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‘If Only More Candidates Came Forward’: Supply-Side Explanations of Candidate Selection in Britain

  • Pippa Norris and Joni Lovenduski

In a familiar observation, members of the British House of Commons are demographically unrepresentative of the British population in terms of gender, race, education and class. This article takes a fresh look at the reasons why this is the case, based on data from the British Candidate Study, 1992. This study analyses the background, experience and attitudes of MPs, candidates, applicants, party members and voters. By comparing strata we can see whether the outcome of the selection process reflects the supply of those willing to stand for Parliament or the demands of local party activists when adopting candidates for local constituencies.

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1 For a discussion see McLean, Iain, ‘Forms of Representation and Systems of Voting’, in Held, David, ed., Political Theory Today (Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1991), pp. 172–96; Pitkin, Hanna, The Concept of Representation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967); Pennock, J. R. and Chapman, J. W., eds, Nomis, X, Representation (New York: Atherton Press, 1968); Eulau, Heinz and Wahlke, John C., The Politics of Representation (London: Sage Publications, 1978).

2 John Adams, quoted in McLean, , ‘Forms of Representation’, p. 173.

3 See McLean, , ‘Forms of Representation’, p. 173.

4 For a discussion of the relationship between social background and political attitudes, see Norris, Pippa, ‘Party Leaders, Members and Voters: The Special Law of Curvilinear Disparity Revisited’ paper presented at the PSA Elections, Parties and Public Opinion Specialist Group conference, University of Essex, 09 1992.

5 Putnam, R. D., The Comparative Study of Political Elites (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1976); Loewenberg, G. and Patterson, S. C., Comparing Legislatures (Boston, Mass.: Little Brown, 1979), pp. 68116; Aberbach, J. D., Putnam, R. D. and Rockman, B. A., Bureaucrats and Politicians in Western Democracies (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981), pp. 4083.

6 See Burch, Martin and Moran, Michael, ‘The Changing Political Elite’, Parliamentary Affairs, 38 (1985), 115; Kavanagh, Dennis, ‘The Political Class and Its Culture’, Parliamentary Affairs, 45 (1992), 1832; Mellors, Colin, The British MP: A Socio-Economic Study of the House of Commons (Farnborough, Hants: Saxon House, 1978); Criddle, Byron, ‘MPs and Candidates’, in Butler, David and Kavanagh, Dennis, eds, The British General Election of 1992 (London: Macmillan, 1992). See also previous chapters in Nuffield series by David Butler et al.

7 In 1945 83 per cent of Conservative MPs and 19 per cent of Labour MPs had attended public school. In 1992 the figures were 62 per cent and 14 per cent, respectively. There has also been a decline in the number from Oxford and Cambridge although in 1992 one-third of all MPs had been educated there. See Burch, and Moran, , ‘The Changing Political Elite’; Criddle, , ‘MPs and Candidates’; Borthwick, George, Ellingworth, Daniel, Bell, Colin and MacKenzie, Donald, ‘The Social Background of British MPs’, Sociology, 25 (1991), 713–17.

8 See Guttsman, W. L., The British Political Elite (London: MacGibbon and Kee, 1968); Parry, Geraint, Political Elites (London: Allen and Unwin, 1969); Bottomore, T. B.Elites and Society (London: Watts, 1964).

9 The authors are most grateful to the principal investigators for this data: Anthony Heath, Roger Jowell and John Curtice.

10 See Holland, Martin, Candidates for Europe (Farnborough, Hants: Gower, 1986).

11 Although the British Candidate Study included candidates from all the main parties – Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Scottish National, Plaid Cymru and Greens – within the limitations of space this article has focused only on the major parties. For further details of the selection procedures and outcomes in the other parties, see Lovenduski, Joni and Norris, Pippa, Political Representation (forthcoming).

12 The BCS survey was compared with the larger Whiteley and Seyd survey of Labour party members. This confirmed that selectors are broadly socially representative of all members. For details see Seyd, Patrick and Whiteley, Paul, Labour's Grass Roots: The Politics of Party Membership (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992).

