The suggestion that various constituencies in West Kent should work together had been on the table for thirty plus years. Meetings would be held, papers written and reports sent back to Executive Councils for further consideration only to disappear without trace. The problem was getting agreement from all five Associations - with one or two of the five always finding every reason for it not to go ahead. Finally, recognising the status quo was not sustainable, the three front runners went ahead, only to find the two who had stalled previous discussions requesting membership from the start. I suspect had we waited to find a proposal which all five agreed on before moving to the next stage, we would still be talking about it today.
Despite the positive messages we send out from West Kent, Grouping is not simple nor easy. It requires courage and foresight from our local leaders, a degree of compromise, goodwill from all participants, a selfless focus on the greater good and a willingness to put old ways aside and work as a team.
Most of the above can be encouraged by strong and united Officers, but what cannot be changed overnight is the collective psychology of each Association - often built up over many years. If an Association believes that the staff are there to act as "PA to the Association Chairman" and the office is "somewhere to pop in for a chat and a cup of coffee whilst out shopping" then suddenly finding your local office is now dedicated to campaigning and doesn't see itself as a drop-in centre with a free parking space whilst shopping, can be quite a cultural shock.
Over the last two years I have been invited to speak at three county meetings, one regional conference and at least 14 different Association Executive Committees on how we set-up and operate the West Kent Group. Without doubt my presentation is met with kindness, enthusiasm and great interest and a determination to "get something off the ground here". Yet despite my and many other peoples' best efforts, I do not think we are any further forward in terms of new groups actually being formed. I do not blame any individual for this, particularly in a General Election year, but progress won't happen without someone taking the lead and inevitably there is always a very good reason why the decision should be deferred to another day.
General Election year is not the right time to move.
We need to 'let the dust settle' to see how things shape up?
Don't you think we should wait to see the outcome of the boundary review?
Let's wait until after the County Council elections, shall we?
Oh, we couldn't possibly make such a major move with a General Election 12 months away!
One of the things I am always asked is "how would a shared office be staffed...? There is no simple answer to this as one size doesn't fit all, and it would be foolish to claim it does. What I do believe is all groups should separate administration from campaigning as these are two very different skills. In West Kent we seem to have the ideal solution. I am really fortunate to have Jon Botten working with me as Office Manager. His responsibilities include membership reminders and records, branch flyers, minutes and notices of meetings and AGMs, administration for raffles and appeals and day to day procurement. This allows me to focus on legal stuff, development and campaigning (and by campaigning I mean election campaigning, membership campaigning and major fund raising). Despite having clearly defined roles we don't work in a silo - we discuss and debate everything, each of us bouncing ideas off the other and happily changing what is planned if someone comes up with something better. In addition during major elections we have a paid intern and of course a fantastic team of regular volunteers. For us, the system works.
Elsewhere - perhaps in an area with several target seats, the group might need additional campaign support and perhaps only a part time administrator, and equally in areas where winning parliamentary seats is a long term goal, the focus would be on building and developing the activists base rather than campaigning.
There are also the financial implications. Whilst in the long term grouping releases resources for campaigning, there is a short term cost - sometimes quite significant. For example, in West Kent, Tonbridge and Malling had to find £5,500 to be released from their lease obligations. Solicitors and landlord's fees relating to the new office lease and general advice of the Memorandum of Understanding was another £2,000, equipping the new office with furniture cost £2,500 and a further £3,000 on installing modern IT and a ten line VoIP phone bank.
So how does the Party move from where we are (a position which is becoming increasing untenable) to where we need to be? Here are a few proposals:
- Each AME to appoint a "Grouping Champion" to support and encourage groups where possible.
- CCHQ to assist with establishment costs by waiving 12 months per member fee for the Associations which establish a new Group Office
- Recognition that five Associations sharing one office will not make so many demands on CCHQ resources, so institute a sliding scale for IT / Helpdesk support and Election Insurance (perhaps 80% for two sharing, 70% for three sharing, 60% for four and 50% for five).
- A designated national officer to advise Associations, Regions and County AMEs on Grouping and Best Practice.
This brings to a close my series of five articles on how we might reform and rebuild the voluntary party.
Here, is summary form, are my proposals in full:
MANAGING AND RENEWING ASSOCIATIONS
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Invite pledges to sign-up as a Registered Supporter and treat them all as we would treat members.
- Once we have built our databases, invite people to join various groups based on shared interests (commuters, young professionals, students, parents, countryside guardians, retirees - the possibilities are endless).
- Bring people together based on what interests them rather than on geographical ward boundaries. Provide newsletters, speakers and events which are directly linked to their interest. Involve and engage on their terms, not insist them to be active on ours.
- The appointment of a New Activist Champion as part of the DC Membership/Finance's team, whose sole responsibility is to manage new volunteers.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.