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May 18, 2009

How To Deselect Your MP - Harry Phibbs offers a practical guide

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Harry Phibbs explains how members of a local constituency party can deselect their MP. The views expressed here are those of Harry Phibbs, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director.

It is hard to claim that we have a meritocracy when it comes to our elected representatives in Westminster. Most voters cast their vote on Party lines. This is perfectly rational as they judge that which Government is running the country is more important then the personal qualities of their local MP. They might not think much of their local MP, or even know who it is, but will be aware of who the Prime Minister is and the main alternative and regard it as an important
choice. They will understand that the pertinent choice so far as how
their lives will be affected concerns the collection of policies on offer from the Conservatives and from Labour.

To take an example of relevance to me in west London. Some of the Labour MPs and candidates will pledge to oppose a third runway at Heathrow. But it would still be no use electing them as they would still be contributing to the return of a Labour Government pledged to go ahead with it.

I don't wish to exaggerate the point. There is considerable variation in swing in different constituencies. But these are as likely to be explained by factors such as demographic change and the efficiency of Party organisation in mobilising their vote as of the personal following of the MP.

So if the electorate tend not to see their priority being to vote out dud MPs regardless of Party, what other safeguards exist? It's the selectorate, the local Party members. The system works reasonably well when a candidate is first chosen. There is normally plenty of competition. The process is taken quite seriously. Lots of time considering criteria, wading through piles of CVs of potential candidates most of whom will already have gone through extensive vetting by the Party HQ. Naturally the greater the prospect of eventual success the greater the competition.

But all too often having accomplished this initial challenge the selected candidate has a job for life. They don't need to be good.

They don't need to make a difference. Coasting along is enough despite holding a much sought after job. Merely avoiding scandal and turning up occasionally is adequate.

In fact usually even when embroiled in scandal deselection can be averted. After all scandals crop often frequently but deselection is a rare occurrence. The Conservative MP Sir Nicholas Scott was deselected in December 1996 following a vote of no confidence in his Kensington and Chelsea constituency association. The move followed several incidents including his arrest for drink-driving and for failing to stop at a road accident. He had already been through one vote of
confidence but his constituency voted for deselection when he was found in a gutter during the Conservative Party Conference. For many Party members these incidents compounded Scott's behaviour in being among those seeking to undermine Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister.

Another Tory MP Sir George Gardiner was deselected for equivalent outspoken hostility to Thatcher's successor John Major.

More often a sitting MP is forced out through boundary changes. This is not exactly a deselection. Two seats might be merged with sitting MPs of the same Party who both seek selection for the newly drawn constituency.

In the Labour Party in the 1970s and 1980s there was a concerted effort by the Bennites to deselect moderate MPs which had some success.

But overall the deselections have been very rare, probably under 1%. Also as noted they are more usually about an MP not toeing the political line rather than engaging in misconduct. For example Winston Churchill was deselected by Oldham Conservatives in 1903 because of his support for free trade. He subsequently crossed the floor and joined the Liberals.

The recent torrent of stories about MPs abusing their expenses claims at the taxpayers expense - milking the system in the most outrageous manner whether within or outside the rules - creates a sense of public expectation that some of the worst offenders will be deselected. They are right in seeing the challenge not just to the Party leaders to withdraw the whip, or to the miscreants to do the decent thing and stand down but also to grassroots members to sack them.

The selection rules are there and perfectly adequate to facilitatem such action if the will is there. A Tory MP can only be deselected after the convening of a special general meeting of the local Conservative association. An SGM can be organised if it is backed by a petition signed by more than 50 members, or 10 per cent of the total membership, according to the previous year's membership lists.

The petition has to be sent to the secretary of the executive of the association, requesting him or her to convene the meeting. It is not as easy as it sounds. Often Party activists have known their MP for years. Out on the stump. At wine and cheese parties. Often the MP will have helped them - usually people say they have a "good constituency MP". The MP is their friend. They have a sense of loyalty which can blind them to his misconduct.

But however awkward it might be they have a higher loyalty to their party and their country - To throw out the rotten apples and restore confidence in parliament.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist and a Conservative Councillor in Hammersmith and Fulham.

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The country wants more and better candidates.

Yet, with perhaps a year to go to election and with possibly the greatest change of sitting MPs in memory, the Conservative Party has closed its selection lists.

How bizarre.

Posted by: Michael at May 20, 2009 05:49 AM

When it has all been said and done, do you think that more than
a couple of dozen MPs will be deselected, and why do you think that that would matter at all anyway?

"Knock the person off the greasy pole with a pillow" may be immense fun, but do you think that this amounts to more than a futile entertainment?

Posted by: Michael Chertiozhnik at May 22, 2009 11:38 PM
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