We need to seize our opportunities as they arise

I was taken aback when Ed Davey, a former Cabinet minister no less, suggested I should consider running for Parliament.

It was October 2015 and I had only been a member of the Liberal Democrats for five months. I’d joined after the General Election because I was so dismayed that Cameron’s Conservatives had won a majority. I was keen to do whatever I could to help the Lib Dems locally and cheerfully took on leaflet rounds and canvassed for a local by-election. I had never remotely considered being an MP.

As we got talking further during a curry night in Kingston, I realised that there was, in fact, no better time for someone like me to stand. The party needed to rebuild and present a new face to the country, and as one of the many thousands who joined in the 18 months after the 2015 election, I could be one of those new faces.

I received prospective parliamentary candidate approval the following month. It was unusual at that time for people to be approved after such a short time in the party, but selections were coming up for the GLA elections. In the event, there were only two candidates for the South West London constituency seat – if I hadn’t been approved in November, it would have been an uncontested selection.

Six months later, I was selected to be the Parliamentary candidate for Richmond Park. By the time of that selection, I only just qualified under our 12-month rule, and if I had waited until the time limit, I probably wouldn’t have been approved in time. Four months after my selection, I faced Zac Goldsmith in a Parliamentary by-election for Richmond Park. Polling day was two days after the anniversary of my approval event. The rest is history……..

Politics moves fast – nobody has learned that lesson quicker than I have. We need to be ready to seize our opportunities when they arise, and sometimes an untried, untested newbie is a better person to put forward than an experienced veteran. My experience shows that the 12-month rule is an unnecessary hurdle for new members to clear. As long as we retain a robust process of approval, removing the 12-month rule should give local parties a wider choice of candidates at their selection events.

There’s been a lot of talk about “the Canadians” in this consultation process. But perhaps we might look to that other country to the south when we think about this aspect of the proposals. In February 2007, the junior senator for Illinois, who had been elected to the Senate barely more than two years’ previously, announced his intention to run for President. At first he was derided for his presumption by many on his own side, as well as his political opponents. Even many of his supporters thought it was too soon. But he instinctively knew that his time had come, and before another year had passed, Barack Obama was sworn in to serve the first of his two terms as the 44th President of the United States.

British politics has never been in a more divided and fractious state. We can make a real difference with the right people. Let’s not waste unnecessary time or maintain unnecessary barriers to getting the right people in the right place at the right time to win the elections we need to win.

* Sarah Olney is the MP for Richmond Park. She joined the Liberal Democrats in 2015 and won a spectacular victory in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016. She lost the seat by a heartbreaking 45 votes in the 2017 General Election, but then regained it resoundingly at the 2019 General Election.

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  • The process wasn’t different for me – it was the standard approval process, completed well in advance of the by-election being announced.

    I think the process is pretty robust actually. You need signatures from your local party before you submit the form. The approval process itself is fairly thorough and you have to get through shortlisting before you present yourself to the local party at the selection event. Lots of opportunities for people to test you on your attitudes and values.

    I don’t – thankfully – have any direct experience of the disciplinary process, but i’m very glad that steps are being taken at Conference to try and improve things here. I think this point is tangential to the 12 month rule though.

    I assume you’re referring to someone specific? All I can say is that the PPCs I’ve had the pleasure of meeting have all been excellent and very dedicated representatives of the party.

  • I agree with Dave on this. We make too many decisions in our party because influential senior members who don’t understand the reality of things on the ground, persuade a majority of members that things will be just fine and dandy if only …

    In this case it is things will be just fine if we allow ourselves to be bounced into taking in lots more people whom we don’t know anything about as supporters – the party Website already has a large “Pre-register as a supporter today” on the Home Page.

    Decide what you want irrespective of the facts. Make it happen, before the members can discuss it. Get retrospective approval and pretend it is democracy.

    There seem to be many more such short cuts to failure being taken now than there were in the past.

  • I too agree with Dave Page. We do have far too many bigots, often people who have been picked up in the scrum to recruit people to stand as (usually) Council candidates, but as we know, there have been people who have made their way successfully through the Parliamentary approval process. Of course, Sarah, many PPCs are great people, with great and compatible values, but that doesn’t encompass everyone, I am afraid! I think it was a profound mistake when the approval days were changed so that only evidence put before them on the day (ie restricted evidence) could be considered. The “old” approval system, on which I was an assessor, and later approved to run as a PPC, was much more rigorous.

    I don’t think the idea of formalising the fact that many council candidates are actually just recruited to the party a few weeks or a very few months before elections will make much difference, purely because that is what happens now in many places – sorry HQ and Conference! This can only be more of a problem for the May 2019 elections where those of us in the English Counties and many unitaries will need large numbers of candidates to fill our slates. The wider problem than just bigotry, I think, is that many Lib Dem councillors are simply not really deeply committed to party values in the way that party activists usually are, and so will make “localist” arguments, but not robustly defend wider Liberal / Lib Dem values and ideals.

  • Neil Sandison 13th Sep '18 - 9:35am

    The most important comment in your article was “i had joined after the general election ”
    Becoming a member was a clear commitment .being selected for any elected office also requires a commitment and completing a selection application form for the approval by the local party .Again you were not just a random supporter who might or might not support the parties main policy platform .We know in the Corbyns election to the leadership of the labour party massive entryism took place and many conservative activists boast they voted for him to keep labour out of power .A selection process short or long dependent on the type of election is still required candidates must be members and we must safeguard the party from inappropiate candidates like labour failed to do and ended up with MPs who subsequently seriously embarrssed their party.

