The myth of “the best candidate”

I think it is time to debunk the myth of ‘the best candidate’.

Many people in these various threads on the diversity motion say we would end up not selecting this mythical person if we were to allow AWS.

Leaving aside for the moment the aspersion this casts on women candidates, let’s have a look at the best candidate argument and see if it holds water.

The first thing we need to consider is what wins elections at a parliamentary level? Is it the candidate or is it the campaign? I would argue strongly that it’s the campaign that is built around the candidate and the work that is put in by the team around the candidate that is most important. Of course a personable and hard working candidate is also an asset, but a new PPC will have almost zero personal vote and incumbency doesn’t kick in at all until someone has been elected more than once. Even if a local candidate has been an active councillor this will at best be in 10-15% of the seat and there is scant evidence that this transfers to the parliamentary contest. On this I speak with personal knowledge having been in just that position in 2001, where having been elected as a councillor is 1998 AND 1999, my vote in the 2001 GE was not much different in my ward than anywhere else in the constituency.

No. The truth is that the whole best candidate argument is nonsense. What actually happens is a candidate is selected and then the constituency, the local executive and/or campaign committee, the agent and the candidate get people to work towards winning the seat. The least important person in this whole affair is the candidate, unless s/he is actually lazy or wholly ineffective. I would argue that the process of candidate approval removes most people who would fall into this category.

If the best candidate argument was true then it must explain how candidates in many long forgotten by-elections, who were not very effective, got elected but then served only until the next election, when they were booted out – and in a lot of cases sunk without trace. It must also explain how all male shortlists – which have dominated in the party all the 51 years that I have been a member – ensure that the best candidate is selected if AWS doesn’t.

None of this is to suggest that the party doesn’t need good effective candidates, but merely to point out that that is desirable but not essential to winning seats. All the academic evidence suggests that not only does AWS not stop parties winning seats, but it may actually help.

I suggest that the only way AWS will not result in us winning seats – apart from not winning seats generally due to the political climate – is if some party members refuse to accept the selected candidate and don’t go out and work for her. That really would be cutting off your nose to spite your face.

I have no axe to grind in this at all. I am not going to be a parliamentary candidate in 2020 as by then I will be 70. What I want is to see my lifelong burning ambition to get more women and more minority groups represented in our parliamentary party. I believe the limited move to AWS proposed in the diversity motion is a step in the right direction.

* Dr Michael Taylor has been a party member since 1964. He is currently active in the Calderdale Party.

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35 Comments

  • Philip Rolle 10th Mar '16 - 6:55pm

    Sounds a dubious argument to me, and also one that patronises the electorate.
    The best argument for AWS is that all other ways of increasing representation either take an age to work or don’t work at all.

  • Even if “the best candidate” is a myth it is a useful. Women won just over half the open selections for held seats for 2015, without any affirmative action, showing that they were the best candidate and moreover had overcome the biasses of the man’s world. All to their credit.

    AWS takes all this credit away. And for what? Target seat selections are already 50-50. Break the one thing that is working.

  • The first thing we need to consider is what wins elections at a parliamentary level? Is it the candidate or is it the campaign?

    I’m pretty sure most of the time it’s neither: it’s the national popularity of the party.

    The identity of the candidate is pretty much irrelevant in a general election.

    Surely that was made crystal clear last May?

  • David Evans 10th Mar '16 - 8:01pm

    Michael, Consider Ronnie Fearn, Gordon Birtwhistle, Lynne Featherstone, Ray Michie, Tim Farron – presumably they are all myths, because I am certain their seats would never have been won without them.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 10th Mar '16 - 8:04pm

    Joe, it’s not the case that it was 50/50 in target seats. There were just 11 female candidates in the 57 held seats in 2015. If you add on the top 10 targets, there were only 2 women. The maximum we could have hoped for was 19% women, 10% behind the Tories. AWS would ensure that we do a bit better than that. In Scotland, we’ve agreed AWS for top 5 targets and if an MP retires.

  • David Evans 10th Mar '16 - 8:18pm

    Indeed the Scots have Caron, and so have waved goodbye to Mike Crockart and any chance of regaining Edinburgh West in 2020. Cut off nose to spite face seems to be a very useful metaphor here.

  • Simon McGrath 10th Mar '16 - 8:32pm

    Caron – you are right that a majority of our former MPs were men – but that’s because in most cases they were the ones that put in years of their lives working to get elected. Norman and Tim arent MPs because they happened to beat a woman at a selection meeting – they are MPs because of the huge amount of work they put in (and continue to do). That’s the case for many of the others.

  • Joyce Onstad 10th Mar '16 - 8:37pm

    Thanks Simon Shaw for debunking that myth. I have never voted for a candidate in a parliamentary election, only in local elections. it is always the party, I barely notice who is standing, I vote for the overall principles of the party and I am sure I am not alone.

