Saturday, 24 January 2015


Amused to pop into my Rochester local this afternoon and see these beer mats scattered around the bar!

Perhaps we are to blame for so many good people leaving Parliament

Another skilled and able MP, Mark Hoban (aged 50), has just announced his retirement at the coming election. Many others of a similar age are also leaving Parliament this year including David Willetts (58), Andrew Lansley (58), William Hague (53), Sir Hugh Robertson (52) and Greg Barker (48). 

I have no doubt that the parliamentary party and politics in general will survive the loss of such talent, and there will be plenty of eager newcomers keen to replace them. But as a nation we need to ask why politics is failing to retain such skilled and capable people. 

As I campaign across West Kent (or answer the phone to yet another "disgusted" voter ranting about that morning's Daily Express headline) I ask myself why anyone would wish to be an MP?

There was a time Members of Parliament were legislators, sent to Westminster to review new laws, hold the Executive to account and ensure the views of their constituents were taken into consideration during the parliamentary process. 

Then something changed. 

I am not sure why or when, but MPs suddenly became social workers and local celebrities and the public's view of them perhaps changed too.  

We now demand that our MP spend their weekends opening dog shows, drawing raffle tickets and cutting ribbons. We bombard them with impersonal lobby correspondence; thousands of people entering their postcode and clicking "send" resulting in angry 'personal' emails demanding their MP speaks out in favour of newts, supports legislation to reduce fuel poverty, oppose shale gas, demand new military intervention on "humanitarian" grounds... whilst opposing war... whilst always..."something must be done"

One MP I know recently told me they had responded to 20,000 (twenty thousand!) letters or emails in the last five years. With these new demands come the need for bigger offices and more staff. With bigger offices and more staff come more angry letters complaining about the cost of bigger offices and more staff. Gone forever are the days when Enoch Powell used to send a hand-written response to every letter, written from a shared desk in the Commons library. 

We treat our MPs as many now treat the A&E Department of their local hospital - the easiest option rather than a point of emergency. We bombard them with correspondence then complain at how much they spend on employing staff to respond to the demands we have created. We expect them to run in three-legged races or dress-up for charity, shake collection buckets whilst accusing them of being "out of touch" if they decline, then complain that "we never see you in Parliament". And we demand "better quality Parliamentarians" whilst paying the ones we have 30% of what most could earn in the private sector.  

Rather than complaining, sneering and attacking, we should be grateful that so many people (of all parties) are prepared to put up with it in the name of public service. 

But if we wonder why so many decent people are leaving parliament too soon - we should perhaps consider the words of William Thackeray,

"The world is a looking-glass, and gives back to
every man the reflection of his own face."

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The slippery slope

Earlier this week I found myself with the telephone in my hand and the ringing tone in my ear. A lady with a stern voice answered. As she did so I realised I had no idea who she was or why I had called her.  As she gave her number I scanned my desk for clues - nothing. 

"Hello, I am dreadfully sorry, but would you mind telling me who you are?" I asked, feebly.

"Surely you know who I am, you called me!" she replied, sounding much more assertive than me. 

"Yes, I know - but I have dialled your number and hit a mental blank. I cannot remember who I called and I do not recognise your voice. Would you tell me your name in the hope that it jogs my memory?"

"Certainly not, why should I give you my name?"  She said, not unreasonably. "Why don't you tell me your name and the nature of your business and I will tell you if I know you."

By this time I had a vision in my mind's eye of a formidable woman not unlike Mrs Richards from Fawlty Towers.

"I'm Andrew Kennedy, from the Conservative Party in West Kent."


I repeated it, with a growing sense of foreboding that this wasn't going to end well. 

"I have never heard of you and I don't think we have anything in common. And if you phone people you don't know and fail to remember who you called or what you wanted to say, then no wonder you didn't win the last election. Goodbye"


And that was the end of it. 

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Here's a toast to Steve Hammond and hundreds like him - they are our true local champions

Regular readers will know that I am passionate about searching far and wide to attract new candidates and activists. In recent years we have probably done more than any other Conservative Association to reach beyond the confines of our paid membership to identify and develop a new generation of candidates, including full page adverts in the local press, mailshots to charities, voluntary groups and community leaders, open days, seminars and street stalls. 

See HERE and HERE and HERE for some background on our past endeavours. 

It's been hard work; probably half of those who make contact decide public service in local government is not for them. A lot of time and energy has been invested (though not wasted) speaking to new applicants and arranging for them to attend our regular New Candidate Seminars, to hear about the role, meet local council leaders and be allocated an incumbent councillor "buddy" who they shadow to learn more. There have been times when all ten attendees have dropped out before interview, which is frustrating but better than them dropping out just before nomination day.

