Saturday, 4 July 2015

Tories, Elvis and Obscenities

We recently offered a day out on our boat with Champagne and canapes for six guests, as an auction prize at a Chatham & Aylesford fund raising event. The lot was so popular we decided to accept the six highest bids - raising almost £2000 for Association funds.

The first of our winners joined us today for a four hour return trip along the non-tidal Medway, from Allington Lock to East Farleigh Lock. And a super time was had be all. It was great to welcome aboard Tonbridge & Malling councillor Janet Sergison with friends and member of her family.



However, no sooner had we waved goodbye to our guests, the river descended into farce. The lock keeper came over to advise us "a 60ft sailing yacht is about to come through the lock under tow - you might want to put out a few extra fenders just in case!" Sure enough, 30 minutes later, the yacht arrived, being towed by a 30 foot pea green canal boat. I suspect you might need to have some connection with boating to see the absurdity of not only a 60ft ocean racing yacht being towed by a narrow boat, but why anyone would wish to tow a brand new million pound yacht up the non-tidal Medway where the water is 5ft deep and it's impossible to sail. 

As the yacht left the lock, it's keel got stuck in the mud blocking all other boats entering or leaving the lock. After a lot of revving and cussing a large crowd has gathered. A woman in the boat opposite, who I noticed open her first wine bottle at 11am, started shouting at him to "be careful" at which point the man steering the canal boat shouted, "I told you it was an effing stupid idea, I'm off..."  He then cut the rope and stormed off up the river at 4mph shouting indiscriminate obscenities as he went, leaving the racing yacht and bunch of oddly dressed crew stranded in the lock channel. 

Then it got even more absurd. 

A giant plastic gin palace then appeared and having nowhere else to go moored up alongside us. This is clearly a charter boat and just our luck has been hired by a hen party, all of whom are wearing pink leotards, bunny ears and think it is highly amusing to flash their breasts at the drunken boys in the Malta Inn, who all respond with some primeval grunt. The captain of this boat is dressed as Tom Cruise and there is also a heavily perspiring Elvis impersonator singing "Suspicious Minds". 

 

An industrial sized tug then turned up and attached lines to the grounded yacht. After a great deal of revving that also failed to move the yacht and the tug has now also disappeared back from whence it came.

And that's the latest news from the Allington Lock on the River Medway.  The yacht is still stranded, the hen party are still drinking their Bacardi Breezers and Elvis is now signing Devil in Disguise. 

Tomorrow, we welcome aboard Peter Homewood!

Monday, 29 June 2015

The future of political activism - personal thoughts

Over the last two weeks I have published on this blog detailed proposals on how we might reshape and reform the Conservative voluntary party. I believe my proposals are relatively simple to implement, practical in their outcomes and beneficial for all concerned. 

One could say that by proposing changes to what already exists I am guilty of simply tinkering at the edges - and that is a fair charge. I actually believe we need to go further, much further, and have blogged previously about how I believe the present membership model is no longer fit for purpose and needs replacing (HERE). Nothing I have witnessed over the 12 months since writing that article has made me change my mind. In the following article I seek to add more detail to how I believe we could change membership in its current form and in doing so rebuild a truly democratic (and meritocratic) organisation with wider and deeper roots in the community; a party which in its constitution is focused on fighting elections rather than managing internal bureaucracy. 

I must stress the following work is mine and mine alone. I do not speak for any of the constituency Associations which employ me. These are my personal thoughts on how we might reshape for the future. I am however indebted to my friend and colleague, William Rutherford (Chair of the West Kent Group) who shares my passion for reform and who undertook quite detailed research of how political parties operate elsewhere, which has been invaluable in writing this blogpost. 


Political membership, in its traditional form, is still falling and has been for decades. There may be blips and upturns along the way, but these are short interruptions in the steady downward spiral of decline. This does not mean political parties or political activism is in decline. As Coach Trip and Team 2015 have shown, participation is alive and kicking, but increasingly people do not see the need nor understand the purpose of paying £25 to be an activist. 

