Thursday, 28 February 2013

Lesson from Eastleigh

It's 1.30am and I am about to go to bed. I fear there is nothing to wait-up for apart from a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. The writing is on the wall, the Lib Dem's have held their seat and we have almost certainly come third, behind UKIP.  That is the democratic process. I am not happy, but the people have spoken.

I am not going to join the Armchair Army in their faux outrage and predictions of Armageddon. I have found over the years that most who comment on-line with pompous authority have seldom set foot in the town where the election is being fought.

In truth, I actually thought the CCHQ Campaign Team did a good job. The literature was fine, the teams of helpers were well organised, the campaign was well supported. Technically, we did all we could have done.  It just wasn't quite enough.

When I left Hampshire in the early 1990s Eastleigh had a Conservative Council and a Conservative MP. In 1992 we polled 39,000 votes and we had a majority of over 17,000. Tonight, I predict we will poll around 10,000 votes. Even allowing for a reduced electorate through boundary changes, that is quite a decline.

Back then  the Association had a full time Agent (his name was Adrian Bridle, and he was a friend of mine). They had over 1,000 members and active branches in most wards. Whilst the LibDems and Labour held most of the town centre seats, we were solid in the villages, Botley, Hedge End, West End, Bursledon, Netley, Hiltingbury and Hamble. 

We then lost the by-election following the tragic death of Stephen Milligan. But even after that defeat in 1995, we were still in contention. Adrian Bridle had retired as Agent and Gordon Williams took over. He rebuilt the council base to 20 Conservative councillors and the membership to 900. Sadly, after Gordon left, things appear to have gone wrong.

I understand that membership is now around 100, mainly very old. We have lost every single council seat (apart from the four in Hiltingbury, which are not part of the Eastleigh Parliamentary constituency). Even the formerly rock solid yachting haven of Hamble (where they filmed Howard's Way) is now very safely Lib Dem. 

Tonight's result isn't a reflection on CCHQ or Maria Hutchings. They did the best they could with the tools available.,

The lesson from Eastleigh is this is what happens when a political party loses its membership, loses its branches, loses its district, county and parish councillors and ultimately loses its roots and understanding of the community it is there to represent.

Across the country there must be many Eastleighs just waiting to happen - and it affects all main parties, not just us.  I can think of a few in Kent - so goodness only knows what we must be like in much of the Midlands, North West and North and Scotland.

CAMS (centrally managed membership) is a fig leaf. You don't reconnect a political party with the community by handing the responsibility of collecting  membership subscriptions to a centralised database, which posts out the letters on your behalf. You rebuild a political organisation from the grass roots upwards. Street by street, polling district by polling district, ward by ward and eventually the Parliamentary seat will fall.

We most stop this management of decline. Yes, the endless branch meetings where members spend more time talking about the next jumble sale than they do about politics can be tedious, but they bring people into the fold who would otherwise be excluded. And by bringing them in we hear what they say, and they tell others that we listened and bring them in too. And once enough friends talk about us in favourable terms, we have a chance of winning back the council seats - and perhaps, one day, just perhaps, when we have won back the council seats and organised enough coffee mornings, and signed up the helpers, Eastleigh, and many seats like it. may once again have a Conservative MP.

Post script: it would appear that the great Bill Deedes got there 12 years before me. He is an article he wrote for the Telegraph on 2001 on this very subject:   I am grateful to my friend, Philip Young, for bringing it to my attention.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

But what do you and Jon actually do all day....?

This is an often asked question, not in a suspicious or angry way - more from a genuine lack of understanding of what keeps two men and a small army of volunteers busy from 9am - 7pm five days a week, and often on Saturdays too.

I think most volunteers (including a few members of the Management Committee) genuinely believe we print a few leaflets at election time, then sit around waiting for the phone to ring. If only! So here is what will be an irregular (perhaps quarterly) post about a day in the life of a Conservative Association office.

Firstly, three constituencies share our pokey two-rooms (three if you include the cramped attic space where our three folding machines live). West Malling might be a lovely North Downs market town, packed with bijoux shops, but our office is far from glamorous.  We are up a rickety flight of stairs above Lucas Hair Design and opposite the kebab shop.  I recall Maureen Lipman once saying of Hampstead, "it's the only place where one can buy 42 varieties of wholemeal crepes but God help you if you want a tin of peas." West Malling isn't quite as bad (we do have a Tesco) but it's not far off.

Between them, our three Associations have around 1,700 members, 150 Conservative councillors and three MPs. As well as offering advice, design, print, folding and general administrative support for all these people, we also service over 20 active branches, three Patrons' Clubs, two 200 Clubs, two Business Groups, a Rural Affairs Committee, three Policy Discussion Groups, a Farmers & Growers Advisory Forum (I bet not many Associations have a group for people who grow apples for a living) and no doubt numerous other groups and committees which have slipped my mind.  We also have three Management Committees, a CF Group, a Ladies Committee and three Executive Councils. In addition to this, I offer strategic political advice and support to five Conservative controlled councils - not that any of them listen!

Also, as the number of paid professionals continues to fall, those of us left are increasingly seen as an advice and support hotline for volunteers, secretaries and officers from neighbouring Associations. Not a day goes by without at least two calls asking for help on everything from Merlin problems, legal concerns and requests for training.  I always try to help when I can, but it does add to the pressure. And it will only get worse as I will be the last full time Agent in Kent once my friend and colleague Gordon Williams retires as agent in Folkestone in a few months time.

So apart from the above, what do we actually do all day....

Well, today we received 917 (that's right - nine hundred and seventeen) items of post. I admit, this isn't usual - yesterday we only received 255. But when you print, pack and deliver surveys to every known Conservative pledge across three parliamentary constituencies (all 70,000 of them) you cannot complain when people send them back!  Now, I don't know if you have ever seen 917 letters, but they are a lot.  Put it this way, if you can open three a minute it would take over 5 solid hours just to open the post!  Then they have to be sorted and data captured. 

And what else do we do...? 

