Constitutional debates are difficult things to conduct in the proper spirit, for a couple of reasons.
First, the stakes are almost always high. You are, after all, talking about the very rules by which the game is played. Opportunities to tilt the playing field abound.
Second, it can be very difficult to maintain the proper differentiation between questions of means, the proper stuff of a constitution, and questions of ends. Bloodless discussions about the best mechanisms for collective decision-making and governance can get short-circuited by more interesting debates about how to get the specific outcomes you want.
As Zachary Spiro recently outlined, this is most obvious in Gordon Brown’s proposals for overhauling the United Kingdom, which would simply bake Labour’s principles and policy objectives into constitutional rights, with all sorts of woeful implications.
But the tendency is just as obvious in the internal disputes of political parties. The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, an enthusiastic participant in the Opposition’s debilitating civil war in the 1980s, made no secret that its various demands for changes to the Party Constitution were entirely in aid of bringing the whole organisation under left-wing control.
No doubt Peter Cruddas and Priti Patel would resent their new outfit, the Conservative Democratic Organisation, being compared to the Bennites of yesteryear.
But whatever high-minded concerns about the internal mechanisms of the party may have spurred them to action, there hasn’t been any effort to hide the fact that it is also animated by a distaste for the left of the Party (which apparently includes Rishi Sunak now) in general, and enduring loyalty to Boris Johnson in particular.
There’s nothing wrong with being a Hiroo Onoda in a good cause, if you think the former Prime Minister’s is such. But such a spirit of the enterprise is unlikely to build the sort of broad consensus needed to actually secure the changes the CDO is seeking, which would require a two-thirds vote of the National Convention.
(I obviously write as someone who was extremely critical of Cruddas’ effort to shoehorn Johnson onto the leadership ballot. But it is worth the CDO remembering, before they cite the toppling of Truss as evidence of the Party’s “contempt” for members, that our survey suggests the grassroots thought she was right to resign – and would have then backed Sunak.)
This divisive stance is a shame, because there is a strong case for overhauling the Party’s internal procedures. John Strafford, the founder of the long-standing Campaign for Conservative Democracy – the existence of which lends the CDO a slightly People’s Front of Judea-ish edge – wrote on this site how the members’ vote for the leader was a consolation prize after the grassroots surrendered meaningful control over the organisation at large in the late 1990s.
There is plenty of scope for disagreement on what those changes should be. William Atkinson suggested letting members elect the Chair of the Board, which controls Party funds and could ensure long-term investment in building the membership and developing promising seats, rather than throwing everything at this cycle’s marginals. (Our panellists weren’t keen.)
Cruddas instead wants them to elect the Party Chairman, who’s main role is setting election strategy. The utility of this is less obvious – the imperative of winning the next election dominates CCHQ’s thinking as it is, and members seem unlikely to ever elect a candidate who doesn’t make that their priority.
As for more local control over candidate selections, it would certainly be good to see the end of CCHQ imposing one-member shortlists, or expecting a local association to select a candidate they only just met.
But there would likely still need to be some capacity for the centre to find space for candidates who are, for want of a better term, government-minded; the accelerating tendency for hyper-local candidates and MPs who act like councillors has not, so far, turned out to be a recipe for effective use of public office at a national level.
We should also be wary of moves to replace representative with direct democracy inside the Party. CDO’s proposal to replace the national convention with a general meeting could easily end up favouring the time-rich and highly-engaged few over the general membership.
Finally, we should make sure that any changes are not conducted in the Bennite spirit. As I argued during the leadership contests, there are hard limits to the proper role of “party democracy” in a representative democracy.
A party exercising democratic control over who it nominates for Parliament is all very well. But once elected those people are representatives, not delegates. The idea that members should be able to overrule Conservative MPs on the question on questions of confidence in the prime minister, previously floated by some now involved in the CDO, should be rejected in the strongest possible terms.
Alas, the CDO website lists amongst their aims “Retaining and Reinforcing the Party Membership’s democratic right to choose the Party Leader” (my emphasis, their capitals). For those who would defend MPs proper independence in a parliamentary democracy, it may be time to do a little reading.