Hague promises rank and file a voice - and a vote

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The Independent Online
THE Conservative Party will tomorrow make what amounts to a public apology for its failure to embrace democracy, and promise to do better in the future.

William Hague, the Tory leader, is to tell party members in a critical policy reform document, The Fresh Future: "Never again will your voice go unheard."

Conservative officials privately admitted yesterday that the party has to turn its back on more than 100 years of political history if Tony Blair is to be turned out of Downing Street.

They hope to avoid a pitched internal battle of the kind that almost destroyed Labour in the 1980s "because of the widespread recognition of the need for change". A quickie ballot on the proposed changes is to be held next month, culminating in a Reform Convention on 28 March.

The hasty reform package masks massive internal problems, including a huge row over the policy attitude of Tory members of the European Parliament, who face being asked to sign an oath of political loyalty to Mr Hague's anti-European single currency policy prior to Euro-elections in May 1999.

But the Tory leader is likely to win overwhelming support for his changes, which will bring the Conservatives into a single, unified political organisation in the most radical movement since Disraeli. The Conservatives claim they have changed more in the past eight months than the Labour Party did in 18 years.

Mr Hague will tell members: "Every paid-up member of our party will get a vote in future leadership contests. Members will also be able to vote on the choice of candidates for Westminster and the European Parliament, and our candidate for the new Mayor of London. The Conservative Party will become the most democratic party in British politics today."

The Tories still claim to have around 400,000 people on their books to take part in the reform ballot - almost as many as New Labour - but this is believed to be a wild over-estimate. Officials concede they will only know the true size of the party when they establish a single party with a centralised national membership list.

Mr Hague will promise to put his election programme to a rank-and-file referendum. "I intend to put the policies upon which we will fight the next election to a vote of all party members," he says.

In the aftermath of the Neil Hamilton affair, he also pledges a tough new disciplinary and ethics regime. "Never again will we allow the behaviour of a single individual or group of individuals to blacken the name of the whole Conservative Party."

In a sneering reference to Labour, the Tory leader says he is determined to ensure that there is public confidence in the funding of "at least one of Britain's major political parties". Despite the evidence of past shady gifts, he promises to disclose all donations over pounds 5,000 and to reject all "foreign money".

Mr Hague's bid to build a "fresh, listening and involving" party is accompanied by his declared ambition to build nothing less than "the single greatest mass volunteer party in the Western world".