  • Mick Taylor 10th Mar '16 - 8:54pm

    Employers, like political parties have an image in their mind of what the successful candidate looks like and for far too many it’s a white man. They don’t appoint/select women (or BAME) candidates because that’s not their image. That’s why Vince Cable was right to insist that boards have at least 25% women and that is what has largely happened. Why do people still think that somehow political parties are immune to this sort of unconscious bias?
    Simon Shaw. The academic evidence is in Parliamentary Affairs (2016) 69, 115–135 published by Oxford University Press. All-Women Shortlists: Myths and Realities by Mary K. Nugent and Mona Lena Krook. I think Mark Pack has a link to this paper. If you contact me direct I can email you a copy.
    The people David Evans mentioned were not well known candidates when they started. Certainly in the case of Gordon Birtwistle – for whom I campaigned in 2015 and who the national party let down badly – it was years of campaigning with a team of people that put him in the position to win and sheer bloody determination. All of the people David Evans mentions took many years to win and could not have done so without the team that they worked with.
    It would be invidious to name names but by-elections have been won by candidates, who had been selected because no-one seriously expected to win and then the campaign rolled over everyone and delivered victory. The history of first the Liberal Party and then the Liberal Democrats is littered with by-election victories in seats that were then lost in the subsequent general election and in most cases never won again. The winning factor in almost all those cases was not the candidate but the by-election machine that swept all before it.
    Tim is absolutely right. Candidates are not a major factor in winning seats in a General Election. However a campaigning machine with lots of support can make the difference in marginal seats, otherwise the party would win no seats at all.
    None of the posts on this thread have answered the main point. Namely that if AWS stops the party selecting the best candidate then why is that any different to all male shortlists – which are still the norm. None of the people who oppose AWS complained about AMS not delivering the best candidate.

  • I think this is missing the point. Actually winning an election results in someone becoming and MP.

    And that’s when the ‘best candidate’ actually matters…

  • Lester Holloway 10th Mar '16 - 9:12pm

    Michael, agree with what you say but can we please widen this argument beyond just gender. The same issue affects other under-represented groups. Equality and diversity shouldn’t be a byword for one protected characteristic only. The silo approach sidelines others who also suffer the same.

  • nigel hunter 10th Mar '16 - 9:16pm

    To me, you pick a male, female, BAME whatever person who knows the area and its problems AND have the team behind the constituency organisation who constantly monitor the area ,build up support, even after by-elections and build up the voter base. You build up a LIberal party idealism in the voting population of the area. Yes it will take time. We don’t have pigs in blue or red rosette areas but victory is sweet when it comes.

  • I think AWS is a step n the right direction. However, it’s just the first step. As soon as possible, we need ABAMELWS (All-BAME-Lesbian-Women Shortlists). I hope we can find enough candidates fitting all these criteria at once…

  • Mick Taylor, and Burnley would have not had anything like the team it had in the run up to 2010 without the huge amount of work Gordon put in before that. Remind me – How many Lib Dem councillors were there on Burnley when Gordon first was elected to the council in 1982?

  • @Gareth Wilson Actually winning an election results in someone becoming and MP.
    And that’s when the ‘best candidate’ actually matters…

    Totally, agree.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 11th Mar '16 - 12:51am

    I totally agree that we should widen this beyond gender and extend the scope of the Equality Act. We need our LGBT and BAME colleagues with us. We should not be fighting against each other but with each other for the benefit of all.

  • A Social Liberal 11th Mar '16 - 1:00am

    Yet again, Caron, you forget to mention disabled or those from a disadvantaged socio-economic grouping. One could almost imagine you are discounting them?

  • Simon Shaw – Tim, the LDV commenter above, said that, not Tim Farron, the party leader…

  • Mick Taylor 11th Mar '16 - 7:38am

    @Simon Shaw I have never said anything in any of my posts about candidates not being local. Though of course candidates have been selected and moved into the constituency and then got elected. I would much prefer that under AWS the constituency had a choice of at least some local candidates, but others who have posted on various different threads have made the point that it is up to local parties to recruit people who can go on to be parliamentary candidates. It is also worth repeating the point that some women are not putting themselves forward because they don’t believe they have a chance of being selected – and evidence in our party over the years is that they are right.
    @ David Evans: Actually Burnley did have Liberal councillors before Gordon was elected and I helped get a few of them elected, though I wouldn’t dispute Gordon is the driving force.
    Gareth and Roland. Candidates develop as they campaign. It is of course important that people who do get elected as Lib Dems are capable of being excellent MPs and that they should add lustre to the party. That is why the approval process and subsequent training is all important. By the time the selection process takes place all the people on it should be able to demonstrate their suitability for the job regardless of gender, ethnicity or sexuality. The problem in our party is the continued unconscious bias that results in pale white men in suits being selected over others and that is what the diversity motion is supposed to tackle.
    It is perhaps worth repeating a comment made some months ago about women who don’t want to be selected for a job just because they are women. The writer advised them to get over it because men are selected for jobs because they are men every day

  • “Training” is not a panacea. Individual ability (regardless of gender) is they key. Narrowing the field by arbitrarily removing the pool of ability by 50% on grounds of gender is not the answer.

