Andrew Kennedy is the Group Agent & Campaign Director in West Kent. He blogs at www.votingandboating.blogspot.com.
The post-Referendum influx of new Party members must not be used be used to hide what I fear is still a long-term decline. It would be tragic if this temporary boost were used as a reason to abandon the proposed radical and much-needed reforms of the voluntary Party.
West Kent is involved in too many local government by-elections to be under any illusion about the true state of the Party’s grassroots organisation in much (though not all) of the region. I am not simply referring to a lack of technical skills (which can be learned) but, too often, a complete disengagement between the local organisation and the voters we seek to serve.
In one constituency, an entire County Council Division had just three (three!) Conservative pledges. No-one responsible knew if any canvassing had ever been done; or, if it had, where the previous canvass cards were, or if these had ever been data-captured. This did not come as a surprise to me, since the same Association was at the centre of a row during a recent Police & Crime Commissioner selection meeting, in which neither the local council leader, the MP (a senior minister), nor the Constituency Chairman was able to vote as their names were not on the Association’s membership list! An Association unable to maintain its membership database is likely to fail elsewhere, too.
Elsewhere, another council leader has told me that there would be “no doorstep activity” in a marginal local by-election, since the residents were “canvassed-out” (despite Vote Source recording that only eight per cent of residents had actually been canvassed in the past five years). Instead, volunteers went door to door collecting signatures on a petition, but didn’t ask for phone numbers or email addresses. The same people were then somewhat surprised when there were no pledges to knock-up on polling day. Unsurprisingly, they lost the seat.
And then there was the recent by-election in Kent, during which the candidate and the Association Officers readily acknowledged that they were in need of help, and accepted all the advice we gave them. For the first time, they had targeted deliveries, pledge letters with variable paragraphs, and a full-scale GOTV operation. This time, we won – and took a seat from Labour, confounding everybody’s expectations.
At the Spring Forum this year, during a debate on Party Reform, Andrew Feldman patiently took questions for nearly two hours. As he courteously replied to some fairly hostile people, each predicting disaster if the reforms were implemented, two of us sat quietly at the back downloading the relevant Association’s accounts from the Electoral Commission database. One Association (whose Chairman was particularly vitriolic) had lost money for four of the previous five years, and their website had not been updated from the previous general election. Another (whose Chairman accused Feldman of wanting to destroy the voluntary party) had spent £20,000 on running their office, and yet only £800 on campaigning. No doubt these Associations will be in the vanguard of those opting-out of any voluntary arrangement as they feel that they “do not need to change”.
Last week’s announcement of the appointment of Anthea McIntyre as a new Vice-chairman responsible for training is a welcome and much-needed step. However, appointing a Vice-chairman will achieve little unless the Party commits significant resource to achieving its objectives. This involves identifying skill-shortages; developing suitable training programmes, and, most importantly of all (yet the part most likely to be forgotten) providing on-going assessment and mentoring for those being trained. Too often in the past, we have launched ambitious training programmes, but seen attendance at a training day as the destination, rather than being part of an on-going journey. And this, in itself, creates a fresh set of challenges. Who checks performance and provides on-going support?
The present reality is that the County mentors the constituencies, and the Region mentors the counties. But this only works if the best people are elected to the county and regional teams. Too often, these bodies are an “elephants’ graveyard”; somewhere to send the cantankerous, the curmudgeonly and the confused. How on earth can a County Officer, whose own Association is failing, be taken seriously or given respect when he or she start trying to lecture others on what they should be doing better?
I fear that there is also a danger that we will focus the new training programme on technical skills, when what we are really lacking are the “soft skills” needed to build and maintain a voluntary organisation. How to run Vote Source or how to complete an election expense return can be read in the manual. What we need, however, is to support our Association Officers and volunteers in rediscovering the organisational and communication skills that we once took for granted. These “soft skills” include:
The quality, dedication and skills of our local Association Officers is absolutely vital to future success. And whilst we may have some office holders who are doing it under duress because no-one else can be found, or for “one more year until someone younger comes along”, I don’t believe for one moment that any Officer takes a position without hoping and intending to do that job well.
I wish Anthea McIntyre well in her new job, but training our activists in Best Practice will not bring about change unless we also give them the infrastructure to achieve that change. There is no point training councillors to write the best copy for newsletters if no-one has the time or ability to design and print them, or if no-one is organised to deliver them to the voters. There is no point training the Deputy Chairman (Fundraising) on how to organise a profitable dinner if no-one knows who to invite, or how to attract a sponsor, or run the auction. There is no point in training the Deputy Chairman (Political) in how to organise a successful canvass session if there no-one to print the canvass cards, data-capture and follow-up.
We must remember that our Officers are volunteers and probably have many other demands on their time. It is unreasonable to expect them to spend hours in an Association office, designing, printing and data-capturing. And this is why Associations need professional, political and administrative support. The days of each Association having an Agent of their own are gone – and rightfully so, given the advance of technology. But putting self-interest aside, and working with others to promote success, must surely be the future.