Fifteen years ago, I was selected as Conservative candidate for North Norfolk by 200 local Tory party members. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. I’d won against two strong contenders (one of whom, Harriet Baldwin, is now a Foreign Office minister) with two thirds of the vote on the first ballot. Scroll forward to last Friday when my successor but four was chosen. This time only fifty people were present at Sheringham Community Centre when a local businessman from Holt, Duncan Baker saw off two rivals to take the Conservative fight to the ever-popular sitting LibDem MP Norman Lamb in 2022.
The fact that the attendance at the selection meeting dropped by 75% shows how easy it can be for entryism to triumph in local party selections, not that I am suggesting it happened here. I have heard stories of only ten people being present at some selection meetings elsewhere in the country.
In the Labour Party, Momentum, the hard left Corbyn supporting pressure group, have effectively taken over local parties in large parts of the country. The Liberal Democrats have grown their membership nationally over the last few years but some of their local parties are also subject to infiltration. I understand that one local LibDem party in the North West is in danger of being taken over by a local fundamentalist religious group. In the not too distant past the Plymouth Brethren tried to do the same in a Conservative seat not so far away from our county. Luckily, they failed but it was a close-run thing.
A persistent complaint among local voters in that outside candidates are ‘parachuted’ in by a party’s central HQ, as if that automatically means they will be a bad constituency MP. Local candidates, especially local councillors, sometimes think they ought to enjoy an advantage over outside rivals. However, they often start with an inbuilt disadvantage given that inevitably they will have made enemies over the years, and local members know only too well what their weaknesses are.
Local candidates are in a good position to plug their credentials with local newspapers and implicitly try to cast doubt on any ‘outside’ carpetbaggers. I well remember the outcry when Liz Truss was selected over a local candidate in South West Norfolk for the Tories in 2009. The letters pages of the EDP were rammed full for weeks afterwards, all ignoring the fact that she was selected by local Tories, not imposed by the national party.
Each of the three main parties’ members approach selections in a very different way. It is said that nowadays some Labour selections are dominated by the search for ideological purity. In some local parties, if you display any doubts about full allegiance to the Corbyn project, you’re toast. In the LibDems you need to prove your local campaigning credentials. National political issues tend to take a backseat. Understand the ins and outs of pavement politics and you’re home and dry. Tory selections are less about ideological purity but more about personality. If it’s a so-called ‘safe set’ the local members know that whoever they select they’re probably stuck with them for 20-30 years. But is this changing? Is support or opposition to Brexit becoming the key litmus test for Tory candidates to get through selections?
To become an approved Tory candidate you have to take part in a day long audition, which involves psychometric tests, role play, an interview and a short speech. At no point are your political views vetted. Even when you get to local selections most of the questions tend to be general rather than specific. Someone should do a survey of recently selected Tory candidates to see where they stand on the Brexit spectrum. Even now, I suspect the prevalence of Remainers is just as high as it ever was. And that’s high. Some senior Conservatives believe that too many Tory candidates aren’t really “proper” Conservatives and they need to be weeded out.
The message here is that if you care about the party you vote for, why not get involved? Whether you’re inclined towards the Tories, Labour, the LibDems, UKIP or the Greens, if you join your party you can actually influence who becomes your elected representative. If you leave it to others, you may get a candidate or MP you don’t deserve!