By Lord Greenhalgh and Claire Bullivant.

The Conservative Democratic Organisation (CDO) was created in direct response to the declining membership of the Tory party.

As lifelong Conservatives we’ve been saddened by the gradual but remorseless decline of the party’s membership and we want to do something about it.

In 1998, when William Hague introduced the new constitution, the Conservative Party had more than half a million members. Today its membership has collapsed to about 150,000 and if reports are to be believed, that number is waning by the day.

Our party may be the longest running political entity in the world, but longevity means nothing when your crew are jumping ship and you’re in the midst of a tumultuous storm. It’s time to send out the lifeboats and bring the members and grassroots back. We as a party need them more than ever and we believe CDO can help achieve this.

It’s time to send out the lifeboats and bring the members and grassroots back. We as a party need them more than ever and we believe CDO can help achieve this.

As Priti Patel, who is backing the CDO, states: “Our members and grassroots activists are the authentic voice of conservatism in Britain. They live and breathe our values every day and are the heart, soul and backbone of our party. While the party leadership speaks to the nation from TV studios and from lecterns, our members and activists face the public on the doorsteps of Britain every day, having important conversations, promoting our values and also bearing the brunt of the criticism that’s sometimes directed towards what’s happening in Westminster.

“The Conservative Party is at its strongest and most effective when our members are fully engaged in all aspects of our national party and the decisions that support their local representation including who leads our party, how candidates are selected and the policies we advocate.”

“The Conservative Party is at its strongest and most effective when our members are fully engaged in all aspects of our national party and the decisions that support their local representation” – Priti Patel. Photo by Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street.  Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

But even though we already have some political heavyweights such as Priti Patel, Lord Cruddas and David Campbell Bannerman in our ranks, the CDO is not about personality. It is far larger than one person or one policy.

We are looking to force radical democratic long-term reform of the party to secure our future.

We are looking to force radical democratic long-term reform of the party to secure our future. We also want to reverse the moves which over time have centralised control of the voluntary party into the hands of a few unelected shadowy individuals in Matthew Parker Street.

We both joined the party that we love at a time when local associations were still strong. They employed professional agents and staff, raised all their money locally and had a huge say in who they wanted to represent them locally, regionally and nationally as their MP. Sadly, this has all changed in recent years.

Money is increasingly raised centrally and directly from members by Party HQ, and associations have little to no say on who will represent them in parliament.

In the past, the mood of the membership on major policy areas was also an important consideration for the leader and his or her team. Now the membership have no say over policy in any regard.

The last perk for members was to vote in a leadership ballot which is presented to them after the voting by the parliamentary party. However, after last year’s leadership fiascos, many members rightly or wrongly feel robbed even of this. As one member put it: “I was made to choose between two candidates I didn’t want and would never have voted for. Then I had no choice at all. It’s a farse. Where is the democracy?”

As people who work in Westminster and close to the grassroots of the party, we are being told every day that members are overwhelmingly feeling ignored, steamrollered and held in utter contempt by party leaders. The members say they’re feeling their views count for nothing; and yet of course MPs expect them to do most of the work at elections.

The members say they’re feeling their views count for nothing; and yet of course MPs expect them to do most of the work at elections.

One member aptly put it: “There’s a deficit in party democracy, what they’ve said is we want your money, your time and resources but we don’t want your opinion. After 40 years, I’m out. I won’t vote and I won’t forgive.”

These are the people the CDO is fighting for. The heart and soul of the party. We need to win them back. We are building the CDO in the rich tradition of special interest groups operating within the Conservative and Unionist Party and we feel there is no more special interest than preserving and enhancing the democracy of the members of the party.

We are building the CDO in the rich tradition of special interest groups operating within the Conservative and Unionist Party and we feel there is no more special interest than preserving and enhancing the democracy of the members of the party.

We propose an elected party chair who is directly accountable to the members. We seek reform of the party’s constitution so that there is greater control over MP selections and readoptions. We want to ensure that members are heard on policy issues.

That’s it. That’s hardly the stuff of a Bennite inspired Tory Momentum. This is a 21st-century Primrose League moment.

Lord Stephen Greenhalgh is vice-president of the Conservative Democratic Organisation. Claire Bullivant is chief executive of the CDO and founder of the Conservative Post.

This article was first published in the Times on the 17th January 2023.


To join the CDO click here.

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