Our party needs an organisational upgrade. That’s why I’m standing for depute leader. Over the next two months I’m keen to listen to members about how they think we can improve but I also want to chuck out some ideas for discussion myself.
This week I’m focusing on the basic unit of our organisation – the party branch. This is internal stuff. Non-party members should maybe look away now. Or maybe not.
Members are the essence of what we are. In recent years political ideas and political allegiances have been transformed in Scotland. As a result our membership has soared. Tens of thousands of people want to be part of our new progressive politics.
Many will simply want to register their support and donate to the cause. But many will have joined because they are inspired by politics and want to become involved in political action.
We need to engage them. This is not an optional extra. Our ability to rise to the challenges ahead will depend on the involvement of a large active membership capable of winning over the communities of Scotland.
To begin we should look at the size and shape of party branches. Boundaries should not be governed only by electoral divisions but relate to readily understood neighbourhoods where people live.
Size matters. Too big and it’s just impossible for people to play their part. Too small and there won’t be the critical mass of people needed to keep things going. Branch meetings should be an uplifting experience, a place where you can meet up with like-minded neighbours and discuss not only political ideas but also political action to change the world around you.
A place where you can make new friends and socialise afterwards. For many the reality is somewhat different. The tedium of interminable reports. Esoteric arguments about things not even on the agenda conducted by a few people in the know. I’ve seen the eyes of new members glaze over as they wonder what they are doing there.
Of course, there is already a wide variation and some branches are changing how they operate in order to make meetings more attractive and fun. We need to quickly draw on the best practice that exists and change our guidance to local branches so that they are encouraged to experiment with format and structure. For my money, focusing all our meetings on politics would be a start.
Most of each meeting could be devoted to a policy discussion, preferably with an informed and entertaining speaker to kick the discussion off.
Let’s cut officer reports to a minimum, preferably a single collective report from a branch executive. And elected representatives could circulate reports in advance.
How we communicate with our members is vital, starting from when they join. Most people join online these days. When they do, they should be given details of their local branch and who to contact if they’d like to get involved.
Branch officers could visit each new member to say hello and to find out if and how they would like to get more involved. This will give us a better picture of who our members are, what skills they have and what they can do.
I’m more and more convinced that we should move away from relying solely on electronic communication with members. Email has its uses, but it’s best for communication between people who are already committed to something, and increasingly useless at getting people to cross a threshold and become involved if they aren’t.
Email exhortations to attend the next meeting will have as much impact as the hundreds of other emails people receive each week. Pretty much all emails are junk these days.
The time has come to reinvent the wheel. Branches could back up emails with a regular hard-copy newsletter which goes to all members with notice of the next meeting and an update of activity.
This would be delivered by a team of “street captains”, volunteers who agree to distribute it to perhaps just 20 members near where they live. Even better if occasionally we chap on the door of the members we don’t know and have a brief chat about what’s going on.
There is no substitute for this human contact and making this our main means of communication would reap massive dividends in participation. Some of this is already happening. And I’m not saying anything that others haven’t said before. Our website has a decent brief on local campaigning techniques. But for some reason it’s on part of the site which requires two separate logins to access it. I doubt many have.
We need to rapidly expand the amount of training available to branch officers and activists – using a regional network to deliver courses each month on organisation and campaigns.
All of this takes money, time and people and it can’t all be left to volunteers, many of whom already have very busy lives.
That’s why we need to beef up our organisation. More on that next week.
This column was written for The National - 13th August 2016