Becoming a Liberal Democrat candidate: an inside story

In May new member Ben Sims went through the party’s Parliamentary candidate approval process. I included a short account of his experiences in Liberal Democrat Newswire #81. Here now is a fuller version from Ben about how to be selected as a candidate, and of course if you want to know more about what to do as a candidate there’s 101 Ways To Win An Election along with my starter guide for candidates.

Candidate Approval: How to do it, what it’s like and why you should do it

Benjamin SimsTaunton has never been so terrifying. On a sunny Sunday in May, I was locked up in a school classroom for an afternoon, facing the exercises and exams of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Candidate Approval Process.

Having checked my email every five minutes for the whole week, I passed, with great relief. I’m sure there will be many people who, like me, are post-2015 election members, so I wanted to explain how the process works, give some tips and tell you why you should do it now.

How it starts

Once you’ve been in the party a year, you’re eligible to apply for assessment.

First of all, it pays to have a think about whether you have the skills to be a candidate, or whether you need to get a little more experience first. There’s a handy questionnaire the party will provide you with so you can decide whether to sign up for training sessions at Conference or elsewhere.

Once you decide you have the skills, you fill out the application form. The only hard part is coming up with three references who are prepared to vouch for you, one of whom must be a party officer. The rest takes about fifteen minutes.

I can’t overstress this: I’ve heard people who would make excellent candidates say they need to get around to doing the forms. It’s really simple and you can’t be judged on it – the examiners do not see it in order to avoid any prejudice.

So, send off your form as quick as possible and wait to be invited to the next assessment day

What it’s like

It’s like your GCSEs, crossed with a tough job interview, crossed with that time you went paint balling with the sales team to get to know each other better.

You show up at an assessment centre (in my case, a very pleasant school) and meet your lovely fellow candidates. Then after a brief introduction it’s straight into the exercises. It’s a satisfying day, but it’s intense: designed to simulate the pressures a PPC would face during a campaign, you’ll be thinking and working hard for the next four hours.

The exercises are as follows:

  1. An ‘in-tray’ exercise: This is about your ability to make good judgements and do so quickly. You’re given a series of situations which might occur during a campaign, and you need to explain what you would do and why. For example: “The BBC asks you to take part in a referendum debate, but you have promised to attend your local flower show”.* This is the first of the writing exercises; it’s intended to get you to think under pressure and it does. I think it was actually my favourite exercise, as it’s enjoyable to imagine yourself on the campaign trail making these sorts of decisions.
  2. A competency exercise: This is the job interview sort of thing; ‘tell me about a time you overcame a difficult situation’. You sit face to face with an assessor and they ask you the questions, and you reminisce about that time you faced down a pack of angry wolves or whatever. This was for me the hardest part; if you get a question you aren’t expecting, it’s very easy to panic and then start to waffle.
  3. A media interview: Also a tough one; you’ll be presented with a question based on recent news (‘you’re an education minister and a report has just shown that half of children now cannot read, why haven’t you done anything’) and given five minutes to prepare a two-minute speech ‘to camera’ (there isn’t really a camera). This is about your communication skills and policy knowledge; you don’t need to know huge amounts about the subject you’re asked about, but you will need to say something coherent about the party’s achievements and current policy in the area.
  4. A group exercise: This is along the ‘work together to create a plan’ lines. I found it the easiest of the exercises; if you’re terribly bossy or dislike putting your views to a group, you might want to get some experience.
  5. A policy exam: This is where you get to show off all that detail you learned about the 2015 manifesto. It’s another 45-minute write-as-fast-as-you-can job, designed to test your understanding of Lib Dem policy, how it compares to other parties’ and how you apply it. I can’t go into more detail here without revealing the questions, but as with everything else, you won’t be asked for anything you haven’t been told will be.

How to prepare

Like those GCSE teachers, I’ll state the obvious: read the competency framework and the overview of the exercises carefully. The process is very fair and not designed to trick you, but you need to be sure you’re ready for each of the component parts.

You will need to know policy, but they tell you which areas. Don’t spend days memorising the exact wording of our 2015 manifesto, just understand the headline policies in the key areas. While it may help me on a doorstep in future to be able to recite our exact decarbonisation targets in minute detail, I would have been better off using the time to understand the other parties’ policies, which I neglected.

There is a significant amount of handwriting to get through. The process is designed to be as inclusive and as accessible as possible, so if you are unable to write a significant amount by hand in test style conditions, let the Candidates Office know. Alternatively, you might want to practice handwriting a little!

For the competency questions, practice using STAR – Situation, Task, Action, Result. That is, ‘There was a time when I was involved with w and had to achieve x so I did y and z happened’.

Why you need to do it now

There will be some areas where our fantastic 2015 candidates will stand again. But in others, people will have moved on to other things. The fightback will need candidates prepared to work and fight hard to restore our party’s electoral fortunes.

The next General Election may be in 2020 (going by the Fixed Term Parliaments Act) or October of this year (if you’re an excitable Tory backbencher). Either way, we need to stand hundreds of excellent candidates.

If you’ve been thinking you’d make a good MP or candidate but you haven’t yet got round to it, there’s no reason not to apply now!

Thanks, as ever, to my colleagues in Tower Hamlets Liberal Democrats who encouraged and supported me through the process.

 * I’ve understandably been asked not to reveal real questions from the process; I’ve tried to make my examples vaguely illustrative but silly. Don’t spend your valuable prep time revising for things I’ve made up.

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