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What does Iain Dale’s failure say about modern electoral politics?

October 18th, 2009 Posted in UK Politics by

iain-daleLast night, high profile blogger Iain Dale failed again in his search for a Tory seat in the next Parliament, by coming third in the Conservatives’ open primary to find a PPC to replace disgraced incumbent MP Andrew MacKay in Bracknell.

I don’t know Iain very well, but on the occasions I have met him, he has always come across an intelligent and well rounded bloke with a real passion for politics – and, indeed, for the Conservative Party.

The successfully selected Tory candidate was Philip Lee, who I understand is a local GP. I don’t know Dr Lee at all. He may well be the most erudite and talented British Conservative of modern times.  Certainly, Iain Dale is generous enough to describe him as “absolutely brilliant”.

But – even if Dale has been beaten by a political genius – it remains a surprise to me that he has been so staggeringly unsuccessful in pursuing his Parliamentary ambitions (and even more of a mystery as to why he harbours any!)

True, he was roundly thrashed by Norman Lamb at the last election. And I guess overseeing the conversion of a Liberal majority of less than 1% into a Liberal majority of 18% in 2005 is something of a black mark on his Conservative CV.

Some might claim that being openly gay is a disadvantage. I suppose that’s possible amongst the more paleolithic members of the Tory party – but surely is  not a fundamental problem overall in modern Britain.

I fear that Iain Dale’s failure to become an MP may be indicative of a wider problem in mainstream politics. It strikes me that the key attributes that the three main parties look for in candidates are usually:

1. Something approaching slavish loyalty to the party, its leader and its policies.

2. A Stakhanovite work ethic – in which your suitability for office (or at least for selection)  is partly measured in terms of the number of leaflets you have stuffed through doors or the number of by-elections you’ve assisted in. (This is to some extent a practical demonstration of point 1)

3. Proof of “local” credentials. Ideally, you and your family have lived within the same 5 square mile radius for generations.

This is a real annoyance for a voter like me. I basically want my politicians to be controversial, lazy and rather aloof.

The Tory party’s intriguing experiment with open primary selections has yet to show that it produces candidates who are either (a) of an obviously higher callibre or even (b) electorally more attractive as representatives of their own party.

When the occasional maverick does break through to the big time – such as Ken Livingstone or Boris Johnson, they tend to have an energising and polarising effect, which – by and large – I think is good for our democracy.

But at “entry level” being a maverick is poison. Best not to have any really strong, controversial opinions of your own. If you are cursed with any heretical ideas, keep quiet about them. If you do really need to mention them,  be sure to do so only in private and in very hushed terms.

I suspect Iain Dale’s high media profile and tendency to say what he thinks mitigates against him becoming a Member of Parliament. If that’s right, that’s not just a career frustration for him, but suggests that the next Parliament will be as full of stuffed shirts as the present one.  Just next time, there will be more of them wearing blue rosettes rather than red ones.

10 Responses to “What does Iain Dale’s failure say about modern electoral politics?”

  1. Bunny Smedley Says:

    I basically want my politicians to be controversial, lazy and rather aloof.

    This made me spill coffee all over my desk – but in a good way.

    One thing, though, Mark, unrelated to the unarguable good sense of the line quoted above – do you think that the ‘open primary’ [i.e. caucus] selection method has much of an impact on the preferred candidate profile you describe? For instance, I can see why the sort of hardened party loyalist-activist whose social life hinges on leaflet delivery and survey cavassing would go for someone similarly inclined – but why would someone who isn’t even a party member care about this?

    For me, the real surprise of Bracknell was the choice of a relatively ‘normal’ candidate over the two high-profile ones (Dale and Stewart) – this is what I’ve had expected if the local association had chosen the candidate, but not what I expected from an open primary.

    Does anyone out there have a sense as to the proportion of party members / ‘outsiders’ voting in the meeting? What were the ‘negatives’ aimed at the candidates who didn’t win – e.g. were the high-profile candidates regarded as part-timers who might not show much commitment to the seat? In short I do wish someone who was there would write about this – less out of voyeuristic fascination (well, only a little) than because it might well say something about the selection process more generally.

