Candidate selection. Yes, mistakes are obvious. But the balance between CCHQ and local parties isn’t too bad.

12 May

A few Conservative MPs, it must be said, have not covered themselves in glory recently. In the last month, Imran Ahmad Khan, elected for Wakefield in 2019, has announced his resignation after being found guilty of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy at a party in 2008. Neil Parish has resigned his seat after being caught watching adult material in the chamber of the House of Commons, and David Warburton has had the whip withdrawn amid claims he sexually harassed three women at a cocaine-fuelled sex event. More tea, vicar?

It is not only the Conservatives who have got themselves, to be fair. Liam Byrne faces a temporary suspension from the Commons following reported bullying and comments swirl about harassment allegations coming out of the SNP whips’ office.

Nevertheless, being in power, the focus of this website, and the party facing three potential by-elections, it is obviously the quality of Conservative candidates this article is most preoccupied with. That is especially the case today, as Mark Spencer, the Leader of the House of Commons, has said in an interview that voters can expect a higher standard from Tory candidates at the next election.

Spencer’s reasoning is that the rushed announcement of the 2017 and 2019 elections meant ‘unsuitable individuals’ were able to pass through the candidate selection process and go on to become MPs. Too much haste meant too little scrutiny of the Khans of this world. With CCHQ having overhauled its vetting procedure, placing the emphasis on corporate gobbledygook and psychometric testing, and with the first selections being made for open constituencies, the impression is being created of a party that has got its act together – and that won’t repeat the mistakes of the recent past.

Then again, Spencer’s comments do leave something to be desired. For one thing, it neglects that Parish was first elected in 2010, and Warburton in 2015 – periods in which the party had had far longer to select a candidate than in our last two general elections.

Moreover, it neglects that Khan’s selection process was rushed even by the standards of 2019. The previous candidate was removed with less than a month to go until polling day after historic social media posts were discovered. Most importantly, Spencer forgets that getting the occasional wrong’un, misfit, or deviant as an MP is hardly a new development. Back to Basics, anyone?

Nevertheless, all this brings us back to a question we are perennially asking ourselves here at ConservativeHome – what should the balance be in the selection of parliamentary candidates between the role of local associations and of CCHQ? Do we want to maximise party democracy, as our surveys show our members would like, and hand the control almost wholly over to the fine and decent folk in constituency parties up and down the land?

Or would that task prove overwhelming for the average association? And do they benefit from having a limited choice imposed on them, a la 2017 and 2019 – even if it involves three candidates, some of whom you may have known nothing about before the night of the selection?

Vital questions, obviously. One of the tensions that have riven the parliamentary party since 2019 are those between longer-standing MPs of more traditional Tory backgrounds – perhaps from safer, leafier seats – and the Red Wallers, many of whom come from backgrounds both socially and politically different from those of your classic Tory politician.

We have MPs who are increasingly rebellious, hyper-local – and not the sorts to give Spencer’s successors in the whips office a quiet life. One would fear any control exercised by CCHQ this time would be in the cause of preventing that those eager and idiosyncratic champions of the North and Midlands form being joined by too many colleagues of a similar ilk.

Certainly, if the process became even more focused on being box-ticking, centralised, and bureaucratic, the fear is we would find a party solely comprised of hacks, drones and – shudder – professional politicians. As with Oxbridge admissions, there would be the creeping replacement of the characters who would give you either a Third or a First with a class of water-treading 2:1-ers, all in the interest of a quiet life.

How easily would a budding Boris Johnson get onto the Approved Candidates List today? Too much like hard work, the algorithms and psychologists of CCHQ might decide. But the party in Henley plumped for him back in 2001 because of his own unique qualities – and those same attributes have served the party’s cause ever since. The again, he did get a 2:1.

Then again, screening candidates for particular traits and qualities isn’t wholly a bad thing. As the role of an MP becomes ever-more demanding – part social worker, part columnist, part policy whizz, part campaigner – the appeal of professionalisation grows. It is a demanding job, and like any job, only certain people have the right qualities.

You do not have to reach Mary Harrington-esque levels of abstraction to explain some of the bizarre and unruly behaviour of a few of our elected representatives in recent memory. The weirdness and stress of the job theydo does that alone, combined with the uniqueness of some of the personalities who pick it as a career. So at least some role is required for the central party, to ensure those party members are choosing from are up to basics of the task.

In that case, the best proposal still seems (funnily enough) that of our Editor’s, to allow associations to draw up a long list of six candidates, with three coming from CCHQ, and then with the opportunity to produce a shortlist of three from which to pick a candidate. Greater freedom for constituency parties is balanced by a slightly softer role for the central party – and far more of a choice than has often been available at these last two elections.

The voluntary party matters more, at times, than members might think. In 2019, it helped boot out one Prime Minister, and then elected another. It may do so again in the near-future. Giving members a say over their potential representatives is thus not unreasonable. As Randolph Churchill told his son, remember Disraeli’s dictum: ‘trust the people’.

Unfortunately for Spencer, that might mean a few weirdos, misfits, oddballs, and deviants slip through the net. Yet that is clearly preferable to having 300-odd interchangeable ex-SPADs, or 300-odd interchangeable ex-local councillors, or 300-odd interchangeable tractor enthusiasts. Unfortunately for some of us, the days are gone when the all you needed for a safe seat were to have attended a half-decent public school, got a reasonable degree from Christ Church, and whispered in a few ears at the right dinner parties.

But the sheer diversity – sorry to go all HR – of the current parliamentary party, in everything from background, to views, to ethnicity, to class, is a testament to the happy combination of party members selecting in tandem with CCHQ. Not only in satisfying various those engaged in the inanity of the box-ticking Olympics, but because it has produced a party that, for better or worse, looks more like those that vote for it than ever before. The failures of the candidate selection process are obvious, but the successes deserve remembering too.

