Tag Archives: candidate-selection

Is Julie Kirkbride’s resurrection thanks to her Midlands Industrial Council links?

It is quite astonishing to see Julie Kirkbride apparently announcing that she intends to restand for Bromsgrove after all, and that CCHQ is apparently actively helping her. If, as ConservativeHome contend, she is going to be subjected to an open primary (and not a misnamed open caucus) it will be an interesting contest as this will be the first time an incumbant will have been subjected to the system. It certainly has the potential to blow up in her face; it also has the potential to blow up in the party’s face. How will this no expenses rule of their’s apply when one candidate already has such an in built advantage?

As for why CCHQ have decided to be so generous to her, one has got to wonder if it has something to do with her links to the cabal behind the Midlands Industrial Council scam a few years ago. You may recall that after a lot of resistence, Kirkbride was announced the “link person” between the MIC and the Conservative Party.

The full list of the MIC’s donors have never been revealed (they were very careful to only publish a “membership” list) and it is understood to be behind such things as the Taxpayers’ Alliance (which, naturally, has it’s own well resourced West Midlands office – but not an office in one of those minor regions like Scotland where the Tories don’t have a cat in Hell’s chance presumably all money is being properly spent). What we do know is that their campaigning operation has, under Lord Ashcroft, been streamlined into the main CCHQ operation.

Win or lose, an open primary will cost the Bromsgrove Conservatives around £40,000 to run. Previous open primaries have been conducted to cleanse the party’s reputation – here the money appears to be being spent to at least give Kirkbride an attempt to cleanse her own. The party itself will be getting less out of it – Kirkbride’s continued presence will not exactly help the brand in the rest of the country. Clearly therefore, someone thinks she’s worth it. I just hope people will be asking the right questions.

Opening out the mayoral selection process

I forgot to link to my Lib Dem Voice article about how the party might want to reconsider how it selects its candidates for London Mayor, the London Assembly and possibly the European Parliament. This follows on from the article I wrote last week:

Both Conservative and Labour politicians have been talking recently about primaries and indeed the Tories ran a primary election for London Mayor in 2007. I believe it is time the Lib Dems similarly looked at opening out our procedures for selecting our Mayoral and Assembly candidates for 2012, and possibly the European Elections in the longer term.

One thing I should be clear about: primaries are not a particularly good tool for increasing political participation. If you are serious about democratic renewal, then you have to support electoral reform. What they are good for is reviving political parties, something we could do with a bit of. Indeed, that is the crucial lesson we can learn from the US. In the US, candidates use primaries to build up their supporter base and use those supporters to drive their subsequent election campaigns. The UK has nothing comparable. Moribund areas remain moribund and we do nothing about them.

I don’t believe the Lib Dems can afford to run an open primary across the whole of London along the lines of what the Tories have recently done in Totnes. That would cost somewhere between £2.5 million and £3 million. Instead, I would like to see us run a series of caucuses.

Read the rest here.

A Straw poll on primaries

Progress have launched a campaign for Labour to adopt primaries, following on from David Miliband’s Tribune article last week. To mark it, they have quickly whizzed out a short paper by Will Straw (pdf), who I am shocked to discover is now 29 (I have to admit that I still think of him as a horny cannabis-frazzled 17 year old who got stung by a Mirror journo and I’m convinced this happened yesterday). A few brief thoughts on the paper:

  • Will has a positively Jack Straw-esque command for spin. Feeling that he can’t get away with the standard definition of open and closed primaries, he comes up with an option of Labour adopting either semi-open or fully open primaries. In fact, his fully open version is what I recognise as either semi-open or semi-closed system while his semi-open system is closer to a closed primary (Wikipedia has a list of definitions). The arbitrary change in terminology probably has more to do with a concern with not wanting to advocate a system that could be described as “closed” than anything else.
  • Straw appears to approve of what he terms “meaningful electoral reform” but nowhere does he address the objection that both the Labour and Tory hierarchies seem to be shouting about primaries as a distraction from proper electoral reform. The objection that any open list or preferential voting system would do everything that a primary system would do, only more cheaply and inclusively, is not listed as one of the main criticisms of the primary system despite the fact that it is the most compelling.
  • At no point does he address the rather thorny issue of cost, which is surely the biggest single objection to rolling out the system. To be fair, he does refer to ‘cost’ once – when he advocates using online voting. There are very strong reasons to object to online voting (disclaimer: while I agree with ORG when it comes to e-voting, I am somewhat more sanguine than them about e-counting) and we should oppose it for primaries as much as for the elections themselves. Sorry, but there is no way that would be an acceptable way to keep costs down.

