The prospects for a dramatically more representative Parliament post 2015 are bleak

Catherine Durose, Liz Richardson, Ryan Combs, Francesca Gains and Christina Eason

Whilst the likely outcome of the next election maybe still far too close to call, one feature of the next Parliament is very predictable.  The 2015 Parliament is likely to remain as deeply unrepresentative of the make-up of the UK population as the current legislature.  Although the 2010 Parliament showed some improvements in diversity, while women represent 51% of the UK population they formed just 22% of MPs; and although the ethnic minority population is 8% the number of ethnic minority MPs is half that at 4%.  Representation by other underrepresented groups: for example people with disabilities or openly LGBT is also less than would be reflective of the makeup of society more generally although this is harder to count.

This poor representation is despite all three main party leaders stating their support for efforts to improve the diversity of representation in Parliament in evidence given at a specially convened Speakers Conference before the last election.  While Lord Hurd has argued recently that greater diversity in political representation is a ludicrously radical demand, the Conference argued that improved diversity would support better policy making as MPs would draw on a wider range of experiences, and could act to enhance the legitimacy of Parliament and encourage greater political engagement.

Our research for the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, conducted just after the election in 2010, set out to explore the barriers to representation from underrepresented groups and to examine the pathways to politics taken by successful politicians from those groups protected by the Equalities Act to see what lessons could be learned.  We gathered primary qualitative data from a purposive sample of 62 national politicians and candidates, some who had been successful, and some who had not managed to achieve selection and/or elected office.  We also heard from around 20 lobby groups for under-represented groups within and outside political parties, and other stakeholder organisations.

In some cases shocking examples of sexist and racist attitudes were reported.  One black candidate was asked whether she was ‘one of them happy-clappy churchgoers’. One candidate recounted the experience of a local party member ‘hitting me on the bottom and asking me what a nice girl like me is doing in the Labour Party.’  A female ethnic minority candidate expressed her perception of the “double whammy” of discrimination she faced.  This also ran the risk of reducing support for diverse candidates.  In one example, other women in a candidate’s party assumed that she would get support from ethnic minorities in the party, but the other minority members were: “reluctant to support me because I am female and they are all men”.  Other attitudes towards women were less overtly expressed but still exclusionary. Women in politics perceived themselves as facing heightened expectations to justify their presence in a way that men did not. Yet, women were not taken seriously or seen to have the gravitas of male politicians.

While possibly horrifying, these might be familiar complaints about lingering outmoded common-or-garden prejudice.  However, beyond this, our analysis, published in Parliamentary Affairs, identified a systemic and institutional problem with local party ‘selectorates’.  A key issue mentioned by those we spoke to was the critical veto role played by the local selectorates, the local party activists who are responsible for selecting candidates.   Women and ethnic minorities reported facing ‘selector hostility’ struggling to secure the nomination for winnable seats as local party elites look for so-called ‘archetypal’ candidates.  The archetypal candidate reflects selectors’ own characteristics, but more importantly, those of previously successful candidates.  It is partly based on assumptions about electoral risk, and who different parts of the electorate will be prepared to vote for.  Candidates and sitting politicians saw this attitude reflected in the suggestions put to them to ‘have a go’ in ‘unwinnable’ seats. Analysis by Maria Sobolewska at the University of Manchester  has shown that, pre 2010, the Liberal Democrats selected the overwhelming proportion of their minority candidates in highly ethnic diverse seats, most of which were unwinnable and the Conservatives selected more than half of their minority candidates into hopeless seats.  The Labour Party selected the highest proportion of ethnic minority candidates for safe and winnable seats.