Today, we were working on the following projects: two Association Annual Dinners, three Association Annual General Meetings, membership reminder letters for three Associations (printed today to be packed and posted tomorrow), two new branch launches (Kings Hill and Borough Green), fund raising visits by Dan Hannan MEP and Greg Clark MP, eight branch social and fund raising events and organising the Kent Area Conference (120 people already booked).

And if that's not enough... I am helping Kent County Council Conservative Group pull together their manifesto, looking after my 13 West Kent County Council candidates (plus informally advising 10 others), mediating in a hissy fit and organising teams of volunteers to go to Eastleigh tomorrow (plus others making GOTV calls from home).

Whilst all this is happening, I am also planning a summer membership recruitment campaign targeting 23,000 pledges, assisting Julian Walden with training voluntary County Council agents plus, getting my head around a parliamentary selection which commences in the autumn.

Oh, and did I tell mention that I was also on the Kent Area Management Executive with responsibility for training and best practice?

So, apart from me, who works alongside me and assists this mammoth operation...

Well, first and foremost is my long suffering and incredibly patient Campaign Assistant, Jon Botten. Jon was a former intern who secured a dream job working for a MP, but for some reason came back!  I have no idea why anyone who had previously worked with me would ever chose to return, but thank goodness he did.  Jon acts as a buffer between me and those who are likely to get their heads bitten off.  If you ever phone and Jon says "he's a bit busy right now' or 'he's in a meeting at the moment', don't be angry - he's actually doing you a favour!  Jon makes appointments, produces tickets, types minutes, designs newsletters, looks after the membership records, prints leaflets, canvassing cards and membership lists, folds and bundles, banks money, carries boxes from vans into the office and then from the office into cars and generally smooths the feathers I have previously ruffled.

Then we have Alex - who is a part time student who comes in one or two days per week to data capture the thousands of surveys and canvassing cards which we receive each week.

Then we have the following office-based volunteers

Gill Levine - who comes in two days per week to pack envelopes
Allan Sullivan and John Balcombe - who must work 20 hours per week printing and folding
Edward Pugh - who keeps the books and banks the cheques
Janet Sergison and Mike Waller - who spend hours each week simply opening the post
Owen Baldock - who patiently feeds thousands of letters into the franking machine
Pat Gulvin - who lends a hand with data capturing as and when she can

And, of course, our Association Chairman, Jacques Arnold, who offers to help but is a danger to man and beast. He once fed dozens of letters into the franking machine upside own, and the only time we asked him to open the post he stabbed himself with the letter opener. But, of course, he did used to be the MP for Gravesham!

Now, does anyone else want to ask what we do all day...?

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Get off your backside and go and win some votes

County Council elections are approaching, and I am girding my loins for the usual round of feeble excuses which I have heard at every election for the past 30 years, usually from laissez faire candidates who think elections can be won from the comfort of their armchair.

I know that some of them read my blog! To save awkward conversations in a few weeks time, here is my standard reply to all the excuses I have heard over the years (and ill no doubt hear again between now and 2nd May)

1. There's no point canvassing tonight, the football is on....
Nor tomorrow as it's Emmerdale, Wednesday is Coronation Street, Thursday is the evening families go grocery shopping, Friday is the start of the weekend, Saturday is useless as everyone is out and Sunday will offend the Christians. Daytime canvassing is pointless as everyone is at work, evening canvassing is no better as people have just returned home from work and they are tired. It's a waste of time canvassing in summer as everyone is out at the beach / park / in the garden and in winter it's too cold and people won't stand and chat.  In other words, there's always a feeble excuse not to knock on doors!

2. After being on the Council for eight years everyone knows who I am....
Do they really...?  Then let's run a little experiment.  I am going to pick ten people at random from the electoral register and phone them and ask if they can name their local County Councillor.  For every one who can name you, I will give you £5. For each of those who doesn't know your name, you give me £5.  Let's see who is better off at the end!

3. There's no point delivering a Voter ID Survey as I know all the local issues...
That's good!  Let's have a little test.  There's a lady at 37 Manor Lane - Mrs Hall. Write on this piece of paper the issues which concern her most. After you have written down her issues, I will call and ask her the same question. What are the odds you have got it right?

4. I don't need to read your 'Guidance Notes for Canvassers' as I've been doing this for years...
In that case, why do you write L for Labour when the code has been S for the last 10 years?  Also, P means probably not possible.

5. There's no point doing more than one leaflet as too much paper irritates people...
So thinking back to the election last year, why did all those candidates who delivered regular In Touches and pledge letters get such better results than those who did not ?

6. In the good old days we used to tour the streets with a loud speaker....
Why would you wish to irritate your opposition and remind them to go out and vote against you?

7. When I go canvassing I don't think it's right to ask people how they are going to vote...
In that case, why are you bothering? The purpose is to build your pledge base so we know who to target during GOTV.   Sorry ?  GOTV - it means Get Out The Vote. Yes, that's right - we've been calling it that for ten years now! 

8. I don't have enough people to do knocking-up so I have asked my helpers to stand at the polling station Telling.
Eh? What's the point of Telling if you're not going to use the data? No-one is likely to change their vote as there isn't a nice lady with a blue ribbon standing at the polling station door. However, dozens might be persuaded to vote if you tell them how much you need their support.  

9. It's far too early to start knocking-up
And no doubt by 6pm you won't be able to knock-up as it's dark! And by the way, the two people sat in the Committee Room (it's called a Campaign HQ now) with a car waiting for people to phone asking for lifts may as well go out and knock on a few doors. No-one phones to ask for a car now!  And no, the Campaign HQ isn't where the committee meet to chat or gather for lunch, and the candidate really doesn't need to stop working to visit the hairdresser - he / she have plenty of time to make himself / herself look glamorous if he / she loses his / her seat!

10. The work of the Council and committees continues during elections, you know..
...and it will continue without you if you don't get out and meet your voters and win their support.  How can you expect your team to slog the streets on your behalf if you are not there with them?  And NO! I'm not prepared to ask CF to abandon the target seats they have adopted, to deliver your leaflets as you are too busy to campaign for yourself.

Any more feeble excuses?  If so, leave a comment and I will add them to my list!

