Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Do you have to be well off to be a parliamentary candidate?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

There is a bit of a hullabaloo at the moment regarding the revelation that Zac Goldsmith has contributed £260,000 out of his own pocket since 2007 to his attempt to win Richmond Park from the Lib Dems at the next election.

This got me doing a bit of reading around though and I came across a very interesting article on ConservativeHome from August 2006 entitled "The costs of being a candidate". It focused on the experiences of Conservatives trying to get selected/elected (17 A-listers and 20 other candidates) and analysed the amount of expenditure to incurred in trying to become a candidate and then win a seat. They also looked at lost earnings and opportunity costs and tried to factor those in too. The information was then analysed and averages were taken. Here are some of the headline figures:

  • Total costs for winning candidates (including lost earnings): £41,550
  • Total costs for losing candidates (including lost earnings): £34,392
  • Direct costs for winning candidates: £22,020
  • Direct costs for losing candidates: £16,070

The article itself is well worth a read to see some of the experiences of the candidates involved.

It is not totally clear over what exact time-frame these costs were incurred (perhaps I missed it in the article) but I am assuming it is over say 2 or 3 years in the run up to the 2005 election. Now firstly I should just say that this is a snapshot of the specific experiences of Conservative candidates and the sample may to an extent be self selecting (ConHome asked for candidates to come forward to discuss how much it cost and it may be the ones who spent the most felt most motivated to come forward). It is also not clear how much of the expenditure would apply to candidates for other parties.

Notwithstanding all that, I still think this is a fascinating piece of research and one that should give pause for thought. Can it really be right that we are expecting candidates seeking election to become an MP to spend tens of thousands of pounds of their own money whilst seeking to do so? Surely that will mean that some (perhaps quite a lot of) people will be excluded from the process altogether. Well off people will not need to worry too much about this but for anyone on say average salary (c£25,000 - take home much less than that) you could be looking at spending up to two years worth of take-home annual salary just to be in with a shout.

I know from discussions I have had of people who currently cannot consider trying to become an MP purely for the financial cost and these sorts of figures could be an indication of why.

All of this can only mean that some people who would make great MPs are being filtered out of the process before they even get to try and be a candidate.

The ConHome article does suggest a few measures that might help:

  • A reduction in the cost of attending a Parliamentary Assessment Board (candidate approval process).
  • An emergency access fund run by a small committee – including an MP and candidate - that can release money to a struggling candidate in particularly pressed circumstances. One candidate who replied to the ConservativeHome survey literally ran out of money ten days before the 2001 polling day. They maxed out their credit card and were afraid to ask local Conservative officials for help. The Conservatives introduced an access fund system at the same time as they introduced student loans in the early 1990s.
  • The appointment of a ‘candidates’ protector’ in every Association. The protector would be jointly appointed by the candidate and Association Executive and would be, for example, responsible for prioritising the Conservative functions that the candidate attended so that he/ she had more time for campaigning. Just having such a role should improve activists’ understanding of the costs of being a candidate. CCHQ or the Candidates’ Association might like to consider preparing a briefing paper for Conservative Association executives to alert them to the cost pressures facing candidates.

I'm not sure how many of these suggestions have been taken up by the Conservative Party and even if they have been, how much difference they have made.

I would be interested to hear about the experience of candidates from other parties, how much cost they have incurred and how this compares with the Conservative figures.

Anyone who wants to contact me about this can at the e-mail address in the sidebar near the top of this blog. I will treat anything sent to me on this with discretion.

Perhaps Lib Dem Voice and/or LabourList might want to think about doing something similar?


bristolwestpaul said...


an interesting issue, of course no one can calculate the opportunity cost of being considered a bad risk by employers as a candidate and even afterwards. This is also true for councillors. I wonder how many employers see people being actively involved in politics as a problem (as opposed say to other voluntary work or being active in a church). In this country politicians are held in low esteem and therefore 'coming out' as an activist can have unforeseen and incalculable impacts on ones career.

When I was a councillor I knew it would be almost impossible to get promotion, within months of retiring I was running a national charity.

Greg said...

Are those figures mean median or modal averages? There are one or two rich candidates like Zac around who could seriously skew these results.

Jessica Asato said...

Hi Mark, you might be interested in this research that Will Straw of Left Foot Forward fame did to provide a bit more background about candidate selection to help Progress' campaign to introduce primaries. It found that 71 per cent of Labour’s current batch of prospective candidates spent under
£250 on their selection campaigns, 12 per cent spent over £750. Unsurprisingly, the amount
spent varied hugely from constituency to constituency, according to Labour’s relative
political position. In Labour seats, up to £4,000 was spent by candidates with an average (median) spend of £500. In non-Labour seats, up to £3,000 was spent but the average (median) was just £50.6 The average (median) overall was £90.

But we didn't ask people to include transport costs, or the costs of relocating, or time lost through taking time off work. I reckon if we'd asked for these amounts, it would be a lot higher. Just from experience of people going for selection, even in unwinnables, there's lots of unavoidable expenditure.

Julian Ware-Lane said...

I am a Labour PPC (Castle Point). My first point would be that I would guess expenditure would depend on how winnable a seat is. This is my second campaign, and both have been in Tory strongholds. In 2005 my guess is that I donated something like £500 to the campaign. This time around it has been less. There is a 'PPC tax' in that you feel obliged to attend fundraisers, buy the raffle tickets, etc, and attend all sorts of party functions. The biggest cost to me has been in time. Aside from using holiday, a lot of spare time is donated.

I cannot spend the sort of money quote in your article, and would refuse to do so even if I could afford it. Perhaps I am not desperate enough to get elected.

Anonymous said...

I hope these aren't quite right... Otherwise I'm screwed.

Though I did just get promoted to a new, better paid job, despite the candidacy.

Anonymous said...

Most of the costs that made up the sums quoted were lost income and/or opportunity costs rather than hard cash. Running a serious campaign in a target seat means some people have to give up a full time job and/or downsize their career. This takes place over 2 to 3 years and mounts up.