In our research, we argue that where candidates from under-represented groups have been successful, this is often because they were ‘acceptably different’ and shared particular ‘pathways’ into national politics which mitigated against the perceived electoral disadvantages of being from an underrepresented or  minority group.  One younger, male, ethnic minority politician highlighted how other aspects of his identity were able to make his ethnicity ‘acceptable ‘I think my age and colour ticked certain boxes and ex-military, public school boy ticked others’.  For women, this could take the form of being ‘one of the boys’, as explained by one respondent: “It’s how you fit in so they don’t think you’re a girl […] Once one of my colleagues described me as one of the boys, I think he meant it as a compliment but I’m not sure that it is.”  Such candidates are also likely to follow a pathway into politics which emphasises university education and a ‘politics facilitating’ or an increasingly  prominent ‘professional politics’ route.  Many of the new female or ethnic minority MPs elected in 2010 had experience in national politics as advisers, or lobbyists.  Of the 27 ethnic minority MPs, at least ten have legal backgrounds (37%).

Whilst this new type of pathway into politics can help to overcome selector hostility if candidates are filtered both through local selectorates and through professional pathways, then a key policy question in increasing diversity in representation becomes how to open up politics.  One of our interviewees said “When I was trying to become a Parliamentary candidate I was asked on more than one occasion what my qualifications were and they meant academic qualifications. One woman even said it was a real shame because one of the other candidates was a lawyer and another one had a PhD and although I seemed like a really nice woman I wasn’t really [of] their calibre”.

Although the Labour Party is persisting with the unpopular but effective policy of making 50% of its target seats selected from all women shortlists, this willingness for the party elites and the party machinery to work with local selectorates to overcome selector hostility is not found elsewhere.  Although David Cameron is clearly committed to wider diversity, Conservative members are deeply resistant to either interference from the national party or equality measures, as highlighted by recent media reports, and supported by other research by Sarah Childs and Paul Webb. And the Liberal Democrats are also struggling to take any positive measures, with the ongoing furore over sexual harassment claims still making headlines.

Without tougher efforts by all parties to address their own openness, attitudes and ‘selectorates’, the portents for the 2015 Parliament being radically more representative than 2010 do not look good.

This blog first appeared on Democratic Audit, 27 January 2014


Dr Catherine Durose is Senior Lecturer and Director of Research in the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham and works with the Public Services Academy.


Dr Liz Richardson is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Manchester, and a Visiting Fellow in the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE) at  London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).  Her previous roles include Co-ordinator of LSE Housing at the LSE. Liz is co-editor of the journal, Local Government Studies.  She is also a Director of a community charity, the National Communities Resource Centre.


Ryan Combs is a Research Associate at Centre for Primary Care, Institute of Population Health at the University of Manchester.


Francesca Gains is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of Manchester. Before entering academia she worked in local government and the probation service, and has both government funded and Parliamentary research experience. Her research agenda explores the relationship between political management arrangements and policy outcomes.

Christina Eason has a PhD from the University of Manchester’s School of Social Sciences and has research interests in British politics, gender, women, representation, and institutions.

The impact of media logic on democratic legitimacy in local governance networks

Iris Korthagen and Ingmar van Meerkerk

Many policy- and decision-making processes in today’s democracies increasingly take place in governance networks, these are interactive or network forms of governance. This raises an important question of how democratic legitimacy is being shaped in these networks and which factors impact upon this.

The opportunity for citizens and stakeholders to give voice are viewed as important sources for democratic legitimacy in governance networks, with this enhancing the quality of deliberations between stakeholders and accountability of decision-makers. An important factor which is scarcely examined is the impact of media on these sources of democratic legitimacy. The media can give voice to actors, they can provide a forum for deliberation and they can provide an important channel for decision-makers to account for their decisions.

Rather than neutrally transmit information and images the media select and frame news stories by a commercial logic: news needs to be made every day and it needs to be sold. This means that news is relatively more negative than positive, skewed towards dramatic human interest stories and content designed by public relations professionals. This raises the important question of how this media logic affects democratic legitimacy.

We recently examined this relationship by comparing three local governance networks in the Netherlands. Using content analysis of documents, case studies and interviews, we came to the conclusion that the media logic increased the potential of certain sources, while it decreased others.


The media are a vehicle to generate attention for certain issues and to gain influence in the process. By adapting to the media logic we found citizen groups succeeded in attracting media attention and were able to put their issues on the political agenda. However, the media logic restricted the messages of citizens’ groups that came through. For instance, having harsh, negative sound bites and organizing protest actions were more attractive than a nuanced and collaborative attitude.


