How can we go about getting the best idea of the next generation of Conservative MPs, the 2015 intake? Well, there are the candidates in the 40 attack seats, and the candidates in the marginals – but with the polls in flux and the impact of UKIP still uncertain, it would be a false picture to assume that all those will necessarily become MPs in May.
A more reliable approach is to study those candidates selected in Tory-held seats where the incumbent is stepping down or has been deselected. Of course, even among those seats not all are guaranteed to flash up as “Conservative Hold” on General Election night, but it’s a more favourable pool than marginals.
We know that at least 32 sitting Conservative MPs will step down at the next election. Aside from Tim Yeo and Anne McIntosh (who have been deselected by their local parties), they are doing so voluntarily and for a wide variety of reasons – illness, age, disillusionment with being an MP, the pressures of family commitments, scandals…truly, all political life is here. A few more may yet choose to do so.
So far, 28 such constituencies have selected PPCs (some Associations are less speedy than others, while some of the MPs have left it rather late to announce their intended departure).
So what do we know of them?
As Paul wrote yesterday, women are drastically under-represented on the Conservative benches (and indeed on all sides of the Commons). Grant Shapps has made it part of his mission to improve the proportion not just of female candidates but of female MPs.
Nine of the candidates in these 28 Tory-held seats are women – just under a third. Given that only four of the outgoing MPs are women, that is a sizeable improvement within this pool. Even not counting the likely return of other new women MPs from marginal and target seats, the Tory-held seats should increase the number in the parliamentary party by 10 per cent. It seems the panic early in the year about a supposed “women problem” was premature.
Laudably, that has been achieved without resorting to All Women Shortlists – either locally or centrally imposed. Associations rightly insist on selecting their candidates on merit. The organic, conservative approach is working.
More ethnic minorities
Another goal on Shapps’ list is to raise the proportion of ethnic minority candidates. it’s an element of starting to overturn misconceptions about our party, not the silver bullet to destroy them, and a positive goal.
Five of those selected in the 28 seats are ethnic minority candidates: Seema Kennedy in South Ribble; Rishi Sunak in Richmond; Alan Mak in Havant; Ranil Jayawardena in North East Hampshire; and Nusrat Ghani in Wealden. That’s up from none of the outgoing MPs. Even if no other Tories win in the battlegrounds, this cohort will be sufficient to increase Conservative ethnic minority representation in parliament by almost 50 per cent, equaling Labour’s tally from 2010.
Again, that has been done without any positive discrimination. The selections are therefore to the credit of our meritocratic grassroots. Such change may be slower than artificial, top-down shortlists but it is far more meaningful as a result.
Death of the A-list
In that sense, Shapps has successfully replaced the left wing instincts of the A-list with a genuine Tory approach. He had faith in the people of our party to choose good candidates regardless of race or gender, and they in turn are showing that that faith is deserved. Not only is the approach proving fruitful, it avoids the conflict between the leadership and the base which the A-list provoked and the harmful effects of a backlash. More diverse selection without grassroots tension is a success our critics would have claimed was impossible.
Are you local?
Of course, ethnic origin and gender aren’t the only ways to study the pool of likely new Tory MPs. One notable trend is the rise in candidates with local roots, and the rise in candidates with local government experience, which may be related.
It’s in the nature of selections that not all the candidates to reach the final are local. Indeed, in some seats no local candidates were shortlisted at all, though that’s a relatively rare occurrence. Given that context, it’s notable that being local is proving to be a significant advantage. No less than 13 of the 28 candidates have solid claims to be locals. At least a couple of the others have perhaps slightly less solid claims, but the fact they evidently felt the need to mention them speaks for itself.
It isn’t a guaranteed ticket to success – in the remaining 15 seats some outsiders did defeat locally-based competitors – but it’s clear that there is a trend towards preferring identifiably local representatives to talent from elsewhere.
There are also 12 candidates who currently serve in local government – not counting Boris – nine of whom are both councillors and local to the constituency where they have been selected. Again, it doesn’t guarantee selection but it’s clear that experience of serving the local community in elected office is an asset in a selection race. It was once largely a myth that becoming a local councillor was a stepping stone towards parliament – now it seems that myth is increasingly becoming true.
