Andrew Kennedy is the Group Agent & Campaign Director in West Kent. He blogs at Diary of a Conservative Party Agent, and writes here in a personal capacity.
At the meeting of the National Convention on the first day of Party Conference, a diluted package of Party Reforms was passed by very clear margins of around 90 per cent. This includes the formation of groups of Associations (with the unfortunate caveat of giving those with over 100 members the right to opt-out). I am strongly of the opinion that this is a mistake: this threshold is far too low, and it is those very small Associations who believe they are functioning properly with just 100 members who would probably have most to gain by being part of a group.
Another key element approved by the National Convention was centralised membership. As someone who is widely seen as the Party’s main ambassador for joint working and modernisation, people are often surprised that I am lukewarm about national membership. Those who oppose national membership do so for a variety of reasons. Some don’t like the apparent loss of “local control”. Others oppose “handing more power’ to CCHQ”. There will also be those – with whom I have sympathy – who will see this move as the breaking of the link between the local Association and the membership, and others will complain and oppose because complaining and opposing is their default position.
My concerns have nothing to do with the principle: we are a national party, and it makes perfect sense to have a national membership database, professionally administered and with collection costs benefiting from economies of scale. My concerns are about the practicalities – including how national membership will be managed, what processes will be in place to identify and correct errors and whether an overworked administration team will deal promptly and efficiently with concerns raised by members and the Associations.
The regular correspondence that I receive via my blog has left me in no doubt that national membership is the only realistic way forward. Almost every week, I receive plaintive emails from random supporters trying to join their local Association, but receiving no response to letters, phone calls and emails asking for a membership form. And many of these are based in very safe constituencies and still employ full time staff. And, of course, as Associations lose such staff and rely increasingly on volunteers, so collection rates often fall as membership renewal letters and reminders are not sent out. When surveyed, the single biggest reason members give for failing to renew is they were not asked or reminded to do so – accounting for around 20,000 lost members each and every year.
There will also be some who object because national membership will expose their own local failings and shenanigans, such as the Association Chairman I encountered in Manchester last year who was loudly boasting that his Association ran two parallel membership lists, one on Vote Source and the real one on Excel “to avoid having to pay the per-member fee”. No doubt this same Chairman was loudly criticizing CCHQ when all those members on his secret spreadsheet were not sent a ballot paper for the Mayoral campaign.
It is not unreasonable that we produce a national membership database and implement systems which ensure its accuracy and enable it to be accessed and shared with all who need it. But for this to work, there are some difficult and complicated issues which must be addressed to the satisfaction of all parties. Failure to do so before the changes are implemented could seriously undermine their success and could even turn a bad situation worse.
In West Kent, around 30 per cent of members (and almost 50 per cent in one Association) pay by SO. How will these be handled? Anyone who has attempted to ask members to increase or change their SO will immediately understand the dangers. About ten years ago, one of our local Associations changed their bank account and wrote to their 80 or so standing order payers asking them to cancel their old mandate and complete a new one. Twelve months later, after three letters and a personal visit, only 50 per cent had done so. Many had been paying by SO for so long that they had forgotten, and used the opportunity to cancel. Others were very elderly, and simply couldn’t be bothered to respond. Several of those who did used the opportunity to downgrade their payment (in one case from £25 to £10 per month.
Since we cannot transfer standing order payments to another account without the account holder’s authority, what will happen to those who continue to pay their local Association? Will there be a parallel membership list, or will these members simply be removed from the national database, and redefined as local donors? Many of our SO mandates are for small regular amounts (£5 or £10 a month). Will a centralised membership department have the resources to keep on top of this?
I estimate that changing the collection of SOs could easily result in 20 to 30 per cent of those who have standing orders cancelling them, and a similar number failing to respond – which might well result in the loss of 20,000+ members nationwide, thus negating any potential gains from efficiency.
At the National Convention, Rob Semple said that the Associations must trust CCHQ with their data. This is not unreasonable. For historical constitutional reasons, members join their local Association, but in their minds they join the Conservative Party and see no difference. I believe the national party has every right to write to members seeking financial support – but I do agree with one of the most common grumbles that national financial appeals often arrive at the same time as local appeals, undermining the efforts of both and causing frustration. So that trust really must be mutual. It is not unreasonable for local Associations to know what the national party is planning and vice versa.
Perhaps most crucially, CCHQ must quickly establish and communicate how membership income will be distributed back to Associations. For many (perhaps most), membership income is their lifeblood. If the agreement is for membership income to be transferred to Associations monthly on or by a certain date, this must happen. There must also be a simple process for Associations to identify who has paid and how much they have contributed, plus an efficient way for them to be informed on non-payers for local follow-up.
In West Kent, we are supportive of national membership, as we know it is for the greater good of the party nationwide. But for us there is a very high price to pay. We run a tight ship locally. During the past five years, we have on average renewed at least 95 per cent of our membership, and have recruited more than enough new members each year to replace the five per cent lost, showing continual year-on-year growth.
Due to the fact that 30 per cent of our members pay by standing order and a further 20 per cent pay online using a debit or credit card, we have reduced our renewal costs to below £1 per member (including postage costs and the membership card). The transfer to national membership, together with the doubling of the per member fee from £5 to £10, will cost us an additional £6,500 even after the savings from not having to pay for Vote Source and election insurance.
For many Associations and for the party nationally, central membership is a clear win-win. But for West Kent (and many other Associations with a large membership) we will be losing a local point of contact and replacing an efficient and proven local system with something untried and untested – with a very significant increase in cost. This is a lot of money to lose and a bitter pill to swallow – but we will do so for the greater good.