We need an unemotional debate about the true purpose of the voluntary party. Is it there to facilitate meetings to discuss internal bureaucracy, or should it be dedicated to delivering victory at every election? Our response to these questions will not only define the voluntary party of the future, but more importantly it will determine how seriously we are taken as a campaigning force.
Associations have two basic functions. The first is the management of our affairs (meetings, minutes, fund-raising, membership and branches). The other is campaigning. Admittedly the first needs to be done effectively to facilitate the second, but for too many Associations the internal administration has become an end in itself, rather than a means to an end.
Many Associations do the internal stuff well – and there are others which do the campaigning well. There are some that do both well. And there are many that do neither.
Recently I was invited by Lord Feldman to attend a meeting of his National Review Panel to talk about what we had achieved in West Kent. For my presentation I used my home county as an example. In 2014 the 17 Associations in Kent had an income of £567,000 of which just £73,000 (13%) was spent on campaigning. More money was spent on rent, rates and property maintenance (21%), internal administration (19%) and employing staff (41%) than on winning elections. Some would argue that a percentage of the staff and establishment costs were also campaign-related, though I suspect these figures would be the same regardless of the election cycle.
We also need to look dispassionately at how we spend money on human resource. I am the last full-time paid Agent in Kent (with one part-time Agent in the east of the County) – the remainder of the salary costs are spent predominantly on part-time secretarial support and office management. Whilst many of my Kent colleagues do an outstanding job, often with little support and no formal training or development, I know from the many calls and emails I receive that the majority of the work they do is administrative rather than campaign related.
So what about the future?
The easy and obvious solution would be to recommend West Kent-style groupings nationwide, but this would be a staging post rather than a long term solution. Campaign technology is constantly changing and we need the capacity and money to buy-in the support we need to remain competitive in an increasingly technologically-driven environment. Future elections will still require boots on the ground, but the weapons of war will move from doorsteps and telephones to social media, metadata and micro-targeting - specific skills that we cannot expect volunteers or broad-practitioners to possess. Nor will 130 Campaign Centres, each covering five constituencies, have the financial capacity to maximise our use of such technologies.
My proposal to Lord Feldman’s Review Group therefore was that we should move toward County-based organisations with 15-20 constituencies working together. In some areas this may mean two counties sharing. Again using Kent as my example, for exactly the same salary bill as we are currently paying, a Kent-wide organisation could employ a county campaign director, two assistant campaign managers, two paid campaign interns, a full-time admin manager, a part-time assistant to look after data management, a part-time designer to ensure everything we produce is of the highest quality plus professional help with accounting, social media and websites. The organisation could be housed in a modern fit-for-purpose central Campaign HQ, with full-colour print facilities and a mail-fulfilment capability along with training and meeting rooms, for probably 50% of what we are now spending on 13 local offices. However we look at the figures, financing a county-wide organisation would produce enormous savings of scale and leave our Associations around £300,000 per annum to spend on campaigning or recruiting new helpers and supporters.
Another advantage would be the ability of Associations to turn their buildings from cash drains into tangible assets. Freeholds could be sold or sub-let, producing additional income to be used on campaigning. Whenever I am invited to speak to Associations or Area Management teams to talk about ‘grouping’ one of the major concerns is the loss of their assets and a fear that CCHQ will grab their cash. I made these points to Lord Feldman’s Review Group and was pleased to receive an absolute guarantee that this would not be the case; any capitalized assets would be retained locally (as indeed they were when Tunbridge Wells sold their freehold to join West Kent).
Even our strongest Associations (and I am fortunate to help run some of these in West Kent) are too reliant on too-few people. We are constantly “running up the down-escalator” to maintain membership. Too often new activists are not welcomed, subscriptions are not collected, fund-raising isn’t maximised, and our electoral advantage is not pressed home due to lack of time, skills and resource.
There are understandable concerns which must be addressed, usually around the effect on voters and members when the local offices are combined. In West Kent we have proved that having one office covering five Associations is not a handicap to electoral success as three of our five constituencies achieved their best ever election results in May and all five have shown an increase in membership. The advantages however are great and many. Every campaigner (from parish and district councillors to MPs) would welcome access to local, cost-efficient design, print and mailing facilities, the latest campaign technologies, legal and compliance support and the enormous organisational advantages of having activists from 17 constituencies liberated from the administrative chores and free to focus their drive and energy on our prime purpose; winning elections.
For two years I have been the party’s unofficial ambassador for grouping and have spent that time touring the country speaking to Associations, County AMEs and regional conferences. This experience has taught me that despite the genuine enthusiasm, thoughtful questions and warm applause we almost always settle for the line of least resistance. It is a sad but unavoidable fact that not a single new Group has been formed, despite the almost unanimous goodwill wherever I speak.
We must ensure that any changes are bedded-in before our next major electoral challenge. Perhaps the basis for the future should be county-wide Associations or federations, stripping away layers of bureaucracy and introspection. Whatever we do we should not allow a small number of recalcitrant Associations to use self-interest to block essential reforms which in our hearts we all know must come.
The Party is in a unique position of strength. We have won an election that most people didn’t expect us to win. Our opponents are in disarray. We are ahead in the polls and our finances are strong. The temptation is to do nothing, or simply to “tinker”. To do so would be a dreadful missed opportunity. It could be decades before the moons are in such favourable alignment again. Having helped win the war, I really hope Lord Feldman and his group have the courage win the peace and bequeath a voluntary party fit for the future.
Andrew Kennedy is the Group Agent & Campaign Director in West Kent. He blogs at www.votingandboating.blogspot.com .The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views five Associations in the West Kent Group.