A powerful Tory body is re-electing its top team - but most members don't even know about it
The annual National Conservative Convention board elections are happening again right now. Tories who want to get their hands on the levers of party machinery are vying for the attention of a tiny electorate of around 800 local chairmen and the primary contact method is through the Royal Mail. The arcane NCC race happens every year but slips completely under the radar because it is so private and hardly contested. Only in an internal Conservative party election could an outsider candidate with an OBE go up against a teddy bear salesman from Guildford. Emilio Casalicchio talks to some of the contestants and a few Tory bigwigs to find out what the race is all about.
Spencer Pitfield OBE knows who he is up against in the race to sit on the board of the National Conservative Convention but he has no idea what they stand for. The Sheffield-based activist has come face to face with one of the key quirks of the arcane contest: he is not an eligible voter. Only local association chairs and a few other representatives are allowed to cast ballots in the race for influence at the very top of the current governing party - and Pitfield is not one of them. He and all other Tory members - around 123,000 of them - have no say. Most will not even know the battle is afoot. Whether or not the NCC contest is sufficiently democratic, Pitfield says, is the “million dollar question”.
The NCC is the collective top brass of the Tory voluntary wing and has a major say over the party constitution. It comprises all constituency association chairs as well as other regional chairs and representatives from the Conservative Women’s Association. It meets twice a year at the Tory party conference and the spring forum, where members get to discuss party operations, reform and all things Conservative. Pitfield is fighting for one of the three vice-presidential roles up for grabs, alongside sitting candidates James Pearson and Pamela Hall, and three more hopefuls: Jason Aldiss, Sir Robert Atkins and Andrew Colborne-Baber. Current vice-president Tom Spillar is standing uncontested for the presidency, while current president Andrew Sharpe is standing uncontested for the chairmanship.
The five lucky winners in the annual election run the NCC. But they also get to represent the entire voluntary base - alongside the Welsh Conservatives chair and Scottish Conservatives chair - on the all-powerful Conservative party board.
BIGGEST VOTING BLOCK ON THE PARTY BOARD
The board is the top governing body of the party - like Labour’s National Executive Committee but with fewer public spats. The role of the volunteers is to speak truth to power and fight to ensure members’ voices are not forgotten amid a myriad of other pressures. They get to rub shoulders with the likes of Brandon Lewis, the party chair, and Graham Brady, boss of the powerful 1922 committee of Tory MPs.
“The volunteers are hugely important both because they are largest group collectively on the board of the party, which is the sovereign body, but also because they are elected by and represent the volunteer members,” Brady explains. “It is a great way of bringing that direct line of representation from the grassroots right to the centre of the party.”
The board makes key decisions on party machinery such as membership engagement, the system of candidate selection, campaign budgets and disciplinary procedures. Its decisions are made by majority votes of the 18 members, so the seven voluntary roles can make all the difference. One current post-holder says the volunteers often club together ahead of the board meetings and agree their lines to take before voting as a block.
Outgoing NCC chair Robert Semple explains that the makeup of the Conservative party board is “absolutely crucial” to decision-making. “The architects of the constitution were eager to ensure that there was a fine balance between the parliamentarians, the membership and the leadership,” he says. “Who fills those roles, and what they want to achieve, is important to how the party then goes forward.” He stresses the power of the NCC over membership matters (he oversaw the central administration of membership during his stint at the top, for example) and its independence from CCHQ.
HOW THE NCC ELECTIONS WORK
To get onto the National Conservative Convention ballot, candidates need the backing of 12 current NCC members - eight of whom must be current association chairs. For comparison, hopefuls for the Labour NEC need the backing of just five Constituency Labour Parties.
Cheshire councillor James Pearson - who is seeking re-election as an NCC vice-president - argues the tough nomination system acts as a filter to weed out those who might not be serious about the job. “Don’t get me wrong - I’m pro democracy,” the IT project manager insists. “But it’s useful that you have to meet a certain set of criteria to get nominated in the first place and that you are then elected by the senior volunteers within the party. It gives you a degree of legitimacy.”
Voting for each of the five positions takes place online through a website based in eastern Europe. The irony of the Tories holding an online ballot when they refuse to allow trade unions to do the same over strikes is not lost.
Limiting the electorate to just association, area and regional chairs (plus the deputies of the latter two) might mean an equal spread of representation across the country, but it means a very private contest takes place. There are somewhere between 700 and 1,000 eligible voters - depending on who you speak to. There are no websites or Facebook campaigns to appeal to wider membership, and candidates aren’t even allowed an email list. They get to upload their leaflet to the voting site, but if they really want it to be seen they send it out by post.
'A SMALL SWEATSHOP'
“It’s just a case of sitting there for four or five hours, folding up letters, putting them in envelopes and sticking stamps on,” says Pearson. “This sounds really sad but if you miss off someone’s MBE it’s a big deal… And then you’ve got to wheel [the letters] round to the post box and try not to fill the post box up. It was an interesting father’s day... My kitchen was a small sweatshop of my wife and two children.”
Pearson - who is campaigning on a platform to boost the youth wing and improve the quality and use of membership and voter data - says the contest used to be better when candidates would duke it out in a spring forum hustings with a vote held there and then. But that was all scrapped in favour of an all-but invisible contest where leaflets are uploaded online or shuttled undetected through the postal service.
There is little reason for anyone outside the electorate to have any idea the race is on. Spencer Pitfield - the candidate without a vote in the contest - will be effectively shut out of the rest of the campaign. He will receive no leaflets from the other candidates and has no access to the voting site where their literature can be downloaded. The teacher and soon-to-be charity CEO notes that members are not even alerted ahead of the contest in case they might want to stand.
