Friday, 13 March 2015

Growing-up in the shadow of Sir Winston

Regular readers will know that one of my goals is to remove the pomp, formality and exclusivity too often associated with party membership, making it truly accessible to all. Over the years, with the support of others, I have tried to steer Associations away from formal and expensive black tie dinners, often to the chagrin of older/more traditional members. I remember as a young man feeling I had to attend the Association's annual dinner in order to "belong" but how the expense of hiring a dinner suit on top of the cost of the dinner and drinks ruined the evening for me and led me to question if I could afford to be a Conservative activist. I also remember some other younger members present at the dinner were wearing a normal suit (perhaps their only one) and how, whilst no-one commented or deliberately made them feel under-dressed, how uncomfortable they looked and felt.

That experience must have been seared into my sub-conscious. I am often accused of being a spoil-sport or "denying the ladies a chance to dress-up" - and perhaps that is true, but to me the greater crime would be to allow another generation of young activists to feel excluded, unwelcome and "priced out", and I make no apology for that.  

I am also conscious of maximising income for the purpose it is intended; fighting and winning elections. About five years ago I recall being told by one well-to-do retired couple that "membership of the party had cost us almost £200 this month..." Not recalling a donation from them, I enquired why. The reeled off the money spent on the annual dinner; two tickets at £40 each, £40 on a taxi, £10 on drinks before the meal, £30 on wine, £10 on the raffle.....  The reality was that only £20 of this money went to party funds, the remainder went to the venue and the taxi driver. However, in the minds of the members, this was "money given to the party" and probably affected / limited what they gave in other, more profitable ways. 

Recently we have developed a new way to maximise income from visiting speakers at a price everyone can afford, whilst returning a greater profit for the Associations than would be made at a formal dinner. Our "Audience with....." format has proved hugely popular, and we are now planning our third and fourth! Last year we welcomed the formidable Baroness Jean Trumpington and last night it was Sir Nicholas Soames MP. The format is a stage show with the guest of honour being interviewed about their life by one of our local MPs. There's a cash bar (provided by the venue) and no catering or washing-up. The show lasts an hour, allowing people plenty of time to return home for a meal. With no food costs and only the venue hire charge to cover, we can charge a nominal £10 pp to attend, making £8 profit for the Associations. Last night's event (with 300 in the audience) made almost £2,500!  We hope future guests (post election) will be Simon Weston OBE and Lord Tebbit! 

Sir Nicholas was great value and spoke openly and movingly about his grandfather, his parents and his own life, both in the military as as a Minister and MP. He thoroughly charmed the audience with his candour and humour - and left them wanting more. 

Here are a selection of photographs from the event:

Arrival drinks

Pre-show reception
Pre-show reception

Sir Nicholas Soames MP with Tonbridge & Malling Parliamentary Candidate Tom Tugendhat
and West Kent Group Chairman, William Rutherford.
Reminiscing about his Grandfather.....
"Growing-up it seemed quite normal, at least to us. But slowly - as I got older - I realised that life in my family wasn't like other peoples' lives. I recall the moment I realised it was different. We were attending my nephew's baptism and when we came out of the church there were 8,000 people lining the streets of Westerham, cheering and waiving flags as we drove home. That was the moment I realised that "other boys don't get this when they go out on a Sunday."
From left: Jon Botten, Janet Sergison, Sonia Williams, Tom Tugendhat, William Rutherford, Matt Boughton, Thelma Huggett, Sir Nicholas Soames MP, Steve Browning, AK and Sir John Stanley MP.

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