Sunday, 30 October 2016

You cannot buck (or book) the market!

I spent a few hours yesterday looking around the UKs largest second hand book shop, Baggins Books in Rochester. In the politics section I found a signed copy of Michael Heseltine's biography "Life in the Jungle" for £12 and an unsigned copy of Maggie's THE DOWNING STREET YEARS for £25.

As the Lady said "You cannot buck the market" thought I do wonder if the addition of the Great Humbug's signature contributed to the low valuation?

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Christmas Draw Letter to Members and Donors

For those who take an interest in what we do, here is our 2016 letter to members and previous donors, inviting them to participate in the 2016 West Kent Christmas Draw.

We were originally planning to post these on the 3 October so they arrived on the doormats the day of Theresa May's speech to Party Conference, but we delayed it for three weeks to avoid it clashing with the national / CCHQ appeal sent at the same time. 

This letter is for members and previous donors. We are also targeting 10,000 new pledges in a bid to widen our donor base. Our target letter for pledges can be seen HERE


Sunday, 23 October 2016

National Membership - issues we must address to make it work

At the meeting of the National Convention on the first day of Party Conference, the diluted package of Party Reforms was passed by very clear margins of around 90%. This includes the formation of Groups (with the unfortunate caveat of giving Associations with over 100 members the right to opt-out). I am strongly of the opinion that this is a mistake: this threshold is far too low, and it is those very small Associations who believe they are functioning properly with just 100 members who would probably have most to gain by being part of a group.

Another key element approved by the National Convention was centralised membership. As someone who is widely seen as the Party’s main ambassador for joint working and modernisation, people are often surprised that I am lukewarm about national membership.

Those who oppose national membership do so for a variety of reasons. Some don'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.

My concerns have nothing to do with the principle, we are a national party and it makes perfect sense to have a national membership database, professionally administered and collection costs benefiting from economies of scale. My concerns are based on the practicalities, including how it will be managed, what processes will be in place to identify and correct errors and whether an overworked administration team will deal promptly and efficiently with concerns raised by members and the Associations.

The regular correspondence I receive via my blog has left me in no doubt that National Membership is the only realistic way forward. Almost every week I receive plaintive emails from random supporters trying to join their local Association but receiving no response to letters, phone calls and emails asking for a membership form. And many of these come from some very safe constituencies which still employ full time staff. And, of course, as Associations lose full time staff and rely increasingly on volunteers, so collection rates often fall as membership renewal letters and reminders are not sent out.  When surveyed, the single biggest reason members give for failing to renew is they were not asked/reminded to do so, accounting for around 20,000 lost members each and every year.

There will also be some who object as it will expose their own local failings and shenanigans, such as the Association Chairman I encountered in Manchester last year who was loudly boasting that his Association ran two parallel membership lists, one on Vote Source 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 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 parties. Failure to do so 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 or change their SO will immediately understand the dangers. About ten years ago one of our local Associations changed their bank account and wrote to their 80 or so standing order payers asking them to cancel their old mandate and complete a new one. Twelve months later, after three letters and a personal visit, only 50% had done so.  Many had been paying by SO for so long that they had forgotten and used the opportunity to cancel. Others were very elderly and simply couldn’t be bothered to respond. Several of those who did used the opportunity to downgrade their payment (in one case from £10 pcm to £25 pa).

Given we cannot transfer standing order payment to another account without the account holder's authority, what will happen to those who continue 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?  Many of our SO mandates are for small regular amounts (£5/£10 pcm). Will a centralised membership department have the resources to keep on top of this?

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, thus negating any potential gains from efficiency.

2. At the National Convention Rob Semple said the Associations must trust CCHQ with their data. This is not unreasonable. 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 frustration. So that trust really must be mutual. It is not unreasonable for local Associations to know what the national party is planning and vice versa.

3. Perhaps most critically CCHQ must quickly establish and communicate how membership income will be distributed back to Associations. For many (perhaps most) membership income is their lifeblood. If the agreement is for membership income to be transferred to Associations monthly on or by a certain date, this must happen. There must also be a simple process for Associations to identify who has paid and how much they have contributed, plus an efficient way for Associations to be informed on non-payers for local follow-up.

In West Kent we are supportive of national membership as we know it is for the greater good of the party nationwide. But for us there is a very high price to pay. We run a tight ship locally. Over the past 5 years we have on average renewed at least 95% of our membership and have recruited more than enough new members each year to replace the 5% lost, showing continual year-on-year growth. Due to the fact that 30% of our members pay by standing order and a further 20% pay online using a debit or credit card, we have reduced our renewal costs to below £1 per member (including postage costs and the membership card). The transfer to national membership with the doubling of the per member fee from £5 to £10 will cost us an additional £6,500 even after the savings from not having to pay for Vote Source and election insurance.

