A snake has two ends (and a middle, which we will ignore for the sake of simplicity) the head end and the tail end. The head end has teeth and poison, the tail end has a bum and sometimes a rattle.
If you had to pick up a dangerous snake your instincts would tell you to grab it by the tail, where there are no teeth and no poison. If you did this, the snake would simply twist around, double back on itself and bite you.
But fight your natural instincts and grab the snake by the head you would see that the snake could twist and squirm all it liked but it wouldn’t be able to bite.
This is counter-intuitive, grabbing the snake by the tail should be safer, surely. It isn’t.
Sometimes taking the hardest course of action is actually the safest move. Clearly this cannot be used as a blanket rule, a steam iron has a hot-plate and a handle, I probably don’t need to go on.
The skill is recognising when you are dealing with a snake situation and when you are dealing with an iron, so to speak. If you are making a courageous move always ask yourself “am I grabbing the wrong end of the snake?”
I suspect that with regard to candidate selection David Cameron and Francis Maude could be holding the arse end of a big, dangerous snake.
Local associations guard their independence closely and are not perfect, far from it, but they do tend to be more pragmatic than they are given credit for. Remember Michael Howard attempted to remove the leader selection from the mass membership, perhaps fearing they would be too cautious, too conservative to choose an innovative leader. Yet the membership chose David Cameron by a two to one margin.
When Westminster politicians say that people don’t vote Conservative it is well worth remembering that these same “ineffectual” local association chose candidates who have helped us become the largest party in local government, the largest party in European government and the largest party in London government. Not bad for a bunch of clueless old duffers.
The party does need to be visibly different going into the next election, I have yet to meet a single Conservative that doesn’t agree with that. The favourite criticism is that we all will the ends but not the means. Not true!
There has been a huge amount of support at grass roots level for open primaries. This bold move takes a significant amount of power away from associations, so why has it been embraced? Because the power that has been lost has been pushed down and out, away from a small, centralised leadership team and out to the wider local community. Conservative naturally like that sort of thing.
The A list (of which I am now a member) is unpopular because it pushes power up towards a small group of Conservative HQ “assessors” and away from the wider community, the new changes to candidate selection do likewise. The moves risk alienating the voluntary party at the very time when the party needs to move away from a small number of big donors towards a true “mass membership”.
So how do we get more women selected? Firstly get more women on the candidates list to start with. I have been told that going into the last General Election less than 15% of the candidates list were women, while quite possibly inaccurate the figures are entirely believable. Rather than turn 15% of the list into 50% of the candidates we need to get 50% of the list filled with women. Not easy but not impossible.
Secondly the party needs to look hard at what it asks of its candidates. During 2004/2005 I was heavily involved in fighting for Lewisham East and helping in Bexleyheath and Crayford, I hardly saw my family at all. For me it was the hardest part of being a candidate. I am not convinced women, especially mothers, are as willing as men to put their families into second place to fight an election. The association needs to ask itself whether the candidate needs to be at every internal party function or whether they should focus on spending the time “client facing”, on the doorstep and at hustings.
Finally the cost of being a candidate has to be addressed. I don’t think that I need to go into a lot of detail because it is a subject that has been well dissected on Conservativehome. Women still tend to earn less than men, sad but true, so the financial barriers to being a candidate hit women harder than men.
David Cameron is being bold, we asked him to and he has to be applauded for grasping the snake, I just think that he needs to ask himself “Have I grasped the wrong end of the snake?”