Conservative Diary

Party democracy and membership

6 Aug 2013 19:11:59

Who on earth are British Influence trying to influence?

Screen shot 2013-08-06 at 19.08.37
By Paul Goodman

Follow Paul on Twitter.

My old friend Peter Wilding of British Influence begins a riposte to Douglas Carswell in the Daily Telegraph as follows: "In the 1970s you could find in Tory Associations up and down the land cabals of retired colonels and spotty youths coming together to agree that the country had gone to the dogs and the only way forward was back. These were not the Thatcherites. They were the fruity cocktail of old League of Empire Loyalists, sad Monday Clubbers and new, tie-wearing teenagers on the make. They wanted the empire back, the immigrants out and Russia bombed. It would only take 15 divisions to reconquer India, Enoch was right and Moscow was toast."  Wilding goes on to compare Carswell to "swivel-eyed forebears" and mock "the Carswell handbag".

Leave for a moment the rights and wrongs of the argument (though I think, given his ad hominem attacks on Carswell, Wilding is unwise to criticise him for playing "the men, not the ball"). Instead, consider those retired colonels and tie-wearing, spotty youths.  Having been a spotless, tieless youth at the time, Wilding knows as well as I do that a big chunk of the spotty ones were Thatcherites - not to mention those harrumphing retired colonels.  And in believing that "Moscow was toast", they were right: it may temporarily have escaped Wilding that the entire Soviet system collapsed roughly a decade later.

Continue reading "Who on earth are British Influence trying to influence?" »

3 Aug 2013 08:34:27

Why can't we be told how many members the Conservative Party has?

By Paul Goodman
Follow Paul on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-08-03 at 07.32.21CCHQ's main reason for not releasing the number of members who voted to select candidates for the European elections is that the Board hasn't agreed to do so.  This doesn't mean that it made a specific decision not to release the figure: merely that since it has not been released during previous European elections, there's a presumption that it shouldn't be issued after this one.  More widely, CCHQ pleads the usual difficulties in citing a membership figure - namely, that the Party hasn't a centralised structure; that local Associations don't always have up to date figures, and that this difficulty is compounded by their unwillingness to risk entering data into Merlin - and thus risk losing it in cyberspace.

To recite these excuses is to grasp at once how flimsy they are.  Just because the voting figure in the European elections wasn't released last time round is no reason not to release it again. And CCHQ could easily get a wider estimate of membership from each local Association.  No, the reason that no figure has been released is that Downing Street is too embarrassed to do so.  As the Times points out this morning, 253,600 members voted during the 2005 leadership election.  Membership is now estimated to have fallen to about 130,000, and the actual figure may be lower.  UKIP's membership is reported to be as high as 40,000.  One should be wary, since it has the same interest in puffing its own number than any other party, but there can be no doubt that its support has grown. The gap between the two figures is not unbridgeable.

Continuing enquiries about membership are undoubtedly an embarrassment for Downing Street and CCHQ. This morning, they would rather that the media - and ConservativeHome - focus on the appointment of Jim Messina, Barack Obama's campaign manager last time round, to help with the 2015 election campaign.  However, CCHQ's refusal to release figures and its glee over Messina's appointment only serves to highlight the nature and scale of the problems facing the Party, and the coincidence of the two taking place at the same time is highly illustrative.  It is always easier to think short-term (about how to win the next election) than to plan for the medium-term and longer (about how to build a growing voluntary Party).  Time and time again, CCHQ has been crammed with staff and money for election campaigns...and been left bare afterwards.

Continue reading "Why can't we be told how many members the Conservative Party has?" »

9 Jul 2013 08:26:43

At root, Miliband's Party problem is our problem too

Screen shot 2013-07-09 at 07.54.56
By Paul Goodman
Follow Paul on Twitter.

Ed Miliband displays what child psychiatrists call a "pattern of behavior".  Confronted with a problem he can no longer avoid, he moves late and does little, a response that voters have seen again and again.  First on immigration, then on welfare, then on borrowing, he has half-closed the door on Labour's respective problems - wanting to let in lots of immigrants, soak taxpayers for lots of welfare, and borrow lots of money on the never-never - thereby inviting his left and the unions to push it open again.  "Weak weak weak" comes the cry and the briefings from Downing Street and CCHQ, and they are as right as they are repetitious.

