Today’s blogpost is from one of our Oral History Project interviewers, Emme Ledgerwood, who has used our archive to explore the experience of candidate selection…
The vast majority of MPs arrive at Westminster on a party ticket, and one of the most critical junctures on that road remains getting selected as a prospective parliamentary candidate for a political party.
Candidate selection is governed only by internal party rules, and in their position as gatekeepers to political power, parties wield enormous influence in the democratic process. The final choice falls to the local party organisations, providing grassroots members with a rare opportunity to take an active role in party decision-making, and often it is these small groups of activists, rather than the electorate, that decide who becomes an MP. For those fortunate enough to win the nomination in a safe seat, it is at this moment—rather than on polling day—that their parliamentary careers begin.
The MPs interviewed so far, most of whom represented Labour or the Conservatives, were selected well before the days of open primaries or all-women shortlists, but the process remains essentially the same. The party rules differed, for example Conservatives needed to be on a national approved candidates list first, but in both parties the local party often had the final say. Both Conservative and Labour central executives have the power to veto a decision, but it is rarely used to avoid causing internal conflict or provoking the accusation that they are not respecting the more popular democratic will. (see P. Norris and J. Lovenduski, Political Recruitment: Gender, Race, and Class in the British Parliament (Cambridge, 1995))
Some interviewees relate how they did not actively seek nomination but were noticed at a party conference or by a local activist and encouraged to apply. For example, Labour MP Bryan Magee remembered that after meeting some local activists, they felt he ‘might be the sort of chap they were looking for, and proposed me in their constituency.’ Ann Taylor (Labour) remembers that she was first suggested by the election agent’s wife who felt they should have a female candidate.
There is little mention by the interviewees of any formal recruitment drives by the parties, except for Emma Nicholson’s key role in attracting more Conservative women candidates in the 1980s, as she remembers in the audio clip below:
Candidate selection within parties represents one of the major barriers to the equal political representation of women. During her selection process, conservative Elizabeth Peacock remembers a sitting MP ‘looked down his nose at me and said, ‘I’m terribly sorry, we really can’t allow people like you to become our candidates these days.’ Other female Conservative aspirants encountered the same resistance, as you can hear in these audioclips from Emma Nicholson, Janet Fookes and Philip Goodhart (who ran against a certain Margaret Thatcher):
Diversity was less appealing to a committee than ‘the right sort’, whether that be the local, trade union member for the Labour party or a well-educated, professional male for the Conservatives. The Liberal leader David Steel remembered that in 1965 it was easy to tell the parties apart because of the ‘noticeable gap’ between two sorts of people.
Many aspirants shaped their futures by taking matters into their own hands to kickstart their selection, as you can hear below from Conservative MPs Edward du Cann and Elizabeth Peacock:
However once past the nomination stage, it seems that the local association or constituency party, as a way of exercising its independence, was more prepared to dispense with convention to support someone who appeared an unlikely contender, as remembered in this audioclip from Emma Nicholson, who did not expect to be compared with a ‘prize cow’!
Character ― especially one that displayed honesty ― seems to be a key reason why someone was chosen as a candidate, as Conservative MP Marion Roe remembered:
And remember the hall was full. They hadn’t selected anybody since 1945. So, you know, they, it was a new experience for this constituency to select. … And she said ‘I felt we could trust you. You’ve got the guts to tell us the truth and we could have confidence in you and that’s why I supported you’.
Or a local connection could be the deciding factor. Donald Anderson, Labour MP for Monmouth and Swansea East recalled: ‘There was still a strong Welsh ethos and it was important to come from Wales, to understand Wales, to be selected in Wales.’ Conservative James Ramsden said he felt ‘lucky’ to get the safe Conservative seat of Harrogate: ‘They could have had a cabinet minister or somebody who was temporarily without a seat but in fact they wanted, they were looking for, somebody local.’
Of course, the ability (or failure) to win an audience over was always important in persuading a committee they were up to the job. Conservative MP Fred Silvester gave an honest judgement on his performance: ‘It wasn’t just that the safe Tory seats tended to be rural and my background was urban, which is obviously a factor, but I just don’t think I was very good at it.’
A picture emerges of men and women who needed to be able speakers, proactive, financially secure, determined and honest if they were to be chosen by a selection committee. On top of that, the women demonstrated immense perseverance, all qualities they would later need during an MP’s working life.