Tory Conference: Party aims to create huge volunteer power base

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The Conservatives want to become `the most effective volunteer political movement in western Europe'. Anthony Bevins dissects their `Blueprint for Change'.

A paper published yesterday will form the basis of a reform package for a special party conference next spring - introducing a new and unified party constitution.

The Urgency of Change. The case for change is put in the context of the history of the 20th century, during which the Conservatives will have been in government, either alone or in coalition, for nearly 70 years. "No wonder," the paper says, "that political historians have already labelled our century the Conservative century."

However, it then adds: "On 1 May, the Conservative Party suffered its heaviest defeat in a general election since 1906." With only 165 MPs, no representation of Scotland, Wales or many of the country's great cities and towns, the number of councillors more than halved since the mid-80s, and a membership down from an estimated million-plus in 1979 to under 400,000 today, the leadership believes that the opportunity has to be taken for root-and-branch change.

"This decline is structural, not cyclical. It is not just a result of temporary political unpopularity, and there is no evidence of a sustained revival of membership ... even during years of ... political success."

Our Organisational Mission. "Our mission is to create the greatest volunteer party in the western democratic world, a party more than double our current size that can provide a sustainable advantage for Conservatives at all levels of British electoral contest." But that will involve "trade-offs". The paper says: "We want a party which is more involving, listening and participative. But we also want a party which is cohesive, fast-moving and able to engage in mature debate without appearing perpetually disunited."

A Single Party - a Single Constitution. "Central to the reform programme will be the formation of a single party structure embodied in a single constitution" - bringing together the "loose structures and cumbersome committees" of the existing voluntary, professional and representative wings of the party. A single governing body is proposed, with some elected members, but "sensitive" issues would be managed by sub-committees, which would control the rules for leadership elections, candidate selection, the conference, and membership.

A Streamlined Volunteer Organisation. Constituency association chairmen would meet twice a year as a National Convention, and the six members of its executive would have places on the party board. One executive place might be reserved for a woman.

New Channels for Involvement. A revitalised Conservative Political Centre would offer members a role in policy-making. There would be a new youth organisation, called Conservative Future, and a Women's Network, to "encourage talented women".

Revival in Local Government. A Conservative councillors' association is proposed, with a convention of Tory council leaders meeting every year, and a senior councillor to be elected to the party board.

Improved Professional Support. "The professional support network needs to become more flexible, more effectively managed from the centre and capable of being deployed in areas of greatest need." That means "that in place of the traditional one-constituency, one-office set-up there should be a variable `mosaic' of offices and support".

Creating a Mass Membership. "Ultimately we believe that our objective should be to have one million members, a total comparable to that which existed twenty-five years ago." That millennium target will require a sense of involvement - but also a membership database, an improvement in communication with members, and a professionally marketed recruitment drive - based on higher subscriptions.

Encouraging Talented Candidates. Candidate selection, the paper says, is "best judged locally" by constituency associations - but women candidates need encouragement, and they might need to be given a quarter of the places on first-round selection lists; constituencies might have candidate shortlists imposed; and there could be a national shortlist for by-election candidates.

Harnessing Modern Technology. Information technology will be part of the "glue that will bind the single party together", enabling membership data to be used for mail-shots. The Internet might also being used "as a communications tool".

Maintaining Standards of Integrity. Swift, effective and fair action is promised "to deal with future cases where the reputation of our party may be threatened". An Ethics and Integrity Committee is proposed to investigate complaints.