Tuesday, 31 July 2012

The Trolley Dolly Saves the Day!

Well, here they are - or 600,000 of them! The rest are out of camera shot. 

The 'ethereal' figure lurking behind is my long suffering assistant, Jon Botten.

Spirits were high at 9.30am when a transit van arrived. 

"They're here", I shouted.  

As the van driver opened the door, I saw two highly stacked pallets. "Oh, it's not that bad, it will only take 30 minutes to unload them."  

Then the bad news....

"There are two more van loads to come", said the driver.  

"Oh, are they following behind...?"  I said, trying to hide my dismay.  

"Nah, mate. We've only got one van. I have to go back and forward to (insert name of some industrial town in the Thames Gateway I had heard of but never had the joy of visiting).  "I will be back in two hours with the next load." Then I will have to do the same journey a third time."

So we waited. And back he came. And we unloaded. And off he went. And we waited. And back he came. And we unloaded.  Finally, he had finished.

"Where are the 360,000 envelopes?" I asked, (by this time on my knees and gasping for air).

"Dunno mate, they're not coming from us."

After a few hurried calls to the printer it transpired the envelopes had been erroneously sent to Leeds on the back of a waggon. I hoped they hadn't fallen off the back of it. Fortunately, the driver had spotted the error and was heading back "as we speak".

So we waited.

And we waited.

And we waited.

More calls to the printer.  Apparently he was 10 minutes away.

40 minutes later, we were still waiting. 

More calls, more apologies...  Apparently he was just coming through the Medway Tunnel.  I smelled a rat.  "If he's coming from Leeds down the M1 and via the M25/M2 - why is he coming from the east of Kent through the Medway Tunnel...?"  


Then he arrived. This time, it wasn't a transit van, it was one of those giant HGV things you see on motorways with Eddie Stobbart on the side (for the record, it wasn't an Eddie Stobbart lorry - I understand they are a market leader in logistics).   

"How was Leeds?" I asked, trying to hide my anger and sarcasm.  "What are you talking about?" said burly driver with clipboard.  "Haven't you been half way to Leeds today."  "Nah mate, I've just come from Sittingbourne." (This, at least, explained the mystery of his west bound journey through the Medway tunnel.)  So when did you actually load up and leave...?  "About 45 minutes ago."  So when I was told these leaflets were half way to Leeds, where exactly were they?  "Sittingbourne".  Then he realised he didn't know what excuses (or lies) he was exposing, and he clammed-up.

Now I am not an unreasonable person. I accept mistakes happen, and had the leaflets been sent to Leeds, or had the driver been stuck in Olympic traffic, or had a genuine error been made, I would have been aggrieved, but understanding.  But when I am lied to as an excuse to cover poor service, then lied to again and again, I don't like it. Especially as I am spending many thousands of pounds of money donated by volunteers.   Had the courier (and I stress this is the error of the courier, not the printing company) actually phoned me at the agreed delivery time of 10am and said there was a delay, I would have accepted the situation. The whole team (we had seven people on standby to help unload) could have gone back to work and returned five hours later. But to hang around a disused cement works at the back end of Snodland for five hours, and be misled, is not an acceptable way for any company to treat its clients.

But that's a fight for another day. I suspect I shall be requesting some form of compensation or discount for the wasted time. 

Anyway - we are now in procession of a million leaflets. My thanks to all who came to help unload and stack, especially Cllr John Balcombe from Aylesford. And the passing security guard who patrols the nearby lake to stop errant children drowning, who was also roped-in to help.  And John Botten (who, like me, is paid - but still remained cheerful and upbeat regardless). And Mr King from St Mary's Island.  And Andrew Mackness and Chris Buckwell. And, of course, our candidate - who (almost) broke into a sweat and who turned up just in time with a pretty blue Ikea trolley - which was as useful as a chocolate teapot as we had to handle each box up a flight of steps. But, Craig, everyone loves a trolley dolly!

Trolley Dolly to the Rescue

Monday, 30 July 2012

Back in the Land of Normality (wherever that might be)

Sorry for the radio silence - as regular readers will know, we moved house over the weekend and things have been somewhat hectic.

I am busy catching up with fours days worth of email and post awaiting me at the office. Last week I posted about a delightful chap who was offering to analyse handwriting to help raise money for the Party. Waiting for me today was a far less pleasant letter,

"I am not voting Conservative ever again following the decision to allow queers to marry. I never voted for a buggers and sodomites charter. I shall henceforth vote for UKIP."

All I can say to that is good riddance. I suspect you will feel far more at home in UKIP than in the Conservative Party I know and love..

On Sunday I received an amusing text message from Tracey Crouch MP to inform me that she had Tweeted my earlier blogpost about the constituent calling to ask the MP to come around an fix her toilet (see http://votingandboating.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/down-pan.html). As a consequence, the story was picked up by Atticus in the Sunday Times who featured it in yesterday's paper. Sadly I didn't get a hat tip.

Tonight we have meetings in Tunbridge Wells to commence the Kent County Council selection process, and tomorrow we take delivery of one million pieces of literature for the Kent Police and Crime Commissioner Campaign - which will no doubt arrive at 10am, just as the weekly Mackinlay Campaign Meeting is about to commence.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Farewell Bromley!

All of our 'precious' belongings are already on Barleywood. This morning, 'man and van' came and took away all the furniture we are not putting into storage. Almost everything else is either in storage or will be soon.  Mail forwarding is arranged. Banks, pensions, tax man, utilities, doctors, DVLC, TV License and mobile phone providers have all been informed. We even remembered to tell the "Identichip" people who keep track on the movements of our cats should they get lost! In a few hours BT will disconnect our telephone and broadband.

