The Conservative Party Chairman, Greg Hands, is “very worried” that so few women are being selected as Conservative candidates for the next general election, and is “looking at different ways we can do something about it”:
“I think the most likely reason is that people have been selecting more locally, and I think we need to make sure there are more women councillors in this country, more women involved at all levels of the Conservative Party, right the way through the whole organisation, the whole structure, the whole elected part of the party.”
Hands, in post since February, refused to give a party membership figure. He thinks the age of mass membership of political parties has ended, sees no immediate way it can be revived, but does not exclude a resurgence in the future.
He invited ConHome readers to send in suggestions to the Constitutional Review Committee which he has convened to look at how the party is run.
At the end of the interview Hands revealed that although Carol Vorderman has taken down 22 tweets and a video in which she accused him of corruption, she has yet to apologise to him.
ConHome: “What’s the current membership figure?”
Hands: “We don’t give out a current membership figure, but I think you reported earlier this week that the last published figure was something like 124,000. I can tell you it’s well in excess of that last figure.”
ConHome: “Why don’t you give out a published membership figure?”
Hands: “Because it kind of creates media stories about short-term rises and falls in membership, which can sometimes be related to operational things, rather than the affection in which the party is held at any given time.”
ConHome: “Can you explain why Brandon Lewis did give out the membership figure in 2018, and Grant Shapps in 2013 and 2014?”
Hands: “The position the party has had in recent years has been to not give a running commentary on membership.”
ConHome: “Any other organisation would declare its membership. If you asked the National Trust they wouldn’t be shy of giving their membership. Can you name any other membership organisation that won’t declare its membership?”
Hands: “Do the other political parties declare their membership?”
ConHome: “According to the House of Commons Library, Labour’s membership in December 2021 was 432,000. But of course it will be said you don’t want to declare it because membership’s fallen.”
Hands: “One of the reasons we don’t declare membership is not to have a running commentary on whether the membership has fallen or risen in reaction to different things.”
ConHome: “Is the party at national level essentially a vehicle for delivering victory in marginal and target seats?”
Hands: “No, I would say it’s bigger than that. We are a national party, the only party that is truly a national party throughout the four nations of the United Kingdom.
“We exist to promote conservatism. We exist to win elections for Conservative candidates right across the board. We exist to help Conservative Councillors get re-elected, Police and Crime Commissioners, Mayors, making sure we do as well as possible in, say, Manchester, as well as holding on to the 80:20 seats.
“But the 80:20 strategy is very important going into next year, that’s the centrepiece of winning next year’s general election.”
ConHome: “What does the party do in the longer term to sustain the vehicle that wins those elections? For example, is there a formal network of Conservative academics?”
Hands: “Oh, gosh, I don’t think there is a formal network of Conservative academics. I think that’s a very good idea.”
ConHome: “Is there a formal network of Conservative students?”
Hands: “A good question. I don’t know beyond the YCs whether there is a formal network of Conservative students.”
ConHome: “Is there a national Conservative business organisation?”
Hands: “There are the Conservative Friends of Small Business, and we have a Business Day coming up at Conference. I don’t think we have a formal Conservative business organisation.”
ConHome: “The Conservative Party retained a million members up until 1990, one in 50 of the adult population, an incredible distribution mechanism for ideas. Is that age now dead, not just for the Conservatives, but for all political parties?”
Hands: “I think that age has ended, but whether it could be revived – I wouldn’t exclude that, I don’t think it’s impossible, but I don’t see immediate cause that we’re going to go back to being a million members.”
ConHome: “Back in 1997 William Hague said he was going to recruit rather a large number of new Conservatives.”
Hands: “I think the answer lies in creating an organisation that is not a one size fits all. Not everybody wants to go out knocking on doors, not everyone wants to do a leaflet run. You may just want to give £50 a year. That’s fine, that helps us.
“So I would say don’t be over-prescriptive.”
ConHome: “Are you the seventh Tory Party Chairman since 2019?”
Hands: “I don’t know the answer to that. I’ve not done a count.”
ConHome: “We think it’s seven. It’s certainly been a very large turnover, hasn’t it?”
Hands: “It may have been. From my perspective, when Rishi asked me to be Chairman in February, I’ve never been more excited about doing a role for the party. I’ve been a party member for 37 years, I’ve been a government minister most of the last 12 years.
“This for me is a destination position. I’m not trying to be Chairman as a way to go on to be Foreign Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer, or even Secretary of State for Culture.”
ConHome: “Do you feel you are Minister for the Today Programme? That is what the Party Chairman used to be known as, but for a while that has not been the case, the post is shared out more broadly among ministers who do the morning round.”
