Andrew Kennedy is the Group Agent & Campaign Director in West Kent. He blogs at www.votingandboating.blogspot.com.
Until we widen and deepen the pool of talent in which we fish for our Local Government candidates, we will continue to put forward too many who are pale, male and stale. One of the problems is that there are too many councillors sitting on too many councils – but that is an article for the future, as are my suggestions about how we can attract new talent. For now, political parties must play the cards we have been dealt. Depending on your electoral cycle, this can mean having to find up to 50 local candidates who are committed, community-minded and good communicators from a limited talent pool.
The overwhelming majority of councillors I know work hard for very little financial reward, and often for no thanks from their electorate. However, too often local parties take the easy option by simply reselecting the incumbent regardless of his or her abilities and performance. This is often easier than facing the difficult and unpleasant decision to deselect, and then to recruit and train new people from the wider community. In following this path of least resistance, Associations are doing a disservice to themselves, local residents and, ultimately, the quality of Local Government.
At the recent Spring Forum, it was announced that the Mandatory Selection Rules are going to be reviewed. Admittedly the present rules are cumbersome, but they are generally sound and, if followed, equip Associations and Branches with all the tools they require to select the best possible candidates.
Each year, my performance is appraised by my line-manager. If I consistently under-perform, and make no effort to improve, I would fully expect to face a disciplinary process, and eventually dismissal. Yet across the country there are too many councillors of all parties who have “gone native”, or who simply refuse to support the campaigning objectives of their local Association.
Some even seem to declare UDI, and believe they are bigger than the Party with whose brand and reputation they were elected. Whenever I brief new candidates, I make the point that they should always be “champions of the people”, elected to represent their communities in the Council Chamber. Too often, they become defenders of the bureaucracy, simply rubber-stamping decisions made by council officers.
In the “Candidate’s Agreement”, now used nationwide, there is a list of requirements for new and existing applicants, including the obligation to “co-operate fully with the Party’s campaign strategy for elections, including giving mutual aid to other Conservative candidates when asked and, when themselves a candidate, comply with the requirements of the election agent.” New and incumbent candidates sign this before they are re-interviewed and should therefore not be surprised when they are called on to fulfil these promises.
In one of our local Associations, six non-performing councillors (around 12 per cent of the total) were deselected (although four of them fell on their swords rather than face opprobrium.) I have found that you only need one or two deselections for the other councillors to regain their focus!
In ensuring that the best people represent the Conservative Party locally, we need to ensure that those who select our candidates have the skills and abilities to do so. This means that each Association’s “Local Government Committee” (or Approvals Committee) is comprised of people with the confidence, vision and courage to do what is right – and, where necessary, their tool-box should include the willingness to remove from the Approved List habitual poor-performers, self-servers and non-starters.
Too often, I am told that local branches simply reselect the incumbent because it’s easier and kinder to do so – that is precisely why the Local Government Committee should make those difficult decisions for them. If a non-performing councillor is removed from the “Approved List”, then the local branches are spared the task of telling “Good old Bert” that it’s time to call it a day. Sometimes the very decision is an act of kindness: “Good old Bert” is often doing “one more term” because he thinks there is no-one else, whereas in reality no-one else will come forward until “Good old Bert” retires.
However, “Good old Nigel” does not always go with grace. One of the questions I am most often asked is about Local Government candidate selections. This normally comes via a plaintive call from an Association Chairman who is facing the wrath of a deselected councillor. My advice in such circumstances is always clear. “If you have followed the rules, there is nothing to worry about”. Appeals against deselections can only be accepted if due process has not been followed. The fact that a disgruntled councillor, or his supporters, don’t like the outcome is irrelevant.
It is right that, where there is an active branch which meets the CCHQ “qualifying threshold” for branches to run the interview process, that they are allowed to do so. The rules specify that, to qualify for self-selection from the Approved List, a branch must have either 20 qualifying members or a membership equal to two per cent of that ward’s Conservative vote, whichever is the greater. This is designed to ensure that a cabal of councillors and their friends cannot dominate the process for perpetual self-interest.
The weakness, however, is that the Mandatory Selection Rules do not define “an active branch”. There are too many branches which neither campaign, raise money, nor contribute to the Association’s success, but miraculously spring into life when the reselection process starts. In two of West Kent’s Associations, we have defined an “active branch” as one which (i) holds a legally constituted AGM, (ii) raises money over and above membership income, and (iii) meets regularly throughout the year.
There are, however, some who confuse attending endless (and often pointless) council committee meetings with community campaigning. And, yes, there are also a small number who are simply bone idle. In a recent West Kent by-election, in a critical marginal seat, nearly half of that Borough’s Conservative Councillors did not turn out to help – while over 70 per cent of the neighbouring Borough’s councillors did so. This is what we must address.
Earlier in this article, I referred to the “Candidate’s Agreement”, which is signed by both new applicants and incumbent councillors seeking re-approval. The second clause of the “Agreement to Stand” states: “Councillors and, where appropriate candidates, must play a full, active, and constructive part in their local Association and Branch during the whole of their period of office, including campaigning, membership development, fund-raising, social and political activities.” It is not unreasonable for Associations to insist that those who sign such an agreement uphold their promises – and to take action against those who don’t.