Thursday, 18 December 2014

A cast of thousands...

I am just back home having hosted the first of the series of Election Briefing Meetings I hold each year to bring all candidates and MPs up to speed with election plans and strategy.  Tonight's meeting was particularly large and lively as it was for candidates from Tonbridge & Malling and Chatham & Aylesford constituencies; and with "all out" elections in both areas we had a full room.

What always strikes me with this particular group is even after a prolonged period of electoral success, there is not an ounce of complacency. Despite being just a week before Christmas, every single candidate (apart from two who are out of the country and two who are unwell) attended as did Tracey Crouch MP and Tom Tugendhat.  

Tonight I once again saw a calm determination to put self interest aside and work as a team to win. Working alongside such selfless and dedicated people is one of the great privileges of being the West Kent Agent.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Scrooge comes to West Kent Towers

Group Treasurer Allan Sullivan brought the joy of Christmas to West Kent Towers today as he came in to start work on the annual accounts. Happy Christmas. 

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Setting out the facts on Local Government Selections

The West Kent Group covers (in whole or in part) six district councils and five "political" town councils. Of the six districts, two elect in thirds the other four are "all out". This has resulted in us having to identify, interview and select 124 district council candidates and a further 60 town council candidates. Simply managing 184 applications is a major undertaking, and we have followed due process to the letter in every case.  Apart from one or two exceptional circumstances (typically branch-run contested selections) we are now ahead of the game. Four Associations have completed the process and with the exception of one ward we will have a full slate in place by January.  My thanks go to the various Local Government Committees who have worked long hours to interview incumbent councillors and new applicants.

As with any selection process there were disappointed people. Some new applicants did not make it onto the Approved List for a whole variety of reasons, usually a lack of experience or complete misunderstanding about the role of a councillor. Almost without exception they were let down gently, encouraged to find out more and to re-apply next time. We have had a number of contested selections, which again resulted is disappointment for some. And yes, in two or three cases incumbent councillors were not re-approved. It is this last group who understandably are most vocal and angry.   

Now we are nearing the end of the process I thought it would be worth explaining in general terms how the system works and also slaying a few of the myths. 

Firstly the composition of the Local Government Committee. This is not some secret or self appointed clan. Its constitution and membership is laid down in the rules. Although there are small variations, Local Government Committees comprise the Officers of the Association (Chairman, two Deputy Chairmen and Treasurer - all of whom are elected by the membership). It also includes the Leader and other representatives of each local council in the Association area and additional lay members elected at the Association AGM. Election to the LGC is advertised openly within the AGM notice (sent to all members) and any member can seek nomination or nominate someone else to serve on it. It's an open and transparent process. 

But don't the people at the top of the Association decide who is elected?  Yes they can have influence, but in each Association the number of people nominated for the LGC was fewer than the number of spaces available. If any Officer (or indeed the Agent) wanted to stack the committee to promote a predetermined outcome, then leaving most of the positions unfilled is an odd way to achieve it. 

Who decides which councillors should be called in for interview? As part of the interview and assessment process a wide range of people are consulted by the Local Government Committee including the Council Group Leader (to comment on the contribution to the work of the Council), the Group Whip (who advises on attendance and discipline), the Association Chairman/Branch Chairman (regarding contribution to the life of the Association), the DC Political (who advises on campaigning) and the Agent (who confirms their Party membership and CCA subscriptions are up to date and have been paid throughout the term of office). For a councillor to be invited for interview at least three of the above people would have needed to raise a point of concern. No councillor would have been called-in for interview on the say-so of just one individual. 

The interview process was aggressive and like a "star chamber". Any interview where the perceived weaknesses of an applicant are being openly discussed is bound to be uncomfortable. For a candidate to be removed from the Approved List the decision of the LGC had to be unanimous. 

In conclusion: It must be incredibly distressing for any candidate to go through this process and the committee making these difficult decisions did not have a particularly nice time of it either. However, looking back, I have no doubt that the LGCs acted fairly in all their dealings and deliberations. 

One of the problems is too many councillors see themselves solely as elected representatives and forget their commitment and obligations to the Association and Party. In fairness, these obligations were set-out in the Candidates' Agreement which they all signed as part of their application and interview process in 2011.  A councillor is rightfully first and foremost a community champion, but they are also elected party politicians and members of a political movement which relies on the support of its members to retain its power and influence. Conservative councillors are elected using the Party's name, branding, organisation, expertise and resources. It is not unreasonable for the Party to expect something back in return. 

The Christmas Post

I run the risk of ruffling a few feathers, but I need to get this off my chest. 

The one thing during the Season of Goodwill which is guaranteed to raise my hackles is fending off "elected representatives" (at various levels) who expect their local Association to pay the postage for their Christmas cards. 

Each year I send over 1,000 Christmas cards, which I pay for personally. I wouldn't dream of asking my employers to foot the bill. The reason I pay is the same reason I always pay for tickets at branch and Association social events; the same reason I pay a subscription to each of my five local Associations (plus the one where I live), the same reason I always buy raffle tickets and never charge mileage when I attend functions.

