Revitalisation? CAMRA needs a refocus – it needs change of direction and a change of leadership.
Dear fellow CAMRA members,
I am unfortunately unable to join you in Bournemouth for the AGM, something I had hoped to do – but with the location and existing family commitments with it being school Easter holidays, I can’t make it. I am sure it will be an interesting weekend.
I have been a CAMRA member now for nigh on 25 years, far longer than I have been a continual member of any other organisation. 25 years is nearly 90% of my time as an adult drinker, able legally to drink beer and to visit our treasured and iconic community institutions, our Great British pubs.
My first CAMRA beer festival was in York in 1988 at the old Assembly Rooms, alas like so many of our wonderful pubs, now a restaurant! I was 18 years old. I still have my pint glass, I also gave one to my Dad, also a CAMRA member and the person who introduced me to pubs and to real ale all those years ago.
I am writing because I am now so dismayed at the direction of our organisation (or rather the lack of any real direction and certainly little effective action) on the key issues affecting our pubs. Considering I joined CAMRA because I love pubs (as well as real ale) this is sad to have to write – but it is because of that fact and because I have been a CAMRA member for so long that I have to. I am also concerned, as many other CAMRA members are who I have spoken to or who have contacted me, with the style, attitude and priorities of CAMRA’s leadership and as a result, of CAMRA HQ. CAMRA members are not being well served at the moment.
As with many CAMRA members and sector observers, I have seen a fundamental change in CAMRA’s campaigning output, attitude and acumen over the last 18 months. I had rather presumed that this was due to the ‘revitalisation’ project and this taking up time that had caused CAMRA nationally to lose its focus. I thought it was just that CAMRA had lost its way (which it has). I now realise that instead it is being misled. It is being misled up the wrong path and in the wrong direction and one that if followed will destroy CAMRA’s essence as a campaigning membership organisation and a positive force saving pubs.
CAMRA is in an existential crisis, but not because of ‘craft beer’, because of leadership wholly unsuited to a mass membership campaigning organisation (not my words actually, they are the words are a very senior figure who told me this, but in confidence). So I fear that whatever debates there are at the AGM about certain issues, including the debate on kinds of beer, the real issue and fundamental problem will be a very large and (carbonated or not) elephant in the room, which is that things are not right at St. Albans and that the wrong person is leading CAMRA the wrong way.
Of course I make clear that the problems are at, and with, CAMRA HQ and not CAMRA branches and members. Indeed like so many organisations, it is the local foot soldiers and the day to day activists on the ground who are the real heroes of the pub sector, who save and support our pubs on a weekly basis. Yet whilst branches and active members do such a brave job of fighting pub closures, criticising the ongoing exploitation of licensees tied to the large pub companies and trying to stop supermarkets and developers destroying our pubs, CAMRA HQ have been weak and ineffective and worse still, have deliberately turned their back on some of the key issues and problems damaging and closing pubs.
Even more disappointingly, CAMRA HQ have acted with a worrying lack of integrity over a number of issues. Members and branches deserve much better that that. The attitude (which seems to stem from the top) is to try to airbrush things & brush others under the carpet to save CAMRA HQ from embarrassment, not to do what is right, not to stand up for CAMRA members and not to stand up for pubs.
Over the last year and a half, I have seen CAMRA HQ all but give up on their previously powerful campaigning on some of the main issues affecting pubs. CAMRA has been inept on the crisis of business rates, half-hearted on the campaign to end permitted development rights for pubs (ignoring the first vote in December, then not being honest about why they did so) and embarrassingly silent as the Co-op have breached their weak and failed ‘agreement’ signed off by CAMRA HQ in 2015. As CAMRA branches and members have been fighting against this most predatory of supermarket chains when it comes to targeting and closing pubs, CAMRA HQ have been more interested in saving face than saving pubs and have stayed silent even when the Co-op broke their word given to MPs at a Save the Pub meeting (in front of a senior member of CAMRA staff who has shamefully remained silent despite knowing this). CAMRA members and branches must force CAMRA HQ to ditch this failed agreement for it is not only giving cover to the Co-op for their pub destruction, but it is bringing our organisation into disrepute.