We've had four enjoyable years in Bromley - but tomorrow our new lives as live-aboard boaters officially begins. I am very excited and calm. Steve is excited, but less calm. We have lovely neighbours at the marina, super views, peace and tranquillity, surrounded by seabirds and the gentle sound of lapping waves. I am sure there will be challenges of living in a smaller space, but nothing that cannot be overcome.

Over recent weeks almost everyone I have told has greeted the news enthusiastically. I am grateful for so many good wishes and shared excitement. To answer some of the most frequently asked questions; we have running water (from taps and as well as the tide), we have a flushing lavatory, a shower, hot water on demand, 240v mains electricity, central heating, a full sized gas cooker, a fridge, colour TV, DVD player, microwave, toaster, kettle and, the best of all, a log burning stove!  And in two weeks time we will also have a BT landline and broadband - yes, they even install phones onto boats!.   The way some people have spoken they obviously think we are moving to a remote village in the Himalayas - not a marina in Rochester. "Oh, what will you do for cooking...?"  "Won't it be cold...?"

As soon as we settle we will have a boat warming party - we might even take guests on river trips - up and down the Medway. Even Snodland looks nice from the water.

For now, and for the record, here are a few photographs of our time in Highland Road. Happy memories, but it's time to move on.

Dinner alfreso in the late summer sun
Summer BBQ
Diva (left) and Lola (right) keep a watchful eye on a visiting squirrel
(you can just see him on the terracotta pot)

The Stilton shows the strain of hungry dinner guests

My lovely partner of 11 years, Steve

Our dining room when not be used to entertain.
The cow painting was a birthday present from Steve
(I fell in love with it having seen it in a gallery in Worcester)
"If you ever go across the sea to Ulster,
be sure it's on the 12th day of July....."
Waiting for the guests to arrive for my 42nd Birthday Dinner
Friends gather in the garden for Champagne
Table laid for semi-formal dinner

Thursday, 26 July 2012

The Writing's On The Wall

A nice story, which is neither party political nor about boats, but which highlights some of the lovely and interesting people who come into my life through my job.

Earlier today I answered the phone to a Member. Let's call him Mr Parker. He was calling to see if he had paid his membership subscription as he had received a reminder letter. As I looked at his data I saw an old 'note' in the comments section of his membership record. The subject was "Has Unique Skill."  As I chatted, I clicked on the link to expand the note to see what his "unique skill" was.  The full note read,

"Has unique skill. He is third generation graphologist, his father worked for
resistance movement in Budapest during war. Mr Parker worked for Special Branch
advising on criminal behaviour and building psychological profile of criminals. Now retired,
willing to raise money for Party doing handwriting analysis at fetes and dinners etc"

The note was initialled BT and dated 1998. BT is Barry Thurnell, my predecessor but two, the Tunbridge Wells Agent back in the 1990s.

Given he had 'recently retired' in 1998 (14 years ago) I assumed he was probably into his late 70's and enjoying retirement. "Oh I am still at it," he announced, "in fact, just a few weeks ago I worked at a charitable dinner at the Grosvenor House and raised £1,500 for Childline".

As is the Conservative Agent's way, ££££££££ signs started flashing....

I mentioned the note I had found on his membership record, "are you still willing...?"  "Oh yes, I would be delighted. I phoned the office about 12 years ago and offered, but no-one took me up on the suggestion."

So now he is booked to appear at the Tunbridge Wells Conservative Christmas Fete. £2.50 a go for a two minute consultation. All proceeds to Party funds!  And if that goes well, he'll be at the Annual Dinner, too - at £10 a pop. 

As the conversation drew to a close, I said (half jokingly), "I am worried now that you are looking at my signature on your membership renewal letter and analysing me."  "Ah, you English are not at all like the Europeans. (Amen to that! - Ed.) "You are private people and you do try to hide your inner selves by not allowing your identities to come through in your writing. It makes my job harder, but not impossible. In Europe, people are more compliant. That's why we have put up with dictatorships. If a police man asks for your identity papers in Europe you just hand them over without question. In England, the very thought of the government making you carry identity papers brings about uproar and protest and the government backs down. That's what I love about this country."

How right you are, Mr Parker. That's what I love about this country, too. 

Jobs for the Boys (and Girls)

Mackinlay for Kent are looking for a team of Campaign Volunteers to help at our Campaign HQ in North Kent.

Our advert on w4mp.org went live today, and already we have received lots of interest from local students down from University for summer and wanting to work on such a high profile campaign.

See: http://www.w4mpjobs.org/JobDetails.aspx?jobid=35967

If you know any anyone with time on their hands and who would enjoy the experience of working on a high profile campaign, using modern campaign technologies, please forward the link and encourage them to get in touch.  I must stress this is a voluntary role. Applicants will receive no pay or remuneration and will be free to come and go as they please (though the odd free lunch might be provided!)

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Mind Your Own Business !

By nature I am a Libertarian. Unless there are compelling reasons to do otherwise, my default position on matters of personal choice and lifestyle is one shared with Frédéric Bastiat (and, sadly, Theresa Gorman) who said, 'The only moral law is mind your own business.'

I was therefore taken aback when someone, whose judgement I trust and friendship I value, referred to me today as a "reactionary"! The reasoning behind this comment was a supportive email I had sent to a group of Party Members who wanted to form a Conservative Womens' Group.  Another group is opposed to such a move, and think it's a retrograde step to form any organisation based on gender, to the exclusion of others.

In my heart I agree, and I understand why some should take a hostile position. Personally, I don't like "sub groups" and I have not felt the desire to join one for probably 20 years.  I am a member of the Conservative Party because, on balance, I believe the Conservative Party offers the best government for our country. How true it is (or was) that in the UK we have our coalitions 'within political parties'. It is a matter of deep regret that the 'internal coalition' which enabled the Conservative Party to govern the UK for most of the 20th Century was allowed to fragment in the 1990s and we have not yet found a way of piecing it back together.