Fundamentally, although addressing some internal Labour preoccupations, this paper fails to address the main objections to primaries: why bother when “meaningful” electoral reform does so much more, so much more cheaply; and how will it be paid for. I will give him credit where it’s due however: unlike the Tories, he does at least quite rightly argue that the focus for primaries should not be marginal constituencies where primaries will act as little more than an opportunity to promote the party’s candidate, but in the more moribund seats (Straw defines this as constituencies where the CLP has fewer than 200 members) where primaries most certainly WOULD have a meaningful impact on increasing participation. He’s right: if you are serious about using primaries as a means to democratic renewal that is where you should start.

More thought on primaries – and London Mayors

Now that the Tory’s primary in Totnes is over, I thought I’d add a couple of extra thoughts following my previous post on the subject.

The first is that, following the discovery that the candidates each had an expenses limit of £200, it is hard to see how this was much of a test at all. Despite the fact that “hundreds” of people are reported to have attended the hustings, the fact that a total of 16,000 people voted suggests that this was little more than a beauty contest. I’m all for spending limits, but this was clearly ridiculous. What’s more, it may yet be something the Tories end up rueing as Sarah Wollaston is almost entirely untested as a campaigner. The process has given her a massive boost, but I wouldn’t write off the Totness Lib Dems just yet.

Secondly, it is hard to see where the Tories go from here. Despite the fact that they have almost 200 selections still to run before the general election, no-one is calling for it to run open primaries in even a majority of them. At a cost of £8 million for 200 contests, it is not surprising. Until the advocates of this system start talking about how they propose paying for it, we can fairly safely ignore them.

There has been an interesting ripple in the Labour Party following this. Miliband is now proposing a system of closed primaries (i.e. open to supporters only). David Lammy has called for something similar to be used for the selection of Labour’s next London Mayoral candidate (the Standard claims that this is an “explosive intervention” which may be over-egging it just a teensy bit). Cynics are already dismissing this as Lammy throwing his hat into the ring. If this is the case, it is somewhat misguided – if Livingstone is determined to restand who on earth could beat him in an open contest?

Since the post is unlikely to be disappearing any time soon, the London Mayor is a position that might well benefit from all the parties holding a more open candidate selection process. As Lammy says, the system used by the Tories to select Boris was a bit of a disaster, barely increasing participation at all. But if the barriers were lowered, it could be a very healthy contest.

For the Lib Dems, opening out the process would be especially interesting because the party’s existing selectorate is currently concentrated in the South and the West of London. The rest of us get ignored. I hear these reports of Richmond Lib Dems getting harrangued by candidates. Speaking as a Barnet member: if only.

But of course there is the cost. I don’t see the party being able to afford a Totnes-style open primary any time soon. But that is no reason to do nothing. I would propose the following:

  • Combine the contest for Mayor with the contests for London Assembly candidates.
  • Instead of counting London as one big college, hold seperate contests in each London Assembly constituency. There are 14 of these. For the Mayor and the Assembly “top up” seats. Count the votes so that each contituency’s votes are the same, or at least proportional to voting size (the current system of one-member-one-vote means that the votes in the South West eclipse the rest of the city).
  • Roll out a series of caucuses in each constituency. Caucuses should be open to anyone on the electoral roll of that constituency. For various reasons it is probably impractical to hold all caucuses at the same time. Instead, caucuses should be held according to how many members are in each constituency, from the lowest upwards. That way, candidates will have an incentive to campaign in areas where the party is least strong and thus gain a “snowball effect.”
  • Caucuses should not be combined with hustings but each constituency should be free to hold one or more hustings as they wish.
  • A final rule: the winning mayoral candidate should automatically be on the party’s list of top up Assembly candidates. Their position on the list should depend on how many top ups were elected in the previous election. So in 2012 the Mayoral candidate would be placed fourth. That way, the Mayoral candidate will still have an incentive to shore up the party vote.

