Tuesday, 23 August 2016

The planning behind "An Audience with..."

One of the reasons I write and maintain this blog is I know how useful it is to many activists and organisers working in constituencies without an agent or regular access to professional support.  I probably receive 10-20 emails a week asking if a local Association can copy our ideas or thanking me for an idea which has been adapted for local use. I am always delighted to help and such positive feedback makes it worthwhile. 

One of the things I am asked most often is how we run our "An Audience with..." series of events, most recently this afternoon. I always reply fully - which can take some time. So to help others (and to help me in the future as rather than type out a reply each time someone emails I can simply direct them to this blog) here is my reply.  Click HERE to read previous blog posts about our "An Audience With" events.

"Thanks for your email and kind words about my blog. One of the reasons for keeping it going is I know many areas, particularly those without an agent, find it difficult to hear about new ideas and best practice. 
Our "Audience with..." events are super. They are simple to organise (no catering) cheap to sell (as apart from hall hire there is no cost) and the guests really like them as they don;'t have to sit through a two hour rubber chicken dinner then make a speech! 
Attendance varies depending on the guest, the venue and the time of year. So for Lord Trimble we had 130, Jacob Rees Mogg 180, Charles Moore 200, Sir Nicholas Soames 300, Baroness Trumpington 300 and for Boris Johnson almost 500.  
We aim to make £10 pp clear profit, so we charge usually charge £12 (£2 pp being the cost to hire the venue). We now advertise exclusively online and take electronic payments via PayPal, so there are no printing or postage costs. One of the guest coming next year is not a party member and has asked for a £500 contribution to his favourite charity. In this case I will add an additional £2 to the ticket price and inform members why. It is a very worthwhile charity and none will object. We also have a raffle (of course) which on average raises £3.80 pp.  
As well as inviting members, we also include registered supporters, donors and and any pledges we have an email address for within a 10 mile radius. If any of our local branches are delivering a newsletter, I try to include an advert and this can produce surprising results. About 20 tickets were sold for the Sir Nicholas Soames event to local residents via an ad in the branch In Touch!  Normally around 25% of sales are to non members.  I think these events are a great "entry point" for non members. Most are more than happy to pay £12 for an evening out but they wouldn't consider paying £40 for a dinner. Once they come and find out we are normal, pleasant and welcoming people, most come again. 
About 25% of attendees pay the additional £20 to attend the Champagne and Canape Reception. Some of our local members are uncomfortable with this as it can feel a bit exclusive, and I do appreciate their concerns. However, I would rather keep the basic ticket price low and allow people to "trade up" than have a higher entry price which would discourage attendance across the board. The reception is £20 extra for which guests receive two glasses of Champagne and canapes. I usually "sub contract" the reception to a local branch - the branch receives the full £20 pp and they buy the Champagne, make the canapes and serve / clear away. The branch also keeps the profit. If 50 attend the reception, this usually results in £500 profit for the branch, which is not a bad return given they are "piggy backing" on another event. 
I hope this is helpful and answers your questions. 
best wishes

Friday, 19 August 2016

Victory in Gravesham East

Victory for Diane Marsh in yesterday's Gravesham East By Election

Earlier today I was delighted to be at Gravesham Borough Council to cheer the election of Diane Marsh as the new Conservative County Councillor for Gravesham East Division. 

Diane's victory was very significant indeed. Gravesham East is a bellwether seat - won by the Conservatives in 2009, gained by Labour in 2013 and now regained in 2016. The Division is large (25,000 voters) and contains a real cross-section of Gravesend's town centre community, including neighbourhoods with majority BME population, prosperous residential suburbs and several peripheral estates which have not elected a Conservative district councillor for many decades. 

Gravesham is not part of the West Kent Group and we only got involved at the invitation of the Gravesham Chairman. I advised on strategy in a low poll and assisted with targeted mail and GOTPV/GOTV messaging. Nothing new or groundbreaking - just the same stuff I have been talking about for decades.  

1. Find your pledges
2. Define your message
3. Drive differential turnout 

In the words of my good friend and fellow agent Louise Parry, "winning elections isn't difficult, it's just hard work."

Yesterday (polling day) the West Kent Group provided over 20 volunteers and we ran GOTV in two of the seven wards which make-up the county seat. I was told by the Association President that we provided more Campaign Support than the rest of Kent combined. If so, the other areas of Kent (especially those with their own by-elections pending) should examine their consciences! I was also told that 7 of our 45 Conservative County Councillors turned out to assist, though I understand many traditionally take August off. 