Applications for candidate selection open for North Shropshire and St Albans

15 Apr

The Prime Minister may be attempting to block illicit travel across the Channel, but those far less nefarious routes by which ConservativeHome hears about openings for candidate selection are still very much open. In which case, we are pleased to report that the hunt for a Parliamentary Spokesperson has begun in both North Shropshire and St Albans.

The closing date is May 9th, and those interested are required to submit a CV and application of the traditional type. As mentioned previously, the party is pursuing appointing candidates for seats affected by boundary changes on a case-by-case basis, meaning that those who are selected may face being pushed out by an MP exercising their incumbency rights when the constituencies are re-jigged.

Nevertheless, that St Albans and North Shropshire are joining Oxford West and Abingdon, Bath, and Chesham and Amersham in forming part of the party’s first push for candidates tells us a lot about the thinking in CCHQ. All of these seats are held by the Liberal Democrats but were Conservative within the last decade – and in the case of North Shropshire, the last year.

Yes, there is a reason why this constituency may seem particularly familiar to avid followers of political scandals, by-election drama, and the Conservative Party’s habitual capacity for self-immolation. North Shropshire is, of course, the former seat of Owen Paterson. When he resigned his seat last year following a suspension from the Commons, the seat went yellow with current MP Helen Morgan.

The by-election last year took place in exceptionally grim circumstances for the Government, with headlines dominated by their chaotic u-turn over saving Paterson, and then by the drama of Partygate. Nevertheless, Morgan was elected on a swing of 34.1 percent from the Conservatives with a majority of 15.6 percent in what was formally a safe seat – the seventh largest by-election swing of all time.

All the more remarkably, North Shropshire was a seat that had voted to Leave in 2016. Perhaps we are finally moving on from Brexit. Or not, as the case of St Albans might suggest. Daisy Cooper won this from Anne Main (MP since 2005) in 2019, by increasing the Lib Dem vote share by 17.7 percent. In 2015, they had only received 18.5 percent of the vote.

What changed in between is that St Albans voted to Remain by 62.6 percent to 37.4 percent. Like Oxford West and Abingdon and Bath, it is thus a constituency where Tory popularity has been dented by Brexit. Which is a shame, as St Albans is lovely, with an excellent Roman museum, beautiful cathedral, and an art deco Café Rouge that I was taken to annually as a schoolboy for good exam results.

The hurdle to climb in both of these constituencies may seem imposing, with the selected candidate in St Albans facing a current majority of 10.9 percent. Nevertheless, neither should be insurmountable. One would hope that the result in North Shropshire suggests Brexit is no longer a live issue. And if Partygate is still a concern in 2024, then CCHQ has a far bigger problem than winning just these two seats.

John Moss: Preparing for the second stage of the new Conservative parliamentary candidate assessment

4 Apr

Cllr John Moss is a Councillor in Waltham Forest and a Campaign Manager at College Green Group.

The second stage of the new, two-part Parliamentary Candidate Assessment includes our old friend the group exercise, and introduces a new ‘hustings exercise’ to test speaking and answering questions, but also asking them.

The first stage of the assessment is entirely online, features a core competency interview and ‘inbox’ exercise, and lasts three hours. The first tranche of candidates are now progressing to the longer, second stage. This lasts six hours and involves two in-person exercises and two tests, taken on laptops at assessment centres in Leeds and London.

Candidates are being invited in groups of sixteen, with the group exercise being completed in groups of four and the hustings exercise in groups of eight.

We know the group exercise well. It is designed to test your ability to work with colleagues, recognise political reality and come to a common position which provides something for everyone. It is not about ‘winning’.

Candidates will be assigned one of four roles as an MP or a candidate for a seat with some particular characteristics, briefed to them beforehand. The different roles may include an MP sitting on a large majority, where the issue on which the team has to come to an agreed position may not affect many constituents, or a Conservative MP with a tiny majority in a seat won for the first time in the ‘Red Wall’ election of 2019, where the issue is incredibly important to voters, including first time Tory voters.

The scenario could be a flood, an announcement of a new road, or major regeneration project. It will be something with controversial aspects and it may be that you want to oppose it, or if it is a Government project, something you have to support. Recognising the circumstances of each constituency is important and giving way, if you have that luxury, to broader, more important political considerations will help you.

Making sensible suggestions and drafting a clear, concise and effective statement should be your goal. You have 45 minutes to complete this exercise.

The hustings exercise brings a little of Fifteen to One to the assessment. Taken in a group of eight in an informal, ‘coffee break’ setting, all candidates will be given a topic at the beginning of the day on which they are expected to prepare and deliver a five minute speech. Three of the other seven candidates will then ask questions. With eight candidates doing this, that means each person will get to speak, then answer three questions, then ask three questions as well.

We estimate this whole process will take about 90 minutes. Candidates will be assessed on their speeches and Q&A responses, and on the quality of the questions they ask as well. We advise clients not to be too aggressive with their questions, especially if an early speaker. It could come back and bite you.

Those being assessed will also take two further tests online. A psychometric test based on the Hogan Assessment process and a situational judgement test.

Hogan Assessments are used widely in recruitment but we understand this is being included simply to give pointers as to where candidates, if approved, may need to develop further skills. The Personality Inventory and Development Series tests include over 200 statements with which you are invited to agree strongly, agree, disagree or disagree strongly. They are something of yin and yang, including ‘inverse’ statements which test to see if you are trying to manage the impression you are giving.

There are lots of preparation sites out there which offer you dry runs. We can help you interpret the results.

The Motives, Values and Preferences Inventory offers you a central, neutral option as well. This test seeks to identify the core goals and values you have, together with the motives for your choices. We don’t advise over-practising for this test. This could just throw up a high score for ‘impression management’, which is something to avoid because it makes it look like you are trying to give the answer you think they want, rather than a genuine response.

