Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
I remember growing up as a younger Tory member, going to various events, and hearing someone called John Strafford going on about democratising the Conservative Party. I used to think: “who is this crazy guy, this political obsessive, rabbiting on about obscure party mechanics, which few are interested in?’”
In recent times, I began to realise that, far from being a lunatic, John was quite sane…and it was perhaps us who closed our ears to what he was saying who were the crazy ones. For many years, he rightly predicted that a lack of democracy would lead to a loss of membership. He was right.
You don’t have to agree with every one of his prescriptions – and I don’t. I still think that a Prime Minister should be able to choose his or her own Party Chairman, for example. However, a little bit of common sense will tell you that in an age of ever-increasing consumer choice, if people join organisations, they want to be involved and have an active part in shaping that organisation.
Unfortunately for the Conservatives, Jeremy Corbyn understands this in terms of the Labour Party. The 600,000 plus members that Labour now has are not all from the far left, (although those make a significant contingent), but also include people who are both attracted by a romantic view of socialism, and also know that, when they join their party, they can vote on party motions, vote for their representatives and have serious votes on policy. To those on the centre-left who argue that this just gives those on the hard-left a platform to take-over the party, that is somewhat defeatist. Are there really not a few hundred thousand, moderate social democrats – who could be persuaded to be involved and influence their party, with the right leadership and motivations?
In a similar way, a truly democratic, membership-based Conservative Party would be an important step in galvanising current members, and persuading existing members to join.
In practice, this would mean the whole of the Party Board, including the Chair of the National Convention elected by the membership, not the current system in which they are chosen by just a few senior people from each association. The same would apply to the directly-affiliated organisations such as the Conservative Policy Forum. The Board could produce an annual report, just as companies do to their shareholders, which would be adopted or rejected annually by all the members through a vote.
Conference too, should be radically democratised. Our party must move away from just the Politburo-style announcements (“tractor production in the Soviet Union has gone up by 50 per cent this year”). I remember going to conference during the time of Margaret Thatcher, when motions for conference would be selected by associations and debated. The Government of the day was still able to get their core messages across – and win elections.
Why not do the same now, with members voting online as to which ones are chosen for debate at both the Spring and Winter Conferences? In terms of selecting parliamentary candidates, this could continue to be done by primaries (although this can offer an unfair advantage to a well connected local candidate) – or an electoral college consisting of the local association members (60 per cent), the public (20 per cent) and CCHQ representation (20 per cent).
Of course, the first objection to democratisation is to point at Corbyn’s Labour and express concerns about ‘infiltration’, or about ‘undesirables’ elected to positions etc. As explained above, not only does this show a misunderstanding of what the 600,000 Labour members are all about, but even so, can be dealt with.
The answer is simple: paying a full membership fee of £25 would give a member full participatory rights, whilst less expensive fees could be charged for non-voting membership. There would of course be concession rates for certain groups on lower incomes, as there are at the moment. As a final check and balance, if it was felt that despite the financial safety net, infiltration, malpractice, reputational damage et al had occurred, the Prime Minister, Party Chairman, or the Board could have a final veto.
Democratisation of the Tory party is not the only solution to increasing our membership base. A proper national membership offering, rocket-boosting candidate bursaries, expenses for lower income members to get involved at senior level, a radical and simplified message and symbol (yes – the ladder of opportunity) that all Conservatives can unite behind, are just a few other things that could be done. But what is the point if, when Conservatives do finally get people to join, the latter realise they have no real say in making their new party one that really works for everyone? They won’t remain members for long.