Robert Halfon is Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party and MP for Harlow.
The Conservative Party is perhaps the greatest political movement in the Western world: it has been at the forefront of fighting oppression abroad and ahead of the great debates on free trade, social justice, and democratic politics. Our members and leaders fought to end slavery, brought in the corn laws for cheaper food tariffs, legislated for trade unionism, ensured that all women had the vote, protected Britain from Nazism, built thousands of houses for working people, enabled people on low incomes to buy their own home and – with regularity – brought our country back to recovery when facing the economic precipice.
And yet this great political movement, of which I have been a member since I was just fifteen years old, must adapt: our infrastructure in many local areas is weakening and there are still too many parts of the country where thousands of Conservative voters do not yet have any Conservative representation at all.
So, Party reform is not about some power grab from the centre, or to do with some Machiavellian scheme for a future leadership contest.
This reform is about whether we Conservatives look hard in the mirror and acknowledge that, whatever our current strengths, if we don’t change what is necessary – in order to conserve what is best – we may face an existential challenge in years to come, a big house without any rooms or furniture.
In fact, it is precisely because of the problems of the Conservative infrastructure around the country that the centre has to get so involved. Often, CCHQ has had to provide ‘astroturf’ in the shape of campaigning and financial backing because there is not enough infrastructure on the ground. The stronger the party in our areas, the less the centre will need to be involved.
I don’t say this to ignore the incredible efforts of thousands of party activists – in fact it is precisely the opposite. As a party member for many years and a Parliamentary Candidate for ten years before I was elected, I know I would not be in Parliament were it not for the passion and commitment of dedicated Conservatives in Harlow, keeping the party alive in our darkest days of opposition.
It is also worth noting that these reforms have not come from the centre but from the grassroots. Overseen by a party panel of activists and MPs and councillors, since June last year, meetings with grassroots have taken place in every corner of the land, listening and collating the views of activists.
For these reasons, this is not ‘The Feldman review’, or ‘The CCHQ review’, but the Party Members’ Review. It is the Board, the National Convention and members that will decide whether or not the reforms are right for our party, not any individual or groups of individuals.
My hope is that Party members will back the reforms for these three reasons: they deal with the problems of our faltering membership, they help rebuild our party infrastructure and they ensure that we get the best candidates, from all walks of life, particularly helping those on low incomes.
First, membership: every modern professional organisation now operates membership from the centre. They do this to be able to have offerings for all their members, but also to be able to get a good view as to what their members are thinking and what they want to get involved in.
The reforms propose that membership is administered from the centre to professionalise the membership offering and reduce the bureaucratic burden on all local Associations. Different tiers of membership will be available with varying offers, with all members having voting rights in the leadership contest and the chance to get more involved in policy-making. There will be an awards scheme for members with great campaigning records or special long service so that they can join the more expensive tiers of membership.
Associations will still be responsible for local recruitment and they will still receive subscription revenues from their members. But, even if this membership reform is backed by the party, it will be rolled out on a region by region basis so that we can be sure to get it right and iron out early problems.
Second, the infrastructure: where members in a local area want to collaborate in a multi-constituency association (MCA), they should have the option to do so. They will have a campaigning HQ, trained campaigning staff and a regular source of speakers for events. However, this will only happen if the majority of members in an area vote for it. Moreover, if a local association that has over 100 members wants to remain outside the MCA, and if the members vote against it, they will be able to do so. Again, the MCA idea will be piloted to seek what works and what doesn’t, and only in areas that put themselves forward. Nothing is being imposed on any area, without the democratic consent of the members.
Third, candidates: our record on candidates is something that Associations should be proud of. We have more candidates who are female, from ethnic minorities and from all walks of life than ever before. We have already announced a new Candidates Bursary Scheme, to ensure that lower income candidates in marginal seats get the financial support they need. This will enable them to have the resources to dedicate themselves as parliamentary candidate. In addition, the Panel have suggested that a professionally-run Candidates Outreach Programme could be established to improve the diversity of our candidates across all levels of government.
Throughout our history, our party has been at its best and most successful when we have reformed when necessary. From Disraeli to Lord Woolton, party change brought electoral dividends. Once this EU referendum debate has been decided, I believe that our Party is on the brink of achieving something special. With Labour facing internal strife over Jeremy Corbyn, it is the Conservatives who are now the party of social reform, of lower tax for lower earners, of the living wage, of millions of jobs and apprenticeships, of the NHS, free childcare and decent pensions. If we are to succeed in Government, we also need to succeed as a Party. We must be fit for purpose. These reforms go some way to making that possible.