Most of our most active, hard working and generous members are retired and on fixed incomes; I suspect many have less money than me. The thought of asking those people to work hard so the money they raise can be given to me to send them their own Christmas card is quite frankly a little bit absurd.

I appreciate it is a burden; hand writing and addressing 1,000 cards and buying 1,000 stamps is a burden for me, too. But it's the right and decent thing to do. 

How to lose friends and alienate people!

I have just been chatting on Facebook to a certain parliamentary candidate who shall remain nameless. I asked her about her new house; she has just picked up the keys and is starting to decorate tonight. . 

"Is it old or modern?" I enquired. By that I meant was it Victorian era or post war.

"Oh it's old" she said. "It was built in the 1960s". 

I quickly pointed out that I was born in the 1960s and do not consider myself old!

I hope she is very happy in her "old" house and this "old" agent looks forward to an invitation to the house warming party!

Bloody cheek.

Monday, 8 December 2014

18 months later..... the ripples are still lapping the banks

In the middle of last year I published a post about a few struggles I had been through 6 years earlier with anxiety. I won't rewrite the article again, but for those who might wish to read it, please see HERE. 

The feedback was truly amazing; literally hundreds of emails, letters and calls thanking me for telling my story., and in doing so making it easier for others. A small number of people kept in touch, and even now (16 months later) I still receive the odd email from those who were helped in some small way. 

Over the weekend I received the following email. Publishing my story was like throwing a pebble in a pool, but I never anticipated the ripples would be lapping the shoreline over a year later. It demonstrates how important it is for people who feel able to do so to tell their own story in their own way, as each human story breaks down the barriers and gives hope to others. 

The following email (with certain omissions) is reproduced with the permission of its author. 

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Xxxxxxxx Xxxxxxxxxxx
Date: Sat, Dec 6, 2014 at 8.22 AM
Subject: Thank you
To: "" <>

Dear Andrew

                I am writing to thank you for the role you played in helping me get over my depression. I was one of the many people given hope by your compassionate article on the blog last year about your own issues and how you dealt with them. I email-ed you at the time to thank you using a false name as I was too ashamed to confirm who I was. At that time I had not told my girlfriend, parents or my friends I had depression. I am sure you receive many emails about many matters so I felt and still feel guilty that in the two or three months following our initial contact I must have contacted you 10 times. If I irritated you then to your great credit you never allowed it to show, even when you replied in the early hour of the morning when I am sure you had more important matters on your mind such as sleeping. You were never judgemental and apart from one time when you said you me “change doesn’t happen by accident, if you want to make something change you have to initiate it yourself or else you will always be a passenger.” I thought at the time that was harsh but it was also true, and maybe more than anything else the realisation that I was allowing myself to be a passenger through my own life journey was the hard truth I needed to hear.
                To cut a long story short I found the courage to go and see my doctor. Unlike you I did not feel I then had the strength to face my illness alone so I accepted her offer of anti-depressant medication and also began attending a support group. Six months later I went through a phased withdrawal of my medication and I am now back in control, though I still attend counselling as and when I need it. Finally, a few weeks ago I had the confidence and courage to put my name forward for selection in Xxxxxxxxxxx Xxxxxxxxxx for a marginal council seat, unthinkable for me this time a year back.
                I hope I would have perhaps found the courage to face this without reading your own story, but who can be sure? I do know that your honesty and the very fact you remained in your job and retained the loyalty of your colleagues gave me hope and courage. The fact that in that dark place late at night without the distractions of the day I was able to email someone who was real yet anonymous was huge comfort. Thank you.
                I am afraid I have misled you. Above I referred to the fact that we have never met, but we have met without you knowing. In Birmingham early on day one, the Sunday, you and three colleagues were drinking coffee in Starbucks in the ICC at about 9.30 in the morning. I approached the table and asked if you were Andrew Kennedy and told you how much I enjoyed your blog. You thanked me and we shook hands. I thought briefly that perhaps I should tell you but you were busy and distracted and I did not want to intrude. You probably will not remember, but I said “your writing makes a big difference to a lot of people”. You looked a bit taken aback, now I hope you know why I said it.

Thank you again.
Xxxxxxxxxxxxx Xxxxxxxxxxxxx
(my real name this time)

Friday, 5 December 2014

The ultimate example of "Dad Dancing"

Working with large teams of fabulous volunteers is a privilege and often great fun. It can also provide regular "butt clenching" moments when words literally fail. Such as the time a delightful lady in her 70's innocently announced to a room full of envelope packers, "Does anyone else have dry flaps?" She was, of course, referring to her self-seal envelopes. 

Today's email brought a similar butt-clenching moment. An invitation from the Chairman of Canterbury Conservatives (the hard working and all-round good guy, Cllr Neil Baker,) to attend their Association Christmas Party on Thursday 18 December. Not much wrong with that, I hear you say. And I agree. But, the Party is being hosted at Canterbury's "Club Chemistry" sandwiched between their regular CandyShop night and the hard edged "Chemistry Experiment".  

