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Board moves to give Party members a say in policy

By Paul Goodman

CAMERON-PENSIVEThere's a policy unit in Downing Street - containing three Conservatives and three Liberal Democrats - to help shape future policy for the Coalition.  But there's no equivalent in CCHQ to form future policy for the Party.  So how will Conservative policy be drawn up for the next election?  Tim and I have been asking the question repeatedly.  I wrote last month that there are three main options -

  • David Cameron could set up a Policy Unit in CCHQ (as I've suggested).
  • The 1922 Executive could raise some money, and use its backbench committees as policy development bodies (as Tim has recommended).
  • The Party Board could set up its own new policy development process.

I can disclose today that the Board is considering a plan that would change Party policy-making significantly.  Under its terms -

  • Every Conservative Cabinet member would work with a think-tank made up of Party members.
  • Each think-tank would draw up policy proposals to which, in turn, the Cabinet Minister would respond.
  • Party members would thus have a say in the Party policy - both before the next election and manifesto.

This plan is set out in a paper called "Conservative Policy Forum - proposal to reinvigorate, restructure, relaunch", which ConservativeHome has seen.  The paper has been drawn up by a steering group appointed directly by the Board and chaired by Fiona Hodgson, a Board member and Vice-President of the National Convention.

It sees a revived Conservative Policy Forum (CPF) as the means of delivering the plan described above, and is drawn from responses to a survey sent to existing CPF groups, and Deputy Chairmen Political in each Association.  730 or so CPF groups were canvassed for their views.  The steering group received almost 300 responses.  97 per cent said that members should be able to influence Party policy through the CPF.

Under the plan, Ministers and think-tanks would work together roughly as follows.  Each think-tank would -

  • Appoint a Chairman and a Rapporteur.
  • Consult local CPF Groups to select topics for policy formation.
  • Draw up proposals based on those topics, which would be posted on-line for local CPF group feed-back.
  • Put these amended proposals to the Minister, who would post his views and comments on-line.

I'm told that the Board is due to consider the paper during a meeting in September, and that its ideas may in turn be considered and debated during the Convention meeting that takes place during October's Party Conference.  Oliver Letwin, who has overall responsibility for the CPF in his capacity as Chairman of the Policy Review and of the Conservative Research Department, met Steering Group members earlier this week, and his response to the paper was described to me as "sympathetic".

I've five main thoughts about the paper, and the issues that it raises.

  • The plan's a good idea, but the devil's in the detail.  It's reasonable for members to be involved in making policy for their own Party, and the proposal's structure is sensible.  But it raises a number of questions.  For example, who's to select the Chairmen and Rapporteurs?  What's to be done with Departments headed by a Liberal Democrat?  And if the Party leadership's to take the think-tank recommendations seriously, how are they to be integrated into the process of drawing up the next manifesto?
  • The Party leadership's likely to be wary about the plan.  Although David Cameron's localist in theory, he's often centralist in practice - at least as far as the Party's concerned. Consider the imposition of shortlists on local parties in Parliamentary selections, or control of the order of party lists for the 2008 European elections, or the vetting of candidates' literature at the last election.  The Party leadership's likely to worry, not wholly unreasonably, about controversial proposals being floated on-line, available to Labour and its media allies to distort and exploit.
  • However, the plan raises the question: whose Party is it anyway?  In Party terms, I'm not an extreme democrat.  That's to say, I don't agree with proposals, for example, to elect the Party Chairman - perhaps because I remember what extreme party democracy did for Labour during the 1980s.  But I believe that the pendulum's swung too far towards central control.  Party members have the right to elect the Party leader, but are otherwise losing power - to open primaries, for example, in candidate selection (about which I was critical on this blog when an MP).  There's a bigger, wider question about the future of membership and Associations, which Tim, Jonathan and I will return to in due course.  But in relation to the steering group's plan, it's reasonable for members to have a formal say in their own Party's policy.
  • The Board and the 1922 Committee need to work together.  There are three newly-elected MPs on the Board: Brian Binley, Priti Patel and Charles Walker, all of whom are members of the '22 Executive.  They're in a good position to dovetail whatever the Board decides to do in terms of policy formation with whatever the '22 decides to do.  Perhaps the two processes should be merged altogether - ConservativeHome readers will have their own ideas.  What's certain is that with the Party governing in Coalition, the '22 has a new role to play in policy development.
  • Sooner or later, David Cameron will respond positively to the steering group's ideas - if the Board endorses them.  I suspect that the leadership's instinct is to keep control of policy development and the manifesto process (for good as well as bad reasons, as I've suggested).  But if the CPF and the '22 set up means of developing policy, either together or separately, it will have little choice but to accommodate them.  In any event, the Party's policy-making gap must be filled sooner or later.  Whether a policy unit's set up in CCHQ or not, there'll have to be some central means of drawing these threads together.


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