The Political Lives of Postwar British MPs: Selection Troubles

Out this month, The Political Lives of Postwar British MPs explores the fascinating interviews with former MPs hidden in our oral history project archive. In this post the book’s authors, Dr Emma Peplow and Dr Priscila Pivatto, explore one of the most crucial times of an MP’s career: getting selected for a parliamentary seat…

One topic which our oral history interviews heavily focus on – and earns a well-deserved chapter in our new book – is getting selected for a parliamentary seat. It might surprise some but in many instances this could be more difficult, and in the end more significant for an individual’s career, than election night itself. The interviewees in our archive were largely being selected for seats before the 1990s. Both the nature of the first-past-the-post system and, in many cases, the power and preconceptions of constituency party activists meant that this could be a long and difficult process.

Many former MPs we interviewed told us that you were expected to ‘win your spurs’, in the words of Labour/SDP MP Bryan Magee, by first standing in seats that your party had little chance of winning. These were relatively easy to be chosen for – Magee was approached by the local party to stand for his first seat. The difficulties came when moving up to a winnable or, the goal of those ambitious for a ministerial career, a safe seat. Ann Widdecombe (Conservative, 1987-2010) here describes the ‘conventional’ approach:

Others might put in years of service in their local constituency party, or in the case of Labour members, with their union in order to be eligible to stand for seats supported by the union.

Whichever route our interviewees chose to pursue, the biggest hurdle in this period was to convince a local constituency party to select them. Although central parties tried to control who could be chosen at a local level – the Conservatives, for example, had a national candidates list – party activists often had the final say over which individuals actually made it to Westminster. More than one Conservative MP in our archive, for example, was selected by a local party despite not being on the Conservative candidates list. For those that fitted the image of an MP in the minds of local party activists, this was more straightforward. As Michael Heseltine remembered:

I suppose that I had many of the credentials classically associ­ated with Conservative candidates. I had an attractive wife, I had a family, I was self-employed […] and quite fluent. [I] had a background that sounded, you know, acceptable.

Others were able to use patronage or local connections to help their selection. Labour’s David Owen told us that he owed his selection in Plymouth Devonport to the local reputation of his father.

Timothy Kirkhope, photographed for the History of Parliament Oral History Project

However, for those who did not look like the ‘ideal MP’ as they were not white, male, married (and therefore definitely straight) and with the appropriate social background for their party, the process was much more difficult. Here Timothy Kirkhope, a Conservative from the Newcastle, described the difficulties he faced:

Those from a more middle-class background in the Labour party might also face similar issues. Single men described having to ask female friends along to selection committees to give the impression they were in a heterosexual relationship, or even in one case having to write to the national party to confirm their sexual preferences in response to rumours about their private life.

Janet Fookes, photographed by Barbara Luckhurst for the History of Parliament Oral History Project

For women, the problem was even more acute. Conservative Janet Fookes (1970-97) remembered criteria for candidates being drawn up that explicitly said ‘no bachelors, no women.’ Edwina Currie (1983-97) described ‘ferocious’ competition for seats in London: ‘they are not looking for a woman. They are not looking for a scouser. They are not looking for a Jew. They are not looking for somebody like me.’ In this period women with families were asked how they could possibly bring up their children properly as well as hold a parliamentary seat, or those without children were asked how they would cope if they did fall pregnant. Quite often men acknowledged to us that in the seat they had won, a woman had performed better at the selection meeting than they had. Philip Goodhart (Conservative, 1957-92) remembered beating Margaret Thatcher for selection in Beckenham after she was asked about her two year old twins: in Goodhart’s words, that led to the ‘Collapse of Maggie’.

As well as not being seen as ‘natural’ MPs, women were also excluded from some of the networking opportunities open to men: in certain communities the pub or working men’s clubs were closed to women. Labour MP Hilary Armstrong (1987-2010) describes this attitude in her discussion of one selection meeting in the 1980s:

Hilary Armstrong, photographed by Barbara Luckhurst for the History of Parliament Oral History Project

It was these sorts of pressures that eventually led to the parties introducing measures to encourage and promote female candidates later on, such as Labour’s All-Women Shortlists and the Conservative ‘Women2Win’ campaign.

The memories in our archive help to demonstrate the real difficulties faced by some to just get selected to stand for election. These preconceptions were deep-seated and it took a huge shift in 1997 and afterwards to begin to make Westminster a more diverse place.

EP & PP

The Political Lives of Postwar British MPs is available now from Bloomsbury Academic.

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