Overall, the swing from Labour to Conservative in Gravesham East was 6.7%. Diane Marsh and her small team worked their socks off and deserved their win. I am pleased the West Kent team were able to help.  

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Let the members decide!

Very recently an aggrieved candidate for Local Government Selection said to me “the trouble with you Andrew is that you always use the rules to achieve what you want.” To which I replied, “what you’re actually saying is that I won’t bend the rules so that you can achieve what you want”. He, at least, had the good grace to laugh. And I will give two examples.

Four years ago an incumbent County Councillor was challenged by a District Councillor. As always in such circumstances the Selection Meeting is held on neutral territory to avoid showing favouritism to either candidate. At the time the challenger emailed to thank me for my impartiality. This year the challenger (who is now the incumbent) is himself being challenged, and again the contest is on neutral ground. This time, however, the incumbent has complained that the contest isn’t in his home village as “this is where most of the members live”.

And elsewhere ... four years ago a potential challenger was excluded as he forgot to submit his application by the deadline. At the time the incumbent thanked me for “vigourously upholding the rules.” This time the incumbent is not so lucky, and the contest is going ahead. Respect for the rules however, didn’t stop the incumbent phoning to ask if there was any “procedural mechanism” I could use to stop the challenge taking place! He laughed, and pretended it was a joke. I laughed too.

Last week I received a call from the Deputy Chairman of a strong and successful Association. He told me that he had been asked to design an application form for their next round of Local Government interviews. “Do you have something in West Kent we could adapt to use locally?” I enquired why they simply didn’t use the CCHQ application forms which are part of the National Mandatory Selection Rules? The long pause was followed by the inevitable, “Oh, What rules are they?”

I was, of course, referring to the rules that were introduced over 6 years ago.

I suspect many Associations will see the National Rules as “another bloody attempt by CCHQ to take over our independence”, but personally I see little wrong with a national organisation trying to ensure a similar standard and process is followed throughout the country. The Mandatory Selection Rules do not instruct Associations as to who they should select, and they even allow local autonomy as to the composition of the Selection Committees and the process used. They simply try to ensure that a similar standard is set nationwide, that incumbent and new applicants are treated fairly, and that there is a clear appeal process when needed.

The process we use in West Kent has not only been recognised as “Good Practice” by the Conservative Councillors Association (CCA) but has also been adopted by many of our neighbouring Associations for its fairness and simplicity. I will describe the process below.

  • Each Association Executive elects a Local Government Committee at the first meeting following the Association AGM. In addition to those who serve on the LGC by right (Chairman, DC Political, and the Leaders of the Local Council Conservative Groups) we also utilise the “additional members which the Executive Council deem suitable” clause to ensure the LGC is representative and not simply a committee of the “great and good” seeking to maintain the status quo.
  • The LGC meets expediently to set out the selection timetable which is circulated widely to all interested parties.
  • Before the process of selection commences we use every legitimate means to attract new applicants. These include

a.     Emails to members, registered supporters and pledges
b.    Direct mail to sympathetic charities and community groups
c.    A full-page advert in the local newspaper (tried once, but not repeated)
d.    Posters in shops and on community noticeboards

This will normally produce a flurry of interested people, some of whom are members, many more who are not. These are then invited to an information evening where they hear from a sitting councillor about the work they do on behalf of the community. I also speak, as Agent, about the campaigning obligations they will expected to undertake during an election. This ensures that all applicants have a clear understanding of what will be expected of them if they pursue their application and are ultimately selected.

Following the information session, applicants complete an application form (there are two standard versions, one for incumbent councillors seeking re-election, and another for new applicants). At this stage around 50% drop out, having realised the time commitment, or the work of a local councillor is not something they wish to commit to.