His speech today on Labour and the unions offers more of the same.  No-one anywhere - not Polly Toynbee, not Owen Jones, not Laurie Penny - believes he would be making it were he not in a hole and trying to dig himself out.  It follows that the proposals in his speech won't have been thought through, and that as an answer to Labour's problems it will only pose further questions.  These will duly be asked by Grant Shapps, Dan Hodges, this site and many others, keeping the Unite story on TV and in the headlines as the summer days stretch gloriously on.

Continue reading "At root, Miliband's Party problem is our problem too" »

29 Jun 2013 07:57:33

David Cameron should never be free of the fear that his own MPs might sack him

By Andrew Gimson 
Follow Andrew on Twitter

Screen shot 2013-06-29 at 07.56.29“Conservative Members of Parliament constitute the most elusive and mendacious electorate imaginable.” So says Robin Harris in his excellent new biography of Margaret Thatcher, Not for Turning, when he turns to describing how her own MPs got rid of her. Harris observes that the Conservative Party’s “somewhat bizarre rules” for electing its leader were “originally conceived for when the party was out of power and not intended to displace a sitting Prime Minister”.

In 1989, when the first challenge to Mrs (as she then was) Thatcher was made, all that was required was a “stalking horse”, Sir Anthony Meyer, and two other MPs who proposed and seconded him.  The taboo against challenging a leader who was also Prime Minister was broken by that rebellion, and at the end of the following year Mrs Thatcher was swept away by her own MPs, who were terrified that she was leading them to electoral ruin.

In 1998, when new rules were brought in which gave Conservative Party members the right to choose the new leader from a shortlist of two drawn up by MPs, the opportunity was taken to avert future leadership challenges by what might turn out to be only a handful of MPs. Under these rules, which remain in force, 15 per cent of MPs must write in confidence to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee to demand a vote of confidence on the leader.

Continue reading "David Cameron should never be free of the fear that his own MPs might sack him" »

16 Jun 2013 08:32:42

If Cameron is to defuse Leigh's criticisms, he must get on the front foot over renegotiation

By Paul Goodman
Follow Paul on Twitter.

Cynics will say that now Edward Leigh has his knighthood in his pocket (so to speak), he will feel free to be as openly critical of the Government as he likes.  But I think this would be to mis-read the significance of his sweeping dismissal on this site today of the Queen's Speech as "the weakest legislative programme in recent memory", and his warning that "unless there is a change of course, and a firming-up of our Conservative instincts, we could lose the election".  He writes: "A group of like-minded Members of Parliament – the Centre-Right Steering Group – have been coming together in recent weeks to question the path the leadership are taking and to scrutinise their policies".

The steering group brings together some of the main groups on the centre-right of the Party - including Cornerstone and the No Turning Back Group.  It is likely that some of its key members will have been aware of Leigh's article in advance of publication.  And David Cameron is acutely aware that views of his leadership on the Party's centre-right range from the loyally critical to the contemptuously hostile: hence his recent appointment of John Hayes, who co-founded Cornerstone with Leigh, to Downing Street as his Parliamentary Private Secretary.

Signs of economic recovery and of progress in the polls, and attempts by the Prime Minister to reach out to his right (such as the masterminding of James Wharton's EU referendum bill) seem to have done nothing to pacify some of Cameron's critics, for whose grievances he must take some of the blame.  I believe that Leigh is right on some points (same-sex marriage, HS2) and wrong on others (tax and spending).  David Cameron isn't going to tear up his election pledges, and un-ring fence aid and NHS spending.  So to suggest that he does is a waste of breath.

In which case, the economies that Leigh wants - and for which he has such a keen eye in his role as a former Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee - wouldn't be enough to deliver tax cuts on the scale he implies.  The Government would need billions of pounds in savings, not millions - and to find them, it would need drastically to re-think the role of state, along the lines set out by Harry Phibbs set out recently on this site, and pursued by Liam Fox in a recent speech in which he praised our Local Government correspondent.

I am all for such a re-think - ConservativeHome is one of the few centre-right publications to have run a series on how to scale back public spending further - but, when it comes to cutting spending, much of the right is all mouth and no trousers.  All in all, Leigh's worry about "a percentage of our people [peeling] away to the right" is absolutely correct but, if such imagery is to be used, David Cameron must worry no less about the Party's appeal to the centre.  Successful conservative leaders abroad, such as Stephen Harper, appeal to both at the same time.

The leitmotif of this site since it was set up has been that to campaign on such Tory staple issues as tax and Europe is necessary but not sufficent.  To maintain power, it must recognise that most of the seats it needs to win and hold are urban and suburban ones in the midlands and north, where the public sector is larger, selling a scale-back of the state is more difficult, and voters (as they are elsewhere) are at least as concerned about, say the NHS as the EU  - to put it mildly.  Leigh places an electoral stress on the issue that the polling evidence doesn't justify.

