5 October 2022

If Liz Truss believes in liberalisation, she should start by giving Tory members a say on policy


Despite having been a Tory member since the tender age of 15 (the Scouts kicked me out), I had never yet ventured to one of our annual jamborees before this week. But this year, I headed up to Birmingham in order to report, attend a few panels, and see if I could grab a selfie with the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Widgets and Badger Culling. Such are the burdens of being ConservativeHomes’s voice of ‘the youth’.

I thoroughly enjoyed it. Not only because I swung by a few of CapX’s excellent events (Thanks! – Editor) – or because I was part of ConHome’s own top array of panels and politicking, or because I got a brief look of recognition from the Prime Minister. No, it was because I got to dive into the whole journo shebang. Coffees with columnists, missives from ministers, and the occasional G and T. What a hoot. 

I am aware, however, that my conference experience was atypical. Most of those attending are not members of the fourth estate. Nor are they lobbyists, Spads, or ministers. The bulk are the rank-and-fule of the party, the local campaigners, the stuffers of letters through letterboxes and the hosters of fundraisers. They are the ones who toil year in and year out to keep my party in government and save my website from having to change its name.

It is easy to scoff at them. The hordes of teenage Mogg-alikes jiving awkwardly on the nightclub dancefloor. The earnest local council candidates, desperate to grab a big name to speak at the next Christmas bash. The aging pros, who have been going to these for half a century and have seen it all before, yet never doubt the value of being in the room for the PM’s big speech.

They are more than just a set of clichés. I saw blue-haired young thrusters and people from all backgrounds, ethnicities and identities, all of whom would show up the idea that the party doesn’t represent the country it governs. But marvellous as it was to rub shoulders with my fellow members, one has to ask whether conference as a whole is doing enough for the average attendee.

Don’t get me wrong – we event-hosters and gossip-gatherers shouldn’t bite off the hand that feeds us. The panels, speeches, and debates are genuinely illuminating, and the best opportunity that ministers and MPs have to hear what the party faithful actually think about the issues that matter to them. 

Yet there is a difference between getting to ask a question or two of our elected representatives, and actually having an influence over party policy. At least at the Labour and Lib Dem conferences members get to vote on manifesto commitments. The leader may choose to ignore them, but the statement is there, and the views of members obvious.

Instead, as Conservative conferences have become more corporate, the role of members in the actual affair has lessened. They can see ministers make their speeches, but if they don’t catch them in a corridor or pigeonhole them at a panel, they have no right to respond. It is a one-sided conversation – and if the members don’t agree with what is being said, the only way that will be known is by sounding off to people like me. 

The lack of conference democracy is particularly odd given the crucial role members have in electing our leaders – and in the last two cases, picking the Prime Minister. If our democratic role must stop as soon as Sir Graham Brady announces the winner, then the point of having the members’ votes becomes less clear.

So, Liz Truss, I have a message for you from my fellow party members. If you believe in change and openness, if you seek liberalisation, then there is one sign you could make that would be unmistakable. Open the gate that separates members from policy-making. Tear down the wall that stops them from having their say on the record. And give us a vote. 

If it is ignored, it will at least be obvious that ministers are doing so. It will provide a clear metric for the faithful to judge their leaders by – and a record to act on when the next leadership election swings by. But it would also force our head honchos to acknowledge the priorities of those who work all the hours and raise all the funds that gets them across the line at election time. 

At its best, it could also force action on the issues that matter. After all, it was a members’ rebellion at the 1950 conference that forced Churchill to adopt a target of building 300,000 homes a year. When Harold Macmillan delivered this after the party won the 1951 election, it helped ensure two more election victories – and the children of the post-war generation had homes to grow up in. 

There are worse examples to imitate. If the Prime Minister really wants to be bold and different from her predecessors, she should start with her own party conference. 

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William Atkinson is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.