The media can function as a watchdog, as checks and balances in the process and as a platform for diverse deliberations. We found deliberative processes were broadened by the perspectives of the citizen groups that gained media attention. Nevertheless, as the media are more interested in entertaining stories, with a focus on conflicts and drama, this partly reduced the quality of the deliberation process. Images seemed more important than well elaborated deliberations. Furthermore, the media, in our cases, were more a platform for citizen groups than for political authorities.


The media are a communication channel for generating transparency and accountability. Since the media were at times so negative about the proposed project plans, they forced political authorities into a reactive communication style: they had to fight against a negative image. Proactive communication, such as branding, is difficult in the context of the citizens’ dramatic stories.

We observed that citizen groups deployed active media strategies at times when they were losing faith in the outcomes of the interactive governance process. Indeed, some decisions were partly changed in favour of the citizen groups that gained media attention. In that sense the mediatized reality can have a substantial impact on the reality of governance.

Certain citizens’ groups thus extended their influence on the policy- and decision-making outputs through their media strategies. At the same time these strategies can be seen as go-it-alone strategies that can damage trust relationships with the authorities and the other actors involved and even isolate the group from the interactive governance process. This also raises an important challenge for political decision-makers. To what extent should they listen to those citizens who are barking loudly in the media, while other stakeholders are trying to reach compromises in an interactive setting?

A full account of this research is available in our recent article in Local Government Studies, published online 09 Jan 2014.


Iris Korthagen is a PhD studenet at the Department of  Public Administration at Erasmus University Rotterdam and a member of the research group Governance of Complex Systems (GOCS). Her PhD project focuses on the mediatisation of public decision-making processes. She studies how the logic of news reporting influences the content and the process of decision-making in governance networks.


Ingmar van Meerkerk is a PhD student at the Department of Public Administration at Erasmus University Rotterdam. His PhD thesis focusses on the role of boundary spanners and the impact of boundary-spanning activities on the democratic legitimacy and performance of interactive governance settings. For his thesis he has published in several international peer reviewed journals, such as Policy Sciences, European Planning Studies and Environment and Planning C.

Can local government govern in the digital age?

Paul Hepburn

The digital age continues to bring policy challenges for local government. From harnessing ‘big data’ for the public good to developing  ‘smart’ cities the policy expectation is that local authorities will deliver appropriate governance without which, it is argued, urban life in the 21st century is likely to be rendered more complicated, fragmented , unequal and potentially dystopian through ad hoc technological fixes.

All very well and Hobbesian but ‘good’ or ‘smart’ governance in this context is one where the citizen is centrally involved in the decision making process. It is questionable then if the local government institution is fit for this assigned purpose given that many commentators view it as having failed to meaningfully engage citizens during the well-funded e-government programme run by the previous New Labour government.

Since that time the social web and apps development, to name but two, have opened new opportunities for local policymaker wishing to involve citizens in the policy making process.  My article, based on empirical research into the online activity associated with the Manchester Congestion Charge Referendum, illustrates the political difficulties local government faces in turning these opportunities into effective online engagement and in doing so suggests some remedial policy responses.

The local online influence of the sad, the bad and the very rich

The promise of e-democracy is that it will renew the democratic process and enable ‘ordinary’ citizens’ voices to be heard above those that have traditionally dominated politics. This proved not to be the case during the Congestion Charge Referendum and analysis of the related hyperlink network and interviews with actors prominent in this network revealed how powerful economic businesses offline were dominating the political narrative online. Evidence collected here showed how these businesses used their offline political connections to diminish the online voices of those that opposed them.

Along with the influence of the very rich online engagement on this issue was often characterised by angry, offensive and anonymous postings which served to deter people from participating or sharing information. It also reinforced the belief of some policy-makers in the superiority of traditional forms of communication.