I wouldn’t guarantee that a system like that would greatly increase participation. What it would do however is increase participation in areas where we currently have very little, and ensure that our Mayoral and Assembly candidates better represent the whole of London. To me, that is a very real incentive to open out the candidate selection process. With supporters of open primaries apparently content to limit them to marginal seats, they don’t appear to be able to say the same thing.

Either way, the last couple of Lib Dem London Mayoral campaigns have been such basket cases we can not only afford to experiment but it is incumbant on us to do so.

The Fernandos expose a wider failure

This has become an incoherent babble but I was determined to finish it. My apologies.

The defection yesterday of the Fernando siblings, on one level, is quite easy to laugh off. If Chamali and Chandila are “senior” party members on the basis that they have failed to get elected to any prominent position within the party (to be fair, Chamali did get elected to the FPC, but resigned almost instantly), then I must be one of the most senior party members out there. Been a member for five minutes? Not elected to anything? Well, on that basis David Cameron wants to hear from you too!

The Fernandos activities over the past couple of years have been a breathtaking example of ambition blinding individuals to harsh reality. One got a sense that Chamali was really angry at not getting selected as the mayoral candidate and wouldn’t brook the quite reasonable argument that a man who has helped run a London-wide authority (in his case, the police) was better qualified. A similar arrogance ran through Chandila’s presidential candidacy like a stick of rock. The sense of entitlement was palpable; one almost got the impression one had intruded onto the set of some dynastic soap opera.

Once the laughter dies down however, the party needs to wake up to some home truths. Specifically, we really are failing get BAME candidates selected in winnable seats. In terms of gender balance, we are actually making good progress. Of our 25 most marginal seats, 10 selected candidates are women. Of the top ten, 4 are women. If you exclude Tory marginals on the basis that we are unlikely to take them, 6 out of 13 selected candidates are women. Clearly we could still make improvements in this area, and incumbancy will always dent our progress, but it could be a lot worse. However, none of them are from an ethnic minority (quite happy to stand corrected here).

And it isn’t just the Fernandos that are defecting. Obviously there was Saj Karim in 2007, but earlier this year there was Norsheen Bhatti. I tend to be pretty dismissive of Saj as he threw his toys out of his pram despite coming second in a list of candidates in a PR election. We could have won that second seat; he simply wasn’t prepared to take that chance which was pretty shoddy. Norsheen is different. Unlike the Fernandos, Norsheen had done her graft. I first knew her back in 1998 when she was on the LDYS Equal Opportunities Committee with me. She had fought two thankless elections, as the candidate for Battersea in 2005 and Brent East in 2001. Yes, Brent East. My understanding is (again, happy to be corrected) she was out of the country when Paul Daisley died in 2003. It must have been pretty galling for her to see us go on to win that by-election.

What concerns me is less the specifics of each individual defection and resignation but the trend (with apologies to Antony Hook, who seems to think we should only ever look at this problem at an atomic level). We don’t appear to have made any meaningful progress in terms of getting ethnic minority candidates in place. The vibes I have felt coming from the Ethnic Minority Lib Dems in recent years have been a growing sense of despair and frustration. Sometimes this has been aimed at the wrong targets (if targeted at all) and lacked a proper analysis, but it is no less worrying.

There seem to be two main problems here: one is simply a question of priorities while the other is more intractable. The first one is that we have serially failed to implement anything even vaguely resembling a coherent strategy in terms of encouraging, developing and supporting candidates from under-represented groups. The model we have successfully used for women in recent years, whilst under-funded, has delivered results. For the most part, it could be reapplied to encourage ethnic minority candidates or disabled candidates. It was broadly agreed that this would happen when Navnit Dholakia was president back in 2003, but as soon as Simon Hughes took over that agenda was scrapped while Simon spent years pursuing his own preferred solution of imposing ethnic-minority shortlists and quotas in urban ghettoes. Under Clegg, we have seen the development of this Diversity Engagement Group, which is welcome, but it has taken us a breathtakingly long time to get that far. Meanwhile, Clegg’s promise of a “leaders’ academy” still seems to be lost in the ether. Maybe, post-election, we will see more progress made on this, but that certainly did not happen after 2005.

