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How Westminster Works: How To Become An MP

How Westminster Works: How To Become An MP

(Alamy/PoliticsHome)

8 min read

How Westminster Works is a new limited podcast series from PoliticsHome, that takes a deep dive into the history, quirks and peculiar practices of UK politics.

To listen subscribe to the PoliticsHome podcast feed here and get a new episode every Thursday.

Pretty much anyone can run to be an independent MP when there’s an election or by-election on. You just need to be over 18 years old, a UK citizen, and not currently hold a politically restricted role – such as a police officer, civil servant or a judge. 

Once you’ve paid the £500 deposit, your name can go on the ballot paper and you’re free to campaign. Be warned though, you will lose that £500 if you don’t get at least 5% of the votes, which realistically means convincing hundreds, if not thousands of people to vote for you.

But if you want to have a good chance of actually getting elected, and keeping your deposit, the best way is to run as a candidate for one of the main parties in the Commons — such Labour, the Conservatives, the Lib Dems or the SNP.

Each party has a slightly different process for how they pick candidates ahead of a general election.

As Broadcaster and veteran political journalist Michael Crick explained to PoliticsHome, the basics of each system are largely the same. “Local parties these days, generally, will have a meeting of the membership… which may range from just a few dozen people to two or three thousand," he said.

“People will be invited along to a meeting to consider the shortlist of candidates, but before that the shortlist will have been whittled down from a wider number of people. Sometimes hundreds of people apply to be the candidate in safe seats.”

Crick claimed that the exact processes that each party takes to pick who can run to be an MP “keep changing” and it is “very difficult to lay down a set procedure”.

“And also the arrangements change when it comes to when a general election is called. The whole process is speeded up, and the central party tends to start posing candidates and the local members get a lot less say.”

To run for the Conservative party, prospective candidates have to go through something called a Parliamentary Assessment Board, where they are grilled for up to five hours by a panel of MPs and party officials. If they pass, they get put on an approved candidates list, and can start applying for any seats that take their fancy. 

Labour used to leave most of the process to the local party branches, with candidate longlists drawn up by a board consisting of party members, unions, and a representative from the party’s national executive.

But under new rules brought in under current leader Keir Starmer earlier this year these longlists are now drawn up at a national level, giving local branches much less control over the process.

Once you’re put on a shortlist for a parliamentary seat, the hopefuls vying for selection have to then schmooze the local members of whichever party you want to represent.

This stage of the process traditionally involves a lot of phone canvassing, cups of tea in member’s living rooms, and meetings with local affiliate groups.

The lucky few will also likely be expected to take part in a hustings, where they will be grilled on everything from local issues to their positions on national policy. Members will then vote, and a prospective parliamentary candidate is selected.

According to Heidi Alexander — former shadow health secretary and prospective parliamentary candidate for South Swindon — this stage of the process has changed a lot over recent years thanks to the advent of social media.

“The level of social media activity [is] totally different from 13 years ago. It felt more professionalised,” she told PoliticsHome.

If you say to anyone ‘think of an MP’ the first thing they will think of is a man in a suit.

“If you look at candidates that are standing now for the Labour Party in selections, a number of them are putting out quite high quality video content early in the campaign. And that certainly wasn't something that existed back in 2009, in the same way.

There are fears that the time and money involved in running for Parliament, as well as the challenges of navigating local politics, could be putting off candidates from some walks of life.

One area that gets a lot of focus is the number of female MPs in Parliament. Currently, out of 650 MPs in the Commons, just 225 identify as women.

Some parties are faring much better than others in this regard. While Labour has achieved a 50:50 gender split among its MPs, only a quarter of Conservative MPs are women. 

One group looking to improve these figures is the charity 50:50 Parliament, which works on a cross-party basis to encourage more women into politics.

Progress on gender balance hasn’t been as fast as some would like. At the last election in 2019, only 12 extra women won their place in Parliament. At that rate, it could take over 50 years to reach a 50:50 split in the Commons. 

But why aren’t women running for Parliament? And, are similar obstacles faced by people from ethnic minorities, or less affluent backgrounds?

According to Isabel Hardman — assistant editor of The Spectator, and author of the bestselling book ‘Why We Get the Wrong Politicians’ — the barriers to diversity in the Commons start during the selection process.

“The biggest barrier [political parties] have to overcome in getting women selected is that, if you say to anyone, including someone on a local party selection panel, ‘think of an MP’, the first thing they will think of is a man in a suit,” she told PoliticsHome.

“And so instantly, when a woman comes into the room for her selection panel, she is out of the ordinary. And that's still the case even though the proportion of female MPs is inching up slowly in Parliament.

“There's still that unconscious bias that you have to overcome. And then if you're gay, if you're from an ethnic minority, if you're anything else other than a sort of identikit impression of an MP that people have, that's another barrier to overcome.”

Hurdles in the selection process matter, because one of the main purposes of an MP is to scrutinise the policies that shape our daily lives. Sure, they also have to handle casework and represent their constituency in the Commons — but a large chunk of MPs' time is spent debating, picking apart, and voting on our laws.

Ambitious MPs also have a high chance of entering government, becoming secretaries of state, or even being picked as Prime Minister. As Crick sets out, it's important for local associations to consider that the candidate they’re grilling at their hustings could be overseeing life-changing policies in just a few years time.

“The primary purpose of an MP is to hold the government to account, hold people in power to account, to scrutinise legislation and decide whether it should go through Parliament,” he said.

Crick added that prospective MPs should also be considered as “the pool of people from whom a government is chosen, because the Prime Minister needs about 90 MPs to become ministers”.

So, do local associations have this in mind when they’re picking future MPs? The fact is, it’s quite hard to find out. Much of the selection process for MPs happens behind closed doors, with limited scrutiny from anyone outside the party. Though social media has allowed candidates to reach a broader audience than ever before, the decline of local media means many of these contests pass by unnoticed by the wider public.

This is why Crick has set up his Twitter account which shares information on the selection process, including the details of local gossip and the CVs of the MP hopefuls. It attracted thousands of followers within days of its launch, and has 19,000 followers at the time of recording.

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