In aiming for a more representative Conservative Party David Cameron
has consistently emphasised the need for more women and people from
Britain’s ethnic minority communities. The fact that more than 50% of
A-listers are women - and that 10% are from ethnic minorities - was
about the only thing that CCHQ wanted journalists to know about the
‘Priority List’ when it was launched.
ConservativeHome has always believed that ‘candidate diversity’ should have other dimensions. We believe that older candidates have something special to give to the parliamentary party and Iain Dale made a strong case for candidates with good life experiences in a special post in January. A bigger theme for ConservativeHome, however, has been the value of recruiting candidates with backgrounds in the public and voluntary sectors – or other people who, perhaps because they have been homemakers or carers, have limited incomes. Robert H Halfon and Katie Perrior have both written for ConservativeHome about the financial pressures on candidates.
A few weeks ago ConservativeHome invited existing candidates to submit their own experiences of the financial costs of seeking to become a Conservative MP. I am very grateful to the 17 A-listers and 20 other candidates who took the trouble to email me with their experiences. I hope, as they read my all-too-short analysis, that they will think I have done some justice to their experiences.
It is absolutely clear that being a Conservative candidate is very expensive and I have categorised the expenses under four broad headings:
1. The basic costs of becoming and staying a candidate
2. The costs of finding a seat
3. The costs of fighting a seat
4. Lost income from the whole process.
By way of summary, however, eight people who had won their election bids and eight who failed to do so calculated the total costs for their candidacies:
- The total cost for the winning candidates was £41,550 when lost income was included. It was significantly less - £27,235 – for losing candidates (partly reflecting the fact that some candidates were unlikely to win their seats and consequently spent and sacrificed less). Average cost of fighting a seat (with lost income included): £34,392.
- When considering direct costs only the cost was £22,020 for winning candidates and £16,070 for losing candidates. Average costs (only including fees, housing, travel and other direct costs): £19,045.
(1) THE BASIC COSTS OF BECOMING AND STAYING A CANDIDATE
- Attending a Parliamentary Assessment Board
- Annual fee for compulsory membership of the Candidates’ Association
- Training days
- Attending conferences and helping in by-elections
The first main expense is the fee for attending a Parliamentary Assessment Board - £250. This is an all day affair and may also incur travel costs and overnight accommodation. A successful PAB gets you on to the candidates’ list. Another interview is required to become an A-lister (but there’s no charge for that interview).
There’s an annual £80 fee for joining the Candidates’ Association and membership isn’t optional.
Candidates are then encouraged to attend training days. These days are generally accepted as very useful and new candidates, in particular, can find themselves at a disadvantage if they do not take advantage of the skills they help to build. They each cost £100.
Once a candidate you become what one person called the ‘CCHQ slave’. Whenever there is a by-election you are expected to travel across the country to campaign there. Candidates get email warnings that any failure to campaign will be noted on their files. Attendance at party conferences and other events is certainly not compulsory but candidates who do attend are better connected and get connected to informal networks that feed them with better intelligence.
One PAB, one annual fee and one training day - plus travel costs - will set a candidate back by approximately £500 and that’s before the hunt for individual seats has begun.
£500 is a lot of money for anyone but it’s a small fortune for a teacher with a young family, for example.
(2) THE COSTS OF FINDING A SEAT
- The costs of researching a prospective seat
- The cost of travelling to each round of a constituency selection meeting
- The optional costs of buying specialist help in order to get elected
To have a good chance of winning a seat some advance research into the constituency is a must. The best kind of advance research involves a visit. That involves travel expenses and overnight accommodation. One candidate got through to at least the first round in more than a dozen seats during the last parliament and got to the final three on four occasions. She estimates that her advances researches cost at least £150 on average – approximately £2,000 in total. Another candidate estimated each seat costs £350 if you reach beyond stage one. One A-lister who reached three round ones during June and July – but not beyond - spent £337 doing so.
A very few Associations use the selection process to boost their own coffers by expecting candidates to pay for background briefing documents although there has not been one example of this during the latest round of selections.
People with means can choose to access other training providers. Many do. Training in public speaking and specialist advice on handling Q&A at a selection meeting generally costs about £500 a day and many candidates take advantage of such expertise. There are also a very few, very specialist consultants who charge hundreds of pounds for just one hour’s coaching. Conservatives believe in a free market and it would be wrong and fruitless to try and stop people accessing this kind of help but money clearly buys a leg up in the selection process.
(3) THE COSTS OF FIGHTING A SEAT
- Accommodation costs
- Travel expenses
- Attending Association events and buying endless raffle tickets
- Phone bills
- Other sundry expenses
The most expensive cost of being a candidate is housing. If you are not already a ‘local’ candidate most Conservative Associations understandably expect you to ‘become local’ by moving into the constituency. This is immediately prohibitive for anyone on modest means. One person saw her mortgage payments double and the size of her house halve when she moved to fight a seat in London’s commuter belt. One candidate spent £20,000 renting a home in his new constituency. There are many advantages in early selection but the costs can be enormous if a candidate chooses to (or has to) maintain two homes – one in the target constituency as well as their existing home.
