Peter Oborne on the Tory Conference
Peter Oborne has written at length about the growth of a political class in our system. His latest observations in the Telegraph show how little influence ordinary Conservative members have. This is nothing new in the Tory party. The LibDems and Labour now behave in a similar way. The real influence peddlers are the lobbyists and financiers who pour millions into party coffers. They do not do that for altruistic motives, they do it to improve their financial lot. In some countries it is seen as bribery and corruption. It is a thin line.
“Go back 60 years, and the Conservative Party had almost three million members. It was part of our national fabric, as was Labour. Approximately 20 per cent of all voters were members of one of the big three political parties and a large number of them canvassed, distributed political literature, attended meetings, and generally threw themselves into public life. Even as recently as 1990, the year Margaret Thatcher was deposed, the Tory party boasted a million members. Since then, they have melted away. David Cameron inherited only 250,000 in 2005, since when the official total has sunk by more than a quarter to 177,000, though I’d guess that the true number may well be considerably lower.
The consequences of this could hardly be more pernicious. On the one hand, the Conservative Party (like other parties) no longer has the troops on the ground to put out its message door to door. Much of that task falls instead to an elite congregation of highly paid advertising men and political experts. They in turn need to be paid, but the collapse in membership means that the party no longer has the means to afford them without outside help. Hence the need to appeal to business donors, many of whom were extremely visible at last week’s conference, and few of whom have the interests of the Conservative Party at heart.”
“The party itself says that only 4,000 of the 11,500 men and women who were accredited to attend last week were members, although I bet the real total is much lower. Whatever the true figures, at least two thirds of those attending were outsiders, radically changing the character of the event. It is now dominated by business lobbyists and special interest groups, with state-funded charities particularly strongly represented. The voice of the party member gets obscured. The once lively fringe has been given over to technocratic discussion between ministers and experts. Inside the hall, it is worse. The reason for the empty seats when David Cameron spoke was revealing – the leader’s speech is the final event, so there’s no point in the lobbyists hanging about, because they know there’ll be no further opportunities to schmooze ministers.
Sadly, Cameron himself has made matters much worse. Just as Tony Blair did with Labour, the Prime Minister has treated his party as merely an instrument. This can be seen from his handling of the chairmanship – a key role. In the last century, the Tory chairman was a big beast, outspoken in defence of the government, while making sure that the concerns of ordinary members were heard in Downing Street – a function superbly carried out by such potent figures as Peter Thorneycroft, Norman Tebbit and Willie Whitelaw.
Cameron has savagely weakened the role. First, he has made the mistake of handing responsibility for political strategy (a core function of the party chairman) to the Chancellor, thus creating a dangerous conflict of interest. George Osborne cannot remain the sober guardian of the public finances while simultaneously plotting election victory. Cameron’s second error was, last year, to split the chairmanship. His friend Andrew Feldman, who has no political profile but exercises a considerable (though malign) influence, performs the anti-democratic function of managing the big donors – I am told that he deserves much of the blame for the planning fiasco. Meanwhile, his co-chairman, Baroness Warsi, has been reduced to a cheerleading role. She has been widely criticised, unfairly in my view. Her situation is impossible.
The events of this week do need to be put into perspective. Plenty of other conferences have been even worse. As Christopher Hollis wrote in The Spectator in 1960, “a Tory conference is intended to be, and is, the dullest thing that ever happened”. Most party historians have concurred: ever since the first conference was held in the Freemasons’ Tavern in Cambridge on November 12, 1867, it has been intended to be uninteresting. One called it a “show body”, another “a transparent sham”. Notoriously, the Edwardian prime minister A J Balfour said that he would rather take advice from his valet than from the party conference.
Fundamentally, what we saw last week – and not just in the Conservative Party – was a return to these ancient structures. It is as if the era of mass democratic participation never happened: instead, politics is once again a matter for the top 2 per cent, with the rest looking on. (My emphasis) But by taking the Tory party back to the elite politics of the early 20th century, David Cameron is saying goodbye to something truly valuable.” Peter Oborne Telegraph 7/10/11