Major pokes a stick in a hornets' nest

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The Independent Online
THE Conservative Party is consulting its members. Our gobs are well smacked, our flabbers quite comprehensively ghasted. We knew things were bad. But this? All one can hope for now is that the party hierarchy is deeply insincere, that this is 'consultation' as in, 'I am consulting my lawyers', a form of verbal stress- relief from which nothing serious follows.

The Tories' hallowed hostility to internal party democracy has not wavered until now. Generations of Tory leaders have taken their cue from Arthur Balfour's rebuke to his critics after the 1906 electoral slaughter: 'There is no case in history, as far as I am aware, in which a Party Meeting has been summoned except to give emphasis and authority to a decision at which the Party have informally already arrived; still less is there an example of a vote being taken at such a meeting.'

Quite so. The party has done things differently. Its membership hints, rather than votes. When a minister sits down after his speech, one notes a certain sporadic character to the applause. Or the party chairman phones his MP expressing 'a leetle disappointment'. At the worst, at annual conferences, choleric young men stamp and shout in favour of Empire, or hanging, or Norman Tebbit, while the platform party looks studiously at its manicure and counts the hours until Land of Hope and Glory concludes and the London train pulls out.

Various clever academics have expended much ink and effort explaining that the Conservative Party is not undemocratic, but merely takes its activists' advice in a subtle, unstructured and private manner. Really, this is 'differently democratic' in the same way that a stupid man is 'differently clever'.

And very well the party has done out of it. This is the most successful electoral machine in Europe, which has enjoyed much quiet self-congratulation at the spectacle of unruly activists in other parties foisting unpopular ideas on rival politicians. Even now, its members loathe being referred to by journalists as 'delegates'. So what has changed?

Above all, the members have been leaving. Conservative Central Office says it does not collect figures, and would not tell outsiders even if it did. But most estimates by knowledgeable Tories suggest that the party which was, during the Thatcher heyday, about a million strong, is now half that. Sharon Spiers, of the reformist Conservative Charter Movement, told me yesterday she thought the figure could be 300-400,000: in some constituencies there were not enough people to go out and collect subscriptions, so a spiral of decline is occurring.

It has also become evident that fewer members are turning up at conference time, so that the press, the stallholders and guests outnumber the actual, paid-up Tories. Most parties have lost members in modern times, though Labour now claims it is on the rise again, but the loss of half a million members is, if true, pretty astonishing.

How much does it matter? The lost membership represents lost income, of course, making the party centrally more reliant than ever on the whims of big individual or corporate donors. At election time, many Tories may come back to help, but many may not. And Tory strategists were struck by Labour's cheery propaganda about the mass-membership election of Tony Blair. Conservative counter-attacks about multiple voting in the Labour leadership contest were rather blunted by the Tories' own problems. Add all that to the more immediate problem of how to deflect as much as possible of the criticism ministers expect to come their way at this year's conference, and the idea of 'consultation' starts to seem timely.

But it may very well prove a stick incautiously poked into a hornets' nest. For some years now, it has been clear that the Tory activist was not immune to the less deferential, more questioning mood of the age. There have been numerous warning-signs for the hierarchy: the rebellion of party office-holders over the poll tax; the readiness of local Tories to express anger about tax rises or local roadbuilding plans; the popularity of anti-Maastricht rebels at many constituency parties. At conference time, the anti-European Union Tories have pioneered the rise of angry and lively fringe meetings: we followers of the October seaside season have noticed that as Labour conferences have become quieter, Tory ones have become alarmingly interesting.

Consulting the members may not, in short, be enough: the so- and-sos may expect ministers to listen and, worse than that, to act. This may seem nothing more than the sensible extension of the democratic process to the ordinary Conservative, a necessary prelude to the revival of the party. But the Tories are in danger of falling into the same trap that Labour did in the early Eighties: the activists who dominate conference are not necessarily representative of ordinary party voters, still less of swing voters.

The party that listens too intently to its own shrill enthusiasts may be unable to hear the whispering millions of uncommitted or half-committed citizens. In these times, that would lead John Major to adopt ever more aggressive attitudes to European Union. The louder Tory activists would love it. But the wider Conservative constituency, including much of business, would be less keen, and the country might recoil in horror at election time. The opposite could also be true. But in either case, what Mr Major needs to know is what the country thinks, not what Tory office-holders think.

I guess he knows that perfectly well. I guess the new Tory chairman knows, too, that his job is to disguise the fact that the party wants its workers' work, not their opinions. I guess, therefore, that the consultation exercise is a somewhat cynical stunt. And I guess that's fine by me.