  • The LGC then arranges a number of evenings to interview applicants (incumbents and new). These interviews are thorough, and can at times be bruising. References provided on application forms are always followed up, applicants are examined for evidence of community commitment and incumbent councillors are questioned about their performance within their community, the Council Group and their efforts towards the Association’s wider campaigning goals. We also undertake a review of the applicant’s social media “footprint” to ensure there are no nasty surprises lurking on the internet! It is far from unusual for our LGCs to decline an application, nor are they afraid to refuse to put an incumbent back on the “Approved List” if there is strong evidence of poor performance.
  • Once the interviews have been completed, the Association will have created an “Approved List”, members of which are invited to put their names forward for individual seat selection. Every seat is considered “equal”, and approved candidates may apply for as few or as many as they wish.
  • The Rules now get complicated! If there are more applicants than vacancies, the Branch (or joint branches if there are more than one) decide who goes forward to the final contest. The incumbent always has a right to be in the final. Unfortunately, even in West Kent, where our organisation is strong, there are very few County Council Divisions which have active branches covering every area of the Division. This could lead to only four or five members of one Branch Committee imposing a candidate on the whole Division and disenfranchising the members living elsewhere. Locally our Executive Councils have taken the decision that unless there are active Branches covering the entire County Division then all applicants will go forward to a Special General Meeting of the all the members living in that Division. The view we take in West Kent is that allowing our members the right to choose their candidate is not only the right thing to do, but also a valuable and rewarding aspect of membership.
  • The above rule however, does not apply if membership of the Division (or ward) is below 2% of the previous Conservative vote at the last election. For example, if we are selecting a candidate for Barchester and the previous Conservative vote for Barchester was 2000, there would need to be a minimum of 40 members to qualify for self-selection. This requirement is set by CCHQ to ensure that there is not a branch of 5 members selecting their best friends. If the membership is below this threshold then the LGC selects the candidate instead. In making this decision the LGC can use various legitimate means to inform its decision-making. Members may be invited to attend the LGC meeting, and participate in the questioning of the candidates. And (a recent change introduced to the rules by Rob Semple, following testing in West Kent) is the right of Associations to hold a “Local Primary”.
  • Ultimately all decisions must be ratified by the Executive Council of the Association.

This process is open, transparent and fair. It balances the rights of incumbent councillors with the aspirations of new applicants and it ultimately allows the members to choose who represents them at election time. And, just as Association and Branch Officers must account for their performance before they are re-elected at the AGM, as indeed the Association staff have to account for our performance at our Annual Appraisals, so incumbent councillors must account for their own records.

This whole process can, at various moments, cause ill-feeling – particularly from sitting councillors who are often genuinely shocked at being challenged for “their” seat, and who can even question the right of members to do so. There is also a temptation to “shoot the messenger” which is understandable, but not fair.

As Agent, my job is to facilitate an open and fair contest. It matters little to me who, from the Approved List, is selected for each seat, as my duty is to get them elected regardless. I take a degree of satisfaction that in helping to manage over 500 local government selections in my patch (over 7 years) , there has only been one successful appeal, and that was when an out-going Chairman thought the rules were “tedious” and refused to follow them!

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Hoist by her own petard

News has reached me from north of Oxford (and that's all I will say) that a member responded to an urgent appeal for assistance from a neighbouring Association. Apparently there was a "tedious clerical job" which needed doing, which would save the Association funds. 

It transpires that "tedious clerical job" was opening thousands of undelivered Voter ID surveys left over from last May's elections: surveys which the candidates had not bothered to collect from the Association office. They were removing the Business Reply Envelope for future use.

Happily our volunteer got to work, joining in the general anger about "lazy candidates who don't pull their weight" only to find when she opened her first envelope it was a Voter ID Survey with her name and face on it.

An awkward silence filled the room as people pretended not to notice, until an angry councillor who had worked himself to a point of exhaustion trying to retain his ward and supporting vulnerable colleagues, piped-up "what a shame that you didn't spend three hours delivering these instead of three hours unpacking them, as if you had you may have won your seat."

The team are wondering if she will show up next week!

Monday, 8 August 2016

West Kent's LG Selection Process

In September the five West Kent Associations will be moving to the third and final stage of our selection process for next year's County Council elections. West Kent elects a third of Kent's County Members and almost 50% of the Conservative Group; so we have a massive responsibility to ensure the best people are selected and elected. 

I have today circulated the booklet (below) to all incumbent County Members, new applicants, Association Officers, Branch Chairmen and members of the various Executive Councils. The booklet sets-out the process, how we have reached this point, the work done by our five Local Government Committee's, the selection grid and timetable (including applicants, venues, dates and times of selection meetings), how each meeting will be organised and conducted and FAQs.

NB I have redacted the selection grid and timetable from this version as I don't think the names of applicants and which Divisions are being contested is a matter for publication.

I hope others may find this document of interest. 

The CCHQ Mandatory Selection Rules are cumbersome and could no doubt be improved, but generally speaking they ensure that a committee appointed by the Executive Council maintains a list of suitable candidates and ultimately allows our members the final decision on who represents the Party at election time. I hope the demands for reform by those with a vested interest does not result in the baby being thrown out with the bathwater. 

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Welcoming New Members

I am pleased that our local West Kent Associations, with full support and encouragement from our Members of Parliament, have now finalised plans to formally welcome and meet our 500+ new members. 

