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Sat, 20 July 2024

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The House Live All
By Ben Guerin
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Regional Tories Are Snubbing Parachuted MP Candidates In Favour Of "Local Champions"

Former prime minister Boris Johnson being elected in Uxbridge in 2019 (Alamy)

5 min read

The number of Conservative candidates who are from their area and have had experience in local Government has risen over the last few election cycles, with Tory associations appearing to prefer “local champions” to well-established names.

At the 2017 election, one in three new Tory candidates had previously been a councillor or mayor in the region they were aiming to become an MP. By the 2019 election almost half of Conservative candidates had been local politicians, according to the Sunday Times.

Most Conservative candidate selections start with several aptitude tests which are completed online. Successful candidates are put in front of a Conservative Local Constituency Association, who will then vote for who they want to represent them. Conservative central office has exercised its grip on local associations in the past, especially in the close run up to a general election. When William Hague stepped down in 2015, future prime minister Rishi Sunak, who was Hague's chosen candidate, was selected for the North Yorkshire seat of Richmond despite having no connection to the area. 

By the time the next election comes around in 2024, it is expected the proportion of locally sourced candidates will have grown even larger, as Tory associations continue to ramp up their selection process. The trend is thought to have been influenced by voters and party members becoming more disenfranchised with Westminster politics.

According to leading pollsters YouGov almost 60 per cent of the electorate do not have much or have no confidence at all in the House of Commons. 

One newly selected Conservative candidate who will contest a new seat told PoliticsHome local associations want someone to “represent their constituency in Westminster” as opposed to an MP representing “Westminster in their constituency”.

“They don’t like national candidates imposed and creatures of Westminster, which has meant a bias towards local candidates. Many Tory candidates are earning their stripes as local councillors first,” they told PoliticsHome.

A former senior Conservative MP told PoliticsHome they believed local associations were going for a “safety first” approach and backing more candidates with links to their constituencies.

“When I was selected no one said, hang on, last month you applied for another seat. They do now. Candidate selections are becoming a lot more local. The interesting question is, what happens when you make decisions in the national interest?”

Many of the new Tory candidates are also young and male, with statistics compiled by broadcaster Michael Crick, who runs the Tomorrow's MPs twitter account, showing as few as 20 per cent of women have been picked by the party to fight seats at the next general election.

New Conservative candidates who are young, male and have a local connection to the seat they've been selected for include Oliver Carroll, Roberto Weeden Sanz and Josh Cope. Carroll, who was selected for Altrincham and Sale West, was educated at a local grammar school. Cope, who was picked for Esher and Walton, was a councillor fewer than ten miles from the constituency, and Roberto Weeden Sanz, who is running in Scarborough and Whitby, made his Yorkshire roots clear when competing for his selection. 

But Crick told PoliticsHome many people from Conservative associations are beginning to feel “aggrieved” by how candidates have been picked. Many party members are allegedly concerned local associations are picking and can only choose from local candidates who are also young and male. 

“A lot of people who are a bit older, feel a bit aggrieved. And a lot of women feel aggrieved. And a lot of people feel that if you concentrate on people from local government, you are excluding talented people who have a track record in national government,” he explained. 

An example of this was when Bradley Thomas, leader of Wychavon Council, was picked for the Bromsgrove seat set to be vacated by Sajid Javid ahead of Gateshead-born Sebastian Payne, Director of the Onward think tank and former Whitehall editor at the FT. Although Wychavon Council is not in Bromsgrove, they are very close geographically, cementing Thomas's local link. 

Crick told PoliticsHome that voters have decided they do not trust politicians, so the idea that they’re local “helps them feel they trust somebody” and they “know the area”.

However, he believed this method had been “incredibly restrictive” and wasn't necessarily the most sensible route to selecting the best politicians.

“I say to anybody, name your top 10 political heroes. Let's go through them. How many of those actually were MPs for they were brought up," Crick said. 

“There’s a lot of activists who take the view ‘well I am not interested in having a future cabinet minister. We want somebody who's going to be a good MP, good for the people of this area’ which sounds good and democratic. But somebody's got to choose future cabinet ministers,” he added. 

However, there are a string of examples where political figures with national experience have been picked for very winnable seats.

Nick Timothy, former Downing Street advisor for Theresa May, who grew up in Birmingham, was picked to fight West Suffolk. Rupert Harrison, who was a former adviser to ex-chancellor George Osborne, has been selected to fight the newly created constituency of Bicester and Woodstock. However, a major part of his selection was his ability to "talk about local issues from a national perspective”, according to ConservativeHome

Political pundits and observers are still unsure what these links will mean for the future of the party – and its future direction on national issues.

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