However, just because I don't like sub-groups within larger organisations, it does not mean they are wrong or should be stopped.  Free people bond in their own way and for their own reasons. No about of Objectivist logic can (or should) prevent this.  If a group of woman wish to work together; to share their experiences, contribute to the policy discussions and further the work of the Conservative Party, then why shouldn't they? Political parties are a patchwork of interests. In my own Party we have Conservative Friends of Israel, Conservative Christian Fellowship, Small Business Forum, Muslim Forum, Conservative Friends of India and many more.  I appreciate that none of these necessarily exclude people based on gender, but they do set their own parameters.  Just as CF exclude people based on age - and no-one complains about that or thinks it is wrong. Similarly Emily's List - how many men where invited to join that group?

What I don't like, however, is when internal groups become selective in the execution of their endeavours. CF work tirelessly for all candidates - not just those under 30.  At our recent by-election we had a CF group of 20+ volunteers travel all the way to TW to work for our 50yo candidate. Likewise, I could never imagine the Ladies Group picking their way through the leaflets checking the gender of each candidate before deciding if they would pack the envelope. Should that ever happen, it must be stopped as ultimately we are there to work for a common goal.

So, I am sorry Mrs R - (I know you read my blog!) - we'll have to agree to disagree on this one. 

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Questions for Mrs Barnes

Kent's worst kept political secret, that the present KPA Chair Ann Barnes would run as an independent candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner, was finally confirmed.

I don't like negative campaigning and shy from it. I simply don't think 'knocking-copy' is good for the political process and, if done badly, can backfire. However, that does not mean that serious and difficult questions should be avoided.

Kent Online reported,

"But announcing her candidacy, she took a sideswipe at the main political parties fielding candidates, claiming they could not be trusted to put Kent first but would be answerable to their political masters."

Note the term "main political parties fielding candidates..."  Rumours abound that Mrs Barnes is a Liberal Democrat. Kent Liberal Democrats are not fielding a candidate, and will no doubt endorse an independent. Mrs Barnes is on the record saying she is not a member of any political party, but she needs to clarify if she was a member or donor in the recent past.  Her decision to appoint Peter Carroll (a Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Candidate in 2001, 2005 and 2010) as her Campaign Director, will fuel the rumours that she is a Liberal Democrat stooge. It would be disingenuous for Mrs Barnes to campaign as an 'independent' or non-political candidate if she has recently jettisoned her own political activism to enable her to adopt that position.

The second question she needs to answer regards her involvement in the Association of Police Authorities, of which she was Vice Chair.  Working in this capacity, Mrs Barnes is on the record attacking the legislation which lead to the creation of Police and Crime Commissioners.  The APA received it's funding from the Police Authorities who subscribe to its services, who in turn receive their funding from Council Tax payers.  It is a fact that the APA campaigned against the creation of PCCs and, in doing so, spent thousands of pounds of Council Tax-payers money to fund their campaign. Did Mrs Barnes, as Vice Chair of that body, think this was an appropriate use of public funds during as recession?

"It's no secret that the Kent Police Authority members oppose directly elected commissioners," said Mrs Barnes. "We see them as unnecessary. They will have no different or additional powers than the current police authorities, and are a wilful waste of public money."

I blogged just a few days ago on the complete volte face of the APA when they morphed into the Association of Police & Crime Commissioners just days after their failed campaign to stop them coming into existence! Now Mrs Barnes has made a similar Road to Damascus style conversion by announcing her own candidacy for a position she has spent months undermining.

However, when a candidate professes their independence, but appoints a Liberal Democrat activist and three-times Parliamentary candidate as her Campaign Manager, it raises questions about their true allegiances and motives.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

A Satirical Close to a Weekend's Blogging

Following my weekend posts on "Association of Police & Crime Commissioners" (which has had thousands of hits - more than all my other posts combined) and my writing earlier today on the need for greater local accountability, I am grateful to my friend and colleague, Philip Young, for reminding me of this priceless clip from Yes, Prime Minister, which encapsulates the mood and rounds the weekend off nicely.

No Taxation Without Representation!

As a Libertarian, I support the transfer of power from patronage to the ballot box (including House of Lords reform) and I genuinely believe the police reforms are courageous and a move in the right direction. Which is just as well as I am charged with winning the election!

There are reasons people can question the reforms of police governance, the most obvious of which is why we are having elections in November when they could have been delayed six months and held in May along with the County Council elections. 

The one argument which has least virtue is "you are politicising the police". It's an understandable position for a lay person to adopt, and it is our duty to ensure the reasons for these changes are explained and understood.  However, it is not a position an experienced politician should take as it simply does not stand-up to scrutiny.

Here are a few thoughts on this subject:

  • Firstly, the Police & Crime Commissioners are replacing the Police Authorities, and the members of local Police Authorities being replaced are already politicians!  In the case of Kent, a majority (nine out of 15) of Kent Police Authority members are politicians. I believe every Police Authority is similarly constituted.

  • Police Authority members are appointed by the direct and personal patronage of the Leader of the Council(s) in the Police Authority area. I am in the fortunate position to know Paul Carter (Leader of KCC) and Rodney Chambers (Medway) and can say that leaders of their calibre would always take an altruistic approach and appoint people on merit, but is this the case everywhere?  I imagine there are many Leaders who see this patronage (with a £9,000 annual salary) as a reward for a loyal lieutenant or a sweetener to stop a malcontent causing trouble.

  • Therefore, Police Authority members are dependent for their continued appointment on the patronage of the Council Leader. They have little or no reason to feel accountability to those who pay for the service (ie, the Council Tax Payers). Nor do the local authorities who appoint Police Authority members have any real reason to promote best value as they are not responsible for the police precept, which is shown separately on the Council Tax bill.  There is no clearer example of taxation without representation.

