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Conservatives and internal party democracy

Mike McCartney

9th March 2023

Is there a grassroots rebellion among the Tories? And why are we asking?

I'm doing a little bit on democracy and the internal structures of UK parties at the minute. The SNP leadership race is a fresh way to look at the democratic nature of elections, and there is a blog entry about it here.

There was also a newspaper article that caught my eye recently which I think is a good way into the topic as well. It looks at at how Tory constituency parties are influencing the election of parliamentary candidates. Before getting to the article, a quick reminder of why this matters.

In the post war period the UK’s party system can be regarded somewhat oligopolistic, with electoral competition being dominated by the Conservative (occupying Number 10 for most of the post war years) and Labour parties (in office a fair bit less years), and occasionally being challenged by the Liberal Democrats (briefly in coalition). Notwithstanding some evidence of a move to multi-partyism (success of the SNP at the ballot box, and increased electoral support for fringe parties) it is important for the healthy functioning of the democratic process in the UK that this dominance is balanced by a system of internal party democracy whereby party members can significantly shape the direction of their party in terms of selecting their leader, election of candidates, and policy making. With regards to the latter, political scientists, such as those at the Democratic Audit, have said that the influence of ordinary party members is fairly minimal. Closer investigation should reveal whether this is a universal truth.

(Quick study note. Ordinary party members are regarded as the “rank and file”. They are registered, pay a fee and don’t hold senior positions.)

Prior to 1998 very little was known about the internal structure of the Conservative Party since it had no official constitution, and only existed historically in Parliament. After the landslide defeat of 1997, William Hague sought to change all that, promising no less than a “cultural revolution” within the party. Hague’s plans to reorganise the party were approved by 96% of party members (though only one third voted). Constituency Associations were to remain the key organisation at local level, but a quad new bodies were set up: The Board, The National Convention, The National Convention Executive, and The Policy Forum, all intended to allow ordinary members to play a part in devising policy by making proposals to conference. It may seem on the surface that these were democratising moves, but in reality the Tories have historically been and would remain a very top down party. The first signs of this plus ca change came very quickly with Hague’s initiative of internal ballots on policy. On the one hand they appear to give ordinary members more sway on policy making, but ballots are only triggered by the Party Leader (such as the overwhelming vote in favour of ruling out Britain’s membership of the Euro)! Special consideration must be given to the role of national party conferences here, since they are the annual focus of media attention and often serve as a springboard for policy announcements. As far as the Tories are concerned, they are rather unique in giving theirs no formal role in policy making. At most, leaders have been known to “test the waters” by “deciding the mood” of the conference during a major speech. This is far less important now, of course, as the use of internal polling has increased, and strategy has become far more professionalised via hiring external policy advisers like Lynton Crosby. As Richard Kelly points out, though, local and regional conferences have played a more significant role in policy making, so the influence of party members cannot be completely dismissed. But the fact remains that the Conservative Party is consistently ranked bottom by academic experts in audits of ordinary member influence on policy compared to other parties, with leaders exercising more personal influence than is the case with the others. Witness the volte face on grammar schools: Cameron was lukewarm, and therefore party policy was against, but May is in pro-grammar, and so it became official policy. Under Boris Johnson, policy on the biggest issue of the day, the response to covid, seems to be dictated by the PM on an almost hourly basis. Therefore to a large extent party leaders determine policy rather than leaders when it comes to the Tories.

In terms of the Guardian article I have been using about sitting MPs being ousted by party members, there is quite a nice debate about whether the recent deselections represent a fresh dawn of grass roots activism.

Look for evidence in the article on how there may be a revolt by ordinary members, as well as how the selection process this time round is only different in style rather than substance - hint: social media may have played a part here.

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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