Rob Leitch is a secondary school teacher and a Councillor for Sidcup, in the London Borough of Bexley.
Over the past couple of days, ConHome readers have been subjected to two aligned articles which have sought to advance the case for federations to replace individual Conservative associations (see here and here).
Whilst the subject represents a somewhat navel-gazing exercise, it is essential for those of us within the Party to have a balanced discussion about any potential re-structuring during the course of Lord Feldman’s review.
It is important to clarify that the word ‘federation’ will prompt differing interpretations. For those who believe that local associations should work together to get a better deal on their procurement and purchasing, I agree.
Likewise, sharing a office, dependent upon locality, seems like a commonsense suggestion, as is sharing an agent for a set of local elections across the same Borough/County.
If this is what ‘federation’ represents, it is already happening in many places and is to be welcomed.
However, the relationships between associations are based on local factors: membership, money, geography, diverse demographics, differing campaign techniques etc. Such local factors represent the risk of federating too widely – you lose the local touch.
Morphing into larger organisations, no doubt with template leaflets and campaign tactics, would be to ignore the increasing frustrations felt by many people that politics is too corporate, too slick, and too professional in our overly PR-conscious age.
Indeed, complete federation between numerous associations, and covering perhaps whole counties at a time, represents a rather tragic acceptance that we are too small in number, too limited in resources and too centralised in our thinking.
Whilst well-intentioned, the plan put forward by Andrew Kennedy and Paul Abbott is the equivalent of raising a white flag above our Party’s membership, activism and appeal. If we want Lord Feldman’s review to be meaningful, we need to address why we have lost so many members, and why so few have returned, despite our election win.
Such tough questions are difficult to ask in the honeymoon period of our victory, but they would prompt an interesting debate amongst ConHome readers, I’m sure!
In areas of historic weakness, of course, federation has long existed and perhaps such pragmatism is required in such places, but which other type of organisation would restructure based on their weakest components alone?
Federation should always be a last resort, not some diktat out of CCHQ which would only weaken what is left of local democracy within the Conservative Party.
Furthermore, it would punish those who have fought against the tide in recent years to keep their associations healthy and purposeful.
Federation would be a comfortable recommendation to accustom our Party to low and disinterested membership. Yet, why should we be so defeatist? If we want to be truly radical, how about the following recommendations:
1) Early selection of candidates*: and get the campaigning underway immediately on the ground. This is something that Paul Abbott has written about on ConHome recently too.
*Call them ‘representatives’ until the boundary review.
2) Bring back some element of democracy at Conservative Party conference: Let’s get rid of the PR-orchestrated dinners and drink receptions and give our grassroots an opportunity to vote at conference on specific policy issues.
3) Lower membership fees for full voting rights: Yes, I know, we will get infiltrators like the Labour Party have at the moment. However, at present what do members really get back for £25.00 per year?
An appalling membership card which falls apart after a few months and dozens of letters from Cabinet Members asking for donations – is it any wonder why so many do not renew their membership?
4) Associations should lead community projects: Forget federation, the real way to improve membership and campaigning, is for local associations to get involved in the communities which they represent. For too long, too many have seemed aloof, concerned only with the operations of Party administration.
Associations should be encouraged to have a community officer and to get involved with local projects and initiatives. Let’s use our buildings and people to become activists in our areas.
5) Literature must be local: This used to be the Liberal Democrats trump card in local elections and those of us who have tried it will testify to its importance. Even Borough-wide literature is too broad, too sweeping to be relevant to the majority of households.
Forget even ward-wide literature; we need to move towards specific community literature, even road-by-road literature if there are certain local issues that require a specific response or campaign.
It is activism, localism, authenticity (which I wrote about recently) and a lot of hard work on the ground – these are the ingredients for local electoral success, local purpose and local membership.
Creating large, bureaucratic, cross-Borough/County federations, headed up by a regional Party Baron to oversee all activity… well, it might make sense in the business world, but politics is not a business.
At its core, politics has always been about local people. If you can tap in to such localism, you need not even consider federalism.
Rather than fall into federalism, let’s re-energise our worn out association machines and give them the fresh local purpose that will truly transform our Party for 21st century politics.