The Situational Judgement Test lasts 30 minutes and you have to choose your most likely and least likely response from four options, from over 30 scenarios presented in a few sentences. That may not sound like a lot of time, but 45 seconds is plenty of time to read, consider and choose. Developing a ‘logic step’ approach to this test allows you to quickly identify the appropriate answer. It appears that whilst one choice may be obvious, we hear the second one may be less so.

We understand the first tranche of candidates completing both parts of the assessment will hear their results in April. We wonder if CCHQ might actually delay this until after the May elections to avoid any disappointed candidates losing their enthusiasm for campaigning. As to when selections for specific seats might start, that probably depends on the Parliamentary Boundary Review.

Applications for candidate selection open for Chesham and Amersham, Bath, and Oxford West and Abingdon

30 Mar

Although the next general election may be over two years away, it has come to ConservativeHome’s attention that the first three seats have opened applications for candidate selection. Those first three seats are:

– Chesham and Amersham – applications by 8th April

– Bath – applications by 19th April

– Oxford West and Abingdon – applications by 29th April

These three seats all have several features in common. To start, they are all currently held by Liberal Democrats, but were Conservative within the last five years. Chesham and Amersham was lost last year in the by-election following Dame Cheryl Gillian’s death, whereas Bath and Oxford West and Abingdon both turned yellow at the 2017 general election.

Additionally, each voted to Remain in 2016. According to Dr Chris Hanretty’s estimates, Chesham and Amersham did so by the smallest margin of 55 percent to 45 percent. Oxford West and Abingdon, on the other hand, did so by 61.9 percent to 38.1 percent, and Bath by the even more substantial margin of 68.4 percent to 31.6 percent. That might explain why the latter two proved immune to the exhortation to ‘Get Brexit Done’ last time around.

Finally, each have employment rates, average incomes, and house prices above the national average. Economically, each appears natural Tory ground. However, there is a significant difference between Chesham and Amersham and the other two.  In Chesham and Amersham’s case, the swing to the Liberal Democrats last year has been attributed to local factors: the unpopularity of HS2 and local building plans.

But Bath and Oxford West and Abingdon are constituencies that appear to have been isolated from the party’s embrace of leaving the European Union. Wera Hobhouse saw her majority grow in Bath by 12.1 percent, from 5,694 to 12,322 votes at the last election, whereas Layla Moran saw hers in Oxford grow from 816 to 8,943, or by 13.9 percent.

Although the 8,028 (or 21.2 percent) majority in Chesham and Amersham may be attributable to the unique circumstances of by-elections, each therefore poses a significant challenge for whomever is chosen as the candidate. Hence why, one imagines, the party is so keen to get a candidate in so early.

The e-mail notifying the closing date for applications also contained some interesting information on the party’s approach to selecting candidates for seats affected by the ongoing boundary review. The Conservative Party Board has decided to select candidates on a case-by-case basis, and on the basis of using the existing boundaries.  Although all three of these seats lack Conservative incumbents, current MPs will be able to exercise their territorial rights if new constituencies overlap with their old ones, and the selected Parliamentary Spokespeople for these current constituencies would be asked to step aside.

Furthermore, if a displaced Member of Parliament claims their rights as an incumbent, then the selected candidate and the displace Member will have to undertake a further selection procedure after the Boundary Commission have released their updated proposals. After this, if the constituency has been abolished, then there will clearly be no vacany.

With all available noise coming out of Number 10 suggesting that the next election will not be until 2024, and with the Chancellor’s Income Tax cut last week judiciously targeted for two years away, boundary changes will likely be in place by the time voters next go to the polls. What that means for candidates chosen on existing boundaries is unclear.

But it is a testament to the party’s bravery that it seeks to have candidates ready for an election in the near future, before the changes, even in spite of spiralling inflation, a cost-of-living crisis, and war in Ukraine.

Bim Afolami: So you want to be an MP? Here are six perspectives on what it’s like – and what to do.

13 Dec

Bim Afolami is MP for Hitchin & Harpenden.

After my Saturday morning of canvassing in Hitchin, I had to rush home to finalise my references for two friends who are embarking on the perilous journey otherwise known as the Parliamentary Assessment Board (PAB) – the process of becoming a Conservative candidate at the next election.

With this in mind, and remembering one of my maxims, namely that very few people in life will ever give you advice that you didn’t know already, I shall try and share a little bit of what it is actually like to be an MP.

Although I thought I was pretty well informed before getting into Parliament in 2017, aged 31, I can safely say that there was a huge amount that I didn’t know, and I made several mistakes as a result. I have tried to describe the aspects that might not be immediately obvious to you, or at least they weren’t obvious to me.