The upshot of this activity however has been the recruitment of a pool of perhaps 30 potential new candidates who have been available to fill natural vacancies, but perhaps more importantly to give our various Local Government Committees the confidence to challenge non-performing councillors or encourage retirement for those who offer to do "one more term if no-one else can be found".

One man who is standing for the first time is a perfect example of the type of community activist who would never have come forward under the traditional way of selection.  His name is Steve Hammond and he is our new candidate in Aylesford South ward.  Steve has been helping and supporting our councillors with their newsletter delivery for 5 years but never thought about standing himself. He told me recently that he thought councillors had to be "political animals" and didn't think he had the qualifications to stand. Thanks to the open, friendly and accessible nature of Chatham & Aylesford and with the enthusiastic encouragement of Tracey Crouch MP, Steve is now on board and has taken to campaigning like the community champion he is. 

By co-incidence Steve's life story was featured in this months edition of the Royal British Legion Magazine (he lives on an estate for ex-services personnel in Aylesford's RBL Village).  Like so many in his position Steve has never bragged nor boasted about his service, all I knew was he was a former soldier. Before joining the British Army he was a professional footballer. He joined the Welsh Guards, served in Northern Ireland and in the Falklands on board the troop ship Sir Galahad when it was hit by an Argentinean Skyhawk missile, which killed 56 of his colleagues and injured a further 150, including him.   You can read his moving and courageous story HERE or below.

Steve might not be a professional politician, but he has more experience than most and I have no doubt will bring compassion, understanding and dedication if elected, which I am sure he will be. Here's a toast to Steve Hammond and hundreds like him who have so much to offer, but are too seldom asked. 

Sunday, 18 January 2015

From Finding Nemo to Matthew Plummer's Beauty Dish

Saturday was a perfect microcosm of the life of a Conservative Party Agent, with a mix of internal bureaucracy, training & development and campaigning, finishing off with dinner with Kent Area Chairman, Andrew Mackness. 

I was up 7am and out by 8am for long drive across the beautiful Weald to officiate at two contested LG selections in Cranbrook area. Both were being held at The Weald Sports Centre in the only room they had available for us -  the creche. It was probably the best attended LG Selection Meeting I have been to for a long time with around 65% of eligible members participating. I was however somewhat strange to see members sitting on Thomas the Tank Engine shairs whilst applicants delivered their well-rehearsed speeches in front of life size cut-outs of Elsa, Anna and Olaf with the blue shark from Finding Nemo hoving into view from stage right. 

All four applicants for the two available seats were outstanding and I look forward to working with Cllr Linda Hall and James Hannam as we head to Thursday 7 May. 

Big turnout to select two Local Government Candidates at The Weald Sports Centre

Next up was Tunbridge Wells where I was co-hosting the Candidates' and Campaign Managers' Election Briefing with Greg Clark MP, TW Council Leader David Jukes and Association Chairman William Rutherford.

The charming Matthew Plummer had come to take the photographs. As he was setting-up his studio alongside the buffet I noticed him unpack a strange piece of equipment. "What's that?" I enquired.  He told me it was a "beauty dish" (I kid you not). Apparently it absorbs excessive light from the flash thus "ironing-out" wrinkles and blemishes and making the subject look better. I did wonder if he should have brought a larger one.

Matthew Plummer Matthew Plummer shows off his large Beauty Dish
Tunbridge Wells is a great Association, still buoyed by last years excellent election results which uniquely in the South East showed UKIP in decline and the Conservatives increasing both vote share and making a net gain of council seats. It was a lively and positive meeting and we have a great team of candidates and organisers. 

Across West Kent we had campaign teams working in Tonbridge, Maidstone and Chatham & Aylesford- in total 30 activiists of the doorsteps on a cold but sunny January Saturday. Here is Tracey Crouch MP and our local candidates Benjamin Walker and Carol Gale working hard in Ditton.

Tracey Crouch MP and the team campaigning in Ditton

Friday, 16 January 2015

The journey of Tory leaflet - from concept to design and production.

Ask anyone who helps organise an election campaign what single issue causes them most stress, and I suspect they will all give the same answer - candidates who don't meet their deadlines!

Rather than just ranting and moaning (which I have done previously) I thought it was worth spending a few minutes explaining why deadlines are so important and the consequences when we fail to meet them. I hope by publishing this, the errant minority who are almost always late will understand not just what I get snippy and short-tempered, but the consequences for the printer, the wider campaign and their colleagues.

