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The Tories should give their members more power

15 August 2014

Politics is an expensive game. You might get paid three times the average salary once you’re in Parliament, but you can spend so much on your way there that only those with a fair bit of their own dosh have a good chance of making it. In this week’s Spectator, I examine how the exorbitant cost of being a candidate is preventing many fine potential politicians from making Westminster more representative of the country it is supposed to represent. But it’s not just expensive for those who want a taste of power: if you’re a party member, you can shell out around £700 to attend autumn conference – and once you’re there, discover that you’re not really all that welcome. The lack of power accorded to party members these days means that whatever the rise in Tory party membership that Grant Shapps is expected to announce in the autumn, the Conservatives will struggle to return to the really good old days of mass membership.

Some argue that mass membership just isn’t possible in this day and age, when voters are less tribal and it’s considerably less normal for young middle class types to join their local Conservative association to find a spouse as well as talk politics. But not everyone agrees. Douglas Carswell, the Conservative MP who has long campaigned for his party to use technology to rebuild its membership base, is encouraged by the latest membership figures to the extent that he genuinely believes it could – if the party does the right thing – grow big grassroots once again. He says:

‘This rise in membership is because the party is finally getting the digital side of things: Grant Shapps gets it and he is an excellent thing for the party. And I think it is now easier to recruit mass memberships because people are willing to sign up to things online, and the beauty of the internet is that it is cheap and it costs no more to register hundreds of members than it does one member.’

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But you can’t just endlessly tweet online membership forms at people and ask them to part with their £25 which in return makes them a campaigning dogsbody and someone who has to fork out hundreds of pounds to not be asked their opinion at conference. The party’s membership model needs to change so that members who care enough about Conservatism to join the Conservatives feel as though they have real influence. Giving them a proper say over policy would be a start: Carswell suggests policy debates online (although not in a format that allows constituency parties to tell HQ that they’re terrible while watching journalists rub their hands together with glee).

Constituency associations do wield a fair amount of power over a sitting MP, and that seems to be increasing, as some decide that the MP is doing a little too much sitting and not enough running around and should be moved on. The phrase ‘I’m in so much trouble with my association at the moment’ is something you increasingly hear in the bars and tearooms of the Commons after unpopular votes, and MPs say it with genuine fear. But Carswell thinks the party should allow those who have become members online to have a say in voting for shortlists for any Conservative representative in their area, from district councillor to MP. This means that the association MPs fear so much will not be a small clique of people pressuring their MP for the wrong reasons, as was the case in Crispin Blunt’s constituency. And it will mean that quite soon after joining, a Tory member will feel as though they are really involved.

This isn’t just about making members feel loved so that they stick around and push more envelopes through doors, though. The Tories could make better policies if they really involved their members, even if this could at times be inconvenient. Of course, they don’t want to go all Lib Dem and have endless votes on standing orders about a goldfish policy (I write this partly to provoke Mark Pack, who likes to point out at quite some length that the famous goldfish policy was in part adopted by the previous Labour government. The Lib Dems can at least slap ‘winning here!’ diamonds on fishbowls, then). But there have been instances where an inconvenient vote by the party membership has improved Tory policy so much that the party has boasted about it for years afterwards. Members are currently useful to the party in that they shove leaflets through doors and provide custom for those fabulous food and clothing stalls at conference, but they could become a great deal more valuable.

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  • Bongonian Govt

    Giving power back to Tory members inevitably means taking some away from the bureaucracy at CCHQ. Can’t see anybody there willingly surrendering it, too many desk-jockeys who’ve never done a day’s work depend on that sort of thing for a living. I’d welcome it, if I hadn’t already got fed up and left the party.

    I got as far as some way down the track to becoming a PPC and got fed up of being ordered to jump through hoops by some feckless oik straight out of university. The party is run by kids who’ve done internships for MPs then wangled a job at CCHQ, it is literally that inexperienced.

    I didn’t want to carpet-bag my way into a safe seat, I wanted to stand in my home town in a rather unlikely area for a Tory because it’s what I believe in. If people like me are being driven away from the party, I’m afraid there is a damn good reason for it, and it starts with the media and pr obsession of the Cameroons. Get rid of him and them, and I might come back.

