Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Internal democracy, transparency and accountability

The fourth and penultimate in my series of 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. 

Another area we need to address is how Associations reflect the aspirations of their activists, with particular emphasis on involving the wider membership in the decision making process.

This doesn’t mean that every operational decision should be discussed ad nauseam  by a large and unwieldy committee – if so decisions would seldom be made and when they were it would invariable be the triumph of lowest common denominator – but the groups who make such decisions should be open, transparent and accountable. This is particularly important for local government selections as well as how various committees are constituted and managed.

Most people join the party as they simply wish to support our goals and are happy to make an annual payment to do so. Others want to make a difference and are willing to give their time, intelligence and energy. I have found that people who become active are almost always active in other organisations, too - so can happily transfer their time and energy elsewhere if they don’t feel needed or valued by us.  And just as we lose the help and goodwill of supporters who offer help and are never contacted, so we probably lose the input and future leadership skills of members who are excluded from the process.  One man, who has given freely of his time over ten consecutive years, was told that he had “no right” to stand as Association Chairman as he “wasn’t local”. His home was a few hundred meters outside the constituency boundary!

In West Kent we try to ensure our Associations are as open and inclusive as possible. The decline of the branch structure has clearly weakened our succession planning as building and running a successful branch was a way to identify and develop the skills of future Association leaders. Nor do I believe the business-based management model introduced by Archie Norman necessarily proved an ideal structure to build and develop a volunteer-based campaign organisation. Certainly I am not aware of any successful charity, pressure group or similar organisation based on such formal lines and with such ill-defined but wide ranging job titles.

Once again I believe a liberalisation of the structure and loosening of formality is the way forward. I appreciate I have used this term before, but we need to engage with people on their terms not force them to engage on ours. This might involve:

  • Supporting polling district branches where they exist, but encourage and promote new branches based on shared interest (parents, commuters, countryside guardians, young professionals, etc).  Bringing people together who share a common endeavour and therefore have something in common with each other is surely a better building block than polling district boundaries.
  • Encouraging people with specific skills to put those skills into service rather than forcing round pegs into square holes.  If a member or supporter wishes to do a job for which he or she is qualified, why force them to do something else, or require them to join a committee or pay a fee to do so?  In one West Kent constituency a very successful young lawyer wanted to play his part in the GE – he was given the job of managing an eclectic group of young helpers who had no formal involvement with the party. He did an outstanding job getting them to the right place at the right time. If we had forced him to join a ‘Campaign Committee” or attend regular strategy meetings he would have run a mile. We need to build and encourage such participation. 

  •  And yes, we need to learn lessons from other countries who do it better than we do. I recently read a detailed report on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s successful gubernatorial campaign in 2006, when around one third of his 49 phone banks were dedicated to phoning known supporters asking them to help the campaign. Apparently of the 10% agreeing to do so, one third never turned up, one third came to help just once and the final third became regular helpers. If we could replicate that in the UK, an Association with 15,000 pledges would end-up with 500 new regular activists. The skill is using our experienced activists to recruit and develop others and ensuring we have sufficient jobs to suit all skills.  And of course we then follow-up each offer with a warm welcome, suitable training and a genuine thank you, so the volunteer feels valued and needed.

We have allowed too many Associations to become self-serving monoliths whose primary purpose appears to be interminable meetings where members talk to each other about what they might do if they had more time.  Several years ago I was appointed Agent for a Kent seat in decline and within my first year we were fighting an unexpected by-election in a marginal council seat. Polling day was the same day as the monthly meeting of the Association’s “Policy Discussion Forum”. When I suggested to the Chairman that the 20+ members who were planning to attend her discussion might like to help with GOTV instead, I was told “Oh, by the time the meeting finishes it will be too late to knock on doors…  This was six years ago. The person concerned recently aid to me, "I never find you particularly supportive of what I wish to achieve."  I wonder why!

Recently I was told by a member from one of the later Associations to join the WK Group, “the trouble with you Andrew is your only goal is to win elections…”  This was said in a way that was meant to make me feel it was a bad thing!  I replied that this wasn’t the case. I said I was very happy to arrange social events as these raised the money we needed to print literature. I was very happy to recruit new members and activists, as these were the people we needed to pound the streets. And I was very happy to keep on top of the legal and bureaucratic requirements to ensure our candidates were all nominated and none were disqualified on technicalities.

We must always remember that the sole purpose of the voluntary party is to fight and win elections, indeed the following words are an integral part of each Association’s constitution: provide an effective campaigning organisation in the Constituency; to secure the return of Conservative Candidates at elections; and to raise the necessary funds to achieve these objectives; to contribute to the central funds of the Party.

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