Politics: Hague's reforms jar with the faithful

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The Independent Online
WILLIAM Hague relaunched his party yesterday, claiming the Tories had modernised more in the past eight months than Labour had done in 18 years.

But even as he declared "the most radical reforms since the time of Disraeli", there was new evidence of dissent over the changes. As one observer put it, Mr Hague emerged looking more like Michael Foot than Tony Blair.

Constituency associations are strongly opposed to plans for a Conservative Women's Network, according to the results of an internal survey. Nor do they like the idea of a national membership database, or a new area framework with smaller groups of constituencies.

Announcing the changes yesterday, Mr Hague said: "These reforms are not just mine; they belong to the hundreds of thousands of party members from all over the country who have taken part in meetings and ballots and debates on reform since last summer.

In fact, it became clear that the party dropped plans to ensure that a quarter of interviewees in candidate selections were women after they were opposed by members. Only one-third of members supported them.

Only 15 per cent of associations strongly agreed with a programme of encouragement for women candidates, and 15 per cent strongly supported the idea of a women's network, while more than one-third disagreed with it.

The national membership database had more support, though only four in 10 strongly supported it. A new area framework for the party was supported strongly by one-third of local parties.

Other major reforms announced by Mr Hague included the ending of foreign donations, which have formed a significant part of the Conservatives' funding in the past. He added that he would comply with the recommendations of the Neill Committee which is currently looking at the issue, but donations over pounds 5,000 would also be published.

For the first time, party members will be given a chance to vote on policies for the next general election in a ballot. They will also vote in a ballot on a single European currency though when this will happen has not been decided. New party leaders will be elected by a ballot of members, though old leaders will still only be unseated by a vote among MPs.

The Young Conservatives, Conservative Students and Conservative Graduates will all be replaced by a single organisation, Conservative Future. The Conservative Women's Network will aim to ensure that more women are elected to Parliament in future.

There will also be a management board, with one-third of members elected by a national convention of members, and a new disciplinary panel to deal with cases of misconduct by MPs.

In a move with strong echoes of new Labour, Mr Hague descended a staircase in London's Atrium restaurant to the strains of "Spirit of the Future" from "Millennium" by Richard Harvey. Delivered in front of a purple backdrop, his reform document was titled The Fresh Future.

Some sections of the party remained unimpressed, though. Aidan Rankin, secretary of the newly-formed Conservative Democratic Movement, said the party was still not listening enough to its members.

"Although the party is imitating the new Labour strategy, in reality it is more like old Labour. There is still a `them and us' atmosphere. It looks in many ways as if one member, one vote for the leader is an excuse to press conformity on the rest of the party and to centralise power," he said.

The trade minister, Barbara Roche, claimed the Tories were still less democratic.