The Conservatives have denied claims from grassroots activists that the party is planning radical reforms to strip local party members of their power to select candidates.
In a letter to Theresa May, activists including the MEP David Campbell Bannerman said the changes would be “the nail in the coffin” of Tory party membership and could break the link between local constituency associations and MPs.
The campaigners say the draft rules discussed by the party’s national convention in November, set to be put forward in spring, could “tear the party apart” and deter future members from becoming involved.
The convention, which is the party’s most senior forum for members to influence party decision-making, is set to meet again in London in May discuss the proposals.
“These plans to seize power from members could tear the party apart,” Campbell Bannerman said. “If associations and hardworking voluntary members are stripped of their rights within the party, our activist numbers will dwindle even further as people will question what value paying for membership brings.”
Conservative MPs are chosen by a shortlist of three preferred candidates chosen by the party’s national committee on candidates and then submitted to local association members, who vote for a single candidate to fight the seat.
The campaigners allege the changes to the party’s constitution could mean that all selections could, in theory, be decided by the committee alone.
Ed Costelloe, who chairs the group Grassroots Conservatives, said draft rule changes would delete any reference to new candidate selection, leaving the door open to more central control. “After the chaos and questionable tactics around candidate selection at the last election, can party members trust these people to act honestly?” he said.
“The party is a broad church and all must worry that prospective candidates will not be considered if they are not mirror images of what the leader currently wants. Does the Conservative party believe in democracy in house?
“What do the rule changes do to answer the question: ‘why should anybody wish to join the party?’ Where do the rules facilitate vision and the need to address a new mass membership?”
The letter to the prime minister and the Conservative chair, Brandon Lewis, also expresses fears from activists about the proposed deletion of the words “constituency association” from the constitution, which some are concerned could pave the way for local associations to be replaced by much larger regional bodies for members, breaking the close link with constituencies.
Conservative HQ said there were no plans under discussion to abolish constituency associations or their role in selecting candidates. The Conservative national convention’s chair, Rob Semple, said the claims were inaccurate and misrepresented the current process of reviewing the party’s constitution.
“A new draft will be published in the spring, after which it will be subject to extensive consultation with members and the national convention before any formal vote takes place, but I can reassure members that there are no plans under discussion to abolish constituency associations or their role in selecting candidates,” he said.
“I take very seriously my role in ensuring that any chances to the party’s constitution must enhance and strengthen the role of our members.”
The snap election in 2017 drew complaints from some activists that candidate selections were steamrollered by the central party and some members said they were unhappy with their choice of three provided by the central committee.
The letter sent to May and Lewis was signed by 23 veteran activists including Campbell-Bannerman, Don Porter, a former national convention chair, and dozens of former constituency chairs.
They said they were concerned change posed a threat to the existence of local associations. “These and other reforms will only further damage the value of membership within our great party. We believe the reforms will be the nail in the coffin to membership of our party, and are badly conceived,” the letter says.
“The party needs more democracy and local control, not increasing centralisation and dictation from the centre. We urge you to stop these reforms before party membership declines even further from the all-time low we have at present and to rescue the party from dangerous decline.”
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