The former Conservative Policy Forum director makes the case for all members to have a vote in the contest to make the party “stronger and more transparent” as well as appeal to prospective sign-ups. “The way to a bigger membership is making sure that the members have a greater say in policy - in who their volunteers on the party board are,” Pitfield argues. “These are critical decisions. Why else would you pay your subs?”
Chester councillor Pamela Hall - a current vice-president and the only woman in the race - muses over the costs and benefits of expanding the voter franchise. “The problem is, if you make it for everybody in the party, can you fund the campaign?” the HR manager asks. “Because you have to send stuff out to everybody’s home address. That’s about 800 people. It would be quite hard if it was all the members - I’d struggle, to be honest.”
Indeed, the volunteers get no money for either the contest or the job, and therefore must be fuelled by motivation alone. Hall herself was inspired to stand for the NCC last year in the wake of the disastrous snap general election campaign. She says the national focus, the “horrific manifesto” and the blunders over voter data left members disappointed. “I remember on polling day I was in Wirral West trying to drag people out who were never going to vote Conservative in their lives, and I just thought ‘I can never do that again’,” she explains. During her vice-presidency so far, she has been involved in appointing local campaign managers and planning better fundraising support. Hall jokes that only a “crazy person” would get so involved in an obscure organisation committed to reforming Tory party machinery, but she notes that “somebody needs to stand up” for the volunteers who work hard for the cause.
Labour NEC hopefuls also get no payment for their campaigns, or the role if they win, and they have a membership of 550,000 members to appeal to. As a result, their battle plays out primarily online through email lists and social media, with postal canvassing consigned to history.
The idea behind the limited voting franchise for the NCC race is to ensure geographic representation rather than ending up with a large localised membership contingent able to have its way by sheer voting power. It’s a system which follows on from the predecessor to the NCC, the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations, which began in 1867 to oversee the running of the party. The organisation was renamed and reformed in 1998 under William Hague - but the link with local associations remained the linchpin of its ethos. “The party has always worked through a kind of a federal structure working up from the associations,” Graham Brady explains. “I think that’s a perfectly reasonable way of choosing the people on the party board."
Teddy bear salesman Andrew Colborne-Baber, the current south-east regional Tory chair who is standing to become a vice-president, backs the system guaranteeing an equal spread of votes across the country and believes it could even work in his favour. “One of the reasons people should be voting for me is for balance of the board, because I am the only candidate from this half of the country,” the Guildford-born activist says. “Two are from Cheshire, two are from Yorkshire, one is from Lancashire and the other one is me, from Surrey.”
Colborne-Baber argues the primary element of the race in need of reform is its length. “You could easily lop a couple of weeks off of the process,” he explains. Nominations are open for about three weeks, then ballots open after a week-long break for a race lasting 23 days - an age for an essentially campaignless contest. “Most people vote within the first 48-hour window, so the process is very long,” Colborne-Baber says. “There is an argument in my mind that the process could be shorter.”
The plus side to a highly selective race that slips under the radar is less infighting between party members. Internal Labour elections, in which every member has a say, become factional fights to the death where personal politics - rather than competence - can be key. “The Labour NEC elections seem always to be treated as a sort of ideological battle, and that very rarely seems to be the case for these positions on the party board,” Graham Brady says. “Ours is a matter - more often than not - of finding people who are most committed to the interests of the Conservative party and who are going to be most effective in representing the interests of the party members... I think it doesn’t make it any less important, but it possibly makes it less interesting for the media and commentators.”
Indeed, there seems so little in the way of competition around the roles that the one-year presidency job and the chairmanship - a three-year post which is still re-elected every year - frequently go uncontested. The president role - which includes sitting on the party conference committee and chairing the annual conference - can only be done by somebody who has served as a vice-president. It means the hopefuls go through something of a conveyor belt system before they stand for it, strictly limiting the pool of eligible candidates. There is no such restriction on the chairman role, although the chairman-elect Andrew Sharpe has served as NCC president for the past year.
Sharpe argues the effect of the conveyor belt system keeps the momentum going at the top of the NCC but ensures those standing for the roles are experienced. “It means you are constantly refreshing. There’s always new blood - there’s always new ideas, there’s always fresh people,” he explains. The Surrey-based broker says it’s good to have candidates “who have seen how the thing operates”. “It would be very hard for three new people to come in as vice-presidents and just pick up the ball and roll with it without having somebody there to say ‘you might want to try that... not that... these are the people to speak to’.” And he presses the need for committed candidates. “These jobs are demanding,” he says. “There’s a lot to do. As chairman of the National Conservative Convention, you’re deputy chairman of the board of the party, and it requires a lot of work.”
Sharpe accepts that the current structure of the race is “probably sub-optimal”. His primary concern is that the general lack of awareness prevents members from communicating their preferences to their association chairs. “I think people need to know who it is representing them on the board of the party, even if it’s indirect to some extent,” he says. “At the end of the day we are representing them via their association chairman, so of course they should know who we are.”
'WITHOUT VOLUNTEERS, THERE IS NO PARTY'
However, he argues opening up the race to all 124,000 members would be even more “prohibitive” for the volunteers, who already put so much time and resource into their campaigns. He is hugely passionate about voluntary involvement at such a high level of the party, and suggests a motivation behind that involvement for its own sake - rather than for a salary - is key to the functioning of the NCC and serves as a boost for activists around the country. “We do this because we are all Conservatives and we believe the Conservative party is the right party to run the affairs of the country,” he says. “We want to make sure that the party is in the best possible shape to achieve that ambition. Without a fully functioning volunteers organisation there isn’t a Conservative party.”
Most Conservative members will know nothing about the NCC elections until the results go up on the ConservativeHome website after the 11 July closing date. The quality of democracy in the contest is the "million dollar question," as Spencer Pitfield said. But whether or not members are happy with it is another question altogether.