  • Smithersjones2013

    Hey I have an idea how the Tories can increase their membership. Don’t call members ‘swivel-eyed nutters’ and don’t make people who do their leaders!

    Not being a divided dysfunctional broken party might also help…….

    Incidentally, I thought the Tories had no idea how many members they had? Sounds to me if “David Brent” is telling porkies……..

  • David J Timson

    This is not a new argument. It is summarised as: give Tory members more power and there will be more Tory members. It might be true, but there’s precious little to support it.

    First of all, Tory members have power of selection over elected representatives (although only limited chances to fire the useless). In truth relatively few use this power (general meetings to select Westminster candidates are often badly attended with far fewer than half the members going). Of course, participation levels (and excitement levels) might increase if there were more higher calibre candidates. Giving up a Saturday afternoon to watch two identikit male law graduates with amorphous city jobs issue Blair-lite platitudes in the hope of standing for West Central Mid-Labourheartland isn’t the most attractive prospect. Once upon a time, there was a real choice in terms of the views of the otherwise identikit male law graduates from London – now they “believe” whatever mush CCHQ tells them to believe. (Mind you quite a lot of these people were barking bonkers…). Local selection meetings have become a few people staring round a room hoping someone else will volunteer.

    Second, in the glory days of the Tory marriage machine, members had less power, not more. They had no say in who the leader was (the men in dark suits did that tricky job for them) and not even the vague hope of unsitting an MP. So those living in West Central Mid-Labourheartland had the fun of a (pointless) selection every 4-5 years but those in TruBlueshire got one every 30-40 years if they were lucky. Otherwise they were expected to deliver leaflets, bake cakes and find a spouse to have lots of little Tories with. Yes, there were proper debates at party conference, but they had absolutely zero effect on Party policy (the only time I can recall them listening was over introducing the poll tax quicker in Scotland…perhaps not the best one they could have chosen!)
    Of course the world has changed since then (“sadly” I hear all the UKIP supporters say now they can no longer instruct their wives to clean behind the oven). No doubt Carswell is right (he generally is) about the need to get more up to date with using the interweb thingy. However, I doubt that a few votes for boring candidates destined to lose in grim northern towns will have the punters flocking back.
    That said, the Tory party ought to be more democratic – not as a the quick fix to dismal membership figures but because it’s the right thing to do. “Trust the people” said Randolf Churchill over 100 years ago. It remains curious that the party that brought the working class man the vote, enabled us to buy shares (with associated voting rights) in previously nationalised companies and that forced trade unions to be democratic(ish) doesn’t extend the same rights to its own members. So do it – and do it soon but don’t expect a million members overnight because of it. A lot more will be required for that.

    • Smithersjones2013

      First of all, Tory members have power of selection over elected representatives

      Er no they don’t. All they get is the ability to choose from the pre-vetted short list of approved candidates just the same as when they get to vote on their leader ( for whom MPs pre-select the shortlist). They also have no choice in who is Party Chairman or many of the other party officials. How absurd is that?

      • TheUntalentedRiply

        UKIP aside, there is clearly a general contempt for electors and party members by the political class (of all parties). It is quite apparent that MPs wish to retain as much power as possible and will only give a few crumbs (which they attempt to dress as a feast) to appease the huddled masses. There is a democratic deficit in this country; the people are to be ruled and not to play anything more than a very occasional role in government (I think once every 5 years qualifies, and even then realistically your vote only really carries weight if you happen to live in a ‘swing’ or marginal seat).

        The Swiss model of government is very attractive and seems to produce very sensible and reasoned decisions (i.e. banning the building of minarets – could you imagine such a thing here?) – but it is one where the electorate are respected as full participants who are central to the process of government.

      • David J Timson

        My point was that as Tory membership has dropped, the democratic rights of members have (slightly) expanded. So it’s not ascribe that drop to a loss of democratic powers for members.
        (fyi, there has been a central candidates’ list since at least 1948; the Party Chairman has never been elected and before 1998, the leader was chosen solely by MPs).
        How do UKIP members get with of Old Nige (assuming that they wished to)?

