if they keep their own council seats and no one else’s… We have to open the process up to more real competition.”

Another experienced observer shared this view:

“The problem is that some Associations are extremely small indeed – with only a tiny handful of members who vote in the selection hustings. This puts off some potential candidates, even if they live locally. People worry that the process will be stitched-up against them. Having more Open Primaries would help, because there would be a level playing-field.”

And so on.

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The main theme of what people told me was this: our Party’s strength is worryingly asymmetric. We are strongest in our safest areas; and weakest in our most marginal. Our troops, talent and money all seem still to be located precisely where they are least useful. This skews our whole campaign, and limits our ability to win.

Finding more local candidates, selecting them earlier, and furnishing them with greater support – these would all help to compensate for this historic lopsidedness. But, on their own, these measures will not be enough. Many suggested to me that we will also need more meaningful, long-term mutual aid between richer Associations and poorer. This is my theme for next week – the last in this mini-series on the Party Review! So, please do ping me any stories or thoughts that you might have on mutual aid, by messaging me on Facebook.

45 comments for: Paul Abbott: Selecting Parliamentary candidates. We need to get the process going now – while Labour is in chaos

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