Monday, 25 February 2013

Trial by implication in the court of public opinion

I will begin this blog by making it absolutely clear that complaints about sexual assault and harassment must be investigated fully, and charges brought where guilt is proven, but I do want to put something up for your consideration and comment.

Two years ago I advertised for an intern. We have had several interns over the years, and we treat them fairly. We pay our interns, give them a lunch allowance and also travel costs, and ask them to undertake really useful work, which develops their political, campaigning and interpersonal skills.  What's more, each one has been supported and developed to a point where they have gone on to secure full time positions in Westminster.  One went to work for Tracey Crouch but subsequently came back as our Campaign Assistant now fulfils a vital role in our organisation.

Working in a progressive Conservative Party office, where we use latest campaign technologies, looking after three high profile Members of Parliament and within commuting distance to London, ensures we receive a lot of interest for any position offered. And so it was two years ago when we last advertised.

One particular application stood out from the rest. He had recently graduated with a 2:1 in Modern Classics. He had volunteered in a battleground seat during the 2010 GE Campaign and had a great deal of practical experience as an activist in his home constituency  prior to going to university. He had also done his homework, he knew and understood what an Association Office was there to achieve, he knew the difference between the work of the Association and that of the the MP, and he made a very strong and coherent case about what he wanted to achieve whilst with us.

Then came a PS at the end of his application. "I am also in the water polo team, and I hope you enjoy the enclosed picture of me in my trunks!!!"

Attached to his application was a cutting from a university magazine showing the applicant dripping wet straight out of the pool and wearing a very revealing pair of lycra shorts.  I think it would be fair to see he would have turned many heads in Soho!

The guy had clearly done some 'basic' research (on me as well as the three constituencies I look after); not difficult given I have been openly gay for 20+ years and quite well known in the Party organisation. He clearly thought that enclosing a photograph of himself, tanned, toned and dripping wet, would improve his chances of an interview. Whilst everyone at the office (the boys and the girls) admired the view, he was not invited for an interview (though he probably would have been had the photo not been sent). Despite being a very strong applicant, I was concerned that people would think he as only invited so I could have a better look. My primary concern, however, was I genuinely thought the photograph, whilst showing chutzpah, also demonstrated a lack of judgement, which concerned me.

Now imagine this; a guy who is willing to send a revealing and provocative picture to a potential (gay) employer to try and secure an interview ,probably wouldn't be adverse to using his looks and charm to try to secure promotion or advancement. What if he came for an interview and subsequently wasn't successful, or if he was offered a job, sought advancement but did not achieve it. Then, in a fit of pique, went to the press and claimed I had sexually harassed him.  Would anyone believe that a good looking graduate could possible be making false accusations?   In the world of trial by media and guilt by implication, I think the court of public opinion would find against me before I had a chance to tell my story.  Even if I got that chance, who would be believed?

I don't think this has any similarities with the Lord Rennard allegations, for me the establishment of a pattern of behaviour is the most telling issue, but it does make me think what might have happened and how vulnerable people are to false accusations and instant judgement.

Conspiracy Theory of the Week Award

I have just dropped off County Council supplies at a nearby Association Office, and actually overheard the following gem:

"You know, the reason CCO tell us to keep Merlin switched on 24 hours a day is they have listening devices in the machines so they can hear what is being said in the constituency offices."

I fear if CCHQ were listening, all they would hear in most offices is the sound of rolling tumbleweed!

Sunday, 24 February 2013

The Tory Time Capsule in my Shed!

For many years I have been collecting political memorabilia. I am not a serious collector, and I do not specialise in paintings or ceramics or cartoons, as some people do. I simply buy the odd thing which catches my eye. I suppose I have built-up quite a collection of photographs, bought from Ebay and elsewhere, some of which are quite rare and valuable. However I do not collect for value, but for fun.  here are photographs of some of my collection.
I am pleased to own original newspapers from the 2nd May, 3rd May and 4th May 1979 (the day before, the day of and the day after the 1979 General Election) each chronicling the victory of Mrs Thatcher. What these newspapers make clear is how the demography if the UK, and the Conservative Party's appeal, has changed. 
Next we have my favourite item, a Press Association photograph (an original and one off) taken at the Cenotaph in 1994.  It features Baroness Thatcher with former Prime Ministers Harold Wilson, Ted Heath and James Callaghan. It was Lord Wilson's last appearance at Remembrance Sunday as he died six months later.  The photograph is signed by Baroness Thatcher.
Now to the opposite end of the political spectrum!  Three Labour leaders, who led the British Left from 1977 to 1992 and didn't win a general election between them !  I bought this on Ebay and it came signed by Lord Callaghan and Michael Foot. I took a deep breath and sent it to Neil Kinnock with a note explaining that I collected political photographs and had just bought this on Ebay and asking him would he sign it to make it three out of three. Much to his credit, he signed and sent it back, with a lovely note explaining where and when it was taken. 
Next up is the souvenir programme from the 1938 National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations Christmas Fete.  I wonder how many people could foresee the horrors that would engulf Britain just nine months later.  The only reference in the programme is a short line in the 'address by the Prime Minister, Mr Neville Chamberlain' who wrote of 'dark clouds gathering over the continent of Europe'.
A poignant vignette, however, may be found on page four. Stall No 24, RIDE THE HORSE, is run by The Hon W W Astor MP and Mr J J (Jack) Profumo. There is something endearingly innocent, sad and pathetic about this; a country on the edge of a war in which millions died, and so many aspiring, young and hopeful men, many of whom would  lose their lives in the battles of 1939-1945, running sideshows at a Conservative fete. Even those who survived, some to be brought down by their own folly or betrayal.  In so many ways, Never Glad Confident Morning Again.
On a lighter note, Wedgie's Balls - golf balls with a picture of Tony Benn engraved upon them.

And finally, for all those (including me) who tutted at Tony Blair and David Cameron's publicity seeking photo opportunities, here's something to demonstrate that the Great Lady was no better (even if she did do it with a bit more panache!)