In most of West Kent we take a collegiate approach to campaigning. We don't just have local or parliamentary leaflets; almost everything is shared - with 50% MP/national copy and 50% local council copy. This approach is much more difficult to manage, but it shows us working as a team, it shares production costs between the local and parliamentary campaign budgets and makes literature more diverse and interesting to read. What's more, to make every leaflet relevant, we produce many ward-specific editions. Our latest newsletter which went to print today has 45,000 identical backs but the front page changes 22 times, so each ward had their own local news written by the ward councillor(s).

When we decide to publish a newsletter an awful lot of activity occurs behind the scenes to make it happen. The first stage is I speak to the printer and discuss timescales and capacity. Printing 45,000 leaflets with 22 changes to the front is a significant job, probably taking the best part of two days in production. The printer has to block two days of his factory time for the work (the leaflets have one side printed one day, the reverse the next day, then they are folded, packed and delivered on day 3). No printer with wages and establishment costs to pay can leave his presses idle, so he will have other jobs booked on the days either side of ours. We are fortunate in West Kent to  have a printer who is politically supportive, gives us a substantial discount and is more accommodating and flexible than he needs to be; but he still needs to pay his costs and make a living.

More often than not print buyers demand financial penalties for late delivery; so our printer may well lose significant sums of money if he is late delivering the job due to be printed the day after ours. If he is forced to delay due to us being late providing our artwork he will have two choices. Either (a) pass the late charges to us, as we were responsible for making him run behind schedule, or (b) put our print run back to his next available slot (which might be weeks away). Neither outcome is acceptable. 

There is another issue which many candidates often don't realise. It is standard practise to print leaflets "two-up" or "four-up" depending on size. For example, if four wards need the same number of leaflets (say 3,000) all four will be printed at the same time on the same printing plate, then guillotined and trimmed after production. This saves time and money for us and the printer. If just one of those four wards is late, the other three are also delayed as the print run cannot start until all four sets of artwork are ready to go. Late delivery of artwork not only causes delay and inconvenience to the office, potential delays and financial penalties for the printer but can also cause delays for your colleagues. 

As we approach an election I always publish (usually six months ahead) the literature plan. This informs everyone involved what will be produced, when we will need copy, in what format I would like the copy provided, the deadline for receipt of copy, the purpose of the leaflet, target audience and delivery completion deadline.  Here is an example:

This information is provided for each leaflet, mailshot and project up to polling day. Everyone involved knows what is happening and by when. The deadlines for this week's leaflet were known on 18 December. Plenty of time (even with Christmas) to write 5 short news stories. 

One of the things I hear often hear is "oh I know you always have a few spare days up your sleeve". And the answer to that is yes, we have - but every hour of those "spare" days is needed to turn your words and jpgs into professionally designed newsletters (Jon and I do all this in-house to save graphic design charges). 

Technically, if everyone followed the instructions we would receive 23 emails (one from each ward containing their words and jpgs and another from the MP). In reality, this never happens. Candidates send through their stories and photographs in dribs and drabs. Candidates fall out over each others words - often Jon and I are "piggies in the middle" as candidates send us "private and confidential" emails complaining bitterly about what their ward colleagues have said, done or written. Photographs are a particular bone of contention. Four years ago an incumbent councillor actually ended-up phoning the 10 Downing Street switchboard to complain that she didn't like her election photo and demanding the PM intervenes.  The photograph she wanted me to use showed her standing in front of a grandfather clock with the hands poking out the top of her head like the horns of the devil. I shall say no more.

What candidates often don't realise is just what happens from the moment their words and photographs arrive by email to when they receive their proof 48 hours later. Around 50%  of copy has to be converted into a print format which is compatible with Publisher. To protect our candidates from opposition attacks, all facts are checked and independently verified.  Photographs are scanned and studied, if there are group photos inadvertently showing children or car number plates we airbrush them out to ensure the photographs are legally compliant. "Exit" and "way out" signs are removed to save candidates being embarrassed or ridiculed.  We also remove trees and lampposts poking out of heads, surly youths making rude hand gestures and in one case we removed a large dog squatting "mid poo" just behind a candidate in a Tonbridge park  All this done without most candidates even noticing. 

Each version of the leaflet takes between one and two hours to produce. With 22 versions that is probably 30 hours work. Then we send them back for proofing. Many candidates think proofing is an opportunity to rewrite the whole thing, not just correct errors. For this leaflet Jon and I dealt with over 400 email exchanges (an average of twenty email exchanges per ward). If you think this is a lot, multiply it by three as this week we also produced similar newsletters for Chatham & Aylesford and Maidstone.

