ConservativeHome first came to prominence when we coordinated initial efforts to oppose Michael Howard's attempts to end grassroots involvement in the election of the Conservative leader. We blogged on the subject on an almost daily basis and coordinated the early national media effort to stop the rolling back of party democracy. Those efforts were successful and David Cameron was eventually elected Tory leader with the full confidence of the voluntary party. If that's where we began that's what we still believe today. This site's manifesto includes a commitment to argue for a Conservative Party that embodies the localism and democracy that it recommends for the nation.
If we were successful in 2005 we have been comprehensively defeated in the last year. The opponents of party democracy - or more accurately the defenders of a cadre of MEPs supportive of further integration and unrepresentative of mainstream party opinion - have ran a selection process that has protected incumbency and subverted party democracy. They did so in clear opposition to the wishes of party members. 78% of grassroots members told ConservativeHome that all sitting MEPs should be subject to a full vote. This brief note is a record of how sitting MEPs escaped democratic scrutiny from the party's members. For anyone ever wanting to fix an election it includes lots of helpful tips...
Grassroots members were prevented from deselecting incumbents. The decision from which the other abuses flow was the decision to ensure that sitting MEPs could not lose their places at the top of the regional lists which determine the likelihood of being elected to the European Parliament. Timothy Kirkhope MEP, then Leader of the Tory MEPs, and Caroline Abel Smith, responsible for European issues on the Party Board, wanted to ensure that rank-and-file members could not oust incumbent MEPs. They feared a backlash from grassroots members who had seen many MEPs undermine the leadership's position on the EPP and who had been consistently supportive of European integration. They knew that members would be much better informed of MEPs' voting records in this internet age and they knew that that would spell disaster for a number of MEPs' careers. Their initial proposal to the Party Board was that individual members should have no role in reselection. This was thwarted by Francis Maude and the MPs and elected representatives of the voluntary party that sit on the Party Board. They guaranteed that grassroots members should rank all non-incumbent candidates but only after Regional Selection Committees had decided whether sitting MEPs should automatically be at the top of the lists. The grassroots would be limited to ranking non-incumbents and deciding whether Sitting MEP 1 should be ranked higher than Sitting MEP 2 or 3. The grassroots would have no powers of deselection - something that Timothy Kirkhope claimed as one of his proudest achievements when unsuccessfully restanding as MEP leader last November. We predicted that the RSCs would rubber stamp every MEP and they did.
Female candidates won better MEP slots even though they received fewer votes. The decision to guarantee that a woman candidate was automatically at the top of the non-incumbent list regardless of how many votes she had received reflected two things: (1) The fact that the existing MEP delegation included just one woman, Caroline Jackson, and she was retiring and (2) The Cameron's leadership's commitment to increase the representativeness of the party. If incumbents hadn't been protected the election of more women would have been natural. We believe that, for example, North West Tories would have preferred Jacqui Foster or Fiona Bruce to Sajjad Karim MEP, and Therese Coffey and Sarah Richardson would have been preferred to James Elles MEP in the South East. The rigging of the system in favour of incumbents prevented this. CCHQ felt they had to give women special treatment and we ended up with most women receiving less votes than male candidates but being given higher places on the list by the party's preferential system.
Strenuous efforts were made to prevent the grassroots from learning anything meaningful about the candidates that they were allowed to rank. The EU enthusiasts who took control of the candidate selection process were determined that grassroots members were prevented from knowing very much about the non-incumbent candidates. They worried that an open process would see the most Eurosceptic candidates prosper. They introduced a number of measures to avoid transparency:
- A three month purdah period. Once candidates had been shortlisted they were not allowed to actively communicate with grassroots members. Candidates were even told that they couldn't participate in the IWantAReferendum constituency ballots that coincided with the selection process.
- There were no official hustings and unofficial hustings were discouraged. Constituency associations that held events at which some candidates were in attendance were instructed by CCHQ that if the candidates were to address the gathering it was important that they said "nothing political". Some Associations bravely ignored CCHQ advice but they were exceptional.
