Last Saturday, the Conservative Party’s National Convention met to discuss a series of proposed changes to the Party’s Constitution. Rob Semple, the Convention’s Chairman, explained to members by email in advance that “these are very much draft proposals and that at this stage we are consulting to see which changes could find favour with the Electoral College”.
It’s not surprising that some kind of revision of the fundamental rules of the Party is underway. There has been a great deal of inquiry and soul-searching since the election, including this site’s investigation into the issues with the Conservative Party’s ‘rusty machine’. As Sir Eric Pickles wrote in the foreword to the Party’s own election review:
‘…our Party is in a mood to address the defects and deficiencies of our electoral machine, building on its strengths and adapting to the new. We can come out of this process stronger and better, but we will need to be brave, radical and modern in our reforms.’
That’s a sentiment which ConservativeHome shares – and we have put forward our own proposals for “brave, radical and modern” reforms, several of which were incorporated by Pickles into his recommendations.
Given the widespread demand, at grassroots level, in Parliament, and in the Conservative Party’s own official review for drastic change, it’s perhaps surprising that Semple’s description of his committee’s proposed constitutional changes is mild at the most:
‘A great many of the proposals are small suggestions to bring us into the 21st Century, given that the Constitution was written when, for example, email and the internet were little used and that we now have nearly 20 years experience of “road testing” the rules. Most of the suggestions are actually to address the points that our activists have raised in recent years.’
I’m told that the official presentation of the proposals at the Convention meeting was similarly unambitious. One person in the room tells me “they [were] pitching against anything radical” which “got people upset as the room wants radical change”. The Convention, remember, is largely composed of officers of local associations – it isn’t a naturally insurrectionary body, so it’s notable that even that audience felt what was being proposed was insufficient to the task.
In the interests of transparency, given that the Constitution of the Conservative Party is relevant to all Party members, ConservativeHome today exclusively publishes the proposed new constitution, along with a comparison to the old constitution and the Convention’s own explanatory notes on the proposed changes. The PDF can be read and downloaded here.
As anyone who has clicked on that link can see, many of the proposals are indeed “small”, as Semple wrote. A lot of them simply introduce more modern language (removing the assumption that an MP is a “he”, for example), or update organisational terminology to reflect the current Party structure (such as removing references to “constituency associations”, given the advent of Multi-Constituency Associations).
But in among the mass of fiddly alterations, there are some important changes. I’ve picked out a few of the most notable, and compared them to the proposals put forward by Pickles in his official review and by this site in our investigation
Only an optional youth wing
The Pickles Review recommended that “The Conservative Party must have a vibrant youth wing”. ConservativeHome’s proposals also argued that “It is well past time for a youth movement to be re-established”.
Strangely, the proposed constitutional changes do the opposite, making a new youth movement optional, rather than a requirement. Where the old constitution reads (with my emphasis):
‘The Board shall always accord the status of a Recognised Organisation to one organisation which has specific responsibility for representing Party Members under the age of 30′
but the draft proposal only goes so far as to say:
‘The Board may accord the status of a Recognised Organisation to one organisation which has specific responsibility for representing young Party Members.’
That’s a deliberate choice – the accompanying explanatory notes lay out clearly that the new wording ‘Changes requirement to possibility’.
It seems bizarre to water down the rules in this way when the Party’s own official review highlighted the need for their to be a youth organisation, and indeed when the Board recently considered competing proposals for how to re-found one. It also raises the questions of whether the Pickles review is really being followed, and whose job it is to drive through its recommendations. Oddly, the issue wasn’t raised at all at Saturday’s Convention meeting.
Eagle-eyed readers will notice the new form of words also removes the rule that the youth movement involves Party Members ‘under the age of 30’. Ever since the Elliott Johnson scandal there have been justified questions about whether such a group can or should have an age range as broad as 18-30, so this question was deferred to the Convention. I gather that the meeting voted by 54 per cent to look at different age rules, and charged James Pearson, the Convention’s Vice President, to investigate.