13 It should be noted that throughout this article the term ‘applicant’ is used to refer to those on the national lists of applicants. It does not refer to those who apply to particular constituencies. Further it should be noted that the Labour and Conservative lists are not wholly comparable. The Conservative list is based on candidates approved by Conservative Central Office, therefore some ‘applicants’ have already been weeded out. In contrast those on the Labour ‘A’ (trade union nominees) and ‘B’ (constituency nominees) lists have not been approved by the National Executive Council. For details, see Lovenduski, Joni and Norris, Pippa, ‘Party Rules and Women's Representation: Reforming the British Labour Party’, in Crewe, Ivor et al. , eds, British Elections and Parties Yearbook, 1991 (Brighton, Sussex: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991).

14 For a recent statement of this assumption, see Adonis, Andrew: ‘By and large, the selectorate, itself a predominately middle class cohort, discriminates against men without a professional, political or managerial background and – at least until recently – against women of all kinds’ (Parliament Today (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990), p. 36).

15 Quoted in Ranney, Austin, Pathways to Parliament: Candidate Selection in Britain (London: Macmillan, 1965), pp. 60–1.

16 Personal interview with a Conservative MP, No. 19. This, and subsequent references to interviews, were derived from the series of thirty-nine detailed interviews, in their home or office, with MPs, PPCs and applicants. For details, see Appendix.

17 Personal interview with Conservative applicant, No. 38.

18 Personal interview with Conservative MP, No. 21.

19 ‘I would go up once a month to the Executive. When I started with great enthusiasm I went up every week as well, and began knocking on doors. It was an utterly pointless exercise really. You see my task was to help create an association. It was an association they claimed was totally demoralized, neglected; the fact is that it's a tiny, tiny association run by some councillors who are there in a minority, who all hate each other because there are so few of them, and they're all getting on in years… it was raising virtually no money, it had a dreadful old office, it doesn't have any professional agent, so my first task was really to give the association some confidence in itself, but I thought, my God, what have I got myself into… I thought, right, they can sort it out themselves, and it's been like that all the time.’ Personal interview with a Conservative candidate, No. 23.

20 Personal interview with a Conservative applicant, No. 16.

21 Personal interview with a Labour MP, No. 13.

22 Personal interview with a Conservative candidate, No. 38.

23 Personal interview with a woman Labour MP, No. 12.

24 See Norris, Pippa and Lovenduski, Joni, ‘British Conservative Parliamentary Recruitment: Patronage, Liberal-Rational, Radical and Feminist Models’ (paper presented at the Annual Conference of the American Political Science Association, Washington DC, 1991).

25 It is difficult to generalize about the process of getting on the union ‘A’ list since different unions use different procedures. Some like ASLEF include ‘rising political stars’ in any occupation whom they feel would make good Labour MPs, not just union members. Other unions, like the AEU, insist nominees are employed in their trade, and they use a very rigorous week-long assessment process testing verbal and written skills, knowledge of Labour party policy, public speaking ability and personal interviews. Labour party rules do not control or standardize this process, leaving it to the discretion of the unions concerned.

26 See, however, Lovenduski, and Norris, , ‘Party Rules and Women's Representation’ in Crewe, Ivor et al. , eds, British Elections and Parties Yearbook, 1991; Norris, Pippa, ‘Comparing Legislative Recruitment’ in Lovenduski, Joni and Norris, Pippa, eds, Gender and Party Politics (London: Sage, forthcoming 1992).

27 The following are legally excluded from membership of the House of Commons: aliens; persons under 21 years of age; lunatics; peers; undischarged bankrupts; traitors; convicts in prison for more than one year; persons convicted of corrupt or illegal electoral practices; clergy of the Established Church; office-holders, such as civil servants; members of the armed forces or the police. For more details, see Griffith, J. A. G. and Ryle, Michael, Parliament: Functions, Practice and Procedures (London: Sweet and Maxwell, 1989), pp. 47–9.

28 See Norris, Pippa, Vallance, Elizabeth and Lovenduski, Joni, ‘Do Candidates Make a Difference? Gender, Race, Ideology and Incumbency’, Parliamentary Affairs, 45 (1992), 497–51.