I believe over the next five years the Conservative Party, at every level - from the Leader, through CCHQ, MPs, Associations, branches, councillors and individual supporters and activists, should focus on signing-up 20% of our 2015 vote as "Registered Supporters". Given we polled 11,300,000 votes, 20% of these would be 2,260,000 Registered Supporters. Even if we only managed to achieve 10%, the figure would be over 1.1 million. A huge potential resource and a base which would be the envy of every other party. The campaign to achieve this could be our goal for these election-lite years; street stalls, mailshots, door to door deliveries, email campaigns, dawn raids at mainline stations - all have worked for us in West Kent and contributed to the 1,500 Registered Supporters we have signed in the last four weeks.

Reforms on the scale I am proposing will take a long time to manage, and if we are going to reform, the change must be managed carefully and implemented with skill. I am therefore proposing that any change is introduced in the months immediately following the 2020 General Election, giving us time to work through the detail and plenty of time afterwards to iron-out problems.  It may be wise to trail my suggestions in one or two counties first, and if so I hope Kent will be at the forefront.

Here in bullet form, is my proposal


  • Within three months of the next GE, paid membership in its present form should be merged with our 'Registered Supporters' database, with our traditional members receiving some form of certificate and a reception to thank them for their previous membership, loyalty and support.
  • Over a four week period each constituency to arrange a series of ward meetings, to which all Registered Supporters will be invited to attend. At these local meetings 'Neighbourhood Champions' (covering a polling station) and 'Ward Organisers' (covering a LG ward) will be elected. All 'Registered Supporters' may attend, seek nomination and vote.  
  • These ward based meetings should be followed by a meeting of all 'Neighbourhood Champions' and 'Ward Organisers' who will elect a 'Constituency Chair' from one of their number.  The 'Ward Organisers' would then automatically become the 'Constituency Management Committee', providing a direct link between the centre to the wards and polling districts.   
  • All of the 'Constituency Chairs' within a county should then meet to elect a 'County Chair' then similarly a 'Regional Chair' right up the the voluntary party's representation on the National Board. This structure (polling district, ward, constituency, county, region, board) is similar to what we now have, the main difference being the election process would be based on Registered Supporters and the elections would be truncated into a short post-GE period. 
  • Unlike the present system, where Association and Branch Officers are elected for a maximum of three years, and many of the most capable people come in and out of office in 'peacetime', the new office holders should be elected for a full five year term, ensuring that everyone in the structure knows they will have responsibility for the Party's success through a full cycle of elections, culminating at the next General Election campaign.  Arrangements would have to be put in place to replace those who resign or leave, as there are now. 
  • Each person in the chain would have a clearly defined job description / campaign responsibility. 'Neighbourhood Champions' would be charged with contacting all Registered Supporters in their polling district to build-up a delivery / teller / GOTV operation. 'Ward Organisers' would have responsibility to co-ordinate the work of the local 'Neighbourhood Champions' and to liaise between the centre / constituency organisation and the local activists. 
  • I propose that all of this should be overseen and supported from a series of modern and well equipped County Campaign Headquarters, each looking after around 15 parliamentary constituencies. In some cases this might mean two small counties working together.  Each County Campaign HQ should be managed by a campaign director with, depending on local circumstances, between one and three campaign assistants. The office should also employ an administration manager, with a part-time book keeper and receptionist. Each County Campaign HQ will be self-financing - using the money received from an annual appeal to the Party's 40,000 or so 'Registered Supporters' in each county along with centrally-run draws and an annual County Dinner.
  • This county-wide administrative and professional support facility will not only provide legal, campaign support and training for activists, it will also free local constituencies from the drudgery of membership collection and administration, liberating local activists to select the best candidates, develop their campaign teams and win elections at all levels. With no requirement to employ staff, pay for bricks and mortar or spend resources on administration, constituencies will find it easier to raise funds as donors will know every penny given locally will be spent on campaigning in that constituency.
  • Candidate selection will also be democratised. Each constituency would continue to interview and approve candidates as before, but selections will be made by all the 'Registered Supporters' in a ward at an Closed Primary. Parliamentary selections would be made from a list supplied by the Party nationally with a constituency-wide meeting of Registered Supporters making the final decision.
We need a serious debate about whether a mass membership model forged in a two-party post ward country, when tribal loyalties trumped consumer choice, is still relevant 75 years later. We need to ask if future political success is best served by an endless round of meetings in which we talk to each other about how we can raise the funds to buy a new carpet for the office hallway. Whether a new generation of social-media savvy activists will be inspired by an invitation to a Safari Supper or an overly formal black tie dinner. And if we look around our present activists and see a dwindling and increasingly aged group of stalwarts, we need to be brutally honest and ask how many of them will still be able to do what they did this year in five or ten years time. 

