If we want to increase the number of MPs – particularly female MPs – from diverse backgrounds, we have to examine campaign financing as a barrier to running for office. Research conducted into personal financing of candidates finds an average cost of over £40,000 and reaching a peak at over £120,000. The financial cost of working towards getting on the candidates list, being selected and then campaigning to win your seat, undoubtedly prices some potential would-be candidates out of running for office.
“I couldn’t afford it; that’s the bottom line, I just couldn’t, I couldn’t afford it, that’s the truth” – female councillor quoted in The Fawcett Society’s ‘Strategies for Success’ report
In her book “Why We Get The Wrong Politicians“, Isabel Hardman described becoming a candidate and MP as “the most expensive and time consuming job interview on earth – and one without any guarantee of getting the job at the end“. She found that Conservatives winning in marginal seats spent an average of £120,000, as several such candidates “left very highly-paid jobs and bought properties in the seat”. For Labour candidates in the same scenario, the figure is less than £20,000. In 2006, ConservativeHome found that the average cost of fighting a seat as a Conservative candidate was £42,000.
Speaking at an LSE event about women in politics before the 2010 General Election, Theresa May said “one issue that still particularly affects women – and I don’t think any of the parties have been able to crack this yet ….the cost of being a candidate…for the simple reason that…a woman tends to not want to use family finance, or feels like she must not use family finance, for her political career; and it is expensive being a candidate“.
In their recent ‘Strategies for Success‘ report, the Fawcett Society remarked on “how much less had been said about the cost of seeking selection” itself. To be able to examine finances as a barrier to women running for office, you have to examine it in two parts: selection and candidacy.
“It costs a hell of a lot to go through the PAB (parliamentary assessment board) process; it costs a hell of a lot stay on the party list every year” – a female candidate in the ‘Strategies for Success’ report
After making it onto the candidates list, aspirant candidates are expected to spend “a significant amount of time canvassing in various local elections and by-elections…this commitment was perceived as necessary in order to remain on the candidate list“. This means increased travel expenses, childcare costs and even taking additional time off work.
According to Hardman, “wooing a constituency association to be chosen as a candidate carries considerable costs; one Labour candidate spent £5,000 just to get to this starting block“. For those seeking selection, they have to “curry favour” with their local party association and activists. This means attending a variety of events, both in their association and outside of it.
The most significant costs include;
- Loss of earnings; by reducing hours, foregoing job promotions or quitting work altogether to focus on campaigning commitments.
- Travel expenses across the country, includes attending events and campaigning for other candidates up and down the country.
- Relocating to the constituency of their candidacy if need be.
- Childcare costs.
As a result, we often end up with candidates – and by extension Members of Parliament – who are able to stand because their personal wealth enables them with the ability to do so. If we want a more representative Parliament, we need to be selecting candidates from different regions of the country, different employment backgrounds and different socio-economic backgrounds. There has been a continued decline in the number of MPs coming from manual occupations and working class backgrounds, as the Fawcett report sets out “one participant commented on how she felt class set her and other female candidates with childcare commitments apart“.
The report found that candidates “having invested in their selection, found costs increase exponentially during the election campaign period” particularly as candidates can be selected more than two years ahead of a general election. The Conservative Party Review of 2016 acknowledged that “those fighting marginal seats incur the greatest costs as they are selected first and generally have to take considerable time out from work“. The Conservative Party have already started selecting candidates in target seats for the 2022 general election.
A key recommendation of the Fawcett Society’s report is increased flexibility from employers, as “encouraging more employers to facilitate political participation could broaden the range of people (and the backgrounds they come from) that are able to succeed as part of the process“. This would allow aspirant candidates, at all level, the ability to continue their employment while campaigning for a seat.
A Conservative Candidate Bursary Scheme does exist, and while it is means-tested, it is aimed at candidates in marginal seats. It is funded by the Conservative Foundation, who say that “the scheme will make sure that financial means are not a barrier to standing for Parliament, meaning our Party can become more representative of the people that it serves”.
If we want to increase representation – and diversity – in the candidates’ list and in Parliament itself, then we must examine the barriers preventing women for putting themselves forward, being selected and then running as a candidate. There is no doubt that the financial burden is a primary cause, and one female candidate told the Fawcett Society that “a lot of it is about money…the main reason I wouldn’t go back is I just can’t afford to do it.”