Two cheers for the English Party: more campaigning allowed in Parliamentary selections

What would you think of a party selection process for candidates which involved putting all the shortlisted names in a hat and picking one out at random to be the winner? Not a lot, but the reasons why that is a bad process have often been neglected in the writing of the party’s selection rules.

Proper contests make for a healthier party

That is because a selection process is not about giving everyone an equal chance – go for a raffle if that is what you want – but about letting those who are most suited for the job demonstrate their aptitude and so win more votes. Similarly, if someone isn’t up to the job, the process should help that come to light, costing them votes.

Moreover, the experience of tightly contested, intense selections time and again has been that they make the local or regional party stronger – because they get members more informed, more involved and more energised.

Yet often restrictions on candidates have banned them from doing so many things that very little space has been left for the good to show their skill or the bad to demonstrate their flaws. Many of those restrictions have been chipped away at in recent years, particularly in the party’s internal elections and in the London Mayor and Assembly selection rules.

New Westminster selection rules

So two cheers for the English Party for taking a big step in the right direction with the new Westminster Parliamentary selection rules. (The third cheer is held in abeyance for reasons that will become clear.)

The rules mark a big shift in the role of a Returning Officer from being a policeman to being a judge. In other words, it is their role in future to ensure the process is run smoothly and to hear complaints, answer queries etc. – but not to go around checking detailed compliance with the rules and micro-managing what candidates do. Instead, it will be up to candidates and members to raise issues as appropriate and for the Returning Officer to have a more hands-off role.

The new rules also introduce a two-tier process, an issue that has been of great concern to some:

Within this one set of rules, there are two tracks: one for potential target seats and one for all other seats. More is expected of potential target seats at all stages of the process but it is accepted that non-target seats can ‘opt up’ to the more complex rules at any point.

More campaigning allowed

On campaign controls, the rules make a switch to expense limits, controlling campaigning via an expense limit rather than the old-style approach of trying (and frequently failing) to micro-manage different campaign tactics and communication channels:

In addition to the members’ mailing candidates may use any means to communicate with members or publicise the campaign except that they (and their supporters) may not comment to the press on what is an internal party selection…

The amount of money that candidates can spend on their campaign will be limited by an expenditure cap agreed in advance by the shortlisting committee, who will use the suggested limits contained in Returning Officers’ Guidance to assist them. Candidates must keep a record of all expenses and receipts, and submit this to the Returning Officer at the conclusion of the selection process. These records must be available for inspection by the other candidates, who can ask the Returning Officer to investigate if they think the limit has been exceeded.

The subsequent details row back from this, but only a little – provided the selection committee makes sensible decisions. In particular:

The number of direct communications with members (emails, messages or delivered materials) shall be restricted to a manageable (and affordable) number agreed in advance by the shortlisting committee.

Some shortlisting committees do have unusual views on campaigning in selections but as a principle local decision making is right given the big variations in local circumstances between different selections.

Less good is the retention – even in the rules for selecting candidates for “large single posts” (e.g. Mayor of London) – of a ban on “written endorsements”. Particularly in the latter case this falls foul of both the basic liberal principle that we should only ban freedom of speech in exceptional circumstances where there is an overwhelming case (does a London Mayor candidate quoting a local councillor as supporting them really fall into that category?) and also of the practical (what is a “written endorsement” in the world of social media?).

There are a few other wrinkles which will require sensible, consistent Returning Officers in order to ensure they do not become bureaucratic nightmares, such as the requirement to have the permission of people who are the subjects of photos used in the campaign. Suppose a candidate wishes to use a photo of them appearing on a cross-party demonstration with an MP of another party. Would that MP really have to be asked for permission? A sensible Returning Office will take into account implicit permission and public photos, but the wording here is not as helpful in avoiding problems as it might be.

That said, any set of rules will collapse with a bad Returning Officer and the simpler, sensible rules should make it easier to have more and better Returning Officers.

Overall then, this is good news.

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This entry was posted in Party policy and internal matters.
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2 Comments

  • Tony Dawson 9th Dec '11 - 5:58pm

    Who knows, if they introduce sensible shortlisting processes too, we might see some genuine contests and more campaigning candidates..

  • Margaret Joachim 11th Dec '11 - 9:30pm

    Glad you approve!
    As well as the rules there will be a set of Returning Officer’s Guidelines, which should help/clarify in a number of the areas that you mention. The only reason that these are not already available is that the guidelines cannot be completed until the rules have been approved, which they now are.

    The rules about photographs of people are tricky – it’s possible for people to object most embarrassingly if they find their picture has been included in something of which they don’t approve, and – however hard we try – things leak occasionally. A candidate could be in quite a lot of trouble (and/or expense), even in an internal selection, if they get this wrong. Much safer to check in the first place.

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