Who chooses – finding candidates for public office

This May sees a huge set of elections.  It will be the biggest national test of party popularity since the General Election.  Postponed local and mayoral elections from last year combine with scheduled contests to give us a psephologist’s dream.

Yet a row in Liverpool over who will be on the ballot paper for Labour has thrown light one aspect of the election contest, and caused questions about who chooses and when.

The story so far:

The Liverpool Labour Party had selected Mayor Joe Anderson as its candidate for the elections taking place in May.  Victorious in 2012, and re-elected four years later, he was due to defend his position.  However the December arrests of Anderson and others for offences including bribery and the later extension of police bail meant it was untenable for him to remain as candidate.  This meant the Labour Party needed to find a new standard bearer and quickly.  Applicants were whittled down to an all women shortlist of three.  Campaigns began.  Then the process was “paused”,  and after more interviews the list was effectively cancelled and a search for new applicants began.

These events and the row have thrown a spotlight on the topic of candidate selection.

Where there are elections, there must be candidates.  Where there are high profile elections for important jobs, it matters who those candidates are.  And political parties, having suffered embarrassment in the past, are always keen to make sure that candidates are going to be right for the jobs. 

The usual combination for candidate selection is qualification criteria, followed by screening, shortlisting, and some sort of local or members’ choice which may then be followed by official endorsement. 

It is when elections are imminent that some of these steps are shortened or dispensed with.

But this in turn can create resentment.  The average party member gets little say on anything.  The main decision he or she will make is over selecting a future MP, or Mayor or Councillor.  Take that away and tempers may flare.

Add in to the mix the fact that a selection is also a statement of ideological direction, and it is easy to see why some activists resist “interference from on high”.

On one level the Liverpool Labour Party selection story is about local problems.  But it throws a spotlight more generally on how we select people for public office.  In a party system, the choice of standard bearer is generally made by small groups of people.  Even a large party membership will be a tiny proportion of the population.  And how representative are they?  May’s law (May’s law of curvilinear disparity to be precise) argues that activist members of a political party tend to be more extreme than both the average voter and the “party elite” – those at the top.  This can mean that those choosing are both small in number and not particularly representative of the general voting public.  This “reality deficit” has led some to argue that selections should be thrown open to the wider population, with a few experiments in so called “open primaries” by the Conservative party.

Yet it is surely the party members and activists who care the most.  And how easy is it for a candidate if the foot-soldiers are not keen?

The Liverpool row is nowhere near the first about how candidates are selected.  There is a balance to be sought between the right person for the party and the right person for the job.  There is a judgement to be made about who should decide.

As democracy has developed in the UK we have seen conflict and (some) resolution over voting rights, over access to the system and over party discipline vs free thinking.  Perhaps how parties control our choices is the next area for change.

Paula Keaveney is programme leader for Politics at Edge Hill University.

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