When the new House of Commons sits on 11 May it will mark the climax of a frenetic General Election campaign which will have seen nearly 3,500 candidates do battle for a place on the hallowed green benches of the Commons chamber.
If the composition of Parliament were to reflect today’s society, 52% of the MPs recruited would be women and 9% would be from an minority ethnic background.
Currently 18% of MPs are women and at the last General Election only 12 Labour MPs were from an minority ethnic background out of 659 – about 2%.
The average age of MPs in our ‘accurate reflection Parliament’ would be nearer 38.4 instead of the current average of 50.3.
In demographic terms candidates should be more like Oona King and less like Malcolm Rifkind.
A total of 18.2% of candidates would have a limiting long-term illness or disability, whereas Ann Begg, the Labour MP from Aberdeen South, is currently the only wheelchair user in Parliament.
An estimated 7% of candidates would be gay. Christianity would be the main religion with Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and Judaism following in that order.
How are MPs selected now?
So how do the main parties choose who to put forward as candidates for Parliament and could their systems of selection be improved?
Phil Owers, managing director of Monster Government Solutions (MGS), public sector recruitment and retention specialists, believes the selection process could be improved using professional techniques and a modern approach.
At the moment Labour, Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats appear to adopt similar basic principles for selecting candidates.
Someone who is interested in standing (and who is a member of a political party) will apply and be called to an interview with senior representatives of the party. If this goes well they will then be put on a national approved list of candidates. (This is a form of pre-screening).
They will then be invited to put their names forward for a particular seat by submitting a CV. Most of these candidates will then be called to a meeting with senior figures from the local constituency group of the party to which they belong.
Successful applicants will be short-listed and sent to charm local party members at a ‘hustings’ meeting. A vote is held and the winner becomes the candidate.
Parties vary as to whether this is a postal vote or a vote of people who attend hustings meetings.
What is the alternative?
If we were to disregard these selection procedures and replace them with a process used by MGS to select professionals into the world of work – what would change?
Based on best practice selection methodology, candidates should be selected based on an appointment process which is:
- fair to all
- objective (i.e. assesses candidates against objective selection criteria that have been shown to be required for successful performance in the role)
- implemented by selectors who have received training in best practice selection procedures and in equal opportunities issues.
The process should also demonstrate ‘face validity’, in that it should only ask candidates to complete tasks that genuinely reflect what would be required of them in the role if they were successful in their selection. In this respect, asking candidates to attend a hustings and an interview appears to be ‘face valid’ as it is a key requirement of an MP, once elected, to be able to campaign effectively, and to demonstrate excellent verbal communication and influencing skills.
What is less apparent from the parties’ current processes is how performance at the various stages of selection is measured, and how selectors ensure a like-for-like comparison of each candidate against a defined benchmark.
MGS would therefore suggest to the political parties that they consider increasing the time efficiencies and cost efficiencies of the selection process by combining the face-to-face interview with an assessment centre approach for the subsequent stages of selection.
Assessment centres are proven to be one of the most valid mechanisms for selecting the best candidates for a specific role, due to the multiple nature of the assessments carried out by candidates and the multiple selectors involved.
This would bring a number of benefits:
- it would allow candidates to demonstrate their skills and approach to a wide variety of situations faced by today’s politicians
- it would allow candidates to self select
- it would allow for a development plan to be implemented.
In order to increase the diversity of applicants applying to be an MP, parties should seek to appeal to the broadest range of potential candidates.
The Equal Opportunities Commission research paper Women in Parliament (2001) showed that a number of positive initiatives had made a decisive contribution to increasing women’s representation in national politics. The number of women in the House of Commons doubled in 1997, due mainly to the ‘all women shortlist’ policy introduced by the Labour Party between 1993 and 1996.
Targeting under-represented groups to apply is an effective method of increasing the diversity of the applicant pool.
All parties make some attempts to achieve this, though the efforts seem to be well-intentioned but not always professionally carried through.
MGS suggests developing appropriate tested messages and creative work targeting those underrepresented groups sought.
MGS would combine the parties’ current procedures for advertising for Parliamentary candidates with implementation of a comprehensive range of other communication mechanisms – for example online, offline or through outreach solutions – depending on the background and age of the individuals targeted.
The idea would be to raise awareness of the role of an MP, educate wider audiences about what the role involves, what skills and behaviours are required and to persuade them as to the transparency and fairness of the appointment process.
As with any quality selection process, the first and crucial starting point would be a thorough job analysis and competency profiling exercise. By ensuring that we fully understand the skills, knowledge, values, motivations and key behaviours that are necessary for successful performance in an MP’s day-to-day role, we will, in turn ,ensure that we devise a process to effectively attract and select suitable candidates.
Instinct would suggest that core competencies such as influencing, drive and determination and interpersonal communication are important attributes that make a successful MP.
However, a job analysis exercise might rather demonstrate that problem solving, tenacity and empathy are also required core competencies. The point is, only once a job analysis exercise has been completed can you be sure of having identified the right competencies for the role.
Motivational fit is also a key element of ensuring a good person-job match, and one that is commonly overlooked in selection processes. Again, it is important to fully understand which factors a successful MP finds motivating – the drive to perform a public duty or simply secure influence over others.
As with most of the workforce, demands placed on today’s MPs reflect ever-increasing levels of stresses and strains. It is therefore vital that we ensure we have an accurate measure of the skills and behaviours required for success in the role of an MP so that the candidates put forward by political parties are fully equipped to represent the people effectively and responsibly.
As a result of this approach potential candidates could believe they are submitting themselves for a fair and accountable method of selection, and members of groups currently under-represented in the House of Commons will be more likely to apply as selection would be seen to be based on merit.