Andrew Kennedy is the Group Agent & Campaign Director in West Kent. He blogs at www.votingandboating.blogspot.com.
In the words of Lenin, “There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen”.
One of the innocent victims of recent events, whose departure has understandably attracted little coverage, is Andrew Feldman, who will be leaving CCHQ at the same time that David Cameron leaves Downing Street. Many of our more traditional members will shed few years at his departure. I, however, will. His stewardship at CCHQ has not only put the Party on a secure financial footing, but his proposed reforms are both bold and necessary. I contributed to his proposals and have written in support of his reforms both here and elsewhere, attracting opprobrium for doing so. I hope that whoever replaces him has the courage to carry them forward.
I support the Feldman reforms, not because I am a centraliser, but exactly the opposite. After 40 years activism in the Party I believe passionately in the importance of our members and the need for political engagement. It is precisely because I want to keep the voluntary party relevant that I support radical change.
Events over the last week give some indication as to the problem we face. Last weekend, I blogged about the 100 new members a day who were joining the five West Kent Conservative Associations since the referendum result was announced. Over the course of the week I received calls and emails from at least 20 constituency officers complaining that they had had none. I talked each of them through the process, only to discover that in almost every case, no-one had bothered to clear the association’s emails for several weeks. In some cases associations had changed their email addresses and not informed CCHQ, and in others CCHQ had not updated their own records. As a consequence details of many hundreds of new members were lying in inactive inboxes the length and breadth of the country.
For the first time in recent history we have had thousands of people voluntarily joining the Party. They will be eagerly anticipating a welcome letter and a membership card which probably will never come, whilst associations are bemoaning the lack of new members which they may never have heard about. Until each association has access at least to at least one professional member of staff this problem will not go away. Feldman’s reforms addressed that very issue.
At the recent Spring Forum in London, there was a prolonged discussion of the Feldman Review. I sat quietly at the back with a friend. My laptop was connected to the Electoral Commission’s financial reporting page, whilst my friend was looking up the websites of the various associations whose chairmen were addressing the meeting. Without embarrassing any association, without exception those who spoke most vociferously against the reforms had all made a financial loss and reported a decline in membership for the last three years – and half of those opposing reform had not updated their website for at least 12 months. I fear that many in the Party would prefer to manage decline in splendid isolation while blaming others, rather than take the courageous steps necessary to turn things around.
A wide and deep party membership is vital to our continued success and has been the basis of much of our historic success. I cut my political teeth in Wallasey, where I first joined the Young Conservatives in the late 1970s. Wallasey was a classic marginal seat which was held by the Conservative Party in 1987 by 279 votes. Our success that year, against a Militant Tendency-backed Labour candidate, was not due to bussing coach-loads of activists from across the country, but by calling on our neighbouring associations for campaign support. Most evenings between 20 and 50 members came from Liverpool to help. Today, despite the good work in Liverpool by my good friend Tony Caldeira, I doubt that there are 40-50 activists left in Liverpool, let alone willing to move en-masse to a neighbouring county. Focussing our efforts on the marginals, whilst allowing our organisation to atrophy in many unwinnable seats (as well as many safe seats), must be addressed. Such narrow focus has had a devastating effect on our ability to present ourselves as a truly national party as well as on our wider campaigning ability.
It is increasingly common to hear strategists from all the major parties claim that old-fashioned door-step campaigning is a thing of the past, that elections can now be won via the air-war, on social media, by direct mail and from distant phone-banks. And, yes, in 85 per cent of constituencies this is probably the case. But these 85 per cent of constituencies are the ones which don’t win or lose an election. In the 15 per cent of constituencies which really matter we still need boots on the ground (or, in our case, polished brogues or sensible court-shoes!). Surely it would be better to be able to call on resources locally than have to bus people in from London. This will only happen if we return to being a party, not just of mass membership, but of mass activism too.
But where campaign activity really pays dividends is in low turnout elections – where our ability to maximise differential turnout can really make a difference. All of us involved in campaigning have heard the stories time and time again that “I vote Conservative nationally but Liberal locally because they deliver local newsletters” or “I’ll vote for you as you have made the effort to call.”
The graphic above demonstrates the difference local activists can make. The figures relate to the 2013 County Council elections in what then were the three associations in the West Kent Group. The yellow column indicates the number of “points of contact” that each candidate had with their electors in the 6 months leading up to polling day. The blue column shows the size of the swing against us. In what were fairly appalling elections for the Conservative Party nationally, you can see a clear correlation between points of contact and the size of the swing. This perhaps explains our West Kent mantra: “More leaflets equals more votes”.
Mass membership isn’t, however, just about campaigning. It is about the Party having deep connections in the communities it seeks to represent. Across West Kent, Conservatives dominate almost every aspect of civic life. Conservative members sit on Parish Councils, they make tea and arrange the flowers in our local churches, they provide the volunteers who staff the charity shops on our High Streets, they run our neighbourhood watch groups, our resident associations, our voluntary hospital car service, and much more besides. This provides us with an in-depth understanding of our local community. We know when a village elder is ill, or when a community leader has died. Our network informs us when there is concern over a planning issue, or when a neighbourhood is suffering due to anti-social behaviour, allowing us to do something about it. And when we need a candidate for a parish, town, district or county election someone always has a suggestion who may not otherwise have come forward. This spiders’ web of contacts is hugely beneficial to the Conservative Party, but is dependent on maintaining brogues on the ground.
And that is why I hope that whoever succeeds Feldman is not temped to put party reform back inside a box labelled, “To be dealt with another day”. The EU referendum, and the ensuing political interest provides us with a great opportunity which may not be repeated for a generation. It would be a tragedy if we missed this opportunity because no-one thought to check the Association’s email.