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Natural selection? How MPs become MPs

7 min read

From psychometric tests to grilling by constituency panel, would-be MPs must triumph through a political talent contest before their name can be added to the ballot paper, as Laurence Sleator reports.

When the then-Conservative MP Christian Wakeford crossed the floor of a packed House of Commons to join his former party’s main political rivals, he may have thought the hardest part was over.

But, arguably, his toughest test still remains: getting selected as a Labour candidate for the next election.

In the coming months, Wakeford faces a trigger ballot, the method the Labour Party uses to confirm its candidates and a process even the most seasoned MPs regard with trepidation.

Any sitting MP wavering about standing again for Labour – or, indeed, any political party – can be sure of one thing: there are thousands of would-be politicos who would love to replace them.

Like a political version of The X Factor, the search is already under way for hopefuls who can one day captivate the green benches with a Churchillian speech, eviscerate opponents from the despatch box with their debating prowess or, less glamorously, cut the ribbon to open a new Post Office.

But before they can take an oath of allegiance to the Crown, potential MPs must first navigate the complex internal system each party puts in place for selecting its representatives – often involving a process as political as any the candidate will face if they are lucky enough to make it to Parliament.

On the Conservative side, head office will be anxious not to repeat the mistakes of the 2019 campaign which, coming hot on the heels of the 2017 general election, significantly truncated the usual selection process.

While the process was not, insiders say, as rushed as in 2017, many 2019 Conservative candidates – often steeped in the area they now represent – unexpectedly won seats not held by the party for generations.

It means their loyalty to the constituents who sent them to Westminster often trumps the party’s interests – causing a torrid time for the whips.

It is alleged by some of the older hands that the newer MPs are generally more receptive to angry emails from constituents, with many breaking ranks to air the public discontent they were hearing over the Downing Street party allegations, and Dominic Cummings’ breach of lockdown rules by driving to Barnard Castle.

While Wakeford may have been the most mutinous, rebellions over votes on Covid restrictions and the now-infamous “pork pie plot” show the 2019 intake are unafraid to stir the pot.

As a result, many want Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) to play more of a role in selections ahead of the next election, to run the rule over those being considered for a prized blue rosette. Already tipped to stand are former government advisers Will Tanner and Nikki da Costa.

However, Lord Hayward, a Conservative peer who has moderated many constituency selection panels, warns that local parties guard their right to choose “very jealously”.

“It still is the case that if a person has the reputation as being CCHQ’s favoured candidate that is the kiss of death in front of a local selection; it’s the last thing anyone wants against their name,” he tells The House.

With more control, it is hoped CCHQ can limit the number of candidates abour whom claims of bad behaviour, past or present, might go on to demean the party either during the election or once in office.

Among those who have caused headaches for Tory chiefs in the current parliament are former Conservative, now Independent, MP for Delyn in North Wales, Rob Roberts, who was suspended from the Commons for six weeks after a panel found he had sexually harassed a member of his staff, and Imran Ahmad Khan, MP for Wakefield, who faces a trial on one count of sexual assault, which he strenuously denies.

It is a scenario not unique to Conservatives; Leicester East MP Claudia Webbe had the Labour whip withdrawn after being handed a suspended sentence for harassment; she maintains her innocence and, subject to the outcome of the any appeal against her conviction, she could face a recall petition.

For Labour, the selection process offers the chance for the dominant faction to gain ascendancy by recruiting future candidates more in the image of the leadership.

After the last election, the leftwing Socialist Campaign Group saw an uptick in membership, a sign that then-leader Jeremy Corbyn had successfully ushered in a new generation of MPs committed to his cause. Next time offers the chance to install a fresh wave of what we might call “Starmerites” to replace the “Corbynistas”.

“It should be obvious but probably hasn’t been obvious in recent years; we need people who are positive about where the Labour Party is headed under Keir Starmer,” says Luke Akehurst, who serves on the party’s ruling body, the National Executive Committee (NEC).

In this capacity, Akehurst has helped bring in new rules for the way Labour selects its candidates ahead of the next election.

A new spending cap of £3,500 on selection campaigns is thought to have been designed to limit the powers of unions. And the campaign period has been cut from 12 to five weeks.

There will also be a greater role for the NEC in whittling down the number of applicants local parties vote on to avoid – in the words of Akehust – “disastrous candidates” whose deemed unsavoury views or actions could come to light with a preliminary check of social media. This move was introduced to avoid a repeat of the situation ahead of the 2019 election, when nine Labour candidates were removed after selection.

The NEC’s increased scrutiny is also aimed at boosting diversity, a constant aim for selections for all political parties over the years.

The SNP paid great attention to the diversity of its candidates at the most recent elections for the Scottish parliament, while quotas have long been part of the Liberal Democrats’ constitution, and Labour has used all-women shortlists since 1993.

For the Conservatives, David Cameron’s now defunct “A-list” of candidates saw the emergence on to the political scene of current big beasts including Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Home Secretary Priti Patel: “The sound of modern Britain is a complex harmony, not a male voice choir,” Cameron said at the time.

The drive has transformed the make-up of the House of Commons, with 65 MPs from ethnic minority backgrounds elected to Westminster in 2019 compared to just four in 1987. A record 34 per cent of MPs are now women, with Boris Johnson among those backing the drive for a 50:50 Parliament.

To help achieve this, local Conservative associations are being encouraged to take diversity into account when choosing their representative. The same is true for party insiders responsible for deciding who makes it on to the candidates list via the fabled Parliamentary Assessment Board (PAB) – the first stage of the process, where wannabes face a lengthy, gruelling interview and assessment centre. If successful, they make it on to the approved candidate list where they are then able to apply to constituencies.

“The associations are increasingly open-minded and willing to take risks [on candidates] but the PAB process – the initial filter – is getting increasingly robust and increasingly tough,” says Peter Botting, a consultant who has helped prepare more than 175 Conservative MPs, including several Cabinet ministers, for their selection process.

This extends to the greater employment of psychometric tests next time around, which probe the competencies, motives, values and preferences of an applicant to gauge if they are a “good fit”. It will also be much harder for anyone previously on the list, with returning candidates being asked to reapply if that want to stand again.

However, there are fears the system lacks flexibility. “I have my doubts that an Elon Musk or a Richard Branson or Steve Jobs would necessarily get through it now,” says Botting. “It means you have to be a good all-rounder rather than a specialist batsman who’s bad at bowling and fielding.”

With the next election currently due to take place after Westminster constituency boundary changes, many MPs and potential candidates are holding fire on announcing whether they intend to stand.

And there is expected to be a big churn, with MPs including Harriet Harman, Sir Charles Walker, Dame Rosie Winterton, Ben Bradshaw and Dame Margaret Hodge already announcing their intention to step down.

Future candidates may wish to emulate the longevity of these great servants to the House of Commons – but first comes the almighty battle to get the chance.

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