Approval is an important part of candidate selection within the Liberal Democrats. Since 2009 all council candidates in England have been required to go through an approval process before being eligible for selection. In Scotland and Wales the process is recommended but not compulsory.
However, while it is now usual for candidates in target wards to go through an approval process the reality is that not every candidate goes through a consistent process. In the rush to get paper candidates in place approval can be minimal, while experienced sitting councillors sometimes feel approval should be unnecessary for them.
The process does not need to be complicated, but it does need to be consistent, fair and open.
There are two main reasons to have a candidate approval system. The first is to ensure that potential candidates know what is expected of them. Secondly, it is also to ensure that anyone who has the Liberal Democrat name and logo associated with them does the party credit. We have a duty of care to make sure that our candidates are the right people to put forward to the public, as are existing councillors.
The form the approval process takes can be adapted to suit your local area, and so whether you are in control of the council or if you are struggling to get a full slate of candidates, there is a process that can work for you.
In England, all candidates must be approved no more than four years before the election in which they are standing. In Scotland and Wales, each council area must maintain a list of approved candidates which is updated before each round of selections gets underway.
Candidate approval is usually not needed for parish or community councils, (although in England it is up to each regional party whether they exempt parish councils or not). However, in places where a parish or community council is party political then it would make sense to have a form of approval process.
In two-tier areas, candidate approval is specific to a particular council.
Specific rules apply to the approval of Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales, and Metro-Mayoral Candidates in England. They are not covered by this toolkit.
Who is responsible?
The candidate approval process must be run by the local party rather than the council group.
This is not only to ensure it is neutral when dealing with sitting councillors but as it is to approve representatives of the party, rather than just councillors, the party takes the lead.
In England, if a council group is covered by more than one local party then they MUST work together to make sure the approval process is run in the same way and uses the same criteria across the whole of the council group area, including the councillor contribution policy. In Scotland and Wales this should also be the case.
This is why we encourage areas to have a standing council coordinating group to organise both approval and to help co-ordinate campaigning.
The council coordinating group or local party must appoint an approval panel to decide on and oversee the approval process.
The approvals process can be done using online meetings and remote processes.
The first stage of the process is to identify your potential candidates.
Sitting councillors should be given a clear deadline for making a decision on whether they wish to re-stand, as late standing down helps no-one. This can be challenging but needs to be done. In some cases, it may be useful to have early conversations with some councillors as to whether they can continue.
Candidate recruitment should not be restricted to current party members (but potential candidates must join before approval). Many excellent potential candidates are out there, often already involved in their community and/or actively campaigning. We should identify those with a liberal outlook and have a recruitment conversation. It is also the best way to improve the diversity of our teams.
Many good people won’t think of themselves as candidates or councillors but need to be asked and encouraged to put themselves forward. Proactive targeting of under-represented groups can dramatically alter your pool of potential candidates. It is also vital to be clear and realistic about the requirements of being a candidate and a councillor. Potential candidates should be provided with a clear job description and person specification and should have the opportunity to talk to an existing councillor as to the reality of the role.
A timetable for the approval process needs to be published to allow applications from everyone who is interested. There is no need to select all seats at the same time. A lack of candidates in one area should not delay early selection elsewhere.
Once identified, all possible candidates then enter the approval process.
The LGA and ALDC have produced a ‘Be a Councillor’ guide for Liberal Democrat members and supporters.
Lib Dem councillors have long been an important democratic voice for the party. Our well-worn mottos of ‘working hard all year round’ and ‘success you can see’ really mean something to the communities we represent.
This guide contains information about how councils work, the role of a councillor and most importantly, what being a Lib Dem councillor looks like.
In this guide you will also hear from four Lib Dem councillors from different local councils. They have shared why they are Lib Dem councillors and why it is important to them to represent their communities.
The guide is a great starting point for members and supporters who have looked at other councillors and thought ‘I could do this’. There is also information about where to go to find out more.
You may already be a campaigner, community activist, involved in your local church or mosque, or a local school governor. You might be helping deliver leaflets or organise events. If so, you already have a great basis for taking up public office and becoming a Lib Dem councillor.
But ultimately, if you really care about your area, and want to work to make it the best place it can be, becoming a Lib Dem councillor could be for you.