The second, harder problem is how we do politics. Simply put, there are very few jobs out there that are tougher and less thankless than being a Lib Dem target seat candidate. That is true whether you are black or white, male or female. The male target seat candidates of my acquaintance are all pretty much working at it full time at largely their own expense and have been for a couple of years now. I have to be honest and admit that I don’t personally know any female target seat candidates – I do however know several former female target seat candidates, for the most part because of what a dreadful job it is.

Frankly, we shouldn’t treat people like this. It’s horrible. But to be honest, it is hard to see how we can afford not to treat people like this. We don’t have money to pay them a stipend or give them more support (let alone things like childcare) and if we reallocated funds from elsewhere, we would be forced to fight fewer seats (this applies to investing more in training and development as well, although you can at least make the argument that better trained candidates tend to be better fundraisers, etc.).

The flipside of this approach is that it predetermines specific kinds of candidates. By putting so much emphasis on local campaigning, we have helped fuel this obsession with parochialism. These days, if you can’t actually trace five generations of your family all being born in the constituency, you get labelled a carpetbagger (I exaggerate slightly). The Lib Dems did more than most to encourage this culture, but all the parties play this game these days. Clearly such an emphasis is bad news for candidates whose parents or grandparents are immigrants (furthermore, it is no coincidence that this emphasis on the “local” has gone hand-in-hand with the greatest period of centralisation in British history, but I’ve written about that before).

Finally, another factor tied up with this emphasis on the ground war is the unfortunate tendency to play ethnic minority communities like mindless cattle. This is one aspect of local politics where the bad habits were established by Labour rather than the Lib Dems but it has become ubiquitous nonetheless. All too often, political parties treat BME communities as an homogenous group. It has to be said that there are plenty of people within those communities who, for reasons of their own, are all too happy to play along. So it is that ‘elders’ and (usually self-appointed) ‘community leaders’ like to act as middlemen (and it does tend to be men), negotiating votes in return for favours. The result invariably leads to greater racial tensions and segregation. And out of the system arise a number of politicians from ethnic minority backgrounds who are used to playing this game and all too often have a totally unrealistic idea about how politics is played elsewhere. Alongside all this comes entryism (the practice of flooding local parties with members who don’t necessarily even know they’re joining and all too often don’t share the parties values with the aim of stitching up candidate selections). It leads us with curiosities such as Irfan Ahmed and is… quaint views about women ending up in the party (I like to think that Irfan can be saved from his illiberal views as he matures; the vast majority of them are founded in ignorance and I have to admit to having some stupid ideas of my own when I was 17. But he doesn’t half push it).

I’m not saying that all politicians from an ethnic minority background come with this sort of baggage or attitude. Far from it. A lot of people, particularly second and third generationers can’t stand this sort of culture. But all too often parties, and the Lib Dems in particular, tend to indulge this sort of ghetto politics rather than side with those individuals who are fighting for a better sort of participation and engagement. Ultimately the problem is that we don’t merely fail to train and support enough BAME candidates; we end up recruiting the wrong ones.

The solution to all this, and in part some of the problems raised by Charlotte Gore a couple of weeks ago, is much less emphasis on “ground war” campaigning in favour of the “air war.” The party needs to identify a stronger public identity and a clearer vision. This will become doubly crucial if we ever gain electoral reform for Westminster.

That however is glib and somehow I doubt anyone reading this will think that is a particularly new thing to say. Nor will it get away from the fact that the Tories have now adopted many of the party’s ground war techniques wholesale, thus making it crucual for us to be able to fight like with like. We are stuck in a tussle that we can’t afford to break free from. And yet the tussle itself is causing the party to become hollowed out, alienates our supporter base and discourages some of our brightest prospective MPs from even considering becoming a candidate. However bad these problems might be for the Tories and Labour, they are that much worse for a party in third place with no safe seats and much lower funding.