Local government and the online network

The role of local government during the referendum was to ensure that all relevant information was made available to the voting public and to attempt to engage them on the issue. Of course they used online media in this process but their engagement was hampered by a toxic mix of institutionalised  ‘silos’ of information, a prevailing culture of anxiety about the new media and an inability to assign any real political value to online engagement. As a consequence their tepid interventions online were often counter-productive and helped to fuel a lack of trust amongst the public in the information they were trying to impart.

Remedial policies

Some of these obstacles to more effective online intervention by local government are more straightforward to resolve than others. The modernisation of local government needs to be driven forward and the institutional structures, culture and prevailing perceptions of citizenship need to be aligned with the requirements of the digital age. How far and how fast local government will change is contingent upon a number of factors, countering the online influence of the sad the bad and the very rich is probably dependent upon how far local government climbs Arnstein’s ladder of participation.

A full account of this research can be found in my recent article ‘Local Democracy in a Digital Age: Lessons for Local Government from the Manchester Congestion Charge Referendum’, Local Government Studies.


Dr Paul Hepburn is a Postdoctoral researcher at the Hestletine Institute for Public Policy and Practice, University of Liverpool His work explores the potential of the new digital media to enhance local democracy and local governance. He uses methods and tools for analysing and explaining the structure of online political networks. Paul previously worked in local government where he implemented an e-government programme.

Health and wellbeing boards: a new type of partnership?

Anna Coleman

A great deal rests on Health and Wellbeing Boards (HWBs), a new type of local partnership. These were established under the Health and Social Care Act 2012, to act as a forum in which leaders from the local health and care system could work together to improve the health and wellbeing of their local population and promote integrated services.

Last year, the House of Commons Communities and Local Government (CLG) Committee concluded that HWBs have a pivotal role and their success ‘is crucial to the new arrangements’.  However, it also warned of the danger ‘that the initial optimism surrounding their establishment and first year or two in operation will falter and go the way of previous attempts at partnership working that failed and became no more than expensive talking shops’ (House of Commons CLG Committee, 2013 paragraph 22, 14).  We examine these issues and the early development of HWBs in our recently published article in Local Government Studies.

While partnerships are seen to be a prerequisite for tackling ‘wicked issues’ (those issues so complex that their solution lies with a multi-agency response), historically they seem unable to break free from the ‘silo-based’ structures which govern how many UK public services are organised and delivered.

The official vision for HWBs from the Department of Health emphasises: joint local leadership between Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) and local authorities; key roles for elected councillors, clinicians, and directors of public health, adults and children’s services; the enablement of greater local democratic legitimacy of commissioning decisions, and provision for opportunities for challenge, discussion, and the involvement of local representatives (Department of Health 2011 p15). However, HWBs have no formal powers, and their ability to influence others will depend upon their success in building relationships.

Established as sub-committees of local authorities, the exact membership of HWBs is not formally mandated, and locally HWBs can choose how they wish to work. Recent research (Humphries 2013) has suggested several features of HWBs which could potentially set them apart from previous partnership initiatives. These include: involvement and engagement of GPs; better governance and accountability (due to being sub-committee of the LA); encouragement of wider relations between the NHS and broader LA (not just Social Services); and opportunities afforded by the move of Public Health functions to local government. However similar initiatives have historically fallen short of initial expectations.

In the complex new system, resulting from the many changes under the Health and Social Care Act 2012, and characterised by potential fragmentation and confused accountability (see our other recently published paper from research with Clinical Commissioning Groups – Checkland et al 2013), HWBs are the one element within the new system with a specific mandate to encourage integration between local bodies. This has led to potentially unrealistic expectations that they can solve longstanding and intractable problems, such as joined up working between health and social care (Vize 2013), but also provides opportunities for them to work differently and make a difference locally to the health and wellbeing of local populations. Watch this space.

Anna’s article Joining it up? Health and Wellbeing Boards in English Local Governance: Evidence from Clinical Commissioning Groups and Shadow Health and Wellbeing Boards is published in Local Government Studies.


