Although the Conservative Party’s constitution declares near its beginning that “the Party shall consist of its Members”, these ultimately have less power within it than that bald statement might suggest. For example, members can – when it comes to changing the constitution itself – propose but not dispose. They are entitled to suggest changes by delivering petitions to the Chairman of the Board, “signed by not less than 10,000 Party Members”, but these are voted on by a Constitutional College in which the only non-Parliamentary element is members of the National Convention. Any changes must be approved by a two-thirds majority. All this is a reminder that the drafters of the constitution took care to guard the position of the Parliamentary Party.
Its interests are also protected in leadership elections. The final choice lies with the members. But the selection they are offered is that made for them by Tory MPs. This is not a bad trade-off, and Labour made a deadly error when during the last Parliament it removed the institutional say of its MPs in its own leadership contests, as we are now seeing. There is a good chance that Jeremy Corbyn, a man with minimal backing in the Parliamentary Labour Party, will be its next leader. This combination is certainly unstable and probably unsustainable.
But, like Labour, we should be careful what we wish for. Labour went to one-man-one-vote in its leadership elections to acclaim from most quarters, since the change saw off the institutional say of the trade unions. It is also working to enlarge its base: one can join the Party for £3 as a registered supporter – a move that recognises the unpopularity of formally joining as a member – and have the right to vote in its leadership elections. 50,000 of these registered supporters have signed up since May and these, with the 70,000 affiliated supporters who have joined via the unions, are the force behind the Corbyn surge.
Like Labour, our own Party is grappling with the unpopularity of party political membership. Like Labour, too, it has a registered supporter scheme, or an equivalent: one can become a supporter for a pound, although this does not confer the right to vote in leadership elections. That is the privilege of “standard members”, who must pay £25 to gain it. The view of this site has long been that this financial bar is too high. This is also the position of no less senior a figure than the Party’s new Deputy Chairman, Robert Halfon, who has said that the payment should be slashed to £1. But could such a change open up the prospect of what is happening in Labour’s leadership contest now happening to us in the future? If half those members voting in a Tory leadership poll were brand new, would the result be seen to be legitimate? The Feldman Review will want to keep an eye on these questions.