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Carry On Eastleigh

This morning, with snow falling and in sub-zero temperatures, a group of 35 volunteers, including two Members of Parliament, boarded the West Kent coach to help our colleagues in Eastleigh. Considering we all had to rise in the dark, on a Saturday, and drive to a windy car park to catch the bus, I think we look remarkably chipper (though someone did say we resembled the saddos who appear on Channel 4 TV show 'Coach Trip')

We arrived at Eastleigh in good time, the CCHQ directions being first rate. A few orange lozenges visible from the M27 were soon swamped by a sea of Maria Hutchings blue. And, I must say, we won the poster war hands-down. I know this means nothing in terms of votes in the ballot box, but the LibDems usually swamp us with their posters, and to see us winning this particular battle, in an area with a twenty year history of LibDem dominance, was certainly good for the soul.
I have sometimes been critical of CCHQ by-election organisation, but this time I can say only good things. Although there were three coachloads of volunteers arriving at the same time, plus 30 additional carloads, we were welcomed, introduced to the candidate and given our pre-bundled and clearly mapped canvassing packs and leaflets within minutes.
The plan was brilliantly thought through.  We had been allocated canvassing and delivery in one particular village, some distance from the Campaign HQ.  Someone local would board the coach with us, brief us en route, then direct the coach driver where to drop us off in small groups of 2s and 4s, with a convenient regroup point to re-board the coach. Brilliant planning and organisation - well done CCHQ.
We re-boarded the coach, the driver reversed, then reversed a bit more. Unfortunately, he reversed off the driveway and onto the wet grass and muddy soil. Then promptly became stuck. The wheels spun but we did not move, what was worse, we were blocking the drive. Twenty cars waiting to leave couldn't get out - and another coach (bringing volunteers from Epsom and Wimbledon) couldn't get in.  Tracey Crouch offered advice over the driver's shoulder. A woman in a blue quilted jacket with a voice like a gatling gun helpfully informed us that we were stuck in the mud. Several drivers kindly told us that we were blocking the exit.  An old boy with a stag's head walking cane and a green felt hat suggested we should stop trying to get off the mud as we were only making it worse. If Eastleigh is won by the Party whose members have the ability to state the bleeding obvious, then Maria Hutchings will be home and dry.  During the commotion, various CCHQ bigwigs came out, looked at us with a mixture of pity and disdain, then hurriedly disappeared back inside - I suspect it didn't take them long to work out that our predicament was beneath their pay grade.
Just when you thought it really couldn't get any more bizarre, it did. A man wearing pink trousers, wellington boots and duffel coat adorned with a red, white and blue rosette appeared from the neighbouring property. It turned out he was the candidate for the Beer, Baccy and Crumpet Party (I kid you not). He helpfully suggested we should all get off the coach then place branches cut off a nearby leylandi tree under the wheels to give the coach some traction. 
So we all got off. 
Branches were hacked and placed beneath wheels. Someone (I think it was Rupert Turpin from Rochester) thought it would help if small stones were placed in the mud. The gatling gun shouted encouragement. Green felt hat shook his head dismissively. Beer, Baccy and Crumpet man started telling me how it had all gone downhill since the good old days of Margaret Thatcher. Former Medway Mayor, Sue Haydock, even got behind the coach and pushed, whilst the men shouted advice and support from the safety of the driveway. Still the coach did not budge. 
At this point, plans were revised. Leaflet delivery rounds and houses to canvass were identified within walking distance - and off we went, leaving the coach and its driver in the hands of CCHQ, who were going to call a local farmer to tow him off the mud with a tractor.  By the time we returned, four hours later, all was well. The coach driver, liberated from wisdom of crowds, had extricated himself from the mud.
Are we going to win?  The honest answer is I wasn't there long enough to test the temperature so I cannot make any educated guess.  Certainly, in the area I was working, we were leading the field. The constituency was awash with Party activists. We had clearly won the poster war. Our organisation was first rate and enthusiasm from our members was as good as I have ever seen it. Most interestingly, there was no evidence whatsoever of the hostility governments usually face in a mid-term by election. 

Friday, 22 February 2013

Parade of the Lumpen Hopefuls


I have previously blogged about how, within five minutes of Sir John Stanley announcing his retirement at last year's AGM, I received a call from someone on the Parliamentary List who lives in Leicester. How he found out about Sir John's retirement (unless someone at the meeting tipped him off), how he knew who I was (we had never met) or obtained my phone number, I have never ascertained.

Since then, my life has been regularly interrupted by a stream of 'disinterested' hopefuls. They track me down at conferences and meetings, offer to buy me lunch or dinner, ask if they can assist at local by-elections, seek invitations to branch social events, enquire about attending the Kent Area Conference and even ask if they can come on the coach with us to Eastleigh (quite a show of commitment considering they would have to travel further to join up the coach in Kent than to drive there directly).  Few actually mention the forthcoming selection, instead they talk in riddles. "Sir John's been an outstanding MP - you'll need someone with big shoes to replace him."  Unsurprisingly, most of them have small feet. For the record, I have much more time and respect for those who are upfront, ask for my advice, and are honest with the members they meet.  Everyone here knows Tonbridge & Malling is a plum constituency, and lots of ambitious people would like the opportunity to represent it in Parliament. There is nothing wrong with ambition - but at least pursue it with honesty and integrity.

Then we have the 'internals'. 

My predecessor as agent, Anne Moloney, warned me that the Association was 'littered' with Parliamentary hopefuls who had moved into the constituency over the previous 20 years to position themselves and build an internal 'power base'. Clearly, the long wait has taken its toll, as all many have achieved is to acquire far more enemies than friends.  They can be spotted a mile off; the over enthusiastic branch Chairman who never actually achieves anything for the branch, the eager activist whose only activity is to blow his or her own trumpet,  the verbose member of the Executive Council who needs to be noticed by speaking too long and too often, the shiny suit who is always first in line to shake hands with the visiting minister but last in the queue when there are doors to knock or leaflets to deliver. Years of such blatant self promotion is noticed and it takes its toll.

