This morning my friend Matthew Plummer published his own view on how 5 yearly boundary reviews could spell the end of Associations in the present form. If you have not already done so, anyone interested in the internal reform of the Conservative Party should read his thoughts HERE
Aside from the personal abuse "I hope Mr Kennedy is a nicer person than the CCHQ nark pictured" (thanks for that!) the published online comments for both articles opposing more joint working followed a theme...
We tried it once and it didn't work for us, so we won't try again
(ignoring the fact that in Gloucester, West Kent, Wiltshire and Wandsworth there are successful groups working well)
A large Group will make the office too remote for members to visit
(why do members need to physically visit the office? They don't in Kent but this hasn't stopped us achieving increased membership, increased income and our best ever election results)
We don't need bigger Groups, we need to increase membership
(But no-one making this comment was able to share how this could actually be achieved, and not a single Association where members making such demands are active have managed to achieve such an increase)
We can all look back to halcyon days when almost every constituency had an office with a full time agent and secretary, but those days are gone. And let's be honest, even if an Association had the money to finance such an indulgence, new technology has changed the job so much that I don't think even two constituencies would provide sufficient work to keep two f/t members of staff efficiently employed, unless that had additional external duties on top.
As I travel the country speaking to Associations, County Committees and Regional Conferences (and so far I have been to around 50) my presentation is met with warm applause, considered questions and genuine enthusiasm along with a determination to make it happen. But the sad reality is not a single new Group has yet been formed. I fear the enthusiasm of the campaigners and the progressives is overwhelmed by those whose primary concern is control of the key to the crockery cupboard.
Associations are understandably concerned about their independence from CCHQ, just as branches like to stake a similar claim to independence from the Association, but in fact this is hokum. The reality is we are a national party and a national brand. Just as Marks & Spencer and Dynorod are too, and if the local Dynorod man pumped sewage all over your Grandmother's carpet the ensuing publicity would damage the brand, not the individual van driver. The same goes for political parties too.
A degree of local / self management is right and proper, but with that goes duty and responsibility. Local M&S managers can hire their own staff, amend their opening times to suit local trading traditions and maybe even adjust their stock levels - but they couldn't paint their stores pink, decide against selling coats or to divide-up the trading week with their competitor so each store can have three days off. Yet many local Associations think they can use non-party fonts and colours in publicity, fail to follow proper selection processes and refuse to campaign. And ironically, almost without exception, it is the failing Associations who are loudest in demanding "autonomy" no doubt hoping a locked front door will hide their failings.
Time and again the party nationally has stated that local grouping is a matter for individual Associations. I believe this is too timid and must be addressed. In too many constituencies we are simply (and badly) managing decline and it must be stopped. I therefore propose that CCHQ use some of the post election surplus to employ consultants to undertake an independent audit of each Association, which could include inter alia;
- Membership retention and collection (including following-up lapsed members)
- Canvassing and communication (during elections and peace time)
- Campaign support
- Minutes and record keeping
- Financial management and compliance
- Communication with members and supporters
- Fund raising
- Branch support and branch building
- Candidate selection procedures
- Postal vote recruitment
If the Association met a minimum standard across all disciplines (or achieved an average pre-determined score) they would be allowed to continue as a 'stand alone' Association. If the Association failed then they would be given six months to improve and if such improvements were not achieved they would be placed into a Grouping so such improvements could be made.
As my friend and colleague Dirk Russell who is Agent for the Wiltshire Group correctly wrote earlier today:
"At times I wring my hands in frustration as CCHQ say "grouping is a local decision." When plainly it should not be. We have great volunteers and we could not exist without them. However, Darwin said that it was not the strongest that survived, but the most adaptable. If we continue as we are and not adapt I fear for our future."