John Strafford is Chairman of the Campaign for Conservative Democracy.
The Conservative Party faces an unprecedented existential threat. This arises because there is a wide gap between the hierarchy of the Party, backed by parts of the Parliamentary Party, and the voluntary Party members. The hierarchy of the Party includes the Leader, Party Chairman, Deputy Chairmen, Vice Chairmen, and Treasurer, none of whom have been elected by the members. The backbenchers are reliant on the hierarchy for their promotion within the Party and in Government, and so are mainly deferential to that hierarchy.
The gap between the hierarchy and the members has been growing for the last 20 years since the introduction of the Party’s constitution, and has been brought to a head by Brexit. Roughly 60 per cent of the hierarchy and Parliamentary Party supported remaining in the E.U, whilst 70 per cent of the members of the Party want to leave the E.U. If we do not leave the E.U. on terms that are acceptable to the members of the Party, large numbers will leave it – hence the existential threat. How have we arrived at this appalling situation? We must go back to 1998 to see how this gap was created.
Once the 1998 constitution was brought in, CCHQ began to demolish all lines of communication between the members and the hierarchy. All the checks and balances which existed prior to 1998 were abolished. Pre-1998, the annual Party Conference was organised and run by the National Union (i.e: the voluntary Party). It invited the Leader and other Ministers to speak at the conference. There were motions for debate tabled at the conference and published in a handbook. Votes were taken on the motions. After CCHQ took over, 1999 was the last Conference at which we had motions for debate.
So what else happened after 1998?
The Central Council of voluntary members met twice a year and the Party Chairman and other Ministers used to attend. It consisted of several thousand members, including representatives of the Women’s Organisation, Young Conservatives and others and at which motions for debate on Party organisation were tabled. It was abolished.
The National Union Executive Committee which was regularly addressed by the Party Leader and had elected representatives by the membership was abolished.
Regional meetings for Party members which used to be held four times a year and which had officers elected by the members, motions for debate etc, were all abolished with a couple of exceptions.
Regional meetings of the Conservative Political Centre (CPC) which had officers elected by the members and which discussed policy issues were abolished, also with a couple of exceptions.
The National Committee of the CPC which had members elected by the membership of the Party and which had meetings with the Leader was abolished.
The Annual Conference of the CPC which any member could attend and which was addressed by Ministers was abolished.
The Spring Forum 2019 has been cancelled.
All the lines of communication between the Party hierarchy and the ordinary membership of the Party have been eliminated.
One of the main reasons CCHQ wanted control was so that they could control the Conservative MPs. Prior to 1998, constituency associations had effective control of their candidates in a general election. This issue came to a head in the general election of 1997 when CCHQ asked the Tatton Constituency Association to drop Neil Hamilton as their candidate. They refused, and Hamilton was defeated by Martin Bell.
Under the new Constitution, CCHQ was determined to take control ,and this came to a head just before the general election of 2005 when Howard Flight had the Conservative whip withdrawn by Michael Howard – thereby removing his right to stand as a Conservative candidate.
The Leader not only controls Conservative MPs but also, through the Party Board, aanyone who wishes to become a MP, because the Board appoints the Chairman of the Candidates Committee which determines who may be a Conservative Candidate.
In the 20 years since 1998 there have been five general elections. The Conservative Party has won one of them. In the 20 years prior to the constitution there were five general elections. The Conservative Party won four of them.
In promoting the benefits of being a member of the Conservative Party, it is always pointed out that you can elect the Leader of the Party. However, in every recent leadership election to date there have been attempts to frustrate the members’ rights.
In 1998, when William Hague introduced the new constitution, he was anointed by the membership, a year after his election by MPs, without any competitor. In 2001, Michael Portillo was the front runner and the MPs wanted the run off to be between him and Iain Duncan-Smith, so they transferred votes from Portillo to Duncan-Smith. The result was that Portillo lost by one vote to Ken Clarke. In 2003, Michael Howard was the only name put forward, so the members didn’t get a vote.
In 2005, Michael Howard tried to change the Party Constitution so that MPs would have the final say on who should be Leader. The change was defeated. In 2016, only one name came forward, so the members didn’t get a vote. Not a good record for Party democracy is it?
At a local level, many Associations have dispensed with holding adoption meetings, so members no longer have a say on whether their MP should continue.
I have mentioned the gap that exists between the Party hierarchy and the membership of the Party. That gap has been growing for the last 20 years and Brexit has brought it to a head – but the issues at stake range wider than is Brexit. Traditional Conservative principles seem to have been forgotten. Now we have regulation poured onto regulation – the State gets ever bigger. I am reminded of Hayek’s book The Road to Serfdom in which he explains that at the end of the road, after regulation has been imposed on regulation, you end up with a totalitarian state, tyranny and dictatorship. I can see the end of the road.
Now, before it is too late, is the time to reform the Conservative Party. We must close the gap between the party hierarchy and the members. That can only happen with member involvement.
We can start by having an Annual General Meeting to which all Party members are invited We can elect the Party Chairman, Deputy Chairman, Treasurer, Chairman of Candidates and Chairman of the Conservative Policy Forum and make them accountable to Party members. We can have a Party Conference at which members can table motions for debate and on which votes are taken, but most of all: we must have a Constitution, which can be amended on the basis of One Member One Vote. That is democracy. Without it, the Conservative Party will slowly drain away down the plug hole of history.