It is over 20 years since the first elections were held for the devolved assemblies in Wales and London. Conservatives with an eye on a Westminster seat once viewed them as poor relations but times have changed.
There is now a greater interest amongst Conservative candidates. With the party gaining so many Westminster seats and planning a boundary review to cut their number, opportunities for a career at the House of Commons will be more limited in the coming decade.
Several London Assembly Members who came to prominence during Boris Johnson’s Mayoralty have gained safe seats and swift promotion to senior ministerial posts. The Assembly is no longer seen as a political backwater or a glorified local council.
With stronger competition for places Conservative HQ is reportedly reviewing the process for approving and selecting candidates. Many of the attributes required by MPs are valuable in other political roles but there are some differences that aspiring candidates should be aware of:
If anything, communication skills are even more important at this level. The number of politicians is lower than at Westminster – even if the Welsh Parliament implements plans to increase the number – and that makes the roles more exposed. Regional media are more likely to approach Members for comment so the ability to present a strong argument on television or radio is vital.
For list Members the most effective way to reach a large but widely dispersed audience is going to be social media and this is also the case for larger rural constituencies in Wales. A strong presence on Facebook and Twitter will be a big bonus.
A lot of the day to day work involves scrutiny of proposals in committee. The ability to swiftly understand, question and explain complex material will really boost a Member’s performance.
In both Wales and London it is a hard fact that Conservatives will often find themselves in opposition. The role provides far more scope for questioning and amending proposals than the tightly whipped corridors of Westminster. Experience of legal drafting, taking part in and chairing high profile committees will be valuable right from the start of a Member’s term of office.
In opposition there is time to devise, test and promote alternative policies and this can also generate valuable publicity. London Assembly Member Andrew Boff has pioneered the use of the Conservative team’s platform and expertise to road test alternative policies for the capital.
ABILITY TO RELATE TO PEOPLE
Larger constituencies with a tighter field of responsibility have reduced the interaction with constituents in London. Welsh constituencies are more manageable but the List Members will still face this problem. It is often useful to interact with resident associations and representative groups who can help to raise a Member’s profile. With so much ground to cover every encounter needs to be leveraged for maximum effect.
A key aim of devolution is to develop tailored solutions to local problems rather than relying on a Whitehall driven universal approach. Candidates who can identify with local people and concerns have a better chance of success – as long as they don’t fall into the trap of lazily blaming the government in London for everything that doesn’t work out.
Westminster MPs devote a lot of time to leading campaigning activity in their seats. It is important for devolved politicians to lead in the same way but it is also more challenging. The Conservative Party is organised around Parliamentary constituencies which are not an ideal fit for other representatives. The party’s culture also places a higher value on its MPs. For List Members the challenge is even greater.
Being seen during election campaigns and leading from the front is really important. Each Member will need to be able to build relationships with several MPs and Westminster candidates because they will need their help to retain their seats.
Resilience is vital in all political roles. There will be many disappointments and candidates need to be able to bounce back from adversity. At devolved level the limited powers of the position are even more restrictive than for MPs. To get things done requires lateral thinking and an enthusiasm to try new solutions to long standing problems.
Political beliefs are always key – without a guiding philosophy it is all too easy for pressure groups to influence decisions. All politicians will face judgement at the ballot box eventually.
The devolved bodies are different because proportional representation is designed to give smaller parties a disproportionate influence. Members will need to be able to reach compromises and build alliances to implement their proposals. The ability to understand where other people are coming from is valuable in this environment, which is less confrontational than Westminster.
Experience at local council level counts for more in devolved bodies than in the House of Commons and it should be viewed as a positive by candidate assessors as well as a good proving ground for their skills.
The party should be looking particularly for candidates who can handle mass communication, who have demonstrated good influencing skills and who can take a thoughtful and innovative approach to policy development and scrutiny.
But candidates who see London or Cardiff as steps on the road to Westminster need to be aware that their performance will be highly visible and this could break their reputation just as easily as it has the potential to make it. Every speech they deliver and every meeting they attend will be recorded and publicly available so they had better be on top of their game. If they can’t give the job their undivided attention, they would do better to seek another route to the Green Benches.
If you think you would be suitable for a political role in devolved government contact me to find out more.