The clumsy activities of their friends and supporters is also cause of amusement.  Last night our Chairman reported to the Executive on the likely time frame for the selection process.  By the time I had driven home (a 45 minute journey) an email had arrived from someone who told me how hard he had worked 5 years ago (obviously forgetting I had been around Kent for ten years, and I can remember exactly who did what) and asking if a position could be 'created' to give him a seat on the Executive Council, as he felt would all benefit from his wisdom and experience.

I am not sure what is worse; the fact that these people are so lacking in self-awareness, or they feel they can manipulate so many decent, hard working, selfless people who have given their lives to the Party they love for no personal benefit or gain.

Forty years ago the members of Tonbridge & Malling selected a candidate who went on to serve his Party, constituency and country with honour and dignity for four decades. I have every confidence that our members, who pay their subscriptions, walk the streets, bake cakes, sell raffle tickets and serve their communities in a thousand different ways, will make the right choice once again.

Dirty Politics

Coming from the leafy end of West Kent, where the rudest thing a councillor would ever say to another is, "I fear you have got hold of the wrong end of the stick", I never cease to be amazed and amused at just how aggressive and personal Medway councillors are (to each other and to their opposite numbers).

I understand that at last night's meeting, one Conservative councillors said to an up and coming, privately educated, city boy Socialist,

"There are two things I don't like about you, both of your faces."

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Sex Toys and Aylesford

I thought that would get your attention!

Earlier this evening my Blackberry went PLONK - and I knew it was Tracey Crouch. Don't worry, I don't have designated ring tones for each of my MPs (if I did, what on earth would I allocate to Sir John Stanley? - answers in the comments section, please). The plonk noise is for Blackberry Messenger, and Tracey is my only contact on BBM, hence I knew it was her.

Anyway, she was excited. Apparently she had just been visiting a factory or a shop, and pinned on the staff room noticeboard was a cutting from The Sun.  It was a list of the Top Ten places in the UK for average spend on sex toys. And right there "in at number six" was Aylesford.

I have always thought there was something of Stepford Wives about Aylesford, all those trimmed hedgerows and neat post war semi detached houses. In fact, I am there tomorrow, at a lunch party at the home of Chatham & Aylesford's Association President., Joyce Gadd.   Joyce is renowned for her catering and hospitality - she claims to be a dab hand with the rolling pin - now I wonder what she uses it for!

And I always thought that dull humming sound was the distant roar of the M20.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

My Desert Island Discs

I have recently discovered the joys of the BBCs Desert Island Discs archive, where you can download podcasts of all editions of the programme dating back to the 1940s. It is a truly wonderful resource, plotting changes to music, celebrity, language and style over 70 years, and is highly entertaining, too.

The politicians, particularly party leaders, are often the least interesting. I cannot help but think their choices are determined by their media and press consultants, more concerned about how their choices portray them.  The honourable exception to this being Lord Home.

How many of us, especially those who are fans of the programme, have not wondered what seven records we would choose, should we ever be asked.....   Here are mine (in no particular order).

1. Mac The Knife
In 1993, along with two friends (Richard Lazenby and Charlie Butt) I opened a Wine Bar & Bistro in Southampton. On the opening night a local singer, Lucien De Laloi, played sax and sang. At about 10pm, with the party in full swing, Richard and I crossed the road and looked at 'our' bar. We had created it from scratch from an empty fashion boutique. For Charlie it was a financial investment. For Richard and I it was a shared dream. As we watched our baby come to life, packed with friends and well wishers, Lucian started singing Mac The Knife. It became our theme song, and Lucien our house singer. At that moment I could not have been happier, prouder or more excited.

2. Highland Cathedral
I fell in love with Gibraltar 20+ years ago, and had the joy of taking Steve there a year after we first met. I was delighted when he too fell in love with this wonderfully patriotic, decent, quirky and contented corner of Britain. Over the years I have read everything there is to read about the history of the Rock and it's brave and decent people. Two years ago we were there for Christmas, and secured late tickets for a charitable concert held in St Michael's Cave. The highlight of the show was the pipes and drums of the Royal Gibraltar Regiment playing Highland Cathedral. The sound within this massive cave was magnificent. Sadly, I cannot find a recording of the Royal Gibraltar Regiment, but this is the Royal Scots Guards, who are equally magnificent.

3. I Vow to Thee My Country
I am an unashamed patriot, and for me, I Vow to Thee My Country, is one of the tunes which makes me lip quiver and my eyes moisten. This version is instrumental and is overlayed with scenes from the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill. The scene at 3 minutes 50 seconds, where the dock workers lower the cranes in a mark of respect as Sir Winston's coffin passes on a barge, is one of the most moving of all.

4. Us and Them
Pink Floyd wouldn't be in my top ten bands, but I like most of what they do.  Us and Them is my favourite, I think as much influenced by the fabulous saxophone as anything else. It also takes me back to when I first set-up my own home in the late 1980s and made my own circle of friends - and what a bunch they were. I recall hosting a Murder Mystery Dinner Party to which the guests turned up in fancy dress, including a mad axeman, a S&M Dominatrix and a deranged surgeon with bloody body parts (butchers offal) strung around his neck. When I apologised to my neighbours in advance, they dismissed my concerns with, "Oh don't worry, having seen a transvestite chase a man dressed in leather thong around your garden last week, nothing could shock us."

5. Zadok the Priest
The Coronation Anthem composed by George Frideric Handel in 1742 and sung at the coronation of every monarch since. And woe betide anyone I hear refer to it as the UEFA Champions League music.

6. This Is My Life
Having seen her in concert twice and bought most of her albums and CDs, I had to include at least one of Shirley's songs. Shirley is great - unashamedly high camp and a wonderful performer. I saw her once in Marbella, she was at an adjoining table in Cappuccino. I was eating an omelette, she had a lobster. C'est la vie!