Anna Coleman is a Research Fellow in the HIPPO team (Health policy, politics and organisation groups), part of the Institute for Population Studies at the University of Manchester. HiPPO also constitutes, jointly with researchers from The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the University of Kent, the Department of Health Policy Research Unit in Commissioning and the Healthcare System (PRUComm). PRUComm provides evidence to the Department of Health to inform the development of policy on all aspects of health-related commissioning.

Disclaimer: The research for both referenced papers is funded by the Department of Health. The views expressed are those of the researchers and not necessarily those of the Department of Health.

Babies, bathwater and baths

Alan Doig

It came as no surprise that the incoming Conservative government was quick to abolish the Standards Board for England after its 2010 election victory. Media comments and party policy briefs made it plain that the government had no time for what it perceived to be an over-zealous, heavy-handed and centralised regulator that added little value to local government.

More of a surprise was the decision to bury the Audit Commission at the same time for, apparently, the same reasons. One can be charitable and assume the government didn’t think through the consequences; the legislative reforms or pronouncements about armchair auditors certainly suggest this. However, it would now appear that at least some in government and Whitehall recognise that throwing out the baby with the bathwater may have won them political brownie points with their local government colleagues and with the private sector, but removing the Commission’s Audit Practice (still District Audit to the rest of us) may have been akin to throwing out the bath as well.

Why Regulation?

In noting some of the episodic scandals that underline the enduring conflict between private or partisan interests and the responsibilities of public office, my recent article in Local Government Studies discusses the long haul of what might be termed the low road of compliance and the high road of ethical standards. The former concerns a control environment – the presence and application of technical and procedural controls that provides reasonable assurance of effective and efficient operations, internal financial control and the proper stewardship of public funds and powers, as well as laws, procedures and resources to scrutinise, detect and punish perpetrators. The latter involves the more recent focus on public ethics and governance arrangements. Together the two roads should combine to achieve an internalisation of norms and standards that in turn promote organisational cultures which protect against specific interests and individuals, and where the control environment can operate more effectively against those seeing to defraud or corrupt local government internally or externally.

Tipping Points in Integrity and Compliance

Unfortunately the dissolution of District Audit, together with its institutional expertise, inter-institutional cooperation, particular powers, and national assessment of patterns of delivery, overview of issues and trends, as well as data dissemination, has come at a time when local government is also undergoing changes, ranging from the implementation of the localism agenda to the declining in-house capacity to underpin the control environment which has drawn on council resources dedicated to fraud against housing benefits.

Externally, there continues to be a decrease in the resources the police are willing to commit to economic crime while the abolition of the National Fraud Authority removes the short-lived attempt to develop a national anti-fraud strategy at local level. Combined they create an unstable and under-resourced environment in which to maintain the direction of travel along both roads in the face of the roadworks thrown up by the various abolitions and wider legislative reforms.

…And a Voice from Beyond the Grave

One consequence of the roadworks has been discussions over government funding for councils’ investigative capacity and about whether other bodies could pick up the high road agenda. While good councils continue holding on to the lessons learned and seeking to maintain the direction of travel, the potential for poorer councils reverting back to those habits that made the roles of the Audit Commission and District Audit, and even the Standards Board, necessary is a risk that government cannot ignore. Nevertheless, having thrown out baby, bathwater and bath, with councils left to their own devices, and with much more pressing issues on council agendas, it will be interesting to see if the Audit Commission’s own warning, over 20 years ago in 1993, may come back to haunt the government when, in arguing for value and relevance of an anti-fraud culture or an ethical environment, the Commission warned of a local government environment which had been ‘rendered more demanding and complex by recent changes to the nature and operation of local government services. Many of these changes, such as the delegation of financial and management responsibilities, while contributing to improved quality of service, have increased the risks of fraud and corruption occurring’.

Alan’s article in Local Government Studies: Roadworks Ahead? Addressing Fraud, Corruption and Conflict of Interest in English Local Government is available online now (or contact the author if you do not have an institutional subscription).


Alan Doig is Hon. Senior Research Fellow at the International Development Department, University of Birmingham; Visiting Professor, Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University and Board member, Management Board, North-east Fraud Forum.

The theft of the open primary: can we pin it on Jeffrey Archer?

