The strange case of the unselected victorious candidate in Mid-Berkshire

Diverse, inclusive and transparent

Each political party has its own way of selecting general-election candidates. All are keen to stress how diverse, inclusive, transparent and locally based they are. For example…

  • “We are searching for people from across the community, with a wide variety of transferable skills and experiences. One of the qualities we value is authenticity…”
  • “We encourage [people] from a wide range of backgrounds, and those in under-represented groups, to consider standing at local and national elections…”
  • “As a candidate, you will have the chance to make a real difference to your local area and to stand up for local people…”

These are from three different UK parties. I have’t said which is which and it doesn’t really matter. Move any claim into any other party’s policy and probably no one would notice.

The selection processes appear to be similar for all parties, with hustings, pitches, campaigns and voting. They can take at least six weeks, though that’s without including the months or years of lobbying and flesh-pressing beforehand. Subject to conditions such as party membership, selection is open to all – in theory, at least.

The right and the wrong stuff

It wasn’t always thus. Prior to the 1832 Reform Act there were many rotten boroughs with only a handful of electors, Old Sarum (with seven) being merely the most notorious. Pocket boroughs, where a landowner could by various means control the voting intentions of a sufficiency of the electorate, were even more widespread. Writers such as Thackeray, Trollope and Dickens frequently expended their powers of invective and satire on election-time scenes in their novels.

There was also the unspoken assumption that some people had an almost divine right to be an MP. In Somerset Maugham’s The Alien Corn, published in 1931, the narrator asks the mother of George, the young man who’s the subject of the story, if he’s interested in politics.”Oh, I do hope so” George’s mother replied. “After all, there’s the family constituency waiting for him, a safe Conservative seat…” There’s nothing to suggest this wasn’t reflecting normal contemporary attitudes and practice.

If some people were of the right stuff, others emphatically were not. Elizabeth Peacock, who represented Batley from 1983 to 1997, was told by a sitting MP before her first attempt to stand that “we really can’t allow people like you to become our candidate.” Janet Fookes (Plymouth Drake’s MP from 1992 to 1997) first had to contend with a list of candidates’ desired qualities, at the top of which was “no bachelors or women.”

Local choice

This has slowly started to change. The Commons is in many ways not representative of the population but it’s better than it was. So too are the selection procedures. The candidates are, however, selected to represent what or whom?

Officially, of course, they represent the people who elect them. In 2019, slightly over half the MPs elected were born in the region of their constituency (about 10% more than in 2010). This is a very crude measure of localism (length of residence probably being more relevant) but the authors used it because it “has the advantage that it cannot be altered to make a candidate appear more electorally appealing.” The fact that some candidates might try to do this tells its own story about political integrity. But I digress…

So, about half are, by this measure, “local”. Many of the rest would have been recommended to, imposed on, parachuted into – other phrases are available –  the seat by the party’s national HQ. This may for various reasons prefer that a certain candidate be chosen, regardless of the wishes of the local party or the candidate’s local associations. None the less, the process of selection is defined in a party’s rules. All this can lead to friction during what Alan Tolhurst in PoliticsHome described as “the fraught…secretive and often controversial battle” to decide who will contest the seat.

Mid-Berkshire’s example

All three epithets apply to, as Sherlock Holmes might have termed it, “the strange case of the unselected victorious candidate” resulting from the recent Lib Dem hustings for the new seat of Mid-Berkshire. After a five-week campaign, initially against four other candidates, on 20 September West Berkshire Councillor Adrian Abbs was declared the winner. Within hours, however, everything was thrown into reverse as a result of a complaint being made against him.

This turned on whether his material had used an endorsement, forbidden under Lib Dem rules. As the English Candidates Committee (ECC) Chair pointed out, “candidates must campaign on their own merits without stated or implied support from others who might be better-known or more influential.”

What Adrian Abbs actually provided in his presentation was “a list of councillors, most in Mid-Berkshire, who have given me permission to share their details. They can describe me in action both on the doorstep, campaigning, as well as in the chamber.” That looks like a reference to me.

