The majority of MPs are elected in safe seats, meaning that how parties select their candidates plays a hugely important role in determining who does, and who does not, become an MP.
At present the House of Commons is unrepresentative of the UK population: only 22% of MPs are women and only 4% from ethnic minority backgrounds. Meanwhile, due to the low level of party membership, candidates are often selected by no more than a few dozen party activists.
Recognising the importance of candidate selection, all three major political parties have reformed the way in which they choose their candidates. The parties’ main objectives in reforming their selection processes have been to improve the diversity of MPs and to open out candidate selection processes beyond party members to the wider public. Reforms have also sought to professionalise the assessment process for aspiring candidates.
Specific innovations have included primary elections, gender quotas, Labour’s all-women shortlists, the Conservatives’ A-List, and the Liberal Democrat “Leadership Programme” for candidates from under-represented groups. The coalition has also committed to funding 200 postal primary elections across all parties before the next election.
The Institute for Government has looked at how each of the three main UK political parties select their parliamentary candidates and the effect this has on who is selected. This project was funded by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust and was carried out with input from four other think tanks: Progress, IPPR, Policy Exchange and Centre Forum.
The aims of the project were:
- To conduct research into candidate selection processes used by the major political parties before recent elections (and in particular innovations trialled before the 2010 election).
- To assess the effectiveness of these different processes at enhancing democratic engagement in the political process, and at increasing the diversity of those selected.
- To develop a set of conclusions about what works in candidate selection reform, and, on this basis, to set out some recommendations for what the parties should do differently in future.
- To generate debate within the parties and in the media about the issues raised, and thereby to encourage further reform of candidate selection processes.