CAMRA Members Vote for Slow, Difficult, Gradual Change

Hands

After several years of discussion and debate members of the Campaign for Real Ale got the chance to vote for/against changes to the organisation’s culture at the weekend and chose… A limited amount of cautious progress.

We watched news of the CAMRA’s AGM trickle in via Twitter while we were at the tail end of our holiday, feeling relaxed and slightly detached from it all. On the whole, we reckoned, the outcome represented a move in the right direction, towards a broader campaign about decent beer, if not quite the clean, decisive revolutionary change for which some were hoping.

We are not alone in this interpretation, and find ourselves agreeing fairly well with Roger Protz’s analysis, which also does a good job of explaining some of the foibles of this particular democratic process:

I voted for change. I would like CAMRA to be the voice of all pubgoers and to campaign to save pubs. While I will always drink real ale as my beer of choice, I recognise that many modern craft keg beers are of excellent quality and are worthy of attention…. But I also accept that, as a result of its founding aims, real ale must always be central to the campaign’s activities. No other country produces large amounts of cask-conditioned beer. It’s part of Britain’s history and heritage and it is to CAMRA’s great credit that it has been saved, restored and revived.

But other people read the same information rather differently: the defeat of one key proposal was either one in the eye for the craft beer usurpers, or a death knell for CAMRA, depending on prejudices and loyalties. Pete Brown’s thoughts, although we don’t really agree with the main thrust of his argument, shouldn’t be dismissed given his long background in the industry, and makes a good case for why this change, and perhaps further change, is necessary:

Year after year, research for the Cask Report showed us that there were no deep-seated objection to cask, not in significant numbers. any way. The main reason people hadn’t tried it was that they hadn’t been given a reason to. Cask needs to be made relevant to these people in the context of what they’re already drinking: if you like that, you might like this. Craft keg drinkers are a soft target for cask to convert – they’re half way there already…. Most drinkers just want good beer, irrespective of who made it or what it comes in. Most cask ale brewers now brew in other formats as well – cask now only accounts for 74% of SIBA members’ output, which puts CAMRA in the strange position of endorsing some but not all of the beer of the breweries it claims to support.

We think Ed is right to downplay the significance of the controversially defeated proposal that CAMRA should “act as the voice and represent the interests of all pub goers and beer, cider and perry drinkers”. There’s a lot bundled up in that and we can imagine it lost a few votes from those who are irritated at CAMRA’s involvement with cider and perry, or who think that beer is more important than pubs, or worried that this would specifically mean CAMRA effectively supporting big brand lager — the main adversary for these past 40 years.

If we were dismayed by anything in particular it was the election of anti-Revitalisation candidate Lynn Attack to the National Executive, but even that, after a moment’s reflection, we concluded was just the hive mind deciding in its inscrutable way that it wanted checks and balances in place. The membership wants change, but it also wants it to be slow, and perhaps even difficult. That might seem frustrating but it’s how sustainable changes are made, and consensus reached.

A big, bold public statement in favour of change might have helped with PR, but change is happening anyway, on the ground. To some extent, Revitalisation was about formally approving what many individual members and branches were already doing. That is, appreciating, celebrating and supporting the kind of beer they want to see more of in the market, regardless of dogma. Ten years ago the main beef people seemed to have with CAMRA was that interesting breweries producing primarily keg beers were effectively barred from its festivals; that change has been forced through at various points in the front-line by volunteer organisers who thought it was daft, and through the deletion of a single line in a key document has now been official policy.

Anyway, as we have nothing much terribly substantial to add beyond that, we’ll finish with a round-up of links to what others have said:

Jim at Beers Manchester — “Yes. I ‘get’ that the majority of the Revitalisation agenda got through…. Yes. I ‘get’ that the sinister ‘Motion 8’ sank almost without trace…. But that’s not enough…. This vote was merely the straw that broke this particular Camel’s back.”

James Beeson, Morning Advertiser — “CAMRA members narrowly rejected​ the call to widen the organisations scope to promote other types of beer, cider and perry, and in doing so, sent a clear message to the industry. That message? ‘We’re not interested in adapting. We don’t want to change.’”