  • Make sure your spouse is fully on board. Tip O’Neill is famous for having stated that “all politics is local”. I would take it one step further: politics starts at home. Before you embark on this rollercoaster, you have to make sure that your spouse really understands what it might be like. There will be a lot of late nights away from home. If you have young children, as I do, this will often present a logistical nightmare for most of the week. Before you get elected, agree whether your spouse will appear on any political leaflets, and whether they will attend constituency events – because you will avoid a less than amused wife wondering why their face is on 40,000 leaflets going around your local town (much grovelling was required on my part after this episode). Just as importantly, make sure they get to know at least a few of your colleagues and their spouses: it will make their whole experience less lonely and alien. They will often see the more mundane side of life of an MP, not the glamorous bits. You should try and make them feel part of the whole journey. There is a reason why a lot of politicians get divorced – the demands that politics puts on a marriage are really extraordinary.
  • People remember. Once elected, although you may be the youngest, most junior and irrelevant member of the parliamentary party, outside the Palace of Westminster people care what you think and say. They will remember it. The random utterance to a friend down the village pub will now be repeated to all and sundry. The little joke at the opening of a leisure centre that fell flat will be captured on a smartphone. Be careful, and remember you are always on duty. Alcohol is rarely your friend. On policy matters, resist the temptation to promise the impossible or undeliverable to get through one election campaign, or one tricky hustings. It will be much less significant for attracting votes than you think, and can really hurt you over the long term if you get it wrong. Your statements will be remembered. Your opposition will not allow you to forget them.
  • You deal with the one per cent as an MP, but you have to keep thinking about the 99 per cent. When I say the one per cent, I do not just mean the wealthiest one per cent. I mean the poorest one per cent – those who are often in dire need of help. (The most political one per cent: those who write you regular emails. The most Conservative one per cent: your Party members. The most anti-Conservative one per cent: opposition activists.) The problem is that 99 per cent of the voters are not any of these people. You will barely hear from them. You always need to try and find ways to understand what makes them tick, what they are thinking about, and how to show them that you’re working for them. This is hard.
  • People still respect the role of MP and it really matters. I have written on this site about how I believe the role of MP can be upgraded and improved, but I am very clear that the position of MP in this country is still a very special one. For example, when you go to a local primary school and the children have spent the morning preparing very thoughtful questions about Parliament and government to put to you: they may remember the session for the rest of their lives. So don’t be blasé about it; prepare for these visits properly, and take an interest in everyone of whatever seniority. It matters to them, and even if they don’t vote for you. Over time, hopefully, they will have respect for you , which will stand you in good stead in the long term when something goes really awry – as in politics it invariably will at some stage.
  • Beware of the media. Without journalists, you can’t do your job properly as an MP. They are part of the furniture. Often they know the best gossip from inside government much faster than most of your colleagues, and can help you understand where things might be moving. Yet always beware. They have a job to do, and it is not to make you feel better, or to promote your career. It is to get bylines and top stories. Never forget that a chance remark in the queue for coffee in Portcullis House can end up in the newspapers somewhere under the ubiquitous “senior Tory” label. If you enter Parliament having not been a special adviser (as I did), you also need to remember that your more media-savvy colleagues will often be using the media in a more aggressive manner. Much of what you read will be not very accurate – not necessarily the fault of the journalist, but of your colleague who has fed them the piece of information. So treat everything with a watchful, careful eye.
  • One of my good friends in parliament, a very capable minister, has a favourite saying – “There is no permanent hierarchy in politics”. From when I entered parliament in 2017 compared to the present day in 2021, there has only been one Minister sitting continuously in Cabinet throughout that time. If you entered parliament in 2010, over two-thirds of the Conservative Cabinet ministers had changed by 2015. Turnover is high. Be respectful of those senior colleagues, but don’t be in awe of them. To people nominally at your level or below you, those positions can all be reversed very quickly. Everything is always shifting; nothing is fixed for long.

As for winning the nomination for a winnable seat, luck is the most important factor. So try, try and try again.

Start the whole process as early as possible, because it can take ten or even fifteen years from having passed your PAB to getting into parliament.

Try and campaign somewhere every week (or do phone canvassing at CCHQ), because although it will be time consuming it will (i) get noticed by CCHQ, (ii) enable you to get to know volunteers and MPs from all over the country; and (iii) help you build your political understanding of different types of voter – crucial when you are in the final selection meeting for your dream constituency, and you are thrown a curveball question.

Most importantly, remember this. Keep going through all the disappointments of the process. It is the most interesting and enjoyable job you are ever going to have. All the effort will be worth it.

What to prepare for if you want to become a Conservative MP

10 Jul

2017 was a snap election. 2019 was at least a sort-of snap election. One consequence is that it’s been a while since would-be candidates underwent a full Parliamentary Assessment Board (PAB), and CCHQ are currently calling people in to get re-listed.

Charlotte Gill has already examined the party’s decision to incorporate psychometric testing into selections. But what does the rest of the process look like?

CCHQ obviously don’t hand out cheat sheets. But would-be candidates looking to find out what it’s up to may be aware of College Green Group’s ‘Becoming a Conservative MP’ package.

To which end, I did a two-hour workshop to find out what it believes awaits anyone looking to run the PAB gauntlet – both the online and in-person sections.

Before continuing, two things to note. First, the tests below are not the actual PAB. They are exercises that CGG believe will best prepare candidates for the PAB, based on their experiences preparing people (including some now-elected as MPs) for the old one.

Second, CGG very kindly offered to let me actually do the training. But it is geared towards people who actually want to be MPs and have been living their lives with that goal in mind and I, dear reader, have not. So we discussed the programme instead.

In-person assessment

The very first thing the trainer tries to sort out is why an applicant wants to be an MP. You’d think that would be simple enough, but apparently the question throws people, especially if they think it’s simply the next step in the political life-cycle after being a councillor or similar.

Preparing for the in-person test involves finding a good answer to that question. If you’re already a successful business leader or council leader, why are you trading in real power and a huge budget to become a backbench MP? Why do you think you could do more good in the House of Commons than wherever you are now? If not, what skills or experience are you bringing to the green benches that other candidates are not?

Once you’ve worked out why you’re there, the next step is teasing out which parts of your CV and backstory best support your case. A bare list of achievements is probably not enough – lots of able and accomplished people want to be MPs. Instead, the trainer helps applicants embed proof of key skills and attributes in stories that will hook the assessors’ attention, and help them stand out when the latter compare notes at the end of what was probably a long day.

At CGG, they run you though what looks like quite a comprehensive list of questions intended to illustrate qualities such as leadership, resilience and drive, relating to people, and communication skills, as well as probing your Conservative principles. There is also a section intended to highlight stand-out episodes from one’s personal, professional, and political life.

Online assessment

The online part of the process is divided into two parts: a ‘situational judgement test’, and the aforementioned psychometric test.

In the former, the applicant is presented with a variety of scenarios and then a list of possible responses, and asked to rank these from ‘most likely’ to ‘least likely’ to do. These include constituents approaching you with problems, a young activist joining the party and wanting to meet, allegations of impropriety against colleagues, and so on.

