Endless points of order

September 26, 1997

The party conference season opens this year to the sound of organisational shuffling rather than ideological clashing. Richard Cockett reports as Blair prepares to rid Labour of the last rituals of opposition while Hague tries to erect a structure for his chaotic Tories.

An unusual amount of time and energy at the coming party conferences will be devoted to the subject of "organisational reform". Party structure, long a rather tedious subject fit only for the back-room hacks, now seems set to replace nuclear disarmament or the Maastricht Treaty as the political flashpoint for both Labour and Conservative delegates. Resolutions (or "membership votes" in the new political discourse) on "decentralisation" and the "National Policy Forum" might lack the red meat of Norman Tebbit denouncing Douglas Hurd on Europe or erstwhile miners' leader Arthur Scargill declaring open warfare on the platform, but they are as much a guide to the spirit and direction of modern British politics as those previous confrontations were redolent of their own eras.

The importance that the new leader of the Conservative party, William Hague, attaches to the issue of the structural reform of the party is demonstrated by his unique and high-handed declaration that if he does not win a majority on the ballot of party members for his proposed "six principles of reform", he will resign. This would make him not only the youngest leader in the party's history, but also the briefest.

His brinkmanship is strongly reminiscent of Tony Blair's tactics over new Labour's ditching of the old clause four and its reform of the party's links with the trade unions. And therein lies the significance of Hague's initiative - it is another move in the symbiotic relationship that the Tory party has endured for nearly a century with Labour, each perpetually reacting to each other to reposition themselves in the political marketplace. Hague's "six principles of reform" that are being put for approval to the party membership (the result to be declared at conference) are summarised under the headings unity, decentralisation, democracy, involvement, integrity and openness. Such initiatives are the usual reaction to electoral disaster in the party's history. The wilderness years of the mid-19th century led to the creation of Conservative Central Office in 1870 and the founding of the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations in 1869, the voluntary wing of which stages the party conference itself. The defeats of 1906 and 1910 led to the creation of the posts of party chairman and treasurer and the defeat of 1945 provoked the reforms of the most successful party chairmen of them all, Lord Woolton, which included his virtual abolition of payments by candidates to be selected as MPs.

In one sense, therefore, Hague's reforms lie squarely in a tradition of quick and effective reaction to electoral reverse. The Tories have always been more adept at this than Labour. After Labour's own electoral Waterloo in 1979, the party also went down the road of internal structural reform, spurred on by the Bennite left, in pursuit of many of the same rhetorical objectives as Hague - "democracy", "decentralisation" and openness.

The Bennites had a clear political aim in remaking the party in their own image, and the result was years of arcane party in-fighting, the split of the Social Democratic party and an open goal for Mrs Thatcher. Hague can rest assured that there remain enough of the Tory traditions of party discipline and just plain disinterest in the party policy process to spare him all that, but, like Labour in 1980, he is also venturing into relatively uncharted waters. Although structural "updating" is nothing new, this is the first time for the Conservative party that such reform has carried the personal imprimatur of the leader (in the past such mundane matters were left to the party chairman trying to make a name for himself), to the extent that he is effectively putting his job on the line. And it is also the first time that so many issues have been tackled all at once; party membership (the proposal to create a national membership, regardless of the existence of a local party association), finance (the proposal to make public large donations to the party and to end foreign donations) and democracy (the proposal to set up an electoral college to elect the leader, with every party member having a weighted vote).

There are two reasons for Hague taking such a high road to party reform. The first is that the party itself has never been in worse shape in its history. The political scientist Michael Pinto-Duschinsky has charted the precipitate fall in party membership since the mid-1970s, from 1.5 million when Mrs Thatcher was elected leader in 1975, to a postwar low of 400,000 by 1996. The last election was probably the first one in which the Labour party's individual membership exceeded that of the Conservatives. Tories are now fewer and older than ever before - the average age of the members is allegedly 64. The party has also shed a third of its constituency agents since 1975. It has virtually no elected representatives at local level and none at a Parliamentary level outside the English heartlands. It is still in a perilous financial position after the election, although less so than after 1992, and has attracted an image of sleaze and corruption. Such a desperate situation demands desperate measures.

The second reason for Hague's initiative is that he is also a "McKinsey Man", like many others who now run Britain's businesses and institutions. At the fag-end of the 20th century, McKinsey Man is fast replacing his mid-century predecessor, Balliol Man (Heath, Macmillan, Jenkins, Healey, Chris Patten) as the ubiquitous archetype who runs Britain.

Any McKinsey management consultant would look aghast at the diffuse, ill-defined structure of a Conservative party that does not exist at all as a legal entity - but which is merely the sum of a Parliamentary party, a professional Central Office and a voluntary National Association, all related to each other by little more than informal bonds of mutual self-interest. Hague is a structural engineer, not an ideologist a la Thatcher, or (failed) party manager au Major, and this is where his instincts for reform lie. He was elected leader because he had no convictions about anything, whereas his opponents had firm convictions about everything. For McKinsey Man, organisation is everything.

In that sense, he represents a new generation of political animal, which has flocked to the Labour party in recent years. Hague is trying to emulate the recent success of the Labour party, thus reversing the traditional trend whereby Labour always played catch-up to the Tories when it came to matters like advertising, media-relations and running a streamlined, disciplined campaigning organisation. Labour learnt from the Conservatives in the 1980s and now Hague has to take his lessons from Labour.

If Hague is setting out at this conference on his own journey of party reform, New Labour's "modernisation project" is finally being topped out at the Labour party conference. The proposals in Passage to Power will be voted on, endorsing the National Policy Forum, dominated by the leadership, which will be a clearing house for ideas filtered through from the local policy forums, dominated by the modernisers. Thus Tony Blair will have virtually completed the process whereby the leadership can maintain a tight central control over policy-making while claiming a democratic mandate through the ending of the block vote and the instigation of one person one vote. There will be familiar cries of "authoritarianism", even "Stalinism", from the usual suspects, but in reality Blair is merely, in the words of the Labour party historian Brian Brivati, "formalising the informal power structures that always operate when Labour is in power ... removing the rituals of opposition at conference while Labour holds office". Blair knows that he can get away with this because the party is very aware that it owes its unprecedented national success partly to his leadership and charisma. In this he is in a far better position than Hague, who has to try and coerce a conference he has no formal power over and whose members voted overwhelmingly for Kenneth Clarke as leader only a couple of months ago.

Hague, then, is taking more risks than Blair with party reform, but his party has almost nothing more to lose. He will meet opposition from within his own party, from groups like Charter which argue that the members are once again having reform thrust upon them from on high, even if, this time, it is in the name of "democracy". Furthermore, he has been reluctant to spell out exactly what he does mean by the creation of "One Conservative party", or "a single party governed by a single new constitution" - he might yet trip up over the detail. But Hague's determination to show his leadership qualities on the issues of organisation and presentation (his own ground) is much more relevant than going another round on something like Europe. It is also sensible politics if the party is ever again going to attract younger, Scottish, Welsh and ethnic minority members - and become more like the Labour party.

Richard Cockett is lecturer in history, Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, University of London.

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