For a long time I have held a view that we need fundamental reform of "membership".
I have blogged about this many times, here and elsewhere. I fear that our subscription-based "membership model" is dead, and for as long as we keep it we will struggle to reform and re-build a modern, meritocratic, inclusive party; the kind of broad funding base that the Republicans and Democrats enjoy in the USA.
Habit, reluctance to change and fear of the unknown are all understandable reasons to avoid major reform, but on this I believe we must be brave. Tinkering at the edges will not work, and I fear is simply delaying the inevitable. My vision is for a deep, broad and wide base, drawing support, activism and funding from the widest possible group, thus reducing the burden on our ever-dwindling band of stalwarts. This not only makes political sense but widening the base whilst reducing the individual burden is sound Conservative philosophy.
Allowing membership to "wither on the vine" whilst building a parallel network of activists is creating a two-tier organisation, with each group suspicious and resentful of the other. I have already heard complaints from traditional members that Team2015 and "Friends" don't pay their fair share and I hear just as many complaints from new young activists that traditional members 'look down their noses and treat us like 2nd class members". The Party will not benefit from allowing this to continue.
To me, there is just one solution: reform the definition, cost and terms of membership so it ceases to be a barrier. And yes, this includes abolishing the £25 entry level which we insist upon before people can call themselves members.
So what are the implications?
Q. If we abolish traditional membership, where will we get our money from?
The truth is, for most Associations, membership income is a small part of the annual total and in almost all cases it is declining. From a typical £25 subscription, £5 is paid to CCHQ and a further £5 is spent on print, postage and time-costs inviting the member to renew. This leaves £15 per member. For an Association of 300 members this equates to £4,500 of income, money which could be raised far easier if we increased the depth and width of the poll in which we fish for support.
Q. But that £4,500 is the money we need to fight an election.
Indeed, but that's assuming that overall income won't actually increase. If we replace traditional membership with a a "registered supporter" scheme there is no reason to believe that supporters won't (if asked properly) send an additional campaign fund donation of at least the amount they previously gave in subs. In fact, they might even give more. And if we are really brave and bring in new payment methods (such as Pay Pal and text giving) there is no reason why many hundreds of new "registered supporters" won't sign up then make several additional small donations (by which I mean £2 or £5 or £10) two or three times a year. I would much prefer to have 1,000 supporters giving £10 pa than 200 members contributing £15.
Q. But isn't it a huge risk?
Any change is a risk, but burying our heads in the sand and not addressing the problem is simply negligent. We are running up the "down" escalator, and each year we have to run faster just to stay still. We have a duty to the future of the Party to be brave and at least try to reverse the decline in both money and activists.
Q. But is there any evidence that it will work?
Actually, yes there is. Five years ago Chatham & Aylesford's Christmas raffle raised £400. Last year it raised £3,000. Overwhelmingly that new money (around 80% of it) came from non-members. The Christmas raffle brought in more money than membership income - with about 200 non-members donating to our funds. Each of these 200 people had (in the 12 months preceding the raffle) been invited to join the Party. None of them did so. Evidence, surely, that people are willing to donate (some quite generously) but few would ever join.
Q. But it's not just membership - what about the Patrons' Club?
My proposed changes would have no impact whatsoever on Patrons' Clubs or similar. I am not suggesting we abolish the voluntary party or do away with participation; all I am suggesting is we redefine membership. Generous members who wish to join a Patrons' Club could still do so, and by deepening and widening the pool in which we fish for financial support; we might even attract new Patrons.
Q. What about the AGM and the Executive Council?
As above, I am not suggesting we abolish participation! But rather than limiting attendance to the £25 per head members, we would send an invitation to all registered supporters. The success of Tonbridge & Malling's open primary, and our confidence in our brand, should give us the courage to fling open our doors and welcome people in.
So, what's next?
I have written to the Party Board outlining my plan and asking for their authority to trial this for a year locally. Their contribution would be to waive the £5 per member fee for the duration of the trial.
If they agree, I will put the plan to one of my Executive Councils (I have already sounded the key people out and secured their outline agreement).
If the necessary permissions are secured, we will contact our existing members to inform them and seek their support for the trial. We will be open and honest about what we are trying to achieve, and inform them that if it doesn't work we will revert in year two.
We will then set-up every conceivable electronic payment method to remove every possible barrier to donating. We will then write, email or hand deliver an invitation to every resident in the constituency inviting them to "become a "Registered Supporter" with no entry level.
At the moment it's just a plan - the biggest hurdle I suspect will be getting it through the Party Board who are rightfully focused on winning in 2015 and might not want the distraction. But they can be assured that having pulled together West Kent Campaign HQ and probably the biggest Open Primary since the idea's inception, if anyone can make a success of this proposed reform, we can. But if it comes off, it will be very exciting indeed. As always, you will read about its progress (successful or otherwise) here.
I would welcome your comments and feedback.