  • Whether we like it or not, policing is political. I don't think I have ever been involved in an election, from Parish Council to national government, where crime, law and order has not been an issue. From 'gangs of noisy youths' to vandalism to crime and the criminal justice system, every politician has a view on the police and every voter wants politicians to do something done about it. And why shouldn't they?  At the end of the day, they pay for the service.  The Home Secretary (an elected politician) appoints Chief Constables. The Lord Chancellor (Justice Secretary) appoints judges.

  • Accountability - if you don't like your MP or Councillor, you can vote for a new one. If you don't like the way your local Police Authority is holding the Chief Constable to account, there is bugger all you can do about it. You cannot replace them, and let's be honest, apart from a few inhabitants of the Political Village, no-one knows who their Police Authority members are, how to contact them, what powers they have or what power they have to change anything.

These reforms are not perfect - they seldom are. But for the first time ever the tax payers, who write the cheques, will have someone directly responsible for the money spent, and the outcomes achieved.
Chief Constables, who will rightfully retain total operations control, will, for the first time, face an individual person with a large and democratic mandate, and will have a duty to explain what they are doing and why they are doing it.  Police & Crime Commissioners will know that, sooner or later (either at public meetings or through the ballot box) they will be held to account for the enormous amounts of money spent and crime levels in their area of responsibility.

And all this will be done for far less cost than the present system, as the PCCs salary will be around 50% of what is paid to the 15 appointed members of the Police Authority.

These are brave reforms; they transfer power to taxpayers and away from quangocracy, they focus responsibility and accountability on an individual who will be judged on their success (or failure) and give people a real say in outcomes for the money they pay.

Friday, 20 July 2012

The Emperor Needs New Clothes

Sir Humphrey Appleby: "Minister, Commissioner, I have something to say to you which you may not like to hear."
Commissioner Mackinlay: "Why should today be any different?"
Sir Humphrey Appleby:: "Minister, Commissioner, the traditional allocation of executive responsibilities has always been so determined as to liberate the incumbent from the administrative minutiae by devolving the managerial functions to those whose experience and qualifications have better formed them for the performance of such humble offices, thereby releasing their political overlords for the more onerous duties and profound deliberations which are the inevitable concomitant of their exalted position."
Commissioner Mackinlay: "I wonder what made you think I didn't want to hear that?"

Might well you laugh...

This morning, Police & Crime Commissioner Candidates (of all Parties, as well as declared Independents) received an email from the "Association of Police & Crime Commissioners" inviting them to submit a CV and photograph for their election website.

The letter also asks PCC candidates to declare their... Special Interests (please note this information will not be published, but will be used to help us provide targeted briefing information and updates):

The Association operates from a swish office in 10 Dean Farrar Street SW1, they have a website, twitter page and numerous staff and a CEO. Tucked away on the bottom of their letterhead is the following little bit of "newspeak" "The APCC will represent all Police and Crime Commissioners and all policing governance bodies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland." 

Although the accompanying letter does state,

"Decisions about any longer term ‘national body’ for PCCs will be entirely at the discretion of elected PCCs"

I cannot help but wonder how can you have an "Association" for people who have not yet even been selected, let alone ELECTED. 

  • Who actually finances this body?
  • Who appoints the directors and staff? 
  • Who commissions the research and on what basis is it done?

The signatory on the letter is Mark Castle (Chief Executive)

  • Who appointed him?
  • To whom does he report?
  • Who sets his priorities and assesses his performance? 
Let's dig a little deeper.

Up to very recently there was an organisation called the Association of Police Authorities who were based at (can you guess?) 10 Dean Farrar Street SW1. And their Chief Executive was......Mark Castle.

The Association of Police Authorities (a typical third sector organisation which draws on taxpayers' money without any responsibility or accountability) spent thousands of pounds of money which wasn't theirs to campaign against the policy of the elected government with regard to Police & Crime Commissioners.

Then.....WHOOOOSH ! About turn chaps. The very same organisation, in the same building, with the same staff and the same CEO suddenly "re-invents" itself overnight and morphs into "The Association of Police & Crime Commissioners" - the so-called servants of the very people they had been briefing and campaigning against just a few days earlier.

I have thought long and hard about how I feel about this.  I could call it disingenuous. Perhaps duplicitous. Maybe even unprincipled.  But actually, the best phrase is shameful hypocrisy.  The clearest possible example of what has gone wrong with the running of our country - the establishment and empowerment of the "third sector" and their amazing  ability to change direction whilst simultaneously keeping their snouts in the trough.

I have no doubt that the newly elected Police and Crime Commissioners will need a national body to provide research and support (though no such organisations were needed 20+ years ago, when the quality of our governance was probably better than it is now).  

I just hope that the newly elected Commissioners take full advantage of the Association's kind and generous acknowledgement that "Decisions about any longer term ‘national body’ for PCCs will be entirely at the discretion of elected PCCs" and ensure they select a loyal new emperor and not allow the old one to simply buy new clothes.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

The Strange and Random Life of a Conservative Agent

If anyone wonders why I sometimes appear or sound stressed, the following message, recently received by email from one of my Chairmen, might go some way to explaining

Dear A   drew

I   ave acu e problems wi    my email.    ree keys are    o  worki   g. I ca      o  use    e key    a  comes be wee       e R a   d    e Y,    or    e key w  ic   comes be wee       e G a   d    e J,    or    e key w  ic   is be wee       e B a   d    e M. 

I ca      o  a  e   d your mee i   g. Sorry.

  ope you u   ders a   d    is message.

