Politics nerds will have seen Channel 4 legend Michael Crick in action in recent months, diligently reporting on the process by which the country’s next parliamentary candidates are selected. His Twitter account, @tomorrowsmps, provides an assiduously built archive of longlists, shortlists and commentary on the process.
Local heroes aren’t always the answer
Speaking to The Bunker podcast recently, he drew unfavourable attention to the heavy preference for local candidates shown by selectors thus far this electoral cycle, stating flatly that “if you restrict your candidates to people who are local, you’re restricting the amount of choice.”
Crick, a seasoned political commentator, was right to do so. Local links are important for a candidate; voters want someone who has walked the same streets as them, educates their children locally, understands the challenges of the local constituency, and has a user-level grasp of how to tackle them. Being governed by someone chosen from among you, when the enervating gravity of centralisation to Westminster means politics and power feel ever more remote, can be a psychological insurance policy. This is not just a romantic ideal.
But while parochial pragmatism has its place, the lack of pre-existing local roots should never exclude a potential parliamentary candidate. There are a number of extremely good reasons why our politics needs more nomads.
Good MPs are a rare breed already
First and foremost, an elected Member of Parliament should be a leader. While day-to-day life in the Commons may see them herded through the division lobbies at the point of a whip, the majority of their duties require inspiring, coaching, cajoling or pressuring others to act. This includes – but is not limited to – forging relationships between business and the third sector, lobbying party leadership, or advocacy on constituency casework. All of these require strong leadership qualities; integrity, resilience, commitment, experience, communication skills and strong principles.
These alone are rare qualities, but they are only the start of what’s required. Candidates must be prepared to invite an army of demons into the family home, including overwork, extreme scrutiny, prolonged absence and first-hand knowledge of the societal horrors that drive casework. Above even these, potential candidates should bear in mind the potential security risk. The late Jo Cox and Sir David Amess will be remembered for many things, but the nature of their deaths haunts our politics.
These are formidable barriers to entry. On what basis, then, should we insist that they be raised further to exclude candidates who don’t already live in the constituency? To do so risks turning an already shallow talent pool into a puddle.
Diversity of experience
For progressive parties in particular, insisting upon candidates with local heritage is egregious self-sabotage. The whole point of a university education (that demographic fault line along which many of our political disputes break) for many young people is to get away from their place of birth, to seek the first rushes of personal autonomy in a whole new location. It’s a well-documented driver of one’s politics, making them more open, more globalist, and wiser regarding myriad forms of diversity. To demand a candidate with local roots is to jettison millions of progressively-minded graduates from the political gene pool at a stroke. We cannot expect a career in politics to be forever surrendered by completion of a UCAS form.
University is far from the only driver of geographical mobility either. Britain remains a deeply lopsided country, with many major professions burdened by the unwritten rule that career advancement requires a train ticket to London. We can argue, both furiously and accurately, that London exerts too much influence over the soul of the nation. What we can’t seriously suggest is that solving this problem means slamming the Commons’ door in the face of anyone who has ever been dragged to the capital by professional gravity.
Not all nomadic lives are voluntary, either. People may be forced away from childhood homes by a hideously disfigured housing market, by solemn duties as a carer, a failing local job market, parental relocation, or even by falling in love. Some of these criteria might even inform a person’s desire to go into politics, but none of them suggests disingenuousness on the part of the internal migrant.
This is before we even consider people born beyond Britain’s borders. How long must they reside in any given area before we consider them worthy of involvement in public life? Should their unique perspective on Britain be excluded from parliament until they have bought a house, birthed a second generation, or joined their local school’s PTA? We need to tread doubly carefully here, to prevent our localism becoming nativism.
Talent knows no boundaries
Plenty of immensely talented people enjoy an unbroken, decades-long relationship with a geographic area. However, there is no causal link between this relationship and their suitability for office. Lee Anderson has spent most of his 55 years in Ashfield, but remains a pugnacious, disingenuous curmudgeon. Nick Fletcher has a similarly lengthy relationship with his native Don Valley, but still seems to labour under the impression that crime happens because Dr Who is a woman. Mark François moved to Basildon in his infant school years, but a lifelong association with the area has done nothing to soften his character, which is that of a boorish oddball.
The reverse is also the case, of course. When first elected in 1945, Barbara Castle had no relationship whatsoever with the town of Blackburn; instead she won residents’ affections by living with a local family and studying weaving and spinning. Harold Wilson, under whom Castle would serve with such distinction, was a Huddersfield lad who nevertheless secured seats across the Pennines, first in Ormskirk, and subsequently in Huyton.
The Wilson example is particularly relevant here. MPs are not just delegates from their own constituency, they form the group from which future ministers and prime ministers must be drawn. By definition, senior politicians must enjoy a national profile, and a broader understanding of the country they seek to govern is advised. Winston Churchill, for example, served as MP for Oldham, Manchester North West, Dundee and Woodford. His legacy grows more contested over time, but his significance does not, and we can but wonder what history would have looked like had the citizens of Oldham shunned an outsider back in 1900.
No stone unturned
Most MPs will not go on to become figures as significant as Churchill, Castle or Wilson. Despite all the effort required to do the job, the best hope for most of them will be to serve the community diligently and with distinction until the winds of political change blow through and scatter them back across the job market.
Over time, that community may even come to hold them in some degree of affection, or at least respect. That respect can – and should – be won through tireless service, improving the lives of constituents, delivering improved services or restoring dignity where it was once lost. While a pre-existing local profile may help in the early days of an MP’s tenure, the real value is added after election, by candidates who draw deeply upon their own leadership skills. Those leadership skills are not unique to lifelong residents of any given constituency, but are distributed evenly across the nation and the world.
To ensure we elevate the highest standard of leaders to elected office, we should scour our own backyards, but also look to the horizon.