Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Beware the Disillusioned Optimists

Yesterday I had a day away from the office; I was in London giving 30 voluntary county council election agents the benefit of my 30 years of campaign wisdom. They allocated me 45 minutes (whichh equates to one minute and thirty seconds per year). 

The meeting was held in the Chelsea, Kensington and Fulham Conservative Association Office.  I have long wanted to visit this office, often referred to in approving terms by Alan Clark in his Diaries. Situated in a lovely red-brick Victorian building owned by the Earl of Cadogan and situated in Chelsea Manor Street, just off the vibrant and chic Kings Road. From the outside it was everything I expected it to be. Brooding, imposing and confidently wealthy; the perfect building to house the Grande Dame of Conservative Associations.  In fact, it's so grand, they have two front doors. 

The first door I reached had a buzzer with a hand written sign above it "this door does not open and the bell does not work, please use the door to your right."  Now having a bell which does not work is not unusual, but having a door which does not open is a sign of being special.  Only the most wealthy Conservative Associations could afford the luxury of a non-opening front door, safe in the knowledge that their second front door will open when required.  If Tonbridge & Malling had a front door which did not open we would be in trouble, as no-one would ever get in - which, on second thoughts, would be quite an advantage when my Chairman turns up for a 'strategic review".

Once inside, the reality crashed around me. It was just like every other Conservative office from Aberdeen to Bournemouth East. Can anyone tell me why all Conservative Association offices smell the same? That overpowering scent of riso ink and moldering paper?  In the old days there was the additional smells of fag smoke and damp dog, as every agent I knew smoked like a chimney and brought their dog to work with them.   I wonder if LibDem offices smell the same way?  I suspect they smell of mung beans and Yardley Lily of the Valley talc.

The meeting hall was fine but freezing cold. Blue stacking chairs which didn't quite match the carpet.  These old house were notorious for the cold and most had numerous yellow Labradors to act as additional blankets.  No such luxury for us; just the heat from Julian Walden's data projector.  'Don't worry', said Julian, "it will soon warm up when the delegates arrive".  Unfortunately a combination of the Eastleigh By Election and cancelled trains due to frozen points resulted in just 10 of the planned 30 "delegates" actually turning up. 

First up was the great Alan Mabbutt, the Party's Legal Officer.  He presented on the latest polling trends and updated us on changes in election law.  Disillusioned Optimists are a key battleground. Did anyone know who these people were? Apparently they all read the Daily Mail and think the country's going to hell in a handcart.  Sounds like most of my branch committees!  He then showed a thirty year line graph with peaks and troughs in Conservative support.  "Does anyone have any idea why we peaked at the 1992 local election?" he asked, hopefully. Blank looks all around.  Suddenly I realised that none of the people there (apart from the three apparatchiks) were around in 1992, the last time we actually won a majority. A chill ran down my spine...was it the cold room or the thought of 'one more heave'?  

Lunch was served, two platters of M&S Sandwiches and a packet of grapes. And coffee. You would think being in Chelsea there would be decent coffee. Rombouts perhaps, or maybe a gold plated caffittierre, or an old fashioned filter machine, dripping coffee into a Pyrex jug which stews all afternoon on its hotplate. Sadly not, it was a catering size jar of Nescafe and a plastic bag of PJ Tips (not even Twinings). It was however served in pretty blue Wedgewood-esque teacups.

Finally, I was up (first on after lunch).  This is known as the graveyard slot - and graveyard would have been livelier. I was competing with hypothermia, indigestion and boredom - and I suspect hypothermia, indigestion and boredom won. My presentation, aimed at a lively crowd of thirty, didn't quite work when presented to a group of ten, huddled together to preserve body warmth. To try and get them going after lunch I opened with my series of out-takes and bloomers from previous election leaflets. (See HERE). The low point was when I told them about a councillor advising residents in a leaflet that he would speak to a lady who caused an obstruction to others by failing to trim her bush.  Half of my audience had no idea what the joke was about and the half that did were too embarrassed to laugh. And if you thought it couldn't get any worse, it did.  Right on cue a very well spoken lady from the shires asked, "why is that funny, I don't understand." 

Then we were on to the 'sharing best practice' session. Someone was anxious about candidates using the photocopier and not telling him.  A nice young man from Essex in a three piece suit spoke at length about Google Analytics and adding columns on Tweetdeck to keep an eye what the Twitterati were saying about your campaign. There was a discussion about whether it was worth spending extra to use 100g paper. Someone else wanted to know if he bought a box of pens from the local Pound Shop would they have to be declared.  Then they all went home.

Julian started clearing the plates and cups and I started to wash-up, when the Association Agent appeared. "Oh, there's no need to do that", he said, "the housekeeper comes in at 4pm - she'll take care of the dishes."  A housekeeper!  The joys of being in Chelsea.

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