Back in November, I published a leaked draft of the proposed changes to the Conservative Party Constitution. It contained some troubling proposals, including the wholesale deletion of what rules there are providing for local control of candidate selections, and their replacement with a catch-all clause granting the Candidates Committee the power to set and vary the rules in any way it might wish.
That issue and other features of the text – such as making the existence of a youth wing optional, not required, and removing many references to associations entirely – raised eyebrows at the time, and there has been growing disquiet since in various parts of the Party.
Priti Patel wrote for ConservativeHome last month about the need to grant members greater democratic control (an appeal that I’m told was warmly received when she repeated it at a regional grassroots event recently), and earlier this week Jacob Rees-Mogg told me of his deep concern about the lack of democracy around candidate selections.
They aren’t alone. I’m aware of other MPs, and members of the Party Convention, who are similarly concerned, and of plenty grassroots members who share these worries, many of whom have contacted their Association officers who represent them on the Convention. Some are frustrated that the proposals fail to implement various of the good ideas in the Pickles Review; others believe that further centralisation is a poor answer to an election campaign and selection process which suffered from excessive centralisation already; and plenty more don’t think the current administration of the Party is likely to abuse new powers, but still want to honour the precautionary conservative principle that rules should be written to protect against possible future excesses, not just on the basis of current good will.
This opposition matters. Under the existing (and proposed) constitution, no constitutional change can take place unless it is approved by the Party’s Constitutional College: that is, the MPs, the MEPs, the members of the Convention, and the officers of that well-known body ‘the Association of Conservative Peers and Frontbench Spokesmen in the House of Lords’. And approval requires a large super-majority, tested by two demanding thresholds. When a ballot is held, any constitutional change must win the support 66 per cent or more of those who vote, and that two-thirds majority must also equate to more than 50 per cent of those eligible to vote.
Senior individuals in the Party tell me they think it is extremely unlikely that these proposals would secure the backing of MPs or of the Convention, who together make up the vast majority of the Constitutional College. It seems that the Party itself now agrees – Rob Semple, the Chairman of the Convention, emailed the members of that body late last week to say that their feedback had resulted in a rethink:
‘We have reflected those comments, along with the decisions made in November, in our latest proposals to the Party’s Constitutional Committee. I am aiming for the revised draft proposals to be completed and available for your consideration by the Spring. There will then be a meeting of the National Convention during May, in London, to discuss the proposals.
I would like to stress, the meeting is to discuss the revised proposals and is not a vote of the Party’s Electoral College.’
We don’t yet know what exactly is being “revised”, or how – what might be ditched, tweaked or added in – but it appears that the initial proposals at least have had to be rethought due to extensive opposition. It’s certainly good news that the concerns of members are being taken on board, and not simply overruled regardless. There’s evidently an expectation that there will be some months of further discussion and debate before a formal ballot.
The fact that the next draft of proposals won’t be discussed by the Convention until May, and even then they will not be presented for a Constitutional College vote, suggests that any reforms requiring constitutional change will probably have to wait until at least Party Conference. Quite what will be brought forward in the Spring remains to be seen.