Reference or endorsement (inferred or otherwise)

The Returning Officer ruled this was an “inferred endorsement”. “Implied” endorsement would have been more accurate: but either way, the term has as much meaning as an irregular circle, a partial anagram or a fairly unique event. Something is either an endorsement or it isn’t. With an endorsement, you know the endorser’s view, as they’ve already expressed it. With a reference, they haven’t. The ECC Chair suggested that “no one would knowingly give details of people who would make a negative statement about them” – but they might be less than complimentary in every respect. Adrian Abbs admitted as much regarding “at least one” referee but said they could still “attest to my performance in the Council chamber.”

I was once asked for a reference by an ex-employee (who hadn’t warned me in advance). Even though my testimony fell short of the wonderful and probably apocryphal “if you can get this person to work for you will indeed be fortunate”, honesty compelled me to be far less positive than the applicant would have wished.

An endorsement, however, leaves you in no doubt of the individual’s or organisation’s wholehearted support. It might also provide reasons for this, or some hoped-for results from their election. But what about an “inferred” (or “implied”) endorsement”, which seems to be a thing in the Lib Dem lexicon, albeit an unwritten one – what might that look like?

For a candidate to suggest that, were they chosen, the party’s President “would look at the campaign more favourably” – ie devote more effort to fighting the seat – would surely offend the no-endorsement test. Here we have mention of a well-known and influential person, a strong implication of support and a likely consequence. Foul, surely? Yet that was what another candidate, Helen Belcher OBE, said at the hustings on 5 September, the day before the voting started. This was the subject of several complaints: all were, as Adrian Abbs puts it, “swept aside and ignored.” Helen Belcher later said that “I have never stated or implied I was endorsed by anyone for the selection in line with the selection rules.”

Even this powerful implied endorsement did not win her the nomination on the vote. She was, however, subsequently installed as the candidate. Appeals against this by Adrian Abbs have, so far, come to nothing. It seems unlikely they now will as he has left the party.

Reactions

Talking to Penny Post on  22 October, Adrian Abbs described his resignation as being “due to HQ’s actions regarding the selection process, which I believe involved breaking its own rules and disregarding the principles of honesty and fairness that are meant to be built into the Lib Dem ethos.” He added that he might well have given up his portfolio at some point “due to work commitments and the forty to fifty hours a week” that his WBC tasks were occupying. “My now ex local colleagues are trying hard for West Berkshire residents,” he stressed, “and have no part of what HQ was doing as far as I can see.”

Lee Dillon, WBC,’s Leader, told Penny Post on 24 October that “we are disappointed Adrian has left the party and, as a result, our council group. We thank him for his work on the front bench over the last four and a half years and wish him well for the future.”

Penny Post contacted the Lib Dem President, Mark Pack, on 23 October regarding this and on 26 October received the following statement: “all our selections have an outside Returning Officer and an independent appeals process, and I’m confident that this provides a robust and fair framework for any complaints to be considered.”

Standing down?

One person who might welcome Councillor Abbs’ stand is Simon Kirby, who also stood (unsuccessfully) in Wash Common ward in May 2023. As this pre-election article in Newbury Today reports, he is “fiercely of the view that local councils should not be governed by national party politics (and that) his value as an independent councillor is that he is not controlled by any national party and is therefore free to represent the community as he best sees it.”

He and others might, however, claim that Adrian Abbs was only elected because of being a Lib Dem. For now, Abbs has said he will stay on as an independent but has promised he will step down “if enough people in the ward want me to. 1,712 people voted for me in May: if more than half want me to go, I shall.”

Could happen anywhere…

This happens to be about the Lib Dems: however, the parachuted candidate, the casuistical language, the national/local tensions, the opaque procedures and the alleged subjective interpretation of principles could have come from any party. We can expect more of this as the election draws closer. It might be good if each HQ declared it would play a joker in up to a certain number of seats, with its picking the candidate and the local party having no say. The whole party could, well in advance, debate and agree what this number would be. This would save much time and effort, not to say reputational damage.

In the 1970s, there was an anarchist slogan claiming that “whoever you vote for, the government gets in.” This could be adapted to read “whoever you select, the national party’s candidate gets in.” The trouble is, we don’t know where this is likely to happen – until it does.

Brian Quinn
brian@pennypost.org.uk

• Adrian Abbs was interviewed by Ray Wilton on Kennet Radio on Saturday 28 October and you can listen to this here (from about 1 hour 1′)

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