Ann Widdecombe, one of the most recognisable faces of Conservatism over the past decade, is stepping down from parliament. Her safe Kent seat, Maidstone and the Weald, has therefore been looking for a suitable successor and today they announced the result - Helen Grant, a black solicitor and mother of two. Raised by a single parent on a council estate in Carlisle, her personal profile certainly makes a change from the average one for a Tory candidate (although not completely - she is, as I mentioned, a lawyer!), which is possibly why David Cameron had been keen to put her on the party's A-list. (The Evening Standard image opposite is from the Conservative Home site.)
The selection of candidates, particularly in a party's safe seats, is one of the more hotly contested rights of local constituency parties. The local parties value, and fight for, their independence, not least because selecting the next MP is one of the few genuine, tangible powers that they hold. The central party leadership, meanwhile, is often desperate to denude this power from the locals and decide things centrally. One of the innovations that allowed Tony Blair to mould New Labour was an increased level of central control over candidate selection, thus preventing too many left-wingers getting seats. New Labour, of course, also imposed women-only shortlists, thus substantially increasing the number of women in parliament following the 1997 election, although storing up a bit of trouble for itself in the process. The reason why the once strong Labour seat of Blanaeu is now Independent is down to the furore over a women-only shortlist imposed by Labour's national Executive.
David Cameron has also tried to intervene in local powers, mainly through his 'A' list idea. Tory constituency parties have also been holding 'open primaries' in a bid to widen the representation of who selects their candidate.
The problem for party leaderships, of course, is that local party activists are a far cry from being representative of their constituency as a whole. By definition, a party member is more committed and probably possessed of more forthright political views than the average voter. The leadership wants to appeal to the mainstream voter; the party member wants to secure his or her favoured policies. The result is tension between the two.
Helen Grant's political stance within the Tory spectrum is unclear, but Conservative headquarters will at least be rejoicing in her selection, on diversity grounds alone. One of the unsuccessful candidates for the Maidstone seat blogged her experiences here, and there is an interesting comment below the post about whether a candidate selected as a good constituency representative can also fulfill the function of being an able legislator in the national interest. That, of course, is another of the debates about MP's and their role.
For completeness, I should add that Labour's Hazel Blears has also been successful in being selected for a new merged seat this weekend - her current one disappears under boundary changes.