Michael Brown: A young Churchill would never have been selected

The party leaders seem determined to reduce the role of local parties in candidate selection
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In 1974, in the dying weeks of Ted Heath's leadership I was interviewed for inclusion on the official Conservative candidates list by the vice-chairman for candidates, Sir Anthony Grant MP. I was asked what I thought of the party's policy on prices and incomes. I indicated that to have any electoral success we needed candidates who'd campaign against such nonsense. I thought honesty and outspokenness would appeal to them. I was young and naive. My curt letter of rejection was received in short order. My political career appeared over before it started.

But at the following year's party conference - Margaret Thatcher had just taken over - I got talking to a couple of delegates from Brigg and Scunthorpe who were about to participate in selecting a candidate. They suggested I apply - it had been a Labour seat since the Tory MP Sir Berkeley Sheffield (Samantha Cameron's great-grandfather) was defeated in the 1920s. "But Central Office don't want me - and I've never been to Scunthorpe in my life," I wailed.

But on 16 March, 1976 - the day Harold Wilson resigned - I appeared before the selection committee alongside the alternative stooges Central Office had lined up to make sure I did not get the nomination.

There was a frightful kerfuffle involving the Central Office agent who warned them not to choose me. My speech was short and to the point. "This morning, Mr Wilson was prime minister. All I have done is drive here and he's gone."

Three years later, I walked into Westminster as one of the gains that got Maggie into No 10. I owed everything to the local party and nothing to Central Office or the whips. (I had publicly promised to vote against the government a least once a year "otherwise the government will forget about me".)

Today, unless a national party officer endorses the nomination paper such a candidate cannot stand - for any party - even with the overwhelming support of the local party.

In a few weeks' time, aspirant Tory candidates will learn whether they have been one of the 140 chosen by the leadership (70 to be women) to apply for safe and winnable Tory seats. All the parties are thrashing around attempting to address the decline of local activism by taking what remaining powers local parties have to influence debate and candidate selection with the prospect that an awkward so-and-so like me will never get selected. But it also means that a young Churchill or even a Thatcher may never get the chance of being selected.

Of course it is necessary to broaden the parliamentary base of the parties with more women, gay, black and Asian candidates, but it cannot be at the price of diminishing local autonomy. The general suspicion is growing that while it is desirable to change the "face" of the Tory and Labour parties, the real motive of central control is to drive out dissent. But here's the real rub. How do we expect local party activists to be enthused if they are to be marginalised in the selection process?

The Electoral Commission and Hansard Society audit of political engagement published last month makes interesting reading. In answer to the question "What people want from MPs", 58 per cent of Mori poll respondents for the commission replied "independent-mindedness" - an increase of 21 per cent since 1983. This suggests that, in their desire to influence constituency associations, all the political party headquarters - especially the Tories - will need to tread warily.

The examples of Sir Nicholas and Lady Winterton, Sir Patrick Cormack and Sir Peter Tapsell continue to remind me of how necessary it is for constituency associations to resist the demands of central control. These MPs also actually win over Labour and Lib Dem votes. The anecdotal evidence indicates that the best candidates to win votes from the other side are often those who have the deepest held political ideas. I will argue till the cows come home with Ann Widdecombe over Clause 28, but the evidence of strong-willed opinions on her part indicates nothing other than a successful constituency-winning formula. (She would certainly not be among the 70 women on the fast-track list if she were beginning her career).

What is ironic is that at the very moment that localism in the NHS, police and education is a concept whose time has come, the political party leaders seem determined to reduce the role and influence of local parties in candidate selection. The desire to solve the funding crisis and decline in party membership by resorting to the taxpayer is actually a covert opportunity for reinforcing national, central control of politics. Localism will be meaningless unless the voters and local parties reject the state financing of political parties.