For the latter, CCHQ haven’t publicised which test they’re using but after talking to HR professionals, CGG think that the Party is using the Hogan Assessment Series. This consists of:

  • Hogan Personality Inventory – Highlights your positive attitudes
  • Hogan Development Survey – Unearths any negative traits
  • Motives, Values, Preferences Inventory – Tests whether an applicant is a ‘good fit’ with an organisation

These tests work by firing a lot of questions at you in a short space of time, with controls thrown in to highlight if you’re answering at random or dishonestly. Whilst they’re hard to prepare for, one can pay to sit the Hogan tests independently if one wishes to.

Conclusions

There can surely be few who have had the privilege of working on the parliamentary estate not of the view that all parties could do with a more rigorous procedure for selecting their parliamentary candidates, for a variety of reasons, and it is good to see CCHQ taking the time to overhaul the process.

However, as with any instance of professionalisation in politics, there is a danger that it ends up producing homogenisation. Selecting people fit to represent the nation in Parliament is not the same as choosing an individual to fit into a well-defined role in a commercial organisation.

Given that, it would be regrettable if CCHQ placed too much weight on the online part of the process. If psychometric testing can filter out obviously unfit applicants who might have slipped through the net (and that’s a very big if), then that’s all to the good. But it can’t be allowed to reach the point where perfectly suitable but unorthodox applicants run into a wall of ‘computer says no’.

On the question of teamwork, specifically, the trainer noted that the Party seem to have abandoned the ‘group exercise’ from the old PAB. This saw a group of candidates assigned roles as MPs or candidates for constituencies affected by a common problem (such as a new road) and tasked with working together to find a solution. It would certainly be more time-consuming than just sitting a Hogan test, but it would probably do a much better job of weeding out shrinking violets and bullies.

Jackie Doyle-Price and Miriam Cates: The trans debate. Women are standing up for their rights, not declaring a culture war

10 Jul

Jackie Doyle-Price is a former Health Minister, and is MP for Thurrock. Miriam Cates is MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge.

This week, Frank Luntz, the U.S pollster, said that “The problem with woke and with cancel culture is that it is never done. The conflict and divisions never end,” warning that “this is not what the people of the UK want – but it’s coming anyway.” In a report for the Centre for Policy Studies, Dr Luntz states that woke culture is now the biggest dividing line amongst voters.

His research into UK voter attitudes found that ‘wokeism’ is now a top three priority for the British public, and that the divisions between the ‘woke’ and the ‘non-woke’ are greater than those between north and south, urban and rural, women and men, and even young versus old.

Into this new battleground has ridden the Prime Minister’s special envoy for LGBT Rights, Lord Herbert . The former MP for Arundel said last weekend: “I wouldn’t like to see the government in any way take a side on what some are seeing as a culture war on these issues”.

But he then did exactly that by praising the work of Stonewall, and suggesting that “it would really help to change the debate in this country if we had more trans people in leading positions in our national life here” – in particular a “transgender Member of Parliament”.

The more than 800 comments below a subsequent Times article leave little doubt that the general public have very definite views on the desirable qualities of parliamentary candidates. And that women in particular are increasingly concerned about the erosion of rights and language in this particular arena.

As the judge in last week’s High Court judicial review over the inclusion of transwomen in the women’s prison estate made clear, we are now at a point where there is a direct collision of rights: those hard-won sex based rights and protections for women and girls, and the rights of a small group of people who feel that their gender identity differs from their sex.

Implying that this is a “culture war” is to debase what is a valid fightback by women against the erosion of our rights, our descriptive language and our spaces. An aggressive agenda is currently being pursued by a number of organisations – including Stonewall – resulting in legitimate concerns amongst parents, doctors, psychologists, athletes, teachers and women’s groups as well as the wider public.

Talk of culture wars does not help to encourage moderate and sensible debate, nor the search for solutions that respect and protect the rights of both groups.

We have all seen the rifts that formed across our four nations following the EU Referendum in 2016, and the vast majority of people despair of this increasing polarisation, and wish to live in a society where we are united by our common goals and aspirations, not divided by identity politics. A Cassandra, in the form of Dr Luntz, has predicted the US-style trajectory on which we are currently plotted, and from which we need to start to steer a new course.

Tolerance, a virtue for which the British have enormous capacity, is becoming the exception rather than the rule. People are bewildered as to where the new diktats are coming from. NHS leaflets talk of ‘cervix havers’ and ‘chest feeders’, Government policy documents on menstrual products in schools’ reference ‘learners’ instead of ‘girls’, and the House of Lords had, only recently, to fight for the inclusion of the word ‘mother’ in the Ministerial & other Maternity Allowances Bill. Our own amendments to this Bill in the Commons’ stages, to ensure the word ‘woman’ was included, were not accepted.

Perfectly legitimate and temperate comments on social media by celebrities can result in outcry and calls for ‘cancellation’; ‘misgendering’ and stating biological facts can lead to the law courts; academics and people in other ‘woke-heavy’ industries feel silenced and afraid to speak out.

How can it be right when ordinary people find themselves accused of ‘bigotry’ for expressing mainstream opinion? This is not a healthy development: all ideas must be open to robust debate and scrutiny, otherwise one must doubt the very democracy on which our society is based.

And let us not forget that our Parliament is still far from representative of our population – 51 per cent of the UK are female while women make up a mere 34 per cent of members in the House of Commons (an all-time high), and 28 per cent of the Upper Chamber.

Within the Conservative Party, women make up only 24 per cent of our MPs. It is barely 100 years since women were even allowed to vote or stand for election – and less than 65 years since women were allowed to sit in the House of Lords.

