Andrew Kennedy is Group Agent to the West Kent Group of Conservative Associations, but writes in a personal capacity.

I was disappointed by the latest bulletin from CCHQ announcing that the Feldman Review is to be watered down – that’s to say, that the Party Board is already diluting its proposed reforms.  Even more regrettable is the proposal to allow Associations to opt-out of Multi-Constituency Associations (MCAs) not for reasons relating to competence or ability but, rather, on the basis of an arbitrary membership figure – which in no way reflects an Association’s effectiveness.

As with any compromise of this nature, the anomalies created by trying to accommodate the demands of one group often lead to insurmountable issues elsewhere, undermining the value of what little change is finally achieved.
I cut my political teeth as an party agent during the days of the Community Charge. What was a pure and simple piece of legislation was undermined by endless amendments to try and appease potential opponents. The final package was so far removed from its original purpose that it angered everyone and attracted little support – even from those it was originally intended to help. Such was the fallout that no government has had the courage to tackle domestic property tax in the 26 years since. I hope similar vested interests don’t force Lord Feldman’s review to go the same way.

By way of example I will use two Associations in Kent. One is Chatham & Aylesford. I won’t name the other – but the figures I am going to quote are accurate. To preserve its anonymity I will refer to it as “Barchester”.
Chatham & Aylesford is one of the smallest Associations in the South East with 180 members. Yet, despite its size, they have always punched above its weight. Its members knock on more doors and deliver more leaflets than any other Association in Kent. Per member, it raises more money, provides more campaign support and, in terms of their financial commitments to the Party (Per Member Fee, Kent Area Quota and contributions to the PCC Campaign), it pays its share in full.

Then we have Barchester. It has almost 400 members and, according to the latest accounts submitted to the Electoral Commission, is holding over £40,000 in reserves. Yet despite this, it has not contributed financially to Kent Area or to the PCC Campaign and, apart from one or two individuals (who help despite rather than because of their local Association), it is seldom seen at campaign days or supporting the Party’s wider political goals.

Under the much publicised compromise, in which Associations with 200 or more members may opt out of grouping, Barchester will be free to continue with no sanction whilst Chatham & Aylesford would be forced into a group against their will. This is madness.

I readily accept that with the exception of a few people (myself included) our activists are all volunteers. But with elected office comes responsibility. Associations and individuals who oppose the proposed reforms are very quick to reaffirm their “rights” but, as Conservatives we should also acknowledge our duties, and these include:

  • A duty to our members and donors to spend their contributions effectively.
  • A duty to Conservative supporters to be kept informed regularly.
  • And yes, whether we like it or not, a duty to the national Party to perform to a minimum standard.

No Association through historic good fortune or the stroke of a Boundary Commissioner’s pen should be able to opt-out of performing these basic duties to at least a minimum standard. And if the Party Board is willing to allow poorly run Associations to continue unchallenged then they too are contributing to the problem.

I hope that the Party Board re-considers.  If there is to be an opt-out from MCAs then this should be based on proven competence – not an arbitrary membership figure. Associations wishing to opt-out must be asked to demonstrate that they manage their affairs to a basic standard. These could include:

  • Effective collection of membership and following-up non-payers.
  • Evidence of campaign support.
  • Legal compliance.
  • Evidence of fair, open and compliant local government selections
  • A rolling programme of internal campaigning
  • Adequate postal vote recruitment
  • An agreed level of campaign-related expenditure as a percentage of income

I can understand Associations objecting to grouping and MCAs. But surely in a Party which values success and rewards achievement, no Association can reasonably complain about being asked to demonstrate its competence to do the job it is set up to do. As a Party, we are happy to put failing hospitals, schools and dysfunctional councils into “special measures”; surely the same should apply to our own internal organisation, too.

Those who know me will know I am no “CCHQ mouthpiece”. I have been a member of the Conservative Party for over 35 years and have been, inter alia, a branch chairman, constituency YC Chairman and Vice-Chairman of two Associations. Like many who post and comment on this site, I love the Conservative Party, warts and all. But I also know that in many parts of the country, including in some areas with very large Conservative majorities, our Associations are no longer fit for purpose. Allowing such decline to continue can only result in the diminishing of the voluntary party’s influence. Those who are seeking to block these reforms without putting forward alternative solutions may inadvertently be hastening that decline.