Rearranging the chairs won't save the party: Conservative Central Office needs a radical reform before it loses all credibility at constituency level, says Michael Normington

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The Independent Online
LAST FRIDAY, the Conservative Party suffered a visible degree of embarrassment at the need to make 42 members of its staff compulsorily redundant, in an attempt to cut a pounds 19m deficit. Those staff may well think they are victims through no fault of their own, but what concerns the party at large is whether satisfactory arrangements have now been made to avoid similar failures of planning and control in the future.

Sir Norman Fowler, the party chairman, has established a board of management that he says will achieve this, but, alas for party members, it is still a board of appointees who are free from the constraints that should be imposed by democratic accountability. Without elected representatives forming the majority or at least half of such a board, decisions will still be remote from the constituencies.

Sir Norman talks grandly of establishing 'one party', but his new board has no constitutional or democratic basis. It seems inconceivable in 1993 that the Conservative Party can make a virtue out of the fact that although the 'shareholders' (the members) are supposedly to be represented on this board, it is not by a process of direct election.

It is widely accepted that there is a 'democratic deficit' within the Conservative Party organisation. The lack of democratic accountability of those running Conservative Central Office has rendered constituency associations powerless to deal with its perceived remoteness and the still-increasing financial deficit.

Now that this deficit and its consequences are too big to ignore, something is happening at last. It is a matter of serious concern to many in the party, not so much that it has been impossible to call anyone to account for the calamitous situation, but that there is no way of ensuring that future decisions will reflect the wishes of the party's members.

It is clearly stated in Sir Norman's proposal that the entire membership of the board will be appointed by the chairman of the party organisation, who is himself an appointee of the Prime Minister. There are to be three officers of the National Union on the board, but two of these positions have in the past been seen as largely honorary, and it is intended that their election by the voluntary party will be virtually dictated by long service and unquestioning loyalty.

Much has been made of the subject of 'accountability' by interested parties during the National Union's current review of the structure of the voluntary party. Party members have been told that 'accountability is a two-way street', but there is no proposal to make the board accountable to the people that matter, the constituency associations. These are the people who organise the party in the constituency, dip their hands into their pockets and stand on the doorstep to sell the Government's message.

This lack of accountability has been the subject of an attempt by 50 constituencies to obtain a special meeting of the party's Central Council for the past nine months. A formal requisition was submitted last September under the appropriate rule, but the executive committee responsible has blocked it.

Constituency associations are concerned that they will have no directly elected input into the board of management, which will have considerable power and influence over their activities and those of the party organisation as a whole. It is clear that the constituencies should themselves become accountable in some way to this board, but it is remarkable that they are to have no direct say in its composition.

Here is John Major or Norman Fowler - the sole proprietor - who, to create an impression of better management, invites friends to sit with him on the board. When directors are appointed to a board by the chairman acting on his own and not as a result of election by the shareholders, that is a facade. Party members deserve a great deal better than this.

It is also a matter for concern that the very people who told us that nothing was wrong before now tell us they are the ones to put it right. Why should these people still be allowed to run things when they have made such an appalling job of it in the past, and still cannot be called to account in the future, particularly when they refuse even to debate an alternative viewpoint?

By his refusal to accept a crucial argument for the democratic accountability of Central Office to the constituencies, and by failing to consider the direct election of the majority of the board and its officers, Sir Norman has merely proposed a formal rearrangement of the chairs. The incumbents are the same. This readjustment, and that is all it is, protects vested interests and delivers a stinging slap in the face of the constituency associations hoping for significant change.

Without this key element of democratic accountability, the reform proposals are little more than cosmetic changes. This concept, which the Conservative government has done so much to encourage in public life, is clearly an unwelcome intrusion at home.

The author has held office at all levels of the Conservative Party. He is currently a member of the National Union Executive Committee and chairman of the Party for Steering Committee.