Sunday, 14 August 2016

Let the members decide!

Very recently an aggrieved candidate for Local Government Selection said to me “the trouble with you Andrew is that you always use the rules to achieve what you want.” To which I replied, “what you’re actually saying is that I won’t bend the rules so that you can achieve what you want”. He, at least, had the good grace to laugh. And I will give two examples.

Four years ago an incumbent County Councillor was challenged by a District Councillor. As always in such circumstances the Selection Meeting is held on neutral territory to avoid showing favouritism to either candidate. At the time the challenger emailed to thank me for my impartiality. This year the challenger (who is now the incumbent) is himself being challenged, and again the contest is on neutral ground. This time, however, the incumbent has complained that the contest isn’t in his home village as “this is where most of the members live”.

And elsewhere ... four years ago a potential challenger was excluded as he forgot to submit his application by the deadline. At the time the incumbent thanked me for “vigourously upholding the rules.” This time the incumbent is not so lucky, and the contest is going ahead. Respect for the rules however, didn’t stop the incumbent phoning to ask if there was any “procedural mechanism” I could use to stop the challenge taking place! He laughed, and pretended it was a joke. I laughed too.

Last week I received a call from the Deputy Chairman of a strong and successful Association. He told me that he had been asked to design an application form for their next round of Local Government interviews. “Do you have something in West Kent we could adapt to use locally?” I enquired why they simply didn’t use the CCHQ application forms which are part of the National Mandatory Selection Rules? The long pause was followed by the inevitable, “Oh, What rules are they?”

I was, of course, referring to the rules that were introduced over 6 years ago.

I suspect many Associations will see the National Rules as “another bloody attempt by CCHQ to take over our independence”, but personally I see little wrong with a national organisation trying to ensure a similar standard and process is followed throughout the country. The Mandatory Selection Rules do not instruct Associations as to who they should select, and they even allow local autonomy as to the composition of the Selection Committees and the process used. They simply try to ensure that a similar standard is set nationwide, that incumbent and new applicants are treated fairly, and that there is a clear appeal process when needed.

The process we use in West Kent has not only been recognised as “Good Practice” by the Conservative Councillors Association (CCA) but has also been adopted by many of our neighbouring Associations for its fairness and simplicity. I will describe the process below.

  • Each Association Executive elects a Local Government Committee at the first meeting following the Association AGM. In addition to those who serve on the LGC by right (Chairman, DC Political, and the Leaders of the Local Council Conservative Groups) we also utilise the “additional members which the Executive Council deem suitable” clause to ensure the LGC is representative and not simply a committee of the “great and good” seeking to maintain the status quo.
  • The LGC meets expediently to set out the selection timetable which is circulated widely to all interested parties.
  • Before the process of selection commences we use every legitimate means to attract new applicants. These include

a.     Emails to members, registered supporters and pledges
b.    Direct mail to sympathetic charities and community groups
c.    A full-page advert in the local newspaper (tried once, but not repeated)
d.    Posters in shops and on community noticeboards

This will normally produce a flurry of interested people, some of whom are members, many more who are not. These are then invited to an information evening where they hear from a sitting councillor about the work they do on behalf of the community. I also speak, as Agent, about the campaigning obligations they will expected to undertake during an election. This ensures that all applicants have a clear understanding of what will be expected of them if they pursue their application and are ultimately selected.

Following the information session, applicants complete an application form (there are two standard versions, one for incumbent councillors seeking re-election, and another for new applicants). At this stage around 50% drop out, having realised the time commitment, or the work of a local councillor is not something they wish to commit to.

  • The LGC then arranges a number of evenings to interview applicants (incumbents and new). These interviews are thorough, and can at times be bruising. References provided on application forms are always followed up, applicants are examined for evidence of community commitment and incumbent councillors are questioned about their performance within their community, the Council Group and their efforts towards the Association’s wider campaigning goals. We also undertake a review of the applicant’s social media “footprint” to ensure there are no nasty surprises lurking on the internet! It is far from unusual for our LGCs to decline an application, nor are they afraid to refuse to put an incumbent back on the “Approved List” if there is strong evidence of poor performance.
  • Once the interviews have been completed, the Association will have created an “Approved List”, members of which are invited to put their names forward for individual seat selection. Every seat is considered “equal”, and approved candidates may apply for as few or as many as they wish.
  • The Rules now get complicated! If there are more applicants than vacancies, the Branch (or joint branches if there are more than one) decide who goes forward to the final contest. The incumbent always has a right to be in the final. Unfortunately, even in West Kent, where our organisation is strong, there are very few County Council Divisions which have active branches covering every area of the Division. This could lead to only four or five members of one Branch Committee imposing a candidate on the whole Division and disenfranchising the members living elsewhere. Locally our Executive Councils have taken the decision that unless there are active Branches covering the entire County Division then all applicants will go forward to a Special General Meeting of the all the members living in that Division. The view we take in West Kent is that allowing our members the right to choose their candidate is not only the right thing to do, but also a valuable and rewarding aspect of membership.
  • The above rule however, does not apply if membership of the Division (or ward) is below 2% of the previous Conservative vote at the last election. For example, if we are selecting a candidate for Barchester and the previous Conservative vote for Barchester was 2000, there would need to be a minimum of 40 members to qualify for self-selection. This requirement is set by CCHQ to ensure that there is not a branch of 5 members selecting their best friends. If the membership is below this threshold then the LGC selects the candidate instead. In making this decision the LGC can use various legitimate means to inform its decision-making. Members may be invited to attend the LGC meeting, and participate in the questioning of the candidates. And (a recent change introduced to the rules by Rob Semple, following testing in West Kent) is the right of Associations to hold a “Local Primary”.
  • Ultimately all decisions must be ratified by the Executive Council of the Association.

This process is open, transparent and fair. It balances the rights of incumbent councillors with the aspirations of new applicants and it ultimately allows the members to choose who represents them at election time. And, just as Association and Branch Officers must account for their performance before they are re-elected at the AGM, as indeed the Association staff have to account for our performance at our Annual Appraisals, so incumbent councillors must account for their own records.

This whole process can, at various moments, cause ill-feeling – particularly from sitting councillors who are often genuinely shocked at being challenged for “their” seat, and who can even question the right of members to do so. There is also a temptation to “shoot the messenger” which is understandable, but not fair.

As Agent, my job is to facilitate an open and fair contest. It matters little to me who, from the Approved List, is selected for each seat, as my duty is to get them elected regardless. I take a degree of satisfaction that in helping to manage over 500 local government selections in my patch (over 7 years) , there has only been one successful appeal, and that was when an out-going Chairman thought the rules were “tedious” and refused to follow them!

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