We hope you find this guide useful, and if you decide to stand for election, we look forward to welcoming you into the Lib Dem local government family.
Who is allowed to stand for election to a principal council?
If you are standing for election, you must meet both of the following criteria on both the day your nomination papers are submitted AND on polling day:
Have reached 18 years of age.
Be a British citizen, a “qualifying” Commonwealth citizen or, a citizen of another European Union country with settled status.
As well as these two basic criteria you must also meet at least ONE of the following qualifications, although we recommend that you fill in all of the ways in which you qualify on the nomination papers.
Be on the electoral roll somewhere within the area of the council for which you are standing. If you only qualify on these grounds then you must remain on the register continuously throughout your time as a Councillor.
You have occupied as owner or tenant any land or other premises in the local authority area during the whole of the 12 months before the day of your nomination and the day of election.
Have your main or only place of work solely within the area of the council for which you are standing during the last 12 months.
Have lived for all of the previous 12 months within the area of the council for which you are standing.
Am I disqualified from standing for election to a principal council?
There are a number of criteria that would completely disqualify you from standing for election:
If you are subject to a Bankruptcy Restriction Order, Bankruptcy Interim Order or a Bankruptcy Restrictions Undertaking in England and Wales, been declared bankrupt in Northern Ireland or had your estate sequestrated in Scotland. If you have an Individual Voluntary Arrangement (IVA) you are not disqualified.
If you have been convicted of an imprisonable offence within five years of polling day and sentenced to three months or more in prison (including a suspended sentence) without the option of a fine.
If you have been disqualified under the Representation of the People Act 1983 and the Audit Commission Act 1998. This largely relates to convictions in an election court, any offence related to financial donations or being surcharged by a district auditor.
You cannot stand for election to any council that employs you, and this often also applies if you work for a joint authority or local partnership that involves the council you wish to stand for.
Teachers and other school staff are in a complex situation. In addition to the usual bar on standing for a council that employs you, you cannot usually stand for election to a council that appoints representatives to your school’s governing body or part funds the school even if you aren’t employed directly by that council. This can therefore often rule out staff from foundation schools, free schools and academies, from standing for the council in which the school is situated.
Holding a job that has been defined as ‘politically restricted’ bars you from standing for election to any council. These are usually top management, people who regularly directly advise councillors, most political assistants and any job deemed politically sensitive.
If you are in Scotland, you cannot stand if you received a councillors’ severance payment following the 2007 election.
Are the eligibility criteria any different for town, parish or community councils?
All of the rules that apply to principal councils apply to town, parish and in England and community councils in Wales. However, the rule on where you can live is less strict and you just have to live within 4.8km of the parish boundary (as the crow flies) for at least the preceding 12 months.
In Scotland, community councils are specifically non-party political and the nomination procedure varies and so you need to check with your principal council.
When should you select?
The longer candidates are in place in these wards, the more time they have to build name recognition and create a winning campaign. Even with sitting councillors, getting them through approval and re-selection early helps them to concentrate on the task of getting re-elected.
The overwhelming evidence is that having the time to establish yourself is a vital component in winning a seat. Selecting a year or even 18 months before an election is not too soon.
In many areas the candidate/s will need to rebuild the local team and create/improve a delivery network. This all takes time. In larger wards the only way we can get sufficient voter contact done is to do it over a period of several months and, anyway, the response to door step canvassing is virtually always better well outside an election period than in the last few weeks.
Early selection also allows the local party to sign candidates up to an agreement or contract on the amount of work they will do and then to be able to monitor that.
Each local party should appoint an approvals coordinator to run the process, dispatch application packs, receive forms, answer questions and to organise approval panels.
Details of the process and timetable must be agreed by the Local Party Executive before the process is started.
The key things you need to check in an approval process:
Does the potential candidate understand what being a candidate and/or councillor involves and the amount of work that they will be expected to do?
Are they eligible to stand as a candidate? We often assume that people are able to stand or they wouldn’t put their name forward, but we must check that they are eligible and even more importantly, that they aren’t ineligible.
Are they a Liberal Democrat? We don’t vet people’s opinions when they join the party and so we need to make sure that they don’t have views that are inconsistent with party membership. They don’t need to agree with every party policy but they do at least need to support the core principles of what the party stands for.
