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.