Monday, 29 June 2015

The future of political activism - personal thoughts

Over the last two weeks I have published on this blog detailed proposals on how we might reshape and reform the Conservative voluntary party. I believe my proposals are relatively simple to implement, practical in their outcomes and beneficial for all concerned. 

One could say that by proposing changes to what already exists I am guilty of simply tinkering at the edges - and that is a fair charge. I actually believe we need to go further, much further, and have blogged previously about how I believe the present membership model is no longer fit for purpose and needs replacing (HERE). Nothing I have witnessed over the 12 months since writing that article has made me change my mind. In the following article I seek to add more detail to how I believe we could change membership in its current form and in doing so rebuild a truly democratic (and meritocratic) organisation with wider and deeper roots in the community; a party which in its constitution is focused on fighting elections rather than managing internal bureaucracy. 

I must stress the following work is mine and mine alone. I do not speak for any of the constituency Associations which employ me. These are my personal thoughts on how we might reshape for the future. I am however indebted to my friend and colleague, William Rutherford (Chair of the West Kent Group) who shares my passion for reform and who undertook quite detailed research of how political parties operate elsewhere, which has been invaluable in writing this blogpost. 

Political membership, in its traditional form, is still falling and has been for decades. There may be blips and upturns along the way, but these are short interruptions in the steady downward spiral of decline. This does not mean political parties or political activism is in decline. As Coach Trip and Team 2015 have shown, participation is alive and kicking, but increasingly people do not see the need nor understand the purpose of paying £25 to be an activist. 

I believe over the next five years the Conservative Party, at every level - from the Leader, through CCHQ, MPs, Associations, branches, councillors and individual supporters and activists, should focus on signing-up 20% of our 2015 vote as "Registered Supporters". Given we polled 11,300,000 votes, 20% of these would be 2,260,000 Registered Supporters. Even if we only managed to achieve 10%, the figure would be over 1.1 million. A huge potential resource and a base which would be the envy of every other party. The campaign to achieve this could be our goal for these election-lite years; street stalls, mailshots, door to door deliveries, email campaigns, dawn raids at mainline stations - all have worked for us in West Kent and contributed to the 1,500 Registered Supporters we have signed in the last four weeks.

Reforms on the scale I am proposing will take a long time to manage, and if we are going to reform, the change must be managed carefully and implemented with skill. I am therefore proposing that any change is introduced in the months immediately following the 2020 General Election, giving us time to work through the detail and plenty of time afterwards to iron-out problems.  It may be wise to trail my suggestions in one or two counties first, and if so I hope Kent will be at the forefront.

Here in bullet form, is my proposal

  • Within three months of the next GE, paid membership in its present form should be merged with our 'Registered Supporters' database, with our traditional members receiving some form of certificate and a reception to thank them for their previous membership, loyalty and support.
  • Over a four week period each constituency to arrange a series of ward meetings, to which all Registered Supporters will be invited to attend. At these local meetings 'Neighbourhood Champions' (covering a polling station) and 'Ward Organisers' (covering a LG ward) will be elected. All 'Registered Supporters' may attend, seek nomination and vote.  
  • These ward based meetings should be followed by a meeting of all 'Neighbourhood Champions' and 'Ward Organisers' who will elect a 'Constituency Chair' from one of their number.  The 'Ward Organisers' would then automatically become the 'Constituency Management Committee', providing a direct link between the centre to the wards and polling districts.   
  • All of the 'Constituency Chairs' within a county should then meet to elect a 'County Chair' then similarly a 'Regional Chair' right up the the voluntary party's representation on the National Board. This structure (polling district, ward, constituency, county, region, board) is similar to what we now have, the main difference being the election process would be based on Registered Supporters and the elections would be truncated into a short post-GE period. 
  • Unlike the present system, where Association and Branch Officers are elected for a maximum of three years, and many of the most capable people come in and out of office in 'peacetime', the new office holders should be elected for a full five year term, ensuring that everyone in the structure knows they will have responsibility for the Party's success through a full cycle of elections, culminating at the next General Election campaign.  Arrangements would have to be put in place to replace those who resign or leave, as there are now. 
  • Each person in the chain would have a clearly defined job description / campaign responsibility. 'Neighbourhood Champions' would be charged with contacting all Registered Supporters in their polling district to build-up a delivery / teller / GOTV operation. 'Ward Organisers' would have responsibility to co-ordinate the work of the local 'Neighbourhood Champions' and to liaise between the centre / constituency organisation and the local activists. 
  • I propose that all of this should be overseen and supported from a series of modern and well equipped County Campaign Headquarters, each looking after around 15 parliamentary constituencies. In some cases this might mean two small counties working together.  Each County Campaign HQ should be managed by a campaign director with, depending on local circumstances, between one and three campaign assistants. The office should also employ an administration manager, with a part-time book keeper and receptionist. Each County Campaign HQ will be self-financing - using the money received from an annual appeal to the Party's 40,000 or so 'Registered Supporters' in each county along with centrally-run draws and an annual County Dinner.
  • This county-wide administrative and professional support facility will not only provide legal, campaign support and training for activists, it will also free local constituencies from the drudgery of membership collection and administration, liberating local activists to select the best candidates, develop their campaign teams and win elections at all levels. With no requirement to employ staff, pay for bricks and mortar or spend resources on administration, constituencies will find it easier to raise funds as donors will know every penny given locally will be spent on campaigning in that constituency.
  • Candidate selection will also be democratised. Each constituency would continue to interview and approve candidates as before, but selections will be made by all the 'Registered Supporters' in a ward at an Closed Primary. Parliamentary selections would be made from a list supplied by the Party nationally with a constituency-wide meeting of Registered Supporters making the final decision.
We need a serious debate about whether a mass membership model forged in a two-party post ward country, when tribal loyalties trumped consumer choice, is still relevant 75 years later. We need to ask if future political success is best served by an endless round of meetings in which we talk to each other about how we can raise the funds to buy a new carpet for the office hallway. Whether a new generation of social-media savvy activists will be inspired by an invitation to a Safari Supper or an overly formal black tie dinner. And if we look around our present activists and see a dwindling and increasingly aged group of stalwarts, we need to be brutally honest and ask how many of them will still be able to do what they did this year in five or ten years time. 

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