The Tories take a few baby steps towards democracy

party reforms have effects
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The Independent Online
It's a curiosity of the rules unveiled yesterday for electing the Conservative leader that had they been in force when John Major stood down, William Hague might not have had the job at all. Ken Clarke was easily the most recognisable of the available candidates outside Westminster; he came out well on top in the polling of constituency chairmen, and would probably be Leader of the Opposition under the one member one vote ballot envisaged in yesterday's blueprint of a new party organisation. And a lot would therefore now be different - not least the view Tony Blair would be taking of how difficult it would be to win a referendum on a single currency. This may look like a pointless "what if", to be left to the seductive world of virtual history. But it illustrates an important truth about the restructuring of the party achieved by William Hague in a few months as leader. The changes will have a real world effect quite out of proportion to the scant attention they will receive outside the Conservative Party at a time when that party is deemed not to matter.

They also, broadly, live up to the claims Hague is making to be an unexpectedly fast moving and determined party reformer. In organisation, if not yet in policy, Hague has shown that he has learnt a good deal from the cautionary tale of Labour's attempted - and very nearly successful - suicide by slow poisoning after the 1979 election defeat. He has moved a party with not the slightest culture and history of membership democracy to a one member one vote system. And he has done it without the painful transitional stage in which power in the Labour Party in the early 1980s was seized from the MPs only to be handed to the most determined activists instead. It's easy to mock some of the conclusions of the so-called membership survey which preceded yesterday's paper. It's hardly surprising, for example, that 98 per cent of Tory members agreed "that a Single Party should be created with one constitution and common standards of performance and integrity". It's rather more so that even 2 per cent were prepared to flirt with the implicit alternative, that it would be better for Conservatism to be several parties with conflicting constitutions and varying tolerances of incompetence and corruption. But behind these banalities lurks an impressive effort to revitalise a desperately aged and shrunken party in which Hague has taken on some of its most entrenched interests - including a deeply self-important backbench parliamentary leadership - and emerged in most cases unscathed.

A lot of this, of course, was borrowed directly from modernised Labour and from the Liberal Democrats. Both of these had long realised that you don't recruit to a modern political party unless the members have a share of the power in return. True, the main change is limited to the election by the full membership of the leader from a shortlist of two chosen by the MPs. And yes, despite claims to the contrary from Hague's circle, the new system is likely to make it somewhat more difficult to unseat the leader. First, 15 per cent of MPs - anonymously if they wish - have to seek a no confidence ballot, and then the leader has to go if he fails to secure a simple majority - and will not be able to stand in the subsequent election. But given that the membership tend to favour the incumbent - and may therefore pick the potential successor politically closest to him or her - some of those most hostile to an unpopular leader may, paradoxically, be wariest of replacing him. What's more, the very fact that the membership will now have a voice may make the parliamentary party more cautious. But that hardly makes Hague invulnerable (disastrous results even in next year's Euro-elections could put him in some danger) or wrong to bring the members into a choice which neither of the main parties now leaves to its MPs.

In other cases the internal democracy may be more Leninist than real. But that is hardly so different from Labour. The plebiscite on the manifesto will be, like Labour's, a demand by the leadership for endorsement by acclaim from a wider membership of proposals over which it has had only the most limited influence. (Given the vociferousness of the pro-EMU minority in the party, it may actually be a rather livelier affair than Labour's was before the 1997 election.) Democratic centralism lives too, in a practical and little noticed proposal designed to ensure that wholly unsuitable candidates are not picked by local parties in by-elections. Just as the Labour NEC can impose shortlists, so Conservative Central Office will now provide - for the first time - a list of selected candidates from which local parties have to choose. Although constituencies parties will be able to seek approval for a favoured local candidate this is a limited but significant erosion - entirely consistent with New Labour behaviour - of constituency autonomy.

Labour yesterday made a great deal of how the changes would not include one member one vote elections to the the party Board - the nearest equivalent to the NEC - or to the party conference. And it's a sign of the cultural resistance to internal democracy in the Tory party that the survey exposed only limited demand for it. But the Labour attack neatly glosses over the fact that both the NEC and the party conference are becoming, by Tony Blair's explicit design, less rather than more influential in the formulation of policy. There is another reason, too, why Labour may seek to mute its criticism of Hague's new proposals: by avoiding a complex and inherently unstable electoral college for the party leadership elections, Hague has been able to boast that the electoral system will genuinely be one member one vote. Labour's, by contrast, still includes a 33.3 per cent share of the vote in leadership elections for the trade unions. One effect of Hague's changes will be to make, once again, the institutional influence of the unions in the Labour Party an issue of public debate.

It used to be said that Margaret Thatcher's reforms - particularly, but not only, those which democratised the trade unions - helped to save the Labour Party from itself. The changes which Hague announced yesterday are a necessary but not a sufficient condition of a recovery which cannot yet be guaranteed. But it may also be that - this time by example - Labour's modernisation will in turn, and in time, help to save Conservatism from itself.