7. Tell Me It's Not True
When I began writing this post several hours ago, I had a mental list of 30 songs to choose from, but Tell Me It's Not True was not one of them. I dislike musicals, but Willy Russell's Blood Brothers is the exception.  Being born in Liverpool, in fact in the very district of the city in which Blood Brothers was based, and coming from a family who, in the pre-war years lived in the most deprived conditions, perhaps gives me an emotional bond with this production. My poor maternal grandmother, who was brought-up seven children in a two-bedroomed terraced house, on the meagre wages of a dock worker, could very easily have been Mrs Johnstone.  If you have not seen Blood Brothers you won't have a clue what I am talking about!

So there we are, my seven Desert Island Discs!

PS I am grateful to MB who spoke to me at tonight's meeting of the Tonbridge & Malling Executive Council and reminded me that guests on Desert Island Discs select eight records, not seven. He asked what my eighth choice would be, so here it is:

8. Eternal Father, Strong to Save
As some of you will know, I spent three very happy years working on the cruise ship ss Canberra. I loved every minute of it; the travel, the (tax free) earnings, the booze, even the passengers (I ended up in a relationship with one and living in Sydney!) But perhaps most importantly of all, the friendships and sense of deep sense camaraderie, something I had not previously experienced. Being at sea is the greatest leveller. You drink, eat, play and work together, nowhere to go to escape. The unwritten rules were simple - get on or get off. There was no place for prima donas or trouble makers. As a consequence, I found myself making friends - and at times deep and bonding friendships, with people I would never have the opportunity to meet shore-side. If I had to gather 30 friends, the largest contingent would be from my time as sea, even though it was 20 years ago. Eternal Father, Strong to Save is the seafarer's hymn. I wouldn't be so presumptuous to say I was a sailor, or even a member of the navy (though, technically I was in the Merchant Navy and had many friends and colleagues went to the Falklands). It was a privilege to work with so many wonderful people.

The Conservative's Secret Weapon

Ever wondered how the Conservative Party has been the dominant force in British politics for two centuries?   How we control more Councils and have more elected councillors than every other Party combined?  How we dominate the intellectual and political map of Britain ? 

Here is the answer...

On the right is Cllr Allan Sullivan, Chief Whip at Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council.  He is watching sheets of paper go INTO the printing machine.  To the left is Cllr John Balcombe (modelling his Christmas sweater).  His job is to watch the same sheets of paper as they come OUT of the printing machine.   This keeps them happy for hours.

Across the country there are thousands of Allan Sullivan's and John Balcombe's.  They are our secret weapon.

Socialists....  be afraid.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

I've been rumbled !

Months ago I blogged about a member of the Tunbridge Wells Conservative Association who was a retired forensic graphologist and had offered his services to raise money for the Association.  See here: THE WRITING'S ON THE WALL

To demonstrate his craft he invited me to send a sample of my handwriting for analysis. I was happy to oblige and was determined to send a 'warts and all' sample - not one written specially to impress. I therefore dug-out and sent a page of notes I had taken at an earlier Executive Council meeting, written long before my first ever conversation with this gentleman.

I appreciate that people can (and will) say "this is like a horoscope - so vague that it can suit anyone. It could also be argued that some of the 'qualities' he listed; strategic thinker, determination, enthusiasm, drive etc could be easily assumed given I have been a political agent for 20+ years. There are, however, other points raised which are less vague, and eerily prescient, "prepared to cut the rope rather than untie the knot" and "casual observers may consider him somewhat arrogant... 

All I will say is I was very impressed, as was everyone who knows me. For the record, at the time this report was written, we had not met each other, we have no mutual friends and our only conversation was a ten minute phone call.

Thank you Iain Dale

Several years ago I had an early attempt at blogging and built a small but loyal readership. One morning I logged on and noticed my hit counter had spiked; over 1,000 hits and it wasn't even noon. My self-congratulatory mood soon crashed down to reality when I answered the telephone to Cllr Phil Thomas from Croydon. "Hello boyo, I see your blog was mentioned on Iain Dale's Diary. He was slagging you off good and proper." Humiliation by proxy! 

A significant spike also appeared yesterday, which I traced back to Iain's new blog which can be read here - and a listing in his Daily Dozen for my post on living for 6 months on a narrowboat. Thanks Iain for the traffic!

I am a huge fan of Iain Dale and I am sorry that he has removed his name from the candidate's list. We need people like him in Parliament.

I am delighted that Iain accepted my invitation to speak at the Kent Area Conservative Conference at Tonbridge School on Saturday 23 March 2013. He and Tim Montgomerie will be co-hosting an afternoon session on Social Media, will it ever win elections? These two alone would be reason to attend, but we also have Dan Hannan MEP, Richard Ashworth MEP, Nirj Deva MEP, Paul Carter, Greg Clark MP, Bob Neil MP plus one or two surprise visitors.

To download a programme and a booking form, click HERE

Monday, 18 February 2013

It's That Man Again

Someone from Westminster has just sent me this press photograph, taken during the Prime Minister's recent Trade Mission to Brazil.

Look carefully - see anything 'odd' ?  Perhaps someone whose presence makes you ask, "what the hell is he doing there...?"

Answers on a postcard please!

Sunday, 17 February 2013

My real life Selfridge drama !

Watching tonight's episode of Selfridges got me reminiscing about the 1990s when I would regularly meet my good friends Ben Davies and Rodney Jones for lunch or drinks at the store. Quite often we would meet at the Seafood Bar in the food hall to share a Platter of Fruits de Mer with a bottle or two of Champagne. Rodney and I would have a dozen native oysters on the side.
This particular day we were all in Town separately. Ben & Rodney had been to meet one of their 'interesting' Arab ship owners who all, for some reason, arranged meetings in the public bars of down-at-heel 3* hotels off Bayswater Road. I had been to lunch at Rules. By the time we regrouped at Selfridges, none of us were exactly sober.  Realising closing time was in sight, we had to hurry. The first bottle of Pol didn't touch the sides so we ordered another. I then recall three glasses of Absinthe appearing.  Pretty soon thereafter the lights went out (literally and metaphorically) and we were asked to leave. Not that we were obnoxious, loud or incapable (perish the thought, we were accomplished imbibers) but the store had closed and we were the last customers still in the building.  As a security man showed us to the only unlocked door, Ben peeled away for the loo. We arranged hurriedly to re-group in the nearby Lamb & Flag.

