Who represents us, how they got there, and their attitudes and beliefs are the underpinnings of our political system.
In our surveys of all parliamentary candidates who stood in the 2015 and 2017 British general elections we attempt to answer these questions and to set them in international and temporal context. The Representative Audit of Britain continues a times-series of data collected on parliamentary candidates in Britain since 1992, as well as linking to cross-national data by including items from the comparative candidate study (CCS).
The 2015 and 2017 elections were very different beasts. The 2015 election fell as expected per the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act so the parties had time to plan their selection processes and follow their usual procedures. In contrast, the 2017 general election was announced by the prime minister Theresa May with just over seven weeks until polling day.
Hence in 2017 the parties were given precious little time to select candidates and to get campaigning. The Conservatives and Labour parties adapted their rules considerably to meet the challenge.
The Conservative Party set special rules shortcutting the usual selection procedure. New candidates were screened through emergency parliamentary assessment boards over a five-day period; comprising of a 45-minute interview with a senior party officer, with a pass or fail decision made on the day.
Incumbent Conservative MPs wishing to stand again had to secure a majority of their local association’s executive council or a majority of the local association’s members. Associations were usually offered a choice of three candidates at a general meeting of the local party.
In seats that were neither retirements nor targets, a candidate was selected by the chairman of the party and the chairman of the National Conservative Convention, after consultation with officers from the local party.
The Labour Party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) officers agreed that any sitting MP would automatically be endorsed by the NEC and other selections would be made using the ‘exceptional selections procedure’.
The selections were undertaken in two tranches, the first for retirement seats and the second for seats not held by Labour. Candidates submitted an application form and CV. Longlisted candidates for retirement seats were interviewed by three NEC members. For non-held seats candidates were required to write to declare the seats they were applying to. Interviews were not conducted and no local selection hustings were held.
For each English European Parliament region (Wales and Scotland ran their own processes) the party formed a panel consisting of two NEC members and a member of the regional board. A meeting or conference call was conducted for each regional panel. Candidates who stood in 2015 were considered first and the process was the same for all non-held seats.
The extent of the difference between 2015 and 2017 described above is clearly evident in the responses to our survey question about selection process presented in table one. Thus, we have an interesting point of comparison between 2015 and 2017 to exploit in our research.
The cost of seeking selection
One key area that our survey has highlighted is the cost of seeking selection. Campaign expenses are regulated and regularly discussed in the media but the issue of the costs of getting selected in the first place has been given much less attention.
A small number of respondents to the 2015 survey reported over £50,000 in selection expenses which seemed unrealistically high, but in our interviews with candidates it became clear that this was a reasonable figure for highly desirable seats once forgone earnings, travel costs and rentals were included.
Drawing on data for the 2015 general election (the 2017 data is still being collated), Table 2 shows that the costs of standing are not insignificant with an average spend across all candidates who had selection expenses of £1,966. Average costs for candidates who had selection expenses range from £970 for Plaid Cymru candidates, to £3,903 for Conservative candidates, but there is significant variation in selection expenses for candidates in the same parties. More generally, with the exception of UKIP, a majority of candidates think the costs of entering politics is too high (Table 3).
Our research into selection costs highlights the financial barriers to participation in politics that, in our view, have been given too little public scrutiny and are likely to limit the opportunities for a diverse range of citizens to be selected to stand in many winnable seats.
Our survey includes items matched with the Comparative Candidate Survey, The British Election Study, The Party Members Survey and the Party Agent Survey and the data will be available from the UK data archive in 2019. For more information about other topics covered in our survey (including the harassment of election candidates and candidate’ backgrounds) and our publications please see our report.
Rosie Campbell is a Professor of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London.
Wolfgang Rüdig is Reader in Politics at the University of Strathclyde.