What sort of people do we want to be our candidates?

"We could avoid so many of these problems if we made it clear to all people who join us that they are expected to prove themselves by years of hard work on the ground before being put into positions of responsibility".
So says Martin Land in response to Cllr Faraz Bhatti’s defection to the Tories in the North West.

I don’t want to get into a particular discussion here about diversity, representation or even defections here but instead question Martin’s assertion that anybody wanting to be an elected representative should have to undertake ‘years of hard work’, (by which I presume he means focus delivery), before being allowed into a ‘position of responsibility’; it doesn’t seem clear whether positions of responsibility refers only to being a candidate / elected representative or does it also include being an organiser or party treasurer or the person who organises the local fund raising events?

But it got me thinking; is that what we really require of our candidates? That they are the winners of a humungous ‘I’ve delivered the most focuses ever’ contest? It seems to me that we required candidates even in 2nd tier seats (or whatever they’re now called) that they give up everything else in their life, sacrifice their career, their family and time with their friends in order to just get selected for the seat. In the last election one of the Tory websites estimated that it costs a candidate an average of £40,000 to stand for election in a non-target seat.

I am worried that we are making being a candidate such a frightful experience, such a hair shirt, that we are putting off all sorts of really good people. Whether they are male, female, white or minority ethnic, people who are talented will inevitably tend to have more than one choice of how they make some difference to their community and their country.

Over the last couple of years I’ve seen a number of people, who would make excellent candidates and even better MPs, take the decision that the sacrifices that we Lib Dems require of them is not worth the eventual reward. We expect our candidates to be working at full tilt from one year to the next perhaps over 2 or 3 electoral cycles – that's 12 years out of someone’s life! Or instead they make a decision to go for list elections rather than first past the post, as those place less focus on the individual and are therefore easier to sustain over a period of time.

Many, many of us enter politics to change the world and talented people will be offered many routes to changing the world; being a Lib Dem elected representative will only be one of them. It will not necessarily be a lack of determination or character that makes them turn away from us and choose to do something else with their life. It might be a view that they can be more effective somewhere else. And then they are gone, and we’ve lost them.

If you make being a candidate a function of time served, or focuses delivered or postcode then what you will get it is focus deliver who has been around the longest, in that ward and who has nothing better to do. There is a difference between being the best person for the job and being the one who wants it most (although it is wonderful when those two things coincide, which happily they often do).

I do think it is important to be committed to a cause and time served of course indicates a commitment. But we need to get our heads around that we don’t have hordes of highly qualified people queuing up to be candidates; the only place that happens is the target constituencies and wards. We need to really think about what are the most vital qualities of our candidates. Experience too is important, but experience can be gained elsewhere and transferred; in fact I think that is a good and very healthy thing.

I also think we need to do some work around the role of agent and organiser; Mark Valladares has already made a plea for creating more than one ‘career path’ in the party; in fact in fact, if you have a super duper, experienced and organised agent then to have those qualities repeated in your candidate is unnecessary; I think this is very much the model used for by elections. Or perhaps (tongue placed firmly in cheek) we could think of people running on double tickets of Agent & Candidates!!! (!!??!!) There's much to be said for making 'stars' out of agents as well as our candidates.

Good, talented, hardworking, committed people will have a number of choices; it is unlikely that the Lib Dems will be the only people that have spotted their talent. Their bosses, other voluntary organisations, their friends and families will all be offering them opportunities to make the contribution to society that they seek. We should not fool ourselves into thinking that they need us more than we need them.

9 comments:

Ed said...
7 Jan 2008, 18:01:00

Thought provoking post, Jo.

Firstly, it's a shame that the party is going about a review of selection and approval in such a haphazard way at the moment. Mark Valadares announced the English something or other would review EP candidate selection rules this year. Shortly afterwards it was announced that Paul Burstow was looking at how to increase the number of disabled candidates. And then out of the blue, candidates office announced it had called in an academic to review the approval process. What a shame that no one had the sense to undertake a co-ordinated review of the whole process involving proper consultation since the problems encountered in one part of the process inevitably impact in another.