For many Associations and for the party nationally, central membership is a clear win-win. But for West Kent (and many other Associations with a large membership) we will be losing a local point of contact and replacing an efficient and proven local system with something untried and untested – with a very significant increase in cost. This is a lot of money to lose and a bitter pill to swallow, but one we will swallow for the greater good.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Any attempt to dilute the LG Selection Rules must be resisted

In West Kent we have just finished selecting our candidates for the 2017 County Council elections. Around 50% of our divisions had contested selections. Of these, half were for open seats (where the incumbent had retired) and half where the incumbent was being challenged, often to the chagrin of the incumbent (with supporting noises from their colleagues at County Hall).

It is understandable that incumbents recoil from such a challenge though, to their great credit, the majority accept the validity of the process. A councillor is elected for a four-year term and surely just as the electors are invited to renew that contract at the election, so Party members should be invited to renew their confidence in that candidate beforehand.

All but the most intransigent councillors accept that it would be wrong if their position were a sinecure. If, however, we accept the principle that others have a right to challenge, and elected representatives have a duty to defend their record, then what other system is there?  Those calling for a wholesale review of the National Selection Rules have a duty to put forward valid alternative proposals which are better than those currently in place.

At each selection meeting after the Chair had welcomed the members, and I had explained the technicalities of the voting system, I added the following comments:

“I would now like to address one of the questions most often raised by members and that is why you have been called here tonight, particularly when there is an incumbent councillor seeking re-election. Tonight you will be selecting a person who, with the support of the electors next May, will be part of a team running Kent County Council. If Kent was a stand-alone country there would be around thirty countries in the world smaller, for it has a GDP of around £2 billion. It is therefore right and proper that Conservative Party members, who pay their subscriptions locally, deliver leaflets locally, understand the issues locally and vote locally, are the ones empowered to select their candidate. The only alternative is for the person who represents you at County Hall to be chosen by a committee of the “great and the good” appointed by the Association and unaccountable to those whose lives will be affected”.

There is no doubt that some members would like to return to the days when selections were conducted behind closed doors by a committee of ‘chums’, reluctant to challenge the status quo. I believe this is wrong. Our members receive few benefits for their subscription and their loyalty; I can see no justification in trying to deny them the right to choose who represents them on the ballot at election time. 

The system as it stands already favours the incumbent. They have had at least four years to establish themselves within their ward or Division. In many cases they have benefitted from taxpayer largess via the Community Enhancement Funds , enabling them to finance local projects and build local loyalties accordingly. They have had four years to build support in their branches, raise their profiles with their parishe,s and put themselves about, and should they wish to seek re-election they have a guarantee of a place in the final. None of this is available to their challenger who must not only fight for the right to be heard, but then overcome inherent loyalty of Party activists towards incumbency.

As I travelled across West Kent listening to over fifty hopeful applicants deliver their speeches in September, the differences between the pitches of the incumbents and the challengers could not have been more clear. With unsurprising regularity incumbents saw themselves as part of the County establishment, regularly using “we” to defend the actions of the Council. Challengers were more critical, seeing themselves as “champions of the people” against what they perceived to be a County elite. I often wondered how long it would take the challengers to “go native” if they were successful.

Each year, before the selection round commences, we hold a series of open evenings for potential candidates. At these events applicants hear from a senior councillor about the role and responsibility of local government, and they hear from me about the work they will need to do on the doorsteps to improve their chances of success. I always remind aspiring councillors that they are elected primarily to represent their communities and to hold the Executive to account, and to their credit many do. But it doesn’t take long before some ‘join the club’. They are easy to spot; they wear their council name badge at inappropriate social events and proudly brandish embossed leatherette municipal document wallets at every opportunity. I suspect this is human nature, it is far easier to be part of the club than to be viewed as the ‘difficult outsider’.

I have written many times about how I value the work of local councillors. The overwhelming majority are good champions for their community and very seldom would their allowances, when divided by the hours worked, come close to the minimum wage. But there are those (in all areas and of all parties) who regard themselves as part of the establishment. Too many have forgotten that they have been elected to be guardians of the public purse, whose role is to represent the community at the Town Hall, rather than being apologists for the Town Hall within their community.

