Andrew Kennedy is the Group Agent & Campaign Director in West Kent. He blogs at www.votingandboating.blogspot.com.
It is now almost 18 months since I first wrote about the Feldman Review and the need for Voluntary Party Reform. In that article, I said:
“We must ensure that any changes are bedded-in before our next major electoral challenge. Perhaps the basis for the future should be county-wide Associations or federations, stripping away layers of bureaucracy and introspection. Whatever we do, we should not allow a small number of recalcitrant Associations to use self-interest to block essential reforms which in our hearts we all know must come. The Party is in a unique position of strength. We have won an election that most people didn’t expect us to win. Our opponents are in disarray. We are ahead in the polls and our finances are strong. The temptation is to do nothing – or simply to “tinker”. To do so would be a dreadful missed opportunity. It could be decades before the moons are in such favourable alignment again. Having helped to win the war, I really hope Lord Feldman and his group have the courage win the peace and bequeath a voluntary party fit for the future.”
The published Feldman Review was much more radical in scope and bold in aspiration than many of us imagined. Unfortunately, as with any bold reform, we have allowed vested interest to, at best, dilute the package or – at worst – allow sufficient caveats to ensure that those Associations which are most in need of reform to opt-out without any sanction or control.
In a few months time, it will be two years since our 2015 election victory. This year, we have elections for county councils and city mayors. We have a major boundary review – the most significant in living memory – the fallout from which will occupy minds and attention for years to come. We will then have all-out district elections and, a year later, another parliamentary campaign, if it does not come sooner. All of this will be played-out against the mood music of Brexit and the uncertainties that this will bring. Those who seek reasons to block reform or “put it off until another day” have all the excuses they need.
I believe that the Party Board and Patrick McLoughlin are committed to reform, and will endeavour to implement change. I wish them well. My fear is they have allowed too much time to pass and too much fiddling at the edges, and that now the urgency has gone. The post-referendum surge has contributed to this, too – providing a false sense of security that all is well.
In July last year, I published detailed research into the attitudes and motivations of our new members, based on 250 responses from the 500 new members who enrolled locally; a statistically significant sample. Of these, 76 per cent said the opportunity to vote in the leadership election was a major factor in their decision to join, and over 25 per cent said that they would not have joined had they known that they would not have had a vote.
It is therefore highly likely that a least 25 per cent (probably significantly more) will not renew this year. My view is the fall-out rate could be over 50 per cent. There is also some evidence (in Kent at least) that a small but not insignificant number of committed supporters of Britain’s EU membership will quietly let their membership lapse and similarly, that a number of those who were attracted by the Cameron project may also fall away. These three factors, taken with the sad effects of an ageing core membership and the inability of many Associations to collect subscriptions efficiently, might well result in us ending 2017 in a similar or even weaker position than we were pre-election in 2015. I hope to be proved wrong.
Just before Christmas, I was invited to CCHQ to meet with Sir Patrick, who was keen to hear at first-hand just what we had achieved in West Kent. After my well-rehearsed speech about the benefits of joint working and the efficiency of grouping, he threw me a “curved ball”. “Excluding internal efficiencies and improvements to administration, what have been the tangible benefits to the party? What have you achieved in the last three years which would not have been achieved had you not formed a group?”
Having spent years speaking to Association, County and Regional Meetings about the cost-savings and benefits of grouping, just what had we achieved? If our efforts were just improvements to administration, have we really achieved anything at all? Fortunately, the glowering presence of a former coal miner and Chief Whip, menacingly clutching his “Coffee Mug that works for everyone”, did wonders to focus the mind.
- 2015 GE results better than the county, regional and national averages.
- Two of the top five local government by-election results in the UK in 2016.
- £20,000 of direct financial support re-directed to our weakest Association.
- £5,000 donated to the London Mayoral campaign.
- Amount spent on office/establishment costs reduced from £55,000 to £20,000 each year.
- £850,000 of property sold, and the cash invested to provide long-term income.
- £10,000 worth of printing support to 40:40 seats outside West Kent.
- £6,000 worth of cost-price printing for nearby Associations with local government by-elections.
- Over 2,000 “man-hours” of Campaign Support to Thanet, Lewes, Eastbourne, Rochester & Strood, Clacton many other target seats.
- 10,000+ phone calls made from our phone bank to 40:40 seats
There is probably much more that I have forgotten. And we have done this whilst meeting our campaigning, fundraising and administrative obligations to our own five member Associations – at a lower average cost than they were paying previously. And, what’s more, for the third year running, we have reduced our running costs (rent, rates, utilities, equipment etc) as we use our numerical strength and buying power to drive down costs from suppliers.
What I was unable to tell Sir Patrick (as it was still in negotiation) is our group of five is soon to become six, with a seventh Association in discussions too. Nothing succeeds like success, and I am delighted that we have not only managed to avoid the internal rancour which has broken-up many similar groups, but that others are knocking at the door to share in what we have achieved.
Wherever I go to speak about grouping, I am warmly welcomed and enthusiastically received. I genuinely believe that the overwhelming majority of members, particularly those who are most politically active, can see the advantages of sharing resources whilst maintaining the independence of their local organisation, but the obstacles and objections thrown up by the vested interests and backwoodsmen halt progress before it can happen. I also suspect that the Party nationally does not have the constitutional authority to impose change on failing Associations. So stalemate ensues and little changes.
Time really is running out; change won’t happen unless those who want it to happen are in a place to drive it forward. With your Association Annual General Meetings on the horizon, it is time to stop moaning from the side-lines and instead put yourself in a position to effect the change you want to see.