2017 candidate selection: what might the new Conservative intake look like?

Although the polls have tightened, the Conservatives are still widely expected to win a majority in tomorrow’s general election. Oliver Chan looks ahead to what the new intake of Conservative MPs might look like in terms of career background, education, diversity and the extent to which they have pre-existing links to their constituencies. Focusing on Conservative candidates selected in safe retirement seats and 30 non-held marginals, he finds marked differences in the profile of candidates selected.

Despite the tightening of the polls in recent weeks, the Conservatives are still widely expected to win a majority at the general election. A victory would see a batch of newly-minted MPs elected, some of whom will go on to climb the Westminster ladder to the highest echelons of political power.

This post looks at some of the potential members of the new Conservative intake according to a number of demographic and background factors – namely career, education, local versus non-local candidates and diversity (gender, BME and LGBTI status). Candidate background information has been gathered from multiple sources including ConservativeHome, Iain Dale, candidate webpages, Facebook and LinkedIn accounts where applicable and local and national newspaper coverage. This analysis covers the candidates from the 12 seats held by the Conservatives where the incumbent has retired (‘retirement seats’) and the top 30 opposition-held targets in terms of required swing (excluding Copeland, which was gained by the Conservatives in a by-election in February).

This approach allows us to examine the social background of a sample of the potential new Conservative intake, but also offers a valuable opportunity to compare candidates selected for safe seats and opposition-held marginal seats. Of course, this does not suggest that the Conservatives will necessarily gain all of these seats, or indeed that they will not gain other seats that require larger swings, but the analysis provides an early view of what the new Conservative intake might look like, and how candidates selected in safe seats compare to those selected for targets.

Backgrounds of Conservative candidates in 12 ‘retirement’ seats and top 30 marginal seats

In the 12 retirement seats, Conservative candidates in 2017 are generally traditional ‘high-flyer’ candidate types – politically well-connected Oxbridge graduates who have worked in senior professional roles – with an additional drive for increased diversity. Greater gender and ethnic diversity is reflected in selection outcomes, with six women and two BME candidates (one male, one female) selected for these seats, yet there are no openly LGBTI candidates. Of these candidates, seven have previous electoral experience: four as councillors, two MEPs, one member of the London Assembly (Kemi Badenoch) and a former MP defeated in 2015 who is running in a different constituency (Esther McVey). Most are also connected to the Conservative apparatus, with five having worked for the party organisation or think tanks associated with the party, or as special advisers under Theresa May (Neil O’Brien and Alex Burghart). Six have backgrounds in top-level corporate, finance and entrepreneurial/ business roles while two have had military field experience. In terms of education, the candidates have been educated at elite UK universities, with six having studied at Oxford or Cambridge. And despite strong preferences by voters for local candidates, nine out of 12 could be considered non-local candidates who lack strong connections or ties with their new constituencies. A local candidate is here defined as someone who has at least nominal local ties – born, raised, studied, has resided before the election or has represented either the area or somewhere within the regional/ county confines previously.

The backgrounds of the Conservative candidates in their top 30 target seats held by Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems offer a stark contrast to those in Conservative safe seats. The most striking feature is that marginal candidates are far more likely to reside in or near their constituencies, or at least have nominal ties such as birthplace or university. Only four of these candidates could be classified as ‘non-local’ candidates, with the rest all with at least some ties to the constituency or area. These candidates also tend to have career profiles that have involved strong links to the community. Twelve have been councillors and four have been involved in local charities and churches. Traditional elite career and educational markers are substantially less than safe seats – only five are Oxbridge graduates and 12 have worked in corporate or business roles; the latter tend to be more locally-focused than the safe seat candidates. Connections to the Conservative apparatus still exist but on a less insider level. Besides aforementioned councillors this includes seven who have worked for MPs or in parliament, two special advisers, five former MPs defeated in 2015, two who have worked for pro-Conservative policy think tanks and five who have been in PR/ lobbying roles. Lastly, this group is less diverse with 10 female candidates and one BME candidate (male), but is more LGBTI-friendly with four openly LGBTI candidates.

Overall, there are some clear themes. To reiterate, safe seat candidates tend to fit a more ‘high flyer’ profile in terms of education, career background and political experience/ connections, as well as gender and ethnic diversity, which have arguably tended to override considerations of local representation. This fits with an overall incentive to use safe seats as a means to parachute star candidates into parliament, rather than placing them in marginal seats where victory is not guaranteed. In contrast, marginal candidates tend to be more locally-grounded with strong community networks – councillors, business-people, charity workers and even former MPs, almost all of whom are contesting the seats they lost in 2015 – and considerations like diversity appear less of an overall imperative. This may reflect a belief that in tightly fought marginal seats it is best to field local ‘known quantities’.

Across the entire sample of seats examined here, it is clear that strong political experience and connections matter – perhaps a reflection of the types of skills and relationships viewed by parties and selectors as desirable for political career progression. Whether the local constituency office and council chambers or Westminster and Whitehall, these attributes appear to aid selection for winnable seats.

About the author

Oliver Chan is a Research Volunteer at the Constitution Unit.


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