BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 2.06.02

Film: CONSERVATIVE CANDIDATES FILM. Iain Watson reports on the Conservative Party's attempts to get more women and ethnic minority parliamentary candidates.

IAIN WATSON: The beautiful game, like so many other previously male professions, now has its fair share of female participants. But when it comes to politics, women are still markedly under strength in parliament, more so on the Conservative than Labour benches. Iain Duncan Smith says he says he's scouting around for talented people, irrespective of their sex or background. Tracey Crouch, whose ambition off the football field is to become a Tory MP, welcomes support for less traditional candidates. TRACEY CROUCH: Currently the benches in the House of Commons don't represent the country as a whole; I'd like to see more female Conservative MPs in the Commons and at last the leadership seems to be engaging in this issue. WATSON: But not everyone is as optimistic that women will find a way through the system. Party managers at Conservative central office want to see a more diverse range of candidates in place in winnable seats, well ahead of the next general election. But at local level, women and people from ethnic minority backgrounds often feel sidelined in the selection process; they say that any number of pep talks from the Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith is simply no substitute for positive action on their behalf to overcome what they see as an imbalance in favour of white middle-aged men. And this is one case where perception and reality go hand in hand. Of the one-hundred-and-sixty-six Conservative MPs currently in the House of Commons, there are only fourteen women; none are from the ethnic minorities; and, before the last election, in the twenty-five seats where sitting Tory MPs retired, no women made it through as their successors. FRANCIS MAUDE MP: We selected entirely straight, white, middle-class males. Now that made a more or less accurate statement about what kind of party we'd become. And that is very damaging because it not only discourages people from thinking of us as a broad national Party but it also discourages really good non-typical Conservative candidates whether they're from ethnic minorities or women or from different kinds of backgrounds, people who are born and brought up on the wrong side of the tracks. WATSON: Shailesh Vara ran Labour close in Northampton South in two-thousand-and-one; he's since been made a vice-chairman of his party. While he advocates change, he won't say how many additional women he wants to see in parliament, or whether any more candidates from ethnic minority backgrounds will be given his chance in a key marginal. WATSON: Last time one candidate from the ethnic minorities in a winnable seat; how many more would you like to see fighting winnable seats at the next election? SHAILESH VARA: Again, I'm not going to talk about specific numbers, what I will say is that we as a party wish to reflect the nation at large, as Iain Duncan Smith said in his speech in Harrogate that if... WATSON: ...would one or two be enough? Let's get an idea of what you are aiming for... VARA:, no, I'm not going down the route of numbers , what I will say is that... WATSON: ...there's no specific aim? VARA: ...there is no specific number. WATSON: Later this month, new research from the Fawcett Society - the pressure group that wants to see more women making more progress in politics - will show that local Conservative associations may need intensive training in equal opportunities. GEETHIKA JAYATILAKA: The research was based on interviews with women who went for selection in safe or winnable seats at the last parliamentary election. And what we heard very clearly from these women that they were many instances of overt discrimination, and in some cases even sexual harassment. Many of the women reported being asked questions around what they would do with their children while they were at Parliament, or being told outright that women with young children should be at home. But in the most extreme instances women were asked for example what their husbands would do for sex during the week. JILL ANDREW: And somebody said he'd lain awake all night thinking about me, and another instance, there was apparently a lot of discussion about my legs which really didn't have a lot of bearing on what I had to say during the course of my speech. WATSON: Central office has been compiling profiles of every target seat looking at the aspirations of those voters the party needs to win back at the next election. The idea is to persuade party activists that, in some areas, they can increase their electoral support by choosing women, or ethnic minority, candidates. But central office backed away from a plan to restrict the choice of candidates only to those who best matched the profile for each seat, following a revolt by Tory MPs. MAUDE: A small group of Conservative Members of Parliament - because that's what we are, sadly, at this stage in our history - cannot be allowed to be a block in the recovery, the essential recovery, of a great Party. WATSON: You backed down? VARA: Let me tell you this. A lot of local associations are phoning us up, writing to us, and saying they want guidance. What we are saying to associations is that if they're going to ask us for guidance because they may end up with let's say two-hundred-and-fifty applicants who are applying for a particular seat, all that the local association has is a list of CVs. They're turning to us and saying 'can you give us guidance as to which candidate you feel might be better suited for this association?' Where that guidance is sought we are giving it. WATSON: And where it isn't? VARA: Local autonomy is still a very strong feature of the Conservative party. WATSON: Iain Duncan Smith is determined to make the Tories serious players at the next election, and has said that local associations will be 'heavily encouraged' to select women and ethnic minority candidates. But at the same time, he's given the nod to a system of 'fast