In West Kent we have just finished selecting our candidates for the 2017 County Council elections. Around 50% of our divisions had contested selections. Of these, half were for open seats (where the incumbent had retired) and half where the incumbent was being challenged, often to the chagrin of the incumbent (with supporting noises from their colleagues at County Hall).
It is understandable that incumbents recoil from such a challenge though, to their great credit, the majority accept the validity of the process. A councillor is elected for a four-year term and surely just as the electors are invited to renew that contract at the election, so Party members should be invited to renew their confidence in that candidate beforehand.
All but the most intransigent councillors accept that it would be wrong if their position were a sinecure. If, however, we accept the principle that others have a right to challenge, and elected representatives have a duty to defend their record, then what other system is there? Those calling for a wholesale review of the National Selection Rules have a duty to put forward valid alternative proposals which are better than those currently in place.
At each selection meeting after the Chair had welcomed the members, and I had explained the technicalities of the voting system, I added the following comments:
“I would now like to address one of the questions most often raised by members and that is why you have been called here tonight, particularly when there is an incumbent councillor seeking re-election. Tonight you will be selecting a person who, with the support of the electors next May, will be part of a team running Kent County Council. If Kent was a stand-alone country there would be around thirty countries in the world smaller, for it has a GDP of around £2 billion. It is therefore right and proper that Conservative Party members, who pay their subscriptions locally, deliver leaflets locally, understand the issues locally and vote locally, are the ones empowered to select their candidate. The only alternative is for the person who represents you at County Hall to be chosen by a committee of the “great and the good” appointed by the Association and unaccountable to those whose lives will be affected”.
There is no doubt that some members would like to return to the days when selections were conducted behind closed doors by a committee of ‘chums’, reluctant to challenge the status quo. I believe this is wrong. Our members receive few benefits for their subscription and their loyalty; I can see no justification in trying to deny them the right to choose who represents them on the ballot at election time.
The system as it stands already favours the incumbent. They have had at least four years to establish themselves within their ward or Division. In many cases they have benefitted from taxpayer largess via the Community Enhancement Funds , enabling them to finance local projects and build local loyalties accordingly. They have had four years to build support in their branches, raise their profiles with their parishe,s and put themselves about, and should they wish to seek re-election they have a guarantee of a place in the final. None of this is available to their challenger who must not only fight for the right to be heard, but then overcome inherent loyalty of Party activists towards incumbency.
As I travelled across West Kent listening to over fifty hopeful applicants deliver their speeches in September, the differences between the pitches of the incumbents and the challengers could not have been more clear. With unsurprising regularity incumbents saw themselves as part of the County establishment, regularly using “we” to defend the actions of the Council. Challengers were more critical, seeing themselves as “champions of the people” against what they perceived to be a County elite. I often wondered how long it would take the challengers to “go native” if they were successful.
Each year, before the selection round commences, we hold a series of open evenings for potential candidates. At these events applicants hear from a senior councillor about the role and responsibility of local government, and they hear from me about the work they will need to do on the doorsteps to improve their chances of success. I always remind aspiring councillors that they are elected primarily to represent their communities and to hold the Executive to account, and to their credit many do. But it doesn’t take long before some ‘join the club’. They are easy to spot; they wear their council name badge at inappropriate social events and proudly brandish embossed leatherette municipal document wallets at every opportunity. I suspect this is human nature, it is far easier to be part of the club than to be viewed as the ‘difficult outsider’.
I have written many times about how I value the work of local councillors. The overwhelming majority are good champions for their community and very seldom would their allowances, when divided by the hours worked, come close to the minimum wage. But there are those (in all areas and of all parties) who regard themselves as part of the establishment. Too many have forgotten that they have been elected to be guardians of the public purse, whose role is to represent the community at the Town Hall, rather than being apologists for the Town Hall within their community.
At the National Convention in Birmingham on Sunday morning it was mentioned that the Board would be reviewing the Local Government Selection Rules. By all means let us examine and perhaps simplify some on the complicated and convoluted procedures: the 1% or 2% qualifying rule, the definition of what is and isn’t an active branch, the composition of Local Government Committees and perhaps tighten-up the rules about appeals. However, contested selections provide a once in every four-year obligation on incumbents to defend their record, and justify their continued position. It is one of the few opportunities our members have to hold their representatives’ feet to the fire. Any attempt to remove or dilute this right should be resisted.