And it gets better - Julian Brazier MP will be there - and we are informed that might even dance (but hopefully not on a podium). 

What more could you want to kick-off the festive season. The lovely city of Canterbury, a student / rave night club, Julian Brazier MP dancing - and there will even be "festive nibbles". And it's free!!! 

I wouldn't miss it for the world! Contact Neil to have your name added to the guest list. 

Seriously, Canterbury Conservatives under Neil's leadership are doing great things, attracting a new generation of candidates and reaching out to new members and voters better than most. These guys deserve success. 

Monday, 1 December 2014

Ho! Ho! Ho! Design A Christmas Card Competition winners

I am delighted that three of the five MPs/PPCs I work with have organised "Design My Christmas Card" competitions among local children - some via primary schools, others using youth clubs and / or children and grandchildren of residents or members. 

Tom Tugendhat's competition had three categories:

(a) 4 and below
(b) 5-7
(c) 8+

As well as seeing their drawing printed on a Christmas card, Tom is presenting each winner with a certificate and a gift voucher and the parents/guardians of each winner will receive 100 complimentary Christmas cards to send to family and friends. 

Thanks also to our excellent local printer, Jason Allen and his team at DA Printers Ltd in Rochester, who are producing the cards free of charge in exchange for a small promotional advertisement on the back page. 

Everyone's a winner! 

Here are the winning entries in each age group:

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Tom Tugendhat's audition for Strictly Come Dancing

By popular demand, and with his couragous consent, here is Tom Tugendhat dancing on stage with Tonbridge & Malling Mayor Sasha Luck, at the annual switch-on of West Malling's Christmas Lights.

Well done Tom - just don't wait for the call from Strictly Come Dancing!

Brief Encounter (on the 1201 from Paddock Wood)

Every few months I meet with Tom Tugendhat in London for lunch. I would like to say it's to discuss strategy. In fairness we do talk strategy, though I certainly don't always remember the finer strategic details at the end of the meal. Our lunches are a good opportunity for the two of us to get to know each other. We cover the broad direction of his campaign, he then trusts me to implement the details whilst I trust him with being the Parliamentary candidate; it's a good relationship, each recognising and respecting the other's strengths and abilities.

Our Christmas lunch, held on Friday last week, was memorable for another reason. In the train from Paddock Wood to Charing Cross we chanced to sit opposite three ladies (mother and two daughters-in-law) en route to London for a "girlie weekend". There they were meeting three other members of the family for a pre-Christmas break.

By Tonbridge they had retrieved a bottle of Prosecco, plastic glasses and a tube of Pringles from their bag and generously offered us some. We politely declined, though I did hesitate and hoped they would ask again. By Sevenoaks they did and I didn't need to be asked a third time! By Orpington they had opened another bottle and all reticence has gone out of the window! 
We got chatting over the aisle and it soon came out that Tom was a budding politician and I was his "spin doctor" (their words, not mine). "What Party are you?" asked the older of the ladies (who'd already told me she was a widow, 74 and lived in Ashford). "Conservative", said Tom. I waited for the reaction. "Thank goodness you're not UKIP" she said. "Dreadful man, that Nigel Farage. Dreadful - he's a disgrace"

She spat out the words with venom I didn't expect.

"Why don''t you like him?" I asked, genuinely interested not only in her response but also what lay behind her ferocity.

"I grew up during the war in Whitechapel, all our neighbours were immigrants, mainly Jews who had escaped Hitler.  When I married and settled down my husband's job was a mechanic with London buses, all his mates were the black men who had come here to drive and fix buses, they came because we invited them. One of my oldest friends is the widow of a chap who came from Jamaica in the 1950s - she's lived in this country longer than any of my children. I might be in my 70s and live in a nice flat in a nice part of Kent, but I don't have any time for racism."

By now she was a on a roll

"In the 1970s we had saved a bit of money and had moved to a little house in Bromley. I had a job in Littlewoods, in the restaurant. When Maggie got in, the other staff would ask each other who we had voted for, and when I said I was with Maggie all the way they would ask "what have you got to conserve? - you're one of the workers, you should vote Labour."  I told them that my husband and I had worked hard all our lives, I had two jobs to make ends meet, to ensure our children had a nice home and food on the table. Until drawing our state pension we had not claimed a penny of state benefits in our lives. We made our kids work hard so they could all pass the 11+ and go to Grammar Schools, which they did, so they could have better lives than we did. All through my life Labour have run the country down and Conservatives have cleared-up their mess. And as for that Ed Miliband - God help us if he gets in."

When our train arrived at Charing Cross I said to Tom, "keep them talking whilst I run to the shop". I bought them a bottle of wine to replace one of those we helped drink and also a box of chocolates for them to enjoy in the taxi on the way to their hotel. 

The whole episode was a lovely, chance encounter. I don't even know this lady's name - and unless she has the memory of an elephant she won't remember mine or Tom's either. But for that hour between Paddock Wood and Charing Cross she made me proud to be a Conservative, and she reminded me just who, and what, we are fighting for.