Politics: Tories go in search of new model candidates

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The Independent Online
The Conservative Party is considering the most radical reforms for candidate selection in its 130-year history in the wake of the election disaster. Kim Sengupta looks at the ideas for change, and the struggle they will trigger between the modernisers and the traditionalists.

After the meltdown in May, and with the prospect of a long march in the political wilderness, Conservative Central Office is actively considering the kind of proposals which would turn many a blue rinse white in the shires.

The ideas are designed to re-invent the traditional image of the ideal Tory MP. They range from a central national databank for candidates to psychometric testing; proposals that 25 or even 50 per cent of candidates at initial selection interviews should be women, and that constituency associations should canvass the opinions of black and Asian members; training videos for those involved in the selection process to jettisoning orthodox selection procedure such as emphasis on family support for candidates .

After his election as leader William Hague declared "no change is not an option". Since then, senior party figures have been looking at proposals which could lead to the biggest shake up on candidate selection since the days of Disraeli. However, the Tory hierarchy is fully aware they will face bitter opposition from traditionalists, and there will be a hard struggle to win over the constituency associations.

Some of the most radical and well received ideas have come from the Bow Group which is said to be having a post-election renaissance. The moving spirits behind the reforms, according to Central Office sources, are Roger Freeman, Archie Norman and Peta Buscombe, the party vice-chairmen with responsibilities respectively for candidates, reform, and women.

One study commissioned by Mr Freeman recommends there should be a central databank for candidates to ensure talented ones do not slip through the net. A man or woman who may not be right for one constituency, it argues, may be eminently suited for another, and this should be monitored by Central Office.

Other use of technology, the study suggests, would be a training video for party members involved in the selection process including inputs from a variety of agencies such as the Equal Opportunities Commission, external recruitment consultants, and women's groups. The study also suggests psychometric testing for candidates, a method used for recruitment by some companies, and covering an assessment of personality and ability.

The study also urges that much less emphasis should be placed on a traditional plank of the Tory selection process, how much support prospective candidates receive from their partners. The constituency associations should be encouraged to understand that politicians' partners may have their own careers, and should not be seen merely as supportive appendages.

The party must also get away from the traditional image of a Conservative MP as a "white male with a family and 2.5 children". There should be far greater diversity; constituency associations should look at examples such as the experience of the black Tory candidate John Taylor at Cheltenham during the l992 election as an example of how things should not be done.

One of the most contentious of the proposals is that at least 25 per cent of candidates interviewed for selection should be women. Some MPs, such as the former journalist Julie Kirkbride, who won Bromsgrove at the last election, say the figure should be 50 per cent "because women make up half the population". At present there are 13 female Conservative MPs, compared with Labour's 101. In the last Parliament there were more Old Etonians than Tory women.

Although many of those around Mr Hague see the need for change, vested interests are expected to put up resistance. The constituency associations, who jealously guard their autonomy, will also have to be persuaded to be part of the process of reform.

A senior Tory source said: "What happened at the election has provided a golden opportunity to carry out root and branch reform throughout the party, and the modernisers have the full support of William Hague. But we know it is not going to be easy, some of the old guard simply will not be persuaded, but others will have to be convinced that reform must take place if we are to return as a viable fighting force."