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Strength through Grouping - the fifth and final of my five articles on reforming the voluntary party

The fifth and final post in my series of articles examining how we might approach rebuilding the voluntary party, along with a summary of the problems as I see them and a few personal thoughts on how they could be addressed. 


The suggestion that various constituencies in West Kent should work together had been on the table for thirty plus years. Meetings would be held, papers written and reports sent back to Executive Councils for further consideration only to disappear without trace. The problem was getting agreement from all five Associations - with one or two of the five always finding every reason for it not to go ahead.  Finally, recognising the status quo was not sustainable, the three front runners went ahead, only to find the two who had stalled previous discussions requesting membership from the start.  I suspect had we waited to find a proposal which all five agreed on before moving to the next stage, we would still be talking about it today.

Despite the positive messages we send out from West Kent, Grouping is not simple nor easy. It requires courage and foresight from our local leaders, a degree of compromise, goodwill from all participants, a selfless focus on the greater good and a willingness to put old ways aside and work as a team. 

Most of the above can be encouraged by strong and united Officers, but what cannot be changed overnight is the collective psychology of each Association - often built up over many years. If an Association believes that the staff are there to act as "PA to the Association Chairman" and the office is "somewhere to pop in for a chat and a cup of coffee whilst out shopping" then suddenly finding your local office is now dedicated to campaigning and doesn't see itself as a drop-in centre with a free parking space whilst shopping, can be quite a cultural shock. 

Over the last two years I have been invited to speak at three county meetings, one regional conference and at least 14 different Association Executive Committees on how we set-up and operate the West Kent Group. Without doubt my presentation is met with kindness, enthusiasm and great interest and a determination to "get something off the ground here". Yet despite my and many other peoples' best efforts, I do not think we are any further forward in terms of new groups actually being formed. I do not blame any individual for this, particularly in a General Election year, but progress won't happen without someone taking the lead and inevitably there is always a very good reason why the decision should be deferred to another day. 

General Election year is not the right time to move. 
We need to 'let the dust settle' to see how things shape up?
Don't you think we should wait to see the outcome of the boundary review? 
Let's wait until after the County Council elections, shall we? 
Oh, we couldn't possibly make such a major move with a General Election 12 months away!    

One of the things I am always asked is "how would a shared office be staffed...?  There is no simple answer to this as one size doesn't fit all, and it would be foolish to claim it does. What I do believe is all groups should separate administration from campaigning as these are two very different skills. In West Kent we seem to have the ideal solution. I am really fortunate to have Jon Botten working with me as Office Manager. His responsibilities include membership reminders and records, branch flyers, minutes and notices of meetings and AGMs, administration for raffles and appeals and day to day procurement. This allows me to focus on legal stuff, development and campaigning (and by campaigning I mean election campaigning, membership campaigning and major fund raising). Despite having clearly defined roles we don't work in a silo - we discuss and debate everything, each of us bouncing ideas off the other and happily changing what is planned if someone comes up with something better. In addition during major elections we have a paid intern and of course a fantastic team of regular volunteers. For us, the system works. 

Elsewhere - perhaps in an area with several target seats, the group might need additional campaign support and perhaps only a part time administrator, and equally in areas where winning parliamentary seats is a long term goal, the focus would be on building and developing the activists base rather than campaigning. 

There are also the financial implications. Whilst in the long term grouping releases resources for campaigning, there is a short term cost - sometimes quite significant. For example, in West Kent, Tonbridge and Malling had to find £5,500 to be released from their lease obligations. Solicitors and landlord's fees relating to the new office lease and general advice of the Memorandum of Understanding was another £2,000, equipping the new office with furniture cost £2,500 and a further £3,000 on installing modern IT and a ten line VoIP phone bank.   

