With only 104 (Thursday 22 Jan) days until the Northampton Borough Council election, when the voters get to decide who will be running the largest non-unitary town in England, we have yet to see who some of the political parties have selected to be their candidates. It is a situation that has brought to mind the issues I have experienced since first being selected in 2002, and subsequently in 2007 and 2011.
Although I’m not sure it counts as newsworthy, I have decided to stand down and not seek selection for this year’s election. However, taking example from the redoubtable John Dickie, I thought I’d share a few thoughts and insights on what happens in the run up to an election campaign starting, in earnest, once it is called towards the end of March.
The selection of candidates is at the centre of any election campaign. For existing Councillors, it is a relatively simple choice. They are either going to be re-selected, deselected or having chosen to stand down, retire.
For everyone else, seeking to serve the public, I’ve always believed that the early selection of candidates makes sense, for the simple reason that it allows them to canvass the electorate and raise their profile in the electoral area they’re seeking to represent. It is especially important for candidates who are standing against an existing councillor or where a vacancy has been left by a councillor standing down.
Certainly, when I was selected in 2002 it was to stand in the Electoral Ward where I live and my early selection gave me the best part of a year to extensively canvass and leaflet the area, a fact that I’m sure contributed to winning the seat in May 2003. I’m amazed that the political parties with only weeks before an election that they surely knew was coming are once again to be seen scrabbling around looking for candidates.
Why, in the four years since the last election, haven’t they got their act together and selected candidates before now. How on earth can the electorate decide upon their choice of candidate if they don’t know anything about them. Without getting to ‘League of Gentlemen’, this is a local election where local people want to know whether the candidate understands the local issues and are committed to Northampton’s growth and progress.
The reason for the current situation, from my own experience, is simple;
Following an election the winning candidates are faced with either four years in power or four years in opposition. This means they either get carried away in the euphoria of being in office, a feeling that lasts for at least 18 months, or if the losers they’re weighed down with disappointment and are rife with recriminations and internal conflicts.
After the humiliating defeat in 2007, Northampton Conservatives went through a period of denial and recriminations that lasted for almost two years before they accepted that the defeat was down to the public perception that (and yes I was a part of it) they were completely inept at running the council between 2003 and 2007. The scars of being in a minority administration labelled “the Worst Council in England” remained for a long time, some might say they last through to this day.
The Northampton Labour Party, following the 2003 and 2007 election defeats, fared even worse. Internal conflicts and recriminations from Westminster downwards led to splits, suspensions and personal conflicts that saw it tear itself apart, reflected in them being unable to field a full slate of 42 candidates in 2011. It was a standard joke within the Northampton Conservative party that if Labour ever got their act together they would walk away with the election, but that on the positive side they never would.
It came as no surprise that the Conservatives held a majority after the May 2011 election tempered somewhat that Labour, without the full number of candidates, managed to gain 10 seats resulting in 15 Councillors. It would be understandable if people asked why they should believe any of the political parties are capable of running the council if after four years they still haven’t selected their candidates.
This may be an appropriate time to dispel the notion that it is the Leader of the political groups on the Borough Council who select the candidates, in fact it’s as far from the truth as it’s possible to be. In reality the Leaders are left after an election to deal with the hand of councillors they are dealt with. Candidates are, in fact, selected by party officials. Having spent some time involved in two different parties selection processes, I can compare the two.
In the Conservatives case officials, representing the three Parliamentary Constituencies making up the Borough Council area, select for the Electoral Wards that lie with their Parliamentary Constituency. A surprisingly traditional command and control selection process that would not seem out-of-place in the former USSR, you might say. And obviously, when I said leaders don’t have an influence, they certainly don’t make the final choice. But influencing that choice may be another thing entirely.
In the case of Labour, those seeking to be selected have to apply and be interviewed, by local party officials, to go on a list. They then have to apply and are interviewed for selection to represent a Ward by the Labour members of that particular ward. A wholly democratised process, relying on Labour members of each ward turning up to the selection meetings. When this does not occur, the local officials make a decision in their stead.
Following the debacle in 2011, Northampton Labour recognised the importance of having a full slate to provide their supporters with the opportunity to vote for a Labour candidate. The campaign and candidate selection panel for this election being led by Sally Keeble, the Parliamentary Candidate for Northampton North and Danielle Stone a Labour Borough and County Council Councillor, under the local party Chairman Gareth Eales.
It is unthinkable that such a high-powered team who all volunteered for the roles would fail to have 42 candidates in place for the election in May. However, I’ve absolutely no idea when the Northampton electorate will find out who they are going to be asked to vote for in 104 days time to represent them for the next four years. What I do know, having successfully fought the last three borough elections, is that a lack of candidates or late selections lead to people being asked to stand as ‘paper candidates’ who aren’t really committed to being councillors, but are considered by the parties as better than nothing.
Worse than that, sometimes those candidates actually win. It is a farce that people are presented with someone as a party candidate who the party doesn’t expect to win, and worse still the electorate may then end up with the ‘paper candidate’ as their councillor for four years. It is not too hard to find examples in Northampton’s recent past of candidates whose election left party activists scratching their heads and wondering “What the hell do we do with them now? They’re useless!”
It is because of the incompetence of parties in selecting candidates far too late, that I fully understand people’s scepticism and disengagement from the political system.
So, will I be voting in the Local Election?
I’m a don’t know, as I have no idea who my local candidates are, and sadly it seems I am in very good company.