A blue rinse vote will always be too conservative

Alan Watkins on politics
Click to follow
The Independent Online
One of the most extraordinary developments of the past few weeks has been the sudden outbreak of enthusiasm for mass democracy in the Conservative Party. The cause has not only been embraced by the activists, or such as still remain active, who understandably feel left out of things. It has also won the support, in varying degrees, of the candidates themselves, of Mr Kenneth Clarke, Mr William Hague and Mr John Redwood. Each promises to do something about it - no one is sure precisely what, but something - once he has safely been elected under the old system. Most surprisingly of all, the cry has been taken up by the leader writers of our liberal newspapers. "Give the Tories a voice!" they demand. "More power to blue rinse!"

My suspicion is that this sudden gush of keenness for democracy, anyway in the progressive broadsheets, owes less to priniciple than to the puzzling development that the activists' candidate is Mr Clarke. If it were, say, Mr Redwood - or, more objectionably still, that old conference favourite Mr Michael Howard - the enthusiasm would I think be noticeably diminished.

In a way, perhaps, the support for Mr Clarke in the constituencies is not as puzzling as all that. For they will always give their backing to the best known and most established figure currently available. In 1965 they wanted Lord Home to stay rather then to be supplanted by Sir Edward Heath. In 1975 they preferred Sir Edward to Lady Thatcher. Indeed, if they had got their way, he would still be leader. In 1990 they were shocked by the fall of Lady Thatcher. In 1995 they were solid for Mr John Major.

It is another question whether they would be so keen on him today if he had not departed voluntarily but was being challenged. It is a question we do not have to decide. At present Mr Clarke is the nearest thing to a sitting tenant.

The other factor in the craze for democracy is Mr Tony Blair. Politicians are like publishers - or film makers. Lacking many original ideas of their own, they tend to imitate successful rivals in an endeavour to reproduce those successes, as Mr Blair borrowed from Lady Thatcher. Mr Blair, so the argument runs or, rather (for it not really a proper argument), the feeling goes, was produced by an electoral college. Therefore let us have an electoral college likewise. We also shall produce a figure as attractive and successful as Mr Blair.

It is all great nonsense. Sixteen years ago, when Mr Tony Benn and his chums set up Labour's electoral college, it was denounced, by the very people and papers that are now demanding a Conservative equivalent, as both unconstitutional and corrupt. It was - so it was said - unconstitutional because a prime minister could be foisted on the Sovereign by an extra- parliamentary body. And it was corrupt because that body was effectively controlled by the trade union block vote.

There was, there still is, a lot of truth in both these objections. The Labour Party enjoyed great good fortune in that the leaders who were elected under this system (which, whether if was unconstitutional or not, was clearly corrupt) happened to enjoy the support of their parliamentary colleagues. Mr Neil Kinnock and John Smith both had this support. So also did Mr Blair. If Mr Benn had defeated Lord Healey for the deputy leadership in 1981, as he very nearly did, the MPs would have had an unwelcome deputy foisted on them. But once again the party's good luck just about held.

Mr Blair was elected by a new version of the electoral college. This had been established by Smith in 1993. Trade unions, constitutuences and MPs each had a third share. But both trade unionists and party members voted as individuals rather than in blocks. Any electoral college, however, depends on arbitrarily fixed ratios for its constituent parts. I prefer an electing body which is composed of identifiable individuals rather then of proportions and percentages. Accordingly I should either extend the franchise to all party members or restrict it to that party's MPs. Today the Liberal Democrats follow the first course, the Conservatives the second.

There is a good deal to be said for restricting the franchise to MPs, even if there are only 164 of them. There is little to be said for the 15 per cent "surcharge" in the first ballot or for a second ballot which can be a new election. It has been claimed that the Tory system was set up to get rid of an incumbent. Not so. When it was established in 1965 it assumed only a "vacancy". The provision for an annual challenge (which persists) was inserted by Lord Home's committee in 1974-75 and led to Sir Edward's defeat by Lady Thatcher. Hence it was known as "Alec's revenge".

In practice the present Conservative election has developed as an old Labour contest under the exhaustive ballot. And why ever not? Why is everybody grumbling so? Mr Peter Lilley and Mr Howard have dropped out, as John Silkin and Lord Shore did in the Labour contest of 1980. Then the second- placed in the first ballot, Mr Michael Foot, won the election. Mr Clarke seems fated to be the Lord Healey of 1997, though Mr Hague is impressively bald. He is, so to speak, the bald man's bald man. No bald politician has been elected prime minister since Winston Churchill in 1951.

Of the five elections that have been held to choose the Conservative leader, none has so far gone to a third ballot. According to a strict interpretation of the rules, there should have been one in 1990, because in the second ballot Mr Major failed by two to attain an absolute majority. But the then chairman of the 1922 Committee, Sir Cranley Onslow, took it upon himself to dispense with the requirement and to accept the retirement from the contest not only of Mr Douglas Hurd, who came third, but also of Mr Michael Heseltine, who came second. There should strictly have been a play-off between Mr Heseltine and Mr Major.

Sir Cranley acted on the basis that the rules also provided that the chairman of the 1922 Committee was the sole judge of their interpretation. Yes indeed. But interpreting them is rather different from over-riding them. Sir Cranley was claiming that power to suspend or dispense with the laws which cost James II his throne and sent him into exile. By contrast, Sir Cranley stayed in his job for another two years and was then knighted.

It is possible that his successor, Sir Archie Hamilton, will try the same wheeze on Tuesday. I know everyone says that this contest will prove the exception, because none of the three remaining candidates will reach the 83 required for an absolute majority. If Mr Clarke is still in the lead, with Mr Hague runner-up, there is little doubt that Mr Hague will fight on and will be applauded for so doing.

If, however, the positions are reversed and Mr Hague is top, some pressure will be placed on Mr Clarke to concede defeat on the assumption that Mr Redwood's vote will certainly not split in his favour. The breach of rules involved in such a withdrawal will not bother anybody in a party that does not really like or properly understand elections - which are not part of its bone and sinew as they are or, at any rate, used to be in the People's Party. It will certainly not bother Mr Clarke. But of all politicians, he is perhaps the least likely to submit to the kind of pressure which Sir Archie and his colleagues may apply.