In case you don't have the will to work it out, here is what he should have written:

Dear Andrew

I have acute problems with my email. Three keys are not working. I cannot use the key that comes between the R and the Y, nor the key which comes between the G and the J, nor the key which is between the B and the M. 

I cannot attend your meeting. Sorry.

Hope you understand this message.

That's cleared up that one, then !

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Down the pan !

Ring ring.  Ring ring.

Tonbridge & Malling Conservative Association, how can I help you?

Is John Stanley there?

I am afraid he's in Westminster. Can I help.

Yeah, can he come round?

He's in Westminster. Maybe I can help you.

Yeah, I want him to come around.

He's in Westminster.

So he's not there then?

He's in Westminster.

Someone said he fixes things.

Well, he can certainly try to help if you have a problem. Would you like an appointment at his next Advice Centre?

When's that then?

Friday 20 July in Tonbridge.

Tonbridge? That's bloody miles away and I can't wait that long. It's urgent. Can't he come round today?

He's in Westminster. 
Why don't you tell me what the problem is and I can see how best to help.

Me toilet's blocked.

I see, I don't think Sir John is really your man. He's not a plumber.  Have you tried phoning a plumber?

I live in a Council house.

Have you phoned the landlords?  I can give you ther number for your local Housing Association. Where do you live?


AHHHH! I know exactly the person who can help you. Tracey Crouch MP is in charge of blocked lavatories in Snodland. I'll give you her number.

Monday, 16 July 2012

The Weekly Omnishambles

Earlier today Craig Mackinlay addressed the Kent County Council Conservative Group, during which he described his Campaign Team in glowing terms. Apparently we are "the finest group of campaigners ever to walk the earth". "A fine body of men" - (and woman - sorry Dorothy). This picture (taken this morning) tells a different story...

The Weekly Ceremony of the Keys which precedes every Campaign Team Meeting

Imagine the scene. It's 9.50am on a Monday morning, and five expensive cars are rushing to a listed listing Victorian building in the shadow of Chatham docks. The race is to try and bag one of the two free car parking spaces. The slowpokes (and the timid drivers) lose out.

Slowly the team gather by the back door. The candidate, who is far too grand to park on the street, is always the first to arrive. By 10am we must resemble a group of naughty school boys outside the Head Masters study. Once we all gather, we go inside.  We climb two flights of rickety bare stairs, trying to remember which ones have rotting boards. Half way up the second flight everyone eyes the wall of glowing luminescent fungus and invariably someone passes the "asbestos alley" joke.  We then negotiate around and over several boxes of unsold raffle tickets and a pile of old In Touches, which appear to have been abandoned mid-flight.

By this time, Craig has reached the office door at the top of the stairs. For some odd reason, Gordon Williams is always directly behind. The rest of us spill down the stairwell, avoiding the broken stairs, unsold tickets, discarded newsletters and desperately trying not to inhale the poisonous spores being pumped out from the wall of death.

Out come the keys. The first key is inserted and turned one way and then the other. Then the next key, then the third. None work. The first key goes back into the lock and is rattled back and forth. By this time we begin to hear profanities.  Gordon Williams starts peering over Craig's shoulder offering advice. Craig ignores him and continues to shake, rattle and cuss. Usually at this point some accusatory remark is thrown down the stairwell regarding the quality of the workers employed to fit the new doors. Key's still rattle. Gordon starts to look nervous. The troops get restless. At this stage I  ask if anyone has remembered to buy the milk for the coffee. Everyone looks at their shoes hoping they don't have to go back down the stairs to the shop. Invariably the person at the back of the line offers to go (no doubt grateful to get away from the spores of death).  Still keys rattle.

Finally, the locks clicks, the key turns, the door bursts open and in we go.

Once this campaign is over on 15 November we shall (apart from the candidate) be redundant, though I suspect we could offer ourselves as a well rehearsed pantomime troupe - thought with several more Dames than is necessary!

I bet Obama / Biden can't match this !

We held the weekly team meeting of the Mackinlay for Kent campaign this morning, and several milestones were passed. (Click on the link above to visit Craig's excellent website).

It was confirmed that we had taken possession of the Mackinlay Campaign HQ and this would be the last meeting at our temporary HQ in Gillingham. Our next Campaign Meeting will be held at our own home base.  I would like to say the new HQ is luxurious. Sadly, I cannot - and as we are spending money donated by volunteers for the purpose of campaigning, it would be wrong for us to fritter it on plush buildings. The new HQ is a disused cement factory at the back end of Snodland. It is, however, cheap and spacious.  The missing roof tiles and ill fitting windows provide lots of ventilation. We also have running water (down the walls due to a broken tap on the first floor). The industrial cleaners have moved in, and they have assured me it will be clean and ready by 1 August. Hopefully I am doing a good job of selling it to you, as very soon I will be asking for volunteers to come along and pack a quarter of a million envelopes.

Which brings me nicely onto the next milestone.  The text and design of our first leaflet was also signed off today.   In my 22 years as an agent I have placed some substantial print orders, but I have never requested a print run of 1 million pieces of paper.  This in itself is quite daunting - more so when you consider they all have to be packed (manually and by volunteers) into 250,000 envelopes, sorted into roads and delivered across Kent. 

Sunday, 15 July 2012


Like millions of others, we pay our car insurance premiums each month, month in, month out, and apart from the odd call to Green Flag Breakdown (which we pay as a supplement to our premium) we have never had an accident nor claimed on our policy.

Up to now we have been a one car family. Steve drops me at Bromley station each morning and I catch the train to West Malling. I actually enjoy the journey. It's 40 minutes of peace, when I can read papers, listen to the Today programme on my Ipod or simply clear my thoughts and plan the day. I am fortunate to travel away from the crowds, so I can always get a seat, and the train fare (£10.70) is cheaper than the petrol and parking.

