Letís not turn our backs on the victories of the Thatcher years

Brian Monteith
Sunday Herald (Scotland), September 4th 2005

GUEST VOCALS: Brian Monteith contends that denying Conservatives a leadership vote could fuel a future split in the party

Itís hard to remember these days just how bad Britainís industrial relations were back in the 1970s. Itís also hard to recall the militancy of opposition to Margaret Thatcherís trade union reforms Ė even her party was split over the issue.

However, Thatcher had her way when she appointed bovver boy Norman Tebbit to push through the reforms. Trade unions were forced to accept secret ballots for internal elections and before calling strikes.

The mainly moderate members of unions, many of whom had voted her into power, were at last given a voice. Strike action became a last resort to the point of becoming a rarity. Few now, even in the Labour Party, talk of reversing Thatcher and Tebbitís reforms.

It is for me a very sad irony that the same Conservative Party that brought mass participation to the unions is now contemplating disenfranchising its own members from voting for party leader. The central argument in favour of change is that MPs know their colleagues best and are aware of their foibles, strengths and, more importantly, weaknesses. None of this I dispute Ė thatís why MPs are in charge of the first stages of the process by which they narrow down the choice to only two candidates. If, of course, they were to narrow it down to a single candidate Ė as they did when Michael Howard was given a free run Ė then the membership need not be involved.

Other arguments against a membership ballot are that it would take six months to set up and that it is costly. Both are risible given that membership records are constantly updated and previous membership ballots have made a healthy profit from an accompanying financial appeal.

In my own experience supporters appreciate being given the opportunity to select the leader and take the issue seriously. It motivates members and attracts new recruits. At a time when we are all concerned about local activism and voter apathy, depriving members of their participation would be slap in the face to people who sacrifice their own time and money.

Most members, wherever they reside, are unlikely to ever select a Tory candidate who will become an MP. Giving them the chance to choose their leader is a just reward for their support. The implications for Scottish Conservative Party members are dire. The party has about 15,000 Ė higher than the SNP and Liberal Democrats put together. In May they worked hard to get some 370,000 votes for which they were rewarded with only one MP. Instead of those 15,000 members each having an individual vote under current arrangements, the new rules would reduce those voters to just one: our man at Westminster, David Mundell MP. Another criticism of the wide franchise is that the members are not reflective of the voters that the Conservative Party needs to attract if it is to regain power. Apparently they are too narrow, too conservative. Maybe so, but hardly as narrow as 198 mainly middle-aged males from chiefly the South and the shires. Supporters who are women, young, metropolitan or from Scotland and north Britain would effectively be disenfranchised.

Advocates of the new process also suggest that the members cannot be trusted, having made the wrong choice when they elected Iain Duncan Smith to be leader. I strongly disagree.

It should be recalled that the MPs had whittled down the field to only Duncan Smith and Ken Clarke, disposing of Michael Portillo, who self-destructed. The MPs put Clarke ahead but the membership could not stomach the prospect of being led by someone so Europhile and were willing to give the untried Duncan Smith his chance. Thank goodness they did.

Under Clarke the party would have acceded to Britainís membership of the euro currency and then offered no meaningful opposition to the draft European constitution. Opposition would have been left to Conservative backbenchers who would have been marginalised. The likelihood of parliamentary defections to the UK Independence Party would have been strong and an open split in the party would have been a real prospect.

Instead, IDS healed the rift over Europe. Those who, in the coming weeks, decide how Conservatives choose their leader would do well to reflect how the medicine that restored moderation to our trade unions can, by involving the grass roots, help the Conservative Party to a full recovery.
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