I was alerted earlier this week to the fact that the Party Board had taken some decisions about that most controversial of issues: candidate selection. Here is an excerpt of the summary of the Board meeting of July 20th distributed to members of the National Conservative Convention by its chairman, Jeremy Middleton:
Intrigued as to what changes have been agreed, I have been making enquiries, culminating in a conversation with party chairman, Eric Pickles, yesterday and have established that since the Board met on July 20th, the candidates' committee has also met and Board members have since participated in a conference call where the following measures appear to have been agreed:
- The remaining selections (of which the most significant are the, so far, twelve taking place in seats where sitting Conservative MPs are retiring) will see a sift of all applications by the association officers along with Eric Pickles, a representative of the Candidates' Committee, most likely its chairman, Shireen Ritchie, and, in attendance, Gareth Fox of the Candidates' Department;
- That sift will pick just six candidates, all of whom the party ideally wants to go to the Special General Meeting or Open Primary;
- The Association Executive will be able to meet as an intermediate stage where anyone "completely unsuitable" (Eric Pickles's words) could be removed and a reserve brought in and in "exceptional" circumstances (again, the chairman's word) that meeting could reduce the final field to four;
- This procedure will apply to seats selecting in the autumn through until the end of the year (although I gather seats where the sitting MP announced their retirement pre-Expensesgate, ie Woking and Skipton & Ripon, may be able to use the traditional procedure);
- For any seats where the sitting MP announces his or her retirement after January 1st 2010, "by-election rules" will kick in, whereby associations will simply be presented with a list of three candidates by the party from which to choose.
This is all incredibly disheartening news since it gives more and more power to the party at the centre, ironically enough at a time when the party is talking in national policy terms about localism and decentralisation (see Tim's earlier thoughts on this).
The usual more open selection procedures could have been followed in the time available: First of all, I am unconvinced that the revision of the rules was required: yes, there are a large number of new applicants being put through the parliamentary assessment boards over the summer, but once they are complete (assuming there is not an autumn election), why could those seats not proceed with selections in the usual manner between October and December? Additionally, the deadline of the end of the year seems premature for the seriously anti-democratic rules to come into play. If the general election is to take place on the same day as the local elections at the beginning of May (with a campaign starting early April), it is surely feasible that the deadline could be put back by a month or even two.
Why are Associations only getting the option of choosing between six candidates? Assuming that the safe seats seeking a new candidate (and most likely MP) attract - literally - hundreds of applicants, it is massively restrictive to allow only six names through the sift. These associations effectively get to choose their representative once in a generation and it is surely right that they should get to select from the widest manageable field. It is inevitable in these circumstances that members will feel that undue influence is being asserted by CCHQ.
CCHQ proposed even more undemocratic options for selection: These rule changes passed through the Board, although I gather that there were a range of even more anti-democratic options that were under consideration, but which were jettisoned, not least because of opposition from the members of the voluntary party on the Board and Sir Michael Spicer.
Party members lose more rights to the centre: We appear to be stuck with procedures which marginalise the role of rank and file members in the selection process and allow for local Associations to remain "in control of the process" only really insofar as a handful of officers are involved in the crucial sifting process. Many party members will ask themselves why they remain members at all when in selection of MEPs and their Westminster candidate they have fewer rights than at any time in recent party history.
Selection freedoms will be even more restricted in 2010: Perhaps the most crucial point to emphasise at this juncture is that Conservative MPs should feel duty bound to make their intentions clear about whether they intend standing again as soon as possible, since any announcements of retirements coming in the New Year will result in their associations losing any remaining semblance of control of the selection process.
Yesterday Eric Pickles defended the moves to me, which he described as "some very minor adjustments, essentially to concertina the campaign" which may begin earlier than expected if the election is called for before May.
He said that the old rules of a longer selection process would return after the general election but that "straightforward logistics" dictated the need to reduce the time taken in the process whilst ensuring that the party was "still capable of performing due diligence with regard to those selections".
The chairman also added that he expects to see "a significantly larger number" of retirements than have already been announced and expressed a desire that his colleagues did make their minds up before Christmas in order that associations get "the widest possible choice they can".
As to whether the selections in the autumn would be by Open Primary or Special General Meeting, he said that the former was "rapidly becoming the norm", although there was a financial question over whether it was feasible to run more all-postal ballots like the one currently underway in Totnes. Of the Totnes selection, he said:
"It is expensive to do it. We've been wanting to run this kind of experiment for a while and Totnes fulfilled all the necessary criteria to do it. If we could identify additional funding - if we could find someone who wanted to extend democracy in this way - I think we definitely would [run more all postal Open Primaries]. It will depend on turnout. If an MP does a survey, you generally get a 15% return, so anything much above 15% I think we would regard as quite a triumph... It is interesting that we've done it without much fuss and I reckon this might well be the future... it's quite an exciting concept."