John Strafford is Chairman of the Campaign for Conservative Democracy
Did you know that changes will be made to the constitution of the Conservative Party at a meeting of the National Convention on 1 July? Of course, as an ordinary party member, you will not have a vote on these changes. Isn’t it time you did have a vote? Isn’t it time that the Conservative Party came into the twenty-first century, and embraced democracy, so that ordinary members had a say in the running of the party organisation, instead of it just being left in the hands of the National Convention and Tory members of Parliament?
At a meeting of the National Convention on 18 March, it was announced that changes to the party constitution would be proposed. These changes were needed to be able to extend the date by which constituency associations have to have held their Annual General Meeting: it is to be altered to 30 June. Also, the maximum term of office for constituency officers is to be changed to five years.
As far as we are aware, no agenda was sent out for the meeting on 18 March, and attendance was less than 100 out of the approximately 800 people entitled to be there. Yet, during the meeting, a motion was put forward proposing a minimum membership fee of £25, and it was passed overwhelmingly. This is no way to run an organisation. The National Convention — which was set up to be the voice of the voluntary party, but which has become a rubber stamp for the party hierarchy — is no longer fit for purpose, and should be abolished.
The quality of our party organisation has deteriorated, and the decline in membership is having a serious impact.
Conservative Party membership throughout the United Kingdom was estimated at 3.1 million in 1951, before falling to 1.5 million by 1975, at the time of the Houghton Report into the financing of political parties. This continued to fall, and went down to between 350,000 and 450,000 by 1996, according to estimates compiled by Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, a leading authority on party organisation and finance.
After the 1998 reorganisation of the party, membership picked up a little, but by nowhere near as much as the Tories had hoped. The total had fallen to 320,000 by 2003, and, when David Cameron became leader in 2005, membership was 258,239. By the time of the 2015 General Election, it had fallen to 134,000, 290 constituency associations had fewer than 100 members, only two associations had over 1,000 members, and just 50 had more than 500.
In 1959, there were 500 Conservative Party agents. By 1994, this had fallen to 200, and today there are fewer than 40. Yet, at a time when modern technology necessitates a more professional organisation, the need for party agents is greater than ever. This loss has been hard for the Conservative Party to bear. Agents take care of legal requirements, but more importantly they are motivators and organisers. At election time, their loss could be disastrous.
Party organisation in many weaker constituencies is nonexistent — some, effectively, have none. Without radical change, the Conservative Party will cease to exist as a party of mass membership. To turn round this decline will take time, but first of all, we have to change the constitution. The age of deference is dead: today, people want to participate, and that means either voting on decisions taken, or voting for the people who take those decisions. With that in mind, I propose that the constitution of the party should be changed as follows:
1) The constitution of the Conservative Party should be able to be amended or changed by the members of the party at a general meeting of the party on the basis of “one member, one vote”, provided that the amendment or change is approved by 66 per cent of those members voting, and by not less than 50 per cent of those present.
2) There should be an Annual General Meeting of the party, to which all members should be invited.
3) The officers of the party (Chairman, Treasurer, Chairman of the Candidates Committee, and Chairman of the Policy Forum) should be elected by the members of the party at the Annual General Meeting, and serve for no more than five years.
4) Annual reports by the officers should be presented to the Annual General Meeting for adoption.
I hope that every member of the National Convention and every Conservative MP will support these changes. Let me know if you do.