Candidate selection: the Institute at the party conferences

Dozens of party members have attended IfG events at this year's conferences, shining fresh light on efforts to improve parliamentary candidate selection procedures.

The series kicked off at the Liberal Democrat Party conference where the main issue discussed was how to increase the diversity of the party's parliamentary candidates. With just seven women MPs and no non-white MPs, the party's lack of diversity remains a sore point. However, with many members opposed to All Women Shortlists and other similar measures, the party has put its faith in a new leadership programme designed to train and support diverse candidates as they seek seats at the next election.

At the Labour Party conference the question of whether the party should adopt primary elections was the focus of the conversation. Many believe these could offer a way to help the party re-engage with apathetic voters and bolster support for the party and their candidates across the country. But there is scepticism about opening up selection to all voters. Instead, the favoured approach appears to be primaries in which registered supporters of the party could participate.

Finally, at the Conservative Party conference our panel of speakers discussed the need for the party to reach out beyond its established networks to identify diverse candidates. The need for training, mentoring and support for candidates from under-represented groups was seen as essential to help the party get the best quality and most diverse candidates possible. There were mixed views on the party's experiments with primary elections before the 2010 election.

New Institute paper

In preparation for the conference events, the Institute produced a discussion paper setting out steps taken by each party to broaden their candidate selection methods. These have included all-women short-lists, primary meetings (caucuses) and postal primaries and the now-famous Conservative Party's A-List of favoured candidates.

Senior Researcher, Akash Paun said insights gained at all three events will be put to good use:

"As parties wrestle with the dilemma of increasing their appeal amidst a divergent political landscape, broadening the pool from which candidates are selected has become a critical issue. In recent years, all have experimented with different approaches, with varying degrees of success but it is now clear that they must seriously consider what measures, or combination of measures will give them a more broadly representative range of candidates".

Researcher Rhys Williams added:

"Many of the problems associated with candidate selection stem from deep rooted problems of declining public participation in politics and the shallowness of the pool of candidates from which the parties have to choose. Reform of selection procedures alone will not solve these issues, though primary elections show signs of promise in terms of engaging voters further with the political process."

The sizeable audiences attracted to the events shows how seriously this issue is being taken by party members. The Institute is working on a full report, which will take account of the insights gained during the conference season and will be published later this month.