Keith Flett — “The results indicate, in my view, progress but not enough progress…. I’ve been a member of CAMRA since 1975 (my thoughts on this are linked below) and I won’t be leaving. I was among the 18,000+ people who voted on the resolutions based on the revitalisation project. That is a several years long review of how CAMRA is relating to the modern world of pubs, beer and brewing. I was also one of the 16,000+ people who voted for 4 places on the CAMRA Executive. CAMRA has over 190,000 members. Food for serious thought there.”

Pub Curmudgeon — “Taking the results as a whole, nine out of ten Revitalisation resolutions were passed, as were ordinary Conference motions to adopt an officially neutral stance on the cask breather, and to allow the selling of non-real British beers at beer festivals…. So the results have to be seen as a mixed bag rather than a decisive victory for either ‘side’.”

UPDATE 11:30 24/04/2018 Adrian Tierney Jones, TelegraphAs a writer on beer and pubs and a CAMRA member, I am disappointed that the resolution fell, especially as 72.6% of 18,000 voters was deemed insufficient to pass it. My first thought was whether I wanted to remain a member — I am still not entirely sure.” (Behind a paywall; registration is free and entitles you to read one article per week.)

Disclosure: we are sometimes paid to write for CAMRA publications.

23 thoughts on “CAMRA Members Vote for Slow, Difficult, Gradual Change”

  1. Absolutely right “prejudices and Loyalties”, how people have interpreted the votes to fit their own point of view (or to strengthen it) was the most striking thing. We now have a situation where long term members are saying they’ll leave because they don’t want change, and others saying they’re leaving because CAMRA is failing to change. Both are exhibiting narrow minded prejudice.

  2. For various reasons, I did not attend AGM and like you was receiving news as it happened, by text messages from people in the hall. I think your summary is well put. Christine and I visited the Isle of Man the week before. If you want quality beer there, you look for cask beer. Outside of many of the urban scenes “Craft keg drinkers” are as rare as hen’s teeth because so is “Craft keg”. I liken CAMRA a little to an oil tanker, it can change direction, but slowly.

    1. I’m not sure the IOM can be taken as evidence of much, or at least not much that’s happened since the 1950s. IME most small market towns will have pubs with the odd font of Punk or Thornbridge or something. The real issue for pubs in those towns is that many of their potential customers are getting their beers delivered to home.

      And of course the age old problem of the tie preventing pubs giving people the beer that they want…

      1. Well my town has plenty of pubs, and even three relatively new bars – but not one craft keg pump so far as I know (I’ve not visited a couple of the pubs for a while). I think John is absolutely correct.

        1. You might be surprised, things have changed significantly even in the last year. I get around a fair bit, so I’m basing my experience on rather more than just “my town”. Of maybe ten towns around the country in the 15-25k population range that I know well enough to give meaningful pub suggestions, I think that in every one I could point you to somewhere that at least had Punk/Thornbridge/Tiny Rebel/Beavertown keg on, and likely something rather more exotic, on draught and certainly in smallpack. Plus you could get anything from Northern Monk to To Ol in at least one supermarket. These are not hipster hangouts, these are typical Middle England places with average demographics in terms of age, wealth etc.

          There are exceptions – from what B&B have said you’d be up against it in Devon, but Devon is not an average county by a long way. It’s difficult in rural Kent just because Sheps has tied up so much of the pub estate, and the local pubs tend to follow the strict Herne rulebook rather than the more flexible approach you see elsewhere. But _in my experience_ areas like that are no longer the norm.

          1. To be fair to Devon, even there you *can* find this type of beer somewhere in most towns — just not much of it, and not often much beyond the usual suspects. And then there’s Spoons…

          2. There’s a decent selection in Waitrose, Tesco Express and not bad in one of the branches of Simply Fresh. Some of the pubs and two of the bars have a few bottles in. But the bars/pubs I use are more likely to have craft keg on that anywhere else, and they don’t. And we don’t have a Spoons. That doesn’t mean there’s no craft beer, though, craft cask is pretty popular, at least in 2 of the pubs and often several others. But then we have a city 10 mins down the road, and 2 other towns nearby, so it’s not hard to slake that particular thirst if you want to – just not here. In the last year, I’ve seen (and in some cases drunk ) keg craft in every city I’ve been to in the last year; the only town that goes for is Settle. Although I guess Salisbury is arguably more a town than a city in size. Doesn’t really prove anything, of course, but it’s where my perception comes from.

