I didn't know Christopher Shales but what I have read about him since his death suggest to me he is a decent, kind and community minded man who will be much missed, by his family and friends but also by the Prime Minister and our party.
Mr Shales is clearly a man who understands the Conservative Party and, most importantly, understands the way our members work. On the day of his death, Mr Shales plan to rejuvenate party membership was splashed in the Sunday Mail. The thing is, when you get beyond the tabloid-esque headlines (although, to be frank, he is correct on many of those too), the Shales Plan is rather good. A blogger, Guido, has obtained the report and done a service by linking to it in full. Anybody with an interest in strengthening the Conservatives would do well to read this.
You see, it is a good, objective & fundamentally sound report. Its conclusions are broadly correct (although James Forsyth, who got the scoop for the Mail, adds a few more helpful suggestions such as being able to actually influence policy formation or candidate selection as a member).
At the last General Election, a year ago, over half of the people who worked on my campaign were not (repeat, NOT) members of the Norwich South Conservative Association. And we are not just talking about the scores of friends, relatives and colleagues who stepped up to help me either. We had tellers on polling day, leafleters, canvassers and poster sites from people who "just wanted to do their bit" and help either me personally or the party as a whole. These people are not politics heavy (to quote Mr Shales) but very much politics light. They do not wish to be memebrs of the Party - heavens forbid. Take one lady from Lakenham who contacted us about three weeks from polling day. She delivered over 250 leaflets to her area every week until the poll, around 1000 in total. She did 4 hours of telling on polling day. She displayed a Tory sign, with pride. Or another, a resident from Town Close whom I had helped during my time on the council. She would deliver the 100 houses in her road (which she did on no less than 6 occassions during the actual camapign) and invited me to one of her groups to meet other like-minded people. Both of these women I have tried to sign up as party members. Both steadfastly refuse. Not beceause they are not Conservatives; both has an interest in seeing me elected as our MP and a Tory government but neither wanted to get involved with an aossictaion they saw as elderly, boring or (as Shales said) always after their money. I don't see those characteristics in NSCA. I love the association and the events we put on and the people who attend them are a good cross section of Norwich. But until we offer the likes of "Lakenham woman" or "Town Close Mum" a good reason to join, they'll never find that out.
Now the crux here is that NSCA will never be able to offer what WOCA can. We don't have access to streams of cabinet ministers or senior MPs. There are few country pads to host PMQ parties in. But we do need to offer them something; an experience or return for their members just beyond securing an ideology. Yes that will include control over candidate selection (at all levels, including for MEPs) and it will include a real imput on policy. But it should also include excellent events, shared over groups of associations, areas or regions, and a quality memebrship magazine for example.
When I think of the other groups of which I am a member - the National Trust, National Childbirth Trust (NCT) or NASUWT for example - I expect more in return for my cash than just knowing I am supporting that group.
We know more about increasing membership here in Norwich than most; in one year we have put on more than 150 new members and last year we increased faster than Mr Cameron's own constituency. We have done it by listening to members and changing the way we work. Beit monthly newsletters (asked for and got) or a distinction between "political" and "social" events (asked for and got) we have responded to what members say. This year the AGM of Norwich South Conservatives was standing room only and we had so many attend the room was actually uncomfortable! We had 15 new members of our Executive Committee sign up to help out with the work of running the show. How many associations, from any party, can boast that?
So come on powers-that-be, take a long hard look at the Shales Plan. He's onto something and the best thing we could do is take him seriously.