Page last updated at 09:27 GMT, Sunday, 2 May 2010 10:27 UK

Election 2010: Does it matter if your MP's a local?

By Andy McFarlane
Politics reporter, BBC News

Matthew Taylor with his caravan
Matthew Taylor used a touring caravan to keep in touch with rural constituents

Disputes have flared in some areas over hand-picked "London" candidates being selected by political parties to fight seats hundreds of miles away. Does it matter where your MP comes from?

Some selections to replace outgoing MPs - even a few with "open primaries" - have sparked internal party rows if there were no local candidates on the list.

Some felt they were having candidates "parachuted in" on them by the party's HQ.

When Anthony Steen arrived in Wavertree ahead of the February 1974 general election, he had little experience of the area.

But, looking back, he recalls: "The local party embraced me with great enthusiasm because I was a breath of fresh air."

Voters evidently agreed and he served as their MP for the next nine years - the last Conservative in a Liverpool seat.

Anthony Steen
We all speak English, so there's no need for any parochialism
Anthony Steen
Former Conservative MP

Mr Steen says a politician's background is generally forgotten after six months.

"Strangers are often more effective campaigners than people who live there because they see issues with a new eye," he says.

"It's the quality, enthusiasm and knowledge of the candidate that matters. Given support and interest, he should get along."

As if to prove the point, when the old Liverpool Wavertree seat was abolished, Mr Steen stood for election in the newly-created seat of South Hams - a five-hour drive away in Devon.

"We're quite a small country and we all speak English, so there's no need for any parochialism," he argues.

As a barrister, Mr Steen says he was used to quickly getting to grips with a brief and avoided any pitfalls of lacking knowledge of the constituency - later redrawn as Totnes - from which he retired this month.

Before announcing he would stand down, the 69-year-old came in for criticism over expenses claims which included payments for plants, skip hire and a flagpole rope.

He believes tough new expenses rules - barring MPs from buying taxpayer-funded second homes and capping rent claims at £1,450 a month - will make it more difficult for local people to become MPs in constituencies far from London.

"The reality now makes it virtually impossible for marriages to survive with an MP being away from home, living in a one-bedroom flat. The family should be with the MP, that's what family is about, not having a 200-mile gap between each other."

Even a local candidate may be more interested in their career than anything else
Matthew Taylor

Selecting policy workers and up-and-coming activists to fight seats - regardless of whether they have links to an area - is likely to remain a regular tactic for all the major parties despite the unease it can cause locally.

There were no such concerns when Matthew Taylor stood for election, however. You could not get much more local than he was to his former Truro and St Austell constituency, in Cornwall.

The former Lib Dem Treasury spokesman describes his first experience of political action as carrying a placard "as a toddler" in support of a campaign for a footbridge to allow pupils to cross to a Truro primary school.

By the time he was 24, Mr Taylor was representing the area in Parliament having won a by-election triggered by the sudden death of his predecessor David Penhaligon - who he had served as economic researcher - in a road accident.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, he says there is "immense value" to having local roots.

'Career politicians'

"It meant I had a connection to Cornwall and a determination to fight its battles," he says.

He admits Cornwall may offer an "extreme example" of constituents preferring a local to represent them.

"The sense of it being out on a limb, away from London, means that any candidate without that connection would struggle," he believes.

"But it's not always going to be the case that the best candidate has those connections," he says, adding that a "demonstrable commitment to the local community" is what really matters.

"Even a local candidate may be more interested in their career than anything else."

Cllr Mike Sharpe
Ex-Birmingham mayor Mike Sharpe is backing Labour's outside candidate

That has not stopped constituency associations across the UK complaining at having national parties' preferred choices imposed on them.

When Sion Simon announced he would not stand for Labour in his Birmingham constituency, where he had been MP since 2001, local councillor Mike Sharpe said: "I am against anyone coming in from London or elsewhere, no matter how important they are."

He told reporters: "It should be a local person, someone from the constituency."

His view did not prevail but with election day approaching, Mr Sharpe says he's less concerned about where his candidate is from and more interested in where he might be headed - Westminster.

"The party's chosen someone to stand and I will support him. Now that he's here we've got to work for the party," he says.

As polling day draws approaches, that is a view likely to be shared by most constituency parties - across the political spectrum.



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