The Conservative leadership candidates are offering more powers to Party members. Others are proposing to remove one that they already have. (The only such right of any importance, some activists would add at once.)
Rishi Sunak promises a monthly members’ survey, opening up CCHQ and campaign managers in all target seats. Liz Truss pledges a professional network agent, a CCHQ Liberal Democrat research unit and more Association selection autonomy.
One of the reasons why Truss has prospered in this leadership campaign is that she has a better feel for what members want, gleaned from her experience as a former Conservative councillor and Association Chairman. This may explain why her programme for activists is more substantial than her rival’s.
We will soon see whether office gives her the time and space to implement it. In the meantime, it may be worth sketching out what is likely to happen as well as what may happen, recognising at the start how much party membership has changed, and not only among the Conservatives.
The last half century or so has seen the continuing decline of political parties as mass movements here in Britain. Not so long ago, membership was an expresssion of status and solidarity: with the labour movement, in Labour’s case; with the established order, in the Tories’.
No longer. Today, being a member of a party is unusual, even eccentric – certainly more ideological. One might have thought that as Conservative activists became more political, so to speak, they would also have become more powerful, at least within the Party – channelling their energies into taking back control of its constitution, workings, and CCHQ.
It hasn’t happened. Why not? I tentatively advance three reasons. First, the Conservatives have never been a democracy. They grew out of Disrael’s creation of a mass party to support Tory MPs. Over a hundred years later, they retain much the same character.
Next, the decline of mass membership has, perhaps unsurprisingly, fortified the centre rather than otherwise. The new constitution approved when William Hague was Tory leader gives it sweeping powers. And events since have seen a power swap.
Until recently, local Tories were able to select their local Parliamentary candidate but not elect the Party leader. The constitution gave them greater scope in leadership elections, but events since have left them with less in candidate selection. Guidance from the centre is more active, information is less available and selection itself is more circumscribed if an election looms.
This takes us towards the third reason why activists have tended to let the centre have its way – revolting only in recent years to oust Theresa May by proxy. Yes, the 1922 Committee Executive and Conservative MPs themselves eventually prised her out. But, no, they were not the original begetters of the move.
As Harry Phibbs has pointed out on this site, Dinah Glover, a senior London activist, had been gathering signatories that spring for special meeting of the National Convention, the most senior body in the voluntary party, to consider a motion of no confidence in May.
On paper, the Convention had no power to remove her. In practice, she would not have survived losing such a vote. The ’22 Executive was unwilling to have its thunder stolen, as it would have seen it, by the National Convention and so, for that and other reasons, it acted and May went.
Contrary to the suggestion of Peter Cruddas’ futile campaign, there is no prospect whatsoever of the Convention acting at this stage to put “Boris on the ballot”. Nor is it clear how it could do so, though our old friend Huge Fee QC is doubtless standing by to suggest ways and means.
Neither is it likely to seek to alter the constitution to seek greater powers for members in removing future Party leaders as well as electing them. This may strike you as curious. After all, very large proportions of the membership, though perhaps not quite as large as Cruddas claims, opposed Johnson’s removal, according to this site’s members’ panel.
This confronts us with my third reason for party member passivity in the face of assertive central power – in effect, that of the leader of the day. In short, activists are willing to go along with the Party as long is as it prepared to go along with them. Which has meant doing so on the great issues of the day. Which in recent years have boiled down to one.
For when push came to shove, Party members got ahead of the Parliamentary Party over Brexit, backing it in greater numbers, and Conservative MPs gradually followed – as did Tory voters as a whole, who shifted in the same direction. Activists may have more limited power over selections. But they knew how to spot and pick Brexiteers.
It may be that the cost of living emergency will shake up the kaleidoscope, and a new cause will emerge among the membership that engages them in the same way that Brexit did. But until or unless that happens a surprising conclusion emerges – surprising, that is, to those who believe that Tory members are a bunch of agitating extremists.
Namely, that Party members are reasonably content with their lot – to raise money, support candidates for local elections, and back their local Conservative MP (if they have one, most of the time). Were this not so, there would have been more Dinah Glovers seeking more emergency meetings of the National Convention.
Yes, majorities in our members’ panel consistently say that the membership should elect the Party Chairman, that at least some members of the Party Board should be directly elected and that the Party’s leadership should be more accountable to members. But no mass campaign has emerged to champion these views. John Strafford ploughs a fairly lonely furrow.
There are two visions of the future. The first sees more of what we have now: in essence, a leadership fixated with short-term needs, usually the requirements of whatever the target seats of the moment are, and the money and resources following. The rest goes hang.
The second is a structure that works better for the medium-term. This would see the election of the Chairman of the Board and at the very least some of its members. They would be more likely to put more of those resources and money into projects which offer less immediate gratification but more future reward.
Such as Conservative networks in civil society: among business, colleges, the armed forces, faith communities, academics, students, and in the local, regional and ethnic media. No consistent resource is put into these and personnel are constantly changing. Meanwhile, the shackles would be taken off candidate selection, as Truss suggests.
No Tory leader I can imagine is likely to give up their power to concentrate the Party’s money on getting them and their colleagues re-elected. Members would have to force their hand through the Convention and other means. Until or unless that happens, we have only ourselves to blame (and I speak as a member myself) if we don’t like what we get.
All the same, I will defend my fellow members stoutly when it comes to this leadership election. We didn’t force the candidates to sign up to the self-destructive terms of some of the TV debates. Nor did we set the timetable.
To be sure, party members have voted for the candidate who has most told them what they want to hear. But is the wider electorate really any different? Surely not. And no-one I know is claiming that it should be disenfranchised.