Candidate selections – yet more centralisation
In the proposed new constitution, a whole chunk of the rules on candidate selection is simply deleted. This deleted section (from 15.1.1 to 15.2.5 in the document) sets out how an Association should go about selecting a Parliamentary candidate – it includes: the composition of a local selection committee; the rule that that committee should produce a longlist which is presented to the Association Executive for interview; and that the Executive must then shortlist ‘not less than two candidates for consideration by a General Meeting of the Association’.
In short, the section proposed for deletion is the foundation of the normal, local and democratic selection process – the very process which many members value dearly and which was ridden roughshod over in the last General Election, with disastrous results.
As ConservativeHome has argued since May, those mistakes must not be repeated, and a proper commitment to the principle of local, democratic candidate selection must be made. Deleting even the current statement of the rules from the constitution certainly does not do that. Worse, the replacement for these rules is a catch-all clause which would give total control of selection rules to the Candidates Committee:
‘The selection of all candidates, including Parliamentary, Police Commissioners, Elected Mayors and local government candidates shall follow a process in accordance with rules and guidance published from time to time by the Committee on Candidates of the Board of the Party’
This is the very committee which chose and then oversaw the hugely damaging over-centralisation of candidate selection during the General Election. For candidates and Party members still upset and angry about what went on, the news that the official response is to further centralise even greater powers, and remove even the theoretical commitment to Associations controlling selections, will be distinctly unwelcome.
Notably, the rules for reselecting sitting MPs are an exception – they remain enshrined in the constitution. This suggests that the Party believes there is some value in stating selection rules in the document, and that doing so offers some protection for such rules. So why has it removed the rules protecting the rights of Associations and members, while keeping in those apparently designed to reassure sitting MPs?
Beyond this, the Pickles proposals on strengthening support for candidates, and on requiring early selections, don’t get a look in – though they could of course be introduced by the newly all-powerful Candidates Committee at a later date
Nobody is going to forget the 2017 manifesto in a hurry, sadly. The Pickles Review and ConservativeHome both made recommendations to widen involvement in writing future such documents – Sir Eric suggested a formal role for the Conservative Policy Forum, and a formal Manifesto Committee of the Party including senior Cabinet/Shadow Cabinet figures; this site urged a new rule requiring the 1922 Committee to be involved in manifesto production.
One of the few Pickles proposals incorporated in this draft constitution is his support for including the CPF in the manifesto. The document adds to the CPF’s ‘principal functions’ the responsibility:
‘…to advise the Leader and the Board of any policy ideas and initiatives so formulated and developed, especially in relation to the drafting and preparation of election manifestos’
Similarly, the role of the Party Leader is redefined to include:
‘The Leader shall determine the political direction of the Party having regard to the views of Party Members and in particular the Conservative Policy Forum.’
These are, of course, mainly presentational changes. There’s no requirement for anyone to listen to members, there’s no creation of the Manifesto Committee which Pickles advised, nor is there any formal role for the ’22 as we suggested.
Out of step
In summary, the draft constitution is strangely out of step with what the Party is supposed to be doing in response to the election campaign. Many of Pickles’s 126 recommendations don’t necessarily require writing into the constitution, but some of them could be – and very few indeed actually are.
At the same time, just as most people have belatedly realised that the Conservative Party must have a youth movement, the Party apparently intends to make one optional rather than required – actively moving in the wrong direction.
And on candidate selection – an issue where over-centralisation severely damaged trust in the democratic and meritocratic principles of our Party – the draft constitution proposes to centralise further and formally strip members and Associations of even the few guaranteed rights they had left.
Revisiting the Conservative Party’s constitution ought to be an opportunity to revitalise its institutions, embed some fundamental operating principles, and in so doing restore a bit of trust between the centre and the membership. On that measure, this draft badly misses that opportunity.
It’s important to note that this is not yet a done deal. The Convention is reviewing the proposals, and has the power to review, change, or reject them – so do get in touch with your local Association chairman and Area officers to raise any concerns you might have about the above.