29 In the Harris Exit Poll in the 1992 general election voters were asked to nominate the single most important reason for supporting the party just voted for. The following responses were given: the party's policies, 47 per cent; I usually vote for that party, 20 per cent; dislike of another party, 15 per cent; the party leader, 7 per cent; the local candidate, 5 per cent; none of these, 4 per cent; not stated, 1 percent (Harris/ITN, Exit Poll N.4,701, 9 04 1992).

30 For more details of the process and the roles of local and central party organizations, see Norris, Pippa and Lovenduski, Joni, ‘Who Selects? Central–Local Relations in the British Conservative and Labour Parties’ (paper presented at the XVth World Congress of the International Political Science Association, Buenos Aires, 1991). See also Geddes, Andrew, Lovenduski, Joni and Norris, Pippa, ‘Candidate Selection: Reform in Britain’, Contemporary Record, 4 (1991), 1922; Norris, Pippa and Lovenduski, Joni, ‘Pathways to Parliament’, Talking Politics, 1 (1989), 90–4.

31 See Mellors, , The British MP; Burch, and Moran, , ‘The Changing Political Elite’.

32 Ranney, , Pathways to Parliament, p. 119; Guttsman, , The British Political Elite, p. 27.

33 Bochel, John and Denver, David, ‘Candidate Selection in the Labour Party: What the Selectors Seek’, British Journal of Political Science, 13 (1983), 4569, p. 56.

34 Greenwood, John, ‘Promoting Working-class Candidature in the Conservative Party: The Limits of Central Office Power’, Parliamentary Affairs, 41 (1988), 456–68.

35 Ranney, , Pathways to Parliament, p. 104.

36 Jacob, H., ‘The Initial Recruitment of Elected Officials in the US – a Model’, Journal of Politics, 24 (1962), 703–16.

37 One Conservative candidate reported being dismissed by an unsympathetic employer for requesting leave of absence to fight the campaign: ‘They said to me they wanted me gone as soon as the election was called. So I had to face that election with absolutely nothing. It was terrible when you've got that at the back of your mind. You've got all the excitement of the campaign but I knew there was no job at the end of that.’

38 Personal interview with Labour candidate, No. 13.

39 Personal interview with a Conservative candidate, No. 10.

40 Personal interview with a Conservative MP, No. 39.

41 Personal interview with a Conservative applicant, No. 18.

42 Ranney, , Pathways to Parliament.

43 Rush, Michael, The Selection of Parliamentary Candidates (London: Nelson, 1969), p. 83.

44 Personal interview with Conservative MP, No. 1.

45 Holland, , Candidates for Europe pp. 193–8; Holland, Martin, ‘The Selection of Parliamentary Candidates: Contemporary Developments and the Impact of the European Elections’, Parliamentary Affairs, 34 (1981), 28–16.

46 See Verba, Sidney, Nie, Norman and Kim, Jae-OnParticipation and Political Equality: A Seven Nation Comparison (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), pp. 71–2; Milbrath, L. and Goel, M., Political Participation (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1977), pp. 98102; Parry, Geraint, Moyser, George and Day, Neil, Political Participation and Democracy in Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 6876.

47 In parenthesis, it is worth noting that at the grassroots level, the rise of the Labour polytocracy, combined with the age and gender profile of the Conservatives, means that ironically the workers' party is now the better educated.

48 See Vallance, Elizabeth, ‘Women Candidates in the 1983 General Election’, Parliamentary Affairs, 37 (1984), 301–9; Rasmussen, Jorgen, ‘The Electoral Costs of Being a Woman in the 1979 British General Election’, Comparative Politics, 15 (1983), 461–75; Martlew, C., Forester, C. and Buchanan, G., ‘Activism and Office: Women and Local Government in Scotland’, Local Government Studies, 11 (03/04 1985), 4765.

49 Mitchell, Austin, Getting There (London: Thames Methuen, 1982), p. 30.

50 Interview with a Conservative woman MP, No. 39.

51 Interview with a Conservative woman MP, No. 19.

52 Bochel, and Denver, , ‘Candidate Selection in the Labour Party’.

53 Bristow, Stephen, ‘Women Councillors – An Explanation of the Under-Representation of Women in Local Government’, Local Government Studies, 6 (05/06 1980), 7390; see also Hills, Jill, ‘Women Local Councillors: A Reply to Bristow’, Local Government Studies, 8 (01/02 1982), 6172.

