A few years ago when the party had one of its periodic embarrassments, it looked like there would have to be a by-election in Winchester. I had a week-old baby at the time and was barely out of hospital when the phone calls started – “Why don’t you stand?”, “Hampshire bred”, “You got a great result in the next door seat at the last election…”… Most of all though I was LOCAL. – The magic word that unlocks so many doors in Lib Dem selections. I was even born in Winchester – accident of birth, the Holy Grail qualification which can adorn a thousand leaflets. But then I had a little think about it. …Perhaps this “local” thing could be a tiny bit double-edged. My family’s link with Winchester actually started with my father serving a jail term in Winchester Prison.
Somehow the local bit on the blue ink letter didn’t look so good!
They say that (after porn) family history is the most popular internet pastime. If you look at the websites of many candidates, you find increasingly preposterous exercises in genealogy to prove a link to the place where they are standing. The Tory who beat Jackie Ballard in 2001 told us that his grandfather had put Taunton on the national grid in the 1940s. A friend of mine who stood in one of our great northern cities traded blows with his opponent. His local roots went back to the eighteenth century. Hers were more lateral: Mam, Dad, Granny, Grandpa, Auntie Ethel, Uncle Fred, the baby, the dog and the goldfish they are all local. So that’s all right then.
We often sneer that other parties parachute people in. How dare a southerner stand round here and how dare she not know the name of a long dead local football manager. Who cares if someone has a first in economics or if they have pioneered brain surgery as long as they are from round these parts? We don’t want outsiders round here, do we?
To make a more serious point. Is someone whose parents were Vietnamese boat people likely to build up sufficient rural roots to stand in somewhere like Berwick? Granny came over on the Windrush from the West Indies did she? Oh well, you can only ever stand in Lambeth then because you won’t have the local credentials for Dorset. Brilliant, young, female but you haven’t been a councillor round here for the last thirty years. Sling your hook then.
Could we try a little experiment with some new selection rules? Let’s have all non-local shortlists for a while and see if we can shake things up a bit. Perhaps we can find some interesting people with new perspectives on places they come to with fresh eyes.
In the meantime I am off to ancestry.com to see if I can research a few West Country forefathers – you never know when they might come in handy.
* Ruth Bright is a former councillor and parliamentary candidate. She has been a party member for 26 years.