However, when we move, this will be considerably more difficult and we will need a second car, which, purely by chance, I found last week. A price was agreed and I was due to pick it up tomorrow. It's a Jaguar X Type. It may be second hand, but it's in fabulous condition and looks lovely.

Searching for insurance on Compare the Market I found a company (Liverpool Victoria) who quoted £380, which sounded reasonable. Before I could buy the policy I needed proof of my no claims discount.  I called Churchill Insurance to confirm my entitlement only to be told I didn't have any no claims discount. Apparently, they paid a claim on my policy last year.  'But I haven't made a claim', I said.  Yes, in March. 'No, I can assure you, I have never claimed on my insurance."  On and on it went. Finally, they put my through to their claims department.

It transpires that in February last year, driving back from Swindon on the M4, our car broke down (which is true). We called Green Flag (whose services we pay for via a supplement on our policy). Green Flag were unable to fix the car and asked if we would like to be towed home (which we, of course, accepted). It transpires that the tow home was not covered by our Green Flag Breakdown Cover, and the cost of the service was paid by Churchill (as a claim on our policy, thus invalidating our no claims discount).  At no point were we told the tow was not covered by our Breakdown Policy. Nor were we told that payment would invalidate our no claims discount. Had we known we would have paid the £280 and retained our 40% discount. As a consequence of losing my no claims discount, the quote to insure my new car has increased from £380 to almost £900.

When I queried this with the claims adviser I was told they sent me two letters (if they did, I never received them). Interestingly they are unable to send copies as they are 'system generated' and file copies are not retained. How convenient. Under pressure and questioning, she started stumbling. "We also phoned you to discuss the situation".  Oh did you, when did you call, what time and on which number?  Conveniently, although she was certain they called, she had no record of the date!   At this point I was seething. I told her that under the Data Protection act I was entitled to submit a ‘subject access request' which requires them to send me a transcript of the conversation.

I can predict now, with absolute certainty, the transcript will never arrive,. It won't arrive because they never called. As anyone who knows me will confirm, I have the memory of an elephant. I can recall verbatim conversations I had 5 years ago. If someone had called me from Churchill insurance to tell me I had lost my no claims discount, I would have remembered.

Twice in recent years I have twice taken on big multi nationals and won. One case involved an electricity supplier who sent us an invoice for £1,800 for electricity on a property we had left four years earlier. After an initial exchange of letters and calls to establish the 'facts' I wrote to them by registered post and said if they continued to pursue their unjust and unproven claim, I would charge them £50 for every 15 minutes I spent dealing with the matter.  Each time they wrote, I replied in full, and sent them an invoice. After 4 months my invoices amounted to £850. Their letters became increasingly threatening and menacing. I stood my ground.  A County Court Summons arrived. I counter claimed for the cumulative total of my time. The day before the court case I received a call from their legal department. As a gesture of goodwill (!) they were dropping their claim. I declined their offer and said I looked forward to meeting them in County Court the next day. Having tried to threaten, bully and intimidate me for six months, they actually told me to "be reasonable". I responded by sending them another invoice for a further £50 to cover my additional time they had wasted phoning me.  Later that afternoon they called again and agreed not only to withdraw their claim, but to settle my own claim in full and apologies for their error. I dread to think how many thousands of people, especially those who are old, vulnerable or easier to intimidate than me, would have paid up to avoid being taken to court.

I look forward to future developments with Churchill and I will keep you informed. Until it's resolved, I officially have zero no claims discount, and will either have to pay a massive premium or do without my car.   Any suggestions...?

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Have we found The Big Society (or perhaps it's Royston Vasey)

We took several more packing cases of our personal belongings to Barleywood today, including family photographs and the contents of the booze cupboard! The Bromley flat is looking increasingly 'empty" and soulless as more and more of our life is moved either into storage or onto the boat. Very soon we will make the personal journey along with two grumpy cats!
We've either found paradise or stumbled into Royston Vasey.
Time will tell.
Earlier this week I blogged about my hopes that Barleywood would not just represent a change of abode, but a change of life too, and I am pleased that today we saw evidence of how such a lifestyle had affected others.

Dotted around Medway Bridge Marina there are no fewer than 60 residential boaters. They (we) live on all manner of craft. Some live on luxurious Dutch Barges or wide beam narrow boats. Others (like us) on traditional narrow boats. There are cruisers, converted barges, a converted light ship and a few monstrosities propped up on stilts or on hard standing which have not seen the water in decades (and would probably sink). There is also a retired 1930s Rhine Cruising Ship (now renamed The Sovereign) which has been converted into a luxurious Bed & Breakfast. See HERE 

Several of the other residents made the effort to come and say hello today - which was lovely. We have lived in our Bromley flat for over four years now and, apart from the couple in the adjoining flat who moved in at the same time as us, we don't know the names of any of our neighbours. Today we met the women who live on boat moored opposite to ours - one is a police officer in Chatham and the other a self employed painter. We also met a retired Special Branch officer who has lived on a barge with his family for ten years. Others on the same pontoon as us include a solicitor, a para-medic and a self employed caterer. Someone else explained that dotted around the boatyard are qualified marine tradesmen of all hues who will do work on a bartering system (hopefully someone will fix our leaking radiator in exchange for a 25% discount off their funeral). It's almost as if a micro-community has developed. From a sociological perspective, I am fascinated to see how this works; how residents interact with each other and how efficient this system is (even on this small scale). Perhaps I have found a microcosm of Murray Rothbard's anarcho-capitalism?

Just two other little stories which, I hope, show the type of community we are moving to.

