Despite its very name implying an inherent philosophical preference for maintaining the status quo, the Conservative Party has, during its long existence, proved itself quite adept at altering its structures to meet the challenge of changing social circumstances and thereby maximised the potential for electoral success.
The most important of these ‘updates’ occurred in the aftermath of the Second World War and the Labour landslide victory in the 1945 General Election, when the then Party Chairman Lord Woolton transformed the organisation and created a structure that remained in place until the late 1990s. Crucial innovations included the creation of a youth wing, the Young Conservatives, to involve young people, and a policy consultation programme, the Conservative Political Centre, engaging the politically conscious. Since Woolton there have been regular modernisations of the various elements in the Conservative movement. The Maxwell-Fyfe reforms prevented candidates from buying a seat by limiting the amount of money they were able to give to their local constituency Associations.
In the early 1970s Lord Chelmer headed a review committee considering how the non-parliamentary elements of the Party could be made more democratic. In the early 1990s the Fowler and Feldman reforms introduced changes to both the professional and voluntary wings of the ‘Party’. The fact that there were two sets of reforms to distinctly different organisations illustrated the fractured nature of the Conservative family.
These periodic reforms failed to satisfy the long-standing demand from grassroots members that they have a greater say in the running of the Party. In the late 1960s a group of London Young Conservatives published a pamphlet called ‘Set the Party Free’ which called for greater accountability to the membership. Many of its figures went on to form the Charter Movement,
the long-standing advocate of party members having a greater say in the internal running of the Party. In recent years the Campaign for Conservative Democracy has come to the fore in championing the cause of internal democracy within the Conservative Party.
The demand for democracy was given impetus by the increased agitation in the early 1990s from ordinary rank and file members who felt that their views were being dis-enfranchised, especially on the issue of the European policy being pursued by Prime Minister John Major. Any fundamental reform was staved off by the survival of the Conservative government until 1997, since no governing party, especially a weak one, could afford the luxury of exhaustive internal navel gazing.
The defeat in May 1997 provided the space for a thorough re-examination of the way in which the Conservative family of voluntary activists, paid professionals and elected politician orderedtheir affairs.
Senior figures had heightened the expectation of reforms after a General Election and the reformist zeal of the candidates was a salient issue in the 1997 Leadership contest. Indeed, eventual winner William Hague placed a reform of the way the party does business as a central plank of his manifesto. Hague’s call for a ‘Fresh Start’ meant there could be no ambiguity about the far-reaching designs of the reforms. William Hague forthrightly declared that never again shall the party be run a by small clique, and the stated aim became the creation of the most effective volunteer political movement possible.
William Hague’s six principles for reform of the Conservative Party. In July 1997 William Hague spelt out the six principles on which reform of the structure of the Conservative Party would be based. These principles - Unity; Democracy; Involvement; Decentralisation; Integrity; and Openness - provide yardsticks by which the progress and success of the Conservative Party reform process must be judged.
Unity. ‘The historic division between our parliamentary party, our voluntary party and Central Office will become a thing of the past. A single Governing Board working under a single constitution will manage the whole party. And a majority of the Board will be chosen by Party members. Never again will your voice go unheard.’
Yes, an identifiable Conservative Party now exists, but that is largely a legal nicety. What exists on paper has still to be made an operational reality. There are, to illustrate, still a number of problems with the new ‘unified’ organisation.
The goal of ‘One Party’ has not been achieved when some sections of the Party are allowed to conduct their affairs independent of input from other sections. For example, you have a National Convention consisting of volunteers and in which MPs take little interest, while the Parliamentary Party’s 1922 Committee consists entirely of MPs. The only body bringing together elected councillors, MPs, MEPs, voluntary members and professional staff is the Party Board. But, even that is far from perfect. The new assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are not represented, and some members are there by appointment. This two-tier system must be replaced by the automatic entitlement of various office-holders, the Leader of the MEPs for one, to be present, together with a majority of the Board directly elected by Party members.
There is a need for greater integration and collaboration between members and elected politicians, especially over the matter of party policy formation.
Take also the case of the ‘phantom’ National Convention Executive. A body referred to in the new constitution and which has been given responsibility for administering the arrangements for the meeting of the National Convention. The only problem with this is that the "National Convention Executive" does not exist. National Convention Chairman Robin Hodgson confirmed this at the last meeting of ... the Convention! It was dreamed about before the Party's Constitution existed, and now we will have to have a rule change to bring it into being.