          3. It sounds like you’re applying a test of finding keg in any random pub chosen as a visitor. That’s a much sterner test than just one pub in a town having it, I was talking about towns I know well, not those I pass through. And you might be surprised how much things have changed in your local town just in the last year, in the freehouses at least. Just a quick skim of Untappd might show something up locally.

            [Erratum – above I meant to refer to Kent micros following Herne Rules, not all Kent pubs]

          4. Untapppd is unqualified rubbish for my town. It lists an Indian restaurant that has been demolished and had a block of flats built on it, another long-gone Indian restaurant (in fact the one that replaced it has been gone for over a year), and it does list Punk IPA in one bar that doesn’t sell it on keg, although does have bottles of it – and this bar is the one I would expect above all others to have at least one. It even lists the Council tip/recycling centre, which unsurprisingly has absolutely no beers or indeed any other kind of drink at all, and is conclusive evidence of the app being, well, rubbish. It’s nowhere near as up-to-date as I am, which is rather worrying. But then that very absence of being up-to-date rather reinforces John’s point about the number of craft keg drinkers outside urban centres, I feel, at least as far as this town goes. And yet we have the county’s Pub of the Year for 2018, which sells plenty of cask craft beers.

  3. I think Keith Flett has noted a concerning point, If only approx 18k from a membership of 190k vote, that perhaps suggests there’s a very large majority who aren’t much bothered either way but just like to be part of the club. If it wasn’t for rolling re-subscriptions I wonder how many would renew year on year?

    1. In a comment awaiting moderation I ask whether those membership figures are independently verified.

      But when you consider that local elections get turnouts in the 30%s it’s not so bad really. Most people carry the card, get a discount and presumably most use their Spoons vouchers.

      I’ve got a YBS AGM proxy vote type thing in an envelope at home. I’ll probably read it a moth after the deadline date! It’s the nature of these things I guess.

  4. I am about as meek and mild as they come in terms of these things. It takes a lot to get me to change my habits. But when I saw that 73% rounded up wasn’t enough to pass the motion I woke up on this issue. Yes it’s in the rule book. Nothing was underhand, and yet when you think of more than 13,000 voters being outnumbered by around 5,000 it should make anyone pause for thought.

    I became a member of CAMRA because I believed in what they were doing. Now, as we come up to mine and my wife’s renewal date, I’m wondering what exactly I’m supporting. I don’t need the Spoons vouchers. We can pay our way in to festivals as we do for the many sparkling vibrant beer festivals around the country. It’s not a financial decision – never was.

    This stubborn old bloke and his wife are thinking of not renewing because we no longer seem to be aligned in our objectives. You don’t reckon much to Pete Brown’s view, apparently, which is fair enough, but to me he was bang on in most important areas.

    Who defines what ‘real ale’ is? CAMRA of course. It almost ought to have a copyright symbol next to it such is its association with the CAMRA brand. Cask ale sales falling in inverse proportion to membership figures (are they ever independently audited, by the way?)?

    I’d like to see CAMRA educate cask drinkers to pay more for the drink they so obviously cherish and pay small to medium breweries enough for them not to have to concentrate on the expensive end of the market to make ends meet. In the end innovative cask will die if brewers aren’t incentivised to produce it.

    Anyway, it’s annoyed me enough to summon the small activist spirit in me, but not in a good way.

    1. AIUI the 75% thing isn’t a conspiracy by the old lags, it’s because you need a special resolution to change articles of association, and under section 283 of the Companies Act 2006 a special resolution needs 75% of members/shareholders to pass.

      That 2.4% will die off soon enough….

      In the meantime, you have CAMRA able to provide information and education about all kinds of beer without “acting as the voice” of keg drinkers. To me it looks like the kind of thing that the old guard can feel good about claiming how they’ve withstood the assault from the crafties, but in the real world the crafties have “won”. Keg at CAMRA festivals, no longer opposed to cask breathers, CAMRA publications being able to talk about keg – what exactly are you opposed to?

  5. Good points well made. I’m not sure the ‘teddy out of the cot’ stance is the way forward, whatever side of the fence you want to be. The saddest part for me is that, in the eyes of some (both sides of the argument), the fence remains and will continue to do so.