It seems to me that we face two unenviable choices: transform our strategic approach and risk destroying ourselves in the process, or carry on as we have been – at best making grindingly slow progress and at worst ending up going in reverse in the process. I happen to think that in the long term the former is more desirable. The prize is not merely a better politics but a system that doesn’t end up excluding so many people from becoming target seat candidates. Incrementalism has had its day and we need to move on. But it will take a brave leader (and future chief executive) to begin the process. Either way, there is simply no excuse for not sorting out a better training and support system for BAME candidates as a high priority.

Balls, dirty tricks and candidate selection

The revelations in the Sunday Times this weekend about Ed Balls being the secret puppetmaster behind “smeargate” seem a little thin to me, but they do remind me of an incident a few years ago.

Long time readers may recall my ill-fated campaign to get Ed Balls a sex change operation so that he could stand in an all-women-shortlist having had his seat abolished by the Boundary Commission. In the event, he didn’t need one after Colin Challen decided to stand down and leave the newly created constituency of Morley and Outwood open for Balls to take (conveniently enough, no all woman shortlist was imposed of course).

What I reported at the time, from a good source close to Challen, was that he had jumped after a dirty tricks campaign had been launched to discredit him. The most high profile example of that campaign was the secret briefing that had gone on to make a bicycle accident he had been involved in look like an attention-seeking exercise.

I found the failure of the mainstream media (and, it has to be said, Guido), to join the dots and ask pretty basic questions about all this remarkable at the time. If it had been challenged, Balls could have had to struggle to find another safe seat (especially one so close to his wife’s). With Damian McBride now exposed, this is a possible avenue that journalists might want to explore further.

Candidate selection seems to be a particularly murky business in the Labour Party. The Guardian carried a very anti-Georgina Gould story yesterday, alleging that Margaret McDonough’s PR agency bbm communications helped run her selection campaign and co-ordinated a dodgy postal vote strategy. But the other side of the story – specifically that Charlie Whelan was running Rachael Maskell’s campaign in a similar manner – seems equally unsavoury. And as Alice Mahon has been keen to emphasise, this is not an isolated incident.

The overall picture is of a party utterly dominated by a self-serving elite (or, more precisely, a number of interconnected self-serving elites and dynastic families). I suspect it will require at least a couple of Parliaments in opposition for them to start to sort themselves out and become something resembling a proper party again.

Jury Team – the verdict

As I mentioned yesterday, I spent this morning at the launch of Jury Team. You can read my livetweeting of the event here.

There are a few points I’d like to emphasise:

Firstly, it is now clear that Jury Team is not another Your Party. It’s strength is the simplicity of the concept. In essence, anyone can put themselves forward as long as they sign a statement declaring that they will not discriminate against people on the basis of sex, race, age, sexual orientation, religion, etc. and sign up to the “Nolan principles.” I will credit them with the fact that this is a very simple organising principle and is likely to ensure they at least clear the first hurdle. What happens after that however, will be at least interesting.

Secondly, for an organisation that has launched itself as in favour of transparency and against sleaze, they have left themselves extremely wide open. The relatively lax vetting system (compared to the average political party) will mean that it should be quite simple for a crook to get on their books and not be exposed until after they have accepted their seats. More fundamentally – and the one thing I found absolutely gobsmacking – is that they are not imposing any transparency or capping rules on individuals putting themselves up for selection at all. The election campaign itself will of course have to abide by the PPERA 2000 and relevant subsequent acts, but if you want to get to the top of the Eurocandidate list, you can spend as much as you like and accept money from anyone you like.

The implications of this is potentially huge. It means that their candidate selection process is open to the highest bidder. And it won’t even be too hard to fix by the look of things. At the moment, the most activity is currently happening in their South East selection. At the time of writing there are four candidates, the most popular of which has twelve votes. The scope for abuse is huge and the best they can hope for is that either they get ignored (which will kill the concept stone dead) or that the various mobilising forces effectively cancel each other out.

Indeed, there is a grey area as to whether this situation is already covered by legislation or not. Does a putative parliamentary candidate, for example, count as a regulated donee for instance? I would have thought they were – and in any case would be suspicious of any candidate who didn’t abide by that minimal level of transparency. But is Jury Team highlighting this to their putative candidates?

