Sunday, 10 February 2019

Where we dither we decline

Two of the issues I often address on this blog are “The Lifecycle of Conservative Associations” and “How the Party develops and supports its Association Officers”.

By “Lifecycle” what I mean is how an association’s fortunes can ebb and flow over a relatively short period of time. The two West-Kent case studies below illustrate the issue.


Ten years ago I was drafted-in to help an association which was in decline. Although in one of Britain’s most prosperous areas, and with a 20,000+ majority, this association was haemorrhaging money and had almost drained its reserves. The white elephant was the association’s headquarters; a grand five-storey building which the association could not afford to heat, let alone maintain. The building, including business rates, insurance, tax and basic maintenance, was costing the association almost £30,000 a year. The well-meaning secretary who had very few, if any, campaigning skills cost another £15,000 a year – these two costs were more than the association raised, resulting in £5-10,000 a year being taken out of reserves.

Over the next four years this association absorbed more than its fair share of time and resource but finally, with the support of a progressive team of officers, we turned things around. The property was sold, new branches were launched, new fundraising initiatives were implemented, and for 4 or 5 years the association was in the ascendant; winning elections, paying its bills, and even making a small surplus for a rainy day. This was achieved without drawing any capital from the Trust Fund which had been invested prudently by the Trustees.

Unsurprisingly my attention drifted to associations with more pressing needs. Two years ago the association just managed to break even. Last year it made a small but somewhat insignificant loss. This year they are back in the red. Old branches have folded, with little support and many of the new branches I launched have ceased to function. The fundraising has slipped with the same events we introduced 8 years ago being repeated without any innovation to the point where they became tedious and unappealing. Although the Trust Fund is intact the urgency to raise funds has dissipated as members and activists have become increasingly complacent. Once again time and effort will need to be spent to turn things around.


The story of Association 2 is as positive as Association 1 is disappointing. Association 2 joined the West Kent Group 5 years ago. They too had been losing money and were in decline. A rapid and unhelpful succession of officers led to a lack of stability and no clear sense of direction. 18 months  ago a new team of officers took over and immediately arrested the decline. At their first AGM they almost broke even, and this year have shown a profit of £6,000; their best result in over a decade. But their success is not just with fundraising. They have upped their game with campaigning, launched new branches, and have started gaining seats from the opposition. Their performance is one of the highlights of West Kent. Congratulations to all concerned.

The success of Association 2 is down to leadership; a strong and spiky chairman, who not only leads from the front, but is unafraid to challenge bad behaviour and poor performance.

We need more Andrea Thorpes!

I don’t accept the lame excuse of “a difficult national climate”. This year two of our associations have achieved record results, two others have “held their own”, and two more have gone backwards. The West Kent organisation itself has also had a record year, raising over £30,000 towards our running costs. The national climate has been the same for us all. All that is different is local leadership.

As one of Britain’s chief cheerleaders for grouping it is right that I address the negatives as well as the many positives. Keeping the plates spinning when you have just one association is relatively easy; doing so when you have 6 is more of a challenge. We rely, more than ever, on strong local leadership as priorities elsewhere demand attention.

I have written many times about the need for our Party to identify and develop strong leaders, at all levels of our organisation. Too often a vibrant organisation falls into the hands of the badge-collectors, bureaucrats and bumblers who take over because it is “their turn” without any agenda or any sense of clear purpose. When they do so the damage can take a decade to repair.

I have always maintained that “where we work we win”, it is also a truism that “where we dither we decline”.

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