Choosing a better candidate – some ideas to make it happen

Tim FarronMark PackLiberal Democrats are well used to arguing for changes in how our public elections are run, because we know the rules you use for a contest have a big impact on how desirable its outcomes are. That isn’t just about the voting system (important though that is!) but also a question of who gets the vote, how much influence those with money to spare can wield and so on.

It is just the same with the rules for our own party elections, particularly those where we select candidates for public office. How you write the rules heavily influences the sort of people who win in the end. Yet we often don’t talk about the implications of this.

It is easy to say the rules should be fair, treating all candidates equally. What does that really mean? After all, if you want every candidate to be treated equally, the best system is to put all the candidates’ names in a hat and pick out a winner at random. That would be a level playing field for every candidate – but not a good system!

We need rules that let would-be candidates demonstrate the skills and competences that we need them to have if and when they end up facing the wider electorate and fighting the other parties.
For example, we generally let candidates call on members to win over their support. That means those who are best at winning over doubters with one-to-one personal conversations are more likely to win selections – and a good thing too as that is just what we need from our candidates in public elections.

That is how our rules should work: not giving everyone a lottery-style equal chance but instead giving those with the attributes we particularly want a chance to demonstrate that and win as a result.

Put against that test, some of our selection rules look less welcome. For example, some candidates do fantastic jobs leading our local fundraising. They are wonderful – and also far too few in number. Yet is it any surprise that they are too few in number when the selection rules we have don’t encourage such skills?

It is right that the rules stop a rich person buying a selection by throwing cash at it. But the rules could permit candidates to raise donations up to a small cap – and then spend the money on their campaign. That way we would end up with more candidates who have learnt to be good fundraisers – and so with a stronger party.

Similarly, the laudable desire to protect selection campaigns against someone packing the electorate with questionable new members means we do not let would-be candidates display and benefit from their recruitment skills. At the moment our rules dictate that if you join the party today, you could vote tomorrow for Leader or President (not minor posts!) but could not vote for 12 months in a selection for a candidate for public office. It is not just new members held under suspicion, so too lapsed members rejoining who have restrictions on them too – though it is great that the English Party has been relaxing the rules on this a bit.

There have been genuine problems in a few cases with people trying to pack the electorate and it is right to have rules to protect against that. However we already have rules to judge people’s individual membership applications. To instead have a blanket ban indiscriminately applied to many completely innocent people is just the sort of crude blanket prohibition that if it was the Home Office proposing we would be shouting out about!

Far better to relax the rules, judge questionable membership applications on their individual merit and encourage candidates who are good at membership work – and end up with more members as a result – and so a bigger and healthier party.

We suggest that it’s time for the Liberal Democrats to champion electoral reform…within the Liberal Democrats!

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22 Comments

  • Foregone Conclusion 26th Jun '13 - 4:03pm

    Dave Page’s second post is spot on. Winning elections is about teamwork. I would like candidates to be at least minimally competent in a range of areas, but excellent in only a few such as communication. We shouldn’t expecting the candidate to do most of the organisation of (for example) the fundraising necessary for a major seat.

  • I agree with Mark and Tim’s original post. Surely we want to be a big, broad and open party – not a small, stuffy club? Many people work hard for years as deliverers and helpers before becoming members, some lapse and then rejoin for all sorts of reasons – surely it is wrong to treat these people as second class members upon joining. They’ve made an active choice to join and we should harness that enthusiasm not pour cold water on it.

    I’ve worked for the party as an organiser for most of the past six years and was a member and volunteer before that. But I found myself unable to vote for our PCC candidate last year because I had allowed my membership to lapse for a few months the previous year when I was out of work. I acted as an election agent for our eventual candidate; I just wasn’t able to vote in his selection!

    I think a more open and less pettifogging attitude to the rules on party membership would be useful breath of fresh air. Anything we can do to turn Britain’s millions of ‘small l liberals’ into Liberal Democrats surely has to be welcomed!

  • Jenny Woods 26th Jun '13 - 4:55pm

    I agree with Dave!