    If the “training” was any good – we’d have a lot more than eight M.P.’s. The classic example of how to win is in Westmorland where the ‘untrained’ (white male) Tim took over a fairly successful local organisation and turned it into a winning one.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 11th Mar '16 - 8:58am

    A very interesting and thought provoking article. I’m sure you are right in saying that people do not usually decide how to vote on the basis of who the local candidate is. But it does seem to be going a bit far to suggest that the candidate is the least important part of the campaign.
    My own feeling is that most people make up their minds how to vote on the basis of the national, rather than the local campaign. Most people will pay far more attention to the televised leaders debates, party political broadcasts, and what is in the party manifestos, than to anything the local candidate may have said or done. Politics ARE probably starting to be increasingly about personalities, but the personalities people are concerned about are those of the party leaders, not the local candidates.
    Most people know very little about the local candidate, and vote for the party, not the candidate. I certainly voted for you, Mick, in 2001, though at that time I didn’t know you, and didn’t really know anything about you. No offence, but I wasn’t voting for you, I was just voting Lib Dem.
    However, it surely is important that constituencies should choose the best possible candidate. But shouldn’t the emphasis be on choosing the best potential MP, rather than the best campaigner?

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 11th Mar '16 - 9:46am

    As this discussion should be about all forms of diversity, could I just mention that it is rather unfortunate that at one point in the article you seem to be endorsing a form of “ism” that has been overlooked in the recent debates – ageism.
    You say that you will not be standing for election in 2020, as you will be 70. It is very understandable, Mick, that you personally feel that you have done your bit, and that there are other things that you would rather be doing with your retirement. But you rather make it sound as if you assume that it goes without saying that someone of 70 will not be standing for election.
    If Hilary Clinton wins the Presidential election, she will celebrate her 70th birthday during her first year in the White House. Bernie Sanders is already in his seventies. Jeremy Corbyn will be in his seventies by the next election. Even if none of these people achieve their ambitions, it will not be because of their age.

  • So the diversity plea is that we should no longer discriminate against useless candidates.

    Or have I misunderstood this article?

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 11th Mar '16 - 10:20am

    Martin, I think Mick made the point that only reasonably good candidates would get through the initial initial approval stage. I think what he is suggesting is that a reasonably good candidate may well do just as well as an exceptional one.

  • If -for a minor Party like ours -the electorate only vote for the Party and the candidate makes no difference, then we would more or less never have elected an MP since the early 1920’s. For at least 3 decades we barely did until our recovery to the dizzy heights of 14 in Feb 1974. In 1983 our Party (predecessors) gained its highest ever share of the national vote for nearly a century now ( a bit under 26%) and elected about 20 MP’s.

    Under FPTP it is almost impossible for a Westminster candidate to win with 26% of the vote unless there was a really close four way marginal contest in a constituency. So the question is how did 20 of our constituencies turn a Party vote of 26% in 1983 into winning shares of the vote or how did 62 of them turn a lower national vote into MP’s in 2005? There are various factors in the answer but the candidate (and I do not believe Gender has any relevance at all) is most often a fairly crucial part of the mix.

  • David Cooper 11th Mar '16 - 3:08pm

    I find the term AWS (all women shortlists) misleading. Please could we rename them to ALS (all LADIES shortlists). This change is needed since as Paul Walter showed in his recent post, the use of ALS in the Labour party has led to the result that female MPs are twice as likely to come from Cheltenham Ladies College as from any other educational institution in the country. The name ALS would reflect touch of class that we should now expect. See:-
    https://www.libdemvoice.org/for-international-womens-day-these-are-not-token-women-49717.html#comment-396921.

  • This debate is rather academic. The Liberal Democrats do not have any ‘winnable seats’ as a Party at this time. They have a number of incumbent seats which are there for us to lose. The best candidate for those seats may well be a woman. Provided that our selection processes are non-discriminatory, then that should emerge n the seats concerned.

    Our Party at York this week are faffing around as if the nation’s electorate think they matter as a Party at all. Which they do not. And as long as they faff around, they will continue to be largely irrelevent outside of the 20 or 30 seats where Liberal Democrats know how to win things under fptp even when handicapped by national ‘leadership’ (sic).

    Btw I once was Michael’s agent in a local election when he was possibly not the obviously overwhelmingly ‘best candidate’ after a considerable time when he had been. These things do change.

  • This really is fiddling while Rome burns. Boundary changes will reduce our MPs by another 2 or 3 especially Leeds NW. In the fight for parliamentary survival we need real battlers regardless of which minority they belong to. I’m absolutely stunned that the excellent Mike Crockart is to be prevented from trying to regain Edinburgh W because he’s a man.

  • Paul. I mean no disrespect at all to our thousands of women members. Our local Council group is over 60% female. I have mentored female PPCs. The ranting of people in favour of AWS can only be for 2 reasons. Either they think our selection processes are biased OR we should deliberately select weaker female candidates.
    I have yet to hear evidence of the first and in our current state the second is utterly crazy.

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