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Political Parties and Elections: Readings

Candidate Nomination in the British Conservative Party

Harmon Zeigler, Political Parties in Industrial Societies.

(Itasca, IL: Peacock, 1993) pp. 101-104.


Weeding Out. When a winnable constituency is available, the competition is keen. The Central Office is responsible for supervising and coordinating the selection of parliamentary candidates. The vice-chairman for party organization maintains the list of approved candidates. All aspirants for Commons must be on the list, although occasionally approval after selection occurs.

Although the Conservative Party has been notorious for its lack of attention to the list (with a personal contribution from the aspiring member of Parliament the essential requirement), during Mrs. Thatcher's first term in 1980, the Conservatives became far more rigorous and selective.

A Conservative Party area agent first interviews each candidate before sending the candidate on to the Parliamentary Selection Board of the Central Office. Here, during a weekend meeting, the aspirants are subject to interviews, policy debates, and so on. About one-fourth of the aspirants do not survive. (Some of those who do not make the cut refer to these meetings as "struggle sessions.')

Next, the vice-chairman takes a turn at reducing the size of the list, eliminating another 45 or 50 percent. The remaining 30 percent are put on the list to await a suitable constituency. The list normally has about 500 names.

When a constituency association wants to begin the selection process, it informs the area agent, who alerts the vice-chairman, who then passes the word to those on the list. Those interested apply directly to the constituency. Here the aspirants will encounter the selection committee, consisting of the officers of the constituency association and representatives of various party branches (young Conservatives, women's groups, and so on). This committee reviews and selects those that it wishes to interview. For winnable seats, the selection committee must prune down a list of several hundred to about twenty. Those still in the running meet for a half-hour or so with the selection committee. By ballot the committee agrees to a list of three or four. The short-listed aspirants next meet with the constituency association's executive council. This meeting is preceded by a social gathering; potential nominees and their wives or husbands mingle. The tension at these gatherings is almost unbearable social gathering is followed by a formal meeting. Each candidate speaks for a half-hour, answers questions, and then retires to the decision. The decision is made by repetitive ballot until one person has a majority. This person is then presented to the entire constituency association, where he or she is endorsed. Occasionally, the executive council will send two names forward, but this is rare.

Jeffrey Archer, a former Conservative Member of Parliament whose novel First Among Equals contains an accurate account of the process, leaves no doubt that Miss Congeniality in a beauty pageant is under no more scrutiny:

When Simon and Elizabeth piled out of the car at the market town of Redcorn they were physically and mentally exhausted. The Treasurer's wife took them through to the constituency headquarters and introduced them both to the agent.

"Now the form is;' began the agent, "that we are interviewing potential candidates and they'll be seeing you last." He winked knowingly.

Simon and Elizabeth smiled uncertainly.

"I'm afraid they won't be ready for you for at least another hour, so you have time for a stroll around the town."

Simon was glad of the chance to stretch his legs and take a closer look at Redcorn .... As he walked back past the shops in the high street, Simon nodded to those locals who seemed to recognize him .... They sat on the bench in the market square and read the lead story under a large picture of Simon.

"Redcorn's next MP?" ran the headline.

The story volunteered the fact that although Simon Kerslake had to be considered the favorite, Bill Travers, a local farmer who had been chairman of the county council the previous year was thought to have outside chance.

Simon began to feel a little sick in the stomach. It reminded him of the day he had been interviewed at Coventry Central nearly eight years before. Now that he was a minister of the Crown he wasr't any less nervous.

When he and Elizabeth returned to constituency headquarters they were informed that only two more candidates had been seen .... They walked around town once again....

When they returned a third time to constituency headquarters the fourth candidate was leaving the interview room.. .."It shouldn't be long now," said the agent, but it was another forty minutes before they heard a ripple of applause.

The agent ushered Simon and Elizabeth through, and as they entered everyone in the room stood. Ministers of the Crown did not visit Redcorn often.

Simon waited for Elizabeth to be seated before he took a chair in the centre of the room facing the committee. He estimated that there were about fifty people present and they were all staring at him .... In his dark striped London suit Simon felt out of place....

"Mr. Kerslake will address us for twenty minutes, and he has kindly agreed to answer questions after that;' added the chairman....

When he had finished he sat down to respectful clapping and murmurs.

"Now the minister will take questions;' said the chairman.

"Where do you stand on hanging?" scowled a middle-aged woman in a grey suit seated in the front row.

Simon explained his reasons for being a convinced abolitionist.

A man in a hacking jacket asked: "How do you feel, Mr. Kerslake, about this year's farm subsidy?"

"It hasn't proved necessary for me to have a great knowledge of farming in Coventry Central, but if I am lucky enough to be selected for Redcorn I shall try to learn quickly."

The next question was on Europe, and Simon gave an unequivocal statement as to his reasons for backing the Prime Minister in his desire to see Britain as part of the Common Market.

Simon continued to answer questions on subjects ranging from trade union reform to violence on television before the chairman asked, "Are there any more questions?"

There was a long silence and just as he was about to thank Simon the scowling lady in the first row, without being recognized by the chair, asked what Mr. Kerslake's views were on abortion.

It was a little after nine when a weary chairman came out and asked all the candidates if he could have their attention . . . "My committee wants to thank you for going through this grim procedure. It has been hard to decide something that we hope not to have to discuss again for twenty years." He paused. "The committee are going to invite Mr. Bill Travers to fight the Redcorn seat at the next election."'

Although the national party's role is crucial at the beginning, it diminishes as the process wears on. Unquestionably, the party will want to assure itself that its leaders, members of the government or shadow cabinet, are protected.

Still, on occasion, constituency associations have been willing to strike a blow for decentralization. Policy considerations are not generally an essential factor, even during the more ideologically charged days of Thatcherism. More folksy considerations are likely to be coming. Knowledge of the constituency is important. Since Commons nominees do not necessarily live in the district, style, charm, presentation, education, and leadership potential (every constituency wants to have its MP in the government) are terribly important. In the Archer novel, Simon Kerslake's chances are fatally damaged by his wife's unwillingness to live in the district.

While Archer surely knows how the Conservative Party picks its candidates, he perhaps gives the impression of too much idiosyncratic local behavior. The Central Office recruits and trains both the regional and local agents. When one matches career bureaucrats with local volunteers, the imbalance of resources heavily favors the center, not the local parties. The Central Office has been able to block nomination of candidates by constituency associations. The need so is rare, since "the Conservative Party is so unified and cohesive that its local associations tend 'naturally' to select candidates have the leader's confidence without explicit intervention from above."