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Mandatory Credit: Photo by Dan Tuffs/Shutterstock (579371c) William Hague at the Tory Conference in Blackpool in 1997 VARIOUS – 1997
Time for a rethink

Time for a rethink

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Dan Tuffs/Shutterstock (579371c) William Hague at the Tory Conference in Blackpool in 1997 VARIOUS – 1997

The Conservative Party needs to change the way it elects its leaders, writes its former chief executive

Next week the Conservative Party membership will elect a new leader and prime minister through the “one member one vote” system. By common consent, the process has not been an edifying spectacle and as a result the system has attracted widespread criticism. Of course, it is more convenient to blame the system than the protagonists but questions have to be asked about a process that means a new prime minister is elected by a diminishing band of loyal and worthy supporters no longer representative of Conservative opinion in the country as a whole.

Most people have understandably forgotten that “one member one vote” (OMOV) was the child of a far more extensive programme of reforms designed to create for the first time a united party with a proper constitution and balance of powers and governance. Those reforms were based on a simple proposition – that a healthy party has grassroots and that membership matters. Giving the membership the vote was intended to go hand in hand with a new commitment to broadening the reach of the party across the country. 

In May 1997 the Conservative Party went down to its worst electoral defeat for a century. It won only 164 seats, about half the previous number. John Major’s beleaguered tenure was fraught with episodes of lax discipline and “Tory sleaze”. These exposed the fact that the leader had no powers to oversee integrity or filter out bad elements. William Hague was subsequently elected as leader by the MPs but by that time many conservatives no longer had an MP and in the eyes of the country it was the unfettered power of the parliamentarians that had led to crushing defeat.

It was Hague who then committed to a far-reaching programme of structural and organisational reform of the party. Before then, the party did not exist as a single legal entity but rather was controlled by several disparate factions. The voluntary party was in the hands of the National Union, which controlled candidate selection, jealously guarded the rights of constituency associations and controlled the national conference. The 1922 Committee effectively governed parliamentary matters. The treasurers raised money independently. This was then donated to the leadership, which spent it all, mostly wastefully. The leader governed at best by consent, with no real ability to enforce discipline or investigate issues of ethics and integrity. It was charming, quaint, and a shambles.

The reforms required all parties to pool their powers and sign up to the Conservatives’ first-ever written constitution. This established a framework for modern governance under a representative board. There was, for the first time, the ability to deal with matters of integrity and a degree of oversight of financial matters. In the intense period of negotiation in late 1997 the National Union set as its price for surrendering independence a commitment to give the members a vote on the leadership. At the time this was a harder argument to resist as most formerly “conservative seats” did not even have an MP to represent them. “OMOV” became an unstoppable force after a rollicking speech by Jeffrey Archer at the 1997 party conference. The 1922 voted overwhelmingly in favour, as did the party as a whole in the first-ever full vote of the membership.

That historic vote had other benefits: it was the first time we ever had any official record of who the members were or how many existed. In fact the constituency lists, often in shambolic condition, added up to nearly 500,000 members but when the lists were cleaned up only about 330,000 of those memberships were, on any reasonable criteria, valid. Of the others many had departed this world and a large number never appeared to pay a subscription. 

OMOV was not just borne of a hard-headed piece of horse trading by factions in the party. At the time it seemed modern and democratic and sharply better than the Labour Party system. It was based on a belief that the grassroots are vital to the future of the party. Perhaps naively, we believed that giving members a real say in the leadership and establishing proper lists would pave the way to a second wave of reform, to rekindle membership. That second wave never happened. Worse, the membership atrophied so that today it has more than halved to about 150,000. Those members are heavily concentrated in a few safe seats (60 constituencies probably account for 75 per cent of members). Their average age is probably nearing 70, and needless to say their attitudes are not reflective of Conservative voters as a whole. These members contribute precious little to party coffers so now the party depends on big donors – another area of acute discomfort.

It is easy to say the answer is to take back the vote from the membership. But doing so would raise more far-reaching and existential questions about the future of the party. The membership do not just elect the leader. They select candidates, and, often in a deeply old-fashioned way, hold MPs and candidates to account. Some constituencies have frighteningly few members and are already wide open to entryism. A party that walks away from its grassroots becomes a self-governing clique, accountable to whom?

The leadership process does call for a rethink: it seems to be agonisingly protracted for a start. Maybe there should be different rules for electing a prime minister (in 1997 that idea was far from our thoughts.) But the wrong lesson is to revert to a self-selecting oligarchy.

Instead we need another wave of reform to create a modern political party with much greater engagement with conservative opinion across the country. The membership fee should be reduced to something more affordable. Maybe it should be abolished so members join on the basis of an affidavit and reference only. Sub-categories of interest groups should be formed so that people can join through their passion for the environment, entrepreneurship, or the countryside. Modern technology should be used to create a much more engaging exchange of ideas and a vibrant social community. 

So behind the OMOV debate there is a deeper question about the future of political parties. There is little public appetite for the old concept of allegiance through membership. But that does not mean the party can walk away from its grassroots. Indeed a party with no grassroots may not be a party at all.

Archie Norman was chief executive of the Conservative Party, 1998-99. He was also MP for Tunbridge Wells from 1997-2005.