Last week we received probably four calls or emails from outside companies offering "Campaign Services". These are invariably run by former CCHQ employees who have seen an opportunity to provide campaign support across disciplines which were once covered by the Party's army of Agents and Organising Secretaries.
Calls usually begin by telling me, or implying, that they are approved by CCHQ - a claim which often starts to unravel when I question them on just who at CCHQ I should approach for a reference. I recently suggested that if CCHQ is working alongside any of these companies or individuals, it would be helpful if a directory of "approved working partners" was published, so unsuspecting activists, MPs and Association Officers could really tell if the person they are dealing with is both competent and reliable.
The problem with this, however, these companies often operate under different titles, offering different services and with different set-ups across the UK, and these change regularly from project to project. I know this to be true as someone who spoke to me a few weeks ago to offer mailing fulfilment phoned my colleague sitting at an adjoining desk to offer telephone canvassing, this time from a different company name! I could feel him squirming when Jon passed the phone to me! there is also the issue if anything went wrong and the company was on an "approved list" I suspect the Association's first port of call would be CCHQ, demanding their money back!
In West Kent we are fortunate; almost everything we are offered we are able to provide
in-house, for a fraction of the cost of outsourcing. We have our own phone bank, our own direct mail and fulfilment capabilities (OK, we use free labour to pack the envelopes - but it keeps people involved and reduces the cost) and we can print full colour - in house or via our preferred local printer for more complicated jobs.
The difficulty, however, must be those seats where the MP feels under threat but is not on the 40:40 list, or seats where the candidate or Chairman feels they *might* just win if only they had more resources. These must be the seats which probably don't have access to an Agent or Campaign Manager and where a friendly voice offering phone canvassing or 20,000 mailshots at a special price might receive a welcome response.
I am not blaming these ex-staffers for doing what they do - we are, after all, the party of initiative and enterprise. My problem is in providing these basic services, they are doing so at a profit which could be spent on additional campaigning, if we had those basic skills in house. Which we used to have!
For example, one such company (and I know the guy who runs it reasonable well) asked to quote on a mail shot to 10,000 targets. His price, which I acknowledge was below market rate, was £3,000 +VAT (or 36p per target inc VAT). I was able to do the exact same job in-house for £800. I am sure there are many MPs or concerned/well intentioned Association Chairman who would have happily paid the £3,000 as they simply feel there is no alternative.
But there is an alternative.
I spend disproportionate amounts of my free time speaking to area, regional and constituency meetings about the advantages of Grouping; I have attended at least 30 such meetings over the last 12 months (all in my own unpaid time, which I am happy to do as it helps the party move forward). Having been instrumental in pulling the West Kent Group together I can speak at first hand of the advantages, problems and opportunities. Everyone nods enthusiastically, but then nothing happens. Across the year I guess I have taken the message to 50+ Associations - but as far as I know not a single one of them has actually formed a group. There's always the reason not to do so. "Too close to the local elections". "Let's get the AGM out of the way". "We need to sort out what we are doing with xyz". "We cannot make a decision until we know what's happening with the boundaries." Then, ultimately, "it's too close to the General Election for us to make such a change..." Let's be brutal, doing nothing is far the easiest option.
Groupings work. In West Kent we spend over 50% of our income on campaigning. I believe this compares with 10-15% across the UK. In the last month our little office, with just 2.4 staff, has churned out 3 constituency-wide MP newsletters, 57 ward newsletters, 45,000 direct mail shots to Conservative pledges and we have knocked on 3,000 doors.
These opportunities and this level of support is available to every association, if they formed groups, shared costs and spent their money on what our members and supporters donate it for - CAMPAIGNING AND WINNING ELECTIONS.
I really hope one of the Party's new Vice Presidents, who are being elected as I type, is given responsibility for driving this forward. This should be followed by each Region and each Area Management Executive appointing an Officer responsible for Grouping. I really believe that almost every Association and every real activist can see and understand the need and the advantage. We just need someone with the passion, determination, communication skills and ability to drive it to completion (oh, and they will also need the hide of a rhinoceros!).