Michael Brown: Don't purge the Tory party, or no members will be left

'An elderly party membership will have antediluvian attitudes on most social issues'
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The Independent Online

When the words "purge" and "expulsion" enter the litany of a political party you know that it is in deep, deep trouble. The events surrounding the removal of Edgar Griffin from the leadership campaign of Iain Duncan Smith, and from the Conservative Party, have raised wider questions about the character of the party membership generally. Mr Griffin himself can be disposed of quickly – as indeed he was by all concerned. The guilt by BNP association with his son and his wife may not, in terms of natural justice, have been enough to warrant his exclusion; but his public expressions of sympathy with their racist views sealed his fate.

Watching Mr Griffin, an elderly, silly, but harmless, old buffer, made me think of the many Mr Griffins I came across in my local party, Scunthorpe and Cleethorpes, during my 22 years as a candidate and MP. Given that the bulk of the Tory Party has an average age of 65, it is a fair bet that there is a disproportionate number of Mr Griffins across the country about to determine the outcome of the party leadership election. Lift the stone on the Tory party membership and you will find some pretty odd creepy crawlies who make up this extraordinary party. But most of them are harmless.

Both Mr Clarke and Mr Duncan Smith have promised to clean up the party of racists, but to talk of purges and expulsions makes me worried that they could be about to make a bad situation far worse. Certainly it is right that anybody known to have an association with another party should be expelled. So far as I am aware, membership of a rival political party has always been incompatible with being a member of the Tory Party. I suspect that this also applies to the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties as well.

But if the Tory Party is going to expel from its ranks those whose views do not fit with the official leadership, it needs to tread very carefully. By their nature an elderly party membership will inevitably have antediluvian attitudes on most social issues: expulsions and purges would leave little left of the 320,000 members. The very talk along these lines sends a shiver down my spine as I recall the horrors and damage done to the Labour Party as it travelled down this road in the early 1980s.

Steve Norris, usually one of the more sensible and relaxed of the Conservative Party vice chairmen, has said that Kenneth Clarke, whom he supports for the leadership, will lead an "emetic purge" and that it would be more than just the unacceptable Mr Griffin to be expelled.

Oh dear, I hope not. For this will ensure that the Tory party really will fall apart. First of all how would the mechanics work? Would party members be sent a questionnaire to ascertain their views and attitudes on race? But why should race be the sole basis for such a purge? Why not establish their views, as well, on homosexuality? By the time such an exercise has been completed all that would be established is that the Conservative Party is made up of elderly narrow-minded people who are prejudiced and unrepresentative of the broad mass of the British people.

But we know that already – although I think the British people are not quite as broad minded and lacking in prejudice as we sometimes like to think. By the time Mr Norris has finished, the Tory Party would have no members. I can think of no better recruiting ground for the British National Party than the course of action he proposes.

Party memberships, by their nature, are invariably unrepresentative of their leaderships. It is the job of parties to provide outlets and safety valves and the job of party leaderships to ignore their memberships. Imagine if Tony Blair were to test Labour Party members on their views on nationalisation and nuclear disarmament. I suspect that there still beat some pretty old-fashioned socialist hearts among the broad mass of Labour Party members – if not among some of the younger, as well as the elderly, activists.

The Conservative Party has always attracted eccentric and dotty views that might be regarded as extremist. God knows, I had to deal with some pretty disagreeable characters in my own association who were at odds with my opposition – expressed in the division lobbies – to Clause 28, in 1988. And yet I cannot forget the miles they tramped on my behalf. Or the money they raised for my election campaigns. Or their knowledge and advice on local issues unrelated to the "social agenda". Prejudice does not necessarily mean that these were bad people and I would have been horrified if there was any suggestion that they be expelled.

One of my constituency activists, my president and chairman – now aged 87 – held views on many social issues which were pretty dreadful and, under the Norris test, he would probably face expulsion. But his views, which today seem nasty and irrelevant, were once the party norm. And in every other respect, he is a fine upstanding local citizen with a distinguished war record who has given a lifetime service to the party, local government and every local charity imaginable – even receiving an OBE for his efforts. He is the quintessential conservative English gentleman, whose personal support for me shows that tolerance is a two-way process.

Historically, the Tory party has managed change without having to resort to punishing its members. The secret is to keep the members away from policy making. On most occasions, I was actually able to vote in Parliament for whatever I believed in without a murmur of disapproval.

The other secret was to have a paid party agent. "Leave the party members to me and I will ensure that they let you get on with the politics," was always the clarion cry from my agent. Sadly most of the paid professional agents, who would keep a weather eye on branches and police any dubious characters, have gone.

Race is a particularly difficult issue for the Conservative Party but it was forever thus. In his autobiography, Sir Edward Heath details the difficulties he had with the Tory conference in 1972 when he was facing a nondescript motion reiterating support for his manifesto policy on immigration. But the Tory delegates backed Heath when he appealed to their sense of party loyalty. This "loyalty" used to be the Tories' secret weapon. It still can be the most powerful weapon available to any Tory Party leader in dealing with this issue.

For the time being, these elderly party members are all the Tory Party has got. Most are not bad people. They are sad, confused and frightened that their once certain world is changing around them. They may sometimes make racist comments but few of them are racists. They yearn for younger members to take over their thankless tasks and would gladly lay down their raffle tickets. Without them the Tory Party would have no presence at all in the 493 constituencies that have no Tory MP. Mass expulsions will simply kill the party. It should be possible to tolerate their intolerance. If properly led, they will follow. Most of them know, in their hearts, their views are wrong. So let's not be too heavy-handed.