But, as Pink News proclaimed in December 2019, the UK Parliament is “the gayest in the world” – with no less than 57 openly LGBTQ members, and 8.8 per cent of members in the Commons, including 11 women and 25 Conservatives. It could be said that LGBTQ representation is positively thriving.

We would like to invite Lord Herbert to engage with those whose views differ from his own; to meet some of the women’s groups who are concerned about the rights of women prisoners or victims of domestic violence; to listen to the voices of parents who are increasingly concerned about the push to ‘affirm’ questioning children and steer them down a pathway of lifelong medical interventions; to hear from those in the gay and, particularly, lesbian community whose same-sex attractions are being called into question; and to consider the views of sportswomen who have concerns over safety and fairness.

He will find that there is no battle against LGBTQ individuals, nobody wishes to deprive anyone of their rights, but that, as can be seen by the huge exodus of women from other political parties that have not stood up for the protection of the sex-based rights of women and girls, the time has come for us in the Conservative Party to stop with the entreaties to #BeKind – and start to be sensible in finding a solution that does not mean expecting women to keep quiet, move over and make space.

Fleet wins the Conservative selection for the Chesham and Amersham by-election

5 May

Tonight, members of the Chesham & Amersham Conservative Association have selected Peter Fleet to be the Party’s candidate for the upcoming by-election.

Fleet, the Chairman of the Retail Automotive Alliance and former president of Ford Asia Pacific, won outright in the first round, with more than 50 per cent of the ballots cast.

He beat Nikki da Costa, the Director of Legislative Affairs at Number 10, and Olivia Seccombe, the Head of External Affairs at the National Farmers’ Union.

At the by-election he will be defending the majority of 16,223 secured by the late Dame Cheryl Gillan in this safe Tory seat.

James Evans: Welsh Conservatives need candidates who aren’t the “usual suspects” – we need genuine diversity

23 Oct

Cllr James Evans is the Cabinet Member for Economy, Housing and Regulatory Services on Powys County Council.

As we go into the 2021 Senedd elections, the Welsh Conservative Party has what is possibly its best opportunity to date to gain seats in places we have never thought possible and to form the first Welsh Conservative Government.

Paul Davies has set out a vision that a Welsh Conservative Government will create a devolution revolution and, as Boris put it, “clear out the nostrils of the Welsh dragon”. With new & fresh vibrant policies that are Wales-centred and which will change Wales for the better, ending over 20 years of Welsh Labour and Liberal Democrat neglect of our country.

In the 2019 General Election, we saw people in their droves voting for us for the first time. Undoubtedly, Brexit and the Corbyn effect helped us gain the 80 seat majority. The Boris influence was a factor and that will no doubt also impact on the 2021 elections.

If we want to win a majority in the Senedd, we need to relate to voters and that means picking candidates who aren’t necessarily the “usual Tories”.

We made some of the biggest gains in 2019 in constituencies with candidates with strong local connections, or candidates from a blue collar/business background who related to voters. Candidates who offer something different, real life experiences. For example, Sarah Atherton who was a social worker and served in our armed forces. Dr James Davies, who still works in the NHS and Virginia Crosbie, who worked in banking and then retrained into teaching Maths. These candidates have real life experience and can relate to voters and this is something we need to build on going forward.

If we want to win enough seats to deliver our policy platform in 2021, associations must select from a wide range of candidates who are ‘real’ and can relate to people, who have life experiences and skills to bring to their communities and the Senedd. In my honest opinion, in recent times we have moved too far away from the working / middle class ordinary business owner candidate and have been too focussed on ex-special adviser or lobbyist candidates who have spent most of their working life in politics or lobbying politicians and have little experience outside the political bubble. Candidates should be selected on ability and merit and not as a reward for services to the party or to fill a quota or based on who they have previously worked for.

I am not suggesting for one minute that those candidates shouldn’t be considered or that they do not have something to bring to the table. Their experience of negotiating political issues and their experience of political workings is a bonus. However, we need, as a party, to encourage more diverse candidates; we need to ensure those who don’t come from those backgrounds feel they have an equal chance of selection and are equally worthy. Selecting those with less career political experience and encouraging and selecting more of those with a proven private sector or front line experience should be a priority for the party if we want to govern in Wales.

When I attended my Parliamentary Assessment Board and my Welsh Assembly Assessment, I was amazed by the amount of ex special advisers, lobbyists and graduates who were attending and there was only a small handful of people who come from private business, blue collar jobs, or people who did not attend higher education, or, as I see it, people who have experience in the real world outside of politics.

When I speak to other candidates from the private sector, from business or blue collar backgrounds who haven’t ‘grown up’ in the political bubble, they feel sometimes not as good as others who have a politics degree or have the experience of working in Westminster and Cardiff. The failure to select people with skills and abilities outside of the bubble simply weakens us, at a time when we should be at our strongest.

What I want in a candidate is someone who can walk into a hospital, small businesses, building site, or a livestock market, and communicate with people, empathise and have a genuine understanding of their needs, the work they do, and understand the issues they face on a day to day basis. I don’t believe having a degree or a political background makes you a better candidate. For me its someone who can have the down to earth honest conversation that people and members want and actually support their community and resolve issues instead of talking the good talk during a selection meeting and using the old buzz words of I will “fight” “strain every sinew”; then get selected and don’t follow through on their promises.

2021 is the best chance the Welsh Conservatives have to secure a working government in Cardiff Bay in more than 20 years. To achieve that, we need a strong group of candidates who aren’t the ‘usual suspects’ and made up from a wide variety of people from different backgrounds and experiences – to ensure that the best policies are developed that work for all the people of Wales. These are the people who broke the red wall in 2019.

Interview: “Petrolhead” Milling denies that Elliott is really in charge at CCHQ, and says that she’s visited all 48 Red Wall seats

30 Sep

Amanda Milling’s “greatest love” is Formula 1 and she is making sure the Conservative machine is ready for next year’s election races: “I’ve got the bonnet open, we’re having a look at what needs a bit of oil, what maybe needs replacing.”

As Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party she announces “the biggest conference ever”, starting on Saturday, and has been “on the road constantly for the last three months”, visiting all 48 of the Red or, as they are now sometimes called, Blue Wall seats won off other parties at the general election.

Milling denies in this interview that Ben Elliot, her Co-Chairman, runs the show at CCHQ, just as Andrew Feldman did for David Cameron.

She does not deny that since the general election victory in December, CCHQ has got rid of some campaign managers: “It’s not unusual after a general election you don’t have as many campaign managers round the country.”

Her role, she explains, is not to represent the party on the airwaves, but to maintain close contact with activists: “So I haven’t been on either the Today programme or Newsnight, but obviously with Conference it’s a big opportunity to reach out to our activist base.”

The interview was conducted on Monday afternoon in her office at CCHQ, which is adorned by pictures of Margaret Thatcher and Boris Johnson.

ConHome: “What do you think the virtual party conference will be like, and what do you hope to achieve from it?”

Milling: “Well I’m thoroughly looking forward to the virtual conference which starts on Saturday. It’s going to be the biggest conference ever, given the number of registrations.

“Obviously I’m disappointed we’re not in Birmingham, but we are where we are. You do find yourself attracting people who would normally not come to conference, by virtue of being able to dial in from your home.”

ConHome: “It is very expensive, in time as well as money, to go to conference.”

Milling: “Yes, in terms of normal conference, if you think about actually going along to Birmingham or Manchester, the hotel, it can be quite a big commitment.

“But I’m delighted we’ve got this virtual conference this year to be able to pour more people in, and hopefully it’ll give them appetite to join us at future conferences both in the spring and in the autumn.”

ConHome: “Will they be able to answer back, or to applaud?”

Milling: “It’s going to be very interactive. A virtual conference does give us the opportunity to have that chat function. People can pose their questions.

“I think that’s quite an important part of this. Because otherwise I think there’s a bit of a danger that it’s permanently just ‘transmit’ – it’s much better to have that interaction – the ability to ask colleagues questions.

“And I’m very pleased that ConHome are having the fringe events too.”

ConHome: “We are, in massive number. Just so you can help us plan, how many set-piece speeches will there be?”

Milling: “We’ve got set-piece speeches from the Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary, Chancellor and Prime Minister, but other Cabinet ministers will be having their slots as well.”

ConHome: “Let me ask you about your function, and do this by looking back for a moment. We’ve had a number of dual chairs, we’ve had Saatchi and Fox, then we got to Feldman and Shapps, and Feldman chaired the Board, and Feldman really was David Cameron’s man, he was in effect the real Party Chairman.

“I’m going to put this to you absolutely straight. There’s a view that Ben Elliot chairs the Board, Ben Elliot is a long-time supporter of Boris, as you are, and Ben’s the real Party Chairman.

“And that with no local elections this year it’s been very hard to see what you’re up to, or some people would say, brutally, why you’re there.”

Milling: “It’s very much a Co-Chairman role, and very much teamwork, with both of us working together. Inevitably we take on different roles and responsibilities.

“Your point about campaigning. Whilst we did have the pause, the postponement of elections earlier in the year, we still have to work towards those elections next May.

“During the summer since we had the easing of lockdown one of the things that’s been really important is setting out guidance for our activists in terms of how they can campaign in a Covid-secure way ahead of those elections next year.”

ConHome: “Tell us about your year. What have you been doing with no local elections? How did you fill in and prepare for next year’s?”

Milling: “Let’s be honest, when I was appointed Co-Chairman back in February I was there ready to get out campaigning and get out also to those seats which are the Blue Wall seats.

“They are Blue Wall seats not Red Wall seats now. Lockdown made that somewhat more difficult. But during lockdown I did a lot of work engaging with the membership via our various new virtual platforms, Zoom and Teams.

“in fact the day was filled morning to evening engaging with our activists. Actually you can get to see more activists in many ways using technology because you’re cutting out the travel time.

“But then after the lockdown was eased I started on what my original mission had been which is to get out and visit these Blue Wall seats.

“And at the weekend I did my last visit which meant I’d visited every single seat that we gained in December. I’ve been on the road constantly for the last three months.”

ConHome: “You actually visited physically?”

Milling: “Physically every single one.”

ConHome: “Could you remind me how many that is?”

Milling: “It is 48.”

ConHome: “And how many times in the year have you been put up on the Today programme or Newsnight?”

Milling: “So I haven’t been on either the Today programme or Newsnight, but obviously with Conference it’s a big opportunity to reach out to our activist base, our members, and talk about my vision for the party.”

ConHome: “Will the local elections definitely go ahead next year?”

Milling: “Yes, there is a lot of work going on in the Cabinet Office to make sure that those local elections go ahead.”

ConHome: “This is a bumper crop of local elections. What have we got? We’ve got London…”

Milling: “We’ve got the county council elections, PCC elections, mayoral elections from 2020 and also 2021, we’ve got elections in Wales and elections in Scotland. So you’re right, this is an absolutely bumper year.”

ConHome: “And everywhere you’ve got a third of the council being elected.”

Milling: “And you’ve got some by-elections. This is why this conference is a really great opportunity to galvanise the troops, enthuse the troops in terms of campaigning.

“I think back to about June time, I would go round the House of Commons, I would literally have colleagues going ‘When can we go out campaigning?’ I was actually hearing that from the grassroots as well.

“And it’s been great to see people getting back on the campaign trail, having rested their legs over lockdown.”

ConHome: “Do you think these elections will be seen as a referendum on the Government?”

Milling: “These elections are our opportunity to really demonstrate Conservatives delivering at a local level. These are local elections, but on a very large scale, given that they are two years’ worth.”

