Lib Dem Heidi Allen with Green MEP Molly Scott Cato, Plaid Cymru MP Liz Saville-Roberts and President of the Lib Dems Sal Brinton (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
Artillery Row Election 2019

Starting blocks

On the most important nomination stage in living memory

[dropcap]N[/dropcap]ominations to stand in the General Election of December 2019 close this afternoon (Thursday 14 November, 4pm). Over the last few decades, we have become used to the nominations being one of the more technical, less politically important or interesting stages of the election campaign. There would be some flurries caused by last-minute retirements, often with the promise of a peerage to open up a convenient safe seat for someone well-connected, but few serious ructions while the party machines sorted out the paperwork and ‘Prospective Parliamentary Candidates’ became the real thing. The December 2019 election has had the strangest, most interesting and possibly most important nomination stage of any election in living memory.

There have been four different movements each of which would be remarkable on its own

It is worth taking a moment to review the big changes that have taken place in the electoral battlefield while the desultory preliminary skirmishes of the national campaign have been played out in front of the media. There have been four different movements each of which would be remarkable on its own. 

The best-prepared was the formation of the Unite to Remain electoral pact, overseen by former Conservative, TIG and Lib Dem MP Heidi Allen, in which Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and Greens have agreed to stand aside for each other (and for Dominic Grieve) in sixty constituencies. This built on the foundations of a limited ‘Progressive Alliance’ in 2017 and the Lib Dem success in the Brecon & Radnorshire by-election in August which was enabled by an electoral understanding with the other two parties. It is the largest electoral pact in British politics, with the exception of the share-out of seats between the Liberal and SDP wings of the Alliance in 1983 and 1987, since the 1930s. There have been related tactical problems over the position of Liberal Democrat candidates opposing pro-European Labour MPs, notably Tim Walker’s short-lived candidacy in Canterbury and the apparent unwillingness of the local party to oppose Labour’s Rosie Duffield.

Next comes the shadow-boxing on the Leave side of the aisle. Nigel Farage had assembled a stage army of hundreds of candidates, each of whom had paid £100 to be considered for a chance of standing, but on 11 November he announced that the Brexit Party would not be contesting the 317 seats that the Conservatives had won in the 2017 general election. This came as news to many of those candidates themselves; some were out campaigning at the time of the announcement and were informed by voters rather than the party headquarters.  Nor will they get their money back. It is the biggest stand-down of presumptive candidates since at least 1951.

The third element of suspense and novelty over the nominations is the extraordinary amount of churn in the party allegiance of the MPs elected in 2017 and the multiple options available to them once parliament was dissolved – try to get the whip, and therefore the nomination, back? Stand down? Stand in the same constituency under new colours? Stand somewhere else? There are examples of all of these among the Conservatives who resigned from the party or lost the whip during 2019. There has been real uncertainty about the way several of them – David Gauke and Philip Hammond from the Conservatives’ old Treasury team choosing between independent candidacies and standing down, newly minted Lib Dems Chuka Umunna and Philip Lee moving to different target seats; Labour independent Mike Gapes stands again while Ian Austin steps down. That there are too many to describe individually here marks this election out from all others, back to 1983 if not 1931.

The rise in the number of scandals and disputes owes much to technology

The fourth is the tragic, farcical series of candidate selection mishaps and blunders that have afflicted all the main parties. There are nearly always a handful of these, but the 2019 election has seen them in wholesale quantities. Labour’s NEC overruled the local party’s selection of Sally Gimson in Bassetlaw for reasons that remain obscure and dubious. Labour has lost candidates for better causes, such as Keith Vaz (under suspension from the House of Commons), others who have made anti-Semitic comments; the Conservatives have lost two for expressing reactionary opinions on various issues, although in both parties some candidates who have come in for criticism have hung on. Even the Lib Dems have withdrawn one candidate for racism and another (former Labour MP Rob Flello, standing as a Lib Dem in the seat he lost to the Tories in 2017) on the basis of his Catholic social conservatism.  The most spectacular of these late-breaking disputes was the Conservatives’ saga in Burton-on-Trent. Andrew Griffiths, the MP since 2010, had alienated many of his constituency members, particularly over a scandal that broke in 2018 when it was revealed that he had sent 3,000 text messages, many of a sexual nature, to two constituents. He was cleared of breaking parliamentary rules but his status with the party remained unclear. In the final twist, he resigned at the selection meeting and was replaced as candidate by his wife Kate Griffiths. There are many cases in electoral history of spouses succeeding each other – Nancy Astor and Margaret Wintringham, the first two women to take their seats as MPs, both replaced their husbands. But as far as I am aware, it has not previously happened in the middle of the couple’s divorce proceedings and with the wife repudiating the husband’s offer of support.

The rise in the number of scandals and disputes owes much to technology – the humble SMS in the Griffiths case, and social media in many others. The slippery status of social media posts, between public and private, seeming ephemeral but generally remaining permanently on the record, pose challenges of distinguishing between youthful stupidity that people leave behind, and deep-rooted nastiness. I’m not sure that we, as media and society, are very good at making those distinctions yet. The other disruptive things that have been going on during the nominations process are symptoms of profound problems with the party and electoral systems as they are – Britain’s political institutions are creaking and complaining at the pressures that are put on them.  I hope to return to this theme, and its historical antecedents, as the campaign progresses.

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