Saturday, 30 March 2013

Winning hearts and minds, not buying them

When Sir John Stanley first announced his retirement, many of my colleagues were quick to infer that we were in for 'good times'.   "All those wealthy hopefuls willing to pay to ingratiate themselves", was a standard comment. "Make the most of it..." and so on.

I recoiled from such comments.  

Firstly, perhaps I am naive, but I still believe that the desire to serve your country in Parliament to be a noble ambition. Secondly, I am by nature an egalitarian, and do not think an applicant should be favoured by wealth. And thirdly, I simply do not think it is fair or right that applicants should be expected to pay large sums of money in the hope it will buy support and recognition. The fact that so many colleagues thought the selection process would bring in riches, and that so many applicants have subsequently enquired about joining our Patrons' Club at £300 a time, leads me to fear that this is indeed the expectation.  If so, it is wrong.

I have no problem with a potential applicant joining the Association at a standard £25 membership subscription. I see nothing wrong with them wishing to receive our newsletters to find out what is going on, or to attend branch events to meet people and court support. That is all part of the process.  It is also fair that should potential applicants seek such information, they should contribute to the cost of providing it, so the Association is not out of pocket. But that is as far as it should go.

Applicants should also be wary of what message their potential generosity will send.   Tonbridge & Malling is a professional, mature and serious Association. We have a wide and varied membership of students, working people and retirees. We also include Lloyds names, stockbrokers, farmers, lawyers, tweed jacketed country-folk and the odd aristocrat; the type of people who wouldn't dream of wearing a business suit to campaign on a Saturday. If sharp-elbowed newcomers with no connection with the constituency suddenly start appearing at the Patrons' Club, the reason will be obvious and will probably not help their cause. Tonbridge & Malling will be selecting a candidate best qualified to represent this lovely constituency in Parliament, not one with the cash to buy recognition.

My personal advice to applicants is simple; if you wish to build recognition - don't do it with your wallet. Far better for you to come and help us win on Thursday 2 May. At the end of the day, the only true objective of a political party is to win elections; everything else we do is a building block towards this goal.

But if you do come, be open, honest and proud of your objectives.  There is nothing whatsoever wrong about wishing to be our next Member of Parliament and there is nothing wrong with you coming to the constituency to find out a little bit more about local issues and the people who make things happen. The prospective applicants who turn up unannounced as they "happen to be passing through and thought they would help" are, quite frankly, ridiculous (and don't fool anyone).

So, please come and help!  But when you do, be honest with people about why you are here; ask them about their role, don't just brag about yours. Ask what the issues are in their ward or branch, take notes, show interest and be genuine. 

In 1972 Tonbridge & Malling Conservatives selected, in John Stanley, an unassuming man who went on to represent the constituency in Parliament for four decades.  In that time he was to become Margaret Thatcher's PPS, then a Minister for Housing who was responsible for the greatest act of popular capitalism of all (the selling of council housing), and who was also Minister for Northern Ireland and then Minister of State for the Armed Forces. However, during those forty years you can count on your fingers the number of Executive Council meetings has has missed, often traveling down to speak then dashing back to Parliament to vote.  When I asked him why he came so often, his reply was simple. "It is my duty to appear before the Executive Council to inform them of my work and to speak for the actions of the Party in Parliament."

Duty. A word which sadly is not often heard in the modern politician's lexicon.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Let me get off the Euro Hustings Merry-go-Round

It's that time of the electoral cycle when our hard working Euro MPs are keen to raise their profiles and win the hearts and votes of those whose support they need in the members' ballot to keep them at the top of the regional list. 

Under the awful d'Hondt system of proportional representation we now have to use, seats are allocated to parties in rough proportion to the votes cast, with candidates elected in the order their names appear on the party list. 

I have many objections to this system, the principle one being those candidates in positions 1 and 2 are almost guaranteed election.  The inevitable consequence is the incumbent MEPs priority is to pander / ingratiate themselves with the 20,000 party members who decide the order of the list, rather than the electorate whose taxes are increased and freedoms curtailed as a result of the laws they pass.

Hardly a day passes without another Euro Bulletin landing in my in box. We've had photographs of Richard Ashworth patting dogs and shaking hands, Dan Hannan  drinking tea and waving flags, and rumour has it that Nirj Deva was even photographed at the opening of an envelope whilst patting the back of the postman who delivered it. "Spledid job Mr Postman - very well done."

Their PAs phone and email almost on a weekly basis asking if there are any events their boss can attend to meet party members. A week on Saturday I have two of them working the constituency in opposite directions, with me desperately keeping them apart like a fraught hotel manager dealing with double-booked brides.  Each PA enquires "will any of the others be there?" and if they find one or more of their colleagues have recently visited, "how many did they meet, what did they say, were they well received..."

Nirj Deva's latest bulletin arrived today and informed me that the Euro MPs will soon enter a period of purdah ahead of the members' ballot.  There are times when silence really is golden.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The Magic of MERLIN

At the recent Conservative Spring Forum I understand Lord Feldman announced the possible phasing-out of Merlin. This was subsequently picked-up by The Times newspaper. There is now great excitement and a lot of 'I told you so' from the grass root recidivist complainers.

