The third in a series of five 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.
I have yet to meet a candidate, branch organiser or campaign manger who doesn't bemoan the lack of help, but what I have found over the years is it is those who complain most about lack of resource are almost always the same people who fail contact potential volunteers when they are found.
In controlling this I am in a difficult position. With five constituencies I simply do not have the resource to manage and nurture every new volunteer and in doing so I should be able to rely upon the individual wards and candidates to follow-up such offers.
This year over 200 people ticked the "I will help deliver newsletters locally" box on our various Voter ID surveys. These are all logged on Merlin/VoteSource and receive an acknowledgement letter/email from the office thanking them for their offer and to say "our local ward organiser (name) will be in touch to see how you can help locally..." The same email / letter is sent to the ward organiser along with a note "please make contact and let me know how you get on..." Then... silence.
In fairness, not always silence. We have many good branches who keep in touch with their helpers, thank and nurture their teams and thus probably have sufficient help. We have one branch who are so good at building and retaining their team they now have two volunteers for each delivery round and alternate deliveries to keep their teams active. Yet in a demographically identical ward next door, leaflets don't get delivered, or three deliveries are pushed through the letterbox at the same time, as "I have no help and cannot do it all, you know..."
Several years ago CCHQ ran a test; they sent an email to Association Offices from a potential new member who was moving to the area and wanted a membership application form. I don't recall the precise details, but the overwhelming majority of Associations never made contact, and of those which did many were unhelpful. With this in mind and curious about our own ability to follow-up offers of help I ran a similar exercise myself. Fourteen candidates who were constantly informing me that they couldn't get leaflets delivered or do any canvassing each received an email from Pippa Smith. Pippa was a former CF Chair at university and was "moving to the area with her new job". She "really wanted to help with the election and was happy to deliver leaflets or canvass voters". Please let me know how I can help..." Of the fourteen candidates who received the email only one replied. It was a depressing experiment.
I often ask candidates / councillors why they don't follow-up new helpers whilst complaining about lack of manpower and I receive a variety of replies, including
"I don't trust people I don't know as they might let me down."
"I tried to call but they weren't in."
"I already have someone who does that road."
"They live in a road I always do myself."
If I didn't know better I would tempted to think some candidates find it easier to complain about not having any help and using that as a reason not to campaign, than actually investing the time and energy needed to build a team.
So what is to be done? Other than centralising the workload and managing help from the centre, which is contrary to what we should be doing to rebuild our grassroots, we will always need to rely on our local people to respond, which is where the weakness lies. To overcome this problem we need peer pressure along with an accurate tracking and reporting tool and a plan of last resort to "mop-up" those activists who simply cannot be deployed locally. Here is my plan, which we are now implementing in two of our five constituencies
1. The appointment of a New Activist Champion as part of the DC Membership/Finance's team, whose sole responsibility is to manage new volunteers.
2. 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.
3. 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.
Our inability to follow-up and welcome each and every volunteer and then develop their interest to the maximum, is a failure which greatly depresses me. I suspect some branch organisers and councillors see new people as a threat. As the saying goes, "in the land of the blind the one eyed man is king."