So how does the Party move from where we are (a position which is becoming increasing untenable) to where we need to be?  Here are a few proposals:

  • Each AME to appoint a "Grouping Champion" to support and encourage groups where possible.
  • CCHQ to assist with establishment costs by waiving 12 months per member fee for the Associations which establish a new Group Office
  • Recognition that five Associations sharing one office will not make so many demands on CCHQ resources, so institute a sliding scale for IT / Helpdesk support and Election Insurance (perhaps 80% for two sharing, 70% for three sharing, 60% for four and 50% for five).
  • A designated national officer to advise Associations, Regions and County AMEs on Grouping and Best Practice.  

This brings to a close my series of five articles on how we might reform and rebuild the voluntary party. 

Here, is summary form, are my proposals in full:

 MANAGING AND RENEWING ASSOCIATIONS
  • Each AME to recruit a team of experienced (retired) officers from successful Associations and/or business community who will sit down with each Association Officer team immediately following the AGM and produce a professional, achievable and realistic business plan. The same "mentor" to revisit the Association after 6-8 months to review progress and again at the year end. The business plans and progress reports to be published by the AME to share best practice and highlight achievements.  
  • A simple annual "audit" of each Association measuring Key Performance Indicators such as membership collection rates and retention, new pledges identified, new members recruited, properly constituted Executive Councils and LG candidate selections and prompt payments of the per member fee etc, with LfL results published by the AME. After all, if league tables and KPIs drive up standards in schools, councils and hospitals, surely they must do likewise in local Associations? 
  • New powers for the Area / Regional team to place key people into Associations to support struggling Associations without having to impose the draconian and seldom used "special measures" which should always be a last resort.  
  • Along with these stronger supervisory measures should also be real rewards and recognition for those who deliver success. Awards should not just be based on paying of quotas and per member fees, but also to recognise achievements across a whole field of activity.  
  • And perhaps for those Associations who meet or exceed the national standard a Regional reception (free of charge) with a significant speaker, where the Officers are recognised, thanked and made to feel appreciated for their work on behalf of the Party. 
REFORMING MEMBERSHIP
  • Invite pledges to sign-up as a Registered Supporter and treat them all as we would treat members.  
  • Once we have built our databases, invite people to join various groups based on shared interests (commuters, young professionals, students, parents, countryside guardians, retirees - the possibilities are endless).
  •  Bring people together based on what interests them rather than on geographical ward boundaries. Provide newsletters, speakers and events which are directly linked to their interest.  Involve and engage on their terms, not insist them to be active on ours.
 ATTRACTING AND DEVELOPING NEW ACTIVISTS
  • The appointment of a New Activist Champion as part of the DC Membership/Finance's team, whose sole responsibility is to manage new volunteers.
  • The New Activist Champion is sent a regular list of new volunteers along with their contact details and also the name and contact number of the local ward organiser/councillor who should be making contact.  After a week they follow-up our local organiser to ensure the new helper has been contacted and to record the outcome, chivvying along where necessary. They also contact the new volunteer to keep them "warm" and ensure they do not feel neglected.  
  • If it looks like a hopeless case and the local branch don't wish / need the additional help, the new volunteer is invited to join a central peripatetic "hit squad" to help locally where needed and nurtured this way.  
 INTERNAL DEMOCRACY AND TRANSPARENCY
  • Supporting polling district branches where they exist, but encourage and promote new branches based on shared interest (parents, commuters, countryside guardians, young professionals, etc).  Bringing people together who share a common endeavour and therefore have something in common with each other is surely a better building block than polling district boundaries. 
  • Encouraging people with specific skills to put those skills into service rather than forcing round pegs into square holes.  If a member or supporter wishes to do a job for which he or she is qualified, why force them to do something else, or require them to join a committee or pay a fee to do so?  In one West Kent constituency a very successful young lawyer wanted to play his part in the GE – he was given the job of managing an eclectic group of young helpers who had no formal involvement with the party. He did an outstanding job getting them to the right place at the right time. If we had forced him to join a ‘Campaign Committee” or attend regular strategy meetings he would have run a mile. We need to build and encourage such participation.    
  • And yes, we need to learn lessons from other countries who do it better than we do. I recently read a detailed report on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s successful gubernatorial campaign in 2006, when around one third of his 49 phone banks were dedicated to phoning known supporters asking them to help the campaign. Apparently of the 10% agreeing to do so, one third never turned up, one third came to help just once and the final third became regular helpers. If we could replicate that in the UK, an Association with 15,000 pledges would end-up with 500 new regular activists. The skill is using our experienced activists to recruit and develop others and ensuring we have sufficient jobs to suit all skills.  And of course we then follow-up each offer with a warm welcome, suitable training and a genuine thank you, so the volunteer feels valued and needed.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Blowing smoke up our own a*se !

