Until now Conservative parliamentary candidates have been selected by constituency associations, not by the Party in London. Mrs May, however, has decided that any constituency which has not yet chosen a candidate must have a shortlist of three imposed on it by Conservative Central Office. In many cases, where the seat is considered safe, that shortlist is made up of political advisers to ministers (four of Mrs May’s own advisers are being favoured at the moment). This development seems to me to be sinister, and wholly unnecessary.
The excuse for depriving constituency associations of the right to choose their own shortlists is that there is not enough time for them to do the job. It is also pointed out that Labour has, for years, allowed its party headquarters to overrule local parties when it comes to choosing candidates.
Let me deal with each argument in turn.
As it happens, I am in a reasonably good position to answer the shortage of time point. From 1973 until 1975 I was the Conservative Party agent for the constituency of Maldon, a safe seat, in Essex. In late December 1973, at a time when it seemed probable that an election might be called at any time, our sitting MP, Brian Harrison, decided he would not stand again. Christmas was upon us, but we knew we had to act quickly. By very early in January 1974 we had set the selection procedure in motion. Several hundred people on the party’s official candidates’ list applied. I circulated their details to the members of our selection committee.
Then came an unforeseen hiccough in our proceedings. The constituency chairman (a splendid man called Major Bass) and I were invited to Central Office for a chat with the Vice-Chairman of the party in charge of candidates. Being polite sort of chaps, we made the journey and were very civil to the Vice-Chairman as he took us through our list of applicants making various comments on them. Several were dismissed, without any proper reason being given, as being not the sort of candidate who would be particularly welcomed by London. But three were held out to us as being outstandingly good. A nudge and a wink had been given to us.
As the Major and I settled into our train carriage on the way back to Essex he asked me what I thought of what we had just been through. I, bear in mind I was only 21 and he was a hero of the Second World War, mumbled something about how I wasn’t sure I really agreed with the Vice-Chairman’s analysis.
“Well,” said the Major, “I thought it was quite useful.” I suspect I must have looked crestfallen. But he winked at me and went on: “at least we can discard three of the applicants, and some of those he didn’t much like are now looking quite interesting to me.”
Our selection procedure gathered pace. At a meeting of the selection committee, which had the advantage of a report from Major Bass on the advice we had been given by Central Office, the three applicants favoured by the Vice-Chairman were ruled out in seconds. Over the next hour or so we came up with a shortlist of, if memory serves me right, four people. Two of them happened to be applicants whom the Vice-Chairman had warned us against. The other two had neither had the advantage of being disapproved by London nor the disadvantage of being recommended to us.
A week later we held the meeting at which the candidate was selected. He was one of those about whom the Vice-Chairman had said nothing interesting. His name was John Wakeham. He went on to have an immensely distinguished career in the House of Commons (an excellent Chief Whip and then Leader of the House) and in the House of Lords. Sadly for the Vice-Chairman of the Party, none of his three favourites found seats (only one other safe seat selected a candidate after Maldon before the February election).
There are, I suppose, two points to that anecdote. First, it is nonsense to suggest that constituencies are incapable of working out their own shortlists very rapidly. We did it in a matter of days, and went on to choose the candidate a week later. Secondly, party apparatchiks in London interfere in the selection process at their peril. What is more, they tend not to be very good at identifying talent. They assume that their pals, the only people they actually know, are bound to be better than anyone else. But, in that, they are, usually (not always I grant you), very much mistaken.
What of the argument that Labour has for years imposed candidates from London? It is true, I accept. But Labour contends with a completely different problem. The people in Labour constituency parties who choose their parliamentary candidates are not often genuine local party members. They tend to be trade union officials who purport, without ever seeking their opinion, to represent the wishes of members of those trade unions. That can, and does, lead to candidates being selected who in no way represent the opinions of actual Labour voters. In years gone by, presumably no longer under its present leader, Labour has found it necessary to step in to support, not oppose, local democracy. I can’t see how it can possibly be argued that the Labour precedent justifies Mrs May’s decision to deprive Conservative constituency associations of their right to select candidates.