What might be the reasons for this shift? First, the spreading sense of disillusionment about Westminster’s distance from the people is surely manifesting itself in this preference for candidates who are locally rooted. Second, the spread of open town hall meetings to select PPCs means that the wider electorate have an increased say – and it’s easy to imagine how that could benefit people who already have a proven and prominent track record of local service. Third, party members are becoming more demanding of their MPs – experience as a councillor suggests at least some acquaintance with working as part of a team and engaging with residents.
The 28 PPCs also have an interesting mix of professional experience. They range from an Afghanistan veteran (Tom Tugendhat in Tonbridge and Malling) through a variety of entrepreneurial and family business experience to solicitors and barristers. One, of course, is the current Mayor of London.
(Incidentally, two are children of former politicians (Vicky Atkins in Louth and Horncastle; Victoria Prentis in Banbury) but each of them also has plenty of personal accomplishments to point to, as well – and I doubt that the anti-politics mood makes being related to an MP much of an asset. If anything, both seemed to play it down in their promotional materials.)
One job in particular is more rare on the list than a cynical observer might expect: Special Adviser. Only one, Oliver Dowden in Hertsmere, has been selected. This is surprising – after all, if you listen to critics of the party’s leadership (including some to be found below the line on this website) the process is supposedly stitched up for SpAds all the time.
In reality, while a number of Special Advisers have been applying for seats, they have been notably unsuccessful. There are several of instances of them being longlisted but failing to make the final four (Croydon South; Richmond; Havant; and Mid Worcestershire spring to mind) and of course they may well have applied for many more seats that we don’t know about because they fell at an early hurdle.
It seems that the SpAds have been falling foul of both the anti-Westminster mood and the penchant for local candidates. It’s notable that Dowden was selected in the neighbouring constituency to his home, allowing him to make his pitch as a local – and that he won selection on the first round with a majority of the vote.
There is an interesting question aside from the demographics of the pool of likely new MPs: how many of them are future minister material?
It’s a sensitive subject as well as a difficult one to discern. We know that there are three candidates with experience in the Westminster and Whitehall machine – Boris, as a former Shadow Minister; Dowden, as a SpAd; and Prentis, who spent much of her career as a senior civil service lawyer.
There are also three with senior leadership roles in local government – Kit Malthouse, who is standing in North West Hampshire, was Deputy Leader of Westminster City Council and is currently Deputy Mayor of London; Cllr Ranil Jayawardena is Deputy Leader of Basingstoke Borough Council; and Cllr David Mackintosh, the Northampton South PPC, is Leader of Northampton Borough Council.
Of course, Westminster or Town Hall experience doesn’t automatically make them good ministers – and in the same way, lack of council or Westminster experience shouldn’t mean the other candidates are written off. While a number of them are experienced entrepreneurs, it’s notoriously difficult to predict whether business experience will translate into skilled performance or frustrated ambition on the national stage.
What we do know is that application rates are down, even for these safer seats. Constituencies which would once have received hundreds of applications from would-be candidates have received only 80 or 90. To a certain extent that reflects the cull of the candidates’ list, but there is some concern that it is also a sign that able candidates may not be applying for seats, potentially having been deterred by the growth in anti-politics feeling. If so, then we may be losing out on potential talent who never even enter the process. As Conservatives, and thus believers that competition produces better results, it is somewhat worrying.
All in all, the Class of 2015 are set to be an interesting bunch. They are less “male and pale” than their predecessors. They are strongly entrepreneurial. Many of them have been selected by open public meetings rather than by closed votes of the local Association. They are less Westminster-linked, much more locally based and far more likely to be local councillors than we have historically seen.
The Party Chairman deserves credit for the progress towards his goals – which have been to open up the selection process and to see more women and ethnic minority candidates enter parliament. The question is what he will do next? As the General Election approaches, CCHQ’s direct powers over selections increase – including the ability to speed up the process to ensure swift selection. Should any other sitting MPs stand down, some in the leadership might be tempted to take that as an opportunity to rush through candidates who further aid the pursuit of those goals.
We must hope that any such temptations are resisted – the true Tory approach of openness, democracy and merit are serving us far better than quotas and positive discrimination are serving the Labour Party. To hijack George Osborne’s mantra on the economy: we must stay the course.