    Surely we want candidates who could be demonstrably good MPs – able to understand the process of making decent legislation for our country, to scrutinise the documents put in front of them properly rather than be swayed by lobby groups, to hold the other parts of government to account… and with the moral fibre to hold to our Liberal Democrat principles in their daily lives and under pressure in the Commons.

  • In response to Dave Page’s point about division of labour – I understand what you mean Dave but, in my experience, fundraising really is something that our PPCs must take a personal lead in.

    Making a political donation is a highly personal act for many people. If the candidate cannot find the time our courage to make a personal ask of a potential donor, why should they give to the campaign? Indeed why should anyone else fund-raise for the candidate when they cannot be bothered themselves? Others can help with fundraising, but we really need our leaders to lead by example on this one.

    If we can make the candidate selection process more reflective of fundraising skills, that can only be a good thing.

  • Zoe O'connell 26th Jun '13 - 5:29pm

    Out of interest, was this blog post written before or after allegations of the unions “packing membership lists” in Falkirk surfaced? The BBC have the details – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-23055830

    If the allegations turn out to be true, (I’m in no position to assess their accuracy!) does this affect anyone’s views on the existing 12-month limit?

  • I agree with Dave.

  • A Social Liberal 26th Jun '13 - 5:36pm

    Surely the first thing a candidate should have is Liberal values and principles, the second the ability to communicate them?

  • “Far better to relax the rules, judge questionable membership applications on their individual merit”

    This isn’t easy to do in practice.

  • Selection campaigns are about teamwork too – and they should be an opportunity for people who want to be our candidates to demonstrate their ability to help build, motivate and lead a team.

    So if, for example, the party’s selection rules allowed more membership work to be done – that would benefit the most the candidates who can build a team of people who then make good use of those opportunities.

    As, for example, Mary says – we need candidates “who can build enthusiastic teams, and who can encourage other people to give their skills to the local party”. The sorts of changes mentioned in the post would enable would-be candidates to demonstrate exactly those skills and how good (or not!) they are at them. One of the problems with the much more restrictive rules we currently have is that they restrict people’s ability to demonstrate that.

    (It’s also not a coincidence that fundraising and membership are singled out, as they are two areas where a candidate can’t do it all themselves, but also can’t play no role – they both do require the direct help and leadership of the candidate, working with others, to get the best results. For example, for many would-be donors/members, there is something about being asked direct by the candidate which has an impact beyond even the most amazing of treasurers, MDOs or others.)

  • I agree with Mark and Tim. I think it is about improving the membership offer and working to make membership better to people. Seems like a good idea to me. @Dave – I think this is the start of a discussion and I don’t think it’s either or…. I would also point out that Tim has (or seems to have) been working on this, unlike other MP’s and others who act like butterflys and move from issue to issue. It’s nice to see some consistency on what is a vital issue

  • Paula Keaveney 26th Jun '13 - 8:25pm

    There is no reason why the current rules prevent candidates from demonstrating recruitment skills. They merely prevent candidates recruiting people who can then, a few days later, vote for that person. I would rather see someone genuinely recruit members to the party because they support it than have this rather self interested approach.

    Our current rule on the time lapse are there for a reason. It’s to make sure that people voting in the selection, possibly the most important internal decision a member will have to take, have a level of commitment to the party and have had a chance to learn about the local party.

    If we were to relax these rules.. say so that I could recruit today and that person have a vote tomorrow.. this hugely advantages candidates who are “local”. Now you might think this is a good idea but a talented outsider is going to struggle to come in and know enough about who is recruitable. Don’t forget the local activists will already have lists of supporters, know where the good areas are etc. If we want to encourage talented outsiders to try for seats, then we need to make sure we don’t balance things too much in favour of people already there.

  • I can think of 2 MPs of the top of my head who get selected and subsequently elected after “packing” the local party. One is still serving and quite highly rated by members and constituents.

    The ability to recruit and re-energise should be celebrated not viewed with suspicion – a totally different context to Unite in Labour where union members could have been encouraged to join the party at any point.

  • I am not sure if I want a PPC who’s spending all their time organising fundraising events. I want a PPC who’s knocking on doors and convincing people on the doorstep, or indeed on the phone, to vote for them, and that’s what the current system tests for.