The West Kent Group held the AGM yesterday and as part of the proceedings our Chairman, William Rutherford, asked me to put together the attached presentation highlighting some of the things we have achieved. It deliberately doesn't deal with the election results as I presented these separately.

I think the term "blowing smoke up our own a*se" is an appropriate metaphor - but there's nothing wrong with celebrating success!


Internal democracy, transparency and accountability

The fourth and penultimate in my series of articles examining how we might approach rebuilding the voluntary party, along with a summary of the problems as I see them and a few personal thoughts on how they could be addressed. 


Another area we need to address is how Associations reflect the aspirations of their activists, with particular emphasis on involving the wider membership in the decision making process.

This doesn’t mean that every operational decision should be discussed ad nauseam  by a large and unwieldy committee – if so decisions would seldom be made and when they were it would invariable be the triumph of lowest common denominator – but the groups who make such decisions should be open, transparent and accountable. This is particularly important for local government selections as well as how various committees are constituted and managed.

Most people join the party as they simply wish to support our goals and are happy to make an annual payment to do so. Others want to make a difference and are willing to give their time, intelligence and energy. I have found that people who become active are almost always active in other organisations, too - so can happily transfer their time and energy elsewhere if they don’t feel needed or valued by us.  And just as we lose the help and goodwill of supporters who offer help and are never contacted, so we probably lose the input and future leadership skills of members who are excluded from the process.  One man, who has given freely of his time over ten consecutive years, was told that he had “no right” to stand as Association Chairman as he “wasn’t local”. His home was a few hundred meters outside the constituency boundary!

In West Kent we try to ensure our Associations are as open and inclusive as possible. The decline of the branch structure has clearly weakened our succession planning as building and running a successful branch was a way to identify and develop the skills of future Association leaders. Nor do I believe the business-based management model introduced by Archie Norman necessarily proved an ideal structure to build and develop a volunteer-based campaign organisation. Certainly I am not aware of any successful charity, pressure group or similar organisation based on such formal lines and with such ill-defined but wide ranging job titles.

Once again I believe a liberalisation of the structure and loosening of formality is the way forward. I appreciate I have used this term before, but we need to engage with people on their terms not force them to engage on ours. This might involve:

  • Supporting polling district branches where they exist, but encourage and promote new branches based on shared interest (parents, commuters, countryside guardians, young professionals, etc).  Bringing people together who share a common endeavour and therefore have something in common with each other is surely a better building block than polling district boundaries.
  • Encouraging people with specific skills to put those skills into service rather than forcing round pegs into square holes.  If a member or supporter wishes to do a job for which he or she is qualified, why force them to do something else, or require them to join a committee or pay a fee to do so?  In one West Kent constituency a very successful young lawyer wanted to play his part in the GE – he was given the job of managing an eclectic group of young helpers who had no formal involvement with the party. He did an outstanding job getting them to the right place at the right time. If we had forced him to join a ‘Campaign Committee” or attend regular strategy meetings he would have run a mile. We need to build and encourage such participation. 

  •  And yes, we need to learn lessons from other countries who do it better than we do. I recently read a detailed report on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s successful gubernatorial campaign in 2006, when around one third of his 49 phone banks were dedicated to phoning known supporters asking them to help the campaign. Apparently of the 10% agreeing to do so, one third never turned up, one third came to help just once and the final third became regular helpers. If we could replicate that in the UK, an Association with 15,000 pledges would end-up with 500 new regular activists. The skill is using our experienced activists to recruit and develop others and ensuring we have sufficient jobs to suit all skills.  And of course we then follow-up each offer with a warm welcome, suitable training and a genuine thank you, so the volunteer feels valued and needed.

