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John E. Strafford: Time to bring back Association Adoption Meetings for sitting MPs

John Strafford of the Conservative Campaign for Democracy makes the case for stricter reselection procedures for sitting MPs.

At present there are 196 Tory MPs of which 20 are women and 2 ethnic minorities.   To achieve 50% men/women of which 12% are ethnic minorities requires a huge change. If we only rely on new candidates for seats that at the moment we do not hold, or for seats where the sitting male Tory MP retires, it will take several General Elections to achieve our objective of fair representation.  Should we therefore look at changing the procedure for the re-selection of sitting MPs? 

We could ask all sitting MPs to be re-selected by say an open primary election, but:

  1. The sitting MPs wouldn't accept the proposal;
  2. In most cases members would be reluctant to campaign against their MP and;
  3. Experienced MPs are a great asset to the Party.

Nevertheless I believe that the Executive of the 1922 Committee should be approached to take soundings of their members to confirm or otherwise that the proposal would be unacceptable.  There is no doubt that if this was to be accepted it could prove to be the fastest method of bringing about change.

In an age when long-term employment has gone should we be prepared to accept an increased turnover of MPs?  In today’s environment do MPs, once elected, consider themselves to have a job for life? (subject to the electorate).  In many walks of life it is rare for a person to stay in the same occupation for a long period.  Are MPs different?  Should we encourage the re-adoption of MPs for each parliament by the whole Association as is done in Scotland?

Prior to the passing of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, every Conservative MP was re-adopted as a Conservative candidate at a General Meeting of his or her local Association.  The proposal for adoption as the candidate was on the recommendation of the Executive Council of the Association.  The Adoption Meeting was a critical point at which a Prospective Parliamentary Candidate became the Parliamentary Candidate.   It was at this point that expenses had to be accounted for in the parliamentary election, which followed.  This process involved all the grass roots members of the Constituency Association and generally worked quite well.

It is rare for a sitting MP to lose the confidence of his or her Association but occasionally it happens.   In 1997 in my own constituency of Beaconsfield it was as a result of questioning at the Adoption Meeting which led to the MP – Tim Smith – to resign within a week of the meeting knowing that he had lost the confidence of the members. 

Generally one of the drawbacks to the re-selection process in the Conservative Party at this time was at the Executive Council stage.  In a number of constituencies when the Executive Council met, the MP would turn up, give a speech, and the adoption resolution would then be put by the Chairman for a vote on a show of hands.  This was clearly wrong for it would take a brave person to vote against the MP with the MP watching.  In 1997 the then National Union Executive Committee unanimously passed a resolution that the vote of the Executive should be by secret ballot.  The Chairman of the 1922 Committee rejected this on the grounds that not having a secret ballot was part of the deal, which had been made for Party members to have a vote in the leadership election.

After William Hague brought in the Party Constitution the secret ballot was inserted at a meeting of the National Convention and applies today.

With the passing of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 one of the major changes in the Act was the timing as to when expenses began to be incurred for a parliamentary election.  The Adoption Meeting was no longer the critical point.  The result of this was that in England, Wales and Northern Ireland many Constituency Associations no longer held Adoption Meetings (The Scottish Conservatives still retain them). Effectively, this means that the ordinary members of an Association are deprived of the opportunity to vote on the adoption of the candidate.  I believe this is wrong and the Party Constitution should be changed accordingly.

Of course in extreme circumstances a member can call for an Extraordinary Meeting of his Association and put a motion of “no confidence” in the MP, but this is often a lengthy and divisive process resulting in bitterness and factions within the Association.

Normally an Adoption Meeting is a great lift-off for an election campaign.  It brings the members together and with the opportunity to vote on the adoption it gives them a stake in the outcome.  By having an Adoption Meeting we would be giving back to the members some of the democracy which they have unfortunately lost in recent years.  It is time to go for it.  This is a minor but worthwhile change to the process.  Perhaps, more important would be to change the attitude of our MPs and encourage them to step down when they are no longer making a worthwhile contribution to Parliament.  It also means that the membership of the Party has a serious job in holding the MPs to account for their actions or inaction.  It should only be the exceptional MP that goes on after the age of seventy.  It is the members job to remind them of this.

Related link: MPs who are not committed to active politics should make way for a new generation says 'Concerned activist'


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