Even more important than what is in the Pickles Review is what isn’t. It makes no proposals to give members a bigger say in the running of their own party – whether by giving them a greater role in candidate selection, policy formation or party conference. This would have been wide of its remit, which is restricted to last June’s election result. The review would not have been given to anyone who would have attempted it. Sir Eric is a former Party Chairman and could be trusted not to rock the boat. Its introduction suggests that Patrick McLoughlin was involved in the review’s conclusions as well as its commission. This will spark questions about its independence.
It follows that, as Labour membership soars above 500,000, and as Conservative membership threatens to fall out of five figures altogether, Sir Eric’s review does not address how to recreate a mass membership party. Party members, Tory voters, what is best called the conservative interest and the British people as a whole urgently need one – if, that is, the country is to avoid lapsing sooner or later into becoming the Venezuela of the north Atlantic.
However, this does not mean that the review has no merit: far from it. Mark Wallace set twelve tests for it in the wake of his penetrating report on the failure of the Party machine last June. One of them fell outside Sir Eric’s remit – namely, the appointment of a new Party Chairman. It would have been surprising under the circumstances had he attempted it. A second, the election of members of the Party Board, was also beyond the range of what he was appointed to consider. A third is side-stepped: although his report deals with candidates in some detail, it side-steps the greater democratic input into selection that we recommended.
But to some degree or other, Sir Eric takes the other nine on board – amidst no fewer than 126 recommendations of his own. He comes out strongly for re-establishing a Party youth movement; founding a Mark Clarkeless (presumably) Team 2020 for target seats; local agents and campaign managers wherever possible, and professional development for staff. His proposal for a ten year outreach programme to ethnic minority voters shows that he agrees with our view that CCHQ has become too focused on the short-term rather than the long.
These voters are stressed to the apparent exclusion of other interests – such as business people, academics, lawyers – but they are an important slice of the whole, and the proposal is a bit of a start. Sir Eric floats a new Swinton College, though with a stress on training rather than ideas. We want CCHQ to become a centre for supporting Conservative campaigning, not micro-managing it. There are some positive suggestions on this front, including pledges of better listening, more local input, and an improved literature system. None the less, all this will be impossible without protected money and a transformed culture.
Which takes us back to where we started. This review places a big responsibility on the shoulders of the Board. It cannot simply accept Sir Eric’s recommendations…only then to quietly bury them away, or to fold when the Party leader demands that everything else is stripped bare of resources for target seats. Without that greater democratic input, and the formal ring-fencing of money through CCHQ reform, it is very hard to see how Sir Eric’s programme can be driven through.
We wrote earlier that he could be trusted by Theresa May and Patrick McLoughlin not to rock the boat. But he is not merely a former Party Chairman; he is also a long-time activist – which not all other holders of the post have invariably been – who worked his way from being a member through the Young Conservatives to local government to Parliament. In short, Sir Eric is One of Us. And though he won’t rock the boat, he is not averse to giving it a nudge. The most startling element of his review is its one big dive outside the workings of the Tory machine: he wants the leader’s powers to draw up the manifesto to be reined in.
Party members and Conservative MPs should think on from where Sir Eric stops – maybe (just maybe) gesturing silently towards the future as he completes his report, signs it, and walks away, task completed. If the leader shouldn’t have complete control of the manifesto, why should she or he have complete control of the machine? Isn’t that precisely the case for electing more members of the Board, including the Chairman, that Sir Eric studiously avoids making?
And if there’s a case for more Party democracy here, why not elsewhere, too – in candidate selection, policy-making, conference debate? With a rampant far left Labour leadership, an ageing Tory membership and the challenge of Brexit, these questions are no longer academic – if they ever were. Exit Sir Eric; enter, perhaps, Robert Halfon – a Party Deputy Chairman under David Cameron and a champion, on this site last week, of the kind of reform which Sir Eric was not allowed to consider, but cannot be avoided for very much longer. The Pickles Report is a start. But we need a Halfon review to boldly go where no CCHQ-approved review has gone before.