There was a flurry of tweets on that there Twitter on Friday about CAMRA's AGM and the "dodgy" motions being submitted to it, plus some scathing remarks about CAMRA's democracy and some odd ideas about how to sort this appalling Stalinist organisation out.
CAMRA to its active members means something a lot different to those that aren't. It presumably means something different again to those that aren't members at all. In my local branch we have nearly 1400 members and are growing at approximately 30 a month. (Actually more, but we do lose a few, so that's net). We are doing well. We have a complete database of all our pubs, we contact all of our email list once a month with news and views from the branch, and the rest by snail mail twice a year. We invite all members to nominate pubs for the Good Beer Guide by sending them simple forms to fill in and we take these views, expressed postally or by email, firmly into account when we decide what pubs go into the guide. This we do, like all branches as far as I know, by a meeting of members, where we usually get around 50 showing up. . That's not bad, but we are looking to see how we might make it even easier by polling on line. Despite that, we are lucky to get 60 or 70 replies. There is no back door to GBG entry in my branch and I doubt if there is
in any, though of course, I can't say for sure. Everything we do is
above board and while those who attend on the day get the final vote,
the list comes from the postal/email nominations.
There are suggestions we should do more on line as an organisation, consulting members more in that way. That wouldn't be an issue for me, but I doubt if it would be much better in terms of replies on line. You see, in any voluntary organisation, the vast majority just like to know what is going on, support the general aims and don't really want other involvement. Voluntary organisations at active level really are a coalition of the willing, the hobbyist, the oddball and those that just like the friendship and the beer. Ideas like delegates mandated by branches etc. are just not appropriate. It wouldn't enhance democracy one bit. We often say getting CAMRA members organised is a bit like herding cats. You can probably do it, but you'll nearly die in the process and piss all the cats off.
I mentioned social aspects. The importance of the social gatherings to CAMRA cannot be over emphasised. It is one of the many dabs of glue that hold us together. We visit breweries, we meet at pubs to show support for real ale and just to have a natter with friends. We have plenty of members that support mainly the social side, but why not? Funnily enough, the conversation is rarely about beer in any great detail. It is more about places and people. Beer gets recommended along the lines of "the Pictish Brewer's Gold (or whatever) is spot on" or whatever. There is little if any clinical analysis and beer geekiness. Good or shite? That'll do! Some of us have known each other for years, but we have many who are new and who enjoy it just the same, dropping in and out, just as they do at business meetings, where I make a personal effort, as does our membership secretary) to welcome them, introduce them to others and to encourage them to come again. We don't want to be seen as a clique and try to actively avoid appearing as such.
Ah yes, business meetings. These are where we grimly work out how to implement the never ending edicts from CAMRA HQ. Er no. What edicts? CAMRA is a remarkably de-centralised organisation. Such instructions as we rarely get are usually to comply with company law, best financial practice, insurance and the like. Nobody tells you what to discuss or how to go about it. Nobody is asked to confirm compliance with this or that AGM decision. CAMRA is very devolved and very local. I doubt if the branches would have it any other way, though of course, we don't break the basic principles of the organisation in that we campaign for real ale.
Locally we get around 30 members to a meeting (we constantly encourage
attendance) and what we talk about is mostly local pubs, breweries and
beer. It will vary a lot from branch to branch I suppose, but we have a pretty good
relationship with all of ours and they like us being involved. They
like to enter competitions and are extraordinarily pleased to win
awards. They like us to come and visit them, mention them in our newsletter and hold meetings in their pub and brewery and to call in when we have days out. It is all a bit of fun for us mostly and that's as it should be. For them it is publicity and involvement and maybe from their point of views, just a touch of approval.
So back to the AGM. There are 19 motions on the agenda paper. Not very many seem nutty. Most discuss internal arrangements such as strategic plans, Fit for Purpose Review, books etc. Unusually - and I've been to a few of these things - there are some controversial motions. Given that beer is going through changing and challenging times, wouldn't you expect that? We will be discussing craft beer. Be odd if we didn't, given the fuss some people make about it. There are some peculiar ideas in some of the motions, but again, given that CAMRA is a collection of individuals, that's hardly surprising. You would surely expect a wide range of views. They'll at least make the bloody thing more interesting!
Where there is a democratic deficit is in consultation - we should try and do more - possibly in the other major part of the campaign, which is the lobbying and consumer part of the organisation. This is more of the ambit of the National Executive (lay) and full time employees. Where that goes wrong - like in my view support for minimum pricing - there is the opportunity to overturn it at the AGM, which is what I'll be trying to do. As an individual member. Does my branch agree? Don't know, but if any of my members want to speak against me, they are welcome to.
Best I can do I'm afraid, but at least there is a route. So no Stalinism, no edicts, just people doing something they believe in, in their own way.
I'm aware that this has got a bit rambly, but I hope it gives you a sense from one perspective at least.
A bit of a CV. Tandleman is a veteran beer lover, local CAMRA Chairman and activist, beer writer, beer reviewer and pursuer of all things good in beer. He lives in the North West of England and London. Despite his CAMRA membership, he does not limit himself to cask conditioned beer, though he believes that cask conditioning, when done correctly and appropriately, brings a quality to beer that is hard to equal by any other kind of presentation. He is a strong supporter of Northern methods of beer dispense and avidly detests poorly presented beer and dislikes pasteurisation. He regularly visits Germany, has conducted corporate British and German beer tastings for CAMRA at the Great British Beer Festival where he has worked for years on Biere Sans Frontieres and was Deputy Organiser at CAMRA's very successful National Winter Ales Festival in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012. He admires good brewers wherever they are and has travelled extensively in pursuit of good beer to drink.
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