Wednesday, 29 March 2017

We have a duty to present the best candidates for local government

The new Local Government Selection Rules are, on balance, an improvement, bringing further clarity to the composition of the LG Selection Panel, the appeals process and perhaps most importantly the replacement of the convoluted rule about “branches can run their own selections if the membership is at least 2% of the Conservative vote at the most recent election.”

But five pages of rules and procedures about how we select our council candidates are of little use if the incumbent is automatically reselected as there is no-one else, or if the pool in which we fish for talent is so shallow that all we can catch is grey mullet. And regrettably as Associations stumble on with little training and support, apart from access to printed “Best Practice” guides, so the soft skills required to identify and develop not just potential council candidates but the leaders of tomorrow, continue to wither on the vine.

Just over two years ago I recruited 100 volunteers to each hand address 1,000 envelopes as part of our General Election GOTV campaign. A chap in his mid-20s turned up to collect supplies for his mother, who had offered to help. As with every new face I engaged him in conversation. He was also a Party member and had been for ten years, but until that day the only contact he had with is local Association was three letters a year. One asking him to pay his subscription, another asking him to buy summer draw tickets and the third to buy Christmas draw tickets. In ten years he had not been contacted, not been asked to help, not been invited to a social or political event and not been welcomed. The happy ending to this story is last year he was one of our hardest working council candidates and this year he became Association Chairman, part of a new and young Officer team trying to turn around a somewhat moribund and inward looking Association.

Whether it is for a branch fundraiser, a campaign session or to identify volunteers, I have lost count of the times I have heard “well, I sent everyone an email and very few responded.” That is the trouble with email. They are fast, they are easy and they are transient. If you have ever said to yourself, “Oh, another email asking me to buy a “Theresa May tea towel made for everyone” there is no reason to believe your equally time-restricted members won’t do the same when your email pings into their inbox, “Oh, another email from that woman asking me to be a candidate” before firmly hitting the delete button.
Last year in Tonbridge we faced a difficult by-election in a ward which had been solidly Labour for over 60 years. We narrowly won it in 2007 after recruiting a local community activist as candidate, and even then only at her third attempt. Following her death the expectation was that without her name on the ballot paper the seat would almost certainly revert to Labour.

Having exhausted our database in previous years I knew there was not an obvious candidate amongst our older members, so I trawled through the many new members who joined post referendum, and this included looking at what was publicly available about them on their social media profiles. One potential candidate lived in the ward and ran the local youth football team. The other was born and bred in the ward, educated at the local school, her grandfather chaired the local community centre and she had run campaigns using local bands to dissuade teenagers from drug and substance abuse.

I arranged to meet them both for coffee and to explain the work of a local councillor; and both agreed to put their names forward. Fortunately the man had just become a father so wanted to wait until 2019, but the woman was subsequently selected and was the perfect by-election candidate, well known on the doorsteps, respected for her community work and hugely popular. We held the seat with 62% of the vote on one of the biggest swings to the Conservatives last year. What is interesting about the above case is both candidates had received emails from us asking if they would like to be a candidate, and neither had replied. In fact, when I asked them, neither recalled ever having received the email. Another example of why personal contact is vital when it comes to identifying and nurturing future talent.

Across the six constituencies of the West Kent Group we cover four district councils and overlap with three more. In a full electoral cycle we need to find 328 local government candidates. Identifying and training so many candidates is a major part of my work, but I also try to ensure we have an available pool of talent so branches have options and do not have to “settle” for Hobson’s Choice. For example, this year over half of our county council divisions had contested selections. All but two incumbents were reselected, but the process highlighted the fact that the post was not a sinecure, and having to explain their record an set-out their campaign plans was helpful in focussing minds on the task ahead.

There are many ways the West Kent Group identify and recruit potential local government candidates:

  • Adverts in local newspapers
  • Professionally designed postcards in shop windows and noticeboards
  • Mailshots to parish councillors, Townswomen’s Guilds, Rotarians, Neighbourhood Watch Groups, Women’s Institute Groups and similar community-minded organisations
  • Adverts in In Touch newsletters and on surveys (a recent Voter ID survey to 10,000 residents in one County Council Division identified almost 20 potential LG candidates)
  • And even our MPs will sometimes put a paragraph about the importance of good people putting themselves forward for local government and directing those interested to their respective political organisations.

Throughout the year all potential candidates are logged and nurtured, and about two months before the selection process starts they are invited to an open evening with other potential candidates. They hear from one of our council leaders about the work of local government, and then from me about what will be expected of them in terms of campaigning and political involvement. I think it is important that all applicants are fully aware that they will not only be expected to campaign but also support the political and social life of their Association. Finally, over wine and food they have a one-to-one session with an incumbent councillor about their work in the community. This councillor will go on to be their mentor if they proceed with the application.

Overall about 25% of people who express an interest end up being interviewed and selected, and many go on to be outstanding campaigners and councillors. Too often I fear we take the line of least resistance because that is easier than the alternative. I believe we owe it to our members, our supporters but most importantly our communities to do better.

1 comment:

  1. "Theresa May tea towel made for everyone" - ha!