Sunday, 3 February 2013

We must stop managing decline

There has been much written over the weekend about Conservative Party members resigning from the Party. This has added to a general narrative that the Conservative Party membership (like that of many other participatory organisations) is in terminal decline.  I acknowledge that times are difficult, they always are in mid-term when the political climate is hostile, but we must ask who is really responsible for the decline? I fear that in much of the country many of our Associations have become private clubs of friends who don't want or welcome newcomers, and possibly do all they can to exclude and discourage them.

Those were the days - an archieved photograph of a Conservative branch
Afternoon Tea from the 1970's. Most Associations would now struggle
to get a turnout like this.
A few years ago CCHQ did an exercise to test the voluntary party's response to membership and recruitment. I do not know the precise details and I have never actually read the paper, but it's existence and the details have been discussed with me by several members of the Party Board.  The following summary is therefore my own recollection of  what I was told, but given I have been given this by two different senior sources, I am confident it is accurate.

Apparently CCHQ employed  a marketing or market research company to contact 300 local Conservative Associations by letter, email and phone.  The communication was from a fictitious person with a real London postal address, who was writing to the local Association to inform them that due to a change of job, he would soon be moving into the constituency and would like to join and get actively involved. The correspondent did not have a local address as he was house hunting, but requested the local Association sent him a membership form and details of forthcoming social, political and fund raising events.   Not an unusual request and one which every Association should follow-up. But did they?

Sadly, the majority of Associations contacted didn't respond at all. Of those which did, not all were helpful or friendly. I do not know the precise numbers, but included in the responses were:

  • Sorry, we are not recruiting at the present time, please contact us again next year
  • If you wish to join, you will need to come in for an interview to see if you are suitable
  • Please contact us when you actually move as we don't want to waste time if you decide to move elsewhere
  • Sorry, but we don't encourage members who don't live here
  • Your enquiry has been passed to our membership secretary who will be in touch
Apparently only around 60 Associations actually responded in a friendly manner and sent him the details requested.

Is it any wonder CCHQ look suspiciously on Associations and their ability to manage their affairs competently and efficiently?  Is it any surprise that Associations are being encouraged to sign up to CAMS?  How many thousands, if not tens of thousands, of members are lost due to complacency, poor organisation and in some cases incompetence?   In the last 12 months alone in West Kent I have passed on forwarding addresses for five long-serving, and in some cases active, members who have moved away but asked me to inform their new Association of their details so they can rejoin. In all but one case, they received no contact whatsoever. Even worse when two of the four no contacts were from Associations which have a full-time agent or organiser.  Similarly, only last October, during the PCC campaign, I met a couple Borough Green (in the Tonbridge & Malling Association area) who had moved to the village earlier in the year and had asked their old Association to pass on their membership details, which I had never received.

If any reader thinks the above is all a bit far fetched, let me illustrate the problem with a local story from T&M ,which occurred in the last month.  I received an email from a man who had recently taken early retirement from the City and wanted to join the Association, get actively involved, join the Discussion Forum and eventually put his name forward as a local government candidate.   I immediately replied and sent him an application form and list of forthcoming events. I explained that our own Discussion Forum in T&M only met once or twice a year, but that the discussion group in the neighbouring constituency met regularly and was geographically closer to where he lived. I also said the local branch would be delighted to hear of his interest and would welcome his involvement. I cc'd my email to the organiser of the Discussion Forum in the adjoining Association and also to his local branch Secretary.

Within 24 hours all three recipients had replied;

  • The new member had phoned to thank me for my prompt response and paid his subscription over the phone by debit card. 
  • The Chairman of the neighbouring Association's discussion group emailed to say she was 'very concerned' that I was encouraging people to attend their meeting, and if he did turn-up it could well effect the 'integrity' of the group, who all know each other and might feel prohibited by the inclusion of outsiders. 
  • But perhaps worst of all, the branch Secretary where he lived emailed to say that new members were expected to 'prove themselves' for a year before they could be considered as an active members or be permitted to join the committee!  (Ironically, this same branch declined to participate in a recent recruitment campaign on the basis they didn't have enough active members). 

I despair.

So there, in a nutshell, is the problem we face.  Tomorrow I will post how in the West Kent Group (C&A, TW and T&M) we endeavour to add value to our membership offer and thus retain our existing members, and some of the new and innovative ways we approach recruitment to attract new members to join us.

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