Another concern is that any change to the Party constitution can only be brought about through the discredited Electoral College process, which gives separate votes to MPs and to the voluntary section. Therefore it is impossible for ordinary members to change the Party’s constitution without agreement from Westminster MPs, who hold a veto over the Party. The voice of the grassroots will go unheeded if that is the wish of the MPs.
Democracy. ‘Every paid-up member of our party will get a vote in future leadership contests. Members will also be able to vote on the choice of our candidates for Westminster and the European Parliament, and our candidate for the new Mayor of London. The Conservative Party will become the most democratic party in British politics today.’
Yes, the entire London membership has had the opportunity to participate, twice, in the choice of the London Mayoral candidate, and every party member had the opportunity to attend regional hustings to select candidates for the 1999 European Election. That not everybody voted or bothered to attend doesn’t distract from the fact that there was an equality of opportunity to participate, but why did the Party not allow a postal ballot? Southern Region alone has 110,000 members. Of these only 1,500 were present at the final meeting, so 108,500 were dis-enfranchised.
The concern about the election for the London mayoral candidate is that the guidelines on the level of spending permissible, a maximum of £80,000, were not enough to prevent one candidate from employing full time assistance and enabling him to establish a huge advantage over potential rivals. Lord Archer is reported to have spent £1million in the two years prior to the selection process beginning on his campaign. Without the enforcement of a clearly stated date from which spending ‘counts’, as is the case for public elections, then the possibility exists for one candidate to effectively win before the official contest begins. If such a state of affairs is allowed to re-occur, then the likely outcome is that only ‘fat cats’ or those backed by wealthy benefactors will be in a position to meaningfully participate. £80,000 was far too high a figure to be spent on an internal Party election. There are about 38,000 members in London and if a similar amount had been allowed to be spent as an MP can spend in a General Election the figure would have been about £5,000. Perhaps more candidates would have come forward if this had been the case.
In defiance of the spirit of democracy has been the deplorable effort of some MPs to have themselves re-adopted as prospective candidates before rule changes prevented them from facing a genuine challenge. At the National Convention in March 1999 it was decided that votes on the re-selection of MPs should be by secret ballot and the rule which allowed a sitting MP to sit in the meeting whilst a vote by a show of hands was taken was abolished. It is worth noting that a Conservative Government made such intimidation illegal in the Trade Unions. To pre-empt such changes the Chairman of the "1922 Committee" - Sir Archie Hamilton MP wrote to all Conservative MPs saying that if they got their re-selection over before the Conference then it could be done on the old basis with all the intimidation that that involved.
The Party Board subsequently changed the Constitution so all Re-adoption meetings now have to comply with the new rules. Progress, however, came at a price and a new rule was introduced enabling ‘a sitting Member of Parliament not securing the assent of the Executive Council to his re-adoption will have the right to request a postal ballot of all the members of the Association’.
There would be no communication to Association members other than the ballot paper and relevant instructions in connection therewith; and any communication by the sitting MP (on no more than a single A4 sheet of paper).
The effect of all this is that if the sitting MP loses the support of his Executive Council he can then appeal to the entire membership of his Association, but the membership are not allowed to be told why he has lost the support of his Executive or even that he has lost its support. This is ridiculous and undemocratic and bears all the hallmarks of the Executive of the 1922 Committee. If this procedure is to be adopted then another sheet of A4 paper should also be sent out listing out the reasons why the MP has lost the support of his Executive Council.
One way in which internal democracy would be substantially advanced is to allow the membership to vote directly for the most senior positions in the Party, as is the case in the Liberal Democrat Party. Equally important is that this choice must not be from a pool of pre-determined options. It is imperative, also, that a democratic political organisation allows the opportunity for participants to chose the Party Chairman and other senior figures such as the Party Treasurer. Furthermore, the Party Leadership can’t claim to be giving a greater say to members when the appointment of Party Vice-Chairmanships is done without consulting them.
A democratic culture wouldn’t place extra requirements on candidates. For example, nominations to stand for the Party Board require ‘not less than twelve members of the Convention of whom eight must be Chairman of Constituency Associations’. Why the need to distinguish between different members of the National Convention? Obviously, some are more equal than others. Why not remove these requirements and simply ask than nominations are required from not less than twelve members of the Convention. That would ensure equality of membership of the Convention.
Involvement. ‘Thanks to national membership, we will be able to communicate directly with all of our members. You will be kept informed of what’s going on in your Party and you will be asked for your views on Party policy. I intend to put the policies upon which we will fight the next election to a vote of all party members.’