Finally, by 4pm today they had all gone to print. Across the three constituencies almost 50 different editions and 150,000 copies all designed, proofed and dispatched in five days.  The process is physically and emotionally exhausting.  Physically exhausting as Jon and I have done nothing else - 10 hours a day staring at our screens, airbrushing, rewriting, editing, adjusting and designing. Emotionally exhausting as every few hours we deal with an upset or angry candidate demanding something is changed. Sometimes we snap back. At the end of the day we are all human and tempers fray, especially when people are stressed or tired.  Tonight we went to the pub to celebrate a job well done, but we were so tired we sat in silence staring dead-eyed into our pints. 

Next week's job? 100,000 Sorry You Were Out cards !

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

In praise of Jon and Matt

By tomorrow West Kent Towers will have sent to print 150,000 leaflets. This represents three constituencies-worth; but it's not three different leaflets - nothing so simple!  Each constituency has between 12-20 ward specific editions. So across the three Associations we  have designed and proofed 44 different A3 newsletters. 

Whilst I have worked on budgets, basic design, co-ordinating activity with the printers and fulfilment house and liaising with our MPs and PPC on their national content, Jon has taken on the bulk of the "grunt work" with the ward variations - a tedious and mind numbing task. Every so often the mood lightens when another local authority committee is mentioned with pride. Thus far with have had the NAMAG, the PACTOR, OSGEP and the M-VoV. Jon has by now qualified for membership of a committee of his own - the DILLIGAF, but thankfully there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Meanwhile Matt Boughton is painstakingly collating over 100 individual councillors' canvassing plans and bringing this information together into a detailed three month plan. So far three constituencies have been signed-off with two more to go. 

The comment of the week was a call from a female councillor (as always - no names mentioned) who had received a pdf proof of her leaflet and phoned to ask us to use a different photograph,

"I admit it's a very good likeness, but it's ghastly."

Fortunately for all concerned Jon took the call as he is far more diplomatic than me!

I know I have said this before, but when something is true it's worth repeating. West Kent is lucky (and I am lucky) to work with two guys who always go above and beyond the call of duty for their colleagues and Party. They work late, start early, often go through the day without a break to ensure we meet deadlines and don't let our candidates down. But more importantly, they do so without me having to ask and always without complaint.  Some of our less gracious members are fond of reminding us "don't forget, we are volunteers - you are paid."  That may be true but it's worth remembering that our salaries are based on 35 hours per week but we seldom work fewer than 50 - so for 60 hours a month we are technically volunteers too!

As for this warhorse - finally this week he has smelled the gunpowder and is chomping at the bit. Let battle commence

It's all FREE

News has reached West Kent Towers that Kent Area Chairman Andrew Mackness and his long suffering wife, Nancy, are enjoying an "all inclusive" "Benidorm" style holiday in Spain. Good for them, I hear you say. And I agree.

What has amused us however is the story (no doubt true given the reliability of its source) that the image-conscious Mr Mackness was distraught at having to wear a bright green luminous "all inclusive" wristband in order to claim his complimentary Pina Colada. He therefore contrived to lose it, before insisting the replacement wristband was placed on his left wrist so it could be hidden underneath his Breitling watch.

Tonight there is bingo followed by a snake charmer. And it's all free!

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Disagreeable and neurotic - and they're my strong points!

I've just completed one of those lengthy Myers-Briggs type personality profiles and it transpires I am ISTJ (or Introverted Sensing Thinking Judging). Nothing in the description I would disagree with, though amused to see I am only 16% "agreeable" and 62% "neurotic".

16% agreeable? Plenty of time between now and 7 May to get that down into single figures!

Here's the link if you are interested:

Monday, 12 January 2015

The All Balls Award for Local Government Speak

Each year Jon and I delight in some of the 'Local Government / Third Sector Speak' which finds its way into ward newsletters (or doesn't find its way as Jon and I expunge it).  

I suspect incumbent councillors don't mean to do this, but they get so used to hearing plain English garbled through the mincing machine of bureaucratic blandness, that they accidentally fall into the same bad habits.

Last year's prize was won by an incumbent councillor who proudly informed her residents,

"I am pleased to report that I joined a group which formed a
committee with a view to taking action."

This year, even though it is only the second week in January, we have already identified a strong contender for the 2015 All Balls Award,

"Additionally, following concerns raised by residents, we advised and supported the successful securing and implementation of alternative strategies which might lead to containment." 

 I do wonder about table chat at their family Sunday lunch

"Excuse me, would you kindly enable the provision of sustenance by procuring the tureen of roasted potatoes and securing their conveyance to the top left hand corner of the table."