Do they have campaigning experience or other relevant experience? Having not taken part in political campaigning does not rule someone out but there should be some evidence of the ability and enthusiasm to campaign.
Are there any skeletons in their closet that the party needs to know about? If there are it doesn’t necessarily mean that the person cannot stand, but it may mean that the party has to think about how they handle it if it becomes public during the campaign and it may mean that a particularly experienced approval panel is brought together for the panel decision.
Types of candidate
Target and development candidates – We need to ensure that these candidates have the time, ability and commitment to dedicate to both campaigning and to being a councillor. It is important that they have a realistic understanding of what is involved. You should also check whether there are any specific challenges that require adjustments by the local party to allow them to campaign. This is particularly important in helping candidates from underrepresented groups.
Paper candidates – Paper candidates (also known as paperless candidates) do need to be approved and to the same standard as everyone else. Uncontested elections are rarer than they used to be but do happen. Bad press can come because of a candidate in the most unwinnable of wards. We owe it to the electorate, the party and to colleagues to see that anyone who stands as a Lib Dem is suitable. However, they do not need to commit to a level of campaigning.
Sitting Councillors – For sitting councillors it may seem a waste of time putting them through approval. Shouldn’t we take it on trust that they continue to be fit as Lib Dem candidates? There are a number of good reasons as to why they should, and in deed must, go through approval.
Standards to set for approval panels
Due diligence. The public has a right to expect that all Lib Dem candidates have been checked and found to be fit and proper to stand. That means that everyone should be approved to the same, current standard.
Equality of treatment. Every candidate should be treated the same, regardless of their position in the party. Although an approval process is unlikely to end in court it could be challenged and unequal treatment of different candidates is both unfair and likely to reflect very badly on the party.
Circumstances do change, as can the expectation of a local party. A sensible conversation in an approval interview can save a lot of problems later on. The approval process may include a process for a senior member of the group, e.g. the Leader, deputy leader or whip, to give feedback to the approval panel on the individuals performance on the council, including attendance (at council and group meetings) and voting record. It is appropriate for the approval panel to be told if a councillor has failed to pay their tithe unless they have a hardship derogation. Failure to pay the tithe is reason to refuse approval.
The approval panel
The interview panel normally consists of three people. The panel must include an existing councillor from the local authority, if there are any. If there are none, a councillor from another authority should, if at all possible, be on the panel. However, it should not be chaired by a Councillor on that authority.
While it is not essential to have exactly the same panel each time, the members should be drawn from a small pool, all of whom should be fully briefed as to the role they are undertaking and the process they should go through. ALDC recommends that the members of the pool undertake a joint session, using the ALDC self-training session for selection panels as a model.
Each panel should be balanced – for instance it must not be of a single gender. While a councillor must, if possible, be on the panel, councillors must not comprise the whole panel.
The pool as a whole should reflect the make-up of the local party while each panel chair should be an experienced party member.
The panels should be provided with a list of standard questions; although the panel should question each potential candidate, each interview should follow the same broad structure.
A pro-forma interview sheet should be used by each member of the panel for each interview. Candidates should be told the outcome as quickly as possible and have it confirmed in writing. Where further work or training is requested, the local party will need to ensure that opportunities are available for a candidate to undertake them.
You need to decide the possible outcomes of the approval process in advance. Is it going to be straight approved and not-approved? Alternatively, you may wish to approve for types of seat or to approve subject to training. As in so much of the process, consistency in application is key. The paperwork should be kept following approval, safely and confidentially, for 4 years.
Approval – this is straightforward, but even in these cases the panel may wish to make recommendations on training the candidate could undertake.
Conditional Approval – Some local parties are now adopting a process where they follow the initial approval process, but all approved candidates who have been selected for a winnable ward are then subject to meeting specific measurable campaign targets. If they do not meet these targets they are then unapproved (and as a result a ward would need to select a new conditionally approved candidate). Although this feels very strict, those places that have adopted this process in recent years have seen massive improvements in their election results.
Conditional approval may also include approval subject to undertaking training, for instance attendance at an ALDC Kickstart weekend.
