Tories without a voice

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The Independent Online
Last year the Labour Party undertook a process for electing its leader that involved all sections of the party. All party members were given a direct say in the choice of Tony Blair.

This week the Conservative Party is embarking on a leadership contest that does not involve all party members, in spite of the quaintly named "consultation" process with the constituencies. Supposedly authoritative statements are made about the level of support in the constituencies for the different candidates. But this is a sham, since in reality no one knows what the membership of the party wants; in fact, there is no genuine intention to find out.

If the party is to renew its support in the country, it needs the energy and enthusiasm of the local constituencies. At the present time, party membership activity and morale are at all-time lows. Party members can no longer be taken for granted - the tradition of loyalty and deference in the party is fast eroding. A majority of party members polled in a recent academic survey (True Blues, OUP) want one member, one vote for party leader. Unfortunately, Conservatives belong to a party whose organisation is designed specifically not to involve the members.

The individual who is elected party leader next week or the week after will subsequently be "confirmed" by a "party meeting" to which representatives of the constituencies as well as the parliamentary party will be invited. There may be a vote (in 1990 there wasn't even that), but there won't at that stage be a choice. The role of Conservative Party members in the electoral process is to be "consulted" (in an undefined and patently inadequate process) and to "confirm" - a bizarre involvement by any standards.

And yet - and here is the real rub - the leader will take possession of the party lock, stock and barrel. He or she will own Central Office, will be free to appoint all of the party officers (chairman, treasurer, etc) and these officers will remain unaccountable to anyone but the leader. The membership of the party will be expected to follow the direction to be set by the leader, whatever that direction may be.

The leadership election process exhibits once more the deep structural problems in the party. The current structure was created in the 19th century as a federation of supporters' clubs in the constituencies. The supporters were not and are still not regarded as part of the team. What is needed urgently is a formal constitution, which will achieve a better balance between the different sections of the party, parliamentary and constituency. Party members will look to whoever is elected leader to introduce such a constitution and bring the party into the modern era.

The writer is chairman of the Charter Movement, which campaigns for greater democracy within the Conservative Party.