Cllr Andrew Kennedy is the Group Agent and Campaign Director in West Kent. He blogs at www.votingandboating.blogspot.com
“Nothing has changed…nothing has changed.”
This short sentence perfectly summed up the despair and frustration of Theresa May about her faltering 2017 election campaign. And “nothing has changed” perfectly sums up how most of us feel about the progress made on voluntary party reform since the publication of the Feldman Review almost five years ago.
In my evidence to that review I demonstrated that the average Conservative Association spent just 16 per cent of its income on campaigning, with 58 per cent used for internal administration and 26 per cent on premises and utilities.
Five years later, those figures have barely changed. If the voluntary party nationwide matched the 66 per cent spent on campaigning in West Kent that would pour an extra £10 million per annum into our core task, which remains winning elections. Just imagine how many more votes we could win, and how much more relevant the voluntary party would be, if we could redirect that £10 million.
With a new leader and Prime Minister comes a new Party Chairman – and with that new Party Chairman comes another chance to implement what is already widely agreed, and overwhelmingly supported, by votes at the National Convention, namely the wholesale reform of our voluntary organisation to make it “fit for purpose”.
Reform of our management and reporting structures
Archie Norman’s reforms of 1997 drastically reduced the size of our management committees. These roles (Chairman plus two deputies) are too broad and deep to be done properly or efficiently. Office-holders cherry-pick the bits of the job that they like, spitting out the unpleasant and unpalatable pips. We need to revisit our local leadership and make the following alterations.
The role of Chairman should stay, but with renewed focus on setting and managing performance indicators. The Treasurer’s role should be re-established in its own right, and the job specs of the two Deputy Chairmen should be split into six new specific roles:
Doorstep campaigning: traditional canvassing and VI;
Delivery co-ordinator: developing and maintaining delivery networks
Digital and Social Media Fundraising: social activity and events
Membership: recruitment and following-up lapsed members\Engagement: encouraging members and supporters to become activists.
Youth: Young Conservatives and campus activity
Outreach: building relationships with faith groups, commuters, farmers and other sympathetic special-interest groups. This new structure should be replicated, where possible, at branch, association, area and regional levels, ensuing clear lines of direction and responsibility throughout the voluntary Party.
Reform of Terms of Office and Annual Meetings
It is ridiculous that our Officers are elected annually and therefore those elected immediately after a General Election are seldom in office when the next election is fought. It is also risible that Annual Meetings are held in March, taking up time and resource during a campaign period, when we should be focussed on elections. We should seek to follow the American Republican Party model where:
Officers at all levels (from branch to region) are elected immediately after a General Election, and remain in office until the next General Election (up to five years).
Their first function would be to review the success/failure of the GE locally, and then put in place a detailed plan to address weaknesses and ensure a better result next time.
General Meetings to be moved to June so that they are clear of campaigning periods, with the primary purpose changed from the election of officers, to the review and management of performance and targets.
These changes would ensure the team that devised the plan were responsible and accountable for delivering its outcome; would provide continuity of leadership at all levels, and most importantly, give ownership of the strategy to those elected to deliver it.
Reform of buildings, staffing and operations
We still own too many buildings that we cannot afford to heat, and employ too many long-serving secretaries, who spend their time printing tickets and inviting people to attend coffee-mornings to raise money to pay the secretary to print more tickets for more coffee-mornings! Groupings/joint-working work because sharing premises and staff-costs releases money to spend on elections, which is the primary purpose of our existence as a political party.
We need to establish a national network of Campaign Centres each covering sufficient constituencies to provide the organisation with a secure financial base.
Association freeholds should be sold and capital invested wisely to provide long-term income.
Each Campaign Centre should have a Director responsible for strategy and development, an Agent responsible for legal and compliance issues, and sufficient secretarial support to look after the routine needs of the member Associations.
Each Member Association should be a full and equal partner, but financial contribution to the running of the Group should be based on a pro-rata membership levy.
CCHQ should be willing to subsidise individual Groupings until they are financially stable (for example, after two years the West Kent Group was able to raise 40 per cent of its running costs, considerably reducing the financial burden on member Associations).
Campaigning, procurement and routine management issues should be devolved to the Groupings from the centre whenever possible, improving localism and giving candidates and activists greater ownership of their campaigns
Reform of the National Convention and the Party Board
Much to the surprise of fellow party reformers, I am not convinced of the wisdom of electing the Party Chairman. Any democratic advantage this might bring would probably be out-weighed by the risk and potential damage of electing a Chairman at odds with the Party Leader. This does not, however, preclude the need for significant reform over how the Voluntary Party is represented at Board level.
If we elect Branch, Association, Area and Regional Officers for the lifetime of a Parliament we should consider doing likewise for members of the Party Board, and covering their expenses, so the roles are accessible to all members based on merit and ability, not just those wealthy enough to finance the expenditure.
There should be specific roles on the Party Board with candidates competing for one of them, rather than the present three Vice-President roles with responsibilities allocated ad hoc as is presently the case.
A new position of Deputy Chairman of the Party should be established and elected by the members. This person would be, in effect, head of the Voluntary Party at Board level, with the existing Chairman still appointed by the Leader.
It is a nonsense that the voluntary Party’s representatives on the Board are elected by a few hundred people, from a membership of 160,000. The franchise (presently members of the National Convention) should be expanded to include all Party Members.
With internal elections once every Parliament (rather than every year) there is no reason we shouldn’t have a series of national hustings and a proper ballot to fully engage our membership and test the candidates in a public forum.
Groupings – to reduce costs and ensure all Associations have access to professional advice and support.
Leadership – to focus our efforts where they are needed and to share the workload
Accountability – to our members, donors and activists
Empowerment – of our Associations, and the re-establishment of autonomy
Continuity – building on what works, whilst implementing the much-needed reforms that we all know must come.
As I wrote five years ago, we must not allow ourselves to continue to manage decline, with a few recalcitrant associations paying lip-service to change whilst working tirelessly to block it. To deliver and implement these reforms we will need a Chairman who will lead, not just manage; someone with the charisma to take the voluntary party on a journey many of its members will be reluctant to make, and to finally deliver those exciting reforms that gave so many of us hope before they sank in the grey-suited mediocrity of the past three years.