Secondly, it may be true that talented people are lost as candidates because of how hard it is. But talented people who arent willing to do the slog of delivering focuses, knocking on doors, recruiting and leading the team will not get elected. As a party we dont have the resources to staff a campaign in the way US parties do and we dont have the bedrock of polarised support that hands us scores of safe seats in the way the Tories and Labour do.

Diversity is an issue here, I agree, but as a minimum a talented candidate should be sufficiently skilled to be able to build and motivate a team of people who will then help to ensure the slog is shared and done. The alternative is everything being done from the centre at enormous cost.

Finally, on your point about agents (rather, campaign organisers) and candidates (noting the tongue in cheek). Having just 'crossed over' from one to the other, I am more than ever sure that the two roles need to be separate. The candidate needs the support of a campaign organiser who takes the strain of making sure the campaign plan is implemented. The candidate needs to trust the judgement of the organiser and to concentrate on the very different job of being the public face of the campaign, promoting the message, building and growing the team. A well paired candidate and organiser with complementing skills is a key to success and may well be an important part of the answer on the diversity issue too.

Apologies for the length of the post.

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...
7 Jan 2008, 18:30:00

I think there are two issues here. One is, should candidates have to prove themselves by volume of leaflet delivery, casework, etc. There I completely agree with you: such acts of machismo are completely irrelevant.

But there is another issue, which is over whether or not there is unavoidably a certain level of graft involved in being a candidate. I can't personally envisage a scenario in which this wasn't the case.

The best candidates I've come across tend to be the most entrepreneurial. That is, they are able to come up with creative solutions in managing small teams, gaining media attention and promoting themselves, and have the positive mental attitude to implement these plans. That is a very different skill set from being either an uber-deliverer or a hardworking casework councillor and many candidates who fit into those two categories fail to appreciate that.

So to summarise, while I think we should be clear that a lot of hard work is involved, it is a very different type of work from the kind that Lib Dem often associate with political campaigning.

Of course most of the above mainly applies to candidates who are in it to ultimately become MPs. Many candidates have much less lofty ambitions. But by the same token, candidates in less winnable areas cannot reasonably expect much support from the centre.

Reading Ed's comments, I agree with much of it. The party's various bodies with responsibility over candidate selection often seem to be engaged in a constant territorial struggle.

Duncan Borrowman said...
7 Jan 2008, 19:59:00

I am not surprisingly going to agree with Ed and James on much of what they say. Firstly the candidate approval and selection process doesn't need reviewing. It needs ripping up and starting again.
I would agree candidates don't need to prove they have done years of leaflet delivery. But they also need to demonstrate leadership, and part of that is leadership by example, by doing their share of pushing paper through doors. Although I would happily exchange that for knocking on doors, an essential part of being the "face" of the party.
And that is the important bit. Candidates need to be able to build teams. They also need to be able to communicate beyond teams. i.e. they need teams not cliques. Building a strong team. Allowing the organiser to get on with their job and hopefully cutting all the slack you need by building support and allowing you to meet people has got to be the best virtue of being a candidate.

Mark Valladares said...
8 Jan 2008, 17:51:00

Jo, Ed, James and Duncan,

A few minor points of clarification...

Candidates Office is run by English Candidates Committee, and the decision to review the candidate approval process was taken by English Candidates Committee some time ago (and reported to English Council). It's kind of funny that the PCA representative never bothered to notify their membership but, ah well, c'est la vie...

Paul's announcement would have been better had he consulted with ECC, especially as he receives all of our papers, and sits on the committee on an ex-officio basis. Indeed, ECC had already been in contact with Scope with regard to the question of candidates with disabilities. Another example of 'something must be done, this is something, therefore it must be done', I fear.

Whatever system we come up with must start with a premise that we do not want identikit candidates, merely candidates who have the desired skills to lead teams, inspire members, activists and voters, and can demonstrate that they are Liberal Democrats.

The first pilot of the new assessment day is scheduled to take place over the weekend of 9/10February, so we'll have a better idea of how it works then...

Jeremy Hargreaves said...
10 Jan 2008, 17:59:00

Congratulations on a very thoughtful post, Jo, which has equally kicked off an interesting and mature debate in the comments.

I think the hard work required of candidates is a little bit broader than simply leaflet delivery, but broadly I think you're right.