A typical Constituency Organiser updates the Merlin Database
Firstly, Merlin is not a new system. I have been using it for almost 6 years and by the time we fight the next GE it will have been around for almost ten years. It is not at all unusual for a company to upgrade it's software over such a period, in fact it would be a dereliction of duty for it not to do so. The fact that so many activists and constituency officers still refer to it as 'new' it part of the problem. 

No doubt there were issues with the way Merlin was introduced. The training programme was far from adequate, but equally so where many of the people being sent for training.  Personally I don't think it is too much to ask that people being put in charge of a political party's IT and pledge database have at least a minimum understanding of what is required. When an IT trainer has to begin by explaining what a CSV file is, how to populate a spreadsheet, how to do a basic mail merge and (I kid you not) in one case how it is possible to write letters personally addressed to residents without having to individually type each one - then we clearly have issues greater than the software!

What is actually happening to Merlin has yet to be officially confirmed. I believe a new system, developed jointly with the Canadian Progressive Conservative Party, is being trialled in certain target constituencies where there is a CCHQ trained Campaign Director, ahead of a decision being taken post 2015.  No doubt if a new system is introduced, all those members who have spent the last 6 years using every opportunity to complain about it, will now turn their ire on the new system and say how wonderful Merlin was, and how we should never have changed.  Just like they did when Merlin replaced BlueChip, and just like they did when BlueChip replaced Fileplan and Silverjay (now I am giving my age away!)

For the record, I wish to write two things about Merlin.

1. There is nothing wrong with it. It works fine. If it is maintained correctly, details are entered accurately and the person running it has even the most basic IT skills, then Merlin is fit for purpose. I run three Associations from it, two with large memberships and the third a critical target seat. Merlin has never let me down. Yes, there are a few features which, in hindsight, could be better, but I have never needed to achieve something and not found a way of doing what I wanted.

2. The guys who run the help desk deserve medals. Yes, they are short staffed and under resourced, but I have also seen the pressure they are under and the absolute stupidity of some of the enquiries they have to deal with.  I actually heard one of the technicians take a call from an activist in Dorset who was phoning to say what a useless system it was because it wouldn't work in a power cut. Then there was hr man (who held senior office in a Kent Association) who told me, without a hint of humour, that the reason CCHQ demanded the machine's were switched on 24 hours a day was to enable CCHQ to 'listen-in' to what was being discussed at constituency offices. 

As I have previously blogged, if CCHQ are listening, all they are likely to hear in many Association offices is the sound of tumbleweed!

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Out for a duck?

We now have seven duck eggs in our plant pot, but today received the sad (but with hindsight, inevitably true) news that our little ducklings are bound to perish.

Apart from the usual hurdles of surviving the cold weather and being surrounded by predators (including hawks, two Jack Russells and the neighbour's cat) the biggest problem will come once they are hatched and take to the water.

Firstly, they are thrown out of the nest after about ten hours, long before they can fly. Sadly, when they enter the water, there is no way they can get back onto the pontoon, which is a good 12 inches above the water level. We could build some form of floating ladder which floats on the water and gently slopes up to the pontoon, which would help them get back to dry land, but this cannot deal with the other obstacle; the tide.  Where we are, the tide flows passed the boat at up to 5 knots. The first time they go into the water they will be carried away and lost as even a fully grown bird struggles against the flow. A weak duckling just learning to swim won't stand a chance. 

I am fairly sanguine about nature, but this is all very sad. I was so looking forward to seeing them hatch and develop, but now it seems that even if they overcome the local predators, as soon as nature takes them onto the water, there is little chance they can survive. A dreadful waste of time for the mother. I cannot help but wonder if there is any natural parental bond between a duck and her ducklings, or am I applying human emotion to what a bird will simply accept as part of nature.  

Don't you know who I am !

One of the advantages of running three Associations from one small office is we are always busy. This is also a disadvantage; we never have any spare time to chat or plan or think!  On balance, I am happy with this as I work best under pressure.

However, it does create a problem. 

Our office is staffed by two of us full time and we have a minimum of two volunteers (often as many as five) at any one time.  Today, in addition to Jon and I we also had Gill the Envelope Packer, John the Printer and Allan the Folder. I also had various LG candidates popping in to have their nomination papers checked.

With three Associations we also field calls from almost 2000 members and three lots of email and phone traffic for three MPs and almost 200 councillors. Add to this the County Council elections; today we printed and mail merged 16,000 letters for postal voters, which are going to the candidates to be signed over Easter before teams of volunteers pack them next week.  

Now I have set the scene, here is the problem.

My three Management Committees consist of a total of 24 people, each of whom make a valuable contribution and who all have rightful calls on my time, advice and support. Over a month I will deal with issues and enquiries from each of them, often more than once. None of them, however, would call in unannounced or make unreasonable demands on my time as they realise how busy we are and how unexpected callers can be both an inconvenience. In fact, even my three MPs respect this and phone before visiting.   Each and every one of the Officers respect the pressure we work under and, if they need to visit, phone ahead to check it's convenient. This is a good arrangement for both parties; it means I clear my diary and can give them my undivided attention during their visit and it also ensures they don't waste their journey travelling all the way to West Malling to find I am out. 

