Since 2006 I have been advising clients facing the ordeal of a political selection interview. I like to keep my advice positive and upbeat but I’ve seen a lot of howlers committed, some more often than others. One error might not lose it for you but several together will guarantee you another rejection letter. The good news is that basic errors are easy to avoid, if you can recognise them.
So, here are eleven easy ways to fail a constituency selection interview:
Define Yourself Against the Audience
‘Unlike typical politicians I work hard, I care and I’m honest.’
Your average selection committee will include councillors, ex councillors, wannabe MPs and lots of people who admire politicians enough to give up their weekends to campaign for them. Setting yourself against them like this will cost you votes, as will telling a room full of Conservative activists that you are not a ‘typical Conservative.’ As far as possible you should seek to define yourself With the audience – people give more credit to candidates they can identify with.
2. Tell Not Show
‘I’m a young candidate so I’ve got lots of energy.’
You don’t have much time to impress them and this is at best a waste of it. Your youth should be obvious as soon as you step into the room. Instead, you can talk about all the campaigning work you have done and demonstrate your energy in your presentation.
If you are a local candidate there is no point saying this to people who should already know you. Show you are local by mentioning lots of local place names and issues rather than just stating the obvious.
3. Betray Self Doubt
‘This is my first interview and I didn’t expect to get this far. I really hope you will select me tonight.’
The committee members expect you to lead them confidently through a long and gruelling campaign which will certainly have its low moments, so you need to exhibit the necessary self confidence. This is one of the reasons that ex military officers do so well in selections – but you don’t need to have been to Sandhurst to ruthlessly weed out examples of self doubt.
4. Dictate From Behind the Desk
‘You don’t have as much crime out here as they do in London so of course you won’t get as many police on your streets.’
This is a common mistake amongst candidates who are already council leaders or who hold senior management positions. You are accustomed to explaining tough decisions to the public but on this occasion, you need to be standing in front of the desk alongside your constituents rather than behind it. There are over 600 MPs in Westminster but this constituency will only have one so they expect you to represent their interests to officialdom, not the opposite way around.
In this case you should be talking about how you will make the case for more police officers and what else you might do to help them to reduce local crime levels that they are quite right to be concerned about.
5. Passive Aggression
‘I answered that question earlier and it’s mentioned in my CV.’
This can be easy to slip into but it looks peevish. Bite your tongue and repeat the answer. Also pause to consider that you might have heard the question wrongly – perhaps you should politely ask for clarification.
6. Needlessly Court Controversy
‘If I had to choose a piece of legislation to promote, I would introduce the Death Penalty for Abortion.’
Some issues generate such strong feelings on both sides of the argument that people will refuse to vote for you even if they think you are the best candidate in every other respect. Of course, if you are asked directly about them you must answer clearly and honestly, but otherwise why go there without prompting?
If you make contentious statements and lose by one vote, you will be kicking yourself all the way home.
7. Waffle and be Unclear on Policy
‘This is an interesting question and it is important to grasp both sides of such a complex issue.’
Everyone just naturally expects politicians to dodge questions. An unclear opening response to a policy question will lead some of your audience to switch off and miss your conclusion even if it becomes crystal clear. So, when dealing with policy questions, answer them very clearly first then explain the reasons for your response. This can feel unnatural so you should practise with some dummy policy questions.
8. Lose Emotional Control
‘I’m just so pleased to be in the final tonight. It’s been really challenging (sob).’
Emotion can be very powerful in speeches. Used well it is a winning tactic but the weapon has two edges. The closer you get to the emotional cliff edge, the more you feel yourself losing control, until finally the tears or the anger just well up…
It’s a selection interview – not the Oscars.
This can be a very challenging situation to manage. That emotional cliff edge is going to be in a different place with adrenaline coursing in front of a packed audience to where it was when you were practising alone at home.
If you can’t talk about something close to you without losing control, perhaps you should stay away from it. Remember, Discretion is the better part of Valour.
9. Poor Taste Humour
‘An Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman walk into a selection meeting…’
If you are not sure a joke is funny – that’s because it isn’t.
A lot of contemporary humour is actually much too risky to use in politics. You could easily cause offence and there is nothing worse than delivering your one liner and pausing for the laughs that don’t come…
Again, unless you are naturally amusing or an experienced humourist, Discretion is the better part of Valour.
‘I voted to Leave the EU and I would support a Hard Brexit.’
A lot of people who said this at selections before 2017 must have had their fingers crossed behind their backs. It’s impossible to guess the political opinions of a selection panel so don’t even try. Often, they are looking for the opposite of the MP or candidate they fielded last time.
If you lie to them, the worst thing they can do is select you! A lengthy campaign alongside people you fundamentally disagree with stretches ahead – and if you win then you could be stuck with each other for years. It won’t end well…
11. Fail to Prepare
‘Hi Roger, I understand you advise candidates so I thought I’d give you a call for some tips. I’m at the selection meeting now and I’m delivering my opening speech in 30 minutes…’
Yes, I actually had this call.
It takes time to write a compelling selection speech and to create a winning Interview Plan and if you want the best chance of success, the Tory Candidates Network is a good place to start. Contact us today to find out more.
I won’t wish you good luck – because interview success is all about preparation, not chance.