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...?


  1. Hey! Gordon might be many things, but I never thought of him as a 'fiend'!

    This whole series of posts has been extremely interesting, actually, and a fascinating glimpse into some of the behind-the-scenes things that go on, that even those of us who have been active ourselves haven't witnessed in the main.

    I think (with some proofreading: one doesn't 'but' a tin of peas!) these could, with enough material over time, be worth considering putting out as a book. They are good enough, I feel.

  2. Thank you, John. I appreciate your comments (and I have corrected the two typing errors you highlighted!). I do enjoy the blog, but as you will appreciate it can be quite onorous keeping it fresh and relevant. I do wish more people would post comments, though. I made the decision to have open comments, but despite some of my posts receiving 1000 page views, very few leave a comment, which is a shame, as I think it enlivens a blog and encourages a debate.

  3. I am going to take up Andrew's invitation therefore and post a comment. My comment is that the Conservative Party desperately needs enough paid professional agents to cover all of the constituencies in the UK. I have lived in safe Labour seats (no paid professional Conservative agent) and I have lived in safe Conservative seats (sometimes with paid professional Conservative agents and sometimes without them). In my experience, I can categorically say that everywhere there is a paid professional Conservative agent, the party is better and more professionally organised, better at winning elections, better at promoting its point of view, more engaged with the community, more representative of the community and its voting base, larger and better respected. If the on-going decline in numbers and effectiveness of the Conservative party is to be arrested, this is one of the first things that should be done.

  4. Thanks Philip. I don't think every constituency needs an agent, modern technology would result in there being too little for them to do. However, each constituency should have access to an Agent, whether through a Federation arrangement (as in a town or city with multiple constituencies working as one organisation) are as a Grouping (as we have in West Kent with three or more autonomous Associations working together whilst retaining their own legal identity).

    My own view has always been that Kent should have three offices, each with an agent and full time secretarial support. The geography and politics of Kent also makes this an ideal solution. We should have:

    (a) West Kent, covering Sevenoaks, Tunbridge Wells, Tonbridge & Malling and Maidstone and perhaps Chatham & Aylesford (but this is tricky as half C&A is semi rural and West Kent in nature whilst the other half is Medway).

    (b) Thames Gateway, covering Dartford, Gravesham, Gillingham, Rochester, Sittingbourne (and perhaps C&A depending on how it falls)

    (c) East Kent, covering Canterbury, Dover, Thanet N & S, Folkestone, Ashford and Faversham.

    Agents, whilst being decent all rounders, tend to have specific skills acquired over time. My skill is fighting LibDems, building branch organisation and fundraising. Another Agent might be far better at fighting the Labour Party but poor at fundraising. The joy of my proposed grouping is we would have West Kent (where the LibDems are the opposition and which are relatively wealthy Associations. This group should be passing spare cash to North Kent). North Kent would be cash poor and would require an Agent with specialist skills to fight Labour. However, with financial support from West Kent, such an Agent could be recruited who would then be free to fight these marginal seats without too much worry and time spent on fundraising. Finally, East Kent has a mix of Con v Lib and Con v Lab seats and should be financially self sufficient - this area clearly requires a good 'all rounder'.

  5. Is the party's plan to centrally train and (part) fund Campaign Managers a step towards restoring paid agents? I'm not sure how CMs differ from agents, but presumably it's a good start. And it does mean that some of the central funding is directly helping to build local campaigning neworks rather than buying poster campaigns and central campaign resources.

  6. I fear not, Neil. I understand they are told to focus wholly on the Parliamentary campaign, though any development of the pledge base or delivery networks will, of course, have crossover benefits.

  7. Thanks. Time will tell, I suppose.