January 8, 2024 - 3:20pm

Watching on as the Conservative Party farcically tries to replace the MP Peter Bone, suspended for sexual misconduct and now recalled, with his girlfriend, it’s hard to imagine that this is the same party which only 15 years ago was experimenting with American-style open primaries to select its candidates.

Back then, of course, the Tories were the party of David Cameron and primaries were part of his great “modernising” agenda, which, in essence, meant making it more liberal. The first to be selected using this alien process was one Sarah Wollaston (remember her?). She was a GP who successfully wooed the local selectors by stressing how much of a political outsider she was.

Just how much of an outsider, she would later reveal once in Parliament. Within 10 years of being elected, she had resigned from the Tory Party, joined the upstart Change UK, quit that party, became an independent, joined the Liberal Democrats and then lost her seat. A distinguished Parliamentary career.

The Tory primary experiment now appears to be long dead. Instead, we have departing MPs threatening to stand as independents to ensure their favoured successors (who happen to be their partners) make a shortlist of candidates who will then be selected by local party activists. Nice.

The whole affair is a reminder of one of the central structural weaknesses in British Parliamentary democracy today: its political parties. For much of the 20th century both the Conservative and Labour parties were mass movements with social functions in the life of the nation, linked to trade unions and a network of “Con Clubs”. The chairman of a local association or constituency Labour party was an important person. There was depth to our national politics.

Today, hardly anyone is a member of a political party, even though, if anything, activists are now more powerful than ever, with a direct say over not only the choice of Parliamentary candidates but also party leaders. The result is the worst of all worlds: a lopsided settlement where an ever smaller group of people have an ever greater sway over our politics.

There are plenty of people to blame for this mess: William Hague, David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Jeremy Corbyn. One of the problems is that to deal with declining party memberships we keep trying to import other nations’ democratic traditions and splicing them with our own — hence the primaries for Parliamentary candidates and, in effect, leaders. But we have a parliamentary system: it’s no use having the Conservative leader elected by a small group of Tory ultras if they cannot control a majority of their own party in Parliament.

Still, even if this mess were fixed, we would be left with the same dilemma of what to do about the hollowed-out nature of our political parties themselves. And no one has come up with a solution to that yet.

Tom McTague is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.