Building a more accessible candidate selection process – the campaign phase


Three weeks ago, Zack Polanski offered us a perspective on the way we, as Liberal Democrats, select candidates, focusing in particular on the barriers to participation that campaign spending limits create. And, whilst I am not Mark Pack, I am prompted to offer a different perspective on the problem by Mark Platt’s suggestion of a ‘Packian response’.

First, some context. The 1997 European Parliamentary selection was the first where, almost regardless of where you were, there was a serious prospect of a Liberal Democrat being elected. In South East England alone, seventy-two members applied to be on the shortlist. In the absence of restrictions on spending, certain candidates were seen to have attempted to buy a place high up on the list. As a result, it was strongly suggested that spending caps be introduced, a concept that the English Party adopted readily. As Anthony Fairclough noted, it was for local shortlisting committees to determine a limit appropriate to their circumstances, with an overriding limit of £1 per head – one letter to a member would take up a chunk of that.

So, what were English Candidates Committee thinking?

  1. Campaigning should be encouraged, and too tight a limit would restrict innovation and imagination – vital to advancing our overall campaigning methods.
  2. The less campaigning there is, the greater the risk that incumbents simply coast through a re-adoption process – I offer the increasingly North Korean-style re-selection results for European Parliamentary lists as evidence.
  3. Limits had to be proportionate, workable and, most important, capable of being policed.

So far, so straightforward. The catch is that (in particular) a regional campaign is not just about sending e-mails or leaflets, it’s about building a support base over time. I have at times felt like an obscure Old Testament prophet, urging candidates not to wait until the official start of the campaign to start reaching out, mostly to be ignored other than by those who actually win. That means meeting people at Local Party and Regional events, attending dinners and buying the inevitable raffle tickets, travelling to Lewisham, or Romford, or Enfield for a quiz night. It comes at a cost, both in time and in money, a point that, whilst acknowledged by Zack, appears to go unaddressed in terms of what might be done.

But, if we accept that the limits set in terms of expenditure are too high, and I agree that they need a re-examination in the light of the new possibilities, there are questions that need an answer;

  1. How much is too much? In other words, at what point does the inability to spend money on a campaign start to create inequality, or do we have to accept that a level playing field can only be so to a limited extent?
  2. Are we willing to replace one set of campaigning restrictions – financial – with another, i.e. methodology (too tight a limit might constrain the use of postal campaigning)?
  3. Can one, should one, include the ancillary costs of campaigning, such as travel to and from events, which might favour ‘geographically favoured’ candidates over those from outlying areas?
  4. Should Local Parties, or groups of them, organise less formal opportunities for their members to meet potential candidates? And do our current processes make that as viable as it might be?

So, there are some thoughts to consider, and I look forward to the responses that I hope I have provoked.

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  • Those are good questions Mark. For me the key is to introduce a donation cap so that people can’t buy their own way to victory whilst also preserving the good things about encouraging fundraising and more campaigning. The fuller Packian Response (TM) is here:

  • Phil Beesley 6th Nov '15 - 4:29pm

    Thanks, Mark. Mark wrote: “That means meeting people at Local Party and Regional events, attending dinners and buying the inevitable raffle tickets, travelling to Lewisham, or Romford, or Enfield for a quiz night.”

    It suggests games or odds playing might be most successful. To be selected as a candidate, show your face at events where the most people might be present. Attendance at a constituency meeting might win you eight new friends, but you might find 15 others at an informal beer and pizza night.

    I note and respect desire for accessibility but the party does not have a plan. Or perhaps an understanding of social discourse or conversation?

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 6th Nov '15 - 7:33pm


    Interestingly, I tend to the view that you’re right about the games theory aspect. Maximizing your opportunities to interact with voters might mean focusing on larger Local Parties or, in Regional contests, avoiding formal hustings altogether – if it takes up five hours of your time to get to, and take part in, a hustings, how many people could you call in that time and have their undivided attention?

    I think that your last paragraph is a bit harsh though. A plan presumes that there is a more perfect solution, yet it might be better to design a framework which allows the flexibility to adapt to different circumstances. That’s always been the principle that I’ve tried to adhere to as a Returning Officer, and I like to think that it has been effective (people keep asking me to be their Returning Officer, which seems like a positive endorsement).

  • Phil Beesley 6th Nov '15 - 7:54pm

    Mark Valladares: “A plan presumes that there is a more perfect solution, yet it might be better to design a framework which allows the flexibility to adapt to different circumstances.”

    To shrug off and to be normal?

  • Tony Dawson 7th Nov '15 - 1:14pm

    There are some interesting elements to Marks contribution. The elephant in the room is, however, rather ignored. Only the number one Lib Dem candidate in each region had a cat in hell’s chance of winning election in 2014 Euros. How many of the potential candidates acknowledged this and made plain in their ‘pitch’ that their role in the coming election process if selected lower down the list would be entirely to help promote that person’s chances?

    The process of putting oneself forward for Lib Dem European candidacy by anyone not seriously contending for the number one spot appears to be largely a narcissistic process.

  • What is “narcissistic” about a guaranteed loss? I imagine that’s pretty damaging to one’s amour propre, even if one sees it coming from a long way away.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 7th Nov '15 - 10:39pm


    On your first point, you were right about 2014. Indeed, with the exception of the first list selection, in 1997 for the 1999 European Parliament election, it might be fairly said that the incumbents were at an overwhelming advantage. There is a legitimate question to be asked as to why we field a full list – we aren’t likely to get 90% plus of the vote, so a lead candidate plus a couple of spares might well be enough.

    But I’m with David-1 on your second point – candidates lower down the list are usually expected to do the hard yards with very little reward. Narcissism may be a minor element in terms of why some candidates come forward, but if it applies at all, it would apply to very few.

  • I don’t want no spending, but I do want low spending; I just don’t think we have the reserves to squander on getting folk into contests. Much better to spare the resources spent on the selection, in favour of spending them on getting the chosen candidate(s) elected. I see the argument about incumbents, but to be frank we have so few of them that I think it an unnecessary diversion for the present.

    I also want local parties and candidates to be more innovative in what they do; Zac’s example of phoning new members is a good example of that. There is a difference between list campaigning and constituency campaigning, but in general I favour an approach that standardises the easy campaigning – leaflets/flyers/emails, and supports candidates to do more of the face-to-face / ear-to-ear work…

    For me, ultimately, we need to see selection campaigns as opportunities to generate activity amongst our members and supporters, and the more people we can encourage to participate as contestants the better.

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