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The secret election

The secret election


The Conservative Party won’t tell us who their members – the people voting for the next prime minister – are. Here’s why we think that’s a problem


We sent a letter to the Conservative Party this week, because we think there are three problems with the way it’s running the leadership contest that will choose the UK’s next prime minister.

One is security – the party won’t say what system it has for checking whether members voting in the leadership contest are who they say they are; and it won’t say what, if any, independent oversight is in place outside the party system. There are checks on the money going to the candidates, but that’s it. In theory, then, it’s all too easy to infiltrate and manipulate the election of the PM.

The second problem is fairness – it turns out the party lets foreign citizens and people under the voting age to vote for the PM, even though they can’t vote for an MP; non-voters voting for the PM surely isn’t right.

The third is transparency – the party does not disclose anything about the membership. If the people choosing the prime minister skew more male than female, older rather than younger, richer rather than poorer, more from the south than the north. Without wanting to know the identity of individual Conservative Party members, the public surely has a right to know the make-up of the electorate – because they set the mandate for the new prime minister.

I’m James Harding, Editor of Tortoise, and in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail I want to talk about how we got here. How we got here, step by step, in deciding to send this legal letter to the Conservative Party. But also how we got here, more worryingly, in a country where it seems a bizarre system for choosing our next prime minister – one that’s not just eccentric, but unrepresentative and undemocratic – will only further drain confidence in our politics.

There was a story in the Daily Telegraph a couple of weeks ago. It said that GCHQ, the government’s cyber intelligence and security agency, had contacted the Conservative Party to warn them about the way in which they were issuing ballot papers in the leadership contest. Why, I wondered, would they get involved unless there was a real or potential national security risk?

And then, we started wondering. Who are the members of the Conservative Party voting for the next leader? The party won’t reveal anything about them; even the number of members – the common estimate being 160,000 – is a projection. 

James Wilson, a reporter at Tortoise, set about asking some questions. He didn’t get far. On the first day, the Conservative Party press office simply didn’t pick up the phone. The next, he went down to CCHQ, they turned him away. He got hold of one press officer, who wouldn’t give his name, told him the party gives no details of the membership for “GDPR reasons” and then hung up the phone.

The party has said nobody can vote unless they’ve been a member for three months before the election closes on September 2. So we knew we couldn’t sign up and get a ballot. But what about becoming a member? Would anyone vet us? We thought we’d see for ourselves. We registered Archie, our pet tortoise, as a member; then a couple of foreign nationals; then Margaret Roberts, the maiden name of the late Lady Thatcher, using her date of birth and home town of Grantham. In each case, the Conservative Party took the £25 membership fee; each of them got a membership number; and each new ‘member’ has been invited to hustings, to participate in the Conservative party lottery and to join efforts to recruit new members.

Reading the small print of the Conservative Party membership terms, we realised something else. The foreign nationals we’d signed up hadn’t simply slipped under the radar; they’re allowed to vote. You really can be a foreign citizen – i.e. someone who does not have British citizenship, who does not live, work or pay tax here – and be a Conservative Party member who votes for the party leader.

The blurb on the website makes clear that voting for the leader is one of the benefits of being a member of Conservatives Abroad. And we’re not the only ones to have spotted it: the BBC’s Joshua Nevett spoke to three foreign nationals – an Italian in Sicily, a Dane in Spain and a Brexiteer in Spain – all signed up to vote in the leadership contest. Likewise, Full Fact confirmed that this is within the Conservative Party rules. A German national who is not a British citizen, but has voted for our next prime minister, told Tortoise he joined the Conservatives after “falling in love” with Britain on family holidays.

A 17-year-old Conservative Party member we spoke to joined the party in January 2020 and has also already submitted his vote in this leadership election. He’s not yet entitled to vote in a General Election, but was fast-tracked to vote for the PM – something he admitted was “a bit odd”.

So we put in some calls. Conservatives we spoke to tried to reassure us that the party was well-incentivised to make sure that there were no efforts to infiltrate the membership – after all they’d seen what a rush of new members could do to the Labour Party when Jeremy Corbyn was elected. And they said they really do sift out members of other parties trying to sign up as Conservatives; after all, they said, the party doesn’t want a system that might choose a loser as leader. 

