Thursday, 18 June 2015

The membership model and how we need to broaden our horizons

The second 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 blog regularly about the need to attract new activists and last year suggested we abolished our traditional membership model as I felt it was a barrier to attracting new support. See HERE.  Reaction to that article was mixed, though I believe most of the objections were based on fear of change rather than a calm assessment of what I was proposing. Nor did the objectors offer any new or better proposals about how to deal with the decline. 

The tipping point for me with regard to our present membership model came two years ago. Tonbridge & Malling were approaching its parliamentary selection contest. The Management Committee was of the opinion that the chance to participate in such an event after 40 years of incumbency would be sufficient incentive to attract back many of the hundreds of members whose membership had lapsed over the previous ten years as well as a sizeable number of new members wishing to participate in the parliamentary selection.

The decision was taken to spend the best part of £10,000 from reserves on the largest recruitment campaign we have ever undertaken. A good quality personal letter along with a stylish recruitment leaflet was posted to 20,000 pledges, resulting in the recruitment of just 50 new members - a hugely disappointing result with the revenue not even covering the printing costs let alone the postage. If a strong and vibrant Association in one of the strongest conservative areas of the country could not recruit significant new members, what chance did we have to rebuild elsewhere?

The failure of the mass recruitment campaign did have a silver lining - it brought home the need to reform the way we engaged with the wider community and made the task of selling the "open primary" much easier than it might otherwise have been. It was a great tribute to the Officers and the Executive Council that they not only supported the plan but then made the resources available to ensure it was a success.

I have posted some links below for further reading about our open primary, but looking back the event was probably the single thing I am most proud of helping deliver. Over 700 people, the majority of them not party members, gave up half of their Saturday to participate in the selection of a new parliamentary candidate. In an era of political disconnection, the successful candidate, Tom Tugendhat, maintains to this day that he derived a significant political and moral benefit on the doorsteps and at hustings when he was able to remind people was he selected by the public at a truly open meeting. 

The success of the open primary brought home three important factors which shaped my thinking

  • People may not join political parties, but they are still willing to participate and engage in the political process if invited to do so and if they think it matters.
  • Once people have "engaged" they are willing to contribute. Almost all the non members gave to the financial appeal and as many as 30% subsequently became active in the Association as deliverers, office helpers or donors. Two are now Conservative councillors.
  • None of the fears of entryism were proved correct. Fewer than 15 of the 350 non members attending were known opposition supporters, none caused trouble or tried to disrupt the proceedings. Two were so impressed by what we had done they subsequently voted Conservative. 

I often try to imagine imagine the outcome had we tried to charge people to attend. I have no evidence to support this, but I suspect we would be lucky to have had 20% of the numbers of non-members attending, and all the political and emotional benefits of holding an inclusive open public meeting would have been lost. 

When I first wrote about abolishing membership I received two fairly spiky emails accusing me of being 'the enemy within' - part of a "metropolitan elite" who wanted to destroy the grassroots and smash the voluntary party. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have been a member of the Conservative Party for 35 years and am passionate about its renewal and survival. Participatory democracy and grass roots involvement are far too important to allow them to wither of the vine due inertia or a lack of courage to try something new.

I believe very strongly that paying a fee to be allowed to belong is the biggest single barrier to attracting new people. It's not the amount we ask them to pay (after all £25.00 isn't a lot) it's the concept of "joining" and all the imagined horrors that being a 'paid-up member' brings to mind. 

So here is my plan. 

1. Invite everyone to sign-up as a Registered Supporter and treat them all as we would treat members.  

2. 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). 

3. 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. 

In West Kent we have already started that process by inviting people to become Registered Supporters. We are inviting them by email, social media and 200,000 cards through the letterbox - see HERE. As of yesterday over 1,000 have signed-up and we are aiming for 4,000 by the end of the year. At the moment our Registered Supporters scheme will run alongside our traditional membership model as this is what the rules require us to do. 

And in answer to the question which is always posed - "what about the lost membership income?"  Each year we can ask them to donate what they can afford. Many will give nothing. Many will be generous. There is no reason to believe the existing members will not continue to give what they always gave - some may give more.  And many people who would never consider joining will also donate - some quite generously (as our open primary collection demonstrated).  

In West Kent three of our five constituencies now have more donors than members and in one income from non members exceeds membership income by almost 2:1. 

As I said in my original post on abolishing the membership model, doing nothing and allowing the voluntary party to wither on the vine simply isn't an option. Fortune favours the brave.

Further reading

The case for Open Primaries
The 3 November Blogpost I have been planning to write for months
The day we let the people decide

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