Like many non-politically minded Brits, Stephen Burge was galvanised by Brexit. He’d voted leave in the EU referendum, but watching what ensued – the lies, the party swapping, the accusations thrown at Leave voters – made him obsessed with the news. “I have no allegiance to any party,” the working class 60-year-old from Bristol tells me on the phone. “I’ve voted Tory, I’ve voted Labour, I even voted Greens at one time. For me, it’s whoever is telling me things I want to hear.” This time around, that person was Nigel Farage, and Stephen signed up as a paid member of the Brexit Party, the relatively new political party Farage headed up.
Stephen's short-lived political career started with a blanket email from the Brexit Party asking if he’d consider standing as an MP. “I told them I had just got into politics. They told me I was exactly the sort of person they’re looking for. They want normal people to appeal to all sorts of people in the country. They wanted Johnny Nobodies.” So Stephen replied saying he’d have a go. “It’s not every day you get a chance to make a real difference,” he says. “The whole country’s a mess, and the Brexit Party just came out of nowhere with a fresh chance to change something. I thought: the established parties are frightened of us and we’re going to shake things up.”
This is how “ordinary people” become parliamentary candidates. It helps that the process to get from A to B is brief. You must be at least 18 and a British citizen (or a qualifying citizen in the UK) and not belong to certain groups, such as be an ex-prisoner, member of the police and armed forces or a judge. Then there is a vetting process, slightly different for each party, to weed out unsuitable candidates who’d bring their party into disrepute. Given recent scandals involving Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem and Change UK candidates, a serious question mark hasn't yet seemed to hover so heavily over the vetting process.
After two Change UK candidates were forced to step down over similar accusations within 24 hours of the party’s launch earlier this year, the interim leader Heidi Allen, said she was “angry” and “disappointed” by the work done by the vetting company used. “We paid for a professional top end vetting company to do that work for us. They’ve missed a couple of things… It’s unprofessional, it’s not good enough.”
Paul Brothwood, who was due to stand as a Brexit Party candidate in Dudley South, dropped out and decided to back his local Tory candidate after finding out vetting was, in his view, minimal. He told the Sunday Mirror: “I think that’s why we’re starting to see the fruitcakes coming out. One lady said she’d been born on a star.” That's not an exaggeration: a Brexit Party candidate stood down after it was discovered that she claimed to be a bestselling author originating from the star Sirus with a pet horse that had been reincarnated from another horse. It seems odd that years after cancel culture began, candidates' old online activity isn’t being cleared before applying, or at least being pulled up by officials early on in the application process. In light of this, how are the candidates vetted? And in what seems to be a fast-track system, is it relatively straightforward for a regular person to get heavily involved in politics?
As the application process kicked into gear, Stephen was slightly concerned by his lack of background in politics, a field very different from his job training retail workers. “I’m 60 years of age, I thought, 'What have I done?' It was frightening, daunting.”
First, he says he was asked to go for an interview in London. It involved pretending he was an MP and giving a four-minute speech about Brexit, after which a panel of party officials asked him questions as if they were journalists. “In that first interview they said, 'Is there anything in your past that we need to know?' I said no, and they said, 'Are you happy for us to give you a full background check?'” Stephen gave them permission to check his criminal record, as well as access to his Twitter and private Facebook. “People become an MP and it turns out they’ve said something really naughty on Twitter in a previous life and so they try to avoid the scandal by checking you out. They found nothing, I’m squeaky clean, I suppose.” He, like many other candidates his age, rarely use Twitter, which eliminates much of where one might be caught out.
Importantly, external vetting services approach the job very differently. The website on CBS Screening’s site states “our social-media screening requiring an applicant’s permission and checks only job relevant content”, while Capita’s Security Watchdog’s site will scan a candidate’s social media profiles for elements such as “showcasing undesirable characteristics” that are “linked to lobby or advocate/activist groups”.
Commenting on MPs that have problematic historic social media or online posts Keith Rosser, director of Screening at Reed, says, “These MPs are not the only people falling foul of historic social and online posts. We continue to see an increase in job hunters failing to gain employment based on what they’ve posted on social media sites. We would encourage all candidates to make sure that if there is anything they are not comfortable discussing in an interview situation, no matter how old on social media, then delete it, or don’t post it in the first place.”
He added, “The disclaimer of ‘opinions are my own, not those of my employer’ is no longer enough to satisfy clients and customers. As one of the largest pre-employment vetting services in the UK we find that there is now more information online that is useful for pre-employment vetting than offline with traditional references and so on.”
After smoothly passing the Brexit Party’s particular background checks, Stephen says he received a letter from the party asking him to stand as a prospective parliamentary candidate. At all of the three or four months of organised events and rallies, Stephen was pleasantly surprised by the diversity of the candidates that had been chosen. “I had preconceptions – everyone does. I thought it would be white, middle class 30- to 40-year-olds, but it just wasn’t. It wasn’t male-dominated either, it was 50:50 male and women, and all ages and people of various ethnic origins. It was great.”
In recent years, parties across the board have gone to greater lengths to increase diversity to appeal to the non-white-male public, and the Brexit Party had clearly recognised a need to do that. Observing the diversity of his chosen party confirmed to Stephen what he’d thought about Remain voters, and he says he knew about himself: they weren’t uneducated and hateful. “They say we’re stupid and not informed but the majority of candidates I met were none of those things. They’re intelligent people and lots have good jobs, and from all walks of life.”
Although stepping forward as a candidate required a lot of work, Stephen felt that the party made it very easy for him: he was told everything he needed to read and research about his opponents. “I could do all the work in my own time, at the end of the day; just sit down on the sofa and go through the South West WhatsApps.” He's referring to one of several group chats into which Brexit Party officials had organised candidates by region. As Stephen tells it, by this point he wasn't asked to undergo further checks or tests on his political or ethical beliefs. According to him, neither were other candidates he knew of.
What bound the majority of the candidates was, in Stephen’s opinion, that they knew little about politics. “The party were quite open about it, they told us, 'If you get voted in, it’ll be a big shock. There’ll be a lot to learn.' Their whole thing was to get us in first, learn later.”
Unfortunately for him, it was nearing a fortnight before the deadline, after which he’d have to be on the campaign trail full-time for four weeks, and he got cold feet about causing extra work for others at the company he’d worked at for 15 years. “I had a phone call asking me to reconsider. Half of me was thinking, 'let’s just do it, they’re almost begging me to do it.'” He decided to stand down.
Instead, for this election at least, he plans to help with canvassing and raising the profile of the Brexit party in his local area. “It’ll be nice to see how my replacement gets on, if they are successful, because someone needs to make a difference,” he says. “I’ll be at home on the sofa thinking, that could’ve been me.”