Has the concept of national membership been established? The first membership bulletin has been produced and quite good it is too except for two points. The letter, which it suggests should be sent to members, looks and feels as though a committee has produced it. It reads like propaganda grunge. Have any test mailings been done with this letter? If this is the best the
Membership Committee can do, then help us. Other initiatives, such as the national magazine,have yet to create any sense of cohesion amongst the membership. In fact, the magazine failed to be printed and circulated to all members in advance of the 1999 Annual Conference.
Prior to the Hague reforms the Conservative Political Centre successfully organised participation in political discussion, albeit without any direct role in policy-making. The new policy structures were supposed to change this, but the Conservative Policy Forum (CPF) has not been fantastically successful in involving the membership in the policy-making process of the Party. For example, when regional CPF meetings were organised in September 1999 to discuss ‘Agenda for Britain’ it would have been helpful if the members knew about them so that they might attend, or even the Regional Co-ordinators (political) might have been told so they could have communicated this information to members. Such a muddled state of affairs would be ended by the election of the CPF Chairman by the members and the establishment of a National Policy Forum.
To enthuse people to become active in political parties, rather than single issue groups the Conservative Party must involve party members in the formulation of policy and that involvement must be seen to matter. By involving all the Party in the formulation of policy, whilst allowing the Leader and the Shadow Cabinet to determine priorities, we can bring the Party together into a cohesive whole. At the same time involvement brings about Commitment and thus strengthens the
The decline in meetings and the inability of the central bureaucracy to inform members about activities has created a void of communication at all levels of the Party. A solution may involve the use of the Internet for votes, or even telephone-conferencing for regional and national meetings.
Decentralisation. ‘Decision-making in our Party will be handed down to a more streamlined area structure. Our areas will reflect local identities and in many cases follow local government boundaries. Constituency associations will be the building blocks of our new constitution.’
The decentralisation process has resulted in a net loss of power for the grassroots. The Area Executives, elected by Constituency Chairman and Deputy Chairman, remain unrepresentative small bodies consisting of no more than half a dozen people. This was all too apparent when Steve Norris was prevented from going forward as a candidate by a small number of London Mayoral selectors.
The Regions effectively have been shut out of the Party structure. Their only role was in the European elections. They should either be abolished or given real power and influence. Both Regional and Area Officers should be elected on a One Member One Vote basis.
Devolving power to the grassroots has, unfortunately, been negated by the creation of new groups such as Conservative Network which are outside of the official structures. The Network doesn’t have to obey the requirements that members pay a subscription nor be members of the Party itself. While such groupings are permitted to exist without being integrated, then the fear is that they are designed to get around the inconveniences of democratisation. So long as Conservative Central Office operates pet projects such as the Network, then the claim that the party has adopted democracy is all propaganda.
Integrity. ‘We will establish a tough disciplinary and ethics committee. Never again will we allow the behaviour of a single individual or group of individuals to blacken the good name of the whole Conservative Party. Thanks to our reforms our Party will have the powers it needs to protect its reputation.’
These words are fine sentiments but the Ethics committee only held its first meeting very recently. That means either Conservative Party members are in the main saints - something very unlikely in a political party - or that there is a reluctance to bring wayward members to account. The committee must hold regular meetings, if only to review the situation and give thought to future activities. It has got to be pro-active and less reliance on referrals. Furthermore, it has got to be ‘open’ about its deliberations and the criteria for its decisions.
The five-year suspension of Jeffrey Archer’s party membership demonstrates that the committee is at least prepared to act, but wouldn’t the Archer fiasco have been avoided if it had been more pro-active. Maybe if the advisor on candidates was answerable to the Party at large, then some of the obvious concerns about Archer could have been dealt with earlier. Perhaps a fondness for those infamous Krug and Shepherd’s Pie gatherings prevented those with the power to do so stopping him being a contender in the first place.
There is also unrest about the expulsion of a number of former MPs after they publicly supported the breakaway Pro-European Conservatives in the 1999 European Parliament Elections. If persons are to be expelled then there must be a procedure that at some juncture involves consideration by people democratically accountable and the possibility of appeal against their decision.
There has been much unwelcome publicity surrounding the Treasurer Michael Ashcroft. Yet, he remains in position. The suspicion, therefore, arises that he is safe because the Party is dependent upon his financial contribution. There should be a "Chinese Wall" between those giving substantial donations to the Party and those who determine how the funds raised are spent.
Openness. ‘I am determined to ensure that there is public confidence in the funding of at least one of Britain’s major political parties. Therefore, following my speech on party reform in July, the Conservative Party will disclose all donations it receives over £5,000 and will no longer accept foreign money.’
