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

By Mark Littlewood
October 18th, 2009 at 7:00 am | 10 Comments | Posted in UK Politics

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.

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