Deferral – this is an option when you feel a candidate has all the potential and correct attributes, but you feel they need to gain further experience of campaigning or to undergo training before being able to stand. However, if you choose to defer approval it is important that you follow this up with practical suggestions and encouragement for them to become more involved. In particular, this involves actively bringing them in to the organisation of an election campaign, taking them along to help at a council or parliamentary by-election, or encouraging them to join ALDC, attend Kickstart and learn from campaign best practice.
Rejection – this is a difficult decision to make, but for the sake of the party’s reputation and council group unity, is one that sometimes needs to be made. It is important to be firm once this decision has been made, as whatever short term problems it causes, it will be far better than allowing an unsuitable person to stand for council.
The approval panel should make a decision on whether a potential candidate should be approved as soon as possible after the panel.
When a decision is made it should be written down and any issues, especially if a decision has been made to reject a candidate, should also be recorded.
Ideally, you will tell candidates immediately and in person or on the phone rather than by letter or email, (although it should be followed up with written confirmation), however in some cases it may be better delaying the decision, especially if it may have practical ramifications that may need to be thought through.
It is important that you treat everyone the same or it will become obvious that there is a reason for delaying the decision.
The panel should agree which of its members will tell each candidate, (the same person doesn’t have to tell everyone), and what feedback they will give them. No other member of the panel should discuss the decision with the candidate.
The approvals process should be strictly confidential. Generally, if a candidate is not approved no one outside the panel should ever know they have applied. To avoid embarrassment, if sitting councillors are not re-approved they should simply be allowed to say publicly that they are retiring.
If a potential candidate is dissatisfied with the panel’s decision they have the right of appeal. The processes and time limits for this should be agreed at the point the approval process is set up and be included in the application pack.
The appeal should be heard by a fresh panel, drawn from the pool but not including any members from the first panel. It should look at the same form and information as the first panel, but may ask additional questions and the potential candidate is free to give more detailed answers or offer fresh evidence.
A second appeal may be made, to the English Appeals Panel. However, this can be made on the grounds of process alone.
Approval interviews can be conducted in online meetings but organisers need to be mindful of their confidential nature and to use the appropriate safeguards.
Steps should be taken to make sure that the approval process is accessible to all, in particular to underrepresented groups. For some, an online interview will be easier than attending a physical location. In other cases, the approval process organiser should make sure that potential candidates have access to the appropriate technology or are helped to have access.
Whether an approval interview is online or in person, the organiser must make sure that issues of accessibility are addressed. In some cases this may require advice or support from an external source. ALDC should be contacted for further detailed advice.
The competent body for approvals is either the local party executive or the executive in conjunction with a multi local party coordinating committee. Make sure that all the paperwork is in place before starting. N.B. Approval is for one level of council only and lasts four years.
The approval process
Start search for candidates
Appoint approval coordinator
Create application pack
Recruit approval panel pool
Appeals if required
Notify returning officer of approved candidates
All paperwork must be stored securely for 4 years. This can be done digitally as long as the storage is secure, backed up and more than one person knows where it is stored.
What’s in the Application Pack?
● Application form ● Disclosure form ● Group standing orders ● Councillor contribution policy ● Job description ● Candidate agreement/contract – ● Draft/outline campaign plan –
What do the panel need?
● Copies of the application form and disclosure form ● Job description ● Model questions ● Pro-forma answer/evaluation sheet ● Model decision notices ● Guidance note
As a democratic party it is important that we have a fair, open and transparent process for choosing the people who stand for us in elections.
The procedure is not designed to be complicated or onerous, but is intended to ensure we get the best candidates and that everyone who put themselves forward is given an equal opportunity of being selected.
Even if you are in an area where council candidates often get selected unopposed or where your existing councillors are hoping to re-stand, you still need a fair selection process to make sure that others have the opportunity of standing if they so wish and to put you in good stead for when selections become more competitive.
The selection must be run by a returning officer, who should not have an interest in any selection they are conducting. It is best if they are not a member of the executive and have some training in being a returning officer. They can be from another local party, although they do not have to be.
The local party should adopt (or have adopted) the rules for selections before starting the process. The local party constitution will specify some of the options below. There are a few principles that are important:
● Where there is an election for a candidate, this must be done through a secret ballot using the Single Transferable Vote system.
● No one should be automatically re-selected, including sitting councillors.
● All candidates must have current approval for the council they are putting their name forward for.
Who can vote in the selection?