The party, they tried to reassure us, has a system of compliance that checks members are who they say they are. No details were given. And who, we asked, checks this system of compliance? There was a pause on the line. “Nobody”. That’s what we were told: Nobody checks.

So how, then, can we be sure that the membership is secure if nobody checks; how good is it if there’s no one independently marking their homework. Come to think of it, we wondered, how could the party double check if someone was on the electoral register if it also accepted members, foreign and under age, who are not on the electoral register. And given the financial straits of the party right now, how well-staffed is that compliance team.

It’s speculative, I know, but what if a foreign state decided to sign up a thousand, 10,000 or 20,000 members – that would cost £25,000, £250,000, £500,000. Let’s face it, the refurbishment of the Downing Street Flat cost about as much as that. And for that sum, you could have bought the swing vote in the election of the prime minister to a G7 country with nuclear warheads and a claim to be a beacon of democracy.

We sounded out some people who have run the country’s national security agencies. And, it seems, we’re not alone in worrying about this. The concern, which was put to us, was this: political parties just aren’t configured for an exercise of this importance. The government spends millions on securing the registration process for general elections. The Conservative party can’t come close. There’s no way that it can offer the kind of assurances the government does in the running of a general election. And yet, this election does decide the prime minister.

There’s a different and separate point from the issue of security or the anomalies of foreign and under-age voters. It’s trust in our democracy. Because the Conservative electorate is secret, the British public will not know who has mandated the new prime minister. The electorate, in every democracy, has a bearing on the behaviour of the elected. For the Prime Minister and anyone in the future wanting to be Prime Minister the make-up of the Conservative membership is a matter in the public interest.

Aaron Moss is a barrister at 5 Essex Court. We asked him to help set out these arguments to CCHQ. The point he made – and you can see the letter that we sent on the Tortoise website – is that the Conservative Party is acting as a de facto public body in running the election of the prime minister. It should, therefore, operate to the same standards of openness and accountability as a public body. On that basis, we asked the party a number of questions – among them were these:

  • What’s the make-up of its membership by age, geography and gender?
  • What’s the system for checking members are who they say they are and what independent oversight is there of those checks?
  • Has the party’s compliance team identified foreigners, bots, fictional or dead people seeking to get into the membership or any forms of interference or foul play in the election?
  • And why can foreign nationals and under-age voters choose the next Prime Minister?

The Conservative party confirmed receipt of the letter and said they’ll reply in full.

The next prime minister is going to be chosen by around 0.2 per cent of the electorate. We don’t know who they are. We don’t know whether the people running the election know who they are. And within that electorate, there are people who are ineligible to vote for Members of Parliament.

Personally, I think it would be more democratic for MPs to choose their next leader when they kick the last one out. After all, at least those MPs represent the majority of seats won at the last general election. They have the authority of a public mandate; they also might have a better, closer sense of who would be good at leading the country.

But how have we got here? How did we get to this unrepresentative, unsafe, undemocratic place? And how is it that we accept it? 

In part, I suspect, it’s because all parties operate to the same rules: they all keep their membership lists secret. Political affiliation is a private matter. The result, though, is that no political party has wanted to pick a fight with the Conservatives about this.

In part, I think it’s also because British politics has rules made up by the players. Conservative members started voting for Conservative Party leader only as recently as 2001, following a bargain that was struck between the centre and the constituencies. The centre wanted the membership lists and membership dues so that the money from members in safe seats could go to fund campaigns in the marginals; in return, the constituency associations got the right for their members to vote in the leadership election.

In part, though, I fear it’s because we – by which I mean the media, citizens, business – are quietly giving up on democracy, accepting as an ugly fact of modern life that public confidence is ebbing away from our political system and that politicians live by the smallprint that they themselves have written. Most of us either sigh, swear or shrug. We are not fighting for a democracy rooted in principles of fairness, representation and trust. Instead, as the Conservative Party leadership contest has unfolded this summer, it’s felt as though the country has witnessed it all in a mood of resignation. I.I.W.I.I. It is what it is.

Plainly, it shouldn’t be. Next week, we are due to get a response from the Conservative Party. Let’s see what we learn. If it’s nothing, the next step is to seek Judicial Review.