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.
One element of Party Reform which has so far avoided comment or criticism, and which could bring significant benefit, is the decision to change the “term of office limit” from three to five years.
At present, Association (and branch) officers are limited to three-year terms, which may be extended by one further year under exceptional circumstances, provided this is agreed in advance by the relevant Area Management Executive. The “exceptional circumstance” is almost always being a General Election year, when it would be foolish to change the officers a few months before polling day.
Whether we like it or not, Parliament has now chosen a fixed five year cycle, whereas every other local election (parish, district, county, mayoral and Police and Crime Commissioner) run on four year terms. Consequently, General Elections will ‘travel’ through the cycle over time. It is therefore highly probable that, under the present “three year rule”, an Association officer team could start and end their period and never fight a parliamentary election. So there would be little enthusiasm in reviewing past failures, as the incumbent officers would not be there when the mistakes happened, and little incentive to introduce bold and difficult reforms, as they would not be present to see them implemented. Too often, that vital period in between parliamentary elections, when Associations have the time and space to implement structural change, simply go to waste.
The new rules allowing five-year office terms should help to change this, though officers will still be required to seek re-election annually. It will also be possible (in fact probable) that the five-year term will begin halfway through this Parliament, and run until halfway through the next. This will result in Associations still changing direction mid-term, which is far from ideal.
I would therefore go further. I believe Officers (at all levels, Association and branch) should be elected at a General Meeting following as soon as practical after a General Election, and should hold office for five consecutive years, unless they resign or are removed by a vote of no confidence. This would bring two major benefits:
- Stability: everyone involved would know that the team elected would be in situ for five years, and that they would be responsible for the Associations development up to and including the next General Election, and all elections in between.
- Strategic: knowing that they would be responsible for winning the next General Election in their constituency no decisions, however difficult, could be deferred as “the next Officers might not like it”, and a review of the last election’s strengths and weaknesses would not be a “whitewash”, since those undertaking the review would not be reviewing their own work and keen to avoid honest appraisal.
Under the present rules, Association Officers must produce a business plan within three months of their AGM, which should be approved by the Executive Council and presented to the Area Management Executive (AME). Many Associations have no idea that they need to do this and, too often, even those who do see it as an academic exercise. Powerless AMEs are reticent to force Associations to comply, and consequentially many Associations stumble on with few strategic goals other than surviving another year. Often when business plans are produced, they are vague and unfocussed. One plan I saw recently contained three lines of type:
- Recruit more members.
- Raise more money.
- Launch new branches
This is not a business plan; it is a wish list. A proper plan should not just list objectives, but how they are going to be delivered, the expenditure required to achieve them, the benefit of doing so, how success will be measured and who is responsible for delivery.
Each year, the West Kent Office produces its own business plan, based on what we can do from the centre to help our participating Associations develop and grow. I produce this plan in conjunction with the West Kent Chairman, William Rutherford, and it is presented and approved to the Group Management Committee at the start of the year. One ongoing objective is to increase our donor base. This is how that objective was presented, it shows the objective, purpose, cost/benefit, who is responsible, and how success (or failure) will be measured.
Under the new arrangements for electing officers for five years, I believe that their first task after the election would be to undertake a thorough and honest review of their Association’s successes and failures. CCHQ should invest considerable resource in providing the management tools to enable them to do this. Branches and internal organisations (Conservative Future, Conservative Women’s Organisation, Conservative Policy Forum, etc) should be involved and have their own targets as part of the Association’s wider strategy. These should be reviewed on a regular basis by the Executive Council, thus giving this committee a real purpose in managing the Association’s progress rather than simply nodding through retrospective reports and managing decline. And we must be bolder and more progressive in our objectives and goals. For example:
- Do we have the network in place to deliver a leaflet to every home within three days? If not how can this be rectified.
- Do we have plan in place to ensure every house/voter is visited at least once during the five-year term?
- Are we effective at communicating the Conservative message to every section of society, include young voters and BME communities? If not, what do we need to put in place to improve?
- Do we offer enough campaign support to our weaker neighbours and to help the party’s wider objectives, such as parliamentary by-elections? If not, how do we educate / inform our members of our obligations?
- Do we have sufficient poster sites on main roads and junctions? If not, what is the plan to achieve this?
- What percentage of our pledges have a postal vote? What are we doing to increase this?
These are the type of strategic issues which Associations should be addressing but, sadly, under the present system of “year to year survival” most do not. An honest and deep-rooted review by a new officer team, elected immediately after a general election when memories are fresh, and involving all branches, councillors, the MP and key activists, might be better placed to manage change. Particularly if those involved know that they will be in place for five years and will be responsible for implementing change and delivering victory.
Too often, we get so bogged down in the minutiae of Association business that we forget that we are a political party whose sole raison d’etre is to fight and win elections, with the ultimate goal of securing a working majority in Parliament. This does not mean that intermediate elections are not important, but nothing we do should be in isolation. Every leaflet delivered, voter canvassed, mailshot posted and council seat won should be a stepping-stone to future success. Having our local leaders elected and responsible for delivering that success over an entire election cycle is an empowering change which should be grasped with enthusiasm.