With the exception of one particular office who thinks these rules shouldn't apply to him.

Now, as ever on this blog I am not going to name any names. However, almost without exception, this particular person (who holds a senior position) calls in to talk about nothing in particular, and takes an hour of our time to do so. Sometimes this happens three times a week. When he does have a valid issue, it is almost always one which could be dealt with by email.  Often his visits are to confirm things for which he has already been sent the details by post or email. He once even confirmed receiving the information he was requesting but said, "Oh I am far too busy to be bothered searching my inbox - it's easier to call in and ask for it again".

After one particularly stressful period he agreed to phone first, or make an appointment for a regular weekly visit, but this soon fell by the wayside and he was back to his old tricks. When challenged on why he broke the previously agreed agreement he said "Oh, I am far too busy - it's easier for me to just pop in when passing."

It is now 8pm and I am still in the office - I am typing this whilst feeding the laser printer to ensure the letters are ready for the candidate to collect tomorrow morning.  Earlier today, this particular person called yet again and we simply refused to open the door, leaving him on the doorstep!  I didn't like doing this, but had I opened the door he would have been here an hour and I would then still be here at 10pm finishing what must be done.  

So, what should I do ?  We've tried making an arrangement and he doesn't respect it.  We have tried dropping hints, but he is too thick-skinned to understand what we are saying.  We've even told him outright, but he simply ignores what we say.  

Perhaps leaving him on the doorstep is the only way to deal with him ???

Comments appreciated!

Monday, 25 March 2013

Beware the lobster eaters

Amusing start to the week.

I have just heard from an agent friend north of London, who phoned to inform me that over the weekend his MP said that he would like to follow me on Twitter, but he was concerned that my profile page described me as...

"Lobster eating, Champagne drinking, pussy cat loving, boat sailing English nationalist with Libertarian tendencies."

Considering this MP was educated at Eton, I can only assume it was the reference to loving pussy cats that he found objectionable!

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Lobster, Blackberries and Hissy Fits

For someone who uses technology enthusiastically and promotes it aggressively in my work life, I am ridiculously neanderthal in private. For example; my Ipod is full and I cannot load any new music or podcasts simply because I don't know how to delete what's on there.  I cannot use the DVD player (not a clue, I once spent 15 minutes trying to open the drawer before Steve put me out of my misery and told me I was using the wrong remote control) and I still don't know how to find a TV channel beyond 1 - 9 which can be accessed by simply pressing the corresponding button.  Even worse, I have spent the last 6 months with the clock on my car an hour fast as I couldn't work out how to change it, and once even phoned the previous owner to ask him how to switch on the rear windscreen wiper, only to be told my car didn't have one. 

My laptop is a disgrace (and I am talking about its physical condition, not what I have stored on it!)  The battery is knackered and only stores sufficient charge for 20 minutes use, the screen freezes almost daily and I need to use it by an open window as the cooling fan has been broken for 2 years and if it gets too hot it closes itself down losing whatever I happen to be working on.  And the socket where I plug in the power supply is hanging out and affixed to the machine by an elastic band.

My phone is marginally better, though it too has a knackered battery which only gives me an hours active use, and freezes at least once a day, resulting in me having to remove the battery and Sim card and reboot it.

After much (deserved) nagging I was dragged to Bluewater today as apparently 'everything you need is under one roof'.  For Steve, this is a joy; he can shop for six hours and not actually buy anything, but will have enjoyed the experience. For me, shopping is akin to water torture. If the world consisted of three shops, Waitrose, John Lewis and M&S I would be happy. 

First stop was Phones4U. This was the very first time I have ever set foot in a mobile phone shop. This one was staffed by pretty Asian boys in cheap suits and slightly older English blokes with clothes slightly too tight and five years too young for them. And for some reason they all seemed to be wearing fake Rolex watches and pointy shoes. Elliott and I didn't get off to a good start after he keyed in all my information and the computer said NO. Apparently I was not eligible for an upgrade.  After a call to O2 customer service we found out the problem, my contract was with Orange!   After confirming I was eligible, he reviewed my usage and I was pleased to hear I was on Panther 46 but have been transferred to a new tariff called The Works 41. Even after he explained this to me in simple terms, I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about.

Then we had lunch. This was the highlight - Loch Fyne for lobster and Champagne, guaranteed to cheer me up. 

Then onto another of Dante's Circles of Hell; PC World.  This place is staffed by people who longed to have the personality to work in Phones4U who seem to enjoy working in an environment where rave and house music drowns out any hope of intelligent conversation. 

We wandered around looking at laptop specs which I couldn't even start to comprehend. I'm still remember upgrading our Silverjay election computer from a 386 chip to a 486. After careful research I settled on a Hewlett Packard machine as I liked its colour (maroon). It also had a tetra bite of RAM, which Steve said was good.