  • sarahsmith232

    You don’t just shove leaflets, you knock on as well. You have to be able to sell their policies, probably more importantly, you have to be able to defend them really well. In an hostile urban environment, trust me, you will need to be able to do defending them really well. So you have to really believe that they’re going to make a difference for the better. Naïve, non-too bright, half-wit that I am, I went in for all of that for them in the run up to the 2010 election.
    – I was so happy with myself, I really loved that I pulled this off for them, changed my flipping mind now though, and then some. So, I was on my own outside a polling station in a hostile, extremely UN-Tory part of London, just me and about 30 over-excitable, Respect teens, and a black taxi driver pulled up to vote. The Respect lot was on him like a swarm of flies doing their ‘brother, brother, sister, sister’ act. He saw straight through their act, gave them a ‘why am your brother’ and made a defiant beeline for me – the one and only white person there.
    – So, he asked me why he should vote Tory. I’m from a working-class background so there was an immediate connection, I started talking about housing. I genuinely believed they’d bring an end to Labour’s despicable, cruel, priority system. So I said, that system will end if the Tories get in. We talked some more about stuff, and I got them a vote, from an East London black taxi driver! It was cute, when he came back out he was smiling and waving while making his way to his car, he even bibbed me and waved when he drove off.
    – But I lied to him, didn’t I? Turns out, I was completely wrong. Turns out, they’re pack of over-privileged Toffs that could give a ****ing **** about something as absolutely fundamentally important to a low-income persons well being – having a home. What was it they actually did? They ****ing re-announced an old Labour policy on the allocation of social housing, that was only ever an optional policy anyway. Every time I think of him, I hate that I was a dupe myself and it turns out I lied to him.
    – I wouldn’t be able to sell the Tories to a black East Londoner now if my life depended on it. I don’t, who, if you’ve got a brain and the capacity for reason, could believe they’d make a difference. There isn’t anything to believe in. What on earth could a person be motivated to become an activist for? There isn’t a word out of Cameron’s mouth that you could believe in.
    – So, yes, you’re expected to shove some leaflets but you’ve got to do a damn site more than that for them as an activist. Cameron’s too much of an inauthentic, lying, empty space, you’d be knocking yourself out for nothing, unless that is, you believe in seeing the country further dragged back to New Labour’s 1994.

    • Damaris Tighe

      Great post Sarah. But you know, the Tories very rarely do roll back Labour social policies.

      • sarahsmith232

        2nd time today, I’ve just been moderated AGAIN.
        There wasn’t anything in it, other than me going to town on Cameron.
        So, again, I’ll write – thanks hon’ for the compliment, don’t think there’s any point in my writing anything further, there’s no way I could be delicate enough in my writing to get it past the Spec’ moderator.
        Enjoy your day dear.

        • Damaris Tighe

          Lots of **** are in order sweetheart. My vocabulary is rich enough to get what you’re saying.

  • cambridgeelephant

    When Cameron took over the membership was 250,000 – it is now less than half that. With less than one year before the election, shouldn’t someone have noticed that decline before now ? And tried to stop to ?

  • HookesLaw

    What about the other side of the coin… responsibility?

  • Richard Calhoun

    Hopefully the Tories are seeing the light, I resigned from the Tory party because being a member was meaningless
    The Central Office and the Constituency parties have it stitched up and the people do not get a say.
    We need genuine open primaries, based on Totnes 2009, a diminution of party power and increase in MP’s power through accountability to his voters

    • Chingford Man

      The only light the Tories need to see is that of the UKIP Express thundering towards them.

      • GUBU

        On its way to winning one or perhaps even two seats, and the grateful thanks of Mr Milliband for helping him limp over the line to an overall majority. Toot toot!

        • Chingford Man

          Vote LibLabCon, get LibLabCon. Trying to blackmail us into voting Tory doesn’t work anymore.

          • GUBU

            I’m not suggesting you vote for anyone. Just dampening expectations.

