|By David Edgar - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4858312|
Despite the furore and controversy surrounding the somewhat radical proposals put forward by CAMRA's much vaunted "Revitalisation Project", one important issue seems to have been glossed over.
It's actually more than important it's vital to the very survival of CAMRA as a campaigning organisation; certainly in the medium to long term. The issue is being glossed over, swept under the carpet if you like, and yet it really is the "elephant in the room".
Before I reveal all, I want to mention that I wrote about this subject last year, in a post entitled "It's more than just a numbers game", but at a time when CAMRA under its current CEO, Tim Page remain obsessed with chasing ever increasing membership figures, they remain oblivious to the fact that the vast majority of new recruits are just armchair members.
These are folk content to pay their subscriptions, enjoy free or reduced entry to CAMRA beer festivals (which is probably where most of them joined anyway) and take full advantage of the Wetherspoon's vouchers - almost certainly the reason why many of them signed up in the first place.
Beer festivals don't just run themselves, but take one hell of a lot of organising. Finding sufficient members willing to volunteer and offer their services to allow festivals to happen has been a problem for many years, but more recently has been exacerbated by an increasingly ageing active membership pool, and the problem here is the numbers in this pool is in free-fall as people either become incapacitated, or shuffle off this mortal coil altogether.
When I, and many of my contemporaries first signed up, CAMRA was very much a young person's organisation, with much of the membership either in their twenties or early thirties. Nowadays you will be lucky to find any active members under 50, and in many branches the age is more likely to be 60!
If this ageing issue was just affecting CAMRA-run beer festivals it wouldn't be too much of a problem, but far more seriously if the affect it will have on another main activity of CAMRA's. and that is collecting and collating information for the group's best selling publication, the annual Good Beer Guide.
I somewhat doubt as to whether regular users of the Guide, let alone casual users, appreciate the amount of legwork put in by ordinary branch members in ensuring the publication not only appears each year, but is as accurate and as up to date as a publication of this kind can be; especially when you consider the groundwork is carried out solely by volunteers.
Getting feedback from people out in the field is difficult enough; a good case in point being the exchange of comments between myself and a member from neighbouring North East Sussex branch, which pointed out I was the only person to have submitted beer scores for the Bull at Ticehurst, in over a year.
Performing this action is the easy part, and is something that less active members could easily do, if they could be bothered. What happens next is where the real work begins, and if anything it becomes harder as the process progresses.
Based on information received from NBSS scores, feedback from members, observations and findings from branch pub-crawls or rural outings, plus of course the previous year's entries, branches will draw up a short list of likely candidates for the following year's Guide. Volunteers will then be sought to go out and survey the pubs on the shortlist (in West Kent branch, we ask that members who recommend a specific pub, actually take the time to go back and revisit the establishment in question and fill out a proper survey form).
Anyone who has filled one out of these wretched forms will know just what a pain they can be. At one time the Guide was typeset directly from these forms, so they were supposed to be "machine readable". Filling in each square on the form in BLOCK CAPITALS was one of the most tiresome tasks known to man; I should know as I've still got the scars to prove it!
For some strange reason CAMRA still insists on these rather antiquated forms, even though entries are now made electronically onto the GBG database, by each branch. But here lies another problem; much of the information on the survey forms is incomplete inaccurate, or sometimes both.
The individuals tasked with inputting the information often have to recheck; a frustrating and time-consuming process. Even worse are the pub descriptions; often written by people lacking a basic knowledge of English grammar, or indeed English itself. A friend who has been carrying out this thankless, and unpaid task for several years, showed me an example, written totally without punctuation of any description. As all the text was written in block capitals, my friend spent a frustrating afternoon trying to decipher this garbage and in the end had to re-write the piece himself.
Such occurrences are not uncommon, but I wonder whether CAMRA realise, let alone appreciate the effort put in by a small, but dedicated group of individuals in order to get their flagship publication ready for the printers.
The number of volunteers willing to give up their evenings or weekends, to act as unpaid typesetters, is already in short supply, and in my own branch one of them is now saying, quite understandably, that due to work commitments, he can no longer spare the time needed for this task.
So returning for a while to CAMRA's proposals to transform itself into an all-embracing organisation for anyone who appreciates good beer, regardless of the methods of processing and dispense. If these ideas are adopted by the Campaign as a whole, can we expect to see a surge in new members all willing to get off their backsides and get out there doing some legwork?
I think we all know the answer, but rather like our current government in relation to an impending major constitutional change, CAMRA's current leadership have their heads buried firmly in the sand. I would like to use the same analogy between those running the country, and the top people within the Campaign for Real Ale, and say to them "Be very careful what you wish for", as lurking somewhere in the background, and often hiding just beneath the surface, will be the Law of Unintended Consequences, known in more general parlance, as the "Law of Sod"!
To end, the Good Beer Guide won’t disappear overnight of course, but it will slowly become less and less relevant. Without up to date, and accurate information, which only local CAMRA branches can really provide, the Guide will lose its cutting edge and its unique selling point will become increasingly diluted.
CAMRA cannot ignore this truth for much longer, even though it likes to pretend everything’s fine and the sun won’t be setting on their flagship publication any time soon. I can only speak for my own branch, where I know we are having difficulty in keeping tabs on all of our pubs, but I’m certain there are other branches in a similar, or possibly worse position.
So stop chasing membership numbers and recognise there is a real problem within the Campaign, otherwise no amount of tinkering with aims and objectives will save the organisation from a slow and lingering decline.