Patrick Sullivan is the CEO of the Parliament Street think tank, and was Research Director for a US Congressional campaign in 2012. @parlstreet
The Conservative Party still needs to have an internal election – just not the one it was expecting a few months ago.
This July, Theresa May became the first leader of the Conservative Party to have also been its chairman. As such, she has better insight into the workings of the party than any of its previous leaders – and greater appreciation of the role of its grassroots.
It is of no surprise, therefore, that May wanted an open leadership election, where the membership had its say. This sentiment, however, fell as a happy victim to her popularity with her parliamentary colleagues; it is rare for any party leader to have such a mandate from their peers. That confidence has been vindicated by the ease, grace, and tactical guile that May has brought to the premiership.
In stepping down as a leadership candidate, Andrea Leadsom acted in a noble fashion, and put her country first. She was, of course, correct in her reasoning for dropping out of the race: in a situation where over 60 per cent of the parliamentary party had expressed their preference for the leadership of Theresa May, it would have been near impossible for anybody but May to govern effectively.
Looking at the chaos the opposition is in over its leadership, we can see what levels of uncertainty and harm would have been caused if this had happened to the party of government. But the drawback in all this is that ordinary party members have been deprived of their say in directly influencing the party’s future direction. However, this need not necessarily be so. The unique circumstances we find ourselves in might make a leadership election impolitic, but there does remain a way for our new leader to give us an election.
During his recent leadership campaign, Liam Fox was bold enough to raise a radical idea, which has been gaining traction amongst many grassroots activists for some time now: a directly elected Party Chairman. This is a good idea for many reasons, and one that could solve several problems.
It is an inescapable fact that, in the years following David Cameron’s accession to the leadership, party membership fell from over 253,600 in 2005, to approximately 150,000 today. That is a precipitous drop in membership, and is not surprising, considering the lack of appreciation felt by rank and file members.
Since Theresa May has become Prime Minister, our membership has started to rise again. But we do not want this to be a flash in the pan. We need to find a way to empower those new or returning members, as well as rewarding our older members.
It has been a whole decade since party members were last directly consulted on the direction the party should take, when David Cameron asked party members to vote on his ‘Built to Last’ document. This is not to denigrate the hard work of organisations such as the Conservative Policy Forum, or the more recent party review – but as the numbers quite clearly show, those things are not enough. An active and enthusiastic membership is a boon for any party leader, but to achieve that, you have to engage that membership first.
As a past member of the National Conservative Convention, and a long-standing party activist, I am more than aware of the distance many associations and activists can feel from Conservative Central Office: they feel as though they are perceived as leafleting fodder during election time, and little else. This is especially true amongst younger members, and recent history has seemed to justify that perception. It is also common for a large number of associations to have an antagonistic view of Central Office, which they feel is there to impose things upon them, with little or no knowledge of the situation on the ground.
The current National Convention and Party Board structure has served the party well, but it still creates too much separation between the party membership and its machinery. An elected Party Chairman would give members a direct say in how the party is run, and give them someone who is accountable to them. Seasoned activists and local councillors should also be able to stand for this position, as well as MPs and peers – allowing activists the widest possible choice.
I understand that such a move on the part of any leader has its risks: that leader would, of course, be giving up a certain amount of control, and might sometimes end up with a Chairman not of their choosing. Those risks are, however, more than countered by the positives that a motivated activist base would bring – one feeling it enjoyed its leader’s faith and respect.
An elected Party Chairman would also help to increase the party’s distinct institutional identity and thinking, providing more continuity between different leaderships. Thus, it would also help to foster a more long-term approach towards cultivating the Conservative vote in the cities, the North, and so on.
The objective of moving towards an elected Party Chairman should be announced as soon as possible. As to the practicalities of bringing about such a change, it would need some careful implementation and embedding. I can think of no one who could better shepherd this future than the new Party Chairman, Patrick McLoughlin. From his earliest political outings challenging the far left in the National Union of Mineworkers, he has shown himself to be unafraid of entrenched interests. He came up through the grassroots and, at least to my anecdotal knowledge, his appointment was greeted with much cheer by party activists, who felt he could be their voice.
In her remarks after having become party leader, Theresa May spoke about giving people more control over their lives. Surely, it would be a great start if she began by giving members a greater say over their party, through the opportunity to elect our Party Chairman.