Choosing Parliamentary candidates isn’t just about the individual; it’s also about the team

Spend time talking to Liberal Democrat members about how the party should or shouldn’t go about selecting its Westminster Parliamentary candidates and pretty soon you’ll hear someone say, usually in the context of whether or not we have too many male white candidates, “But it should be about selecting the best person for the job”. Even people who argue for either positive action or positive discrimination frequently accept the underlying assumption – but argue that to get the best person for the job requires a broader vision, taking into account wider discrimination in society (as Rhys Taylor also argues).

That argument about compensating for wider discrimination in society is a good one: if society discriminates against some people, having rules which nominally treat everyone equally just entrenches that discrimination. If you really want to treat people equally, you need to have rules that compensate for that wider discrimination.

But even that pro-action argument is too limited because of the underlying assumption that we’re just talking about ‘the best person for the job’ in the context of one person getting one job.

Yet selecting a candidate who we will hope become the MP for a constituency isn’t just about selecting someone to be that local MP, it is also about selecting someone who may join the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Parties. And good Parliamentary Parties, just like good council groups, are team affairs.

Putting together a good team, whether in politics, elsewhere in the public sector, in the private sector or for voluntary groups, is always about more than just the individual merits of the team members. It is also about having the right balance of skills, breadth of experience and a group of people who can work together so as to be more, rather than less, than the sum of their parts.

Having a good Parliamentary team matters for its direct impact on Parliament, and matters also because the Parliamentary team is a key component of the party’s wider policy making process, its shop front to the public and for the major party it plays in the leadership of our organisation.

Why then do we so often debate the rules for selection or the merits of individual candidates as if it all about the selection of an individual and not also the hopeful addition of a new team member? Sports fans know only too well that getting the best team isn’t simply a matter of selecting individuals on their own merits; the overall balance of the team is crucial.

So too in politics saying that selecting candidates is simply about the best person for the job shouldn’t be seen as a powerful statement of the obvious. It’s an erroneous statement of the narrow-minded.

Balancing the individual and team roles is not always easy or straight-forward, even though striking that balance is something many local parties are already partly used to thanks to selecting teams of local election candidates for multimember wards at council level. The issue also peeks in a little when it comes to list selections for Europe, Scotland, Wales and London, albeit less so as much of the time electing more than one person from one of those lists is unlikely.

One of the difficulties in striking the right balance for the Westminster Parliament is that hundreds of selections are run independently, spread out over time and by different organisational units. By contrast, multimember ward selections are done at the same time by the same group of people – making balancing a team much easier. Indeed, many local parties in effect select local election candidates in one big go, doing most if not all wards at once and with a beady eye on the overall balance of the team.

If the party decides to take it, there is an opportunity is coming up to make it easier for party members to consider team factors when selecting Parliamentary candidates. The changes in Parliamentary boundaries being introduced by the Coalition Government will necessitate far more crossing of local government boundaries by the new constituency boundaries. As a result, the party will have to get used to far more cases where local party boundaries cannot neatly match local and Westminster boundaries (let alone the complications that devolved boundaries also bring in places, particularly in Scotland).

That enforced need to work together, on a larger stage and across existing units, provides an opportunity to move towards running more selections for groups of neighbouring seats at the same time (and, in England, a greater role for regional parties in facilitating this). If, for example, two neighbouring council areas each have their own Parliamentary seat but also two that cross between them, selecting all four seats at one go provides some logistical advantages but also provides the opportunity to move towards a greater emphasis on thinking about the team when selecting candidates. Such combined selections would also give a helpful nudge in the direction of encouraging local parties to work together more across existing boundaries, sharing resources and skills.

In many areas we are already used to the idea that party members get a vote in selections for more than just the ward or the constituency they live in; for example, in a London borough party they may get votes for all the borough’s Parliamentary candidates and all the local election candidates too.

As with those London rules, the way to do this is not be enforced central dictact, but rather by removing some of the central straightjacket rules and giving areas the power to do this where they wish. In some places the geography of boundaries and parties will make it an obvious and sensible choice; in others it won’t. That is fine – localism is after all, something we are quite comfortable with as a party. But above all, what a missed opportunity it would be if new boundaries are just met with the old party rules.

A slightly shorter version of this piece first appeared in Liberator. On the question of what gender quotas does to the quality of people elected, see the research evidence here.

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