Each Association will be hosting a reception with the local Member of Parliament present and speaking. The receptions vary from Pimms in the gardens of the local Conservative Club, to a glass of local Chapel Down wine in a trendy "pop-up" restaurant venue, to a complimentary ticket to the Association's Annual Barbecue. It's fantastic that our local Associations have put so much thought into such a variety of events, but the main thing is they are all making the effort. 

So far our new members have received a welcome letter, an invitation to participate in a survey to ascertain how they would like to engage and what they hope to achieve, and now an invitation to meet the local Officers and MP over an informal drink. It's certainly a lot more than I got when I joined (from memory I got a begrudging thank you from a crusty Branch Chairman and a pile of leaflets to deliver). 

Here are samples of the Chatham & Aylesford and Tonbridge & Malling invitations. 

Sunday, 31 July 2016

The Party should fix it's own roof whilst the sun is shining on Theresa May

If we agree that the primary, if not the sole, objective of the Conservative Party is to win elections then we can have no complaints about the Party’s relentless focus on those very seats which deliver victory. 

Our 40:40 strategy played a major role in achieving that in 2015, and should be celebrated.

But, we must also accept that there are unhelpful consequences of allowing the Party’s organisation to decline in those constituencies the wrong side of 40:40 and also in allowing our traditional “majority” seats to stumble on without a serious strategy to grow and develop.

I entered politics in Merseyside in the late 1970s. The climate then was very different to what we have now. The Conservative Party held two seats in the city of Liverpool (Wavertree and Garston) and was competitive in two others. We also held Crosby and Wirral West with majorities of 20,000. We held Southport and Wirral South by almost 10,000 and in Wallasey Lynda Chalker had a majority of 2,000 in a seat which had been Conservative since its creation. In Local Government the Conservative Party controlled Merseyside County Council, held a third of the seats on Liverpool City Council, comfortably controlled Wirral and Sefton Councils and had representation throughout the County.

All that has now gone.

There are now no Conservative MPs in Merseyside, no Conservative councillors in Liverpool or Knowsley, three in St Helens, and in Sefton (which is home to some of the county’s wealthiest and most exclusive neighbourhoods) we are down to just six out of 66. Only in Wirral do we remain competitive, even though we have not had a majority on the Borough Council for 30 years.

This story isn’t unique to Merseyside. A similar tale of decline could be told of Manchester (with the honourable exception of Trafford), Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle ... in fact, any major industrial city or region. 

Does this matter? After all, we can win a Parliamentary majority without them. In my view, yes it does, for two, very important, reasons.

Firstly, if we are to be a truly national Party we must have in place a structure which enables us to hear, absorb and reflect the views of the entire United Kingdom (and that includes Northern Ireland). This cannot be achieved if the Conservative Party does not meaningfully exist in a third of the country.

Secondly we have a duty to give Conservative supporters both candidates to vote for, and an organisation to be a part of, in every constituency. And this can only be achieved by having no no-go areas for the blue rosette.

I am not so starry-eyed as to believe that “one big push” will deliver new Conservative MPs in areas that haven’t had them for a generation. However, in every town, city and borough there are sufficient Conservative voters who, if properly motivated and organised, could gain council seats and start a nascent organisation where none has existed for decades.

None of this will happen by chance. It will require dedicated effort from CCHQ, investment (in terms of infrastructure and staffing) and, just as importantly, the goodwill and co-operation of what few activists we still have in these areas, many of whom feel so abandoned that they may be understandably suspicious of “outside” interference. The prize, however, is one worth striving for.

One or two Conservative council victories in Liverpool, Manchester or Newcastle would do more for morale than gaining another 20 council seats in Kent, and the very fact that the Conservative Party can “come back” in areas where we have been written-off would, in itself, breed further success as thousands of Conservative voters “cam home”, realising that we were no longer a lost cause. With those returning voters would come returning members, donors and activists – and so we would slowly begin the process of renewal.

In 1987 Lynda Chalker faced the battle of her political life. “Militant Tendency” were in the ascendant in Merseyside. In Wallasey demographic changes made her seat vulnerable and a Militant-backed Labour candidate was well-financed and attracted committed activists from across the region. Had Wallasey Conservatives had to face this battle alone, they would have lost. I know, I was there and was part of the team running Lynda’s campaign. But we were bolstered by 100 activists “on loan” from Wirral West (the Conservative MP accepting he wasn’t going to lose), and 100 further activists from the City of Liverpool (our candidates there accepting that they probably weren’t going to win, but wanting to ensure that Lynda did). This flood of local support from people who knew the area, understood the issues and implications, and cared about the outcome, enabled the Conservative Party to hold Wallasey by just 279 votes.

