National Conservative Convention chairman Jeremy Middleton analyses the state of the voluntary party
By Jonathan Isaby
Without volunteers on the ground the Conservative Party would be nothing. Whatever policies, strategies or plans of action are decided by the party leadership, it requires the foot soldiers at the grassroots to put them into action.
And since the general election, discussions have been going on at the highest echelons of the voluntary party about the future direction and shape of that body of volunteers.
ConservativeHome has seen extracts of a document which has been circulated by Jeremy Middleton (pictured), the elected chairman of the National Conservative Convention - the body of all association chairmen and other senior officials in the voluntary party - which sets out some of the background to the ongoing discussions.
Who makes up the volunteers who support the party?
The Middleton document summarises:
"Volunteers who support the Party are a large group of people. There are around 200,000 members, up to 100,000 recent members, “Registered Supporters” and “Friends”, 500,000 or so club members, plus several hundred thousand people who support Members of Parliament, Councillors, candidates or Conservative campaigns who are not in any of these other groups. These Volunteers are the source of activists who deliver our campaigns on the ground. Our activist base is probably somewhere in excess of 100,000 people. These people are critical to our campaigning success."
The crucial fundraising role of the voluntary party
Whereas the big donations to the party centrally generate most column inches about political fundraising in the media, the document highlights the significant fundraising capacity of the voluntary party:
"Volunteers also raise large sums of money. Local Associations raised over £25m in 2008, approximately twice the sum raised by Conservative Headquarters in that year. This pays for the local campaigning that, amongst other things, elects our around 10,000 Councillors and runs the Party across the country. They are also the original source from which our Treasurers raise much of the money for Headquarters."
But there's a problem with membership...
The document goes on to assert that whilst the Conservative Party is the UK's largest party, with more members, councillors, MPs and MEPs than any other, there is a problem that needs to be addressed:
"Although significant numbers want to engage with the Party in a variety of ways, for some time, in common with all membership organisations, our ‘traditional’ membership has been in decline. In much of the country there is no professional support locally and with Conservative Headquarters single-mindedly focussed on winning the “air war”, and on building effective campaigns in target seats nothing has been done to reverse this decline.
"In most of the country where there has been little in the way of party resources to manage, train, guide or support the Voluntary Party. Some Associations have become very internally focussed, insufficiently involved with their local communities, and sometimes not even welcoming to new people.
"This lack of support has contributed to the volunteer organisation becoming weaker in some places, with problems that would at one time have been handled by volunteers at Area or Regional level not being addressed. This has encouraged the Centre to directly fire fight problems. However, centrally directed initiatives rarely have the insight to produce long term solutions and this can produce disenchantment locally as Volunteers see solutions forced on them from the Centre.
"Finally, when Associations are bypassed, Volunteers have less responsibility for managing the Party in their patch, and the cycle of decline has been exacerbated. If we continue down a route of central direction with no roots in the country, the Voluntary Party will slowly decline."
The document concludes that since politics is becoming increasingly local, there is a need more than ever for "a vibrant local organisation" which will "ensure that the Party is engaged with local communities, aware of local issues and campaigns effectively on them".
So that's the background. We will highlight Middleton's main proposals as to how the voluntary party can be regenerated in a post later today.