Saturday, 14 February 2015

The Good Candidate

To be 'a good candidate' for a political election is a complex subject, with varying interpretations according to one's point of view (literally) and is also different for the various levels of governance.

Today I am looking at just one type of candidature, the one I know best: to stand for election to the local council. Believe me, this one is complex enough! what does one need to be a selected candidate, quite apart from winning the seat? The latter part of that is complex in itself, as it could be a safe seat for one's own party, a safe seat for a different (incumbent) party, or at any point in between right down to being a very finely balanced marginal.

Also, is one a brand new candidate with no experience, a re-applying candidate in the same seat, or someone who has stood in at least one other seat previously – either on the same council or elsewhere in the country.

Most candidate hopefuls will put themselves up for consideration within a political party structure, and it will normally fall to the parliamentary constituency association for that party to decide on council candidates for the wards that sit within that constituency.

They will be looking for someone who not only echoes and would represent their values and opinions, but who'd also campaign vigorously and regularly. Thus they are, in a very real sense, more party-driven than anything else. They'd make the point that they are all putting in their time, effort and money to support the party, and (with some justification) expect their candidate to do at least as much as any of the Association's members was doing – and had probably been doing for years.

Thus there is the very real danger of only party-dominated people getting selected to stand as candidates – and indeed we see this happening within all major (and most if not all minor) parties; and this has been at least a decades-long characteristic of candidate selection.

We the voters are unlikely to be offered any community-led candidates unless they are Independents – and those just do not have the party machinery behind them to campaign sufficiently to achieve much more than a few handfuls of votes, so there are rarely any non-party councillors elected as such. Usually only those who have left their party after having been elected with the aid of a party machine can be found on an elected council, or occasionally those who re-stood as Independent incumbents after having been first elected as a party member.

Here in Medway, that last category have primarily needed their old party not to stand its own candidates against them, and when they eventually did it meant the end of those Independents' political careers.

Therefore, to be a good councillor, as distinct from being merely a good party politician, requires someone truly exceptional: a person who will satisfy the local party's expectations, will earn their support, but will also do good work on the 'patch' both before polling day and (hopefully) after being elected. There are some overlapping demands, so it is possible to be both provided one is prepared to treat it as a serious occupation, not a casual spare-time business paying only perfunctory attention to issues in one's ward.

When I moved to this area some eighteen years ago, it has been traditionally a fairly solid (and obviously so) area for one political party, council-wise. Several years before, because it had been taken for granted by the then incumbent councillors of that party, they had lost both their seats to another party – and that situation lasted for three full council terms (nine years).

It took not only new faces and a strong local issue to first take back the seats – with a huge swing, it has to be said – but ongoing highly-dedicated work in the ward thereafter to hold those seats very strongly, long after that one big issue had faded from most of the public's broad awareness.

In this specific case, which I know so well, the ward doubled in size just three years later, growing from a two-councillor to a three-member patch, and from two to four polling districts. Lots of new areas were 'bolted on', like a Sinclair Spectrum with all the hardware add-ons hanging off its various sides, bringing a wider variety of new matters than we had encountered before.

There was no difficulty in the two of us being re-selected as candidates for that second (for us) election, as our track record on both sides of the equation – party work and ward work (plus, of course, what we were required to do on committees and outside bodies, though these carry little weight in candidate selection terms) – was very strong, though I'm sure we weren't the best-ever.

The real dividing line came the following selection time, when four of us vied for the three seats, including the three incumbents and one other who had made her name in another ward (that no longer existed by then) and within the party away from the council. It was at this point that those who were to vote in three of us, and reject the other, were put into a position where they had to be more analytical of our individual performances, not just as a group of three lumped together.

Thus it was that we came out as two pairs – the 'newcomer' and myself as high scorers, and the other two ward incumbents as almost an identically scoring lower pairing. In the event, a poor performance by the better of that latter pair, and some serious political nous by the other, resulted in the less good one winning that third place – but it was close and could, in theory, have gone either way.

The lesson from all of this is that it isn't just about winning a candidature, or even winning the seat at the subsequent election: that is just the start of the work, not an opportunity to sit back, relax and take the money(such as it is). It's an ongoing challenge and requires actual work, not mere posturing (and I have witnessed enough of that in my time) and an assumption of automatic re-selection every few years.

Some seem to think that clever speaking and manipulation of others will see them through – and it often appears to work, at least for a while. One day, though, a time of reckoning will be at hand; and it will be one's entire record that could be brought into the equation when it comes to the crunch time.

Beyond all of this are often factions within party associations (and some are famous for this) and typically hidden agendas, and one just cannot do anything about those. This can mean that even the best of candidature applicants can lose out and poorer-quality candidates be selected – and again I have personally witnessed/experienced this.

Therefore, as long as one has consistently shown one's own qualities, but ends up rejected and then watches a poor job being done in the ward (and perhaps also within the party), there is no need to be resentful. One might wish to occasionally remind those who made that choice, and chide them for their obvious foolishness in the hope that they'd learn the lesson and do better next time – as I recently did with someone, for example.

I doubt that candidate selection will ever be all that good, as the conflicting interests and attitudes of a potentially good councillor relative to someone whom the party will more likely go for is ultimately irreconcilable. Whatever party officials and members claim, they can never be relied upon to get it right every time.

The best one can do is to satisfy both sides of that equation, establish a personal track record in both respects (party and community) – and also not to ruffle any feathers within the party, especially locally.

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