The Trump phenomenon generates mixed emotions among British observers. In a way, it seems alien, an extremely hyped-up version of the “USA! USA!” chant which Brits like to mock on the basis that we find it a bit distasteful – not distasteful to be proud of one’s country, but to show off about it too much. In another, it is quite familiar, the United States is not alone, of course, in having a radical right insurgent whose blunt talking appeals to voters against a backdrop of perhaps more responsible but inevitably more dull mainstream politicians. Large tracts of the Trump script about shaking up the political establishment are interchangeable with many Farage lines, and the pitch to voters as a patriotic character who tells it like it us and doesn’t care if metro-liberals get upset about it is almost identical.
Mirror image trends are underway on the Left, too. The question for the affected political parties on both sides of politics and the Atlantic is: what to do about it?
We start from different situations, of course. In the US, the existence of greater direct democracy allowed the Republicans to include the Tea Party, and now the Trumpeters, rather than encouraging them to split away and found their own party. In the American example, the existence of primaries meant that the Tea Partiers won some victories in pushing their preferred choice of candidates, but it also bound them in to a broader movement, encouraging them to commit their efforts to Republican victories and to accept some moderation of their demands in return for some concessions.
As Matthew Sinclair argued on this site after UKIP’s Euro election victory in 2014, greater use of direct democracy in this country – through proper primaries, for example – might have prevented the split on the right, and could be one route to eventually heal it. The Conservative Party began to experiment in a very limited way with true open primaries, and to a wider extent with open meetings to select candidates. Last summer, when the Feldman review launched, there was even speculation about extending voting rights in candidate selections to registered supporters.
But the rise of Trump (and Corbyn) has cast doubt on those nascent ideas of greater direct democracy. The primary process might have helped the Republican Party to harness and moderate the Tea Party, but that shows no sign of happening with Trump and his supporters. Instead, they look set to take over and secure the presidential nomination. Closer to home, the hard left saw the opportunity in Harriet Harman’s £3 experiment and immigrated to Labour en masse in a very short time – the result is Corbyn, and all the blunders, controversy and general ineffectiveness which he brings with him.
Labour’s experience appears to have frightened Conservative officials off any ideas of extending the selection or leadership election franchise to those paying a small amount, or buying their vote through activism, which some also floated as an idea. Trump is likely to add to the fear about such radical ideas.
As a result, and as Paul writes today, it seems that the Feldman review is set to produce ideas that are more about changing accounting structures and database management than any transformative step to revitalise and rebuild grassroots Conservatism. Announcing the review shortly after the election, the Party Chairman wrote:
“In recent months we have seen staggering online engagement with the Conservative Party: hundreds of thousands of email addresses, countless ‘likes’ on Facebook, over a million people following David Cameron on Twitter. These people are not all members, but they care enough to make a connection – and if we want to thrive in future years we must recognise this change and harness it. Now is the time to ask big, searching questions about how we can keep the Conservative Party as a living, breathing movement; a movement that reflects the times we live in, and engages as many people as we possibly can.”
“Big, searching questions” may have been asked, but no truly big answers have yet been returned. Changes to procedure like centralising the membership database, and making it easier for Associations to federate, can be debated on their own merits – some feel they could help local parties to focus more of their time on recruitment and campaigning – but they aren’t exactly epoch-making. Even relatively modest ideas, like electing the Chairman of the Party Board, which has overwhelming support among members, seem not even to have been considered.
The fear of what might happen if Conservative members were given more power (and what that might mean if there were drastically more members or eligible voters) is not a new feeling in CCHQ, though Trump and Corbyn have no doubt exacerbated it. Any changes to provide for greater internal party democracy should of course be thought through and carefully planned, but the historic approach of slowly taking power away from the members obviously isn’t doing anything to rebuild the “living, breathing movement” Feldman desires.
At the heart of the matter is the need for the Conservative Party leadership to accept that grassroots conservatives can be trusted. It is, after all, happy to trust us to knock on doors, deliver leaflets and raise money for it – it would be odd to entrust such crucial activities to people while simultaneously not trusting them to have a say on the direction of the Party which benefits from them. It is equally odd to argue to the nation that rights and responsibilities go hand in hand, and then refuse to apply the same principle to our own Party.
Nervous avoidance of democratic reform is causing a slow ossification, all in the name of avoiding a sudden crisis. The Tory grassroots are not gun-toting Tea Partiers, and even after a decade of declining membership they remain much more numerous than Farage’s “People’s Army”. Where Labour lost many of its moderates over five years of Miliband, and has always had a sizeable far left penumbra waiting to take over since the 1980s, leaving it vulnerable to a takeover, the Conservative Party has displayed ten years of loyal service to Cameron, despite various trials, and has not forgotten the hard electoral lessons of the 1990s.
When it comes down to it, the average Tory member can be trusted to make careful, practical political decisions – that’s what makes them Tories, rather than socialists. The Party should display more faith in them.