Andrew Kennedy is the Group Agent & Campaign Director in West Kent. He blogs at www.votingandboating.blogspot.com.
An aggrieved candidate for local government candidate selection said to me recently: “The trouble with you, Andrew, is that you always use the rules to achieve what you want.” I replied: “What you’re actually saying is that I won’t bend the rules so that you can achieve what you want”. He at least had the good grace to laugh.
Here are further two examples of trouble with such selections.
Four years ago, an incumbent County Councillor faced challenge. As always in such circumstances, the selection meeting was held on neutral territory. At the time, the challenger emailed to thank me for my impartiality. This year, that challenger, now the incumbent, is himself being challenged – and again the contest is on neutral ground. This time, however, the incumbent has complained that the contest isn’t in his home village, since “this is where most of the members live”.
Next: four years ago too, a potential challenger was excluded, because he forgot to submit his application form. The incumbent thanked me for “vigorously upholding the rules.” This time, the incumbent is not so lucky. Respect for the rules however, didn’t stop the incumbent phoning to ask if there was any “procedural mechanism” I could use to stop the challenge taking place.
Last week I received a call from the Deputy Chairman Political of a strong and successful Association. He told me that he had been asked to design an application form for their Local Government Selection Committee. “Do you have something in West Kent we could adapt to use locally?” he asked me. I enquired why they didn’t use the CCHQ application forms which are part of the national mandatory selection rules. The long pause was followed by the inevitable: “What rules are they?” I was, of course, referring to the rules that were introduced over six years ago.
I suspect many Associations view these as “another attempt by CCHQ to take over our independence”, but I see little wrong with a national organisation trying to ensure that a similar standard is followed nationwide. The Mandatory Selection Rules do not instruct Associations as to whom they should select, and they even allow local autonomy as to the composition of the Local Government Committee (LGC). They simply try to ensure that a similar standard is set nationwide, that all applicants are treated fairly, and that there is a clear appeal process.
The West Kent approach has not only been recognised as “Good Practice” by the Conservative Councillors Association, but has also been adopted by our neighbouring Associations for its fairness and simplicity. I will describe the process below.
- Each Association Executive elects an LGC following the Association AGM. In addition to those who serve on the LGC by right, we also utilise the “additional members which the Executive Council deem suitable” clause to ensure the LGC is representative and not simply a committee of the “great and good” seeking to maintain the status quo. The LGC meets expediently to set out the selection timetable which is circulated widely to all interested parties.
- Before the process of selection commences we use every legitimate means to attract new applicants. These include:
- Emails to members, registered supporters and pledges.
- Direct mail to sympathetic charities and community groups.
- A full-page advert in the local newspaper (tried once, but not repeated).
- Posters in shops and on community noticeboards.
This process will produce a flurry of interested people, some of whom will be members, many more who will not be. These are then invited to an information evening during which they hear from a sitting councillor about their work, and from me as Agent about the campaigning obligations they will expected to undertake. This ensures that all applicants have a clear understanding of what will be expected of them.
Applicants are then invited to complete an application form (there are two versions: one for incumbents and another for new applicants). At this stage around 50 per cent of those initially interested drop out, having realised the time commitment or elected office is not for them.
- The LGC then arranges to interview applicants (incumbents and new). These interviews are thorough, and can be bruising. References provided are always followed up; applicants are examined for evidence of community commitment, and incumbent councillors are questioned about their performance within their community, the Council Group and their efforts towards the Association’s wider campaigning goals. We also review the applicant’s social media “footprint” to ensure there are no nasty surprises lurking on the internet! It is far from unusual for our LGCs to decline an application, nor are they afraid to refuse to put an incumbent back on the “Approved List” if there is strong evidence of poor performance.
- Once the interviews have been completed, the Association will have an “Approved List”, members of which are invited to put their names forward for individual seat selection. Every seat is considered “equal”, and approved candidates may apply for as few or as many as they wish.
- The Rules now get complicated! If there are more applicants than vacancies, the branch (or joint branches if there are more than one) decides who goes forward to the final. Unfortunately, even in West Kent, where our organisation is strong, there are very few County Council divisions which have active branches covering every area of the division. This could lead to a small number of members of one branch committee imposing a candidate on the whole division, thus disenfranchising the members living elsewhere. Our executive councils have taken the decision that unless there are active branches covering the entire county division, then all applicants will go forward to a general meeting of the all the members living in that division. We believe that allowing our members the right to choose their candidate is not only the right thing to do, but also a valuable and rewarding aspect of membership.
- The above rule (number 6), however, does not apply if membership of the division (or ward) is below two per cent of the previous Conservative vote at the last election. For example, if we are selecting a candidate for Barchester and the previous Conservative vote for Barchester was 2000, there would need to be a minimum of 40 members to qualify for self-selection. This requirement is set by CCHQ to ensure that there is not a branch of five members selecting their best friends. If the membership is below this threshold, then the LGC selects the candidate instead. In making this decision, the LGC can use various legitimate means to inform its decision-making. Members may be invited to attend the LGC meeting, and participate in the questioning of the candidates. A recent change introduced to the rules by Rob Semple, the Chairman of the National Convention, following a trial in West Kent, is the right of Associations to hold a “Local Primary”.
- Ultimately all decisions must be ratified by the Executive Council.
This process is transparent and fair. It balances the rights of incumbents against the aspirations of new applicants. And, just as officers must account for their performance at the local branch and Association AGMs, and Association staff account for our performance at our annual appraisal, so incumbent councillors must account for their own records.
As Agent, my job is to facilitate an open and fair contest. It matters little to me who is selected, since my duty is to get them elected regardless. I take a degree of satisfaction in that, having helped to manage over 500 local government selections there has only been one successful appeal – and that was when an outgoing Chairman thought the rules were “tedious” and refused to follow them!