Last year the situation had reversed. The atrophy of our organisation in Merseyside took its toll in the harshest way. In a city which in the early 1980s boasted over 3,000 Conservative members there are now just 80, and of these (according to my friend Tony Caldeira, our Liverpool Mayoral candidate) there are probably no more than 10 activists. As the Conservative Party has died in Liverpool, so Labour has felt sufficiently confident to release en masse their activists to fight elsewhere.  It was the flood of Labour activists which enabled Labour to win Wirral West and Chester, a complete reversal of a generation ago.

And this is why we must rebuild and renew.

Small victories at council level will rebuild morale and knock the confidence of the opposition. Councillors and activists in all our major towns and cities will improve the narrative we have with the whole country – but, equally important is having a local resource to draw on to help defend or gain our nearby target seats. This is infinitely preferable to the cost and effort of bussing activists around the country into areas they do not know, and with which they have no emotional connection.

There are some simple procedures that the Party can put in place to help this happen.
  • The early selection of Parliamentary candidates (either through individual constituency selections or the City Seats Initiative) would be a catalyst for activity and campaigning.
  • The appointment of a series of high profile Ministers with specific city/region responsibilities and overseeing our revival, would ensure our local people had access to media coverage and that our arguments were at least heard.
  • But the above, whilst being helpful, would probably only provide a short-term focus on the next Parliamentary campaign. What we really need are a dedicated team of paid organisers in each area, whose sole focus is the long-term and painstaking task of rebuilding our organisation from the grass-roots up. And given the lack of members and money in so many of these areas, this can probably only be achieved if the Party pursues Lord Feldman’s goals of ‘grouping’ to ensure the project doesn’t fail.

I wish our new Party Chairman, Patrick McLoughlin, every success. He takes the reins at an exciting time for our Party. New members, a new Prime Minister, an Opposition in disarray, and a 16% lead in the polls musty not lead to complacency.  These factors provide an opportunity to do something truly radical which will benefit us for generations to come.

We rightfully criticised Gordon Brown for “failing to fix the roof while the sun was shining” on the economy, let’s hope future generations of activists don’t make similar criticisms for failing to fix the problems of the Voluntary Party while the sun is shining on Theresa May. 

Saturday, 30 July 2016

The Things You Hear at a Local Government Selection Meeting...

I have just returned from the Chatham & Aylesford Local Government Committee where Members were interviewing three new applicants and one incumbent councillor for the Approved List. 

Interview Number Two:
LGC Member: "Have we met before...?"
Applicant: "Yes, last year you apologised when you overcooked my sausage."

Interview Number Four:
LGC Member: "It must be quite a struggle being so vast...?"
Applicant: "Yes, as you might know I have the largest one this end of Kent."

I am pleased to set the record straight. Applicant Two was talking about last year's Association Barbecue and Applicant Four was referring the the size of his Division. 

Thursday, 28 July 2016

West Kent's New Members examined in yesterday's Times

A very good article in yesterday's Times by their Political Editor Francis Elliott on the Conservative Party's surge in membership in which he quotes our West Kent New Members' Survey, and compares our new members with Labour's £3 'entryists' who brought Jeremy Corbyn to power. It's a good read. 


Thursday, 21 July 2016

Membership Recruitment Campaign

With the Labour Party in disarray, Theresa May riding a crest of popular support and with nationwide interest in political engagement at an all time high, Conservatives should be pushing home our advantage by embarking on an ambitious recruitment campaign. 

In West Kent we have just dispatched 2,000 recruitment letters to "test the market".  We have carefully selected:
  • 500 pledges in socio-economic groups heavily inclined to Leave
  • 500 pledges in socio-economic groups heavily inclined to Remain
  • 500 brand new pledges identified as Conservative during this year's local elections
  • 500 former members whose membership lapsed between 2005 - 2015
The letter basically carried the same core messages:
  • There has never been a more exciting time to be involved in politics
  • Theresa May has hit the ground running / strong support for new cabinet and government
  • Need for experience in challenging times ahead
  • Time for people who share our views to help shape the future of the Conservative Party
Here is a sample of our of the letters sent:

And here is our revamped recruitment leaflet

Above - front of leaflet (folded to DL)

Above - reverse of leaflet (folded to DL)

And, of course, here is today's great team of volunteers who braved the heat and humidity at West Kent Towers to pack 2,000 envelopes:

Today's star packers (from bottom left): Chris Baldock, David Adams, Joan Tree, David Elliott, Catherine Adams, Sue Nuttall, Joe Mamo, Jeff Tree - with Owen Baldock out of range on the franking machine.