For much of the summer it was fashionable for commentators to assert that our elongated leadership election was exposing us to ridicule. Within the party there were a number of people who wanted to curtail the process, and restrict the franchise, on the basis that a long-drawn-out contest culminating in a ballot of the mass membership would not only generate weeks of hostile media coverage but result in the election of the “wrong” leader.
Well, we’re still six weeks away from the end of this process, so I have to be careful about making any predictions. But the shape of the contest so far seems to me to have proved the pessimists wrong. The length of the leadership election has allowed new ideas to be generated, tested, and take hold. Take for example, Liam Fox’s new emphasis on putting Human Rights at the centre of Conservative foreign policy. Liam was able, during his campaign, to make the case for a more ethical foreign policy on a series of platforms, including at Blackpool, and lay solid groundwork for the establishment of a new Human Rights Commission in the Party. The leadership election gave that initiative, and others, greater media exposure and a wider public airing, helping change perceptions of the party for the better, and giving us a better set of priorities for Government.
If the pessimists were wrong to worry about the length of this process then they were even more profoundly mistaken, in my view, to object to retaining a formal say for every party member through a direct ballot. The Editor of this site, and his allies in the campaign to protect party democracy, have every right to feel vindicated in their judgement. It’s become a commonplace to observe that the Party Conference was a success, but one of the reasons it worked so well has been under-appreciated. Because every leadership contender knew that their future depended on reaching out beyond the Parliamentary party, and the hall, to the tens of thousands of Conservatives outside, they all raised their game. Accountability worked its magic.
In the next six weeks I hope that all party members will use their right to question the candidates, and probe their positions, before making their minds up. Direct democracy in the party has already enhanced this process and can only go on doing so.
On a personal note, I would hope that in the future we can extend the democratic principle to involve more people who care about the strength of the opposition, and want to have a stake in helping build an effective alternative Government. The case for open primaries in helping choose our candidates has been made effectively by Theresa May, Douglas Carswell and others, and it has the potential to involve many more of our fellow citizens in changing the conservative party for the better, rooting us more deeply in the country and broadening our outlook. We could do worse than think about it for the choice of our next London mayoral candidate.
As Paul Goodman quite rightly points out, we need to find new ways of involving citizens in those parts of Britain where Conservative representation is currently poor. With so many of our MPs (guilty M’Lud) representing seats in the South-East we must be open to mechanisms which give all those who empathise with us a more effective voice.
We have a precious opportunity over the next six weeks to make Conservative arguments across the country, on our terms. We can talk to all those who share our values but who may not always have liked our approach in the past. The surest way to put them off, and communicate the impression that we have not changed, is by treating the election as an exclusive conversation or an extension of the Westminster game. The more open we are to engaging the rest of Britain in this process, the better equipped we’ll be to do the right thing in the future.