But in doing so, he sends an important message to Downing Street.  Only a majority Conservative Government can deliver the In/Out referendum to which David Cameron is committed.  The promise of the latter has satisfied some of the Prime Minister's former critics on the EU who simply want Out.  But it hasn't quelled the appetite of many of his backbenchers for a major renegotiation, and Leigh's views are an eloquent expression of them.  If Cameron delays setting out his own view until late next year, he risks a destabilising row about its scale and ambition during the run-up to an election.  Better for him and everyone else to have it sooner rather than later, rather than let the matter drift through inertia and irresolution.

21 May 2013 08:05:25

The same-sex marriage bill. Bad when it started. Just as bad now. It should be opposed today.

By Paul Goodman
Follow Paul on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-05-21 at 07.43.19No political party should alter a bedrock institution without the following conditions applying - especially if it is the Conservative Party.  A sizeable campaign to change that institution should be in place: in other words, there should be real evidence of public pressure.  The Party should then discuss and debate the matter internally.  If the Party then decides on change, if should say so unambiguously in its general election manifesto.  If it doesn't win the election, but enters into Coalition, any commitment to effect that change should be written into the consequent Coalition Agreement.  Ideally, any bill enacting the change should be preceded by a Green Paper in which any  problematic consequences of the bill could be aired, and solutions thereby sought.  Such solutions could then be written into the bill, or tacked on to it by amendments.  Finally, the bill should be subject to a geniunely free vote.

Not a single one of these conditions apply to the same-sex marriage bill, on which MPs will vote this evening.

No campaign for same-sex marriage preceded the bill.  (Although Stonewall has consistently favoured same-sex marriage, it didn't launch a big campaign for it - at least partly because it thought the Government wouldn't concede it.)  There was no discussion within the Conservative Party, especially at local level.  There was no manifesto commitment.  There was no Coalition Agreement undertaking.  There was no Green Paper.  There have been no significant amendments - other than Labour's on equal civil partnerships.  And there has been no free vote, at least at when it comes to members of the Executive: it has been made very clear to Ministers which lobby the Prime Minister wants them to go into.  For these reasons alone, Tory backbenchers should vote against the bill at Third Reading this evening.  The way in which it has been introduced and championed has broken every rule of good government and party management.

The Loongate row is still reverberating in the Party, especially at local Association level.  The key point about it is that too many Conservatives, from the Cabinet table to the grassroots, believe that the controversial words are what is thought and said of them in Downing Street. No measure has done more to buttress that impression than the same-sex marriage bill - which has been imposed on the Party with such absolutism, and which is the cause of such a bitter culture war.  Many older people especially see the measure as a deliberate assault on their values: the bill might thus almost have been designed as a recruiting-sergeant for UKIP.  For this reason alone, Tory MPs should vote against the bill this evening in good heart.  They will certainly grasp that Ministers haven't a clue what the courts will do when they get to work on Equality Act challenges, and that the bill is consequently a threat to religious freedom.

20 May 2013 09:47:53

A precondition for victory is unity – but unity requires boldness and generosity from Cameron

Tim Montgomerie
Follow Tim on Twitter

Even now, despite the economic difficulties, the Tories are still preferred to Labour on questions of economic competence. That's before any economic recovery.

More people blame the last Labour government for the deficit than blame the Coalition.

Cameron beats Ed Miliband on nearly every measure of what it takes to be Prime Minister.

Ed Miliband is not seen as a PM-in-waiting. His ratings have hardly improved since he was first elected Labour leader.

On welfare and immigration Labour is still out of touch with voters - not least in its own heartland constituencies.

Whether in London against Boris or in Scotland against Alex Salmond, Labour is struggling to win the big match ups.

Labour is refusing to give the people a referendum on Europe.


Reasons like those listed above should give Tory members hope. The next election is far from lost. It's not going to be easy for reasons that ConHome has warned about for a long time... but victory is possible. A precondition, however, is party unity and in today's Times (£) I set out two ways of achieving unity.

Continue reading "A precondition for victory is unity – but unity requires boldness and generosity from Cameron" »

19 May 2013 08:10:41

Lord Feldman should ring each Conservative Association Chairman to thank local activists for their work

By Paul Goodman
Follow Paul on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-05-19 at 08.05.37This weekend of the “mad, swivel-eyed loons” row will swiftly be followed by Commons debate on the same-sex marriage bill. Will Conservative MPs accept Lord Feldman's denial, view the incident as yet another instance of media irresponsbility, and look more sympathetically on the measure - on which David Cameron has staked part of his political reputation?  Or will the report only harden the opposition to it - since some will conclude, regardless of what they think of Lord Feldman's denial, that his words represent what Downing Street thinks anyway?

