Is there a purge underway? Are CCHQ “removing those out of favour with the leadership” from the list of approved candidates, an allegation reported today by The Times?
This latest claim – that Alistair Thompson, who is advising Owen Paterson on his new think tank, has been suspended from the list – is certainly the second recent report of someone close to a potential leadership contender falling foul of CCHQ. As we revealed in December, Theresa May’s SpAds, Nick Timothy and Stephen Parkinson, are also suspended.
However, the joining of two dots does not necessarily draw a sufficiently coherent picture to identify a deliberate purge. In both cases the official reason for the suspension was a failure or refusal to campaign in a by-election. Parkinson and Timothy refused to telephone canvass in Rochester & Strood because they were concerned, understandably, that it would be a breach of the official Code of Conduct by which they are bound. Thompson reportedly didn’t campaign in Newark – to quote the newspaper, “he said the instruction “seemed pointless” when he could campaign in his home town of Portsmouth or by telephone without the four-hour train journey.”
So it seems he did break the stated policy that all members of the candidates’ list must make themselves available whenever or wherever a by-election might occur. Given that other candidates are being struck off for the same reason it doesn’t necessarily prove that he was victimised for his work for Paterson – though it is possible and there is an anecdotal claim that someone at CCHQ told him that was the case.
The tale of the Home Secretary’s SpAds raises somewhat more suspicion – we understand that there were other SpAds on the list who also didn’t take part in the Rochester campaign but who have not been suspended.
However, while one or both cases may be instances of unfair punishment that still doesn’t add up to a “purge” as some claim.
Really, we ought to be considering the unfair set of rules applying to candidates in the first place. There are two particular problems: the use of candidates as by-election fodder, and the focus on the 40/40 at the expense of other candidates.
I first wrote for this site about the practice of throwing people off the list for not campaigning in by-elections a few months after Eastleigh. It seemed to me then, and it still seems to me now, to be a policy which slants the system in favour of those with the time and money to trek around the country whenever called. CCHQ’s defence would be that they make exceptions based on individual circumstances, but no-one knows exactly how (or if) that system works.
It also seems strange, at a time when voters and Associations increasingly prefer candidates with a local focus, to expect all approved candidates to be interested in travelling hundreds of miles to answer the party’s summons. If you’re committed to standing where you’re from, should it really be a necessary qualification that you also pound pavements in Newark, Rochester and Clacton? It smells like a policy based on the idea of candidates who can be parachuted into any part of the country – when in reality many on the list are interested in standing where they’re from and nowhere else, often regardless of their chances of winning. If such candidates are removed from the list for holding a view which many party members would view as a desirable quality, then the democratic choices of the membership are being unfairly restricted.
The focus on 40/40 seats particularly affects those candidates who have already been selected. As our anonymous Candidate in a Marginal Seat wrote last week about a candidates’ meeting at CCHQ:
“The group of us are informed that we are not to represent our constituencies as Conservative candidates for parliament, but instead must run along to the nearest targeted seat and start delivering leaflets, which for me is many miles away. The secret programme is called the 40/40 plan, oddly similar in name to a game I used to play in my childhood during the seventies. I thought I was sacrificing my career for the party; I get the impression that on the contrary, I am lucky to be asked to volunteer my services in another seat.
What about the people of my constituency or my team and association?” I bleat.”
On top of that, of course, activists in seats outside the 40/40 are encouraged to spend their time on a target rather than in their home constituency. Central money is directed to the 40 attack seats, and the rest are told to raise their own funds. Worse, in some cases non-40/40 candidates have embarked on the fundraising they were told to do, only to find that the donors they were wooing have been discouraged from giving to a ‘non-target’ seat. If being a candidate in a tight marginal was a tough job before, the strategy seems to be making it both more difficult and more lonely.
Targeting seats matters, as does pouring resources into important by-elections – you can’t simply divide your resources equally between everywhere, or else you risk losing the election. But the dedication of those who aren’t the beneficiaries of special support ought to be recognised, not taken for granted.
I fear the combination of treating the pool of would-be candidates as an eternally willing source of canvassing reserves and then abandoning most of them once they are selected is proving poisonous. It seems that the assessment was that either their love of the party or their love of their own ambitions would lead them to put up with anything. Judging from the fall in applications even for Tory-held seats and the growing sounds of discord from a variety of directions, it was the wrong call.
ConservativeHome wants a candidates’ list which is richly varied in terms of experience, income, career, interest and locality. Unfortunately it is just that variety which is truly at risk of being purged – through a lack of consideration, I suspect, rather than by design. We face a serious risk that the only people who are able to do whatever is asked of them and simultaneously are willing to put up with the dismissive attitudes about which many candidates complain will be those sufficiently possessed of the wealth and/or personal ambition to weather the experience. And that’s precisely the wrong way to make our party stronger.