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Members of the Conservative Party react during a party leadership hustings in Darlington, UK, on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022. The job of picking the ruling Conservative Party leader and British prime minister falls to about 175,000 grassroots Tory party members. Photographer: Joanne Coates/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Who gets to choose?

Who gets to choose?

Members of the Conservative Party react during a party leadership hustings in Darlington, UK, on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022. The job of picking the ruling Conservative Party leader and British prime minister falls to about 175,000 grassroots Tory party members. Photographer: Joanne Coates/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Conservative Party is running the election of the next prime minister in secret, with next to nothing revealed about its membership – which includes foreign nationals and underage voters – or what security checks are in place. Tortoise is calling for more transparency

Next month Conservative Party members will choose the UK’s next prime minister. By 5 September they will have cast perhaps 160,000 ballots but the party reveals nothing else about them – and, as far as we can tell, makes little effort to vet new members. 

We have registered as new Tory members:

  • a pet tortoise
  • two foreign nationals
  • a fictional Margaret Roberts (Margaret Thatcher’s maiden name)

A £25 membership fee was accepted in each case, a membership number issued and all have been invited to introductory meetings and election hustings. To be clear, these new ‘members’ will not be able to vote in this leadership contest, as they needed to have registered three months before the ballot closes on 2 September.  

Tortoise has sought legal advice and sent a letter to the Conservative Party seeking to address three issues:

  • the integrity and security of the leadership election given there is no public assurance of independent oversight of compliance with party rules or validation of voters;
  • the bizarre anomalies by which under-age voters and non-UK citizens can vote for the next prime minister but not for an MP; and
  • the public interest in knowing more about the people who have given the new prime minister her or his mandate.

The Conservative Party is running the election of the prime minister and, according to a senior former national security official, it is not equipped for an exercise of this importance: “Corporate organisations and institutions like the Conservative Party are not designed to have ballots of this gravity, securely,” he said, adding that the party’s assurances of a clean vote aren’t remotely comparable to those provided in national elections.

The Conservative Party does not reveal any details of who votes in the leadership election or what efforts it makes to ensure those voters are who they say they are. It does allow non-UK citizens and people under 18 to vote.

The Conservatives, like other parties, are bound by campaign finance rules and GDPR data protections. Membership of a political party is a private matter, not least because its disclosure could lead to discrimination. But, Professor Tim Bale of Queen Mary, University of London, says the parties “operate like private clubs”.

The Tories’ members’ list is so closely held that even leadership contenders don’t see them. Solid numbers and anonymised data on age, gender and geographic distribution aren’t shared with academics, let alone the press. 

When we sought this data through normal channels we were stonewalled. Given the clear public interest in knowing more about who’s choosing the next prime minister, Tortoise has, after taking legal advice, set out to the Conservatives that they are acting as a public body in running this election, and sought more information under common law and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

We have requested, among other things:

  • anonymised data on the age range, gender balance and geographic distribution of Conservative members;
  • data on how many are foreign nationals;
  • explanations of how the party checks new members are who they say they are and what third party system oversees those checks;
  • explanations as to why non-UK citizens are eligible to vote and why GCHQ intervened to advise the party on its distribution of ballots; and
  • confirmation that members under the national voting age can vote in this election.

No major party campaigns for more transparency, Bale says. Rather, they all jealously guard their right to run internal elections by their own rules. “They are a law unto themselves.” 

But they shouldn’t be, at least when it comes to the de facto election of a head of government. As our letter to the Conservatives’ CEO argues, the common law principle of open government recognises a presumption that where there is a clear public interest in disclosure, “a public authority or body exercising a public function will release the information”.

The letter also

  • notes that the GDPR gives no good reason for withholding anonymised data;
  • asks the party to provide the information requested within seven days; and
  • notes that a refusal to comply with the principle of open government, or with the Human Rights Act 1998, can be challenged by judicial review.

The party, which received the letter yesterday, has said it would reply in full in due course. Bale sees its reticence so far as significant. If systems were in place to check every member against the electoral register, he says, “they would be telling us”. 

Nor is the central role of members in choosing their leader a longstanding tradition. It dates from a rule change under William Hague in 1998 and gives unprecedented power to what one former chief executive calls “a distilled version of the party” – very socially conservative, very pro-Brexit, older than the average voter and “not typical of the 20-odd million people who might vote Conservative”.

But the truth is we don’t know who those people are. The Conservative Party is operating an election in secret.

Further reading: former Conservative Party Chairman Norman Tebbit in the Daily Telegraph on why leaving the election of the next prime minister to the Tory membership is undemocratic. 

Additional reporting by Jessica Winch, Phoebe Davis and James Wilson