‘Party members hold dear their privileges in candidate selection’, Times Red Box, 10 January, 2018.

Sarah Wollaston, chairwoman of the Commons health select committee, is everyone’s favourite Conservative backbencher. Well, maybe not everyone’s.

With her forthright, often outrageously non-partisan, views, she’s not always as appreciated by party managers as she is by those of us who appreciate common sense and respect for the facts.

But Dr Wollaston, you may recall, was the result of an experiment gone wrong – at least in the eyes of the Tory leadership and the whips’ office.

Back in the day, when David Cameron was desperate to give his party a makeover, the Conservatives thought it might be a good idea to pull some fresh faces into politics (and into the Tory fold) by holding open primaries.

In 2009 the Tory MP for Totnes, Anthony “I’ve got a very, very large house. Some people say it looks like Balmoral” Steen was one of the stars (and not in a good way) of the parliamentary expenses scandal.

He had to go, after which all the voters in the constituency were sent a ballot paper by the Conservative Party and invited to say who they would like to see stand as the party’s candidate at the forthcoming general election.

Perhaps surprisingly, over 16,000 of them took part and Dr Wollaston romped home with 48 per cent of the vote, winning election to parliament nine months later.

But instead of it marking the beginning of a revolution in the way the Tories went about picking their PPC’s, Totnes proved a flash in the pan. It didn’t take long for the party’s leadership to work out that the system was not only expensive but likely to produce candidates with way too much independence of mind.

But there was another drawback. Open primaries, it was claimed, also removed one of the main reasons why people bother belonging to the Conservative Party – an organisation that, aside from granting members the exclusive right to pick candidates for local and national office, offers them no formal say on its direction.

If you take away that privilege, it was argued, you only risk accelerating what, for the Tories at least, seems to be an inevitable long-term decline in membership.

It turns out, though, that Tory members are not alone in wanting to preserve their privileges in candidate selection.


As the chart (taken from Grassroots, the recent report by the Party Members Project based at Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University) shows, support for closed (i.e. members-only) methods of deciding who should stand as a candidate is overwhelmingly high in all four of Britain’s biggest political parties.

Where there are bigger differences between the members of those parties, however, is in what sort of people they would like to see more of sitting on the green benches at Westminster.

There is fairly widespread agreement that local MPs are a good thing, although it is interesting to note that the party differences are reflected in figures compiled by Demos on the proportion of parties’ MPs who were born, educated or live within 20km of their constituency, namely 74 per cent for the SNP, 64 per cent for Labour and only 33 per cent for the Conservatives.

When it comes to the other categories, however, the differences between the members of different parties – and particularly between the Conservatives and the other three – are very pronounced.


Apart from being more doubtful about the virtues of electing more working class MPs to parliament, the Lib Dems line up pretty near exactly with members of the Labour and Scottish National parties, with the Conservatives super-suspicious of anything that looks like political correctness or affirmative action.

LGBT MPs may be a little disappointed to see that their cause doesn’t seem to be as popular as those of other under-represented groups (particularly among the Tory grassroots), although this might perhaps reflect an awareness among party members that the UK parliament is already one of the most LGBT (or at LGBT-friendly) in the world.

Originally published at https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/party-members-hold-dear-their-privileges-in-candidate-selection-t6rbj8gnb


About tpbale

I teach politics at Queen Mary University of London.
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