The answer will become clear over the next few days.  What is evident this morning, however, is that what Cabinet Ministers do and say about the bill will be watched very closely indeed.  The Sunday Telegraph confirms that Chris Grayling will support amendments that aim to protect people who work in the public sector and believe that marriage is between men and women - and that Owen Paterson and David Jones will oppose the bill at Third Reading.  The logical extension of Philip Hammond's pointed remarks on Question Time last week is that he should, too.

Continue reading "Lord Feldman should ring each Conservative Association Chairman to thank local activists for their work" »

18 May 2013 15:58:24

Party Chairman Lord Feldman denies calling Party members “mad, swivel-eyed loons”

By Paul Goodman
Follow Paul on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-05-18 at 15.33.25Andrew Feldman has issued a statement as follows: "There is speculation on the internet and on Twitter that the senior Conservative Party figure claimed to have made derogatory comments by the Times and the Telegraph is me. This is completely untrue. I would like to make it quite clear that I did not, nor have ever described our associations in this way or in any similar manner. I am taking legal advice."

The question that obviously follows is whether some other person with "strong social connections to the Prime Minister and close links to the party machine", as the Times (£) put it this morning, spoke the contested words.  This seems not to be the case, and Lord Feldman's statement confirms that he is indeed the man at the centre of this controversy.  I understand that a conversation between him and several lobby journalists took place at a dinner earlier this week.

Continue reading "Party Chairman Lord Feldman denies calling Party members “mad, swivel-eyed loons”" »

18 May 2013 08:44:37

If the Conservative Party is in decline, whose fault is that?

By Paul Goodman
Follow Paul on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-05-18 at 08.04.09There are activists in every Party whose eyes aren't entirely steady in their sockets.  And swivel eyes, to mangle a metaphor, cut both ways - see here.  But most Conservative members are normal enough.  Tory activists are not untypical of the class which, if one takes a romantic view, has been the backbone of England for centuries - and, even if one takes a prosaic one, works (largely in the private sector), earns, provides, saves, and gives generously to charity.  A high proportion of the members I know are involved in their local communities: indeed, they are the Big Society.  But Tory members have undergone one significant change in the last 25 years or so.  They are, on the whole, older people.  The Conservative Party has been hit hard by the hollowing-out of conventional politics.

The response of the Party leadership, since 2005, could have been to strive for new members - or, alternatively, to abandon the concept of membership, and seek to build a new movement based on overlapping interest groups.  Its view of what to do about declining membership has ebbed and flowed as Party Chairmen have come and gone, but one big point is clear.  People who join political parties want to have a say in them - or at least a sense of ownership.  At a national level, party members have no more say than when David Cameron became leader.  And at a local level, they have less: the power of local members to select their own Parliamentary candidates has been diminished by the vogue for primaries.  Membership costs £25 a year: no small sum.  Payment is followed by a steady stream of letters and e-mails asking for more.

CCHQ and Downing Street (when the Party is in office) has massive power over local Associations which is sometimes arbitrarily wielded: if you doubt it, read Mark Wallace on this site this week on the subject of the present Euro-selections.  In short, the Conservative Party is trapped in a spiral of failure as far as membership is concerned.  The smaller the membership becomes, the less its leadership trusts it - and the less its leadership trusts it, the smaller its membership becomes. (Meanwhile, UKIP membership rises.)  But it doesn't follow that because it's small, it has no influence all - it does, albeit in a very narrow compass.  MPs are reliant on their local Associations for support in tough political times - and sometimes fellowship, too.  That's why so many of them voted for the Baron Euro-amendment in the Commons this week.

This is the event that triggered the observations on the rotation frequency of actvists' eyeballs by a "member of the inner circle" with "strong social connections to the Prime Minister and close links to the party machine".  But if the party on the ground is not in a good way, whose fault is that?  Doesn't it lie as much with David Cameron - to whom this person is apparently close - as with activists who have often worked hard for the Party for many years, and will still be working hard when the present leadership has moved on?  Since there are few "members of the Prime Minister's inner circle" with "social connections" to him and "close links to the pary machine", I imagine that the secret will probably be out by Monday.  I refrain from guessing only because my inkling may be wrong.  But I wonder if the position of this mystery man will become untenable.