Travel costs are the second biggest burden. Even if you move your home into a seat you may still have to travel to your place of work. One candidate spent £300 every month on fuel, commuting from his new home to his workplace. One candidate spent £66 on a return rail ticket to accompany a shadow cabinet on a trip around her constituency - only to find the shadow cabinet minister cancel when she was on the train to the rendezvous point. Even if you live in a seat there can still be lots of travel costs – particularly if your seat is rural or made up a number of smaller towns and villages.
Attending Conservative Association events is the third biggest expense and undoubtedly the most resented. One candidate said they spent £20 every week for eighteen months on raffle tickets and drinks. Another spent £700 in one year. Another had to stop taking her husband to events because the basic cost always doubled and one year’s childcare bills hit £650. One candidate rang me with this story:
“My car was in the garage for servicing but my constituency chairman told me that the ward event was a ‘must-attend’. So my wife and I travelled from London to the constituency on a Friday night. The train and taxi fares cost us £80. Babysitting cost £20. The tickets for the ward event cost £10 each. I donated a £20 bottle of House of Commons whisky to the raffle. I spent £25 on rounds of drinks and £5 on raffle tickets. There were only 25 Tories at this ‘must-attend’ event. Few of them ever did anything for the party. There were no floating voters there. We got into bed that night at 1am. I was woken at 8am with a call from my Association Chairmen. There had been complaints from two members that my wife hadn’t bought any raffle tickets.”
Rivalling Conservative Association events as an expense is phone bills. Most candidates saw their mobile bills double or treble in size. The least anyone said they spent was £300. One candidate saw her bills mushroom by £1,000 in a year.
Then there are all the other items: stationery, postage stamps, photocopying, photographs, extra dry cleaning, hotel bills for visiting MPs or speakers, donations to local charities, websites, buying lunch for local journalists, new suits or new dresses… The list is long.
(4) LOST INCOME FROM THE PROCESS
Listed above are all the direct costs of being a candidate but there are also the hidden costs of opportunities and income forgone.
One person lost the chance of promotion because they weren’t spending enough time in the office. One lost her bonus for the year. One lost her job altogether because the role was incompatible with being a Tory candidate. One candidate estimates that the profits of the company he started halved from lack of his attention – profits were more than £50,000 before becoming a candidate and only £25,000 when he was on the campaign trail.
It would be unreasonable to expect the Conservative Party to compensate wealthy people for lost profits or missed promotions although the costs are significant and will prevent some talented individuals from applying to be candidates. The above costs – however real to the individuals and families affected - are not the costs I had in mind when I started this exercise. My concern is the basic costs – the costs of attending a PAB… the square one costs of travelling across the country seeking a seat… the costs of attending constituency functions once selected…
WHAT NEXT? WHAT TO DO?
This post has given a brief snapshot of the costs of being a candidate. The current process demands a heavy financial investment with no guarantees of any return. The cost on family life can be considerable, too, of course. Hundreds of people know all of this, of course, and still want to be MPs. They are willing to spend thousands of pounds pursuing their ambition to get to Westminster but they are not necessarily all what David Cameron has in mind when he talks of a party that is representative of 21st century Britain.
On 21st April Bernard Jenkin told ConservativeHome that he was “preoccupied by the importance of this issue.” He urged any candidate or potential candidate faced with financial hardship to draw the issue to his attention and he promised to try and help. I know that Bernard is genuine about this issue and I also know that Women2Win, under the stewardship of Bernard’s wife Anne, are hoping to offer limited help to female candidates who might be struggling to meet the basic costs of being candidates.
Here are three ideas for how a more socially inclusive candidates process might emerge…
- A reduction in the cost of attending a PAB.
- An emergency access fund run by a small committee – including an MP and candidate - that can release money to a struggling candidate in particularly pressed circumstances. One candidate who replied to the ConservativeHome survey literally ran out of money ten days before the 2001 polling day. They maxed out their credit card and were afraid to ask local Conservative officials for help. The Conservatives introduced an access fund system at the same time as they introduced student loans in the early 1990s.
- The appointment of a ‘candidates’ protector’ in every Association. The protector would be jointly appointed by the candidate and Association Executive and would be, for example, responsible for prioritising the Conservative functions that the candidate attended so that he/ she had more time for campaigning. Just having such a role should improve activists’ understanding of the costs of being a candidate. CCHQ or the Candidates’ Association might like to consider preparing a briefing paper for Conservative Association executives to alert them to the cost pressures facing candidates.
…I’m sure you will have many more ideas...
[I have changed some incidental details slightly in certain examples to be sure to protect the identity of my sources. A ‘he’ is sometimes a ‘she’, for example].