One member, one vote: your party depends on it, Mr Hague

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The spirit of the age loves to vote. Referenda have caught on. For all the gloomy talk about the low turn-out last week in Wales and poor participation in, say, local elections, amazing numbers of people are prepared to stir themselves, when confronted with a sharp enough question or compelling enough issue. And there are going to be plenty of those in years to come, Europe among them. Meanwhile you don't have to be a Hegelian historicist to link closely together the progress of democracy and the processes of modernisation and marketisation which bring with them material prosperity - which is one reason all eyes will remain on China during the decades to come. You could discount 90 per cent of the hype surrounding the Internet and still be left with a compelling sense that new technology favours rather than retards the business of collective decision-making and free participation by people in their government.

But working democracy is about the dispersal and the sharing of power - and that is perhaps the reason why, within days of his first appearance as leader of the Conservative Party at its annual conference, William Hague is hesitating about the democratisation of his party. Mr Hague's fate as party leader may not sound a compelling interest - we argued only the other day that the Tories still need a bloody battle before they can become a fit Opposition, let alone a credible alternative to Blairite Labour. Yet Conservatism remains a formidable political force in Britain and the shape and qualities of its party willy nilly speak about Britain at large. In our pluralist democracy, contest between more or less equal contenders is always far better than the lopsided dominance of one party, however ably led, over the others.

The Tory party is being asked to approve Mr Hague and a set of nostrums about itself; the results of this inquiry will be announced in a fortnight at the party shindig. With this mandate, the Tory leader will then devise new arrangements for electing the leader. These will, inevitably, involve on the one hand Tory MPs (and peers?) and on the other the mass membership (though at present "mass" is a bit of an exaggeration). Indications are that individual members may get a weighted vote of only one-fifth in the "electoral college". This would virtually be a recipe for no change. Constituencies would be relegated to a walk-on, consultative role. The oligarchs would role OK.

There is no point pretending reform is just a matter of arithmetic. In the make-up of the Tory Party, deference and obeisance to authority still bulk large. For all Mrs Thatcher's alleged introduction into the party of the estate agent tendency, for all the parliamentary bolshiness of the Major years, it is a deep Tory instinct to follow leaders who have got where they are because "people like them" have always worn the chairman's blazer. But the legacy of the blazers and the baronets is a geriatric party. Its local arms are withering. It can barely muster candidates. Mr Hague must know that neither the Tory philosophers of Peterhouse nor the fanged commentators of the erstwhile Tory press are much help to him in working out what to do next. The party needs rejuvenating and an essential element in that business is extending its franchises, bringing members in, giving them a role by giving them a vote.

There has lately been loose talk comparing Mr Hague's task with that faced - and met - by Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Tony Blair. The fact is that the Tories, though they have a lot of junking of redundant policies to do, do not confront anything as momentous as giving the quietus to Clause Four socialism. Nor do the Tories have restructuring on the scale of Labour's break with organised labour, a sundering which is of course not yet complete. The Tories have their issues, notably Europe. Mr Hague will have soon to push through a durable policy on the single currency and the European Union which might drive out assorted Euro-sceptics - a result he might relish. Despite that, Mr Hague's task is in many way easier than that faced by the Labour leadership in the Eighties.

Having begun by asking individual party members to approve his project, it ought to be simple for Mr Hague to build their role into the party structure, giving them at least half of the votes in any future leadership contest and possibly also a new role in approving policy. He has a bridge to cross. One member, one vote will - for a while - enfranchise Colonel Blimp and his elderly relatives. But, provided Mr Hague survives, that open franchise will be a pre-condition of the Tories' attracting newer and younger members. And that would be good for British democracy at large.