After much waiting Darryl come to serve us.  No, I didn't want half price Norton as I still have ten month left on my present Norton license.  No, I didn't wish to subscribe to a ten year contract for £79 per year for all the latest Microsoft Office upgrades.  Two year extended parts and labour warranty for £117? Why is the machine likely to break-down in the next 2 years? No ? Well, in that case I don't need it, do I.    By this point steam was starting to rise.  Off Darren went to collect my new machine, which (surprise surprise) wasn't in stock (I recall this is exactly what happened last time).  What's more, they couldn't even order me one as there was so much demand.....  But would I like to see similar models which are just a little bit more....

At this point I just walked out - 45 minutes of my life gone waiting in a shop to buy a computer they didn't have and were unable to order. This does beg the question why they had it on display bin the first place.

Is it any wonder so many High Street retailers are going to the wall?

Saturday, 23 March 2013

A good day at the Kent Area Conference.

I am finally home after an uplifting but exhausting day organising the Kent Conservative Conference. 

Steve Bell, National Vice President of the Conservative Convention, 
officially opens the conference.

200 booked and, despite the inclement weather, 170 attended.

It was our first Kent Area Conservative Conference at Tonbridge School. Nearly 200 members had booked to attend, and despite the inclement weather around 170 came. Attendees enjoyed a full day of speakers, debates and training.  We had sessions Britain's relationship with Europe (with MEPs Richard Ashworth, Marta Andreasen, Nirj Deva and Dan Hannan). Keeping Kent Conservative (with Paul Carter and Bob Neill MP) with the morning session closed by Greg Clark MP, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, outlining the road to 2015.

Left to right: Mark Reckless MP, Nirj Deva MEP, Richard Ashworth MEP
Andrew Sharpe (SE Region Chair), Dan Hannan MEP, Marta Andreasen MEP and me

During lunch most members attended one of three break-out sessions covering postal votes, local government and membership recruitment.

Happy delegates form an orderly queue for lunch!

The afternoon session opened with a wonderful double-act from two of the giants of the Tory Blogsphere; Iain Dale (LBC  Broadcaster and Blogger) and Tim Montgomerie (Editor of Conservative Home). This was followed by a Q&A session with members of the local, regional and national board and finally a rallying speech from Justin Tomlinson MP (Swindon North) on effective campaigning.

Despite the inclement weather,
around 170 delegates attended.

My personal highlights

  • Dan Hannan speaking to the heart of the Conservative Party on Britain's relationship with the EU
  • Marta Andreasen speaking about her sacking as EU Auditor for her refusal to remain silent over corrupt EU accounting practices and her subsequent election as a UKIP MEP and the reasons  she defected from UKIP and joined the Conservative Party
  • Getting almost two hundred local activists together and witnessing their enthusiasm and commitment, despite the national political climate.
  • The wonderful presentations by Iain Dale and Tim Montgomerie, who I admire greatly, and the enthusiasm for social media demonstrated by the audience.
  • The re-emergence of Kent Conservative Future, who were well represented at the conference, well done to the new Kent CF Chair Matt Boughton.
  • The fact that so many very senior Officers of the Party, including the national President Charles Heslop, National Vice President Steve Bell, Regional Chairman Andrew Sharpe and so many others made the effort to attend.
  • And Justin Tomlinson's great performance on campaigning, whose message echoed everything we have been doing for years in Kent and demonstrated how to keep winning in a marginal seat
Con Home Editor (and soon to be Times Comment Editor) Tim Montgomerie,
addresses Kent Conservatives. Iain Dale and I lurk in the shadows. 

I am now physically and mentally exhausted, but it was a good day and a job well done. It is very gratifying to see something you have created come to life. So many people expressed their thanks and support for what I tried to achieve, which was kind and generous.  Although I pulled things together, I couldn't have done so alone, in particular I am grateful to my assistant, Jon Botten, for his tremendous help and support.  To colleagues on the Kent Area Management Executive for their encouragement and faith in my abilities, to the speakers - many of whom traveled long distances and to the staff at Tonbridge School for their professionalism and organisation.

Friday, 22 March 2013

A deadline is a deadline, not a guideline !

I never stop counting my lucky stars that I am paid to do a job that I would probably do free of charge (if I could afford to do so). In a world where so many people are stuck in jobs they dislike, to be paid to work at my hobby is a real privilege. 

Because I enjoy what I do, I think I work longer and harder than many, and because I love my work, this reflects in the outcomes. But it's not all sweet smelling roses. Every job has it's irritations, but for me the worst aspect of all is dealing with a small number of local government candidates who are incapable of respecting deadlines or following the simplest guidelines. And chatting to Labour and Lib Dem colleagues, I know this problem isn't unique to Conservatives.

Why is it, when you give your candidates two or three weeks notice of a print deadline, and send them regular reminders, there is always one or two who take no notice whatsoever and produce their copy a week late?

Why is it when you inform them the space on the leaflet for their Dear Resident letter is sufficient for 150 words, they send you 250 words and expect you to edit it for them ?

