The roots of the Conservative Party reach back to the era when MPs sat in the Tory interest without the support of any party members at all. Is the wheel turning full circle?
On the surface, all is well – or not bad, at any rate. According to CCHQ, party membership is rising again (though it has halved since 2005). So is conference attendance. A brilliantly targeted election campaign snatched victory last May from the jaws of a hung Parliament. The Conservatives remain the best-represented party in English local government. Stephen Crabb is helping to lead a revival in Wales, as is Ruth Davidson in Scotland, from a lower base.
But once one peers past the sparkling exterior paintwork, the house’s interior looks shabby and its foundations vulnerable. The presumption must be that any membership growth is concentrated in the part of England in which it is strongest – the prosperous South-East – and not in the Midlands and Northern marginals which the party must win and hold in 2020.
Indeed, there are no Conservative seats in such non-Southern cities as Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle, Sheffield, Nottingham, Leicester and Coventry (though there have been within living memory, and are still some on the edges of some of these cities). There are few Tory councillors in these conurbations, and none at all in some cases. Read Lewis Baston’s piece on this site chronicling the loss of “inner surburban areas”.
Even in the South-East, not all Associations are healthy. The real significance of the RoadTrip 2015 controversy is that membership in some Associations can’t manage a full canvass or delivery: no wonder CCHQ welcomed Mark Clarke and his offer of busloads of young activists like a long-lost son. For better or worse, the burden and cost of fighting a campaign falls increasingly on the shoulders of the candidate himself.
The Conservative Party has always attracted more than its fair share of the career-minded young and the public-spirited old. What is missing is the tranche in between: the mass of people of working age who saw themselves as having a stake in what was once called “the Conservative interest”. Their falling-away is part of a bigger tale of the erosion of traditional parties and the rise of outsider insurgents: Trump, Sanders, Farage, Le Pen.
Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership win and the evisceration of the Blairites is a sign that no triumph lasts forever, and that even the most established parties are now exposed to the asteroid-strike of popular revolt. There are two extreme responses to this hollowing-out: an exclusive stress on growth from the bottom-up, with its potential for extremist capture, or to run the party from the top down through centralised control.
David Cameron has gone for the latter in three key respects. First, party conference has been transformed from a discussion form for members into a corporate event for lobbyists. It has been moved from affordable seaside towns to expensive big cities, with a consequent drop-off of less well-off activists. There is little debate inside the conference hall itself; most of the real action takes place on the fringe.
Second, candidate selection in winnable seats is increasingly shaped not by the local Associations who must work with the person chosen, but by CCHQ. If the Association selects itself, members in safe seats aren’t allowed to know who the candidates are before turning up to the final selection. If an Open Primary does, the Association loses the one remaining power it has: to select its own candidate. This may be right but it gets nothing in return.
According to Nick Timothy, our columist and a former senior SpAd to Theresa May, “safe” seats are treated “as baubles to be handed out as a form of patronage”. The costs of being a candidate – £41,000 even ten years ago – plus the shrivelled status of being an MP are leading to a higher turnover: nine first-timers stood down in 2010. That in turn boosts the power of the centre, as will seats that cross county boundaries and more frequent boundary reviews.
Third, CCHQ itself has been turned into a branch office of Downing Street. The Chairman is no longer a senior MP with standing in his own right, such as Cecil Parkinson, Norman Tebbit, Kenneth Baker or Chris Patten. Not so long ago, its function was to balance a focus on the short-term (winning the next election) with one on the long (building up support among ethnic minority voters, students, business, the professions, and so on).
The lack of oversight of Conservative Future revealed by the RoadTrip 2015 row was an indication of how unbalanced CCHQ has now become. I will avoid getting into the controversies about Lords appointments and Ministerial promotions, partly because MPs invariably complain about not getting promoted. But there can be no doubt that, when it comes to appointments, the Whips have less sway than they used to and the Chancellor has more.
The Daily Telegraph is running a lively campaign portraying local Associations in uproar about the Prime Minister’s remarks last week. However, an examination of the facts suggest that although there may be unease there is no revolt. Many activists will believe that the leadership does not view them as “swivel-eyed loons”. Others will think it does, but shrug their shoulders.
A leadership election will take place in less than four years. It will provide an opportunity for the candidates to set out their view of the future of the party as well as that of the country (and so it should: after all, members will be electing a Party leader). During the coming months, ConservativeHome will draw up a Charter for Party Reform, and put it to those candidates when the election comes.
This week, we are having a trial run of five ideas – all of which have received significant if not majority support from this site’s Party member readers. The first is electing the Chairman of the Party Board. We will in due course also be asking the site’s readers to write in with theirs. In the meanwhile, the Feldman Review is due to report soon. Senior Party members were briefed about them in London on Saturday.