Within the marina there are several small businesses including a chandlery, a cafe / tea room and a bar. Last Wednesday I popped into the chandlery to buy a power cable, which cost £25.00. Their card machine wasn't working and I didn't have enough cash. Without any hesitation, the owner said, "don't worry - drop the cash in next time you are here." And today I was searching my pockets for a £1 coin for a trolley to wheel boxes from the car to the boat. A chap I have never seen before saw me rummaging and offered me a £1 coin, with a cheery "let me have it back when I see you next." Two small acts of trust and kindness I suspect would not have happened elsewhere.

Perhaps I am looking at this through rose-tinted glasses. It may transpire to be some dystopian nightmare (like the League of Gentlemen's Royston Vasey). Time will tell, but I am feeling hopeful.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Memories of Mark

Today I had the honour of attending Mark Worrall's Memorial Service. Mark was a Councillor for West Malling & Leybourne, Leader of Tonbridge & Malling Council and, most importantly, a friend.

I first met Mark in 2002 when Steve and I moved to Larkfield in Kent. I reported for duty as a volunteer at the local Conservative HQ in West Malling and was asked by the then Agent, Anne Moloney, if I would take on the task of running Mark's re-election campaign. I thought the opportunity to run the Group Leader's election seemed an ideal way to get myself known and establish my credentials as a good campaigner.  Then came the blows!  Firstly, Mark was living with multiple sclerosis and was unable to canvass or deliver leaflets, secondly he was defending a majority of just one vote, thirdly a local boundary change had removed two Conservative inclined villages from his ward leaving a notional Lib Dem majority of 100+, and finally, there was no local branch nor any activists, my only helper would be a 65 year old man with lumbago.

Undeterred, we set off with no intention of losing. Between the two of us we canvassed every house, then went back on the outs, and back again and again and again. By polling day we had a voting intention for 90% of residents. When we weren't canvassing we were delivering leaflets. At first one leaflet a month, the fortnightly and as election day approached, weekly. In the closing days of the campaign we were doing street by street editions. Mark, frustrated at not being able to campaign on the doorsteps, sat at home following-up every single issue by phone and churned out pages of stories to fill as much paper as we could print and deliver.

We had collected so much data that we produced a personalised manifesto for each voter using mail merged "variable paragraphs". We established a network of street captains who kept us informed of everything that happened in their road. Not a street lamp flickered or a crisp packet littered without us knowing about it, reporting it and claiming credit!  One particular incident caused us great amusement. The husband of one of our "street captains" was standing at the bar in the Joiners Arms in West Malling and overheard the son of the Lib Dem candidate telling his mates that the following day he and his Mother would be collecting signatures along London Road against a planning application to replace the existing telephone mast with a larger one.   He called his wife from the pub to tell her what he had heard. His wife phoned me. By 11pm that night I had written our leaflet and was in the Association office running them off. By 8am the next morning, Ed Pugh had delivered one to each house within the vicinity of the phone mast. "Conservatives say NO to Monster Mast - sign our petition overleaf."  The Lib Dem petition never saw the light of day!

On polling day we won. Mark's one vote majority increased to 600. All three seats in West Malling & Leybourne were gained with ease, we regained control of the Council and Mark was elected leader, a position he held until his death a few weeks ago.

Many will say that I am biased, but Mark was the best Council Leader I have ever had the fortune to work with. Despite an increasingly debilitating illness, he never allowed it to break his spirit nor effect his humour and good grace. He was a Tory to his bones, yet he ran the council with a spirit of bi-partisanship and openness I have never before seen. How many Leaders, having cleared out Labour from every seat they held, would then co-opt former Labour councillors onto various committees to ensure the voice of the Labour Party was represented in the decision making process?  

His mastery of detail (all committed to memory as he was unable to hold a pen or turn a page of a written text) was legendary. On form, he could write like an angel. Under Mark's political leadership, and the outstanding management of David Hughes and his team, T&MBC was rated the best performing council in the country year after year - a beacon of how local government should be, but seldom is. The staff turnover figures (one of the lowest in the country) speak volumes.  In my eight years dealing with T&MBC, I have never had an interaction with the Council which has not been resolved speedily and satisfactorily. No phone call or email has ever needed to be chased.

Mark Worrall was not personally responsible for this level of customer service, but he was responsible for providing the leadership which empowered Officers to make those decisions. He was responsible for the climate of respect. He was responsible for culture of openness which pervaded everything the Council did.  He was responsible for the teamwork and sense of direction which united both Officers and Members towards a shared vision and agreed goals.

It was an honour to know Mark and work alongside him for nine years. I will miss him. 

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Our New Life Afloat!

Today we moved Barleywood to Rochester.

It was an exciting experience, tinged with apprehension. Exciting, as we would see Barleywood lifted onto a HGV and taken by road to Gillingham, where she would be re-launched into Gillingham Marina, from where we would take her to Rochester Marina, just by the M2 road bridge. The apprehension due to the fact it was the first time either of us had taken a narrow boat onto tidal waters, and also it was the next (and very real) step to our new life as live-aboard boaters.

Over the last few days I have been formulating this post in my mind and wondering if I would have the courage to actually publish it. Here goes...

There are two reasons we are moving on board.

The first and primary reason, it is a stepping stone to our goal of living on a Dutch Barge.

Steve and I both love boating and being near water. Having spent every spare minute of the last three years on Barleywood, it seems a natural progression to actually live on a boat. Once we had made that decision, it made sense to move onto Barleywood as soon as we could. It will be a test of whether we can cope living in a boat (and when we finally get our Dutch Barge it will have twice as much room as the narrow boat so it will feel like a huge space!) And, of course, there are financial benefits too. Our flat in Bromley (with Council Tax, utilities, insurance and all the associated bills) costs us around £18,000pa from taxed income. We will save over 90% of this by living on board - money which will go directly into our savings and towards buying our dream.

There is, however, another, deeper, reason encouraging me to do this. I am actually finding my consumerist lifestyle not only bordering on excessive but also, at times, somewhat vulgar.