Why when you ask for a photograph to be portrait do they send you one landscape, or insist on sending their Dear Resident letter in the third person, or worst of all - send you paper prints of photographs when you have asked for jpgs?   And why is it that the candidates who cannot follow simple requests for their printing deadlines are the same ones who cannot follow your instructions on how to complete a nomination paper, or actually turn up on the appointed day and time to hand over their completed papers for delivery to the ERO.

Up to recently, I would make myself ill and on the point of exhaustion, running around trying to accommodate every candidate, which is a big ask considering that some years I am Agent for 160 of them. Not this time.  All my CC candidates received very detailed (but simple) guidelines about what they had to provide for their leaflet, and by when.  Fourteen of them did so, with no problems whatsoever. One, despite regular reminders, decided it could wait and went on holiday without sending anything I requested. No doubt he thought I would happily add to my workload and inconvenience others who had done as requested by delaying the print run for his leisurely return from ther sun. He will be returning to a bit of a surprise; the leaflet has been printed and his personalised sections have been left blank. The printer has assured me that it can be overprinted - but this will be at his expense, not ours!

Perhaps I am being too harsh, but I honestly don't see what I should cause myself additional work and anxiety simple because a candidate (who is the beneficiary of my work) cannot respect pre-agreed deadlines.  Similarly, I don't see why other candidates should be inconvenienced due to the actions of one.

You 'Orrible Lot

Well, by a margin of over 2 : 1 the people have voted, and you voted for me NOT to tip-off the parliamentary hopeful who has booked herself to work for nine evenings in wards outside the T&M Association boundary.

And my, my... some of you were vitriolic in your comments!

"No - Keen-ness is one thing - Pushiness unaccompanied by intelligence can be lethal"Ms R of West London

Pushiness is fine. It's the lack of fact checking before leaping into something that's the problem. I'm not sure Parliament needs more of that...
Mr G of Carshalton
But then, the kinder, softer side of conservatism showed its face with,
Awwwww poor thing!
Cllr H of Sevenoaks
(though I suspect Cllr H being somehat dizzy, he could see himself making a similar mistake and probably hoped he would be treated equally sympathetically!)
So, what have I done ?
Well, I have told her (I know, I know - I sought your views then completely ignored the wisdom of crowds. Shame on me!) But when I called to tip her off, her I did also add, "of course, if you fulfill your offer to these candidates it will show that you really do care about the party and not just your own self promotion." 
And guess what?
Within 30 minutes of my call, she had emailed the three candidates and cancelled her offer to help, which saddened, but did not surprise me.  
I am still pleased that I did the right thing!

An Agent's Work Is Never Done

For all those who think a Conservative Agent in leafy west Kent lives a life of cocktail parties, garden soirees, luncheons and black-tie dinners, here is a photograph taken a few moments ago.

Yes - it's me, at my desk, polishing the Association silver for tonight's Tonbridge & Malling Annual General Meeting.  Oh! The Glamour!

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

No surprises here !


My Political Views
I am a right social libertarian
Right: 4.59, Libertarian: 3.93

Local Hero - Graham Riddick

This is the first in what will be an occasional series, where I highlight the contribution of one of our many local heroes; those who go above and beyond the call of duty for the Conservative Association.  The first in this series is GRAHAM RIDDICK.

I first met Graham during the 2010 General Election, when he would regularly bring car-loads of volunteers from Tunbridge Wells to support Tracey Crouch's campaign in Chatham & Aylesford.

Graham and I got on well, and following the GE he called the TW Conservative Office to see what he could do to help.  He subsequently took over the running of our Patrons' Club and also agreed to get a new branch off the ground in Ashurst, the small village where he lives.

Armed with a list of Conservative pledges and a pack of membership forms, Graham did what many used to do regularly, before computers replaced the local membership secretaries; he knocked on doors, introduced himself, and asked people to join the Party. Within a month he had signed-up nearly 20 members and had sufficient volunteers to form a branch committee.

The Ashurst branch is an ideal model of how it should now be done.  Gone are the monthly branch meetings with the formal set agenda. Instead, they meet as and when they need to meet to discuss whatever business needs to be transacted at that time.  And quite right, too! 
Ashurst is now up and running and in its second year. They have a full slate of Officers (democratically appointed by Graham over a bottle of decent Claret at the AGM held at his home). Following the AGM they have a guest speaker -  this year it was me, and I spoke about the life and tribulations of a political agent. This was followed by a good natured but very well balanced discussion though the local and national political landscape, covering everything from equal marriage, Eastleigh, UKIP, the economy, housebuilding and the future of the cinema site!  At the end of the AGM they set a date for the next meeting "later in the year - about October" so they can begin planning the annual Call My Bluff and Cottage Pie Extravaganza in the village hall.  You might well laugh, this year's Call My Bluff and Cottage Pie Extravaganza was oversubscribed (40 people were turned away) and it raised £1400 for association funds. 
The most important thing, however, isn't the political discussion, the meeting of friends or the £1,400 raised, it's the bridge between the Conservative Party and the wider community. Most of those who attended the Call My Bluff ewhere local residents who were not party members, but we brought them into our fold, listened to what they had to say and gave them a chance to meet us and share their opinions. This is exactly how it should be, and why our branches are so important.
And none of this would have happened in Ashurst, if it wasn't for the work of one man, Graham Riddick. So thank you, Graham (and Sarah) for your great work!