            • Smithersjones2013

              There is nothing that demonstrates the sub-intellectual qualities of the greater spotted Tory Twerp than ” Vote UKIP get Labour” because however much Tories whine on about it , two things above all else only will defeat them.

              1) Driving millions of Libdem supporters into Labour’s arm by forming a Coalition with the Libdems

              2) By failing to do anything to rectify the electoral imbalance that favours Labour (losing the Boundary changes)

              So the inevitable defeat of the Tories will be largely self inflicted. Such hilarious knowledge somewhat mitigates the frustration of suffering Miliband’s misfits for however long they will lead for.

              • Andy

                Couple of points in all that. If you vote UKIP it is probably safe to say in many seats you will get a Labour MP. If you get a Labour Government they will drag the UK deeper into the quagmire. I cannot understand this stupid attitude.

                Founding a Coalition was a huge mistake, but the electorate had delivered that result. It would probably have been better to have formed a minority government and dissolved later in the year.

                As to the Boundary review you should blame a badly drafted Coalition Agreement and lying scum LibDems. Their ideas for the House of Lords would have given them dictatorship and that was why Tory backbenchers said no, and rightly so. It was one of the worst examples of gerrymandering I have seen. On the subject of Boundary reform all seats should be the size of the Isle of Wight – 110000 voters give or take 5%.

                Oh and one more thing: the reason the West Lothian Question has not been answered is because of the LibDems. They wouldn’t be able to sick their noses into Health, Education, Justice etc, etc, etc.

                • Smithersjones2013

                  And you claim UKIP are thick? I haven’t really got the time but lets educate you a little shall we sunny jim?

                  Couple of points in all that. If you vote UKIP it is probably safe to say in many seats you will get a Labour MP.

                  You mean in seats like Thurrock and Thanet South where UKIP are leading the constituency polls and are best placed to win the seat denying Labour the opportunity or in seats such as Broxtowe where Soubry was finished the moment those Libdems switched to Labour.

                  However much you try and blame UKIP if you analyse the figures properly you will find that the largest switch will be from Libdem to Labour and that switch occurred because of the Coalition.

                  Founding a Coalition was a huge mistake, but the electorate had delivered that result.

                  Firstly show me where on the 2010 voter ballot slips was the box for Coalition? Oh wait a minute there wasn’t one so NOBODY voted for a Coalition. They voted for the party they preferred. The Coalition was a back room stitch up driven by one David Cameron and one George Osborne

                  As for the rest of your pathetic excuses and blaming the Libdems, Cameron invited them into government in full knowledge of their dubious characters so it is Cameron and the Tory leadership you need to address your concerns with.

                  I agree about the WLQ though. So you better ask Dave why he was happy to sacrifice it as an issue in order to fornicate with the Libdems?

                  Now do be a good boy and do what Tories seem incapable of presently and that is grow a spine and take responsibility for your own errors and stop blaming everybody else. The Tories brought it on themselves and now they are just going to have to wallow in their own mess!

                  Bottom line. If the Tories were good enough UKIP would never have risen and that’s the reality of the situation. The Tories are just not good enough so either change (and change radically) or get over it and accept your new existence as a party who will likely not win a majority in several generations if ever.

              • GUBU

                Not a Tory, as it happens. Nor a twerp.

                However, I have grown increasingly weary of the declamatory posts of many UKIP supporters who, like yourself it would appear, would feel in some strange way vindicated if Mr Milliband becomes Prime Minister next May.

                I find that ironic given that it will almost certainly guarantee that there will be no referendum on EU membership, not to mention a whole range of policy initiatives which will be inimical to everything its supporters tell us UKIP stands for. It would appear that, for you, that’s a price worth paying for sticking it to the ‘Nasty Party’.

                Well, at least we can all console ourselves with the thought you will see the funny side of it all. Many of us, however, will not be laughing.

                But don’t let my doubts distract you – it’s full steam ahead towards those two seats in Parliament. Toot Toot!

              • TheUntalentedRiply

                You know, if it takes 5 years of Labour government to get a proper Tory party back, then so be it.

        • Andy

          I keep explaining this to Ukippers, but they are as thick as pig sh*t.