And you're correct that this does put off lots of potential candidates, including many good ones.

However I'm not yet fully convinced that this is a bad thing. This system is a very large part of the reason why we now have 63 MPs rather than 25 - because many people (and incidentally not only the candidates, but their agents, core campaign teams and usually their families) have given a large part of their lives to it. And as James said, we do need people who can demonstrate the skills we need from MPs, and of course be prepared to work hard.

Is the amount of sheer hard work we currently demand, too much? It certainly does lose us many good potential MPs. But one of the problems the party had in the 80s, it seems to me, was lots of very good potential MPs fighting seats hard but less effectively than we now do - and so who failed to get elected.

It's a difficult balance!

Ed said...
11 Jan 2008, 12:20:00

Mark, the new assessment day can only 'work' within the context of its setting - my point is that we are only going to make the system work towards our objective if we review the whole process from beginning to end.

But I'm in danger of driving an interesting and broad debate down a bit of a cul de sac so to go back to the main issue, we need to ask ourselves is there a problem?

We have our largest parliamentary group since the 1920s and the consensus is that they are a fine bunch - and the more recent additions are among the best.

Are we missing out on real talent because of our systems? Well, possibly, but it is difficult to judge. Given our party's commitment to empowerment through campaigning, I wouldnt want to run the risk of changing our approach just to help elect people who think they should be MPs without getting their hands dirty (not least because as Jeremy has pointed out, the current approach is rather more effective at getting people elected!)

Does the current system (by system I mean both selection procedures and the way we campaign)discriminate on grounds of gender, race, disability? Again, possibly. I know there are some genuine concerns about whether the level of commitment required favours men over women with families. The answer to that would seem to be better targeting of central resources to support quality candidates with an identifiable need. Maybe one day someone will tell us what the diversity fund money is being spent on...

Duncan Borrowman said...
11 Jan 2008, 13:50:00

I may be repeating myself, but..
The hurdles set for candidates are not the ones of delivering leaflets and thus showing a bit of leadership by example. They are:
An approval process which is not designed to test the right things and is far detached from properly identifying the needs of the process.
A selection process that is over bureucratic, will scare off anybody with any sense or grind them down - I think this is one of the biggest obstacles to anybody outside of "normal" gettign through. A favoured son may stick with it. A woman coming in who has all the skills necessary is likely to say sod it I have better things to do (same applies to ethnic minority "outsiders"). Fixing this will do far more than any woman only training session.
Finally candidates lack any proper mentoring or support. target seat candidates are driven by sets of targets without any recognbition of them as individuals. They are identikit legal necessities. Candidates in non target seats are left to their own devices. I am pleased that Nick Clegg has talked about a candidates academy.
Of course we now have the root and branch review of the party announced this week. All of these issues are so fundamental that they should be part of that, not in a totally different little box.

Toby Philpott said...
19 Jan 2008, 00:08:00

A great post and great postings on this issue.

I have so much to say on this issue but sadly it has to go unsaid as I simply can't be bothered and if I could I would get into trouble.

Meral Hussein Ece said...
21 Jan 2008, 12:39:00

Jo, sorry, I've only just caught up with this, so won't go into long reviews on this, as I'm bored with hearing myself going on about it... Only to say that we have at long last a National Deversity Officer - Issan Ghazni. He is finishing off a complete equalities review of the party. His report, together with recommendations will be going to the March FE for a full debate, scrutiny & decision. Hopefully we will finally have a framework and policy that we can then start to implement, instead policies and ideas that we have been trying to adopt piecemeal, like the doomed 'diversity fund' I'm afraid left in the hands of individual regions and local parties, we ain't going anywhere in improving our dismal democratic deficit, while in the meantime the demographics of this country are shifting around us.
I really am not prepared to go on listening to poeple who keep telling me and others that BME members 'want it on a plate, and are 'not prepared to put in the work' I'm also fed up with hearing that we all somehow want 'special treatment' If anyone can point to and give examples to back these allegations up, I would be eternally grateful!
London Region was supposed to be conducting a review after the GLA list selection last May- we're still awaiting. If the London region, with the most diverse population in the world can't get its act together, what hope for others?

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