It's now less than fifteen months until the next General Election so you might assume that the three main political parties are all in advanced preparations for the big day. But, new research by Westminster Public Affairs which has analysed the status of the selection of Prospective Parliamentary Candidates (PPCs) for the main challenging parties in the 300 most marginal seats in the UK finds that barely half of these PPCs have been selected, with parties still yet to select candidates in the 'top 50' parliamentary seats.
Overall, as of mid-January, parties in little over half of these 300 seats had even chosen their PPC to challenge the incumbent MP. In total just 157 local party organisations in second place (based on 2010 election results) had selected a candidate. Of the three main parties in these 300 seats Labour appears to be the best prepared, with over 90% of candidates chosen in the 120 seats in which they are currently running in second place. The Conservatives and Lib Dems, however, have selected just over a third of their candidates in the top 300 marginals: The Conservatives have selected 42 candidates out of the 116 seats they are challenging and the Lib Dems 24 out of 61 seats.
Of course each party has its own list of target seats based on a multitude of factors, but in terms purely of those seats with the lowest majorities for victory, the Lib Dems are lagging seriously behind. Of the top 50 of these 300 marginals (for the three main parties only) the results are even more telling. The Lib Dems have selected in just 6 of out of the 14 seats in they are challenging. Labour again lead the field having selected 20 candidates out of a total of 21. The Conservatives have selected 13 out of 15 seats.
In terms of the gender divide, so far there is roughly a 50:50 male:female split across the 300 seats, but this is not reflected equally across all three parties. Labour party candidates are roughly two thirds female, a result of all-female shortlists in many their key marginals. Little over a third of candidates selected by the Lib Dems and Conservatives in these seats are female. In total, out of the 157 candidates who have been selected 75 are female.
In addition to the quantitative analysis a qualitative analysis is also revealing. It's clear from an assessment of candidates' websites that - quite rightly - almost every candidate emphasises connections with their constituency and expresses a willingness to engage with local people. Why then, I continually found myself asking, did some refuse to explain how anyone might contact them? And those that did have the standard web form in the 'contact' section, or joy of joys an email address, seem primarily interested in speaking to local people if they want to 'get involved'. Visitors to these candidates' sites are bombarded with tempting offers to 'sign the pledge' or go leafleting, but are rarely invited to actually engage with, much less actually debate with, the PPCs. Perhaps many do so in other forums like Twitter and Facebook but the widespread absence of contact information will not endear them to voters. Indeed, the antidote to this is the large amount of candidates with active Twitter accounts, although many are used primarily to push out central party messaging and press statements from their respective HQs.
However, it's not all bad. My hours spent trawling through websites for Westminster PA's candidates' briefing (follow my colleague @OllyKendall to read them) uncovered some unexpected examples of, well, the unexpected. PPCs were sometimes inappropriate, occasionally lacking a basic grasp of English grammar (or at least had not checked their staffers' posts), while a few posed in photos that should probably only be seen by close family and friends. But thankfully they were almost always amusing. There's the candidate who in a previous life, has recorded an extraordinary Kate Bush-esque music video (although in her defence this does not appear on her campaign site); there's the candidate whose poorly written biography suggests a personal responsibility for the global economic crisis and my own favourite, the candidate who pledges that he: "Won't make promises because I am only one man and I can't change the world. But the one promise I will make...". Never was a truer word spoken.
Westminster PA's analysis is just one way of cutting the data. Of course there are three and four and even five-way marginals which have not been captured by our quantitative analysis (we only looked at the PPCs who are currently second in each seat) but it's a snapshot of some of the challenges all three parties face in 2015. But with almost half of these 'top 300' parliamentary candidates still yet to be selected I'm looking forward to seeing what other surprises they will almost certainly provide.