Conservative Diary

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The Conservative Party is dying on its feet. But whose Party is it anyway? (Part Two)

By Paul Goodman

I wrote yesterday that there are three broad options for the future of Party membership.  They're as follows:

  • Muddling on with managed decline.  In other words, allowing the steady fall in membership numbers to continue on its natural course.  The Party would therefore become even more reliant over time on Councillors to provide a local presence.  It follows that this would tend to exist not at all in some areas, and in others only when the Party's in opposition nationally.
  • Abolishing local membership.  In short, scrapping local Associations altogether, and replacing local membership with national membership, or some other arrangement.
  • Reviving local membership.  In my view, this option would necessitate increasing the rights and benefits of members: if people have few such benefits and rights, after all, the incentives for joining the Conservative Party will be greatly reduced (as they are now).
Since William Hague's leadership, and the Hague/Norman Party reforms, successive Party leaderships have tended to avoid trying to think these choices through.  Under David Cameron, there's been a paradox.

On the one hand, he was the decisive choice of Party members - winning some two-thirds of the vote - and has since led with an authority denied to all of his immediate predecessors other than Michael Howard (who, in any event, became leader during the run-up to an election, when Party loyalty tends to intensify).

On the other, the decline in the benefits of being a Party member has grown under his leadership.  Since Cameron's election as Party leader, CCHQ has exercised more power over -

  • MP candidate selection through the A-list, the imposition of shortlists on constituencies during the run-up to the general election, and the use of local primaries.
  • MEP candidate selection through control of the order of the party lists for the 2008 European elections, and stopping activists from sacking sitting Conservative MEPs in the first place.
  • Greater central control of Westminster election material, including articles, literature and tweets.
  • The effective sacking of some MPs as candidates for the coming election in the aftermath of the expenses scandal.

All in all, the gap between the leadership and the led, which has been gradually opening up since the Thatcher era, has probably opened wider.  My experience as a local MP was that -

  • The Party leadership was too busy trying to win votes from non-members to think about the members much.  When it did, it tended to regard them with a strange mixture of affection (based on its own local experience), fear (thinking back to the splits of the early 1990s) and, above all, embarrassment.  Its key sense was that Party members simply aren't representative of Conservative voters - let alone voters as a whole, which is correct.

I believe that CCHQ is well aware of the problem, but is unsure of how to resolve it, wary of opening a Pandora's Box, and inclined to waver between options one and two, as presented above.  Sources claim that it's undertaken a systematic study of Parliamentary candidates' experience last May, and found that many of them got more help from local networks of supporters, often built up through single issue campaigns, than from their local Associations (of which their experience was sometimes negative). It's thus giving a lot of thought to how those networks can be sustained now that the Party's in Government.

As I wrote in a previous post, I'm not, in Party terms, what I'd call 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, perhaps because I believe that Party leaderships should never be completely beholden to their members (since these tend not to be representative of their voters).

However, it's evident that, in terms of its relationship with its members, the Party can't simply go on as it is - concentrating on one-way initiatives aimed to raise the number of its MPs, rather than a two-way relationship involving more rights and benefits.

As I wrote yesterday, I've no cure-all solutions - and what matters, in any event, isn't what I think, but what ConservativeHome readers think.  None the less, I think it's reasonably clear what at least some of the right questions are as follows -

  • Should the traditional model of local Associations be continued - and if not, what should replace it?
  • If it's not to be continued, how would the selection of candidates for local, national and Euro elections be co-ordinated (if at all)?
  • Regardless of whether or not it's to be continued, what rights and benefits should members have?
  • Should they be able to elect the leader, and select candidates for local, Westminster and European elections?  If so in the last three cases, how do local primaries fit in, if at all?  What restrictions, if any, should the Party leadership/CCHQ be able to exercise in relation to such selections - in other words, should there be approved Westminster and European lists, and if so how should they work?
  • What rights, if any, should Party members have in relation to the formation of Party Policy?
  • Does the Party's Constitution need revision?
  • Should Party members be entitled to elect, say, the Party Chairman, or a Vice-Chairman?
  • Should there be an Office of the Voluntary Party in CCHQ, as proposed by Jeremy Middleton, and if so how should it work?
  • What control, if any, should Party members have over how the money that they raise is spent?  Should the Party, for example, be required to publish more detailed accounts?  (See Tim's account  of here on how £300,000 was blown on adverts which were never used.)
  • Should there be a two-way means of communication between the Party and its individual members, and if so what should it be?
  • Should the Party actively seek to develop more active networks - for example, of business professionals?
  • Should it provide a training programme for Association Officers?
  • Should it seek to develop a summer school or college?
  • Is it right to place its present strong stress on social action?
  • Would it be practicable for the Party to seek to establish a British equivalent of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, as suggested recently on Platform by Francis Davis?

I welcome answers to other questions as well as answers to these ones.

The Conservative Party started local.  That's to say, groups of MPs banded together, first as Tories, then as Conservatives, and the modern Party's descended from them.  I'm not an expert on the history of party fundraising, but expect that the earlier one glances back in time, the more likely one is to find money raised locally.

The Party could decide to junk local fundraising, as well as local membership, and become dependent on a few big donations rather than lots of smaller ones.  This may be the future of party politics altogether, but it's doubtful.  Westminster village parties with withering local roots leave themselves open to challenge from the left (in Labour's case) and right (in the Conservatives').

Such new movements and parties probably can't win enough support to govern on their own.  But they can make it very difficult for the two main parties to do so, either: this, arguably, is what happened at the polls six months ago.  But there are objections to becoming a Westminster village party at the level of ideas as well as that of practicality.

After all, the Party now champions localism and devolution.  But is it to preach everywhere else what it won't practice at home?  The Government envisages the Big Society, in which local people revive faltering institutions.  Is the Party itself to be excluded, perhaps uniquely, from the Big Society, and run from the centre?  Surely not: after all, "we're all in this together".


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