54 Hills, Jill, ‘Life-Style Constraints on Formal Political Participation – Why So Few Women Local Councillors in Britain?Electoral Studies, 2 (1983), 3952.

55 Rush, , The Selection of Parliamentary Candidates, p. 63.

56 Personal interview with a woman Labour applicant, No. 34.

57 Rush, , The Selection of Parliamentary Candidates, pp. 65–6.

58 Interview with a Conservative MP, No. 39.

59 Personal interview with a Conservative applicant, No. 30.

60 See Office of Population and Census Surveys, Population Trends, 67 (London: HMSO, 1992).

61 See Norris, Pippa, Geddes, Andrew and Lovenduski, Joni, ‘Race and Parliamentary Representation’ in Norris, Pippa, ed., British Parlies and Elections Yearbook, 1992 (Brighton, Sussex: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992).

62 Norris, , Vallance, and Lovenduski, , ‘Do Candidates Make a Difference? Gender, Race, Ideology and Incumbency’.

63 Henry, Zig Layton and Studlar, Donley, ‘The Electoral Participation of Black and Asian Britons: Integration or Alientation?Parliamentary Affairs, 38 (1985), 307–18; Bochel, and Denver, , ‘Candidate Selection in the Labour Party’, p. 56.

64 Personal interview with an Asian Labour applicant, No. 37.

65 Crewe, Ivor, ‘Representation and the Ethnic Minorities in Britain’ in Glazer, Nathan and Young, Ken, eds, Ethnic Pluralism and Public Policy (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1983), pp. 277–8.

66 Anwar, Muhammad, Race and Politics (London: Tavistock, 1986).

67 See Norris, , Geddes, and Lovenduski, , ‘Race and Parliamentary Representation’, for more details.

68 One interviewee (No. 30), aged over 45, was told in her initial interview by Central Office: ‘Hmmm, well I suppose you're just about in the age bracket – another few months and you'd be what we would consider past it.’ Another Conservative MP (No. 19) noted: ‘There was a cut off point at 50. I mean, it was a tacit cut-off point. We all knew about it though it wasn't written down.’

69 Ranney, , Pathways to Parliament, p. 78.

70 Interview with a Labour applicant, No. 20.

71 Hills, Jill, ‘Lifestyle Constraints’, p. 46.

72 Estimated from the British Candidate Study, Q30 for MPs: ‘Roughly how many hours do you think you usually devote to the following activities in the average month when the House is sitting?’

73 It should be noted that this data is unavailable at present for Conservative members.

74 See Pinto-Duschinsky, Michael, British Political Finance 1830–1980 (Washington, DC: American Economic Institute, 1981), pp. 129–30, 159; Ranney, , Pathways to Parliament, pp. 51–5.

75 Interview with Conservative woman candidate from the north, No. 22.

76 Personal interview with a Conservative candidate, No. 3.

77 Personal interview with Conservative MP, No. 31.

78 Interview with Conservative MP, No. 7.

79 Personal interview with prospective Conservative candidate, No. 34.

80 Ranney, , Pathways to Parliament

81 Personal interview with a Labour applicant, No. 32.

82 Personal interview with Labour applicant, No. 32.

83 Personal interview with a Conservative applicant, No. 38.

84 See Verba, , Nie, and Kim, , Participation and Political Equality.

85 Czudnowski, M. M., ‘Political Recruitment’ in Greenstein, Fred and Polsby, Nelson, eds, Handbook of Political Science, Vol. II (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1975).

86 Personal interview with Labour MP, No. 29.

87 Ross, J. F. S., Parliamentary Representation (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1944), p. 116.

* Department of Government, Harvard University and Department of European Studies, University of Loughborough, respectively. An earlier version of this article was presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association at Chicago, August 1992. The authors would like to thank Hugh Berrington and the anonymous reviewers of the Journal for very helpful suggestions for revision; Patrick Seyd (Sheffield University) and Paul Whiteley (William and Mary College), the directors of the Labour Party Survey, for advance release of this data; to all the candidates who responded to the survey; the ESRC for funding this research (Grant No. R000231991); and, in particular, Andrew Geddes (Salford University) for administering the survey of party members and Jackie Goode (Loughborough University) for providing the interview material for this article.

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