Over the years, to either attend or run training events or to speak about Party reform and grouping, I must have visited a hundred plus Associations. Something which has always fascinated me is the “collective psychology” of an association and how this can change, not just from one constituency to another, but often between neighbours – even when they share a council area or are two halves of a large town.
One can immediately tell the kind of Association as soon as you walk through the door. A gentle hum coming from a happy and varied crowd discussing the latest cricket scores, the weather and the best local pub for a spot of lunch lifts the heart as much as stilted rows of puce-faced angry men (each clutching a copy of the rule book) can darken the soul.
A generation ago in Kent there were probably eight “big hitting” Associations; by this I mean Associations with 1,000+ members and sufficient cash, activists and enthusiasm to campaign effectively and pay their share, with enough money and manpower left over to support their less fortunate neighbours. Now there are perhaps just two or three. Why have these few Associations survived (and in some cases thrived) whilst their neighbours have atrophied? This is particularly interesting when one considers that the electoral arithmetic in terms of vote share and majorities has barely changed in these seats.
Many years ago, when I first moved to Kent, I asked my predecessor as Agent “what was the membership of Tonbridge & Malling like?” She asked what I meant. “Were they Thatcherite? Hangers and floggers? Socially liberal? Libertarians? One Nation?” She looked a bit pained at the vulgar simplicity of my question. “They are none of those things, they are just a group of very nice people.” I remember at the time thinking her reply was a bit of a cop-out, but over the years I have grown not only to understand but also to appreciate just what she meant, and how important this was. I have no doubt that Tonbridge & Malling is not alone in this, but they are a wonderful example of how a balanced membership, for whom politics is an important but not defining issue in their lives, leads to a happier and more welcoming group.
However, another association I know prides itself on always enjoying a “full and frank discussion”. Sadly, this full and frank discussion really means that the county councillors distrust the borough councillors, the rural members dislike the townies, the old members patronise the new ones, new Management Committee is suspicious of the old Management Committee who they think (probably correctly) are undermining them and planning a coup, and where every point, however innocently made, must be dissected for any hint of hidden malice. There is a very thin line between “full and frank” and “dysfunctional and unpleasant” and as the clock ticks invariably past the call for “last orders” I sometimes wonder what side of the line they are on. I once asked if they thought their enjoyment of a “full and frank discussion” was in any way linked to the fact they delivered fewer leaflets, knocked on fewer doors and consistently produced the worst election results. They didn’t.
At the last meeting of the above Association there was a new member who had joined the Party post EU Referendum and had wanted to get involved. After the meeting I sheepishly asked how he had enjoyed it. “I joined the Conservatives to discuss policies, make new friends and help win elections. From what I have seen tonight I fear I am wasting my time. I am not sure I will come back.” I floundered for words to make him feel differently, but it was difficult, as I knew he was right. Fortunately within West Kent we have a sufficiently wide and loose organisation to ensure that we can engage him and utilise his skills and enthusiasm centrally, and thus keep him involved. I suspect this would not be the case elsewhere and he would simply walk away.
And this is how Associations can very easily develop a culture which is self-perpetuating, exclusive and damaging to the long-term interests of the Party. In the above example the prevailing culture is of mistrust and argument and if you are not argumentative you would probably attend one meeting but would not come back. However, if you were also argumentative you would probably feel at home, and would look forward to the next meeting with relish, thus embedding the culture further and ensuring its survival; a self-fulfilling clique talking only to each other to the detriment to the wider aims of the Party. The same argument could be made about Associations dominated by councillors, evangelicals, po-faced harridans or freemasons.
Any voluntary group will flourish when its members and leaders are drawn from the widest and deepest pools of talent, but as we have lost our agents and organisers so our collective memory of how to grow an effective voluntary organisation has faded too. More often than not this is due to lack of time or opportunity, but too often it is due to self-interest and self-survival. Encouraging and empowering new members might be opening the door to new ideas, and heaven forfend empowering a future challenge to the status-quo.
In West Kent we have an open door policy to new talent. Postcards in shop windows, councillors’ and MPs newsletters, our websites and social media, and even adverts in local newspapers, all encourage people to come forward. Last year one third of our local government candidates were brand new. Two came from speculative phone calls after I read their contributions in the letters page of the local paper. One new member was encouraged to stand in a by-election after I noticed on her Facebook page that she had run an anti-drugs campaign. Another candidate, who has quickly developed into one of our rising stars, was recruited after his mother had sent him to the office to pick up some envelopes which she was addressing and I engaged him in conversation. None of these would have come forward through the traditional routes, but they are the councillors, officers and leaders of tomorrow.
Last year in this column I welcomed the appointment of Anthea McIntyre as Vice Chairman responsible for training, and wished her well. I don’t think we have yet heard very many of her plans, but when we do I hope the training is not just about how to design a newsletter or build a delivery-round. These are simple process-driven skills. What we really need is to provide our present leaders with the soft skills and confidence to identify and develop the leaders of tomorrow.