Last evening I attended the second (of probably six or seven meetings) which will culminate in the selection of Tonbridge & Malling's 2015 local government candidates. Like Medway, Tonbridge & Malling is "all out" so we need to identify 40 candidates. Not forgetting 7 more in those parts of Sevenoaks which fall within the T&M constituency boundary.
Chatham & Aylesford selections are already underway. 30 candidates required, split between Medway (12) and Tonbridge & Malling borough (18). Today I will be commencing the process in Tunbridge Wells (out in thirds - 15 candidates needed).
I mention this because all the above Associations follow the CCHQ Mandatory Selection Rules precisely. These rules are fair, open and transparent. Over the last 5 years, as I have guided each Association through the new process, there have been concerns and complaints. People are reluctant to change, and clearly some councillors did not like the thought of being accountable to the Association for part of their performance. But now the system is in place I don't think anyone would wish to change it.
Concerns, questions and advice about LG selections probably generate more email and phone calls via my blog than any other issue. In the last week alone I have taken calls from 5 Conservative Group leaders and maybe 10 Associations seeking help. Almost always these are from people who have read about our open and accountable system in West Kent and wish to replicate it locally. I am always happy to help; though I refer specific issues or complaints to their local CCHQ party manager or similar.
For the record we follow three stages
Stage 1: Confirming the intentions of incumbent councillors, receiving their completed re-application form and interviewing them to ensure they are suitable to go back onto the "Approved List".
Stage 2: Interviewing new applicants who wish to stand for the first time.
Stage 3: Selections
In all the West Kent Associations mentioned above, the initial interviewing (stages 1 and 2) is done by a Local Government Committee appointed by the Executive Council. The committee consists of the Officers of the Association, Council Leader(s) and Whip(s) (or their representatives) and additional members elected by the Executive Council. Given the Council Leadership has its own representation, the local Associations insists that the additional elected members are not councillors. This ensures the Local Government Committee is not a sub-committee of the Council Group.
Obviously if there is a vested interest, members must withdraw from the process to avoid conflict. This means incumbent councillors seeking re-election or anyone who is on the Approved List cannot participate in the reapproval of incumbent councillors. (Imagine the outcry - and the appeal - if a councillor was deselected and then found three of the people who voted against him were after his seat!).
Once incumbent councillors and new applicants have been approved, we move onto ward selections. Each contest is "open" and anyone on the "Approved List" may apply for any seat. In reality, they don't. People know where the vacancies are and were good councillors have local support. In all the years I have been managing this process I have only seen two or three "malicious" contests, and in each case the challenger was given short shrift. There have been many more open contests where two or more people have applied for a vacant seat, and on several occasions contests brought about by a group within the community / local branch feeling someone else would be a better candidate. My job is to ensure any such contest is conducted openly, transparently and within the rules.
As far as I can see, councillors have responsibilities to three groups:
1. Their electorate; who can remove them via the ballot box if they want someone else.
2. Their Council Group; they are after all in receipt of the whip and have a duty to the Conservative Group/leadership. If they fail to perform in the council environment they are accountable to the Leader or Whip for their actions
3. The Conservative Association; at the end of the day, they stand as the Conservative candidate and as such must contribute to the political goals of the Association, who select them, campaign for them and ultimately whose "brand" they use to get themselves elected.
Very recently a Group Leader complained very loudly that under the new rules, the Conservative Council Group had 'lost control' of the process. Apparently councillors were far better placed to decide these matters as they knew each other and could therefore make better judgements. Quite apart from the fact that council performance is only one of many performance criteria, the concept of democracy, accountability and the rights of the membership seem to have passed this leader by.
I did suggest that I would write to CCHQ putting forward this view if, and only if, he would agree to the Group Leader and he Cabinet being elected by the local Conservative Party membership without consulting the councillors. He wasn't keen on that idea either, strangely enough!
There is a simple balance.
- The Conservative Association / membership has the right to select its candidates.
- The people have a right to elect their councillor.
- The leader of the Conservative Group (elected by the councillors) has a right to select his/her team and develop/ implement policy.