Coiled Springs !

A few weeks ago under the headline "The Conservative's Secret Weapon" I posted this photograph:

Well, the dream team are at it again. This time they were investigating a tripped fuse, only this time the third of the wise monkeys decided to help:

Labour must be very afraid !

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

We're going to be parents !

That caught your attention !

Over the weekend, one of our resident ducks (who share our section of the river and regularly demand feeding) started behaving strangely. She was parading up and down the pontoon, peering into plant pots and generally making a nuisance of herself.

Yesterday, she appeared to have taken a liking to a large terracotta pot in which we grow herbs. Slowly but quite deliberately she began pulling out anything living, discarding it alongside. Then, having almost emptied the pot of greenery, she used her bill to dig a large hole in the soil. 

This morning, we found out why !  Mrs Duck has decided to turn my herb garden into a maternity unit!

According to our neighbours, who have been feeding this duck for two years now, she will probably lay between 8 - 12 eggs before she takes up residence on top and incubates them. They laying may take as much as two weeks and then a further 28 days before hatching. And throughout this process we will have a ringside seat!

I am quite excited about this and will keep readers regularly updated with progress, though I suspect once they hatch and we are kept awake all night with the constant "peep peep peep" of newly hatched duckings calling for food, the novelty might soon wear off!

Sunday, 17 March 2013

A message to the merchants of doom!

An Association AGM is a good opportunity to review progress and make plans. We can see, in black and white and with the auditor's stamp of approval, just how the figures add-up (or don't). No well crafted report can hide the naked truth of the balance sheet.

It's very difficult to write this without appearing to blow my own trumpet - because that's what I am about to do! After all, if a CEO of a failing company turns it around, he or she receives the plaudits, which are rightfully shared with the managers and staff.  Same in politics; what we have achieved hasn't been down to me alone. Our Officers, Management Committees, branches, activists and donors have all contributed to the success, and they all deserve their share of the praise.

Nothing I am about to publish is a betrayal of confidence. The Electoral Commission publishes the accounts which are open for all to read. It is therefore no secret that four years ago, when I was appointed, Tonbridge & Malling Conservative Association was heading into difficult times. Two full time staff spent 75% of their working time raising money to pay their own salaries and the Association was operating at an annual deficit; all but a few thousand pounds of the reserves had been spent.

In Tunbridge Wells the situation was equally bleak. The Association has been forced to use it's reserves for eight of the previous ten years, the only two years it had not made a loss was during 2001 and 2005 when the Association benefited from the surplus of the General Election campaign appeal. However, unlike Tonbridge & Malling, the Association had a substantial asset in the form of it's Georgian HQ.

Chatham & Aylesford, the third of the Associations I look after, is in a different league. Small in numbers but high in political activity, it has never had a large base to raise funds, and almost every penny they raise is spent of campaigning. Nevertheless, a cash surplus built-up pre the 2010 GE was slowly being eroded with small loses each year since.

So, where are we now?

Well, despite the economy, Europe, the rise of UKIP, The Gays, the coalition, cuts, recession and doom & gloom; all three of my Associations have made a substantial surplus!  In T&M it's the third consecutive year of growth and we have now replaced all the reserves we had spent over the last ten years.  In Tunbridge Wells we have now had two consecutive years of growth, with our surplus this year being the largest for twenty years.  Even C&A have returned a small surplus, not much in real terms, but relative to its income it is a real achievement.

So how have we achieved this ?

Firstly, by sharing back office administration and cutting out duplicated costs. Secondly, by not missing a trick when it comes to raising money, thirdly, continuing to aggressively promote our offer and making enrolling or donating as simple as possible, and finally by supporting and growing our network of branches which have roots in the local community and are far better than me at identifying new supporters and donors.

By following these relatively simple principles we have not only turned things around financially, but also grown membership (yes, that's right - GROWN membership) when almost everywhere else it is in decline.

But we are not hoarding cash at the expense of campaigning, for that would be equally irresponsible.  We have just sent out 80,000 voter ID surveys and in June across West Kent will will embark on the largest ever recruitment campaign when 36,000 Conservative pledges will receive an invitation to join us or support our work. T&M are also giving financial and practical support to C&A to ensure they have the resources to retain this critical seat in 2015.

This article makes what we have achieved sound easier than it was. It has taken enormous effort from a group of members whose dedication is an inspiration. We are driven by one overriding belief, that regardless of how much we grumble, a Conservative government led by David Cameron is a hell of a lot better than any of the alternatives!

