An overnight email from the Direct Democracy campaigning group to its subscribers warns the Conservative Party against diluting members’ right to select candidates at the next European elections:
"The Conservative Party has in recent years taken the lead in opening itself up to democracy – in contrast to Labour, party members have the decisive vote over their leader, and many constituency associations have embraced our idea for open primary selection of candidates. Which makes a recent proposal by the party’s National European Forum all the more worrying. This obscure body, a kind of retirement home for Heathites, has unveiled a scheme to get rid of Eurosceptic candidates for the European Parliament. It wants to take the vote away from ordinary party members who, since the party list system was introduced, have been allowed to rank their candidates in order of preference. Instead, the ranking – at least of the top part of the lists, where it counts – will be done by small committees of party officers… Taking the vote away from the members and centralising it in the hands of party worthies would be a shocking assault on localist and democratic principles. if the Tories were to do such a thing in Opposition, why should anyone trust them to decentralise power in office?"
ConservativeHome wrote to David Cameron about this issue a few weeks ago and, from a conversation I had with his spokesman, I no longer expect an answer. The spokesman told me that the party leader expected to be consulted by the party board before it voted on how selection procedures might change. Mr Cameron would give his opinion to the board and privately. I then spoke to Francis Maude to hear whether he would be urging protection of existing one member, one vote ranking of all MEP candidates. He was non-committal. If, as I now expect, the party goes ahead with this retreat from democracy in the selection of MEPs there will be five consequences:
- The party board will have further undermined its already weak claim to speak for party members. A ConservativeHome poll found overwhelming support for members keeping their vote. The board, remember, was the body that attempted to take the vote away from members in the leadership election.
- Party rhetoric on trusting people and sharing responsibility will look a bit thin. The party will have shown itself unwilling to trust its own members to select MEP candidates.
- Many members will struggle to campaign for candidates with Europhile voting records that they did not get a chance to approve.
- UKIP and other fringe parties will be able to campaign against many of our MEPs and their support for still deeper European integration.
- We will have lost the opportunity to fashion a genuinely Eurosceptic group of MEPs that is in tune with David Cameron’s ambition to leave the EPP.
The party will go ahead anyway because they fear that any delisted MEPs will immediately leave the Tory grouping in the European Parliament and sit with the LibDems. If that is where their true instincts lie I think we should not be afraid of them leaving.