ConservativeHome has a rather critical, post HERE on the new 'A' List changes to be announced by David Cameron today. The key points to note are...
* 60% of the 150 people on the 'A' list are female
* Associations with fewer than 300 members to be forced to have an Open Primary in which non members can participate and vote
* Target/Con Held seats to have option of Open Primary but if not, full membership of the Association to whittle a shortlist of 12-15 names down to 4. Executive Council to have final choice after 'rigorous job interviews'.
* Two of the final four candidates must be women
* Seats to be given to option of choosing to have an all women shortlist, in which case all members can vote in the final round
I also understand that the definition of 'local candidate' is being revised and will be more restrictive in future.
ConservativeHome points out that nowhere in the new measures is there anything to address the issue of financial exclusion, or indeed any carrot to offer the 450 people not on the 'A' List.
Let's address the positives first. Nearly one third of candidates already selected are women, double the number we had at the last election. That is good progress. In more than 30 selections only 1 constituency failed to include a women in the final shortlist. This would have been unheard of in the past. Ten per cent of our selected candidates are from the ethnic minorities - also good progress. So from that viewpoint the 'A' List is delivering. But if you come from Francis Maude's "further, wider, faster, deeper" school of thought, this progress now needs to be hastened if the Party is to be seen to be changing.
I have heard only good things about Open Primaries. They have so far produced good candidates in the right seats, so I am quite in favour of their role being expanded. However, I remain deeply sceptical about giving non Conservatives voting rights in these selections. Sure, let them attend, participate and ask questions, but I am not sure it should go beyond that. I am also not sure of the logic of forcing smaller Associations to have them but allowing larger ones to choose whether to or not. It's a bit like the old Grant Maintained School logic, where parents were given the right to choose. My argument in those days was that if this was such a great policy, why not make all schools grant maintained and have done with it. The same logic could be applied to Open Primaries. So to that extent I would agree with "further, wider, faster, deeper".
However, the most controversial aspect of these new changes is that for target seats which do not go for Open Primaries, the wider membership will not have a vote on the final candidate. This is being spun as a positive thing in that the wider membership will be involved earlier in the process and draw up the final four, two of whom must be female. I am all in favour of involving as many people as possible at every stage of the process, but I fear that this change will not deliver the result which the leadership expects. By giving the final vote to the Executive Council it may well be that fewer women are chosen. The Executive Councils of Conservative Associations are possibly less representative of the wider populace than the wider membership. Because they are made up of councillors and branch chairmen they may have a higher average age than those who would normally be expected to attend a final selection meeting. Sociologically it is also true that the Executive Council tends to be made up of like-minded people from a narrower social set than the wider Association membership. I live to be proved wrong on this, but I do not think this change will reap the rewards some people think.
Offering Associations the option of all women shortlists will be seen by some as the first step on a very slippery slope. It will be interesting how many Associations avail themselves of this opportunity. And indeed, I wonder how many women would apply for such a seat. As Ann Widdecombe rightly said on the Today Programme: "A woman must be able to look anyone in Parliament in the eye, from the Prime Minister downwards, and be able to think that she got there on exactly the same basis as he did".
Restricting the definition of local candidates is something I can't comment on in depth because I do not know the details. I hope it only means that people not on the general candidates list would have to actually live in the constituency concerned in order to be able to apply for it. That would seem reasonable. But I fear that it may mean that non 'A' Listers who are on the general Candidate's List will find their options restricted even further. If so, it is another blow to those who feel they have been ignored over the last six months.
There are two things I would like to see the Party do now. Firstly, make progress to get a general candidates list which consists of 50% men and 50% women, thus rendering the 'A' List redundant. Secondly, find a way of remotivating and energising the 450 people not on the 'A' List. If that is not done soon we are going to lose an awful lot of very good people.
Declaration of interest: For those who don't know, I was put on the 'A' List in the second tranche.