Sunday, 11 January 2015

Candidate Selection for the 2015 Election: A Comparative Perspective

Susan Scarrow discusses the processes of candidate selection for the 2015 general election.

With the 2015 British election looming, a few constituency parties are still scrambling to pick their prospective parliamentary candidates.   As of November, the Conservatives still had over 150 seats left to fill, and the Liberal Democrats had over 400, though all the parties had already picked most candidates for their potentially winnable seats.   Based on selections so far, analysts have already made some predictions about the composition of the Commons after the 2015 election, including that there will once again be far more female MPs on the Labour benches than on the Conservative ones.[1]  The ability to make such predictions so far in advance underscores the importance of candidate selection in determining the final outcomes:  voters can only choose candidates whom the parties have selected.   Parties’ candidate selection rules can have a huge political impact, yet in the UK, as in most countries, these rules are private matters determined by the parties, only lightly regulated by law.  As a result, they vary across parties, and parties can and do change their internal rules from election to election.

In the UK in the past quarter century, all the main parties have frequently revisited their selection rules.  Some of these changes have expanded the circles of those who are eligible to participate in parties’ candidate selection procedures – the so-called “selectorate”.    For the 2015 election, as for 2010, all major British parties gave their individual party members a significant role in the choice, usually allowing them to choose between candidates who had been shortlisted by the constituency party executive.  Conservative constituency associations were allowed to invite registered non-members to participate in the process, though few associations used this option. This norm of membership voting in candidate selection has expanded potential participation in the process, and may encourage MPs and prospective candidates to be more attentive to local party activists.  Offsetting these changes has been an increasing assertion of central party control over the process, both in how they approve eligible candidates, and in some cases with mandates such as the Labour Party’s rules requiring all-women shortlists in some constituencies.  

These conflicting tendencies illustrate what some authors have described as increasing inclusiveness alongside increasing centralization.[2]   British voters generally favor the idea of parties using more inclusive candidate selection procedures.  One 2013 poll found that 60% of respondents said they would participate in candidate selection votes if these were open to parties’ registered supporters; 38% said they would participate even if supporters had to pay a minimal fee as well as to register.[3]
The popularity of such procedures helps explain the trend towards more inclusive selection rules, a trend that has been evident in many parliamentary democracies.   Perhaps not surprisingly, often it is opposition parties which have taken the lead in opening up their procedures for selecting candidates and/or party leaders.  Many of these resulting ballots have been described as “primaries”, in emulation of the American term.   However, there are politically important variations in the procedures described by this term.[4]  Some have been extremely inclusive, allowing for participation by almost all interested supporters.  One example of this was the French Socialist Party “primary” to select its 2012 presidential candidate. This procedure was open to any supporter who registered and paid a nominal fee.  Over 2.8 million people cast votes in this party ballot, a figure equivalent to 44% of the votes the party’s presidential candidate received in the first round of the previous presidential election.   So far, however, the openness of the French Socialists’ ballot remains unusual, and most party selection ballots are open only to members who have joined in advance of the vote.  One result is that members of many political parties have been acquiring important new political rights.

Parties may adopt more inclusive selection rules in hopes of gaining positive headlines and popular support, but such procedures also have the potential to produce negative publicity.  The UK Labour Party experienced this in the Falkirk constituency selection in 2013, triggered by allegations that supporters of one candidate were improperly signing up new members.  Such controversies are not unique to the UK.  Whenever inclusive candidate selection procedures are used, there may be intra-party wrangling about who is eligible to participate (for example, long-time members only, or newly enlisted members?), or whether to use ballot procedures that encourage or discourage broad participation (for example, internet voting?).  These rules can be controversial, because they affect the size of the selectorate, which in turn may affect the outcome. 

One safe prediction is that we are likely to see growing use of more inclusive candidate-selection procedures in parliamentary democracies. Whatever their actual impact, the fact that they are often described in terms of the “democratization” of party politics makes it difficult for parties to revert to procedures that appear more exclusive or elitist.  However, this does not mean that parties will stop tinkering with their rules.  In fact, we may see more frequent changes in rules that affect turnout and eligibility for intra-party ballots.  Those who want to evaluate the extent to which increases in inclusiveness actually shift decision-making power need to keep an eye on these types of procedural details, not just on the headline news about party primaries and the democratization of candidate selection.

Susan Scarrow is Chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Houston, and researches representation and participation in Parliamentary systems.

[1] “The Slow Pace of Candidate Selections,” November 18, 2014.; Campbell, Rosie, Chrysa Lamprinakou and Jennifer vanHeerde-Hudson,“The New Political Class of 2014,”, November 11, 2014. 
[2] Rahat, Gideon, and Reuven Y. Hazan.  2001.  "Candidate Selection Methods: An Analytical Framework." Party Politics 7(3): 297-322.
[3] Andrew Grice,  “Poll Shows Majority of British Voters Would Welcome US-Style Primaries,”  The Independent, September 20, 2013.
[4] For more background on this topic, see Pilet, Jean-BenoĆ®t, and William Cross, eds.  2014. The Selection of Political Party Leaders in Contemporary Parliamentary Democracies: A Comparative Study. Routledge.  Cross, William P., and Richard S. Katz, eds. 2013.  The Challenges of Intra-party Democracy. Oxford University Press.


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