It wasn’t a political academic this week who told the Conservative Party the scale of the challenge facing it, it was its leader. David Cameron said: “We need to win over 120 seats; wipe out a third of the LibDems; win back seats in Scotland. It’s a big task.” He’s right. But in little more than five months he has transformed the Party’s electoral prospects and many of us believe that we can for the first time in ten years see an electoral victory on the horizon. That in itself is a major step forward. But to do that the Party has got to ensure that its cadre of Parliamentary Candidates is enthused, and then given the tools and support they will need to finish the job.
There is little doubt that the 550 people on the Party’s list of approved candidates – in effect, the Party’s ‘Shock Troops’ - who worked so hard to ensure that the Party achieved its superb local election results on 5 May are enthused and relishing the battles ahead. Or at least, we ought to be.But on Wednesday those 500 people (of which I was one) received a letter which told us whether we had made it onto the ‘A’ List of 104 Candidates who are more or less guaranteed selection in a winnable seat. By applying to get onto that list we all accepted the rules and I make absolutely no complaint that I was not among the chosen few. I abide by the referees decision and certainly won’t be launching a Tottenham Hotspur type appeal claiming I had eaten the wrong type of lasagne on the day of my interview.
Having seen some of the outstanding names, including some high fliers close to David Cameron, who haven’t made it onto the ‘A’ List, who am I to complain?At the age of 43 I now have a big decision to make, and my decision is one which more than four hundred of my colleagues are also wrestling with. Do we read the writing on the wall and walk away from a political career, or do we stay on the Candidate’s List and work even harder to ensure that the powers that be will see the merits of our case when they come to top up the ‘A’ List in July? Some made an instant decision and immediately resigned from the Approved List.
As well as huge disappointment there is undoubtedly an understandable feeling of betrayal and bitterness. On my blog I’ve had so many messages of commiseration that at times it has felt like I’ve attended my own political funeral. I’ve had candidates on the phone to me who have been in tears. They question why they worked their guts out, invested thousand of hours of their time and thousand of pounds of their money in a Party which appears to cast them aside. Such emotion is natural and I am sure that Bernard Jenkin, the Party’s Vice Chairman in charge of candidates will understand it.
The worrying thing for everyone is the number of younger, thirty-something candidates I know of who are considering walking away. There are some very bruised egos and I have lost count of the number of conversations I have had this week urging my younger colleagues not to give up. The fact is, they have several more electoral chances ahead of them, whereas people of my age and older have (or had) only one. Those thinking of walking away should have a very close look at the first tranche of 35 seats which the ‘A’ List will be applying for. It is not quite what it seems. Many of the seats are ones which people on the ‘A’ List fought last time and quite rightly will be encouraged to fight again – George Freeman in Stevenage, Ali Miraj in Watford, Hannah Hall in Luton North, Mark Menzies in Selby, Mark Coote in Hastings & Nick Boles in Hove are all candidates who fall into this category. Many of the more attractive marginal seats will come in the second tranche.
What unites everyone in the Party is the desire to see more women candidates selected – and selected in winnable seats. But is the ‘A’ List the right way to achieve this laudable aim? In the short term is may be, but in some ways it’s attacking the problem from the wrong end. We will only ever come close to achieve parity and equality between men and women when we encourage enough women to come forward as candidates to ensure equality of numbers of the wider Approved list of 600 people. David Cameron will really know he’s achieved something when he has recruited 300 women onto the main list.
At the last election we had 1150 people on the Approved List with only 150 women. It is a wonder, with that ratio, that as many as 17% of our selected candidates were women. What we need now is a professional headhunting approach, and that’s why Anne Jenkins’ WomenToWin initiative is to be welcomed. If women don’t come forward voluntarily we need people who will go around tapping them on the shoulder and encouraging them to think about a career in politics.Let’s face it, if you put 100 different people in a room and asked them to come up with an ‘A’ List of 100 star candidates, each of them would come up with a different list. But we should be open and transparent about who’s on it and why they’re on it.
If the Party wants to reinforce its ‘Change Agenda’ it should publish the hundred names. Indeed, it should be shouting about them from the rooftops.The influentialConservativeHome.com website has already published fifty of them within 48 hours. Far better for the Party to do it themselves and demonstrate to the world the breadth and range of people on the list. But it’s not all about getting more women candidates. We need an ‘A’ List of northern candidates, of Scottish and Welsh candidates, who can help rejuvenate the Party in our cities. We want to see more people with public service and public sector backgrounds making it. By necessity this means that new people, who sometimes have no background at all in the Party - and may only have been members for a matter of months - edge aside those who have given much of their adult lives to serving a Party they love.
It’s easy to pick on actors and environmentalists but it’s missing the point. Any Party that is seeking to renew itself needs an injection of fresh talent. My only worry is that the ‘newbies’ are totally aware of what they are letting themselves in for. It takes a huge commitment to be a candidate three years out from an election – in terms of both time and money. It’s a very hard slog, totally without glamour albeit with a huge reward for success at the end of it. To those who have been given the chance to reap that reward, I wish them all the best. To those who haven’t, I say ‘keep at it’. In the end we all want the same thing – to see David Cameron on the doorsteps of Number Ten.