  • Stuart, you’re right about the current system testing a candidate’s willingness to get out on the doorstep and speak to people – that’s a definite advantage. But, as you’ll know, building a winning campaign costs a lot of money, and people will often respond to a personal approach from a candidate, when they would not from a another representative of the party.

    None of us want our politics to become obsessed with money like in the US, but in order to compete with the big money backers of Labour and the Tories, we need to work that much harder on fundraising.

  • One thing local parties could presumably do right now to get PPCs who would go on to make better MPs is to make it clear before shortlisting that those whose career has been entirely political (e.g. PPE at Oxford followed by research assistant to an MP, then lobbyist, etc.) will be heavily marked down compared with those who have had a career and experience in the real world outside the Westminster bubble.

    Also, it’s crucial that MPs and other elected officials are answerable to their members. Here I think the LDs have a bit of a cultural problem in that everyone is so pleased when anyone gets elected that they are more or less given a free pass thereafter. I suspect that the traumatic experience of the SDP/Liberal merger fed into this as well. Be that as it may, it’s noteworthy that Tory leaders have to watch their Ps & Qs and, while this might sometimes be tough for individuals (e.g. Thatcher), it’s been good for the Tory Party as a whole and over time. We, in contrast, allow Clegg et al to go totally off piste and trash the brand and are likely to reap a bitter harvest at the next election.

    How a new person will perform is always a bit random; when it doesn’t work out we should ask them to step down and give someone else a chance to show their mettle.

  • Much as though I admire the aim behind the main post I disagree.

    On allowing people to recruit members then have them voting for their selection I really think the rules would be far too open to abuse. I agree with Paula Keaveney on this point.

    On allowing candidates to “raise donations up to a small cap – and then spend the money on their campaign” who is to stop this being “raised” from their rich aunt? What it will do is lock out worthy but poorer candidates.

    Great ideas – but all to open to abuse.

  • Jonathan Brown 1st Jul '13 - 10:11pm

    As long as there was a (relatively low) cap on spending, I favour allowing fundraising too, for the reasons given in the article. But here’s an idea. The local party could ‘tax’ donations. So every candidate could be allowed to raise and spend up to £75 (for sake of argument). For every £1 they raised above this, 25p could go in to a fund to fight the election that the winning candidate is being selected for (i.e. regardless of whether or not the fundraiser was successful), and 25p could go into a hardship fund to provide support to all other candidates in the selection process. So there would still be an incentive to raise money (and demonstrate that you can spend it effectively), but successful candidates would be prevented from buying the race by subsidising the other candidates.

    And if the candidate selection process featured several good fundraisers, it could generate quite a nice little war chest for the local party.

    As for allowing new/rejoined members to vote, Paula makes some good points but on balance I agree with Mark and Tim. I’m a not terrifically successful MDO for our local party, and it seems to me the biggest recruitment tool we (or any party) has is a candidate asking someone for their support. Just as candidates asking people personally for their votes is a very powerful thing, there’s nothing quite like someone you know/like/trust asking you to join in and help out. Our internal elections are one of the best opportunities we have to engage members of the public and ask them to join. If we relaxed the rules we’d be able to offer interested people something pretty powerful and important – responsibility and the opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way.

  • Simon Banks 4th Jul '13 - 9:55pm

    The point about teamwork is well made. The last thing anyone should want is a candidate who tries to do all things him/herself. Most constituencies have people who are very good at certain tasks and the good candidate will motivate and encourage these people, not take the lead from them.

    Mark’s proposals would work heavily against candidates who were not fully local. OK being local is an advantage, but that’s something members take account of already. If you want to know about the strengths and weaknesses of someone who isn’t local, you can look into their record. If you want to know about the strengths and weaknesses of someone who is local, they should already have demonstrated these as an activist.

    As for allowing fund-raising, the proposal strikes me as incredibly naive. The rich candidate could find friends to donate money that was actually his/hers. The candidate with rich friends would be at a big advantage. This of course would contribute to diversity in the party.

    Candidates are above all leaders, voices and motivators. Oh, and I’m afraid sad experience teaches that the person who can put a lot of effort into glad-handing members over a few weeks in his/her own interest isn’t necessarily the person who will turn out rainy night after rainy night to support other people who are council candidates.

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