It’s a bad sign for CCHQ that the Telegraph chose to declare war on the Feldman Review this week, splashing yesterday with fears that the vast majority of Conservative Associations could be abolished and merged with their neighbours.
Tensions between Associations and the central Conservative Party have been a recurring theme for decades, and this has been a particularly vexed topic since Feldman began his review after the General Election. Last August we conducted a special survey of Party members who read this site to test the idea that “Associations should be required to band together in city or county federations, with each federation retaining full control of the pooled Association funds”. A solid 58 per cent of respondents were opposed to the idea. A milder proposal, that Associations could voluntarily band together across smaller areas, with each Association retaining the control of its own funds, was more warmly received, with 50 per cent support.
“CCHQ wants every Association to be a member of a federation. Each will itself presumably be able to put up ideas, but whether so or not CCHQ intends to produce plans for each one. All Party members in the Associations concerned will then vote on them (though it is not clear how this process will be managed). So, for example, were it to be proposed that all Associations in Buckinghamshire form a Buckingshire federation, all Party members in Buckinghamshire would have a chance to vote on such a plan. There will be pilots.”
The Party Board met yesterday to discuss the Review, and we now know rather more about what is being suggested.
The idea is that the Party Board will be able to nominate groups of Associations which ought to merge – not to work together, but to actually merge. For that reason, it would be more accurate to call these “multi-constituency Associations”, not “federations”. The individual Associations would effectively be dissolved, and the new organisation would take their place. The resources of the former Associations would be pooled under the control of the new organisation. In short, the proposed structure is much closer to the policy opposed by 58 per cent of our Party member readers than to that which 50 per cent of them supported.
The initial proposal was that after the Party Board had nominated an area for this approach, the question would be voted on by Conservative members in the affected areas – and an outright majority either way would win the day. That raises serious concerns for what might happen to successful and/or asset-rich Associations, who could be outvoted by members in neighbouring associations and effectively forced to merge against their will. I’m told that this idea met strong resistance from the 1922 Committee, and as a result a compromise is now being put forward under which any Association with over 200 members will be allowed to refuse up front to join a proposed multi-constituency Association.
This is all very troubling. It isn’t hard to see the risk that Associations which have done the right thing – built up their membership, saved money and invested in assets in order to secure their long-term campaigning capacity – could end up being outvoted and forcibly merged with others which have not done so. That isn’t just unfair, it could deter effective activists and officers from putting in the time and effort if they feel that the fruit of their work is then dished out to others. Ironically, the Review seems to be trying to impose principles on the Party which Conservatives oppose in the welfare system, and centralise the Party just as Conservative ministers argue for localism in the running of the nation.
The right of Associations with over 200 members to opt out from a merger vote will safeguard some – it may well mollify some of those MPs whose local Associations have sufficient members to exert the power – but it doesn’t go far enough. Such has been the decline in Party membership in some areas that there are plenty of Associations below or hovering around 200 members – but many of those are fighting back, growing and succeeding, and they deserve the right to defend their own existence.
Another cause for concern is that there appears to be no exit route once a multi-constituency Association has been set up. In a federation, where several Associations have chosen to band together, if it doesn’t work out then one or more could choose to leave. But if the constituent parts have been dissolved, and their assets pooled, into a wholly new body, how can it be undone if people change their minds?
These proposals are not yet set in stone. I gather that copies of the Feldman Review – amended to include the opt-out power for Associations of over 200 members – will now be sent out to local Association Chairman, and their feedback will be invited. The Party Board will meet again on 21st March to assess that feedback and decide how to proceed (not only on this, but also on questions like the centralisation of the membership system).
If they decide then to go ahead, then pilots of the new rules will begin – apparently in areas where Associations want to be merged, though we don’t yet know how that desire will be judged to exist.