      • Richard Calhoun

        Sadly UKIP have failed to provide the policies and the strategy going forward.
        The leadership is weak and populist
        They are the same old same

        • Smithersjones2013

          No UKIP’s policy portfolio will be outlined in September at their conference in good time to inform the electorate before the General Election. We will then see how different their policies are.

          Your accusations are both false and premature (a common problem for Tories I understand).

          • Richard Calhoun

            A rather typical ukip response if I may say so!
            I didn’t make accusations I gave you my view, nothing false about my view, its what I believe

            • Smithersjones2013

              Ok you’re delusional then. Happy now?

    • Smithersjones2013

      We need genuine open primaries, based on Totnes 2009, a diminution of
      party power and increase in MP’s power through accountability to his

      You’re having a laugh aren’t you? After the number of times that Wollaston has embarrased the Government? I doubt CCHQ will ever allow such an experiment to be repeated ever again!

      • Richard Calhoun

        Which is precisely why we must make it happen

  • swatnan

    So its rather like a student loan then? Perhaps they should pay it back until they have inherited millions or made millions doing lectures tours.

  • Raddiy

    I find it highly illuminating that so many supposed intelligent, educated middle class people still think there is a certain prestige to being a member of the Conservative Party despite the fact it long ago stopped being conservative, whilst openly vocalising that its supporters are considered plebs, and a mixture of the Turnip Taliban and swivel eyed loons.

    The membership may well be the educated middle class with degrees coming out of their ar*eholes, but when they were handing out common sense and rational thought processes, they were not at the back of the queue, they couldn’t even find the queue to join.

    The most amusing thing is the Conservative supporting websites are full of people complaining about being ignored by CCHQ, yet like the drones they are, they still campaign to get the 300 troughers re-elected. I mean there is normal stupidity, and the gold plated stupidity that seems to be reserved for LIb/Lab/Con proles.

    When Grant Shapps announces the membership figures, I wonder if he will include all his £1 friend members, and his Team 2015 who probably won’t even pay a £1, They are after all, the perfect members for Cameron and his cronies, to be used and abused at election time, and then told to bu**er off.

  • kyalami

    The party system is obsolete. While MPs claim to be driven by the needs of their constituents, the party always comes first. Voters are becoming disenchanted with this and hence the long term decline in party membership. A little bump pre-election does not alter the fact that politicians are remote from the public and with Internet technology, people have other choices when it comes to campaigns.

  • Damaris Tighe

    “for members who care enough about Conservatism to join the Conservatives …”: actually if the Conservative Party cared enough about Conservatism then it’s membership base might rise.

  • Chingford Man

    What members?

    • Kitty MLB

      ‘Arrogant posh boys in power’ blah, blah, blah, the normal
      Chip on the shoulder..I cannot be bothered to answer..
      but yes, Labour changed the world which is why the world is
      in such a state…YAWN !

      • Chingford Man

        Well, Kitty, they are mostly boys, they are posh and they are arrogant. With which do you disagree? Besides, my only chips are in the freezer.

        • Damaris Tighe

          Aunt Bessie’s I hope.

          • Chingford Man

            Sorry, Asda’s Steak Cut ones, cheap and tasty. Can’t imagine Dave and Gideon shopping there.

            • Kitty MLB

              You see what I mean.Did anyone care where Churchill bought his sausages.

              • Smithersjones2013

                Under Churchill, I doubt the Tories would have got themselves into the incredible mess they have created for themselves

          • Kitty MLB

            I love chips with mayonaise on them.Its very
            Dutch..we lived there for a few years.

            • Damaris Tighe

              Very fatting Kitty! But I must admit a good dollop of Hellemann’s original (none of that tasteless low fat stuff) can be very good on chips if I’m in the mood.

        • Kitty MLB

          It doesn’t matter what gender they are. It doesn’t matter what their background happens to be, is posh a crime just like is being working class a crime? the class war thing is so Milipede. And people can be as arrogant as they like as long as they get the job done. They are not our little friends who we go down the pub with. Do politicians have to do things nicely, with a smile like Tony Blair?. I am speaking of politicians in general. Its all a bit personal now.
          And I am glad the chips are in the freezer.. but I could have been speaking of microchips.. you never know 😉

          • Smithersjones2013

            is posh a crime just like is being working class a crime? the class war thing is so Milipede.

