Norman, we won't miss you: The Tory chairman's departure is good news for a party that he failed to inspire, says Eric Chalker

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The Independent Online
In announcing his intention to step down as Conservative Party Chairman yesterday, Sir Norman Fowler may feel some relief. If so, his mood will match that of many party members. He has not been a popular party chairman.

But politicians should not be judged on popularity alone. They should be judged on their choice of objectives and their effectiveness in achieving them. How stands Sir Norman?

Given the scale of Central Office indebtedness when Sir Norman arrived, he cannot escape responsibility for dealing with it. Unfortunately, it is still there, more than pounds 16m of it - a constant reminder of past foolishness and inadequacy - a major cause of low party morale and an obstacle to effective campaigning. According to a senior party official in recent weeks, it will take 'years and years and years' to eliminate.

Well-used now to presenting bad news as good, Sir Norman wanted us to see only the expenditure cutbacks and the surplus recently reported for the last financial year. Depending on how long it takes to find a successor, he may even stay long enough in the job to sign the accounts, but it will not be enough to judge his performance a success. Nearly a year had passed before the first major savings were implemented, during which time the debts increased by a further pounds 2.2m. Months went by before action was taken, even after consultants' recommendations were received. Two years afer the last general election, staff cutbacks are reported to be continuing at Smith Square.

A board of management, announced in the summer of 1992, was not appointed until March 1993 and did not meet until April, one month into the new financial year. It has yet to issue its first, promised report. In the meantime, party members have had to endure a seemingly endless stream of reports about questionable sources of Central Office income. Sir Norman has done his best to confuse his critics with obfuscation and has to some extent succeeded, but trust and confidence in the quality of money flowing into Central Office coffers have been dealt a lasting blow.

Trust and confidence are the two ingredients that, above all else, a party chairman should want to instil among party members and supporters. It is in this aspect of his responsibilities that Sir Norman has been found most wanting.

It is not only his performances on television that have so disturbed party members. It is the lack of any initiatives that would actively reduce the gap between the party's leadership and its members. His immediate predecessor, Chris Patten, acknowledged the need for something to be done about this gap at a party meeting in early 1991; he wanted it to happen after the election, but, if anything, the gap has since widened.

Mr Patten knows how to close such gaps. He has found another one, in Hong Kong - a further gap between the governor and the governed. The way to close such gaps is to introduce democracy. Mr Patten is now doing just this in Hong Kong, but his successor in Britain steadfastly refuses to acknowledge that there even is a gap to be closed.

Sir Norman's board of management is appointed, not elected. Instead of opening up the secretive world of Central Office to democratic accountability, in line with modern thinking, a group of carefully selected guests has been invited to have a closer look at one or two carefully selected activities, wholly in private.

So another body has been established that operates behind closed doors, with no democratic checks, making the central organisation of the Conservative Party even more remote from its members.

It is with party members that Sir Norman has had his greatest failure. He has done nothing for them, and yet they have been in greatest need.

Sir Norman has presided over the largest decline in party morale since 1945. He probably doesn't feel responsible. He probably blames the Government, but party members deserve a more considerate and, above all, constructive attitude in their party chairman, recognising their needs.

The trouble is, Sir Norman hasn't been their chairman. Like all his predecessors, he gained his position by appointment, as though the party was a department of government. He has had no relationship with party members, and has no any empathy with them, let alone any desire to serve them. When he claimed to speak for them he was really speaking to them. His apparent concern has simply been to keep them in line.

In this respect, he has been no different from his predecessors. The tragedy is that 1992, the year of Sir Norman's appointment, offered a golden opportunity for a new beginning, a real coming together of all parts of the party as 'one party', instead of retaining the feudalistic structure that is the root cause of all our problems.

Even Sir Norman's own consultants reportedly pressed for a proper, elected board of management, but their advice was not followed because of pressure from established interests.

This was no great reforming chairman. This was a weak chairman, moving too slowly and doing too little by far, seemingly deaf to the voices of party members, a prisoner of the past.

For more than 100 years the parliamentary party has seen itself as the only part of the Conservative Party that matters. It has controlled policy at all levels and clung to its control of Central Office and all that goes with it (not least its heavy grip on the approved candidates' list). In its eyes, the parliamentary party is the party. Constituency associations and their branches are useful, but count with the parliamentary party as no more than supporters' clubs, with no rights other than to call their own MPs (those that have them) individually to account.

Divide and rule is a well-established principle, but not the democratic principle; nor is it any longer an effective way to ensure that the full strength of the Conservative Party is available to its leaders.

What the Conservative Party needs now, to restore its fortunes - financially, organisationally and politically - is a party chairman in whom the constituency associations have demonstrated their confidence by the fact of his or her election. It needs a party chairman who is accountable to those associations, not least because because they are the ones most frequently called to account by the electorate.

This new party chairman must then work with other, similarly elected representatives, to rebuild the party as a thriving, firmly membership-based, democratic, financially sound and politically successful organisation, able to exercise its influence at all levels of government.

It is easy to legislate for reform of other institutions. It takes courage to reform one's own. Has anyone at the top of this wounded and wasted party the courage required?

The writer is a former member of the Conservative Board of Finance.

(Photograph omitted)

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