The unexpected snap general election has caused the political parties to select candidates much more quickly, and through a more centralised process, than usual. Drawing on early data, Evangelina Moisi, Agnes Magyar and Jennifer Hudson suggest that both Labour and the Conservatives have used this opportunity to increase the diversity of candidates – in particular, female candidates – before local selectorates.
Less than three weeks ago, Theresa May appeared determined to serve as an ‘unelected’ Prime Minister until 2020, having ruled out a snap election five times in the previous ten months. On 18 April she announced her intention to call a general election, citing a recent and reluctant change of heart. While May claimed the election would give her a stronger hand in negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU, there is little doubt that with the polls giving the Conservatives a sizable lead over Labour in England – and perhaps more surprisingly – in Scotland and Wales, she played a strategic hand.
In this blog, we explore how the parties’ are approaching candidate selection under ‘snap election’ conditions. Whereas selection normally takes place over the months and years preceding a general election, with a deadline for candidates to deliver nominating papers on 11 May, the parties have adopted ‘emergency procedures’ resulting in a highly centralised selection process. The consequent shift in power to the national party at the expense of local selectorates has not been without controversy. But early data suggests that both the Labour and Conservatives are using this opportunity to increase the diversity of candidates – in particular, women candidates – before local selectorates. As the parties increasingly compete on diversity, a more centralised selection process may result in a more representative slate of candidates before the electorate.
‘Snap election’ selection procedures
Under normal procedures, local Conservative associations can select from a choice as large as 20 candidates, but CCHQ’s approach has been to shadow their by-election selection procedure, presenting local selectorates with a shortlist of three candidates. This procedure has been imposed for every marginal, target, and retirement seat (where an incumbent has stood down). In non-target seats, the candidate is chosen by CCHQ. Current MPs wishing to stand again require a majority from association members. The move to handing local associations fixed shortlists gives Theresa May greater influence over what the new parliament might look like, but has left many local members reeling, leading the journalist and former Conservative candidate Iain Dale to call for greater transparency in Conservative selection procedures.
Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC), which includes which includes leader Jeremy Corbyn, deputy leader Tom Watson, and union representatives such as Jim Kennedy of Unite, set out a plan to complete selection within two weeks of the Commons vote. Sitting MPs were given until 20th April to confirm whether they would stand again. After a brief debate, it was announced that returning MPs would automatically be re-selected and without facing a ‘trigger ballot’ where local members would have the opportunity to ‘deselect’ them. Selection in the party’s retirement seats was determined exclusively by the NEC. Applications for the party’s open seats were made available, but this time candidates for these seats were selected by both the NEC as well as regional boards.
After the EU referendum, the Liberal Democrats began selecting parliamentary candidates in anticipation of an early election, which has given them a rather more smooth run up to the election. In many key target seats candidates defeated in 2015 are running again, including high-profile former MPs such as Vince Cable, Ed Davey and Simon Hughes.
Selection was far easier for the SNP, whose 54 sitting MPs were all re-selected. This left just five candidates to choose through the SNP’s normal general election selection process, for the three Scottish seats they failed to win in 2015 and two where the SNP MPs elected in 2015 had since been suspended by the party. Similarly, Plaid Cymru are sticking to their normal selection process whereby local party members selected candidates last week for 37 out of 40 Welsh seats. Across the country, regional divisions of UKIP are holding meetings to select candidates this week, although in some seats they have opted to support the Conservative candidate instead of running themselves. Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas has advocated for a ‘progressive alliance’ to beat the Conservatives in marginal seats. Whilst Jeremy Corbyn and Tim Farron have expressed scepticism about potential alliances, the Greens have nonetheless indicated that they will pull out of some seats, including Ealing Central and Acton, and Richmond Park (where they also sat out last year’s by-election).
More centralised and more representative?
The 2015 general election saw a record 191 women MPs elected to parliament, but women remain under-represented in the Commons, comprising just 30 per cent of MPs before parliament dissolved. While candidate diversity has been on the party’s agenda for some time, so far 2017 appears to be another step change for women in politics. Table 1 shows the 31 retirement seats in Great Britain for 2017. In the Conservatives 11 retirement seats, six (55 per cent) have gone to women, likely resulting in a net gain of four Conservative women (Julia Dockerill replaces Angela Watkinson and Rachel Maclean replaces Karen Lumley).
In Labour’s 15 retirement seats (including Rochdale, see note below), they have selected ten women (67 per cent), with just Steve Rotheram’s seat yet to be decided. This could result in a net gain of eight Labour women. However, with Eleanor Smith (Wolverhampton SW) and Tracy Harvey (Middleborough South & East Cleveland) defending majorities of two per cent and five per cent respectively, based on current polling the number may be more like six. The Liberal Democrats are also following through on their commitment to improving diversity, having lost 49 seats and all of their women MPs in the 2015 election. Sue McGuire has been selected in Southport, where John Pugh is standing down, and they have also selected women in many of their target seats, for example Kelly-Marie Blundell in Lewes and former MP Jo Swinson in East Dunbartonshire.
Table 1: Candidate selections in retirement seats in Great Britain, 2017
However, selection in retirement seats only tells a partial story. When we look at selection in new seats, that is where the party does not currently hold the seat, we get a broader view of the party’s approach to diversity (there are many other ways at looking at diversity, we focus on gender here). Looking at the most recent available data (Table 2), the parties’ efforts to select a more diverse slate of candidates is slightly up from 2015, save for the Greens. Of course selecting large numbers of women candidates doesn’t necessarily translate into a more representative Commons – what is important is whether women candidates have been selected in the parties’ winnable seats.
Table 2: Female candidates selected in 2017 and 2015
Historically, Labour’s use of all-women shortlists (AWS) since 1997 has put them in front of other parties with respect to the number of female MPs. Following their near wipe-out in 2015, the Lib Dems have also recently adopted AWS. The Conservatives have never adopted AWS, instead relying on Women2Win – an organisation that identifies, trains and mentors women candidates – founded by Theresa May and Baroness (Ann) Jenkin. In a recent report by the Women and Equalities Committee, Maria Miller argued that ‘the 2017 general election was an unmissable opportunity for the parties to demonstrate their commitment to gender equality in the Commons’. It appears that both Labour and the Conservatives have used a more centralised selection process to do just that.
About the authors
Evangelina Moisi was a Research Volunteer at the Constitution Unit from January to April 2017.
Agnes Magyar is a Research Assistant at the Constitution Unit, working on the Parliamentary Candidates UK project. She tweets @agneskmagyar.
Dr Jennifer Hudson is Senior Lecturer in Political Behaviour at UCL. She tweets @jhudson_ucl.