            It wasn’t Labour who were sneering at UKIP for being proportionately more supported by ‘less educated lower class voters’

          • Andy

            Miliscum is a cretin. He is Polish. His Father was born in Belgium and his Mother in Poland. They have no connection to Britain and his Father actually hated Britain – he wished us to lose to the Nazis which is bazaar given that they would have killed him pretty sharpish.

            • Damaris Tighe

              It’s bizarre. Bazaar is an arab market.

        • Andy

          So because someone went to a private school, which incidentally is not their fault, they are automatically ‘posh’ and ‘arrogant’. It is bigots like you that’s the problem.

    • Kitty MLB

      ‘Arrogant posh boys in power’ blah, blah, blah, the normal
      Chip on the shoulder..I cannot be bothered to answer..
      but yes, Labour changed the world which is why the world is
      in such a state…YAWN !

    • Spectre

      Them being bastards aside, I do understand why the Tory leadership is so eager to exclude the grassroots from decision-making. Tory footsoldiers are either docile old fools who have a rather naive view of their leaders as benevolent squires, or are rabid, spotty, teenage market fundamentalists who think politics is about how much of a ‘lad’ Boris is and how many tax cuts they can roll out. They’re an unpleasant bunch, and the face of the Tory party for many people. Keep ’em in their much-deserved box. Vote UKIP.

      • Ooh!MePurse!

        Your post is amusing given the fact based (as opposed to your stereotyping) research showing the typical Ukip voter demographic.

        Of course anyone can stereotype based on their experience. In my experience many Ukip supporters are thoroughly unpleasant and devoid of reason, commonsense and humour.

        • Smithersjones2013

          Well its good to see that you are true to your Tory stereotype then!

      • Smithersjones2013

        Bravo. applause more more! Have Labour / Tories resorted to trolling as UKIP supporters already?

        • Spectre

          Curses! You’ve seen through my cunning ruse. How perspicacious of you.

    • John Dalton

      I sincerely hope the Tories get a total drubbing at the next election and that reports of their hemorrhaging membership numbers are true – and I speak as an ex-Tory voter who despises the alternative.

      This is not because I hate the Party – I love the Party – but I hate what it’s become under Cameron – a vacuous spin-obsessed Blair clone shoe-horned into the leadership at the exact time we needed a strong, conviction-led, patriotic, conservative leader determined to roll back all the Lefty nonsense that has so blighted our country since the 90s – mass immigration, I*lamis-ation, welfarism, the EU etc etc etc.

      The whole reason the Tory party is in the mess that it’s in is because it doesn’t listen to its members and it doesn’t want them having any say, because the Cameroonian clique controlling the party is thoroughly contemptuous of what the membership has to say as they have proven time and time again.

      Unfortunately for them, the membership knows this – and many of us have found a new party to speak for us. I suggest we support them all we can before this country finally collapses into complete third world chaos.

      • Chingford Man

        Peter Hitchens once said that if the Tory Party was a fridge your food would be off, if it was a car you’d be stuck on the hard shoulder, and if it was your lawyer you’d be in jail.

        • Smithersjones2013

          And if it was your toilet you’d be up to your neck in it!

      • ButcombeMan

        “It” does not listen to its members?

        No, Cameron and Osborne do not listen.

        They have abandoned their core vote. Cameron is no longer recognizable as someone I could support and thus continue my 50 years of doing so.

        He,almost alone, did that.

  • RavenRandom

    MPs should be chosen by random lottery for one term. No corruption possible and you get representative democracy rather than nepotism and Oxbridge self-perpetuating elitism.
    Make it worthwhile for those chosen, pay them say £200,000 a year and guarantee them their job back at the end. They work standard hours, six weeks holidays a year with access to experts.
    Directly elect the PM who appoints the executive subject to Parliament’s veto.

    • Smithersjones2013

      and you get representative democracy

      If you choose your politicians by lottery they cannot be representatives because nobody voted for them. Shish!

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