The revelations cast an interesting light on Mr Miliband’s professed love of “One Nation”, about which he’s so fond of babbling. If One Nation means anything, it is that a party promises to govern without favour to any sectarian interest. Quite how that squares with being owned by one union, which then supplies the candidates, defeats me.
I’m having a laugh at Labour (who isn’t?) while pointing out the impossibility of being the perfect candidate, to make a point: the selection procedure needs to be reformed.
For while Labour’s problems are of its own making, none of us can claim to be perfect. The Tory process works as follows: interested applicants are assessed by the Parliamentary Assessment Board (PAB), and gain entry to the “list”. Being on this list permits application to seats; but control over the final selection is in the hands of the local, voluntary association. There’s an uneasy dance, often, between Tory central office (CCHQ) and the association officers, but it’s the associations that have the power. It’s their shortlist and their membership will vote for their choice.
Neither aspect of the process works perfectly. The PAB itself is a fair process, I’d say, reminiscent of any other competency-based job interview. I went through it in 2010 because David Cameron opened up the list and I wanted to apply to stand in Brighton Pavilion. To my surprise, I passed.
Brighton Association, it turned out, was able to resist my many charms and the seat was fought by the wonderful Charlotte Vere. After the election, I was told by CCHQ that henceforth I could apply only for “The City Seats Initiative” – inner city seats, where the candidate’s task is to rebuild the association. I politely declined, and came off the list: I’d come to realise that I didn’t have the urge to fight any seat that might have me. I wanted to beat Caroline Lucas, and represent Brighton.
CCHQ meddles like this, because it’s trying to craft a population of candidates to do the party proud. But the meddling never works – whether with the City Seats thing, or the unlamented “A list” (“You look nice! Do you want to be an MP?”) – because no central office can know who will work best in any particular town.
But neither would it do to allow associations total control. By definition, those of us who belong to a party are unrepresentative, because we’ve self-selected ourselves to be activists. It’s quite arrogant to say that no matter how poorly an association might function (some are great, some aren’t) they have the best knowledge of how to determine who should fight an election for the Conservatives.
There’s an answer to this. CCHQ is entitled to run its PAB process. But final selection should be by primary – whether open, postal or electronic, I don’t really care. Anyone on the PAB list, and anyone who is a member of a local association, should be entitled to put their name forward, and all the voters in the seat be given a chance to have a say in the final selection.
Boris Johnson’s mayoral candidacy was selected in this way. Commentators often mention how Boris is “Tory mayor of a Labour city”; no one ever makes the link with the method by which he was chosen for that fight.
The Tory system works quite well, and opening up selection via primaries would just make a good thing better. But imagine what it would do to Labour! Trade unions would have to find another way to subvert our democracy. At least Mr Miliband could say he believes in One Nation, without his words attracting the cold, shocked laughter of disbelief.