The other Conservative party election that almost no-one knows about

There is a second election taking place within the Conservative Party at the moment, but despite the fact that it is to elect the most senior voluntary party representatives, 99% of members won’t even know it’s taking place.

Since joining the Conservative Party, the inner workings of what I now know is properly called the ‘voluntary party’ were shrouded in mystery. Even as a branch representative on my Federation’s Executive Council and later as a Federation Officer, the National Convention and regional structures remained elusive, their workings known to very few locally. It was only once I was elected as the Federation’s Chairman in 2018 that I started to see for myself how the Party works, and sadly also how under-represented party members are.

Unhelpfully, but probably quite deliberately, the Party does very little to inform or educate members about its inner workings. There is only a single webpage on the Conservatives website with sparse details, and anyone seeking information would do far better to look on Wikipedia where more detailed explanations can be found.

Last year as a Federation Chairman I was able to vote and elect the voluntary party’s most senior representatives: the Chairman, President, and Vice-Presidents of the National Convention, who also sit on the Party’s Board. There was almost no awareness of this election, the candidates, or the platforms they were standing on among the wider membership. At least at the Regional Board level the electorate is slightly wider consisting of a number of representatives from each Association and so there was some awareness and discussion among my fellow Federation Officers of the different candidates and their merits. But why are these roles, apparently to represent members at the most senior levels of the party, not voted on by all members? Online voting systems now make it incredibly easy, cheap and efficient to manage large-scale polls of this nature, and more so now with the centralisation of the members database and membership functions within CCHQ.

The party is perfectly capable of emailing all members with the latest variation of “donate £20 and receive this mug/t-shirt/limited edition item”, so why aren’t they also sharing more details of what’s happening within the voluntary party, even once a quarter?

Some may ask why anyone should care who the most senior voluntary party representatives are and what is discussed. As just one example, in 2017, a proposed new draft of the Party’s constitution was brought before a meeting of the National Convention which would have removed the clear, unambiguous, and prescribed rights and process for members to select their prospective parliamentary candidate. The intention was to instead replace this clearly prescribed process with rules that the Party’s Board may issue and change at any time (allowing the Party Board, at any point and by a single stroke of its pen, to disenfranchise members and further centralise MP selection). With some limited exceptions (including an excellent article on Conservative Home),  there was very limited discussion or even awareness within the Party more generally – a clear sign of the growing disconnect between members and those that are, in theory, meant to govern the Party. If there had been greater awareness of this, I imagine many members locally would have been knocking on our door asking what we as the Executive, and our-then Chairman as a Convention member, were doing to ensure it didn’t come to pass. How could such an important – and potentially devastating change for members – have been discussed and proposed with so little attention?

At the National Convention meeting in Solihull in December 2018 I was pleased to hear confirmation that this proposal had finally been dropped. But more disappointment was to come when it came to discussing the implementation of one of the Pickles Review recommendations, which was commissioned following the disastrous 2017 manifesto and General Election campaign. The Pickles review recommended a number of changes to try and ensure there was wider consultation on the manifesto before it was published, including with the Voluntary Party through the Conservative Policy Forum structures. Everyone in the room was clear there couldn’t be a repeat of the disastrous 2017 general election campaign, but yet we were asked to agree an amendment to the party constitution which merely “recommended” there was consultation and didn’t require it.

I asked in the meeting why this was and why we couldn’t change the proposed clause in the constitution from “should” to “must”. I was told, with understandable disappointment, that MPs would simply never vote through and agree that kind of change, even if we the most senior voluntary party representatives thought it a good idea. But why not? While members put in a huge amount of money, time and effort into securing the election and re-election of Conservative MPs, it is ultimately those MPs that failed to be re-elected – including one of my local Conservative MPs in Croydon Central – who lost out the most. It is therefore in Conservative MPs’ interests – as well as all party members – to avoid a repeat of the mistakes in the 2017 general election campaign, and it shouldn’t take another poor general election result where the Conservatives lose to the Labour Party or even the Brexit Party before change is delivered.

The lack of opportunities for party members to be heard also came up during the first ever motion to be heard at a National Convention meeting (unsurprisingly about Brexit) in February 2019. There was a passionate and robust debate in the room with people speaking for and against the motion, and also – quite disappointingly – against even having motions at meetings. What I found was most interesting was that the comment in that debate with the biggest applause and support was when a fellow National Convention member made the point that members (and indeed Chairmen) have almost no voice in the party, with very limited opportunities for anyone to make their views known given the Party’s structure. It is therefore disappointing that the Convention Presidents and Vice-Presidents haven’t been more ambitious in pushing for greater reforms as part of the constitution update process – there certainly seems to be the support among the party’s grassroots representatives to do so.

These same lack of opportunities for party members to be heard are also likely the main drivers behind some no confidence motions directed at MPs and Associations in recent months. The only rights party members have left to make their views known are through motions at their AGMs (or SGM), the election of their Association Officers and Executive (who then have almost no influence beyond their own Association), and through the selection and re-selection of candidates. Without greater engagement with party members and an outlet which means they feel listened to (and thus have a stake in the party) – perhaps through expanding the electorate for the National Convention positions, or even an elected party Chairman –  we will probably see more and more members simply disengaging, or making their frustrations known through the ‘nuclear option’ of looking to deselect their local Conservative MP.

While I would never advocate for the kind of internal democracy that ties the Labour party in knots and takes up a huge amount of unnecessary time, there needs to be a better balance. The Party need to increase awareness within the membership about the important role Chairmen and Association Executives can play, particularly in ensuring those elected go on to represent members through the (albeit limited) National Convention and area/regional structures. The Party should also consider how the membership more widely is kept informed of the work of the National Convention and those that are elected, supposedly, to represent  members and the voluntary party. It also shouldn’t be acceptable that at the National Convention meetings in Solihull and Oxford only about 1 in 6 convention members attended – if this was widely known within the party membership, I’m not sure they would look too kindly on their representatives.

Thankfully, in this current election for National Convention roles, there are some stellar candidates standing who would be true representatives of Party members, and we also have a newly appointed Party Chairman, James Cleverly MP, who is much closer to the party grassroots. It was clear from his speech and audience Q&A at the Conservative Progress conference that Jeremy Hunt had no ideas on Party reform. I don’t know what Boris’ views are, and I highly doubt Party reform will be a priority for anyone in the next 94 days – but it needs to be addressed not long after we leave the EU.

Giving members more information and chairmen actually turning up to meetings to represent members through the existing structures would be a good start, but I fear for the future of the party if there isn’t substantial wider change soon. The Conservatives have always been a broad church of views from the centre to right-wing of politics, and of europhiles and eurosceptics. But in this new modern era, I’m not convinced the Party can survive if members don’t feel they have a stake in it and a way to directly influence its direction.

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