tracking' in target seats. This allows them to re-adopt the losing candidates from two-thousand-and-one without an open selection meeting; some aspiring women MPs are crying foul. FELICITY ELPHICK: I mean if I thought there was a winnable seat that I would like to go for and somebody else had got it because they'd been fast tracked, on an individual level, I wouldn't be too happy. WATSON: Next week, at this hotel in Slough, senior officials from Conservative central office will be meeting key party activists from the seats the Tories hope to win at the next general election; in this very room, they'll be trying to cajole rather than coerce constituencies to accept more women and more ethnic minority candidates. But critics of central office say they are simply not using all the means at their disposal to get a broader range of potential MPs. In a cross between a political rally and the Price is Right, Conservative candidates were urged to come on down and receive the prize of peer group approval at the last conference before the election. But with more women in the audience than on stage, some party reformers are now calling for positive action. MAUDE: I don't think we should rule out all women shortlists. Whether it's all women shortlists or quotas or any kind of positive discrimination, I can as well as anyone make a powerful case against it, it's all objectionable in principle. But what is more objectionable in principle is us being a Party that is, looks, narrow and is not selecting a bench of candidates that is genuinely representative of the country. VARA: We very much hope that women candidates will be selected. But let me emphasise that these women candidates are going to be selected on merit and we're not going to go down the line of having positive discrimination or all women lists or anything of that ilk. ELPHICK: All women lists is something that I have fought against until very recently and I have sat back and looked and thought, I've seen what the Labour party have done and it has worked for them and it has been of benefit to all the parties that there are more women in parliament. And whilst I'm not saying that we've definitely got to have it I am definitely saying that it must be considered and looked at in a very positive way WATSON: If local Tory associations don't appear to be selecting a more diverse range of candidates, then some people here at Conservative central office are contemplating more drastic action. A very senior figure has told 'On the Record' that constituencies may yet have to select from a restricted list of candidates, up to fifty per cent of whom could be women; and, if there is any sign of a grassroots rebellion, then central office may threaten to withdraw support from local associations ahead of the next general election. ELPHICK: I know for a fact that we have been looking at fifty-fifty lists. One of the ideas was to have a list, I think there are seventy seats initially that we're going to be looking at placing candidates in, so having thirty-five women and thirty five men on it and sending those names out to the associations as a recommendation, not as a must. And then as people get selected obviously the list goes smaller and smaller so at some point all the women are going to get selected and all the men are going to get selected. MAUDE: In the first half dozen seats which select a candidate to replace a retiring Conservative MP, if, in those seats at least half of the candidates selected are not what I would call non-typical, i.e. not straight, white middle class males, if that's not the case, then I think there will be very great pressure and there ought to be very great pressure to have active intervention to make sure that the pattern is broken. WATSON: The spa town of Cheltenham is an unlikely setting for a civil war but a decade ago, conflict was rife when some local Tories felt that the black barrister John Taylor was being forced upon them as their candidate. The constituency party chairman, Tony Hilder, would like to see a broader range of Conservative MPs, but warns that the current era of tranquility could be over if central office imposes a restricted list of potential candidates. TONY HILDER: I don't think it would be a good idea to have fifty per cent women and fifty per cent men, I don't think that would be, I think it should be purely on merit alone. I think the local associations feel they quite jealously guard their position on this and I think, I don't think that would be, I think that would be counter productive really. WATSON: Even those who criticise the selection procedure believe too much central direction could rebound. ANDREW: You know, if you force a candidate on an association they are not going to work for them and I just think it's the wrong way of tackling the problem, I think it's a bit of a sticking plaster solution, it's got nice up-front results but it doesn't actually tackle the causes. WATSON: Despite the name of the establishment, this was the venue for very serious business last week. The Conservatives' parliamentary assessment board was in session. It judges the competence of potential Tory candidates. But unless a list of the very best, irrespective of race or gender, is foisted on local associations, some very senior figures think the party could be debarring itself from a return to power. MAUDE: I think we have to not just talk about change, but make change actually happen and that does mean making the case boldly, strongly, confidently for the kind of Party we want to be. And there will be critics and there will be people who find it difficult. And, and I think all of us find the idea of active intervention of this kind quite difficult. But the penalty for not doing this is oblivion. WATSON: Party managers want to see more women and ethnic minority candidates, a message which has encouraged young Conservatives such as Tracey Crouch. But if they don't tackle any local associations which aren't on-side, some of their own supporters believe they'll be giving a gift to the opposition.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.