Most notably, perhaps, CAMRA HQ, under the current unsuitable leadership, have as good as left the pitch when it comes to actually standing up for pubs and publicans over the Pubs Code they were so keen to try and take all the credit for. Alas since the vote in 2014, CAMRA HQ have not only failed to continue to campaign on pubco reform, to ensure that the legislation actually works (which is clearly essential) but members (and indeed National Executive members) may be shocked to know that they have actually undermined it.
From first of all misunderstanding then misrepresenting the agreed position of the Fair Deal for Your Local campaign (and then refusing to ask the Government to protect pubco tenants who break free of the beer tie from exorbitant rents) to then wanting to turn their backs on the campaign entirely. The fact is that CAMRA HQ, despite being so keen to try to take all the credit for the vote in 2014 and the introduction of the Code, have done nothing of worth to seek to ensure the Pubs Code actually works and the Adjudicator is doing his job. It isn’t and he isn’t, yet CAMRA HQ do and say nothing and refuse to speak out despite the reality of the situation and the fact that the conflicted Adjudicator, who isn’t adjudicating, is undermining the code that CAMRA members fought so hard for.
Despite the fact that the successful Fair Deal for Your Local campaign was one backed by a coalition of organisations and was not led by CAMRA, disgracefully CAMRA HQ sneakily nominated themselves alone for an award for its successful outcome. When this was brought to the attention of the other organisations and was then flagged up with the organisers of the awards, CAMRA HQ had the opportunity to resubmit a joint one, but refused and instead threw their toys out of the pram and withdrew their nomination!
Perhaps worst of all, from a campaigning perspective at least, they fundamentally and significantly undermined the ongoing and vitally important campaign, by refusing to hand over the list of Fair Deal for Your Local supporters, i.e. people that had signed up to support the campaign, not CAMRA. This has prevented the ongoing campaign from seeking support in lobbying MPs when needed (matters which of course CAMRA HQ have done nothing on themselves).
All in all, it is very sad that such a proud organisation with an impressive campaigning history now has come to this and has many of its activists and former associates feeling so betrayed and dismayed.
It has become clear that much of the change of direction of CAMRA HQ and its failure and change of heart on key pub issues is down to the person and people who are paid to carry out the will of the members. Above all, it has also become clear that CAMRA has a Chief Executive who is utterly unsuited to the role of leading a membership campaigning organisation and as such is ignoring the membership and watering down and sidestepping the core campaigning on the issues that really matter.
Mike Benner was going to be a hard act to follow and Mike was someone who was prepared to say what needed to be said and to direct staff to campaign outside of their comfort zone, which was essential to the success of the Fair Deal for Your Local campaign. Since then, the approach far from revitalising anything has been a much more conservative as well as ineffective one.
When I first met Tim Page, in my office, I was keen to work with him (as the MP who has done more than any other on pub issues over the last few years) and believed we would. I certainly wanted to give him every chance to show that he was the right person to lead CAMRA. I was, however, perturbed by his odd comment to me that he had been joking with his friends about how lucky he was to have landed a plum job working in beer and pubs, ho ho. There was a strong sense that he saw this as something of a jolly and not as the hugely serious and important role of fronting what was the nation’s leading consumer campaigning organisation.
Alas, it seems those fears of mine were well founded. This was exposed early on, when Neil Carmichael MP posed with campaigners and promised to vote for the Market Rent Only option in 2014, yet then voted against it after caving in to pressure from whips. Quite rightly he was lambasted by Tim Mars from Stroud CAMRA who was rightly incensed at the MP’s barefaced lack of integrity over this vote. So what did Tim Page do? He came down on Tim Mars like a ton of bricks. So, far from standing up for CAMRA branches and activists, he instead censured one for quite rightly criticising a politician who had let them down and been untrustworthy. That speaks volumes about Tim Page and his attitude towards CAMRA’s foot soldiers and what CAMRA is.
