Max Bladen-Clark is a Conservative Party member and Software Engineer living in Cheshire.
“I am a Conservative to preserve all that is good in our constitution, a Radical to remove all that is bad.” said Disraeli almost two centuries ago. That is as true today as it was then, and as true for our party’s constitution as it is for our country’s.
I’m only able to quote a fellow Tory from so long ago because the Conservative Party has endured so long. It has done this by having the agility to adapt to changing attitudes while having the strength to adopt policies that, while being firmly in the national interest, risk short-term unpopularity. This centuries-old recipe for success has been damaged by the role of party members in selecting the party leader. It would be further placed in peril by members directly deciding on the party’s policy platform – as suggested by the recently launched Conservative Democratic Organisation.
In our national constitution, the qualification for someone assuming the role of Prime Minister is a simple one: can they command the confidence of the House of Commons? The test for remaining Prime Minister is equally as simple: can they maintain that confidence? The survival of a government thus relies on the Prime Minister’s supporters in the House of Commons, having a certain amount of self-interest.
They must ask themselves: is the PM a help or a hindrance when it comes to their chances of getting re-elected? Until recently, a nearly identical test to that which applies to Prime Ministers applied to the role of Leader of the Conservative Party. Who could best command and maintain the confidence of Conservative MPs? Who is going to put – or keep – the party in power?
The stated mission of the recently launched Conservative Democratic Organisation is “to strengthen party democracy” and to “[ensure] the Conservative Party is representative of the membership”. It hopes to do this by “retaining and reinforcing the party membership’s democratic right to choose the party leader”.
This sounds like an attractive proposition. If the Conservative Party wants to be seen as one of the staunchest defenders of democracy, both at home and overseas, why shouldn’t the party itself be “more democratic”?
The answer to that depends on your view of the party’s purpose. Making the party more democratic makes sense if you think a party’s purpose is to be an authentic, public voice for its members and their views. If this is the case, then the party should select its leader based on whether they promise what the broader party membership wants to see. If this is the case, the CDO’s proposals may be the way forward for our party.
However, I would argue that the purpose of the Conservative Party is to win elections, form a government, and deliver calmly and carefully considered Tory policies for the benefit of the nation. It is not merely to be a voice “making the argument” for conservative ideals, but to show by action that these are what can change Britain for the better.
If this is the case; then the party should select its leader on their ability to actually deliver policies and win elections. To deliver and to change the country for the better, a leader needs to be able to get legislation through parliament. To do this they need to command the confidence of MPs.
The relatively recent ‘innovation’ of the members’ ballot in leadership elections has broken the intrinsic link between the leader’s ability to win in parliament and win in the leadership vote. It has shifted the focus of ambitious MPs from building the skills that help them deliver legislation through parliament, to building support among the party faithful. The CDO’s proposals would only exacerbate this shift.
It may lead to a party leadership more precisely aligned with the views of the membership and it will certainly lead to ambitious MPs attending more association dinners. However, it will also lead to a party much less able to deliver legislation, much less able to win elections, and ultimately less Conservative policies enacted in government.
It would lead the party down the path of factional battles aimed at taking control of its internal bodies, shift focus to what happens to the party instead of what happens to the country, and risk bringing to the Conservative Party all the internal strife that Labour suffered under Corbynism. Their proposals are a manifesto for permanent opposition.
The proper place for democracy in our party is where it has always been, in selecting our candidates and in deciding how we run our local associations and local campaigns.
Maybe these parts of Tory party democracy should be strengthened, such as by giving associations more of a role in the candidate assessment and the candidate list generally. Nevertheless, whatever we change in our party constitution, if we change anything, we must be careful only to remove what is bad, and ensure we preserve all that is good.