At the National Convention in Birmingham on Sunday morning it was mentioned that the Board would be reviewing the Local Government Selection Rules. By all means let us examine and perhaps simplify some on the complicated and convoluted procedures: the 1% or 2% qualifying rule, the definition of what is and isn’t an active branch, the composition of Local Government Committees and perhaps tighten-up the rules about appeals. However, contested selections provide a once in every four-year obligation on incumbents to defend their record, and justify their continued position. It is one of the few opportunities our members have to hold their representatives’ feet to the fire. Any attempt to remove or dilute this right should be resisted.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

She's all ermine and no knickers

The annual Treasurers' Lunch at Party Conference is a wonder to behold. It is a far more eclectic gathering than one might at first expect; invitees come from those Associations which have paid their quota/per member fee in full. This includes small Associations with 80 members who must raise £400 and the relative giants in the West Kent Group who have to find £4000. In fairness, it's probably much harder for a small Labour heartland seat to find £400 than it is for Tunbridge Wells to find £4k.

The seating is informal; tables of eight without a seating plan. This can be dangerous. Two hours stuck next to a yapping bore who drones on about the last meeting of the Policy Forum is no fun. Ideally you spot some people whose company you like, then elbow your way onto their table. This year we were late and all the best seats were taken, so we took pot luck and opened a new table and waited to see who joined us.

First up were two larger-than-life and slightly effete blokes from Manchester who could have made a fortune doing an Ida and Ada Tribute Act. Next along was a county lady from the West Country who described herself as "The Mother of the Member of Parliament for (constituency)". I don't think she ever told us her name. After the initial introductions Ida and Ada opened the table chat. "Eh, do you have dogging down south?" I tried to hide my smile though I suspect I ended-up looking like the Dowager Lady Grantham.  "Oh, do you mean like fox hounds and beagles? We have a local beagle pack." said the Mother of MP.  "No. Doggin'. As in having sex in car parks! It's all the rage up north."  Who'd like a top up? I asked.

As my Chairman entertained the "Mother of MP" with tales of country pursuits I engaged with Ida and Ada. "I've got a right proper hangover." Why, what were you doing last night? I asked, nervously. "I got pissed as a fart at the North West Area do. Do you have a party for the South East?" I told him that we did, but I seldom went as it was far too crowded and it usually clashed with another event.

He told me that the North West Party was the place do be. Apparently "it brought together every northern social stereotype imaginable....fag hags, Vera Duckworths and Lilly Savages." There is free-flowing Lambrusco and a disco.  Look at this...."  At this point he started to roll up his trouser leg to show me a bruise. "Did you get that dogging?" asked the Mother of MP. "No, I was pissed on Lambrusco and I fell off the stage dancing the Agadoo and landed on a table of prawn vol-au-vents."

I looked up to see Gerry Yates heading towards our table and all I could think of is how he would react if he was asked if he'd ever been dogging. Or if he'd ever fallen off a stage dancing the Agadoo. But I was saved by a very posh lady appearing at my shoulder.

"Hello, I'm the Prime Minister's Press Secretary and this lady is a feature writer from the Times. She's writing a piece about how Party members feel about Theresa May. Would you like to say a few words?"  "Yes of course. I was Andrea Leadsom's Campaign Manager...." The journalist perked up thinking Christmas had come early. The Press Secretary turned pallid. "But do you know what.... with the benefit of hindsight, I think we have done very well. Theresa May is wonderful and I cannot think of anyone from my wing of the party who would find fault in what she has done so far. On grammar schools, Brexit, equality of opportunity.... spot on. I'm delighted....." The journalist looked crestfallen, the Press Officer looked bloody relieved.

I turned back to my now cold ratatouille and sweet potato mash just in time to hear "Mother of MP" announce, "the trouble with her is she's all ermine and no knickers."  To my right the man from Manchester was refilling his glass. "Do you ever wonder what Jacqui Foster keeps in her handbag? D'ya know, if anyone lit up a ciggie I suspect she'd combust due to the fumes off all the hair spray. And have you seen how much they charge for poppers down here..... twice the price as Canal Street." 

The three lessons I learned from the 2016 Treasurers' Lunch are as follows:

1. The sponsors and the Party Treasurer who host the lunch are incredibly generous
2. Sitting with strangers can be much more fun than always sitting with people you know
3. Next year I must buy a ticket for the North West Area do.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

And it's not yet 8am

Low points.of the conference thus far:

1. Bumping into a confused and bewildered looking John Whittingdale in the lavatory at the Hyatt Hotel and thanking him profusely for coming to Kent twice in a year to address two different Association dinners, only to realise ten minutes later that it wasnt John Whittigdale.

2. Having to admit defeat after struggling for 15 minutes and calling reception to ask how I take the lid off the kettle.