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Passing the baton

The newly elected Tunbridge Wells Conservative Association Management Team
From left to right. Top Row: Ed Cain (IT and Comms) and Nicholas Rogers (Campaigning)
Middle Row: Dave Street (Treasurer), William Rutherford (Chairman) and David Elliott (Membership and Recruitment)
Front Row: Judith Bullett (Finance), Graham Riddick (Patrons) and Alexine Bullett (Fund raising)
Standing (in an avuncular fashion): Greg Clark MP

At the Tunbridge Wells AGM last evening the baton of leadership passed seamlessly to the next generation. In a Party not known for its enthusiasm for change, and an Association which is widely considered to be more staid and traditional than most, it was heartening to see and hear the enthusiasm for the new generation of Association Officers.  

I don't for one moment believe in quotas, but those who run any organisation must be able to draw on the widest possible range of experiences to communicate with the electorate. When I first arrived in TW four years ago, we had more Officers over the age of 70 than we had under the age of 50. In fact, apart from the Chair of CF, I don't think we had a single Officer under the age of 50.  I appreciate I am straying onto controversial territory here, but it is very difficult  for such a group to define the messages which attract a new generation to the Party.

I am not betraying any inside secrets to say that TWCA has been through a turbulent time.  Four years ago we occupied a decaying building which was costing the Association almost £30,000 pa to maintain. For every £1 the Association spent on political campaigning it spent £5 on bricks and mortar. This was unforgivable.  It is of great credit to the former Officers and the membership that they had the foresight and courage to borrow the funds to renovate the building and rent-out areas unused by the Association. Having had tenants for a year, and witnessing how little money was left from the rental income after paying letting agents fees, insurance, money to a sinking fund for repairs and renovations, corporation tax and all the other associated costs, it is a further credit that a decision was taken two months ago to sell the freehold and securely invest the money to provide long term financial stability for the Association. 

Thanks to these decisions, the Association now shares an office with its neighbours and in doing so has stripped out its establishment costs. Where we once spent £30,000 on the building we now spend £3,500 - and spending on campaigning now exceeds spending on establishments costs by 4:1.  And that is exactly right - we are, after all, a political party charged with winning elections, We are not landlords or property developers.

But now it's time to stop looking inwards and talking about bricks and mortar. Across Tunbridge Wells there are 30,000 Conservative voters who are not members of our Party.  Thanks to the courage of the previous Officer team, the Association has the financial stability to invest funds to contact this next generation and develop a offer which will encourage them to join us.  We have a younger Officer team with the IT and communication skills to do so.  But just as importantly, we still retain the wisdom and steadying influence of a few 'greybeards' to provide the balance and experience any management group needs.

I am greatly looking forward to the year ahead!

Friday, 15 March 2013

Pick ME!

The Tonbridge & Malling Association recently put out that they would welcome prospective parliamentary applicants to join us on three Saturday campaign days, to enable them to see the constituency and meet activists.
One enthusiastic hopeful appears to have taken matters into her own hands. She has identified our candidates and contacted each of them to offer three evenings campaign support. With seven county divisions, this means she will be making 21 visits to West Kent between now and 2 May. If nothing else she deserves an award for hard work and determination.
Unfortunately, nine of the sessions she has booked are in the three KCC Divisions that lie outside the T&M parliamentary boundary (they are mainly within Chatham & Aylesford) so none of the people she will meet will have a vote at the selection !
Should I tell her or does it serve her right for being so pushy?  After all, she did this without coming through the office - had she done so I would have advised her. You are invited to vote in my (anonymous) poll to the right hand side of this page.

Those of us who understand these things...

Last evening Steve and I listed to a podcast of Edward Heath on Desert Island Discs.

'WHY on earth would you do that?'  I hear you ask.  Why indeed! I suppose for my generation of Conservatives he was a bogey-man; a sulking, brooding hulk who dared speak out against The Lady, who took us in the the EEC - the embodiment of everything we didn't like. Fair or not, that was the perception.

I forced myself to read his biography, The Course of my Life, and found it turgid. This simply reinforced my view. I downloaded his podcast to see if hearing his music and anecdotes would give me a better insight.  The following phrases have stuck in my mind;

"those of us who understand these things..."

"my opponents had no breadth of intellectual understanding to enable them to reach such opinions..."

"History will be my judge and jury..."

"I don't dislike Margaret Thatcher, particularly..."

At the end of the programme, my partner, Steve, who is completely disinterested in the politics of the 1970s and the ideological splits in the Conservative Party, said, "I've never heard a man so assured of his own self-importance."  Quite.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

There might be trouble ahead....

I suspect the highly respectable members of the Tunbridge Wells Conservative Association didn't quite know what to expect when they employed me.   

If you would like to attend, contact me for a booking form.  It's being organised and catered by our outstanding Ladies Group.  Tuesday 9 April at Langton Green Village Hall. Tickets: £15.00 for poached salmon, potatoes and salad and lots of home made puddings! 

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Back to the (Conservative) Future

Any follower of the internal machinations of CF politics cannot have failed to notice that the temperature has risen of late. As it always does this time of year when the national (and regional) elections take place.