The aim of openness quite simply hasn’t been achieved. Previously you could collect a copy of the Party accounts at the Annual Conference, but now the powers that be are slow at publishing the Balance Sheet and Accounts. Discussion of the accounts at the March 1999 National Convention didn’t take place because they were not distributed to Constituency Chairmen. The reason put forward for this was that the cost of printing was said to be prohibitively high at £10,000. Why did they not put them on the Internet? At least this year the accounts have been put on the internal "Extranet".
The scrapping of the Conservative Board of Finance in March 1999 removed the only body where elected volunteers had any say, however minimal, in the Party’s finances. It was replaced by Regional ‘Income Generation and Marketing Boards’ which report to the ‘National Board of Income Generation and Marketing, which in turn reports to the Board of Treasurers, of whom all are appointed by the Party Leader.
Take the matter of quota payments. A report showing the Quota position for each Constituency would have made more sense if it had provided totals by region as well as nationally. It would be more meaningful if a distinction was made between cash payments and Quota credits (credits for interest free loans). This might then raise the question why, as we are "One Party" many Constituencies are sitting on substantial funds when the Party is desperate for funds. The interest free loan scheme was started in 1980 by the Beaconsfield Association as a way in which Constituencies with temporary surplus funds could use them for the Party's benefit. Many of these Surplus funds now appear to be permanent! Could it be that until there is democratic accountability for the use of funds given to Central Office money will remain in the Constituencies?
External measures will force change upon the Party in how it organises its financial affairs. The Labour Government’s proposals for legislation on "The Funding of Political Parties in the United Kingdom" requires a registered party to have a registered Treasurer. The registered Treasurer of a party will be responsible not just for the reporting of disclosable donations, but also the keeping of the party's accounts and compliance with the requirements on election expenditure. The registered Treasurer will be under a duty to ensure that proper accounting records are kept in respect of the whole party (clause 36) and will be required to prepare an annual statement of accounts in respect of the party (clause 37). There are detailed requirements on the disclosure of donations and on the control of election expenditure, not only at National level but also at constituency level. A report on donations has to be made quarterly and in a General Election campaign, weekly.
What are the ramifications of all this for the Conservative Party? First of all it is quite clear that the responsibilities of the Treasurer are now quite onerous and the Treasurer is accountable to the Electoral Commission. What is missing is democratic accountability. The Treasurer should be an elected position. Fund-raisers will have to report to the Treasurer. Secondly the Regional structure of the Party will have to be re-examined. There should be Elected Regional Treasurers. Thirdly every Constituency Association should have an elected Treasurer.
Why doesn’t the Party introduce the recommendations of the Neil Report before the others? Thus beginning the process of restoring public faith in the probity of Conservative Party finances.
Verdict on the six principles of the Fresh Future reform. There is no doubting that the process of reform has been begun, but there remains a lot still to do to ensure that the Conservative Party is the most democratic in the United Kingdom. In all of the six areas identified by William Hague, the reality has not yet matched the intention. The Party is not organisationally cohesive, nor properly involving the membership in its management. It continues to be secretive about its financing, remains enthralled to a small band of generous financial backers, and continues to allow the behaviour of individuals to blacken its public reputation. In addition, far too much arbitrary decision-making by Conservative Central Office illustrates that some still believe the Conservative Party to be their plaything, which they can run without consulting the wider membership.
Alongside the necessary structural change there has to be a revolution in attitudes amongst the Party’s elite. What the dinosaurs in the Party need to understand is that unless the culture of the Party changes it has not got a hope of winning the next General Election. Democracy benefits the whole Party. A lack of it is of benefit only to that small group of people that wish to hold on to power whatever the cost to the Party. While rules are changed on whim, while meetings are poorly notified and while timings and location are inconvenient for ordinary members, then the suspicion is that a small elite are still operating the Party as a private club. The Fresh Future isn’t simply a technical exercise, but must entail a sea change in the culture of those at the highest echelons of the Party.
Many excuses have been made for voter apathy, but the truth of the matter is that the British people have become increasingly disillusioned with their politicians. Both Labour and Conservative Parties are failing in the first instance to connect with their members, and both Parties are inherently undemocratic. The first Party to plug this democratic deficit will reap the benefit. The Conservative Party can be that Party.
In his actions, as well as words, William Hague must demonstrate that he remains determined to make the Conservative Party a fully-participatory democracy with the membership having a meaningful say in the running of the organisation to which they voluntarily give much time and money. Is that too much to expect?