Adrian Hilton: Why Number 10 is wrong to pull Ministers from the Windsor Tory Renewal Conference
There is perhaps no more urgent a task for the Conservative Party in the present era than that of renewing democracy – to revive its foundational raison d’être; to resurrect its national framework of membership; and to reform its mode of engagement with party members. A political party that is immune to policy progression and insensitive to the beliefs of its core support-base ceases to be a movement for renewal: indeed, it rapidly becomes a fading testimony to past triumphs and a decaying monument to ancient glories. Reformation leads to enlightenment and revival – in politics as well as theology.
The Conservative Renewal conference, which is due to be held in Windsor on 14th September, has a declared mission ‘to help conservatives win elections through the strength of ideas’. They say they are independent, ‘but work in partnership with local party associations, think tanks and local people’.
But not anymore. The organisers have tweeted: “Shame to see apparently coordinated pull-out of speakers from Conservative Renewal conference.” And that coordinated pull-out consists of all ministers of state (Gove, May and Vaizey), who have apparently been urged by No10 to reconsider their participation, having previously had their involvement approved. “There has apparently been a last minute concerted effort by the Conservative leadership to discourage people from speaking at our conference,” the organisers wrote in a letter to attendees. Richard Ashworth MEP has followed suit, as has (budding prospective?) parliamentary candidate Toby Young, who apparently now has a diary clash (which may, of course, be genuine).
I understand from unofficial sources that while No10 is briefing that the en masse pull-out is due to the high-profile involvement of Windsor MP Adam Afriyie, the real reason for the sudden boycott is that the conference is open to non-party members. That is to say, CCHQ/No10 are concerned that the Conservative Renewal conference is nothing but an opportunity for Ukip entryism, for it is the presence of Ukip members which is the apparent cause of anxiety.
Now, I am quite sure that a few Ukip members and supporters will be attending, not least because quite a few former Conservatives have veered off in that general direction. But what is the point of a Conservative renewal conference that does not seek to address their valid concerns and somehow attempt to re-graft them into the party? And why should we consider giving non-members a vote in open primaries if they may not debate such issues in even a local conference? Isn’t that consistent with ‘Big Society’ engagement and participation objectives?
The important point is that (pace self-styled libertarian Paul Staines) only recognised Conservatives are addressing the sessions. I can scarcely believe that Adam Afriyie’s reported leadership ambitions are causing such disquiet in No10 that no ministers may now be seen within 50 feet of him. I despair at this fabricated and wholly unnecessary conflict which is (again) indicative of the contempt which No10 and CCHQ appear to have for ordinary Conservative Party members.
Because it is they who have paid to attend this conference; it is they who have paid to hear these keynote speakers and to have input into policy formulation and share their thoughts on the Conservative way forward. The mere fact that they have been prepared to pay anything between £19-£79 speaks volumes for the inept, inefficient and ineffectual ‘official’ processes of ‘consultation’ engineered by CCHQ – like CPF, the Conservative Policy Forum. When I was deputy chairman (political) of my local association in Beaconsfield, I spent three years faithfully sending out these policy briefs and encouraging local branches to form discussion groups and report back with their insights and intelligence. And every other month I would faithfully collate these responses and send them on with my carefully-crafted summary to Conservative Central Office, as it was then.
It was only when I became an approved parliamentary candidate that I was told by a senior MP (and Cabinet minister) that it all went straight in the bin. I was shocked, but perhaps I was naïve. Like the annual party conference, CPF is nothing but a façade of democratic membership engagement.
The whole point of the Conservative Renewal conference in Windsor is to re-engage the party’s grass roots. The 200 people who have already paid their money and bought their tickets are being treated appallingly. They are not involved in petty Westminster spats and they are certainly not responsible for the haemorrhaging of members to Ukip. Yet they are being treated as inconsequential collateral damage in No10’s absurd attack on Ukip and/or Adam Afriyie.
The irony is that last year’s conference was not at all critical of the leadership: it focused, as it promised, on debating the complex political and organisational issues. This year’s conference cannot now avoid discussion of No10’s autocratic instincts and CCHQ’s authoritarian centralisation. Only when the party restores its internal democracy and learns once again to trust its members will there be a revival in its political fortunes.