Thirty minutes passed and no sign of Ben. In this time several large gins with tonic had been consumed. Then the mobile rang. It was her (yes - Ben is a woman, short for Bernadette, but don't tell her I told you, as she will kill me).  Apparently she'd nodded off on the loo and when she woke up they had locked all the doors and turned off most of the lights. "Can you come and rescue me...?" 

Rodney and I headed back to Selfridges. Half way there, the phone rang again.  "I found an open door which I thought led to Oxford Street, so I went through it. But it was actually a door into a window display, and I can't get out as the door swung shut behind me and there's no handle to open it. Can you rescue me as quite a large crowd is gathering."

Alarm bells started to ring. Although Ben was pushing 50 she was in great shape and liked to live up to her Patsy Stone (AbFab) sobriquet. She had been known strip off and would, if encouraged, flash her tits to shock and amuse! As soon as we turned onto Oxford Street we could spot where she was. A crowd had indeed started to form, mainly tourists who clearly thought she was part of an interactive display. Fortunately she was fully clothed and quite relaxed.  We rattled the doors and found a bell, but no-one came. In the end we called the store. The phone was answered by an out of hours service, who put us through to security. Within seconds they appeared in the window and led her out to Oxford Street. A happy end!

I suspect if the real Harry Gordon Selfridge is anything like the character in the TV series, he would have approved!

Taking stock - six months afloat!

The title of this blog is Diary of a Conservative Party Agent and Live Aboard Boater. My original aim was to blog about my life in the back rooms of party politics and also our new life living on a boat. Looking back I do plenty of the former, but very little of the later. Perhaps because our lives transferred so easily from land to water there is little to blog about, but as we have now been 'live-aboard' for six months, perhaps it's a time for a review.

Firstly, here is a very early blog post about why we were leaving dry land to live on our boat: It's worth a read to understand why we are here.

So, after six months, how is life afloat?

Firstly, the practicalities. As I hoped and expected, we have both adapted to a 90% reduction in our living space remarkably well. In fact, considering neither of us would win a Twiggy look-alike competition, and we spend much of our time moving around sideways, then it is testament to our love and friendship that we so easily live in such a confined space without rows or rancour! In summer we had the advantage of outside - there is no better way to spend a warm evening or a sunny day off than sitting in a comfortable chair by the river, with the sound of lapping waves, reading a book, dozing in the sun and eating alfresco by candlelight. The cold months are a lot more challenging - but there are far worse ways of spending a cold winter night than watching a DVD on a timber lined boat with a roaring log fire in the stove. However, it is not all plain sailing. Our 240v electricity comes on board via a shoreline, which is shared with four other boaters. If anyone overloads their fuse, the power goes out for all four who share that ring. This is not a catastrophe, but it does mean a cold dark walk with a torch to reset the trip switch. What is very annoying, however, is if the fuses trip at 5am during sleep, as we then awaken to a freezing cold boat as the heating has not come on, and what's worse - no hot water. Not a great start to the day - but thankfully it's only happened twice.

In my original blog I wrote about our dreadfully wasteful and consumerist lifestyle. My hopes here are also coming to fruition. Though we don't have time to shop together and plan our meals, Steve and I eat together, and eat food we have bought and cooked for ourselves, twice as often as we previously did. A small fridge and no freezer results in less waste, as we shop for one or two days at a time. And our consumption of energy had reduced significantly. Our electricity is about the same, gas charges have reduced from £80pcm to £15, we have zero water or waste water disposal charges and Council Tax is £600pa less than we paid in Bromley. Overall, a saving of about £2,000 pa (though, through the winter months this is offset by £40pcm on coal and timber for the stove). The biggest saving, however, is not paying rent (out of taxed income) for our flat. And, I am delighted to say, every penny we have reduced our expenditure by we are saving towards our goal of buying a Dutch Barge next year! All is going to plan.

But living on a boat, and quite a small boat at that, is not all rosy, and it would be dishonest of me not to record some of the negatives. At times it can be claustrophobic, and the lack of space to simply get away and read a book, or sit in peace and think can be challenging. Similarly, when one of us has to work late (usually me) or leave early (usually Steve) this inevitably results in disturbance and inconvenience to the other, something far easier to manage when we lived in a large flat. And, on a personal and purely selfish level, I really hate being parted from my books. So often I would be watching a TV documentary, reading a newspaper or magazine or a biography and I would end up taking down all the relevant books and journals dealing with that period time or issue, to see how others had recorded their own versions of history. But this is a small (and temporary) price to pay for the all the benefits we have achieved.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

I have found The Big Society

Yesterday included organising a mail-shot to 300 members and supporters, a meeting with the C&A Treasurer to discuss finance and the forthcoming annual dinner, a long but productive meeting of Kent Area Management Executive, two hours with Jon on office administration and finally arranging for part time assistance with data management. 

At 6.30pm I headed off to market town of Edenbridge for their branch annual dinner.  Edenbridge, and the stunningly beautiful villages which surround it, are part of Sevenoaks; they elect councillors to Sevenoaks DC, have Sevenoaks post codes and are just 5 miles from Sevenoaks town centre. Yet thanks to the Boundary Commission they are part of Tonbridge & Malling constituency. We love having them, and I believe the local members and activists are happy to be with us! 

En route I picked up our constituency Chairman, Jacques Arnold (he used to be the MP for Gravesend, you know). Jacques knew a shortcut, which involved 20 miles of single track dirt roads and driving through two flooded rivers. "Oh, but the surrounding countryside is beautiful", he said. Perhaps so, but it was 7pm and pitch black. Serves me right for taking navigation advice from the former MP for Gravesend (has he ever mentioned that?) 

Edenbridge is the perfect example of how a Conservative branch should be run. If a plague of locusts were to descend on West Malling and wipe out the Association HQ, I suspect they wouldn't notice that we had gone (perhaps until the year-end when the branch Treasurer would report that their cheques towards their branch quota had not been cashed). They are self sufficient, efficient and well organised.  

