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The Fraught Process Behind Who Gets To Run To Be An MP

The process of how someone gets to become a candidate for MP is arguably more important than the election itself (Alamy)

6 min read

With a general election due to be called in 2024, a new cohort of MPs will soon enter parliament, and the secretive, often controversial, battle for each party to decide who is in the running is already underway.

Once a prospective Labour or Conservative candidate gets the nod to stand in a safe seat for their party, barring scandal or an unexpected political swing, they arguably have a job for life. This means getting their name on the ballot paper in the first place, as opposed to what happens on polling day, is arguably the most important step in the process to become an MP.

Each party is able to come up with their own unique system for selecting candidates, and methods have often been called into question, with accusations that central parties have tried to foist their preferred options on local constituencies.

“There has to be a process whereby you weed out people who've got problems about their past," veteran political journalist Michael Crick, who has devoted significant focus to selections, told PoliticsHome podcast The Rundown this week. 

"My criticism of the way Labour's been doing it and I suspect the same criticism is emerging in the Conservatives right now – is that it's become a political process as well.” 

Labour in particular has been accused of using the selection process to purge further left wing of the party in order to distance itself from the Corbyn years, which some argue is a response to the party's catastrophic defeat in 2019. Crick said of around 120 selections made by Labour so far, “there's only really a couple who you could say are really on the left”.

He believed the party’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC), which helps sift candidates down to a shortlist for local members to vote on, has “been far more stringent” in scrutinising left-wing hopefuls than those on the right of the party, and suggested that former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, ex-Deputy prime minister John Prescott, and even their current deputy leader Angela Rayner would not have got through the party’s current process.

But Luke Akehurst, a Labour NEC member who has sat on many of those selection panels, rejected that claim and denied that the process was being used to prevent those on the left a shot at winnable seats.

“The people on the right don't make a public fuss about it,” he told PoliticsHome

“I've told people with identical politics to me that you can't be a parliamentary candidate, and then they're sad about it, but they don’t go and centre the whole thing on them, and act as though the seat was going to be theirs and that they had a right to it, that they've somehow been denied that.”

Akehurst, who is firmly on the right of the party, does however accept that there “is a political element to this,” because considerations on where a candidate would ultimately stand on policy, and their relationship with party leadership, could prove important in the long run.

"I'm thinking about just their previous behaviour as a politician, and maybe if they've been incredibly, publicly, disrespectful with the current leadership and done it in not in a polite way, but in a in a damaging and disruptive way,” he explained. 

“If we were in a very tight parliament, a hung Parliament situation, or a very narrow Labour majority in the next election, I don't want to have allowed people to become Labour MPs that effectively are not solid votes for the Labour Party.”

There has been criticism in recent months, especially from the pro-Corbyn campaign group Momentum, that this approach could narrow views within the Parliamentary party, and weaken the strength that comes from having a 'broad church' approach to policy.

Akehurst, however, pointed to high levels of party disunity in recent years, and suggested that there is too much risk involved if that were to continue should Labour be voted into government. 

“A strong church also involves members of the congregation not burning the pews and throwing things at the vicar," he said. 

“We've also got to have a degree of unity and internal discipline, and I’m satisfied I'm doing what members want.

"We've very clearly turned the page on the Corbyn years, and I'm not going to be a soft touch if people that wrecked the party between 2015 and 2019 think that they have some entitlement to be parliamentary candidates.”

Crick said that the Conservative party's selection process is facing similar tensions. Last week the Sunday Telegraph reported claims by senior Tories that the party’s headquarters was attempting to “stitch up” safe seats in favour of so-called “blue prince” candidates aligned with Rishi Sunak.

Crick believes while Labour had focused more on making sure candidates had local links, the Tories preferred to build up a “gang of people who've had high powered jobs, in government or as special advisers and so on, a lot of ex-MPs”, who apply for multiple seats, often against each other, until they find somewhere that wants to select them.

Jackson Ng, a Tory councillor in Beaconsfield, is highly familiar with the process, having unsuccessfully run to be a Conservative candidate for both the 2015 and 2017 general elections. He explained that aspiring politicians apply to their parliamentary assessment board, and get categorised into different “passes”. 

At the first level you might be allowed to stand in a safe Labour seat – as he did in Liverpool Riverside in 2015 – where you are unlikely to win, but are able to learn the ropes in the hope of getting a winnable seat next time round. 

There is also a “key pass”, where candidates can apply to most seats, and then the top level “comprehensive pass”, which allows someone to apply to stand in any seat in the country.

But Ng said there can be limitations to standing somewhere unfamiliar, as he found out in 2017 when he ran in St Helen’s North on Merseyside, a long way from his Buckinghamshire home.

“I remember attending a hustings at a local school and Conor McGinn [the sitting MP], effectively ripped into me as the person they parachuted in from Beaconsfield,” he added.

Ng did try running in his hometown in 2019, but lost out to Joy Morrissey, who won the race for the safe seat previously held by Dominic Grieve. However he is undeterred in his quest to become an MP, telling PoliticsHome he will be aiming for another seat in 2024.

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