Tuesday, 22 October 2013

A prophet is not recognised in his own land

We are now just three days away from the interviews, and the members, activists and many residents are very excited that we shall be one step closer to knowing who our new candidate will be. And the office staff are also very excited - because in one week it will all be over and some sense of normality can return to West Kent Towers.

This post, however, is not about the finalists - it's about those who did not make the shortlist and how they have reacted, especially some of the local applicants who perhaps feel "let down" that they have not been chosen when they personally know the members of the selection committee.

As ever, I am not going to identify any applicant, but the issue in general are worth examining.

Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the gracious way the overwhelming majority of applicants accepted news that they had not been shortlisted. Most replied to our email, thanking us for the way we had run the selection and wishing us well. Several sent hand-written letters of thanks, something I never expected them to do, especially given the disappointment they must have felt. A small group neither acknowledged our email or made any further contact; often those who had been most demanding and pushy prior to the event!  And (and to my surprise) one or two made snippy comments about what a tragic mistake we had made in not recognising their abilities.

Several people have expressed surprise that the 'local' candidates did not perform more strongly. This, however, came as little surprise to me. Over my time I have presided (either as Agent or in earlier years as constituency Chairman) over five parliamentary selection contests; and on each occasion the local candidates do not perform as strongly as people expected or sometimes hoped.

I think the reason for this is clear; local candidates fall into two categories. They are either the "favoured son/daughter" where there was never any real doubt that they would be selected. These, however, are few and far between. The majority are "one of many" local candidates, competing in wide open field, but each expecting their friendships or local roots to secure their advancement. And that, I believe, is the problem.

Eleven years ago I unexpectedly found myself chairing Chatham, & Aylesford's selection contest when the constituency Chairman put his own name forward. We had long-list 16 names for interview over a two day period, which would produce a shortlist of six then down to a final line-up of three. 

By pure co-incidence, the Saturday after we had received the CVs but before a long-list was drawn up, I was speaking at a constituency training event in the East Midlands. One of the applicants, whose CV had caught my eye, happened to be from the neighbouring Association to where I was speaking. His CV was very strong; he had fought a safe Labour seat in 2001 and had done well, he had won his local council seat off Labour and had a successful career in business with many outside interests. Just the type of candidate any Association would probably like to interview.

Over coffee I was sitting at a table with three long serving activists and I asked (without letting on that we were about to select a candidate) if any of them knew "Fred Smith" (obviously not his real name).  "Oh him, bloody useless. When he was branch Chairman he didn't raise a penny for the funds or recruit any members."  The another piped-up, "Aye, he's on the Council with me. He speaks well, especially when there's a chance of a headline in the press, but he does the bare minimum and will never help out on committee if we are short or to cover illness."  The third lady sat shaking her head in disgust, even though she subsequently admitted that she has never heard of him!

The fact that "Fred Smith" didn't run a cheese and wine or recruit new members, or refused to take on additional work at the Council to cover illness, is no reason to assume that he wouldn't be an outstanding Parliamentarian. No-one had questioned his intellectual capacity, nor the service he gives his constituents.  And in fairness, I cannot recall the last time Sir John recruited a new member, but he always agrees to attend a new members' event and does exactly what we ask of him in making new people feel wanted and welcome.

As it happens, I ignored what I had heard and put "Fred Smith" forward for interview. I didn't want to let the vitriol damage his chances, and was sorry that I had asked for their views. He didn't progress beyond the first round, but I gave him a fair chance. Nor, indeed, did the constituency Chairman whose application had resulted in me being asked to Chair the process in the first place!

And that, I fear, is why so often a local applicant will fall at the first fence. If a far-away Association was looking at their CV, they would be taken at face value and judged equally alongside everyone else. When they are local and known, their claims are analysed against reality and their weaknesses judged alongside their strengths. It is harsh, but unavoidable.

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