The Stalinist Tories need purging

Arrogance and a fundamental lack of democratic rights within the party cost us the election, says Eric Chalker
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The Independent Online
Constitutionally, the Conservative Party, my party, is no better than the old Soviet communist party and it stinks. There is a significance attached to the Conservative leadership electoral process which can escape the casual observer. When the 22 procedures laid down by the 1922 Committee for the conduct of their election come to an end, there is a 23rd. For William Hague, it happened last Thursday evening, following the declaration of his victory over Kenneth Clarke.

The 23rd procedure is the imposition of the MPs' choice on the rest of the party. This takes place at a "party meeting" comprising MPs, MEPs, Conservative peers and members of the National Union Executive Committee. The MPs' choice is required to be "presented for confirmation as party leader" - in other words, as the leader of the whole party, not just its MPs. The significance of this step is not just that this is the point at which the parliamentary party asserts its supremacy over the rest of the party, in hugely undemocratic fashion. It is also the point at which absolute control of Conservative Central Office and the party's central funds passes from the old leader to the new. This control is so absolute it amounts to a form of personal ownership, confirmed by the courts (in defiance of the Inland Revenue) in the early 1980s.

The Conservative Party itself has no corporate form. There can be no democratic structure for a political party that doesn't even have a constitution. Central Office controls the party's disparate parts because of the power that flows from the leader. It is the original "leader's private office", now copied by Tony Blair. Even though Central Office is almost certainly still heavily in debt (for which William Hague now carries personal responsibility), its income from largely secret sources has been so substantial that it puts Tony Blair's private office in the shade. Anomalously, the latter is declared in the register of members' interests but the former is not, yet they serve the same purpose, which is the concentration of personal power funded in secret.

The exercise of this overwhelming power by Conservative leaders is not subject to any democratic or constitutional constraints and yet it extends over all party activities. It is an astonishing instrument to place in the hands of any party leader. Even more so when that leader has been chosen by such a narrow franchise.

The party leader's claim to this power rests upon the highly questionable device of the so-called party meeting described above. But for such a significant event, the proceedings are seriously flawed. The transfer of so much power - much more than just political leadership - demands a formal resolution, explicitly framed and formally voted upon. This has never been done.

I have attended each of the last three party meetings, including last week's. All have been conducted as political rallies and the constitutional issues that cry out to be addressed have been deliberately ignored. Last Thursday, despite having given advance notice of my desire to speak on these issues, my request was refused. Yet again, the parliamentary party has demonstrated the arrogance which cost us the last election. It has no real regard at all for party members outside parliament.

The mishandling of the party meeting is no small matter: there is no other occasion that representatives of the constituency associations can attend which has the constitutional authority even to consider the question, let alone decide it. In 1992, over 50 constituency associations attempted to do this by calling a special meeting of the party's Central Council, but they were blocked.

Had I been allowed to speak at last Thursday's meeting, I would have objected to the fact that one person alone has exclusive control of Central Office and its money. I would have objected to the leader's appointment of a so-called party chairman and other party officers to exercise authority over the non-parliamentary party. Such officers should be confined to parliamentary affairs, or otherwise elected and answerable to all the party.

I would also have objected to the leader's presumed exclusive right to make policy, across the board, free from any democratic process of decision- making. We need to become vastly more mature in our affairs.

There can be no substantial reform of the party without putting in place a proper party constitution, to guarantee democratic rights for party members and provide for changes to the distribution of power within the party. Without such reform, the party will be going nowhere.

The writer is a member of the Conservative National Union Executive Committee.