Election Expenses and the Conservative Party

Guest blog by Unlock Democracy and life long Conservative Party John Strafford (Author of Our Fight for Democracy).

When Channel 4 and The Daily Mail started raising questions about the Tory Party election expenses the sensible thing to have done would have been to be totally open and transparent about all the expenditure they had incurred both locally and nationally. They should then have requested the Electoral Commission to review the expenditure and give a decision as to whether and expenditure had been incorrectly incurred or incorrectly allocated. If it had then the Tories should have immediately apologised. 

Why didn’t the Conservative Party adopt this open and transparent approach?

Fundamentally the Party is undemocratic. There is no Annual General Meeting to which ordinary members are invited so the accounts of the Party are not adopted by the members. This means that there is no forum within the Party at which members can raise questions about the Accounts. The Party Chairman and Treasurer are appointed by the Leader of the Party so are unelected and unaccountable to the members. Effectively the members are treated with contempt. 

The second major question to be asked is “How did the Party end up in 2015 “bussing” people around the constituencies and paying for their accommodation?” At the time of the 1992 General Election the Tory Party had about 500,000 members of which approximately 10% were activists. This is about the minimum number of activists required to fight a “ground” campaign in a General Election. Pre 1992 the Tory Party could legitimately claim to have the best Party organisation, but after 1992 membership declined catastrophically. By 2015 it was down to 130,000, so only had about 13,000 activists, mainly Councillors and their families. 

The collapse of the Party organisation was covered up, first of all by organising media events under the “Road Trip 2015” banner where two or three hundred volunteers would descend on a constituency making a lot of noise and attracting media notice, during which they would do some canvassing or leafleting. Much of this work was useless because if you do not have the people on election-day to use the information collected, in order to get the vote out, you may as well not have collected it in the first place. 

By necessity the 2015 campaign had to concentrate on a limited number of marginal seats, but there were not enough volunteers on the ground in all the marginal seats. In the past all parties would “bus” in a few professionals to help in marginal seats. The 2015 General Election and the by-elections leading up to it were different. This time the Conservative Party bussed in lots of activists and provided them with accommodation during the election campaign.

The Conservative Party is now at the cross roads. It can either become a transparent democratic organisation fit for the 21 st Century which will then attract new members to it, or it can carry on in the same secret undemocratic way it has in the past. If it chooses the latter course then as a membership organisation it will cease to exist, and if that happens the parliamentary Party will not be far behind!