Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Shareholders, Customers, or Employees?

The foreplay of leadership selection has massively inflamed the whole debate on Conservative Party reform.

The self-styled modernisers increasingly conduct the debate in the language of management consultancy. Brand is one key aspect of this, or as Francis Maude puts it, why customers "don't want to buy their conservatism from the Conservative party".

Another aspect is the management structure inside the firm. Chairman Maude says "We have a real problem in that Conservative associations in some parts of the country are moribund. They barely exist. We have to have a way of dealing with that."

And according to some reports, the consultants have come up with a plan to McDonaldise the Conservative Party: 'constituency associations would become run like McDonald franchises - required to sign Central Office-determined agreements promising to maintain certain standards. An Association's failure to stick by such agreements could lead to expulsion from the Conservative Party.' It's been described as 'the Clause IV moment.'

Now the underlying idea seems to be that the Party should model itself on best business practice. And looking across at Labour's tightly disciplined operation, you can see how the idea would have appeal.

The snag is that most real businesses don't have mixed up people like members. They have clearcut shareholders, customers and employees.

The Party's customers appear easy to identify- they're the voters, now diced and sliced using the same fiendish databases long since employed by Tescos and Sainsburys.

But the shareholders and the employees- they're much harder to differentiate.

And the difference matters because shareholders get to choose the CEO and the other company directors, whereas employees...well, they do what they're told.

So who are the Conservative Party's shareholders? As usual, you've got to follow the money.

Lord Ashcroft- who gave special funding to the Party's election campaign in fifty key marginals - he's one. In fact, he's just been reappointed to the Party Board. Lord Steinberg, chairman of Stanley Leisure is reportedly a major donor, so he must be another. Stuart Wheeler, Lord Kalms, Michael Spencer- major donors all. And by implication, major shareholders.

Now, don't get me wrong, I applaud these guys for supporting the Party. And I think it's quite right for them to have their views listened to very carefully by the Party leadership. Those who say parties should do without major donors are living in that cuckoo land place. I'd rather that, than have the parties state funded like another set of quangos.

But where does it leave the other members? They all pay their £15 pa membership fee, plus other support through all those fund-raisers. So they're shareholders too, albeit on a smaller scale than the big "institutional investors" like Ashcroft.

Ah, but that's not how those consultant types see it. To them, the wider membership should be employees. Stuffers of envelopes, knockers of doors, throwers of fund raising events. Not shareholders at all, but employees. Obeyers of orders.

Which is a problem.

To start with, the pay's lousy. You might occasionally get to rub shoulders with the Party's glitterati, but you sure ain't going to get rich.

And then, all those 'command and control' management structures are so 1920s General Motors. These days your modern employee wants to work in a flat structure collegiate knowledge industry, not a Stalinist tractor factory.

No, the reality doesn't fit neatly into the management consultants' boilerplate organogram. The active membership is active precisely because it wants to be engaged in shaping the political future, not because it wants to stuff envelopes on command.

Members see themselves as...well, members. A messy amalgam of shareholder, employee and probably customer too. They are partners in the enterprise, and they value their rights. Including the shareholder right to elect the leader.


Blogger Jonathan Sheppard said...

Interesting piece and one that was brought home to me during the recent election. As a Parliamentary candidate it become apparent that there are even more strange relationships with the professional and voluntary party. Lots of the Associations are excellent at raising money - and contribute to central party funds. They also have money in the bank (something they are loathed to spend at election time). I suspect if they are treated as franchises some associations may well "take their ball home" and also their funds.

Then there is the whole argument about the age of the membership. I turned 30 during the election yet as a candidate was still considerably younger than most of the party.

Perhaps its about time local associations kept doing what they do well - raise money - but on the understanding that the money is there to fight elections, not to sit in bank accounts for a rainy day.

I was born in 1975 and ever since Ive been able to vote the party hasn't won a General Election. Something which has to change

7:32 PM  

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