Chris Game

It’s rather late for a New Year’s confession, but I need to get it off my conscience: I confess I read Jeffrey Archer books. I’m advised it only ranks as a venial, rather than mortal, sin, and it’s not an addiction; I don’t buy hardbacks, or sneak them on to student reading lists.

archerAnyway, over Christmas I read Best Kept Secret, the third in Archer’s multi-volume Clifton Chronicles, and came across something relating directly, and rather curiously, to a topic I was already planning to blog about: the Conservatives’ increasing use of open primaries to select their parliamentary candidates for the 2015 Election. So it’s me first, Archer later.

From literally his first day as leader, part of David Cameron’s project of ridding the Conservatives of their ‘nasty party’ image has involved, to quote his acceptance speech, changing “the scandalous under-representation of women in the Conservative Party” and generally diversifying the profile of its MPs and councillors. Stirring stuff, were such a change within his power. However, the “scandalous under-representation” – 17 women out of 198 Tory MPs in 2005 – was created not by his predecessors, but by autonomous local constituency associations who jealously guard their right to select their own candidates – with minimal interference from the national party, thanks very much.

Neither the party nor Cameron will accept anything seriously effective, like all-women shortlists or legally enforceable gender quotas. So they’re left with what they call “equality rhetoric and promotion measures” to increase the selection of minority groups – like the notorious Conservative Central Office ‘A-list’ of some 150 favoured women, black/minority ethnic (BAME) and disabled candidates, from which it was ‘expected’ that selectors in Conservative-held target seats would make their choice, at the expense, if necessary, of their own colleagues or preferred local candidates.

Perhaps surprisingly, some actually did, and in 2010 the party’s women MPs rose to 43, or one in seven of the parliamentary party, and its BAME MPs to 11. The A-list had served its immediate purpose, and the plan was for the diversification project to be driven in the new Parliament by another scheme favoured by both Cameron and the Lib Dems: open primaries – shorthand for the nominating primary elections in which US parties select their Presidential and legislative candidates.

Our recent candidate selections have been mostly through what could be termed membership or closed primary elections. Applicants are shortlisted by local party officials, but the final selection is open to all registered constituency party members – either at a meeting, or through a membership ballot – but closed to non-members. Then gradually during the last Parliament the Conservatives started opening up their selection process, eventually allowing non-party members to participate in the actual selection. We had the unrestricted open primary, in which all registered voters in a constituency, including members of other parties or no party, could participate.

Boris Johnson gave a massive kick start both to the idea and to his own successful 2008 London Mayoral campaign when he was chosen, overwhelmingly, as the Conservatives’ candidate in an open primary in which over 20,000 electors invested around £1.50 to call a premium rate phone line and register their votes.

Over a hundred open primary meetings were held between 2006 and 2010, but Cameron’s initial vision was to do the thing properly, Boris-scale, with postal ballots mailed to all registered voters in a constituency. The first in 2009 was in the Devon constituency of Totnes, and Sarah Wollaston, the winning candidate with nearly 8,000 votes, ticked just about all Cameron’s boxes. A Plymouth-based GP and mother of three, who’d only joined the party in 2006 to oppose the closure of the local community hospital, Wollaston would replace an embarrassing veteran MP, forced to stand down following the revelation of his abuse of parliamentary expenses for maintaining his country home and ‘rabbit protection’. A few months later a second postal primary in Gosport, Hampshire, was a virtual carbon copy. This time the expenses fiddler was the MP whose £30,000 gardening expenses included a £1,645 ‘floating duck island’, and his replacement was Caroline Dinenage, a local councillor, businesswoman, and mother of two.

To the incoming Coalition leaders, these postal primaries must have seemed like a magic potion: the key to cleaning up and transforming the membership of Parliament, opening up candidate selection in safe seats, and extending public participation all in one go. Certainly it went to their heads, for, at the height of an international financial crisis, they included in the Coalition Agreement the pledge to “fund 200 all-postal primaries over this Parliament, targeted at seats which have not changed hands for many years” – the funds to be allocated to all Parliamentary parties in proportion to their 2010 election vote.