  • Zoe O'connell 13th Sep '18 - 9:59am

    I also agree with Dave. I’ve had to deal with one case where it was clear not even a basic check of the candidate’s history had happened and it was not in the best interests of even the candidate themselves to approve them. In another case, the approved candidate clearly disagrees with the basic aims of the party but managed to keep quiet for the one day required to get approved. All it takes is the approval of one party officer to go on an assessment day.

    Any plan for making it easier to be approved as a candidate needs to be accompanied by a proper discussion of the approvals process, with standards and procedures set at a federal level after proper democratic debate – and those conducting the assessments need to be given the proper resources to do their jobs.

    Changes should not be pushed through on the back of reforms that have so far bypassed all the democratic structures already in the party.

  • To be clear, I’m specifically talking about PPCs, and only about reducing the time limit. Some of the issues highlighted in the comments are about councillors. We share with all the other parties, I think, the issue of finding enough candidates for all contests. The extent to which we compromise by standing less than ideal candidates for the sake of being on the ballot paper is for local parties to decide. This proposal doesn’t make that issue go away, but nor does it make it worse.

    I agree that anyone who wants to represent the party in Parliament should be a member and that ought to be reflected in the proposal if it isn’t already. But I come back to the point I’ve already made – the local party has the final say. If the local party don’t want to be represented on the ballot paper by someone who isn’t a member, they won’t select them. Equally so if they think that person falls short for any other reason that hasn’t been picked up by the approval process.

  • Laurence Cox 13th Sep '18 - 11:36am

    Sarah Olney is an excellent example of why we need to ditch the 12-month rule. When someone outstanding joins the Party everyone knows pretty well immediately how good they are. There still need to be checks on them dating back to before they joined the Party [Disclosure: until recently I was a volunteer in the Candidates Office at HQ, so know the procedures], but if these are satisfactory there is no reason against fast-tracking a candidate.

  • Richard O'Neill 13th Sep '18 - 1:40pm

    To be honest a twelve month wait doesn’t sound too long (even if a week is a long time in politics). It helps weed out whimsical shifts to the Lib Dems by those not really committed to the party. There are those whose careers just shift rapidly between different parties (Oswald Moseley as a historical example, but plenty of recent cases). This is even more the case during Brexit, where people like Rachel Johnson have joined on pro-EU grounds. A cooling off period makes sense.

    On top of this, there are plenty of scandals that explode around politicians (admittedly usually councillors but also MPs and PPCs) whose views on certain issues are pretty extreme and not compatible with the parties they represent. If the waiting time is reduced, at least the vetting should be increased accordingly.

  • We need a rigorous vetting and approval system that looks at all available information about a candidate and not just how they perform on one day. This is especially true for PPCs. In the current fluid political situation trying to build a wider movement and talk of defections we should be open to a range of new people both as members and supporters but also ensure that anyone seeking to be a candidate shares the key Lib Dem values as well as being sound on policy.
    Local parties have the right to choose from a list of approved parliamentary candidates but we should beware of entryism by factions of various types, especially in local parties with modest membership numbers. This can include candidates signing up family and friends as voting members regardless of their political views which then distorts the final selection. You may this is far fetched but I have seen it happen, with disastrous consequences.

  • Gordon Lishman 13th Sep '18 - 7:21pm

    I have concerns about the approval process, having been involved in interviewing, assessing and approving candidates and hearing appeals for about 40 years. My biggest concern is that the system is oriented to the self-confident, fluent would-be candidate with a background that includes exam preparation and public speaking. Unintentionally, it discriminates against people from backgrounds which don’t fit that model. I can’t say, however, that I have seen the system approve people at the extremes of political views which are described above or seen evidence that there are any number of such candidates.
    I am not in favour of any system which takes account of personal comments or considers any evidence which is not fully disclosed to a candidate for him or her to respond before a decision is made. The same applies to “background checks”.
    I am pleased that I have received support from fellow members of the Federal Board for the idea that a thorough review is needed. I have proposed, for instance, the use of psychometric tools to draw out opinions and attitudes which can then be discussed with a candidate.
    I am also wary of using disciplinary processes to police opinions rather than behaviour.
    I don’t see much connection between these arguments and the 12 month rule. That seems to me to be one of several rules which discriminate in favour of traditional, often large local parties in suburban seats.

  • David,

    No while being “self-confident, fluent would-be candidate with a background that includes exam preparation and public speaking” seems to be the criteria we look for in our politicians as they seem to be abject failures at actual implementing anything that improves our lives, perhaps we should look for a criteria that actually delivers improvements. I believe they wrote Attlee off with the quote “A modest man with much to be modest about” and the joke “an empty taxi drew up to 10 Downing Street and Attlee got out.” and yet this modest man achieved much more than any self confident. public speaking contemporary. I’d rather our politicians where competent rather than models, but perhaps in this age of looks counting for all I’m from another age.

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  • Peter Watson 13th Sep '18 - 10:07pm

    @David Raw “the system is oriented to the self-confident, fluent would-be candidate with a background that includes exam preparation and public speaking … Isn’t that what the job entails?”
    I’m not so sure about the “exam preparation” part of that.
    It may be a false impression (or an outdated one), but it often seems that the Conservative and Labour parties are better able to produce MPs who have developed those other skills from a wider range of backgrounds than the school to university route, e.g. in business or in trade unions, leading to representatives from more diverse social and economic circumstances than the Lib Dems.

  • Yeovil Yokel 14th Sep '18 - 12:05pm

    Good to hear from you, Sarah. I’m too busy at the moment to wade through, comprehend and respond to the recent torrent of pre-Conference articles, but I’d like to record my thanks to you for posting yours. Your December 2016 victory provided a rare glimmer of hope in an otherwise gloomy year and I hope that you’re up for taking the seat back at the next GE (unless ZG resigns again!).

    Thanks, frankie, for the link to the Attlee biography, I’ll pursue that later.

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