The process of selecting Conservative candidates for target seats began over the summer, later than the Pickles review or ConservativeHome’s post-election analysis had recommended, but still earlier than in the past.
And rightly so. Without a Commons majority and in tumultuous times, nobody wants to relive the mad dash to select after the snap election was called. More generally, it gives candidates a longer run-up in which to build name recognition and really get stuck into campaigning in a constituency, to counter-balance the benefits of incumbency enjoyed by the person they hope to unseat. And a candidate offers a focus for year-round campaigning, which means more voter contact and more data collection, with knock-on benefits for local elections and better modelling to test messages and assess performance.
There are, however, some problems emerging in the selection process. I’m told that the number of applications submitted to stand in the new contests is down on previous years across the board. Some constituency associations have received applications only numbering in the “single figures” where they would previously have expected scores.
The selection process in one seat – Darlington – has already been postponed because two of the three candidates who made it through interviews and shortlisting to the final were then selected in other constituencies before the planned meeting on 4th October. That’s a symptom of the risks posed by a small pool of willing applicants – the most competitive are liable to be shortlisted in several places, even more so than is normally the case.
There are worse effects. I can reveal that the Conservative association in one constituency, Wirral West, was so dissatisfied with the limited number and range of candidates who put themselves forward that they refused to produce a shortlist, and have asked CCHQ to reopen applications. Good on them for not just taking what they were given, but no association should be put in such a situation.
This shortage of willing candidates is frustrating activists and delaying progress in key seats that the Conservative Party hopes to win. These constituencies include several which are extremely marginal and some which were Conservative-held before 8th June 2017. For problems to have emerged relatively early on, when there are still a lot of selections to get through, is concerning.
Quite what the cause is is unclear. Four possibilities spring to mind:
- Absence of people. After the customary cull of candidates who are deemed to have underperformed at the General Election, it takes time to repopulate the list through the drip-drip of Parliamentary Assessment Board events.
- Absence of enthusiasm. Last year’s grim experience certainly demoralised and deterred various candidates. Some have given up entirely, and many more are less eager to be a willing horse for the Party as a result of their mistreatment.
- The prospect of a long campaign. Early selection is, as I’ve already said, good for the Conservative Party and for constituency associations, but it’s fair to say not all candidates are entirely keen on it. Some prefer the more traditional model of being selected a few months before an election, minimising the time spent outside Parliament but on the streets, in the rain, and spending all your time and money campaigning. The prospect of almost four years as a candidate doesn’t appeal to everyone.
- Pessimism about the next election. Only about a third of Party members expect a Conservative majority to be the outcome of the next election, according to our latest survey, and various candidates appear to agree with them. The implication is that some are simply unwilling to put themselves forward when they don’t believe target seats are going to be gained next time the nation goes to the ballot box.
It’s probably a mix of those. Some will compound one another – a rough experience in 2017 followed by pessimism about the next election; the prospect of four years as a candidate, added to the fear of nothing to show for the hard work at the end of it.
Early selection, and thereby long campaigns, is a shock to the system, but will become a positive in time. It will be beneficial to shift from the old expectation that a candidate will normally spend most of their time unselected and on the list, essentially serving the central party in the hope of winning approval and patronage, to a new expectation that candidates should be selected early and then spend most of their time as a constituency’s PPC in the hope of winning votes and thereby the seat. But other issues – particularly the size and quality of the list, the morale of its members, and their expectations of the next election – undoubtedly need to be overcome.
As it happens, I suspect some candidates who hang back now on the basis that they don’t expect to win at the next election may kick themselves in future. If the election isn’t until 2022, it could be fought between completely different party leaders, post-Brexit, and in entirely different circumstances. No-one knows how it will turn out from the distance of four years out, with the world and the electorate changing quickly.
Nor is it wise to hold out for ‘safe’ retirement seats that might come up much later on. Most Conservative MPs are relatively new, having been elected since 2010, and if boundary reform goes ahead any retirees’ seats will probably be hotly contested by current MPs whose constituencies are being abolished.
It’s possible that some candidates being selected now, from small pools of applicants in seats that others have shunned, will find themselves sitting on comfortable majorities in ten or 15 years’ time. Just ask the Conservative MPs who currently hold seats that back in 2011 were occupied by the Lib Dems. Manias (Corbyn- or Clegg-themed) don’t last, times change, and fortune favours the bold. Or, as my Geordie grandma put it, shy bairns get nowt.
It falls to the Conservative Party’s leadership to persuade candidates of the truth of that, and encourage more of them to throw their hats into the ring.