Sunday, May 30, 2010

Do we need Conservative Future?

I have recently seen a post on Liberal Democrat Voice entitled Opinion: Why do we need Liberal Youth?, inspired by the fact that the LYers are currently engaged in their annual elections. I've heard enough about past Liberal Youth elections to know when to leave private grief well alone.

But another youth & students wing is soon to have its own elections - Conservative Future. (Already a number of blogs such as Tory Bear are running opinion polls. If anyone wants to vote for me as a write-in candidate feel free to.) So it's time to raise a few questions, perhaps playing Devil's Advocate a little. Now I've been around the block a while and jokingly refer to myself as something of a Methuselah of CF, so maybe this is just the rumblings of a grumpy young man. And yes I'm approaching the upper age limit for CF so perhaps this is someone else's business now. But maybe this means I can speak more freely than others about the problems.

And I've also for a long time seen an organisation that at times has never really known what it's there for, which occasionally finds an answer only to ditch it soon after (usually after a change of leadership) and which seems clearer about what it isn't than what it is.

Now this doesn't apply everywhere. At the local level Conservative Future provides a useful way to recruit and engage younger members of the party (although historically retention has been poor) and the national brand provides both a uniform identity and quality materials that can't be duplicated elsewhere. (Of course at the university level this creates some problems because many of the university branches are much older than CF and are very reluctant to change their names. But the smaller bubble of university means that it's usually easier to advertise anyway and overcome this.)

At the area and regional level CF's record has been mixed with some successes when strong local branches have banded together and some failures when the organisation nationally has tried to direct things. The real problem here has long been a very weak structure between the branches and national level - the old system of just electing an area chair for each of 43(?) pre-defined areas did not in itself guarantee much overall success, though there have been many area chairs who have worked wonders in spite of the limited resources and support available.

At the national level CF has successively de facto decided (without, it has to be said, any real formal choice) that:
  • It doesn't want to be a platform for expressing policy opinions that would encourage ideological faction fighting
  • It doesn't want to be a super branch for London
  • It doesn't want to just be an advertising service for local events
  • It might want to get involved in the National Union of Students but then again it might not depending on the background and prejudices of whoever happens to have the portfolio
  • It doesn't want to repeat the infamy of the Federation of Conservative Students
  • It wants to avoid the Tory Boy stereotype of the last years of the Young Conservatives
  • It doesn't want to repeat the previous CF leadership's mistakes
Yes this is negative, but there are some things CF has decided for:
  • It wants to create an environment to encourage people to get and stay involved
  • It wants to campaign for the party at all levels
  • It wants to encourage talented younger members to rise fast in the party, particularly standing as candidates at all levels (and sometimes takes credit even when said candidate has had minimal involvement with, or support from, CF)
  • It wants people to enjoy themselves
And a lot of this has taken place against a background of umpteen rounds of personality based infighting, with (let's be honest) many people putting themselves forward because they want to help and make a difference and instead merely finding themselves the subject of bullying and malicious gossip. It should not surprise anyone that there have been quite a number of resignations over the years by people who no longer want to put up with all the crap, especially when they seem unable to get much done. What does surprise is that few want to openly admit this, let alone take firm action to stamp it out.

This post has been quite negative. But the starting point for all improvement is to identify not just what is wrong but why it is wrong. Problems with both individuals and general culture can't be solved simply by changing the rules in the hope that whenever some last week's problem repeats itself exactly it will be solved differently. Whilst having a clear complaints process is essential, they also need to be solved by a proactive people based approach. More generally the organisation needs to find not just a direction, but also a destination, and one that there can be much greater continuity for.

So as the Conservative Future elections begin, I issue a challenge to everyone thinking of standing in them to answer these questions:
  1. What is Conservative Future for?
  2. What is the ultimate aim of CF?
  3. How will you tackle the culture of nastiness that has driven away so many?
It's how people answer these questions, and nothing else, that will determine who I give my support to.

1 comment:

Dwight Schrute said...

I am 27 and have been involved with the party in some form since I was first able to push a leaflet through a letterbox. I have found CF a complete irrelevance.

CF in my experience tends to do more socialising than campaigning. The members tend to be highly ambitious in terms of running fro internal office but have little experience of actual campaigning and graft.

The function of every branch of the Conservative party ought either to be to raise money, campaign for the party or to think about policy. CF does very little of these activities and if it's existence is to be justified then it needs its structure dramatically altering.


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