  6. Thanks for this, I was hoping we’d get to hear your thoughts. I find myself unable to discern what the facts are in some cases. Pete Brown described cask sales as in “freefall,” while Roger Protz points out that its 5% annual decline is actually more gradual than for beer sales in general.

    It does seem that if the matter comes to a vote again in a few more years, things will have made the slight shift needed to allow passage of that last resolution.

    1. If you’re really interested in getting to the bottom of it going back to successive year’s Cask Reports might help. The general point is, I think, that the first step to getting people engaged with and excited about cask ale is to get them and engaged with and excited about *beer*, full stop. Craft beer (bright colours, hip branding, lots of variety, underdog stories) is a great entry point.

      (Although mine was Foster’s lager > Greene King IPA > Deuchar’s IPA, so who knows…)

      1. I can’t see how a move towards not championing cask beer can possibly be good for cask. I certainly don’t see the logic of (craft) keg as a gateway to cask – if it’s brighter, more fashionable, more varied and generally more exciting than cask, why would new beer drinkers just not stick to keg? Up to now CAMRA has argued clearly and unambiguously – perhaps too unambiguously – that cask beer is fundamentally different from keg and generally superior. Move CAMRA away from that position, and towards a general embrace of good beer in whatever form it comes in, and I can’t see why new drinkers should ever take any notice of the “old man beers” on hand pump.

        1. Perhaps they shouldn’t. Perhaps Doom Bar doesn’t need cheerleading but Taddington Moravka does. Perhaps the UK beer industry has changed dramatically in the last ten years. Perhaps the worst enemy of quality beer is no longer extraneous CO2. If this is the case, shouldn’t CAMRA adapt to the circumstances and be a better friend to the modern beer drinker? Perhaps its relevance is in jeopardy if it doesn’t.

        2. Where, exactly, is CAMRA saying that it is “not championing cask beer”??? There’s even been members of the NE quoted as saying SR6 was more about pubs than beer – and I don’t think enough attention is paid to the need to have pubs if you want cask beer.

          And it’s a fact that people who drink beer are more likely to drink cask beer than people who don’t drink beer. Shouting them saying that they are stupid for choosing their current tipple is not going to get them feeling good about switching to cask. However, by the caskies’ logic, cask is the highest form of the brewer’s art, so people interested in beer will be attracted to it because it’s so much better than the keg stuff they have been drinking.

          However, if the caskies are wrong and the average pint of cask is closer to vinegar then you’re right, people will stick with keg. You can’t tell people to drink cask because they “should”, they have to be enticed to cask because it delivers a better experience for the money.

          1. qq – I said “a move towards not championing cask beer”; the mood music matters as well as the outright changes of policy. (One of the SRs that passed is about pubs and clubs, incidentally.) And, of course, I’m not saying we should tell people they’re stupid for not drinking cask beer – denigrating other forms of beer has never been CAMRA policy, although at times you could be forgiven for thinking it was (to that extent the mood music did need to change).

            I don’t think we should leave cask beer to sink or swim in the market, though. If it could survive on quality alone we wouldn’t have needed a campaign in the first place.

  7. A campaigning organisation relies for its credibility on how it is perceived both by those whom it wishes to influence and the public at large. CAMRA’s membership,by rejecting part of a well thought out modernisation process,are now perceived as being backward looking and this will have a great impact on its effectiveness as a campaigning organisation

  8. An interesting range of comments, all expressed without the violent ad hominem vitriol that apparently can infect on line conversations. Some thoughts
    Independent auditing of membership record? See the Audited Accounts for a true & fair view.
    Less than 10% of members voting?
    I submit that since the CAMRA National Executive prevented the presentation of any alternative or opposing views to the Revitalisation
    Report, in What’s Brewing, the vast majority of the membership did not realise that there was anything to vote on. Is abstention a vote for the status quo, or tacit acceptance of the proposals? Who can do anything other than guess?
    As one who attended the AGM & Conference, my impression was that a balance was struck between changing the absolute founding principles of the Campaign and continuing with a gradual progression (which has been in evidence for some time). The fact that CAMRA did not “tear itself apart” over a form of words is something I am very grateful for.

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