Recent polling by the government-funded think tank UK in a Changing Europe has shown that when it comes to social values Conservative MPs, and Labour MPs, are far more liberal than their electorates. Tory MPs are skewed so much they share the same social views as Labour voters. This is despite the same poll showing that Conservative councillors and candidates are far closer to their voters.
Given the views of Tory supporters, and the Tory party in the country in the form of association members, officers and local councillors, why the sudden shift leftwards for members who have a seat at Westminster?
The answer inevitably lies in who goes on from first being anointed a candidate to then being selected in a winnable seat – something or somebody plainly creates a bias towards the liberal. In the Conservative Party this is most immediately down to the candidates selection system overseen by the candidates department.
To be selected as a Tory MP, you must pass a Parliamentary Assessment Board (PAB). This is a secretive process. Some favoured candidates can attend a PAB in a matter of weeks, others are left waiting for years. This is a subject we’re going to be coming back to in some granular detail in the near future, but for now let’s just look at the process by which all these ‘liberal Conservative’ MPs are selected.
The criteria required to pass the PAB are again a closely guarded secret. Group problem-solving exercises, paper exercises (the MP’s inbox), an essay, public speaking and an interview are the visible tests that disguise the real criteria. People I’ve spoken to suggest that strong opinions, socially conservative views and strong euroscepticism are not part of it. Inevitably, being part of the right clique is.
The interview will touch on issues such as commitments to equality and promoting diversity. There are right answers and expressing support for meritocracy leads to failure, which cannot be appealed. Feedback is bland and given orally with no written notes taken. In short, those who oversee the PAB can decide to choose who they like. And who they seem to like is, as the composition of the parliamentary party irrefutably demonstrates, liberal Conservatives.
There was a time under David Cameron, and before, when these motives were less hidden. The A list was a system that Cameron hoped would find more MPs he could use to refashion the party – liberal, pro-European, female and minority totems who would both symbolise “the change” and seal it ideologically in place.
Notable triumphs of this approach included sometime Conservative MPs such as Anna Soubry, Louise Mench and Helen Grant. Others selected at the last minute, such as Tony Litt in Ealing, failed to get past the electorate and turned out to be Labour supporters.
The desire to fill the ranks with new liberals was rooted in a patronising, tone-deaf approach to skin-deep diversity based on PR-man theory. In practice, it also narrowed the net. The end result of the Cameron era, when candidates were sought not because they were Conservatives, but because they were visible quota targets designed to be used towards marketing ends (and their having opinions was positively unwanted), is now impossible to deny. As the Party tacitly admits, there are fewer female and BAME candidates coming forward to be candidates than white men. Proclaiming a 50/50 gender bias in candidate selection can only be done by discriminating against other candidates – something that will be effected, care of the notoriously opaque PAB.
Once a candidate is on the party’s candidates’ list there is another opportunity for the candidates department – which amounts to the Leader’s Office in this instance – to ensure they get their woman, or man, into place as an eventual MP – the shortlist. For more than a decade now, since Michael Howard’s time as leader, sifts have taken place in CCHQ. Instead of candidates applying to associations directly, their applications are routed through the party’s central office. Favoured candidates of the appropriate gender, ethnicity, fashionable view, friendship set or faction are hawked around many seats on shortlists until they are taken off the market by selection. This method is not infallible, as the fate at the last election of the current SpAd, Henry Newman, showed. Sometimes associations will choose the duds that are deliberately put on final shortlists if it means they can escape the favoured son the party is trying to foist on them.
The less fashionable will remain on “the list,” but their CV will be either lost or remain in the filing cabinet. Local parties requiring a shortlist of candidates will always be shepherded in the appropriate direction – desirables talked-up, others left out entirely. In this manner the “right” candidates are selected to winnable seats.
Does this matter? Well yes.
First, selecting candidates on identity over merit casts a shadow over all female and BAME candidates selected. Some are excellent and would be there on any merit based system, others less so.
Second, the bias for diversity and “diversity allies” and the formulaic system of PABs has allowed one particular conservative view to mould the party in its image. The new MPs are out of touch with public opinion and unprepared mentally or intellectually for the intellectual battle of conservative values. Conservative voters are conservative socially and generally Eurosceptic. They have markedly few champions in the new intake of MPs.
As the UK in a Changing Europe polling shows, the British public is less economically liberal than Conservative MPs and yet more socially conservative. A socially and economically liberal Conservative candidate having more in common with Labour MPs than Tory supporters is not an obvious recipe for a healthy political class.
The Conservative Party should think long and hard about its electorate, most of whom want conservative ideas and policies. If the Conservative Party has decided that’s a job for others, not least because it won’t give MPs’ jobs to Conservatives, the electorate may well follow suit. Taking voters for granted was a stupid mistake by Labour: there’s no reason to think that is not a lesson liberals in the Conservative party should heed too.
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