Iain Dale stood in North Norfolk at the last election and was David Davis’s Chief of Staff. He is now a freelance writer and broadcaster. He has a blog at www.iaindale.blogspot.com.
Having reached the ripe old age of 43 I find that the leader of my Party is four years younger than me. What hope is there?! Will the Conservative Party come to mirror society’s obsession with youth and decide to pick its Parliamentary candidates who are broadly speaking on the right side of 40? If it does, it will be making a profound mistake, and ignoring a huge well of talent that is just waiting to be tapped. In many ways the mistake has already been made in that we already tend to ignore anyone over 50, let alone, God forbid, anyone approaching 60. That’s got to change if we are to reflect the society in which we live and use all the talent available to us.
At the last election there were very few candidates in target seats over the age of 60 – Stanley Johnson and Brian Binley are the obvious ones. There were very few over 50. At the 2001 election Angela Watkinson was the only new MP over the age of 60. None of these politicians decided to go into Parliament expecting to be Prime Minister, or even a Minister. It’s not a prerequisite for the job.
Instead of the Party’s current obsession with meeting every minority target going it should be focussing on a forgotten group of people – those who have “made it” and want to give something back. We should be identifying successful businessmen in their fifties, retired chief constables, retired service personnel, charity chief executives, social entrepreneurs who’ve been there, done that. What about the likes of retired sportspeople and Conservative supporters like Trevor Brooking, Graham Gooch or Ian Botham? Imagine Graham Gooch standing in a marginal seat like Thurrock or Basildon or Ian Bothan standing in Batley & Spen. Wouldn’t they do better than a 26 year old ex CCO apparatchik? You bet they would.
Most of these groups of people not only have the time and money to commit to the task – and believe me, having been a (albeit unsuccessful) candidate in a marginal seat I know just what time pressures there are, and the amount of money it costs. Until you’ve done it you just have no idea. I reckon it cost me the best part of £30,000.
What we really need in the Parliamentary Conservative Party is a mix of talents, backgrounds, experience and idealism. I suspect I am not alone in wondering if that balance is right at the moment. A growing number, and indeed proportion, of MPs in each of the political parties go into Parliament only ever having worked in politics, cocooned in a surreal existence without having been sullied by the extremities of the outside world. We may all be in this together but without the right skill mix we may not be quite as successful as we’d like to be.
We need to get it right next time, because if we don’t we’ll be a poorer government for it. Of course we need young idealists, but we also need people with a wide range of experience and these may tend to be people over the age of 50. It is perfectly possible that MPs elected at the next election could be appointed as junior Ministers in their first week. So it’s up to constituencies, especially in ‘safe’ seats or the top target seats to choose candidates who could be expected to run the country from week 1. These people need to have experience of the world, of running things, of leading teams, of inspiring their colleagues.
So how do we go about attracting a range of older applicants to apply to go the Candidates List now? Nobody quite knows how the so-called ‘A’-List will work. People are naturally suspicious about it but until we see the detail no one can know. However it is constructed and operated a key priority has to be not to lose the talents of those not on it. But it must also not be seen as a barrier over which the over 50s cannot jump. Let me use Stanley Johnson as an example. If the ‘A’ List had been operating at the last election, would he have even bothered to become a candidate? We’ll never know, but whatever happens in the future, the Stanley Johnsons of this world must not feel that the Conservative Party is seeking to exclude them.
I would like to see Francis Maude set up an Older Candidates Task Force whose remit would be to identify people whose shoulder could be tapped upon. These may be people who would never have considered becoming an MP in a million years but just by putting the thought into their heads we might ignite a spark. The hit-rate may not be huge, but just think of the benefits we could all experience if we tried it.
Some years ago Peta Buscombe was appointed a vice chairman of the Party to identify leading professional women to stand for Parliament. Francis Maude could do worse than make a similar appointment in this area - a sort of Third Age Ambassador with a remit stretching more widely than just attracting candidates.
So yes, let’s have more women candidates, let’s have more ethnic minority and gay candidates. But let’s have people with a few wrinkles too.