I’ve spent the day in York, and it’s been a vaguely unsatisfying experience. There were some good elements, and I’ll cover them in other postings, but here I want to talk about by-elections. There has been, over the years, a degree of unhappiness about how the Party deals with candidate selection in such instances, and it would be fair to say that we’ve made the mistake of focussing on process and not worrying overly much about the impact that the process has on the human element, i.e. applicants and Local Party members.
However, following the Leicester South by-election where, for a few painful moments, I faced the poisoned chalice of being the Returning Officer, we at least moved to address the previous failure to ensure that we made every effort to enable any candidate on the approved list to put themselves forward.
We are by no means word perfect though, and there was much controversy over the decision to pick outsiders in both Crewe and Nantwich and Henley, especially where sitting PPCs were already in place. Of course, our Federal constitution has made it clear for many years that this is the case (despite the mischief-making of the likes of Chris Paul, whose fascination with our inner workings seemingly knows no linit), and with good cause. After all, the skills required to fight a seat in a by-election are significantly different to those required for a general election, a point that most people accept.
So, we spent today looking at proposals put before us by a working group set up especially to look at the issues which arise in a by-election scenario. Under the terms of the protocol passed today, the sitting PPC will automatically go before the by-election panel, bypassing the first phase, an advance from where we were previously. So far, so good. They therefore miss the first stage, where the full list of applicants are screened by a selection committee consisting entirely of local party members, under the guidance of a senior, experienced Returning Officer. I’m still happy thus far.
The by-election panel will consist of;
- the Chair or Vice-Chair of the ECC (or nominee)
- an MP (preferably one who has fought a by-election or similar type of seat)
- the RCC from the Region where the by-election is taking place (or nominee)
- the Director of Campaigns (or nominee)
The eagle-eyed amongst you will note that there is no representative of the Local Party. Indeed, there is no guarantee that someone from the relevant Region will be present, as there is no obligation upon the RCC to nominee someone from his or her Region, as I discovered when a by-election was rumoured recently, and I was asked by the RCC to act as their nominee. The by-election wasn’t going to be in London…
Being a great believer in the sovereignty of Local Parties, I naturally took the opportunity to raise the question of Local Party representation. I was given a number of reasons why they should not be involved, including;
- issues regarding factions within the Local Party
- the ability of Local Party members to understand the issues involved in fighting a by-election
- the difficulty in getting five people together at short notice
- confidentiality - a Local Party member might go back to their colleagues and say that they didn’t agree with the outcome
It does seem to boil down to the fact that there are elements on English Candidates Committee who don’t trust Local Parties to be involved, a fact which saddens me. There have been instances where a popular , local PPC has been excluded for reasons which, from the perspective of the Local Party, look flimsy, regardless of their genuine validity. I will address the concerns though.
Most Local Parties that I have encountered encompass differences of opinion. Commonality of opinion does not figure highly in the Liberal Democrat Book of Essentials. Commonality of purpose usually does though, and that tends to be where the problems lie. The ability to accept a decision taken openly and democratically does occasionally find key activists missing however, and there are individuals who can only too readily testify to what happens when a decision taken is undermined by a small but influential group of dissenters. Sadly, whatever you do, in such circumstances you cannot stop them from becoming a problem short of radical disciplinary action, a course which can create more problems than it solves.
I am puzzled that there are those who doubt that Local Party members can grasp the issues pertaining to a by-election campaign, when the proposals already place responsibility for drawing up the shortlist to go before the By-election Panel in the hands of a selection committee made up entirely of… Local Party members. Are we not at home to Mr Irony?
We overcome the difficulties of bringing the By-election Panel together by allowing wide powers of nomination. So, why not invite the Local Party Chair or his/her nominee? Given that we will be testing potential candidates on, amongst other things, the ability to demonstrate credibility as a candidate for the constituency in question, might not a little local knowledge be helpful?
As for confidentiality, I am disappointed that a Local Party member should be thought to be less trustworthy than a senior figure in the Party. Personal experience tells me that this is not necessarily accurate and it is indeed fortunate for certain individuals that I can keep a secret.
However, the desire to retain control at the centre continues to cast its spell on some who claim to be calling for radical change, and I fear that the path towards a selection system that has genuine support and buy-in will be strewn with obstacles in the months and years to come. Luckily, I expect to outlive most of my colleagues on ECC…