David Cameron gave a speech yesterday in which he set out radical plans to discriminate in favour of women, people from ethnic minorities and people with disabilities. 35% of the ConservativeHome.com Members' Panel have expressed support for this sort of A-list of preferred candidates. A larger proportion - 44% - support some sort of financial support for lower income candidates. This idea did not feature in Mr Cameron's speech. Robert H Halfon - the readopted candidate for Harlow - argues that a modern, compassionate Conservative Party should offer financial bursaries for charity workers, social entrepreneurs, teachers and others.
It is a privilege being a Parliamentary Candidate and having the chance to serve a Constituency as an MP. But, whatever the kudos, it is not much fun being financially stretched in the process.
If the Conservative Party is really intent on attracting Candidates from a wide variety of backgrounds (and the reforms announced by David Cameron are a giant leap forward), then it has to consider a bursary scheme for Candidates on lower incomes.
The real barrier to good, diverse Candidates coming forward is not always discrimination. Indeed many members and local Associations are forward looking. The problem is the financial burden.
To be a Parliamentary Candidate outside of your immediate locality costs a small fortune. Setting up home in the constituency, the travel to and from, the many Tory functions, the buying of raffle tickets and such like, can mount up to thousands of pounds. The result being that only the well off or modestly well off can afford to be a Candidate. No wonder women and aspirant individuals are discouraged from putting themselves forward.
To take my own personal example. Fighting two elections in Harlow (and now gearing up for a third) has cost well over £30,000) and depleted any savings I once had. At one stage I got into serious debt (now repaid!). I am not complaining. I chose to be a Candidate in a Marginal Seat.
But why should Candidates have to face these financial burdens? I once asked this question to a Party Treasurer and an MP and the response was that Candidates were lucky to be there and if anything should be giving the party money! This has some truth but also displays no real understanding of the daily struggle that many people have to face - merely to maintain a modest way of life. It is the wrong attitude for a modern compassionate Conservative Party.
What is needed is a special Bursary scheme for Parliamentary Candidates established with a special fund set up by Conservative Campaign HQ. Candidates should be invited to apply for busaries setting out their business plan and expected financial needs. Bursary awards should be given based on a Candidates financial circumstances.Regional funds could be established to reflect different local costs.
A bursary scheme would ensure that those who were discouraged from being a candidate because of the financial burden, would no longer face that obstacle.
More importantly it would make certain that the Conservative Party attracted Candidates from all backgrounnds regardless of income. It would show the public that Tory Candidates have been selected because of aspiration and merit, not because of privilege and patronage. The Conservative Parliamentary Party would benefit too as it would have a range of MPs who would be much more diverse than present. How much better to discuss social reform, if we have a significant range of MPs who have had to really fight hard to be there.
Of course we need the successful small businesmen, lawyers and City financiers.But just imagine if this expertise was complemented by charity workers, social entrepreneurs, teachers and nurses.
David Cameron has said that Social Justice is one of the key Conserative challenges. What better symbol of this could be to implement a bursary scheme to encourage Parliamentary Candidates of lower incomes to apply?
If we are to develop policies on social justice for the country, we must ensure that the Party reflects the same values.