Thirdly, while the puffery about “people before party” was all well and good at the start of the launch, by the end it had started to look dangerously like groupthink. The people on stage really did seem to think there was something magical in calling yourself an “independent” which instantly connected you to the mind of the millions of people you presume to represent. By contrast, anyone with a party label was incapable of working in the national interest. I won’t seek to repeat why this is such a nonsense again here, but there was something about it that was vaguely sinister – a communitarian notion that somehow legitimate differences of interest didn’t exist in society and that anyone who didn’t agree with this was divisive and a threat to be neutralised.

This was made quite explicit by Tony Eggington, the Mayor of Mansfield. He boldly announced that two of the reforms he had advocated were the reduction of councillors (= less scrutiny for him) and turning the “divisive” multi-member wards into single member ones. As I observed yesterday, one of the things you might expect to come out of an Independents movement would be electoral reform. Not a bit of it – what was being advocated this morning was something that resembled a paean to the the Rotten Borough. In his presentation, Sir Paul Judge talked wistfully about the era before political parties, ignoring the fact that they arose because of an extension of the franchise. This doesn’t ultimately surprise me – I’ve witnessed a similar disdain for democracy and a robust, vibrant, noisy political system from independents on numerous occasions in the past.

Fundamentally, I welcome the rise of the Independents movement. It’s time we had this debate. Let’s make it easier for them still, by introducing open lists or better still the single transferable vote. After today however I am more convinced than ever that at its heart is an anti-democratic notion of communitarianism which is ultimately a threat to progress and a free and open society. Let’s face it down in the ballot box.

Girlguides fail their policymaking badge

I hope Jane Merrick doesn’t feel that by quoting two of her articles in half an hour I am actually stalking her. But the Independent reports a new paper published by Girlguiding UK, the Fawcett Society and the BYC today about how our political system is failing young women:

More than a quarter of girls are put off by a lack of information about how they should take part, while 17 per cent believe it cannot make a difference.

Nearly half of young women say they would like to be more involved in volunteering, but when this comes to local or national politics, the figure drops to 28 per cent. Domestic violence, gangs and knife crime, bullying and equality at work emerged as the most important issues for young women.

The report calls for a new Youth Green Paper, including a demand for one person under 25 to be on every parliamentary shortlist, and the ability to vote by text message or through social networking sites such as Facebook.

I hope the Guides won’t be sewing their policymaking badges on their sleeves just yet (incredibly, the badge shown above is the real deal, and the global umbrella for guides is called the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts or WAGGGS). Are they really serious about youth quotas for candidate selections? Is this based on any experience of candidate selection processes whatsoever?

Gender quotas for candidate selections have done little to increase women candidates, as I believe the Fawcett Society themselves argue from time to time. Imposing a quota does not magically increase either the quantity or quality of the women wanting to stand as parliamentary candidates; all it tends to do is eat up time and energy spent on bureaucracy.

What we need is not a quota, but supply. Again, since the Lib Dems recognised that in the case of gender we have started making (slow, due to the fact that the relevant schemes remain under-funded) progress. If you want to increase the supply of young people in political parties, you will have to focus on developing their youth wings – all of which are various degrees of basketcase at the moment. The Guides could help actually, for example by working with the youth wings in a cross party way to promote active citizenship and encourage young women to explore their political interests. But that would mean not treating the youth wings of political parties as the pariahs of youth politics, as they currently are. A bold move; do the Guides have the guts to support it?

As for voting by text message or Facebook; words fail. This might make good faddy copy, but the implications for stolen elections are unbelievable, as even a cursory glance of the relevant literature shows. Elections held online are essentially unauditable and open to being hacked. Once again, if they are going to make bold pronouncements about how elections should be run, why didn’t they seek a partnership with a relevant youth organisation with an interest in such things, such as X-Change? If they had, they might actually have raised a far more important policy issue: that under our current electoral system all these gimmicks will fail to achieve much while it is clear that the system is rigged from the start.

Today at the Lib Dem Conference, Howard Dean made a startling claim: more under 35s voted in the US elections last November than over 65s. In fact it sounds so startling that I want to go away and factcheck it, but either way the level of youth participation has shot up in the US and it has been achieved not by having token youth candidates or letting them vote by mobile phone, but by offering them real politics and a chance to make a difference. The Girlguides should be paying more attention to that than trotting out the same old tired tropes.