The people who can vote in a selection again varies and will be specified in your local party constitution. You should check your local party and branch constitutions, however normally:
● The electorate in a selection are the Liberal Democrat members who live within a branch or the membership of a local party as a whole (but only those living in that local authority, if a local party covers more than one council);
● If this membership of a branch is fewer than 10 people, the members of the executive committee of the branch also receive a vote.
● If this is still less than 10 people or there is no branch, then the members of the local party executive committee also receive a vote.
The earlier you can select a candidate the better. This is to ensure that you have more time in which to raise the profile of the candidate to ensure that they have good name recognition.
If you elect your council by thirds or halves then you should aim to select your next candidate as soon after the previous election as possible, and if you have all-outs then selecting about a year to two years in advance is useful.
Some places stagger their selections based on the winnability of the ward. This is of course a decision that will need to be made locally, but generally you are best selecting your held and target wards early (e.g. June/July), then selecting your other good wards or wards where there is someone who is keen to get working not long after (e.g. September), and then selecting your paper/paperless candidates later.
The initial stage of selecting candidates is to advertise the wards in which you are selecting candidates to all of the party membership within the council area. For example, you could include an advert or article in your members’ newsletter and emails to those people for whom you have email addresses.
It is especially useful to ensure this goes out as widely as possible, as there are often potentially excellent candidates who live just outside a ward boundary or who may work in a ward in question, who you wouldn’t find just by informing the ward members.
N.B. The returning officer must be appointed at the beginning of the process.
The returning officer should agree the timescale, including deadlines for applications and for voting, with the relevant local branch or local party in advance of the election. The returning officer must have a copy of the local party constitution and selection rules.
Potential candidates should be asked to submit a simple application form or slip,or just send an expression of interest through an email to the Returning Officer.
When the deadline for applications has passed, it needs to be clear to the candidates what campaigning is allowed. As a campaigning party we should encourage potential candidates to speak to members if they want to be selected.
All applicants should be given a list of the members eligible to vote, (which should be returned after the selection), with encouragement to get in touch with them. The returning officer may also wish to allow each candidate to produce their own canvass leaflet, subject to the local rules.
The returning officer should also write to all of the eligible voters explaining that a selection is underway, that they may be contacted by candidates. They may also include a one side of A4 artwork from each candidate.
The selection rules may allow for ‘re-open nominations’ to be an option on the ballot.
Hustings meetings do not have to be held in a physical location. They can be held using online
meeting technology but the returning officer should do the best they can to ensure all members have access to such an online meeting.
Local parties constitutions should specify if the selection vote is by postal ballot or by voting at a selection meeting. It cannot be both.
If voting is by post and you hold a postal ballot, arrangements should be made for postal votes to be submitted at a hustings meeting, or the closing date should allow members to vote by post subsequent to the hustings.
The count, which is most often carried out at the completion of the hustings, should be conducted in a manner which allows candidates to see the count taking place.
Appeals may be made on the basis of the procedure followed.
They should be heard first by the regional party (in England) and subsequently by the State Appeals Panel (first in Scotland and Wales).
During a period of lockdown or social distancing, a physical hustings is inappropriate, so an online meetings is recommended. In this case, voting should be via postal ballot, even if a local party constitution specifies voting at a hustings.
The party’s constitutions do not currently allow electronic voting for local selection meetings.
However, State Appeals Panels may change this.
Keep a record
ALDC recommends keeping all approval paperwork (application form, declaration form, interview proformas and decision letter) for 4 years (i.e. the length of time the approval lasts).
Selection paperwork and ballots should be kept for 3 months and then everything should be confidentially destroyed afterwards.
Issues to consider and agree first with the competent body, either the Branch, Local Party or joint body for the local authority area with delegated authority – perhaps a City/borough party or county structure.
It often helps then to run through what is agreed with all the candidates once shortlisted to identify problems and avoid subsequent challenges.
Do you have a copy of the local party/branch constitution and the selection rules?
Postal votes – All or none – you cannot mix
Agree how challenges to the selectorate from candidates or members will be dealt with
Campaigning – what is allowed?
Manifestos – size, colours, who will print it, single or double sided
Any rules about the use/content of photos
The hustings and the count
How and when you will decide the order of speaking?
The length of speeches
Will other candidates be present when others speak – or just for the questions?