ConHome: “How has it come about that the opposition to the way the fight against Covid was conducted is actually now being led by the Chairman of the 1922 Committee?”

Milling: “Throughout this, we as a Government had to respond to an unprecedented situation with measures to protect jobs, businesses and also lives.”

ConHome: “But how come you seem to have lost the confidence, up to a point, if I read his piece in The Telegraph on Saturday rightly, of the Chairman of the ’22?”

Milling: “So what this debate is about at the moment is the time spent in Parliament discussing it. Today [Monday], as an example, we are having a debate on Coronavirus and the various measures, and a staggering 80 people are in that debate. And there will be further debates and votes going forward.”

ConHome: “But some of them are hopping up and down because today they say we’ve had another set of regulations sprung on us without any notice, saying you can’t dance in a pub and you can’t sing in a pub.”

Milling: “What the Government’s having to do is respond to what is a very fast-moving situation, but at the same time giving colleagues the opportunity to debate that, as is being demonstrated this evening.”

ConHome: “Do you feel there’s been a movement among the colleagues towards a more Swedish-type solution?”

Milling: “Colleagues are as I say debating this today and the Government are responding to the science and the research to ultimately save lives, and that’s the most important thing.”

ConHome: “If this Brady amendment is debated on Wednesday, by then we would expect the Government to have made some move to accommodate it?”

Milling: “We will be having the vote on the Rule of Six next week.”

ConHome: “Though not amendable.”

Milling: “The days of me being in the Whips Office in terms of what’s amendable are over, you seem to forget.”

ConHome: “What do you do in your spare time? Though by the sound of it you don’t have all that much of it just at the moment.”

Milling: “Well my greatest love, and I do try to carve out the time for this, is watching Formula 1.”

ConHome: “Gosh!”

Milling: “So I am a petrolhead.”

ConHome: “From what age were you a petrolhead?”

Milling: “From childhood. I was brought up around cars.”

ConHome: “Who are the greatest racing drivers in your lifetime? Lewis Hamilton’s a bit dull, isn’t he? I mean obviously very good at it.”

Milling: “He’s very, very good at it. He had a bit of a tough day in the office yesterday. Eddie Irvine I always thought was quite an interesting character, because he really took the challenge to Schumacher at the time if I recall rightly.

“So I love Formula 1. So you can imagine my Sunday evenings are most definitely carved out for watching the highlights.

“It’s nice downtime. It would be nicer to actually go to one, but obviously at the moment that’s more difficult. Going to Silverstone is a great, great experience.”

ConHome: “You were brought up around cars?”

Milling: “My father had some vintage cars. There’s a photo if I recall correctly of me at about two in a kind of jump suit with a spanner in hand, although I’m not sure I’d be very good at servicing cars.

“Although on the matter of servicing cars, in terms of this particular role at the moment, I’ve got the bonnet open, we’re having a look at what needs a bit of oil, what maybe needs replacing.

“You haven’t maybe been able to do these things over the last few years, because we’ve just been so focussed on elections.”

ConHome: “So you’re tuning the engine.”

Milling: “We’re tuning the engine. Curiously, lockdown enabled us to do that to a greater extent.”

ConHome: “What sort of things?”

Milling: “One of the things is the candidates’ process, so an end-to-end review of that, from identifying talent to assessing talent and then supporting and nurturing talent.

“We did the Welsh review. We’ve recently appointed a team member to be the campaign manager for Northern Ireland.”

ConHome: “In the past there’s been a lot of criticism of losing highly knowledgeable campaign managers after a general election, and then the machine not in fact being in proper working order, for example in 2017.”

Milling: “So what we’ve been doing over the last few months, particularly ahead of next year’s elections, is making sure that our team are in the right places.

“But also over time our main focus is on getting the organisation fit for not just next year but 2024.”

ConHome: “The organisation was very scanty in many of the 48 seats which were won in December. What are you doing to build up some troops, some boots on the ground, for next time?”

Milling: “There’s a big piece of work we’ve been undertaking looking at these Blue Wall seats. Lee Rowley, who’s the Deputy Chairman, has been sitting down with all these colleagues to really get under the skin of what have they got, what have they not got, what their priorities are, what we need to do to build a membership and activists in these different areas.

“We’re going to be having a working group to make that more action-focussed.”

ConHome: “You just said you’ll be getting the campaign managers to the right places. Is that fewer people to the right places?”

Milling: “It’s not unusual after a general election you don’t have as many campaign managers around the country. But I think the main point for me as well is making sure that those campaign managers that we’ve got are focussed in the right places, particularly ahead of next year, which you know is a challenge, given the number of elections that we’ve got.”

ConHome: “When you went round the Red Wall or Blue Wall seats, how many of them don’t have a Conservative councillor?”

Milling: “It’s a big of a mixed bag. I think the key here is about building on having a Conservative MP. From being out on the ground, when I’ve met with businesses and residents, they’re really chuffed to have a Conservative MP who’s really there acting on their behalf, a voice in Parliament for them.”

ConHome: “How many of them actually have activists, never mind local councillors? How many of them have had to put together a team outside the traditional association structure?”

Milling: “My seat back in 2015 was a marginal seat and you have to build it up over time to have that broader activist base.”

ConHome: “Previous Chairmen have actually declared the membership figures. I don’t think you’ve got any plans to do that, have you?”

Milling: “No. I’m not going to be declaring the membership figures.”

ConHome: “Why not?”

Milling: “There’s a number of things on this. Number one which is actually membership’s just part of the Conservative family in many ways. It’s also about activists as well.

“At the end of the day, the most important thing is actually people putting their cross by the Conservatives at an election.

“But what I would say is that membership is up from this time last year.”

ConHome: “Is there any other organisation – the National Trust or whatever – name me another that doesn’t declare their membership.”

Milling: “Look, I’m not going to declare the membership numbers. But as I say, it is up from last year.”