Hands: “It is shared out more broadly. The PM did a whole regional radio round this morning, Richard Holden a broadcast TV round, he’s brilliant at the job, a former CCHQ media guy himself, so I think it’s perfectly fine to share that role out.”
ConHome: “Why is the identity of candidates in parliamentary selections concealed from party members until the final round takes place?”
Hands: “I think that’s always been the case.”
ConHome: “It’s not always been the case. When Paul Goodman was selected for Wycombe in 1999 the whole thing was all over The Bucks Free Press before the final round.”
Hands: “And that was officially released by the party?”
ConHome: “Well it was not officially suppressed. The list was announced by the local association and everyone knew. It’s changed at some point over the past ten or 15 years. The question is why.”
Hands: “OK. Well it definitely pre-dated me. I certainly haven’t changed anything.”
ConHome: “Are you worried about the proportion of women who are being selected?”
Hands: “I am. Very much.”
ConHome: “Why has this happened?”
Hands: “I don’t think there’s a hard and fast reason. We do have some excellent women who have been selected. Just this week Faye Purbrick who was our candidate in the Somerton & Frome byelection, recently Katie Lam in Weald of Kent, Poppy Simister-Thomas in South Norfolk.
“But I remember when I was first elected in 2005, we had 201 MPs, I think fewer than 20 were women and that was described as being progress.
“I thought that was a massive problem for the party, and the situation has continued to improve, but we are nowhere close to there being equality in representation.
“I’ve not wanted to go down the route of anything like all-women shortlists or anything like that, but I am concerned at the number of women being selected and I am looking at different ways we can do something about it.
“It’s a piece of active work at the moment, so I can’t really tell you the details of the different things I’m looking at, but it is an area of concern.
“I think the most likely reason is that people have been selecting more locally, and I think we need to make sure there are more women councillors in this country, more women involved at all levels of the Conservative Party, right the way through the whole organisation, the whole structure, the whole elected part of the party.
“So I think that would be the most likely explanation, but I am actively looking at this.”
ConHome: “Selections have been more local – could it be that men are more dominant at local level?”
Hands: “Well that’s sort of the implication. We don’t have as many female councillors as we’d like to have. Having said that, we’ve had some amazing female councillors become MPs – my next door neighbour Nickie Aiken, for example, one of the best examples of a woman council leader going on to become an MP.
“But it doesn’t happen often enough. It is an area I’m very concerned about. And I totally sign up to the aspiration for the party to be 50:50.”
ConHome: “What’s the Party Conference all about?”
Hands: “Obviously it’s the Prime Minister’s first Party Conference, but equally it could be the last Party Conference before the general election.
“So it is potentially quite a pivotal point in the run-up to the general election. In my view it’s still too early to lay out a comprehensive programme for the full term of a Rishi Sunak government.”
ConHome: “Is his offer primarily about continuity or is it about change?”
Hands: “We will see. I don’t want to preface Rishi’s speech on Wednesday.”
ConHome: “Can you tell us about the Carol Vorderman incident and whether or not she offered you an apology?”
Hands: “It was a serious case of somebody using their celebrity, ability to reach millions of people, basically doing something which is entirely untrue and entirely defamatory.
“I believe in the rough and tumble of politics, but her video had got eight and a half million views, this video saying that Greg Hands is corrupt.
“And I started to get hate mail through the door. I’m not a snowflake, but I just thought ‘enough is enough’, and I took the action I did.
“She’s not repeated the allegations. She’s removed 22 tweets. She’s removed the video. But there has not been an apology, and there really should be an apology.
“What happened was very straightforward. On 7th April 2020 I received an email, an unsolicited email, offering substantial amounts of PPE in China.
“All I did was pass on the email to the right place set up by the Government for offers of PPE, with just six words attached to the email saying please check this out.
“My father died of Covid on 13th April, right at the peak of the pandemic. It was a serious issue that the UK was going to run out of PPE.
“I just sent on the email to the right place. To then be accused of corruption is wholly wrong.”
ConHome: “This Constitutional Review Committee, just tell us about that.”
Hands: “It’s basically reestablishing the committee on the [Conservative Party] Constitution, to make sure the Constitution stays up to date.
“I don’t have a specific agenda. I’m not looking to change any specific thing in the Constitution. It’s just to keep it under review.”
ConHome: “There’s no timetable for it to report? So it could go on for a very long time?”
Hands: “There is no timetable for it to report. I’m very open to ConservativeHome readers sending in suggestions.”
ConHome: “Has it been magicked into existence to keep Peter Cruddas quiet?”
Hands: “I’m not sure it would ever be possible to keep Peter quiet on anything.”