In writing this blog on leadership at local level I am conscious that apart from people like me, our officers and local leaders are almost all volunteers who give freely of their time and often their money to do a job with little thanks and scant reward. Having established and acknowledged that fact I am also firmly of the belief that with office comes duty and responsibility.
Looking back to the late 1970s and early 1980s and comparing them with today, the biggest change in our local leadership at constituency level is the type of people who hold senior office within our Associations and the underlying factors which motivate them. In my earlier years Association Chairmen and Officers tended to be retired or semi-retired business people or ex-military types who saw service to the local Conservative Association as a form of duty. Whilst those people are still around they are now fewer in number with our leaders often (but not exclusively) drawn from:
- Ambitious prospective politicians who see a period of Association activism as a stepping stone to a parliamentary career
- Councillors who see keeping control of the Association as being in the best interest of their own council agenda
- Well intentioned but reluctant backwoodsman who really don't want the job but volunteered out of duty as "someone had to do it."
Another major issue which is seldom examined in depth is the risk all political parties take in terms of reputational damage in allowing unknown, untrained and often untested people to take control of local Associations, with very little supervision or control until it's too late. A friend in the Labour Party with a regional responsibility told me that managing the local Constituency Labour Parties was like a giant game of "whack-a-mole". I suspect the same applies to us.
One of the issues is the ingrained "independence" of each Association and their determination to do things their way. I know of no Association which would happily allow one of its wards or branches to flout the Association's agreed rules to suit local circumstances but many Associations seem to reserve this right for themselves. The fact is, whether we like it or not, a ward committee is a branch of the Association just as the Association is a branch of the national party. Autonomy and freedom within the rules is fine and should be encouraged, but picking and choosing which rules you wish to uphold is not.
One of the issues is the management and supervision of Associations. Technically Associations are overseen by the county-based Area Management Executives (AMEs). In reality, the AMEs are virtually toothless and rely on the strength of character of those elected to run them in order to achieve any real change. A strong and vibrant Area Team can carry Associations with them and deliver change by force of experience, but too often they are an 'elephants graveyard' for retired Association Officers in search of a comfortable job. I serve on the Kent AME along with some great people who are progressive and have the best interests of the Conservative Party at heart. We generate a great deal of words and many pages of minutes, but in reality our good ideas are 'sandcastles in the air' if a recalcitrant or unsupportive Association Chairman hits the delete button as he sees new ideas as a threat or "too much like hard work".
Rebuilding our local Associations must come from within; with strong, professional and progressive Management Committees with the knowledge, skills and confidence to do what needs to be done. But the Party has no formal structure to develop and assist newly elected Officers or those struggling with their responsibilities. Associations are meant to produce a business plan within four weeks of the AGM, setting-out the Association's goals for the year ahead. Mine do (though admittedly they are all late this year due to the GE) but I suspect many do not - and I doubt if those who do not are ever asked to do so. And I am not aware of any Association being asked to revisit or review their business plan at the end of the year to see just what has been achieved, to be congratulated on what was delivered and to have their missed targets discussed with recommendations made for the future. It is easy to see why so many officers simply give up on grand ideas and fall into following the line of least resistance.
So here are some practical, deliverable and I hope useful changes which could be adopted without any great cost which might assist our future development
1. Each AME to recruit a team of experienced (retired) officers from successful Associations and/or business community who will sit down with each Association Officer team immediately following the AGM and produce a professional, achievable and realistic business plan. The same "mentor" to revisit the Association after 6-8 months to review progress and again at the year end. The business plans and progress reports to be published by the AME to share best practice and highlight achievements.
2. A simple annual "audit" of each Association measuring Key Performance Indicators such as membership collection rates and retention, new pledges identified, new members recruited, properly constituted Executive Councils and LG candidate selections and prompt payments of the per member fee etc, with LfL results published by the AME. After all, if league tables and KPIs drive up standards in schools, councils and hospitals, surely they must do likewise in local Associations?
3. New powers for the Area / Regional team to place key people into Associations to support struggling Associations without having to impose the draconian and seldom used "special measures" which should always be a last resort.
4. Along with these stronger supervisory measures should also be real rewards and recognition for those who deliver success. Awards should not just be based on paying of quotas and per member fees, but also to recognise achievements across a whole field of activity.
5. And perhaps for those Associations who meet or exceed the national standard a Regional reception (free of charge) with a significant speaker, where the Officers are recognised, thanked and made to feel appreciated for their work on behalf of the Party.
It is not unreasonable for Associations to wish to manage their own affairs, but equally it is not unreasonable for the Party nationally to demand a uniform standard from those who run its local branches. The above proposals should give Association Officers the training and support they need to fulfil their basic responsibilities whilst providing the local AMEs with the tools to measure performance and reward achievement.