The Independent View: Evidence that candidates make a difference

The Liberal Democrats in England took an important step in 2007 when they decided to review the approval process for parliamentary candidates. The aim was to develop a modern system capable of identifying, supporting and developing the best possible political talent in order to ensure the Party could field candidates with the qualities, skills and values needed to build public support and win seats.

Although change can take a long time in politics, four years on it is hard not to be impressed at what the Party has achieved.

When I started working with the English Candidates’ Committee and the Candidates’ Office on this project we began by talking to as many people as possible, from different parts of the Party, to understand from them what they thought made an excellent political candidate and Member of Parliament. We then used this information to redesign the approvals process to make it more robust, streamlined and fair. Everyone seeking approval is now assessed in the same way, using the same criteria – including candidates in Scotland and Wales, as those state parties have also bought into the new process. Applicants are also told about the assessment criteria before they attend the assessment day and all assessors are trained to make sure their decision-making is consistent and unbiased. Importantly, everyone – even candidates who are successful – receives feedback on how they can improve.

With the new approvals process going ‘live’ in 2008, the 2010 general election provided an important opportunity to validate the process. The English Candidates’ Committee wanted to know whether the criteria being used to approve candidates were actually predicting candidate performance in the election.

This means that all candidates, agents and Party chairs were involved in a multiple source review process, which involved completing questionnaires before and after the election. This may have seemed more than a little time-consuming for those involved, but we really appreciate their efforts, not least because these questionnaires meant that the English Candidates’ Committee was able to identify which candidate qualities and campaign behaviours were most likely to lead to electoral success.

This process has been important for several reasons. First of all, we now have an evidence base to guide decisions about how best to support and develop political candidates. Secondly, it has provided a way of recognising the efforts of all candidates; naturally winning is important, but so too is understanding how candidates build public support for the Party and increase their share of votes in every seat. As a result, the English Candidates’ Committee was able to use this process to provide candidates in England with feedback from those people with whom they worked most closely, to help them with their future development. Thirdly, we now have data to show that where women candidates were selected, they performed as well, if not better, than male candidates; this helps to support the Party’s efforts to encourage more women to stand. Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, we have the first ever evidence base to prove that individual candidate characteristics (motivation, confidence and values) influence campaign behaviour, which in turn increases electoral performance.

Put simply: even when taking into account differences in who the main opposition party was, how winnable a seat was, and where in the country a seat was, those candidates who were more confident, more motivated and who spent more time meeting and talking to voters saw a proportional increase in the number of people who voted for them.

We have all heard stories about activists who consider that a candidate is just “a legal necessity” and this idea that a candidate’s individual contribution to a campaign could not be quantified has underpinned most previous academic research in this area. This research proves that this is just not true – what a candidate does and does not do has a direct effect on electoral performance. Excitingly, there is a lot of data still to be analysed, and we may see even more correlations between behaviour and performance emerge, which could help to inform or support campaign techniques in future elections.

This makes the Liberal Democrats the first political party in the UK, or internationally, to develop an evidence-based approach to identifying and building political talent. This is something of which all Liberal Democrats can be justifiably proud, and it puts the Party in a good position to identify and develop a strong group of parliamentary candidates capable of winning in 2015.

Professor Jo Silvester is Director of the Organisational Psychology Research Group at City University London.

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This entry was posted in Party policy and internal matters and The Independent View.


  • Don Lawrence 14th Oct '11 - 1:17pm

    “We have all heard stories about activists who consider that a candidate is just “a legal necessity” and this idea that a candidate’s individual contribution to a campaign could not be quantified has underpinned most previous academic research in this area.”

    Talk about setting up an Aunt Sally to justify yourself by knocking it down! Doubtless you could produce examples of a few such activists, and we all knew they were wrong without a massive statistical exercise. As for quantification, any system with sufficient variables can be analysed to show a positive correlation for a large number of actually random factors, for an unrepeatable test. I think there is an awful lot of over-egging going on here.

  • I attended one of Jo Silvester’s training courses in my capacity as an assesor. I was a little sceptical to begin with but I was soon won over. The emphasis is on increasing diversity by demonstrating just how much unrealised bias there is in traditional style interviewing. Simon McGrath’s concern is important but I think this more related to the local party selection stage rather than in the approval process. The focus at the approval stage is on competencies: Communication Skills, Leadership, Strategic Thinking and Judgement, Representing People, Resilience and Values in Action. Assessors do not know beforehand about a prospective candidate’s personal circumstances or party track record. As one who remembers the old style approval ‘process’ in the Liberal Party, I am very grateful to Jo for her work.

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