There is a new iteration of the Feldman Review proposals. Robert Halfon made a punchy case for them on this site yesterday, but there is more to say about them than he had space for. The first point to add is that they were not endorsed at its meeting on Monday, according to sources on the Party Board, but merely noted. “I think that they would have approved had there been discussion and a vote,” one of them told ConservativeHome, “but that would only have highlighted disagreement about them further.”
There are two particular points of controversy. The first is the plan to create what the Review calls the centralised administration of membership (which Party member respondents to a ConservativeHome survey supported by 80 per cent to 14 per cent). The second is the proposal for Multi-Constituency Association pilots (which they have expressed no view on). Let us consider each in turn.
At the core of concern about centralised membership records is, not to put too fine a point on it, a worry that Votesource may not be up to handling the change. The best account of the strengths and weaknesses of Votesource, which proved not to be up to the job on election day, can be found in Mark Wallace’s write-through of the election campaign. Sources have told us that Rob Semple proposed that a working group be set up to review the centralised membership plan, and that this was agreed to, though it isn’t clear as we write either what the membership of this group will be or when it will report.
At the heart of opposition to MCAs is, to cut to the chase, a suspicion that Downing Street and CCHQ want more centralised control and less grassroots autonomy. This arises from the detail of how it is proposed that MCAs be set up and wound down.
On setting up, Associations with over 100 members and “a fully operational structure” will be able to opt out of the pilot MCA if a majority of their Members vote against it – which means that those with under 100 members or without “a fully operational structure” or both will not be able to opt out. On winding down, it is proposed that while Associations can choose not to opt into an MCA – if they meet the conditions I describe – they will not be able to opt out on the same basis. Graham Brady and Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, two of the Parliamentary Party’s representatives on the board, were among those who apparently raised concerns.
In sum, there are some good things in the Feldman Review – bursaries for worse-off candidates, a candidates’ outreach programme and centralised membership records (in principle). But the MCA proposal is problematic. The most practicable way forward would simply be to proceed with pilots for more federations rather than with MCAs. Ideas that can be read to suggest that some members can buy more access than others are also questionable.
But the core question about the review goes deeper – not so much about what is in it as what is not. No elected Board members. No plan for lower costs and more debate at Party Conference. No identifiable proposals to ring-fence money and resouces for the medium and longer term. Halfon wrote that this is “the Party members’ review”, but it is difficult to see how this claim stands up. A glance at the plans to date confirms that we have been presented with a tightly-drawn agenda, of which MCAs are the central feature. Anything that might touches on greater ownership of the Party by its members has been relegated to an appendix and subjected to a bland summary.
One of the challenges of our times is how to prevent Wesminster becoming “a ballet of the parties” – a tableau in which one rootless party of the elites is simply replaced in government by another – vulnerable to the Trumps and Corbyns and Farages. The Feldman Review scarcely begins to rise to meet it. This is perilous at a moment when the view of the Cabinet majority, on a fundamental constitutional question shortly to be put to a plebiscite, is the reverse of that of Party members.