Don Porter steps down as Chairman of the National Conservative Convention (NCC) next month after three years in that role, and a total of nine years on the Party Board (as an NCC Vice-President, President and co-opted member). During those years he has worked with four party leaders, five party treasurers, nine party chairmen and attended no fewer than 114 Board meetings. He spoke to Jonathan Isaby last week.
Despite being the most senior party volunteer in the country, with a direct line to David Cameron et al, many will not know exactly what the role of Chairman of the National Conservative Convention actually entails and you certainly won't have read about Don Porter in the newspapers.
Representing the views of the grassroots to the party is the key to the role of the Chairman of the NCC, the 850-strong body comprising all constituency chairmen, area officers, regional officers, along with 42 representatives each from Conservative Future (CF) and the Conservative Women's Organisation (CWO). Whilst he does chair the six-monthly meetings of the NCC at Spring Forum and Party Conference, that is in essence the smallest element of the role. However, virtually all of what he does during the rest of the year necessarily takes place behind closed doors and often involves fire-fighting in areas where problems have arisen which need a solution or resolution found quietly, swiftly, professionally and well away from public glare.
Don joined the Conservative Party in Macclesfield in 1969 and was elected ward treasurer at his very first meeting forty years ago next month. He then became branch chairman and was deputy chairman of his university association before he moved South and became successively a branch treasurer, assistant constituency treasurer, constituency treasurer, association chairman, area treasurer, area chairman and then regional chairman of South East England, before being elected to the NCC. He says that this extensive experience in the voluntary party has informed his attitudes as Chairman of the Convention:
"What has been enormously beneficial in terms of trying to represent the volunteers is that I can still understand what it’s like to be a branch treasurer... or to campaign in what now would be called a target seat up in Lancaster. That’s been hugely beneficial."
He did think about trying to become an MP and was on the candidates' list, but hadn't applied for any seats when he decided to stand for the regional chairmanship.
"I decided to go down the voluntary rather than parliamentary route, never regretted it, and have loved every role I had, but none more than the current one. It's been fascinating, hugely exciting and an enormous privilege."
Creating "One Team"
His over-riding ambition as incoming NCC chairman three years ago was to help create a feeling of "one team" inside the Conservative Party, with volunteers, parliamentarians, and so on all singing from the same hymn sheet and working harmoniously together. He says that this was partly about delivering in practice the vision which William Hague had outlined as leader when he introduced a single party constitution and Board comprising all elements of the party in the late 1990s.
After the (unsuccessful) attempt under Michael Howard in 2005 to change the party constitution and take away the right of rank-and-file members to elect the leader, Don says that he had observed a "deterioration in the relationship between MPs and volunteers" and that "the greatest priority was to build the bridges with the parliamentary party". He and his strategy team (comprising all regional chairmen and the chairmen of CF, CWO and Local Government plus a few others) have regular meetings with Sir Michael Spicer and the Executive of the 1922 committee, a relationship which he now describes as "highly effective" and "one of trust". Similar sessions with leading Tory peers have also been instituted.
Another regular fixture has been a six-weekly one-to-one with David Cameron.
"It’s a dialogue... it's no good walking into the Leader's office and banging a table on behalf of the voluntary party... I go in there prepared with anywhere between three and five points. It’s a two-way process, and there are often points that David wants to make to me. He has been fantastic in receiving me into his Leader’s office, we talk freely and I know he appreciates the directness of the feedback - hopefully always courteously - but he has been a real star, always accommodating me every six or so weeks. David has always been a great listener to the feedback I have given him."
As for making senior activists around the country feel part of "one team", he instituted a programmed called "A Day in the Life", through which association chairmen and other key volunteers get to visit CCHQ for a day to see the building at work and meet with senior politicians and professionals. Over 350 senior volunteers have now been through this programme, which he says has considerably enhanced the relationship between the centre and associations.
One innovation of his has been to ensure that the party centrally recognises campaigning excellence, with awards being presented annually to activists performing especially well as campaigners, recruiters and in contributing to their communities through social action projects. Don was also delighted to introduce lifetime achievement awards to recognise what he describes as "the quiet people who have never held office but who have worked for the party year in, year out, in any circumstances".
At this year's ceremony, David Cameron presented awards to fifteen people in their eighties and nineties, including one posthumously to a 93-year-old woman from Yorkshire who had died just four weeks beforehand. Having driven a 15-year-old William Hague to his first party conference, she had revelled in remaining involved in the party throughout her old age, almost in defiance of the future party leader who famously said in 1977 half his audience wouldn't be there in thirty years' time.
Another of Don's aims was to make improvements on the communications front. And since taking over the chairmanship of the NCC, he has been issuing a monthly report of every Board meeting to the 850 convention members, which goes out via email a few days after the meetings. He says that whilst he has not reported on highly confidential and financial matters, recipients of the document have greatly appreciated it. I suggested that it should perhaps be disseminated even more widely, perhaps even on ConservativeHome - something which his successors might like to consider.
"We’ve gone from no communication after Board meetings to the document I've sent out after each meeting," he says. "Is this enough? I don’t know. Has it been appreciated? Yes."
Changing the leader's mind on the A-List
One issue which he found himself addressing during his chairmanship was that of the infamous priority list - or so-called "A-List" - of parliamentary candidates, where the party leadership decided that Conservative associations in the safest seats would only be able to select a candidate from a favoured one hundred or so. This provoked a hostile reaction from a large number of activists, as Don explains:
"I was getting messages from all around the country saying 'This is not working as well as it should’, ‘This is the centre dictating too much’ and I was also picking up huge numbers of comments from competent white male candidates, many of whom asked me for a cup of coffee, carefully to put their case to me... Over a period of months I picked up all these messages and then I asked someone who I have enormous respect for, John Strafford, if he would come back to me with a report of what he thought should happen. John came back to me, I had other people feeding in to me, I spoke to [1922 Committee Chairman] Sir Michael Spicer and eventually I walked into David Cameron’s office with a 12-slide PowerPoint presentation and I gently, quietly and hopefully professionally put the case to him."
His case was that huge progress had been made on selecting more female candidates, but that in order to address the widespread concerns of activists and candidates not on the A-List, associations should be free to select from the entire candidates' list (albeit with the proviso of a minimum of half the interviewees being women at all stages in the process).
"My point there was that we needed these key players feeling on side and feeling at least that they had a fair chance... I put the proposal to David, which we worked on together and effectively. He went away, thought about it, said he was very grateful for the evidence that was presented in a very calm, professional way and we did then provide associations with option of looking at the whole list... It completely took the sting out of the situation."
Be obsessed about winning the general election
So, finally, what advice would he give to his successor?
"Never waste a minute. Always remember who elected you. When necessary, stand your ground; and be prepared to give a minimum of 40 hours per week to this important role. That's how much time I have regularly dedicated to it - in addition to 60 hours on my business - so I'm breaking the European Working Time Directive massively, but I've no problem doing that! In the spirit of the Conservative Party, I do it with the freedom of choice.
"Finally, my successor will obviously be in office as we move towards the next general election. I have never attended or called a meeting in the last three years which I didn't believe was going to lead to bettering our chances of winning the election. So my overriding message is to be obsessed with winning the elections this year and then the general election: nothing else matters."