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British opposition leader hits problems over plans to widen candidate lists

British opposition leader hits problems over plans to widen candidate lists

Armed with a list of aspiring party candidates including a former underwear model, a racy author and a Jamaican pig breeder, Opposition leader David Cameron had hoped to change the Conservatives Party's image as one of stuffy middle-aged white men.
But his hopes of adding hip young men _ and women _ to the party's Parliamentary ranks have hit a major problem: local party officials are refusing to pick his candidates, choosing old-fashioned Tories instead.
"There is no doubt that, particularly in the suburbs or rural areas, local officials reacted with uncertainty and disbelief," to attempts to impose candidates on them, said Tony Travers, a professor of government at the London School of Economics.
Last year Cameron, who has been trying to moderate the party's image and policies and move it to the political centre ground, drew up a roll call of 100 potential candidates, an "A-list" which he said embodied his vision of a party better reflecting the demographics of modern Britain.
Cameron hoped to sweep away the relics of Margaret Thatcher's era and broaden the party's appeal to voters _ particularly those allied with Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour _ which traditionally has more female and ethnic minority representatives.
While more women have been selected to run since the plan was launched last May, around half of the 78 Conservative candidates chosen to contest the elections expected in 2009 are not from Cameron's list.
Priority-listed candidates, unlike others, were able to contest seats in which they had no family or geographic ties.
Party officials said that of 107 new candidates selected since Cameron became leader in December 2005 _ including selections before the priority list was introduced _ three potential lawmakers have black or ethnic minority backgrounds and 36 are women.
John Maples, the Conservatives' deputy chairman, said the priority system will be replaced with a requirement that at least half of all potential candidates are women at each stage of the selection process.
Travers said the list had attempted to "tilt the choices of associations to be representative of modern Britain, rather than stick with the usual middle-aged, white men."
"On one level the list has been a good exercise in promoting a message to voters, but it has not been successful in actually changing the face of the Conservatives," Travers said.
Dropping the preferential treatment for "A-list" candidates represents the first significant party blow to Cameron's reforms.
While old hands have grumbled over the wisdom of ignoring keystone issues such as tax cuts and curbing immigration, the party's rise in opinion polls had previously quelled most dissent.
Though forcing Cameron to abandon the selection plan had demonstrated the strength of his party's grass roots, it was unlikely to trigger further disputes, Travers said.
"Many local official are prepared to grit their teeth and bear with all the changes and upheavals," he said. "They are prepared to go through anything to win a general election and escape from the wilderness of opposition."
Louise Bagshawe, the author of best-selling novels about young, urbanite women, such as "When She Was Bad," and "Glamour," is flagged as one of the system's successes.
A priority list candidate who will run for parliament in the town of Corby, in central England, Bagshawe said Cameron had illustrated a genuine desire for change _ regardless of the outcome.
"Don't forget, this was the party that gave Britain its first female prime minister in Margaret Thatcher," said Bagshawe. "What we are not saying is that you have to select women _ Conservatives wouldn't stand for that sort of gerrymandering _ but that you have to give them a chance."
She said that though reforming the party would likely take more time, voters could already look to the party's leader for a personification of its new values.
"He's married to a working woman who juggles child care with being a successful company director _ they are a picture of modern Britain. Modern families can see that and will vote for that," Bagshawe said.
Labour lawmakers argue that as a wealthy and privileged graduate of Oxford University, and an old boy of the Eton private school, Cameron is little different to his elitist Conservative predecessors. Hazel Blears, Labour's chairwoman, said his retreat on priority candidates was an admission his party had little real will for reform.


Updated : 2021-04-16 07:14 GMT+08:00