Tim Page has appeared keen to ingratiate himself with pubco PR people and various “industry” big wigs and seems more interested in being one of the important people in the “industry” than actually leading a dynamic campaigning membership organisation hungry to fight for change, to protect and preserve pubs and to take on those who undermine and close them. At the same time as hosting cosy private dinners in the House of Commons and falling all too comfortably into the backslapping culture that has done so much damage to pubs and publicans, Tim Page also hugely alienated publican campaigners and tenant representative associations and has treated organisations like the Pubs Advisory Service with contempt.
Yet when Anna Soubry, the awful yet arrogant Minister who signed off Paul Newby’s appointment, cited CAMRA as being a tenant representing group who backed Paul Newby, CAMRA HQ chose to say nothing despite knowing both that they are not and never have been a licensee organisation and that this intervention would assist the conflicted and disastrous Mr Newby to stay in place. It is things like this that have made people question who CAMRA HQ think they represent.
I know that there is serious disquiet in CAMRA about Tim Page’s style of leadership and the focus and output of CAMRA HQ. I have heard those from some well-known and high profile national CAMRA figures. The key theme is that Tim is simply not suited to leading a membership organisation, he instead wants to try to dictate the direction of CAMRA and to criticise and side-line those who don’t agree.
I have spoken to and had conversations with leading lights in some of the most active and proactive branches and some key activists have felt harried or silenced, reprimanded and belittled for expressing any concern that CAMRA nationally are not focused on, or campaigning for, the right and most important things (let alone mention the unsuitability of the leadership). Lots of people in CAMRA know this is a huge problem, yet so far no one has yet been prepared to speak out so as is often the case, that falls to muggins here. Someone has to.
We all make mistakes and Tim Page’s appointment was a big one. For CAMRA as an organisation, if this mistake is not rectified, it could be disastrous. I know long term CAMRA members who are so dismayed at CAMRA’s current leadership and focus of activity that they are considering leaving or even starting up a new organisation.
I am sure Tim Page was a great Chief Executive Air Ambulance and at other organisations. But he was a fundamentally wrong choice for Chief Executive of CAMRA and it is time that CAMRA members, like me, expressed that publicly (and not just privately as they are doing now) and it is time that the National Executive listened and acted over concerns about the focus, actions and inactions of CAMRA HQ. Some of those on the NE, privately, have the same concerns, for they too have seen the way CAMRA is being led down the wrong road, failing to campaign on the right things and can see the damage it is doing to our organisation.
I would hope that considering that senior and esteemed figures in CAMRA, some of those legendary names I knew only from What’s Brewing have told me of their dismay that Tim might have the good grace to realise that his style of leadership is wholly unsuited to leading CAMRA and move on.
Either way, it is time for Tim Page to go and it is time for CAMRA HQ to be refocused and yes, revitalised. Revitalised to once again be the strong, proud, dynamic campaigning group that stands up for its members and branches and campaigns for pubs and great British beer and cider without fear or favour and certainly without currying it with people who are damaging and undermining pubs and publicans. It is time for the National Executive to represent members and agree an exit strategy for Tim Page and commence a genuine revitalisation of CAMRA’s focus and output. CAMRA instead needs a Chief Executive who will excel in the most fundamental part of the job, as Mike Benner did, to speak for CAMRA members and to act as the person who represents CAMRA, not the person who tells CAMRA what to do and what to be as it happening now.
Real ale or not real ale? What I want to see is real CAMRA. So it is time for a change of direction and a change of leadership. It’s time to save CAMRA.
Greg Mulholland MP
Top 40 CAMRA Campaigner, 3 times CAMRA national award winner for campaigning, Chair of the British Pub Confederation and founder of the Parliamentary Save the Pub Group @thepubchampion