Henry G Manson’s weekly column
It struck me as odd the other day. A few weeks back Labour said it needed to attract more working class parliamentary candidates. This is a worthwhile aim given the professionalisation of British politics and even more so for a party set-up by organised labour. It was something of an embarrassment when an aspiring parliamentary candidate in solid working class strongholds has a £5000 personalised number plate. We need to move away from that. So far so clear.
But this week Ed Miliband says he wants more business owners to be Labour parliamentary candidates too. Not only that, but he doesn’t expect them to have been members of the party before as long as they ‘share Labour’s values’. Who on Earth determinates that motherhood and apple pie test? 18 months ago members of the military were flavour of the month to become parliamentary candidates. Now which is it?
There’s a sense that the Labour Party knows it needs to reconnect with the public and is looking to address some of its weaknesses through candidate selection. But just how does a party actually encourage candidates from these under-represented and targeted groups on its benches without having to use the clunking fist of ‘all-women shortlists’ which have been used to get more women into parliament? What rules need to change? What additional effort and support is going to identify and engage these much-wanted candidates? What signal does it give to the councillor base and activist bases how don’t fit in these categories but have years of public service behind them? It all gets a bit messy.
Labour’s not alone in this soul-searching. The Conservative Party leadership had its A list which was far from universally popular with the party’s grassroots. Liberal Democrats pride themselves on having none of these interventionist measures, but can’t count one ethnic minority among their 57 MPs.
It seems to me that the main parties recognise they need to change, want to make a big song and dance – and then do very little about it. I’m increasingly of the view that they all need to be looking at primaries. David Cameron to his credit tried a few different forms of candidate selection when in Opposition, but there’s been little talk of reviving them. I think that’s a shame. The biggest obstacle a political party will privately give is cost. The taxpayer will be unlikely to want to stump up. But with more technological advances surely the ‘cost defence’ will become redundant. Labour should take the plunge with primaries. It might surprise itself.