I was sorry to miss Lord Feldman's speech about party reform on Sunday, though from what I heard from others he made positive proposals about a national membership database, which all sensible and pragmatic members should surely support.
There will be many who object for a whole variety of reasons. Some won't like the apparent loss of 'local control'. Others will oppose 'handing more power' to CCHQ. There will be those - with whom I have sympathy - who will see this as a broken link between the local Association and the membership, and others will complain and oppose because complaining and opposing is their default position.
There will also be some who object as it will expose their past failings and perhaps lack of discipline, such as the London Association officer I encountered in Birmingham last year who was loudly boasting that his Association ran two parallel membership lists, one on Merlin and the real one on Excel 'to avoid having to pay the per member fee'. No doubt this same Association Officer was loudly criticizing CCHQ this year when all those members on his secret spreadsheet were not sent a ballot paper for the Mayoral campaign.
It is not unreasonable that we produce a national membership database and implement systems which ensures its accuracy and enables it to be accessed and shared with all who need it. But for this to work there are some difficult and complicated issues which must be addressed to the satisfaction of all concerned. Failure to address these issues before the changes are implemented could seriously undermine their success and could even turn a bad situation worse.
1. Standing orders - in West Kent around 30% of members (and almost 50% in one Association) pay by SO. How will these be handled? Anyone who has attempted to ask members to increase of change their SO will immediately understand the dangers. Having signed a SO many have no further interest or involvement, they don't respond to correspondence and I suspect many may have forgotten they even pay us in this way. In Tonbridge & Malling we still have 40 or so members paying below the recommended £25 rate as despite repeated requests over 10+ years they have never replied. Given we cannot transfer their payment to another account without the account holder's authority, what will happen to those who continuen to pay their local Association? Will there be a parallel membership list or will these members simply be removed from the national database and redefined as local donors? I would estimate that changing the collection of SOs could easily result in 20%-30% cancelling their SO and a similar number failing to respond, which might well result in the loss of 20,000+ members nationwide.
2. We also need to establish how those members who pay over the £25 will have their contribution shared. We have hundreds of members who pay £50 or £100 - and many SO payments of £5 or £10 monthly, which over the year reaches a figure far in excess of the £25 recommended payment. How will this additional money be treated and divided?
3. Lord Feldman said the Associations must trust CCHQ with their data. This is not unreasonable but also right. For historical constitutional reasons members join their local Association, but in their minds they join the Conservative Party and see no difference. I believe the national party has every right to write to members seeking financial support- but I do agree with one of the most common grumbles that national financial appeals often arrive at the same time as local appeals, undermining the efforts of both and causing confusion. So that trust really must be mutual. It is not unreasonable for local branches to know what the national party is planning and vice versa.
4. Perhaps most critically CCHQ must quickly establish how membership income will be shared. If the
intention is for all membership income to be retained at the centre,
this will cause the majority of Associations very real operational
issues. If the plan is for a CAMS-like approach with CCHQ retaining the
per member fee plus an additional amount to cover collection costs, then
a fair and accurate cost allocation must be established and agreed.
Locally, with 30% of our members on SO and another 30% paying
electronically via PayPal or online, we have managed to reduce our
collection costs to an average of around £1.70 per member, including
staff time. If the CAMS charge of £4 was used as a base, this would
result in West Kent facing an increase of 135% in collection costs for
no real local benefit or return. The hard cash figure for us would be an
increase cost of almost £5,000 per year.
Over the last two years, as the party's unofficial ambassador for 'grouping' I must have addressed 40 meetings of individual Associations, regions and Area Councils to talk about the benefits and practicalities of joint working. With just one exception, my presentation has been met with enthusiasm and real determination to make it happen. There have been four further such meetings in the margins of conference this week. Over the last two years I have felt a real change of mood; at first people were examining their options and listening to me with polite curiosity. In the most recent round of discussions there is real determination to make it happen, along with irritation at those Associations who are being recalcitrant and seeking ways to stall progress. One group of four Associations I met yesterday were so irritated at two of their neighbours who were dragging their feet, they have decided to 'go it alone' and leave the other two behind, as they are tired of being held back.
I understand that CCHQ have no wish to take control of membership collection for the sake of it. The proposed changes are to ensure the data is held and maintained efficiently, shared by all who need it, and that income is collected in a proper and timely manner.
Perhaps a way forward would be for CCHQ to allow properly constituted 'groups' which are able to demonstrate they can meet agreed service levels, to be allowed to continue to collect and administer membership locally subject to regular quality audits, and for individual stand-alone Associations without the resource or ability to demonstrate competence to have their membership transferred to a national system, such as CAMS. This proposal would not only meet CCHQs objectives but would also avoid the dangers and pitfalls I have outlined above.
Such an approach would not only be pragmatic it would act as both a carrot and a stick to encourage further joint working, which I believe is now accepted as the way forward.