Lord Flight is Chairman of Flight & Partners Recovery Fund, and is a former Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
The mess which the Conservative Party has got into over Brexit has also thrown up important questions about the constitution, rules and structure of the Conservative Party itself. These cover, particularly, the powers to remove and select a leader; calling a general election; who has control of the money raised by individual local Associations from membership subscriptions and, more widely, the power of those Associations.
The current rules are a mixture of the reforms put in place by William Hague and Archie Norman in 1998 when the former was Party Leader, and the deal negotiated by the Liberal Democrats as part of the 2010 Coalition arrangements. The decline in Conservative Party membership has also been used by some to justify centralising Party membership – virtually getting rid of Associations.
Probably the most important change – in the other direction – was to give Associations the choice of Party Leader, between the two finalists, where previously this had been handled “behind closed doors” by MPs in Westminster. This change has meant that, subject to getting through to the final round, the candidate whose views most reflect those of the grassroots Conservative membership is likely to end up becoming leader. It also implies that the grassroots membership and Westminster MPs will tend to be in opposing camps, making it difficult for incoming Party leaders to exert their leadership powers at Westminster.
In related territory, getting rid of a Party Leader has become unnecessarily complex and rule prescribed. It would surely be more sensible to have a simpler approach – i.e: permitting the calling of a vote if a majority supports one; and, for example, subsequently a two thirds majority vote needed to remove a Party Leader, whether or not he or she is Prime Minister at the time. The present situation is verging on the ludicrous, whereby MPs do not know precisely what are the rules for removing an incumbent Leader and how such rules can be changed.
Given the growing support for localism and the need for political organisation on the ground to support this I find, in particular, moves to reduce or “nationalise” Associations particularly inappropriate. The Conservatives desperately need to rebuild Party membership on the ground. This needs constituencies to have professional agents whose task is to recruit members and raise funds. Associations also need to give input to Party Policy as the Conservative Political Centre used to in the past. Effective local government also needs strong associations as a source of able local government candidates and local input.
The truth is that the Conservative system was not broke before 1998 and didn’t need fixing; and that the 1998 constitutional reforms were a failure. We lost the Young Conservatives – a crucial conduit to recruit young members into the Party. Where before 1998 the Associations were essentially in charge, subsequently the Party has become increasingly centralised. Associations and their members should be the rockbed of the Conservative Party. They should be supported, strengthened, listened to and expanded. The Party Constitution needs to be amended to put them back at the centre.
We need an elected Party Chairman – this is the key that would unlock the democratic door. The Party Chairman needs to be a representative of Conservative Members for the Prime Minister and Government to consult with and listen to; and not merely a mouthpiece. When the Conservative Party is in office, the Chairman should have a decisive voice on whether and when to hold a general election. The elected Party Chairman should sit in Cabinet. We also need to review the operation of the Candidates Department and the process of selecting candidates which, arguably, has become too controlled by the centre.
My suggestion is, therefore, that post-Brexit a committee of say five long-standing and experienced senior Party members should be appointed to review these territories and make their recommendations for reform/change to be approved at Party Conference. It is difficult not to take the view that most of the changes of the last 30 years have been mistakes, and have contributed to the decline of the Conservative Party.
We need a positive and constructive agenda for democratic change in the Conservative Party. We need to re-engage, re-energise and reboot our Party with the Associations’ position and powers restored. There is little point in reclaiming our democracy and sovereignty from the EU if we find that there is not enough transparency, accountability and democracy within our own Party at home. We need to galvanise our Party and make membership mean something again.