With Totnes and Gosport having cost roughly £40,000 each, that would be £8 million-plus, and unsurprisingly it’s become one of the less contentious Coalition pledges to have fallen off the cart. What has continued, though, is that local Conservative Associations have been deciding for themselves to forgo the exclusive selection privileges to which their £25 membership fees entitle them, and to turn their final selection – from a shortlist of usually three or four – into an open primary meeting.

It’s a far less radical development than all-postal primaries. Even so, it has more than symbolically opened up a previously private process, has got Ed Miliband wondering if Labour should be doing something similar, and will surely strengthen the successful candidates’ mandate, if they’re eventually elected. As for the profile of those successful primary-selected candidates, my guess is that David Cameron is at least moderately encouraged. By my count, there have been fewer women than men, though a higher proportion than the overall one-third so far selected in the party’s target seats. Our interest, though, is in one in particular: Lucy Frazer QC, a commercial law barrister who, as re-confirmed candidate for South East Cambridgeshire, has already acquired a small, unwanted footnote in British electoral history.

Let me summarise. Safe Conservative seat; 100+ applicants, reduced by the local party executive to a shortlist of three women, one man – none, controversially, with serious local connections. In the first two rounds of voting, no candidate gets 50%, and the bottom candidate in each round is eliminated – leaving Frazer and Heidi Allen, a businesswoman and St Albans councillor. No voting numbers are revealed, even to candidates, who are not permitted scrutineers. Third round: Frazer is declared winner, by 84 votes to 48 – somewhat surprisingly, Allen having been ante-post favourite.

The presiding officer then, quite improperly, takes the ballot papers home, decides to recount them, and discovers a serious case of incompetence and/or malpractice. In the final vote, a pile of 25 ballot papers was marked as being for Frazer, although apparently only the top two actually were, the rest being for Allen.  The true result, therefore, should have been 84 less 23 = 61 for Frazer; 48 plus 23 = 71 and a majority of 10 for Allen.

Thus far, real life mirrors almost precisely a key plot device in Jeffrey Archer’s Best Kept Secret. In Archer’s version, Sir Giles Barrington narrowly retains his Bristol Docklands seat for Labour at the 1955 General Election, thanks to his sharp-eyed young nephew, Sebastian Clifton, having spotted that one of the piles of 100 ballot papers allocated to his Conservative opponent, Major Alexander Fisher, “has a Fisher ballot paper on top, and the 99 underneath are for Uncle Giles” (p.256).

At this point, however, fiction and fact diverge. Archer arranges for the mis-allocation to be discovered and confirmed during the recount already requested by Sir Giles [forget all the improbabilities – it’s a story, for goodness’ sake!]. The correct result can therefore be officially declared: a victory by 4 votes for Sir Giles, instead of the previous announced 184 for Major Fisher.

Heidi Allen was less fortunate. Not having been told her first and second round votes, she was unaware when the result was announced that she had apparently, and inexplicably, ‘lost’ more than a dozen of her supporters between the second and third counts. Others in the room, however, must have known, which seems to suggest an element of malpractice amidst all the incompetence – reinforced in my mind anyway by the fact that, as the world knows, the Archers’ home at The Old Vicarage, Grantchester is in – yes, South East Cambridgeshire.

Conservative Campaign HQ, confronted with this total car crash, reacted pleasingly predictably – first claiming that the ballot papers should have been shredded (which they shouldn’t – not for three months), then walking away from the whole thing. The South East Cambridgeshire Association then compounded their self-inflicted fiasco by refusing to contemplate a recount, calling instead an emergency closed meeting to which they invited Frazer but not Allen, and voted to reaffirm Frazer’s election in the interests of ‘party unity’ (some hope!).

As an outsider, I’m both amused and, because of the Archer coincidence, mildly intrigued. There is, though, a serious point. Open primaries are one of the more interesting electoral initiatives in recent years, and one hopes that other local parties aren’t deterred by the disaster of this single case.

Chris Game - pic

Chris is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political  leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.