We have allowed too many Associations to become self-serving monoliths whose primary purpose appears to be interminable meetings where members talk to each other about what they might do if they had more time.  Several years ago I was appointed Agent for a Kent seat in decline and within my first year we were fighting an unexpected by-election in a marginal council seat. Polling day was the same day as the monthly meeting of the Association’s “Policy Discussion Forum”. When I suggested to the Chairman that the 20+ members who were planning to attend her discussion might like to help with GOTV instead, I was told “Oh, by the time the meeting finishes it will be too late to knock on doors…  This was six years ago. The person concerned recently aid to me, "I never find you particularly supportive of what I wish to achieve."  I wonder why!

Recently I was told by a member from one of the later Associations to join the WK Group, “the trouble with you Andrew is your only goal is to win elections…”  This was said in a way that was meant to make me feel it was a bad thing!  I replied that this wasn’t the case. I said I was very happy to arrange social events as these raised the money we needed to print literature. I was very happy to recruit new members and activists, as these were the people we needed to pound the streets. And I was very happy to keep on top of the legal and bureaucratic requirements to ensure our candidates were all nominated and none were disqualified on technicalities.

We must always remember that the sole purpose of the voluntary party is to fight and win elections, indeed the following words are an integral part of each Association’s constitution:
...to provide an effective campaigning organisation in the Constituency; to secure the return of Conservative Candidates at elections; and to raise the necessary funds to achieve these objectives; to contribute to the central funds of the Party.

I know the Church of England was once referred to as the Tory Party at Prayer, but.....

Sadly, from time to time, residents and members die - and to avoid causing offence they must be marked as such on our database. 

I was however surprised to see the following option on VoteSource
So, if we accidentally mark someone as dead, we can bring them back.  But just in case we marked them incorrectly to begin with then brought them back to life by mistake - we are then given one last chance to change our mind as this appears... 




I appreciate there is a tradition in certain parts of Northern Ireland of dead people voting, but this is surely giving a little too much power to us humble agents! 

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Joyce Gadd : 112 not out

We are finally in the process of migrating to VoteSource and are painstakingly cross checking all 2000+ membership records to ensure none have been lost or corrupted. As part of this process we have just found C&A President Joyce Gadd's record.

And now we know!

Not only has she been a member since 1904, but it confirms she has been associated with the party for 112 years! 

She still looks amazing, but now I understand why she keeps telling me she's tired!


Monday, 22 June 2015

Summer Raffle Reminders

As there is no NCDS Summer Draw this year, West Kent are running our own - and we have just topped £5,000 in sales in the first three weeks. This is a slight increase on the same date last year - so we are both optimistic of a good final result and also pleased that the lack of the major national prize is not affecting sales. 

With just under a month to the draw (29 July) we are now sending out the following "reminder" to the 600 target supporters who did not respond to the first appeal. I anticipate a further 25% response, realising another £3,000. Traditionally our reminder letters increase the draw take by 50%.








Sunday, 21 June 2015

Canterbury Labour councillor Bernadette Fisher should apologise

I have broad shoulders and I try to take a sanguine view when campaigning gets a bit 'near the knuckle' but I am genuinely appalled and sickened by a tweet which has just been brought to my attention.

Canterbury Labour councillor Bernadette Fisher (elected for Gorrell ward on Thursday 7 May) has just tweeted a photo-shopped picture showing Lynton Crosby outside the gates of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, he is on the phone to David Cameron and saying "I'm in Poland, I have just had a great idea on how to reduce the welfare budget. Now hear my out..."


Councillor Fisher should apologise for retweeting this offensive, vulgar and crass tweet and the Labour Party should take appropriate action or else they will be seen as condoning it.

Friday, 19 June 2015

More gossip about Matthew Plummer...

I enjoyed a great lunch and gossip today with the ever lovely Matthew Plummer Matthew Plummer. Over Pad Thai king prawn noodles sitting on a bench in the grounds of  Southwark Cathedral he told me how much he enjoyed our irregular lunches, then added "though I am always terrified of what will appear about me on your bloody blog."

I assured him that nothing would appear - and it won't!  However I thought it fun to publish a blog entitled "more gossip about Matthew Plummer..."  and imagine his horror and stress as he clicks the link to see what I have written about him. 

So don't worry Matthew - nothing to report. Unless you want me to talk about your expensive tamper resistant nuts.