There must have been sixty guests at the dinner, the majority of whom were non members (exactly what should happen - friends bringing friends who end up joining / supporting through shares interests). It is to the shame of the Conservative Party that we have allowed our branches to wither on the vine, and something we must address if the voluntary party is to rebuild.  

Tickets were £15.00 which was for a three courses with wine and coffee included. The meal was cooked and served by a team of volunteers. Home-made oxtail and root vegetable soup, chicken pie with roast potatoes and vegetables and a trestle table groaning with cream-laden cakes and puddings. 

The guest speaker was Rt Hon Damian Green MP, the Police Minister, who is quite a catch for a branch event. I suspect the branch Chairman being a retired Commander at New Scotland Yard might have opened a few doors. By the time various Parish Notices were read out, including the 'Women’s Institue Make & Mend Training Day" and the annual meeting of the Town Council, plus arrangements for the Edenbridge Flower Show, it was 9.35pm when Damian was introduced. "he has to be away by 10pm so please keep your questions brief..." Damian give a good defence of the governments record, but my favourite line was, "Many of you might know that I was one of the principle supporters of David Davis's leadership campaign, and after David Cameron's election as Prime Minister I was rewarded for my loyalty by being appointed Immigration Minister."  

The questions were surprisingly brief and quite progressive. One chap asked if we were too tight on our immigration policy would it prevent people coming to the UK who do the jobs that the British don't want to do for ourselves. There as another question on presumption of innocence, and someone else wanted to know what Damian could do about the price of bus travel for 18 yo's.

It was a perfect example of what the Conservative Party is about. Volunteers were selfless with their time and generous in their effort. The same people who did the work last night will be running the Town Council, organising the Flower Show and the Town Carnival, running the WI, the Rotary Club, the Townswomen's Guild, arranging the flowers at the Church, running the local Meals on Wheels Service, organising the tea counter at the local hospital, shopping and caring for their elderly friends and neighbours. David Cameron called it The Big Society - I call it all England.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Localism, stumped by a tree

A councillor friend represents a pleasant urban ward, filled with large, Victorian family homes, built along wide, tree-lined roads.  Or, following recent storms and outbreaks of various tree-felling diseases, stump-lined roads.
Residents have been campaigning for years to have the trees replanted, but in times of austerity, with cuts to budgets and council taxes frozen, planting new trees in wealthy suburban roads is not a priority. And rightfully so.

Determined to do his best for his electorate, my colleague visited the local garden centre and asked if, in exchange for a plaque on each tree acknowledging their support, they would donate ten suitable street trees. They readily agreed.
Next stop was the local TA. The Physical Training Instructor agreed to my colleagues request for TA volunteers to dig out the old stumps and replant the new trees, at no charge. The TA was keen to raise their local profile by doing good works in the local community.

 So far, so good.

Next stop was the Council and a meeting with the relevant Environmental Officer. Much sucking of teeth and intakes of breath resulted in a "site meeting" being called. But my colleague was still hopeful. How could anyone complain?

Come the morning of the site meeting, my colleague turned up at the appointed time to find a crowd, all wearing high-vis jackets and carrying clipboards, thronging around a tree stump. There was the Councils insurers, representatives from the main utility companies, Environment Officers, someone from BT to survey the likely future impact on telephone lines, someone from the police, Highways Department, solicitors to advise of Road Traffic Orders and likely impacts of traffic re-routing, horticultural advisors, the Council's Tree Officer, a building surveyor, planning officer.....and and on it went. Twenty three bureaucrats gathered around a tree stump, each and every one of them thinking up reasons why the proposed scheme could not possibly go ahead.

What if the trees were diseased? What if, in thirty years, the roots undermined someone's foundations? What if there was another storm and they blew over and caused damage? What if the roots damaged the water mains or the sewers? Did they TA have suitable training to dig a hole? What if a member of the TA injured himself during the planting? Did the TA have public liability insurance? Did the garden centre who were donating the trees meet the Council's standards for equality and access? If not, could the Council accept a donation from them? What if the tree planting raised people's expectations and more people wanted trees?

One by one they overcame the negativity. Staring defeat in the face, the bureaucrats played their trump card. "What about the company which was awarded the Council's arboriculture contract?  Up stepped the legal officers, clearly briefed and waiting for the question to be asked. "Their contract gives them exclusive control over all tree planting and maintenance in the borough. If the Council permitted a voluntary organisation to undertake work specified in their contract, they could sue the council for the notional value of the lost business." In other words, the two or three thousand pounds they would have charged for each tree planted, would need to be paid to them regardless, as compensation.

"Well" said an Officer scenting victory, "if we are going to have to pay them, we might as well give them the work and thereby reduce or eliminate all the other concerns." Wise nodding all around. Then up piped the Tree Officer, "but as we don't have any allocation in this year's budget, I propose a decision is deferred until next year, when we can review the situation..." Everyone agreed. And no doubt delighted that their professional and dedicated approach to public administration has stopped the potentially catastrophic consequences of a councillor’s enthusiasm, off they sloped back to their desks and their box ticking lives.

I am sure many of the issues raised required careful consideration and attention. I am equally sure that given goodwill and common sense, solutions to all these issues could have been found. Sadly the public sector mentality is not equipped to find solutions, but to use process to avoid innovation. What a disgrace.

As a consequence of this ineptitude and small mindedness

1. A local company willing to donate its goods and services to improve the environment had their generosity rejected

2. The local TA who were willing to give time and effort for the benefit of the community were denied the opportunity to do so

3. The local councillor who had worked so hard to achieve this for local residents was belittled and discouraged

4. The residents who have lost their street trees and have waited years for them to be replanted continue to be disappointed

5. The arboriculture company who might have sued do not receive a penny of additional work as the council has no money to pay them.

No action. No progress. No change.

I know many excellent local government officers who are outstanding and dedicated public servants, but what I have outlined above is a perfect example of the adage that we should thank God for local government as it provides employment for thousands of managers who would never survive in the private sector.

Unless the government finds a way to deal with the box ticking mentality which stifles innovation and progress, Localism and the Big Society will never receive the chance they deserve to transform public service in this country.