Tory candidates put on watch

This is probably little more than pre-election nerves, but Michael Crick has been having fun with it:

The Conservative Party high command is so worried about some of David Cameron’s Parliamentary candidates that they’ve started holding meetings every two weeks to monitor what they call a “watch-list” of those “have the potential to embarrass the Party”.

The interesting thing about this is a) what does it say about CCHQ morale that the minutes got leaked in the first place and b) what do they mean by “potentially embarrassing”? Based purely on anecdote (and admittedly I am hardly unbiased), they do seem to have more “embarrassments” than the other parties. Every other month a Tory candidate seems to resign for making a homophobic, racist or sexist remark – and let’s not even get into the MPs. Since CCHQ almost certainly know more about their own candidates than I do, the fact that they appear so concerned means we might have an entertaining 2009.

Is UK politics institutionally racist?

Trevor Phillips thinks it is:

The public in this country would, he believes, embrace a black leader but the system would prevent it happening. “Here, the problem is not the electorate, the problem is the machine.” It was no coincidence that there were only 15 ethnic-minority MPs, he said. “The parties and the unions and the think-tanks are all very happy to sign up to the general idea of advancing the cause of minorities but in practice they would like somebody else to do the business. It’s institutional racism.”

I actually disagree with Trevor Phillips in as much as I don’t accept that the UK political system is any more institutionally racist than the US system. The House of Representatives does relatively better than the House of Commons, but the Senate does far worse than either the Commons or the Lords: Obama was the only black senator and he’s now out of the door. Meanwhile, in terms of gender balance, we do significantly better. But Adam Afriye does have a good point when he says:

“In the US a fresh face like Obama can make it in one electoral cycle. In Britain it’s generally a gradual process of service and promotion over many years, and often decades, before leading a political party.”

If we had a presidential system, it is certainly true that we would create within our own system a similar opportunity for an anti-establishment candidate such as Obama to come out of nowhere. But would we want a presidential system? I can see strong arguments either way, although my mind opposition to directly elected mayors has hardened over the past two years after seeing London’s gradual shift towards post-Livingstone politics. The same system that would prevent the meteoric rise of a “British Obama” also prevents the meteoric rise of a “British Palin.”

But we should also be mindful of the fact that neither Obama or Palin did, in fact, come from nowhere. Obama had been a state senator for eight years before entering the US Senate in 2005. Palin also made it in local and state politics first. The difference between these levels of government and their UK equivalents is that they wield far more influence and power. In the UK, even the Scottish Parliament has very few tax-raising powers; in that respect it is no different from a local authority which can only control how it allocates the cash not make strategic decisions about the level of that cash and how it should be raised. As Mayor of Wasilla (pop. 10,000), Palin had powers that Alex Salmond would hanker for. If we don’t have proving grounds such as these, how can we expect our stars to rise (indeed, I made this point about the London Assembly last year)? Currently the only real avenue is the House of Commons, and that is where there is also the most party control.

The UK Parliament and the system we use to elect its members institutionally favours candidates who are capable of running their own campaigns and working extremely long hours for years before polling day. Inevitably, this tends to favour rich people, successful entrepreneurs and lawyers, who tend to be (but are not exclusively) white, middle class and male. The Labour Party has an additional category of standard candidate background – the trade unionist – but these days these too tend to be white, middle class and male. For every Dawn Butler there are dozens of Tom Watsons and Sion Simons. Labour these days may be unlikely to foster an Obama, but it is unlikely to foster a Keir Hardie either.

Getting elected to the UK Parliament is, currently, an extreme sport. You have to be ever-so-slightly insane to want to put yourself through it. The serious question is whether this is actually healthy? Scrutiny certainly is, but in most parts of the country where we have safe seats, we have patronage in place of that. Fundamentally, we have a system that puts parties, not the public, in control.

Some have argued that the solution to all this is to have primaries, but for reasons I have already rehearsed, I don’t think that will work (nor do I think it works well in the US outside of presidential candidate selections). No, if we are serious about putting the people in control, we need a system like STV which combines a fairer electoral system with a more open system for selecting party candidates. If the Equality and Human Rights Commission are serious about exposing institutional racism (and sexism and all other forms of discrimination for that matter), then they should come out in support of electoral reform.