I was concerned to read yesterday’s ‘Feldman Review’ story in the Telegraph and somewhat despondent to read today’s follow-up with additional coverage on Conservative Home.
If the reporting is true, and the Party Board are going to allow Associations with 200+ members to ‘opt out’ of grouping, then in reality the reforms are holed below the waterline before the ship has sailed. The reason? The very Associations who most need improvement will be the first to “opt out” as they are either in denial or have something to hide.
As with any compromise of this nature the anomalies created in trying to appease one vested interest create insurmountable issues elsewhere, which undermine the value of what little change is actually achieved.
It reminds me of the Community Charge. What was a pure and simple piece of legislation was corrupted by endless amendments, sweeteners and caveats to appease potential opponents. The compromises undermined the core principles and the end product angered everyone. As a consequence its creator was brought down by the very monster she allowed to be created (against her better judgement). Such was the fallout that no government since (and it’s been 26 years) has had the courage to introduce further reform. I hope vested interests don’t force Lord Feldman’s review to go the same way.
For example, let’s take two constituencies in Kent. One is Chatham & Aylesford. I won’t name the other, but the figures I am going to give are accurate. To save bad will I shall refer to them as Barchester.
Chatham & Aylesford is one of the smallest Associations in the South East. At the end of last year I think they had 180 members. Yet despite their size, they have always punched above their weight.
- They knock on more doors than any other Association in Kent
- They deliver more leaflets
- Per member, they raise more money
- They provide more campaign support
- They pack more envelopes than any other Association in Kent (this week covering the work of Associations with five times the membership)
- They pay their Kent Area quota in full (one of just five Kent Associations to do so)
- And they have paid their full contribution towards the PCC campaign
Then we have Barchester. Barchester has almost 400 members and according to the latest accounts submitted to the Electoral Commission they are holding over 50,000 in cash. Yet despite this they never contribute to Kent Area, have refused to support the PCC appeal, seldom pay their share and apart from one or two individuals (who help despite rather than because of their local Association) they are never seen at campaign days or supporting the party’s wider political goals. In fairness, it’s nothing short of shameful. However, under the “compromise” Barchester would be allowed to opt out of a grouping to continue their incompetence, whereas Chatham & Aylesford would be forced into a Group against their will. What madness. I have accepted this point before and I am happy to accept it again; Association officers are volunteers. However, with office comes responsibility. Associations and individuals opposing these reforms are very quick to reaffirm their “rights” but as Conservatives we should also acknowledge our duties. And that includes
- A duty to Conservative members and donors to spend their contributions effectively.
- A duty to the Conservative voters to be kept informed through newsletters and information.
- And yes (whether we like it or not) a duty to the National Party to perform basic duties to at least minimum standard.
No Association, through deed of historic good fortune or the swish of a Boundary Commissioner’s pen, should be allowed to opt out of performing these basic duties. And if the Party Board is willing to allow incompetence to continue based on an arbitary membership figure, then they too are contributing to the problem. There is also the issue of logistics. Let us once again take Kent as an example. If the Party Board recommend (for example) an East Kent and a West Kent Group, here is what I suspect will happen. The West Kent Group will carry on as before. The neighbouring Association which is haemorrhaging members and money will opt out as they still believe they are better off alone. The Associations elsewhere in Kent will probably opt out too (as if they had wanted to form a group they have had plenty of opportunities to do so). So in Kent nothing will change – apart from the four Associations with fewer than 200 members. What will happen to them? They won’t be able to “opt out” but there will be no groups for them to join! Will they be forced to join West Kent Group (even though they are not in West Kent and have very different political focus) or will they be forced into a group of their own, despite the fact they have nothing geographical or political in common. I fear this hasn’t been thought through. I hope the Party Board reconsider. If Associations are allowed to opt out, that opt-out should not be based on an aributary membership level, but having demonstrated they are able to manage their affairs to a basic standard. This could involve a proper audit measuring a wide range of KPIs. These could include: 1. Efficient collection of membership and following up non-payers 2. Evidence of campaign support 4. Evidence of fair, open and compliant LG Candidate selection 5. Evidence of a rolling programme of internal campaigning 6. Pledge v Postal Vote ratios 7. A minimum campaign-related spend as a percentage of income 8. IT / Social Media awareness and activity In a Party packed with retired accountants, auditors and management consultants, it should be simple to recruit and train a team to do this job well and efficiently. Associations who wish to opt out of Groups should be able to do so – but only if they can demonstrate they can meet or exceed what the Party has a right to expect. Turning a blind eye to failure should not be tolerated.