At the weekend the Independent ran a story which reported that the Conservative Party have yet to select a parliamentary candidate in almost half of their most marginal seats. This contrasted poorly with Labour and the Liberal Democrats who have selected candidates in the majority of their target seats. Around a year from the General Election the Conservatives will be disturbed at lagging behind their main two rivals. To make matters worse the target seats less likely to have Conservative candidates are in the North of England and the Midlands which does little to dispel the view that the Conservative Party has a ‘Northern Problem’.
There are currently 303 Conservative MPs and the party would need to win at least another 20 seats to win an overall majority in the House of Commons. The Conservatives are running a 40/40 strategy aimed at winning the next General Election with a plan to hold 40 marginal seats and win 40 target seats. However, the lack of candidates has led to claims that the party does not feel it can get over the line and is already preparing for a defeat come polling day.
One possible reason for choosing candidates so late is the time is takes to become a candidate. In order to become a Conservative parliamentary candidate you must go through a rigorous assessment process to make it on to a centrally approved list. Once you are on the approved list you can then start applying for seats. Historically local parties were not required to choose from the central list and could nominate their own local candidates. However, now the process is more centralised and this has led to criticisms that it has slowed down the mechanisms for selecting candidates.
Another complaint has been the slow progress that certain associations have made in choosing candidates. For example South Ribble has yet to choose a candidate despite Lorraine Fullbrook MP announcing she was standing down last year. At the same time there have been reports that Conservative Central Office has instructed some associations to wait until the autumn to select candidates.
Why does this matter? For one there is some evidence that name recognition can be a big factor in elections. For example in the 2010 General Election the Conservatives won 91 out of the top 100 targets from Labour. However, it is worth noting that of the nine they failed to take, eight were held by an incumbent Labour MP rather than a new challenger. The Conservatives will be defending a number of seats at the next election but they will also be trying to take those seats where there is a small majority. For this reason the Conservative Party need to act fast to choose candidates as soon as possible to fill the target seats. Otherwise they will find that their candidates will have no time to establish a profile locally and this will not help their uphill battle to secure a working majority in 2015.