  2. Dick Puddlecote Says:

    As Bunny said, classic one-liner there, Mark :-)

    Unfortunately, your summation of the probable make-up of the next parliament is almost certainly going to be the case. I’ve met my local Tory PPC and she is an interesting character, yet none of the party literature we’ve been getting reflects any of this. It’s 100% centrally-crafted propaganda with the PPC’s personal pictures slotted in here and there.

    It’s possible that she could plough her own furrow once elected, but highly unlikely for the very reasons you have highlighted … especially as she is a former researcher for a high-profile Tory. So probably just Tory voting fodder then.

  3. Mark Littlewood Says:

    @Bunny. I don’t claim to have hardened stats about the way the open primaries have worked, but my observation would be that (a) they may tend to favour rather parochial candidates and (b) they haven’t done an enormous amount to reach out beyond the party faithful (and when they do, e.g. Bedford, the results are not ideal for the party)

    Although I’m highly sympathetic to the Tories’ experiment in this area (and deeply frustrated by the old-fashioned, unimaginative, conservative approach of the LibDems), I think the basic problem is actually the (small) size of a Parliamentary constituency.

    If you’re well embedded in a local community by – for example – being a church warden, a long-serving GP, a popular headmaster or whatever – you may well be able to prevail upon a personal contacts list of maybe 100 or 200
    voters who are willing to turn up to a caucus and vote for you. That’s probably enough people to tip the balance.

    In the USA, however, having a few dozen friends and allies willing to give your career a helpful push won’t be of much statistical help in trying to secure you the nomination to become the Democrat or Republican candidate for the US Senate in, say, Texas – as you might expect a million or so votes to be cast in total.

    It stands to reason that larger, more populous caucuses are more likely to be won by candidates with star quality, because a parochial power base is less likely to have much sway. At a wild guess, I’d say that if the Tories had been looking for a candidate for Berkshire, rather than just Bracknell, then Dale would have comfortably defeated Dr Lee.

  4. Mark Littlewood Says:

    Alex Massie, over at The Spectator, seems to share my fears

  5. BelindaBG Says:

    I think a parliament of doctors would be fine and much better than a parliament which plumbs the depths of scientific ignorance like the present one. I cannot think of a single member of the government who is scientifically literate (and certainly not any of the women).

    The two parliamentarians I know personally who are medics, Evan Harris and Brian Iddon, have contributed a great deal to medical and scientific debate. They tend to be more ‘liberal’ over the big questions like drug criminalisation etc, perhaps because their allegiance is to the scientific evidence rather than to pandering to a tabloid fears or a vocal minority. Obviously it depends whether the Tory whip will allow any new Tory doc. the freedom to express an opinion.

    Aside from the economy, the big policy challenges facing new MPs are the environment and the NHS. So in general the more doctors the better, bring them on.

  6. Peter Welch Says:

    It is parochial to worry about Dale to be honest. I like the man but he is just a party hack.

    Rory Stewart would have been quite a different proposition.

  7. Mark Littlewood Says:

    @ Belinda. I’m certainly not against scientifically-minded people being MPs, but I would hope that most MPs would basically be intelligent generalists who would know how and where to access sensible information.

    @Peter. I’m really quite amazed that anyone could describe Iain Dale as “just a party hack”. he runs one of the most successful blogs in modern British politics and is probably on the national media as much as any other Tory. I’m not saying Dale would have been a better choice for the Tories than Stewart, merely that you have totally misunderstood the former.

  8. Dick Puddlecote Says:

    @Belinda: “I think a parliament of doctors would be fine”

    That would be my idea of hell on earth.

  9. tim leunig Says:

    next mayor of london?

  10. A Parliament of Doctors » Spectator Blogs Says:

    […] have selected another local MP in Bracknell. As Liberal Vision’s Mark Littlewood says, Phil Lee may well become an admirable Member of Parliament but, from an ousider’s […]