- Candidates were only allowed to use template CVs to communicate with members and these CVs were edited at CCHQ. The template CVs allowed little opportunity for candidates to present themselves in distinctive ways. Each candidate was issued with strict guidance as to what they could say and couldn't. At least two candidates mentioned the "renegotiation" word in their draft CVs and were instructed to delete it.
- Candidates were given lines to take. When ConservativeHome.com asked candidates a series of questions about their political beliefs some candidates were initially instructed not to answer. CCHQ then relented but John Maples MP, Head of the Candidates Department, issued suggested answers for all candidates to use. Several candidates replied to us with the exact answers that they had been supplied with and undoubtedly won brownie points from the powers-that-be as a result. This was picked up by many ConservativeHome readers however, and they weren't impressed.
The voting process was complex and restrictive. The system was not STV but a unique system devised by CCHQ that saw every vote weighted. Maybe they were inspired by the esteemed Eurovision Song Contest? Grassroots members fortunate enough to receive a ballot paper - and there is anecdotal evidence that huge numbers did not - were required to vote for every candidate. For the reasons given immediately above this was very difficult as it was very difficult to distinguish between candidates. We suspect that there was a lot of 'donkey voting' with people putting numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 etc in a simple alphabetical order. Any voter that failed to give a number to every candidate would have had their whole ballot paper disqualified. This system was perfectly designed for evening out voter preferences - a vote for a strongly preferred candidate wasn't worth much more than one for someone the voter didn't want to rank at all.
Full results of the election process have been suppressed. On Friday the party announced the results of the ballots but did not announce the number of votes received - partly to hide the fact that most women had been outvoted by men. Results leaked throughout the weekend to ConservativeHome and we published the South East regional results on Monday morning in order to increase the pressure on CCHQ to publish. Eventually John Maples MP did publish the number of points that each candidate did receive but has refused to publish information on turnout and spoilt ballot papers. By way of comparison, even the recent Conservative Future elections - also ran by the Electoral Reform Society - were democratic enough to allow candidates and their scrutineers to view the ballots being counted (both valid and void), and to announce the exact results straight away.
The proportion of spoilt ballot papers was probably higher than in 2007's Scottish Elections. Remember the furore that rightly greeted the number of voters disenfranchised by last year's Scottish elections? Our suspicion is that the number of spoilt ballot papers was even greater in this MEP selection process. We think the proportion of spoilt ballot papers may be as high as 15% or 20% but we can't be sure because of CCHQ's refusal to publish. The complexity of the voting form and a widespread disgust at the nature of the process probably combined to produce the scale of this problem. Scotland had to review its election procedures as a result of last year's scandal. So long as CCHQ covers up the scale of our own problem we will not have the necessary information to learn what might be improved for the next internal party elections. We also suspect the decision not to publish reflects a worry that it would reveal poor turnout and declining party membership.
John Maples was responsible for candidate selection as well as being the returning officer. The two roles should have been separated. John Maples is both on the Euro enthusiast wing of the Conservative Party and wants to diminish grassroots involvement in candidate selection. It would have been much better if a more neutral figure had been appointed to oversee the process. As returning officer he has the powers he needs to suppress evidence about the consequences of the decisions he took as head of candidates and he's certainly using those powers.
We are grateful to the many people who have contacted us to produce this summary of the whole selection process. Please email us if you have corrections or other thoughts. We will leave the last word to one of our correspondents:
"We may claim the language of localism transparency and accountability, but we do not show those virtues in our internal affairs. The only conclusion I can reach is that, if we return to government, when we face a difficulty, our instincts will be to control, to centralise and to disenfranchise.
The Party is treating its members as if they are the problem. “Trust the people….unless they are members of the Conservative Party” is the approach.
The natural inclination of Party members is to be loyal. We want to win the general election and we don’t want to rock the boat. CCHQ seems to be taking cynical advantage of that, by rigging the rules and hoping we won’t make too much fuss."