This change is an opportunity to step off the spending merry-go-round and re-evaluate where I am and what is really important in life. Many might call it a 'mid life crisis' - if so, I am happy to be here!

Please indulge me and allow me to explain.

Steve and I are fortunate. We both work hard in jobs we love, and are reasonably well rewarded for our efforts. For obvious reasons, unlike many people of our age, we do not have any of the costs associated with parenthood; no university fees or student loans to subsidise, weddings to pay for, deposits on our children’s homes to help find. As a consequence, we are cash rich. We pay all our bills on time, clear our credit cards in full each month, put money aside for a "rainy day" and what's left we spend.  As our earning capacity has increased, so has our spending. And how!  There are times I fear we are both working harder than we should, to maintain a lifestyle neither of us can enjoy (as we are always exhausted) and are driven on and on and on, afraid that if we work less we won't have the money to keep going. It's a vicious circle and I want to get off.

What really brought this excess home to me was a post on Facebook about 18 months ago. A young friend in Tunbridge Wells posted that he was 'looking forward to treating himself to a Chinese takeaway." I read this and was amused that anyone should think a Chinese takeaway to be a 'treat' let alone worth recording on Facebook. That week we had probably had a Chinese takeaway, as well as an Indian, perhaps also a Thai, we had eaten out once or twice locally and I had no doubt had several expensive lunches in West Malling and London. Almost as soon as I thought this, I also felt ashamed and sad in equal measure. Ashamed that I should be so dismissive and arrogant, as only few years previously, in the early part of our relationship, Steve and I would have also considered a Chinese meal to be a treat. And sad because here we were, living a lifestyle which most could only dream of, and taking it so much for granted that even lunches at Wilton’s and Rules were now par for the course.

Years ago our weekly trip to Tesco was part of the routine of our domestic life. We not only shopped together, we planned our menu together, cooked together and ate together, too. Now we are "rich and successful" we don't plan our menu, shop or cook together any more. Often we don't eat together either, as one or the other is working late. Our groceries are bought online from Waitrose and delivered by Ocado.  Each week we spend on food what we used to spend in a month. Then much of what we buy is thrown in the bin as we don't have the time or energy to cook it. And the reason we don't have the time to shop, cook and eat together? Because we are both working 60+ hours a week to pay for Ocado to deliver our groceries and to pay for meals we eat out as we are both too tired to cook at home. Madness!

So now it's time to slow down and get back in touch with reality. As the old saying goes - it's time to start working to live rather than living to work. For those who know me best, please don't worry - you won't find me in the BOGOF aisle at Asda or drinking Aldi own label Champagne (there are limits). But if we can once again find the time in our lives to cook and eat together, in our lovely boat, with the smell of iodine in the air and the sound of waves and seagulls outside the window, with our little log burning stove providing warmth - then I suspect I will have rediscovered a level of happiness that all the money and Pol Roger and lobsters in the world can't provide.

Wish us luck!

Monday, 9 July 2012

Let me pay my share!

Apologies for irregular posts. I am not losing interest in the blog - I have lost connection with technology!

I have a few days of annual leave and am floating up and down the River Thames, eating and drinking to excess. Sadly, rivers being the lowest point of any landscape, mobile and internet connections are generally poor.

Today I am in Windsor and posting this from the library - which bring my nicely onto one of my favourite rants. Why we continue to fund libraries the way we do.

Two years ago there was an perfectly pleasant and usable internet cafe in Windsor. Some chap had invested in a lease, bought the equipment and opened a small business. Last year, he was gone and the shop boarded up. I spoke to the man in the newsagents next door. The reason he (internet cafe man) went under was the local (taxpayer funded) library had expanded it's IT section and provided the service free of charge. I went to the library to use the facilities as there was nowhere else. Eighteen brand new computers in a row, of which only five were being used. I asked if I could use a machine and explained that I was not a resident of the Royal Borough, but was willing to pay. "Of no need for that" said the librarian. Would you like an hour or two hours? "An hour will do, but I would like to pay..." "Oh, don't worry. It's a free service..." And there's the problem - it's not free. The Council Tax payers of Windsor and Maidenhead - many on lower incomes than me - are paying for it.

Today I am back, and I am pleased to see in the age of austerity they have introduced charges for non-residents, but the token charge (50p) is not in any way a commercial rate.

Even now, when every local authority is cutting services, the old and poor of this Borough are still subsidising me to use the internet (whilst our £45,000 boat is moored alongside the river bank). It's wrong. Today the 18 computers are still in a row, and I am the only user.  Sitting behind me at several scattered tables are a collection of middle class retired gentlemen reading free copies of broadsheet newspapers, which they could easily afford to buy.    A lady has just entered and asked to use the photocopier. I heard her tell the librarian that at 5p a copy it's half the price of the local photocopy shop.   

In many libraries the establishment costs and salaries are so high that it costs more to lend a book than to buy it new.

Next time we hear of a cash-strapped council trying to close down or merge a local library, instead of signing petitions and writing letters of disgust to the local press, perhaps we should spare a thought for the internet cafe owner in Windsor who lost his business due to municipal do-goodery.  Or to the owner of the photocopy shop which is losing profit as the taxpayer funded library can undercut him as they don't need to cover their capital costs. Or the local newsagent whose newspaper and magazine sales are falling because the family on a breadline in the poorest end of Maidenhead are paying more Council Tax than they need to pay so retired colonels in Windsor can read the Telegraph free of charge.   Even spare a thought for a relatively comfortably-off boat owner who is able and willing to pay his fair share but isn't allowed to do so.

Or perhaps we should just admit that libraries are a relic of a bygone age and turn them all into community-run trusts, thus freeing the hard pressed taxpayers (most of whom use the services least) from the obligation of paying for them?