TRIGGER warning! What you are about to read may cause you offence, distress, dangerously hysterical laughter or perhaps all three. You may want to have your comfort dog within stroking distance, go to your safe space or have sedatives to hand. OK, are you ready? I am a member of the Conservative Party and I have no plans to leave. If you’ve survived that, the rest of this article should be easy.
On Saturday, I attended the inaugural conference of the Conservative Democratic Organisation, a body set up by Tory peer Lord Cruddas to campaign for changes within the party. In particular, the CDO wants to see the selection of parliamentary candidates largely taken away from Conservative Campaign HQ (CCHQ) and given back to members, with members also guaranteed a say in the party leadership election as well as on policy.
The media were expecting the conference to be a Bring Back Boris jamboree. There was certainly a lot of support for the former prime minister in the Bournemouth conference room. In his introductory letter to attendees, Lord Cruddas complained that the removal of Boris Johnson was ‘a coup . . . by our own Parliamentary Party’.
While Johnson put in a brief, anodyne, recorded video appearance, there was relatively little mention of him during the day. Far more ire was directed at failure of the Conservative government to be conservative. Andrea Jenkyns said when she looked at some her fellow Tory MPs she thought: ‘You belong in the Lib Dems’. Lord (Stewart) Jackson, former MP for Peterborough, stated that some Conservative MPs were using the party as ‘a flag of convenience’ solely to advance their careers. Jacob Rees-Mogg said it was the MPs who messed up the party leadership election, not the members, and bemoaned the Government’s timidity in not removing EU rules such as the Working Time Directive. Other speakers complained of the chilling implications of renewed efforts to bring in legislation on conversion therapy, the failure to tackle mass immigration and wokeism.
How has the Conservative Party become so far removed from its members? Much of the blame was laid at the door of changes to the party’s constitution in 1998. This resulted in local associations losing most of their control in the selection of parliamentary candidates. Article 17 of the constitution was introduced, which states the party board (headed by the party chairman, who is appointed by the party leader) can ‘do anything which in its opinion relates to the management and administration of the party’. This catch-all clause in effect makes the rest of the constitution irrelevant and has allowed undemocratic practices such as the imposition of parliamentary candidates. In a safe Tory constituency in 2019, party members were not told the names of candidates to be interviewed until they turned up to the selection meeting, denying them the opportunities to do any research on them but handy for CCHQ in trying to stitch up the process for their favourite.
The policy problems with the Conservative Party are thus a symptom of no input from party members. This bodes ill for those parties who aspire to replace the Tories. Take the experience of one speaker at the conference, Michelle Ballantyne, a former Tory member of the Scottish Parliament. She left the Conservative Party, having resigned when Conservative MSPs voted in favour of Covid restrictions including closing the border between Scotland and England. Mrs Ballantyne led the Reform Party in Scotland but stood down after about a year, telling the conference that Reform was not democratic in the way it operated. Therein lies the principal challenge for those parties who wish to replace the Tories: will they really be mass movements for conservative-minded people or vanity projects for their founders?
You may have decided that the Conservative Party is broken beyond repair and mock my tilting at windmills. Perhaps you’re right. Efforts to make the party accountable to its members will face opposition from those who hold the levers of power. Although Paul Holmes MP, deputy party chairman, told delegates that the CDO would be listened to, there was nothing of substance offered. Some will be outright in their opposition; on the day of the conference, Tobias Ellwood MP wrote that ‘a drag anchor of a right-wing caucus is in our ranks’ and he would consider those attending the CDO conference to be part of that weight. But what Mr Ellwood and his ilk need to recognise is that the Conservative Party is ceasing to be a mass-membership organisation. Its membership has fallen from about 500,000 at the start of the millennium to roughly 170,000 now. Treat conservatives as a nuisance to be controlled and they will up sticks and leave. I may find myself on the losing side of this battle to take back control from the Tory apparatchiks, but it’s a battle worth fighting.