CF-ers understandably get angry if their e-ballot paper doesn't arrive, but almost always this is not the fault of CCHQ (though it is easy to blame them). To qualify, the CF member has to be under 30, but this is only known if the local organiser or agent (or, in most cases, volunteer) enters the member's DoB on Merlin. Similarly, if the member doesn't supply an email address, or changes their email address and doesn't notify the office (or, in fairness, if the office fails to change it on the system) then the ballot paper will go to the wrong email address. I had one such case last year when a CF member actually threatened to 'refer this matter to the family solicitors" if I didn't take "immediate action" to resolve the "clear mismanagement of my membership which has led to me being disenfranchised from the democratic process". Oh, the sweet joy when I retrieved her membership form and found she had written instead of .com in the space for her email address. This particular member has now defected to UKIP. Our gain is their loss.

This takes me back to my younger years. I began my own political journey in Wallasey YCs back in the early 1980s. In those days, even a marginal seat such as Wallasey in the North West could muster three YC branches; when all three came together for their annual BBQ we had 50 members. Over time I rose to be chairman of my branch to Chairman of the constituency committee. In those days youth politics was ideological. The YCs were the last bastion of the old Heathite wets, bankrolled by Peter Walker and sympathetic to the TRG. I was part of the Libertarian zeitgeist - the Maggie's new Model Army marching ever forward to the Tausendjähriges Reich. For two years we built our strength by taking control of the area and regional committees and prepared for the final assault. Our Agincourt, our Culloden was Southport's Floral Hall - venue for the National YC Conference. The Right had more money than style; we also had Champagne, lobsters, rave music, dry ice, flashing lights, glowing wrist bands and posters emblazoned with "It's Time for Tinney". The Wets had a few lapel badges and a sense of entitlement. No-one asked where the Right got their money from - (probably from David Hart and his CIA / Western Goals backed Committee for a Free Britain). It was probably best we didn't know.

Needless to say the Right won and British youth politics was transformed. The old guard, with their calls for "corduroy and moderation " were replaced with campaigns in support of the Contra Freedom Fighters in Nicaragua and pride of place on our t-shirts was shared between Maggie and Jonas Savimbi. The future really did belong to us, or it did until 22 November 1990.

Where are they now, those heroes of the Right ? Well, I last spotted Andrew Tinney a few days ago on a friend's Facebook feed. He was looking very "Surrey" at a Conservative Association dinner in Weybridge. Jonathan Bullock, one of his three Vice Chairmen candidates, has vanished from my radar. Martin Callanan is MEP for North East Region, and the fourth name I cannot recall.

But that was then, and this is now, and I would like to place on the record my thanks to the current Conservative Future Chairman, Ben Howlett, who has done an outstanding job for CF and the Party.

Beware the inner liberal

I suspect this won't go down well with my right wing friends, but I am not at all comfortable with Christ Huhne or Vicky Pryce's imprisonment.

I accept perverting the cause of justice is a serious crime, but I really do believe that prison should be reserved for those who are a physical danger to society. It is ludicrous that these people are in prison, when so many burglars and violent offenders walk away with a community service order.

Punishment should be about repaying debt to society but just as importantly about rehabilitation. In the case of both Huhne and Pryce, both of these objectives could have been achieved far more effectively, more cheaply and more usefully by other means.

How many of us, in all honesty, have not attempted covered-up some past personal failing or wrongdoing. Perhaps not on the same scale, but the human condition is the same none the less. I am not going to cry crocodile tears for either of them; they broke the law then continued to lie and behave reprehensibly. But equally, they are human. They have lost careers, friends, status, income, credibility and hope. 

I simply cannot see what imprisoning them will actually achieve.

'Transparent Ann' is at it again !

I awoke this morning to the joys of Ann Barnes e-bulliten in my inbox.

If you can face it:

Apparently it's been 100 Days since the people of Kent elected her.

Here's the irony:
"I’m committed to be the most accessible and transparent Police Commissioner in the country."
So, here is the competition. Can anyone read through Transparent Ann's newsletter and find any mention of her appointing her Lib Dem Campaign Manager, Peter Carroll and his sidekick Howard Cox on taxpayer-funded salaries of £6,000 per month each?   Source HERE

A bottle of vintage Port to the first person to spot this 'transparent' declaration.
There again, perhaps she is as transparent about her political appointments as she was about her political affiliations. Let's not forget on the night of her election, national LibDem staffer Martin Shapland, tweeted:
"When calculating the national LibDem vote share, don't forget to include the votes polled by Kent Independent, Ann Barnes, who was backed by us."

Tuesday, 12 March 2013


I am publishing this for no other reason that I want to record it for posterity!

Could any British patriot not have heard the results of the Falkland Island's referendum and thought "good on you".  Or, as The Sun put it, so much more eloquently, Stick it up your Junta!

So without a hint of apology to any of my colleagues who think we should hand over 2,800 British people to a foreign land (no doubt the same people who also think we should betray 29,200 Gibraltarians for the sake of European unity), here is a video of the Coldstream Guards, playing the National Anthem (that's our National Anthem!) with the flag of the Falkland Islands fluttering over Port Stanley.

Making it happen !

I was honoured to be co-opted onto the Kent Area Management Executive at the last AGM, with specific responsibility for Training, Best Practice & Special Events.  It is a wide ranging brief which basically encompasses all the things that no-one else wants to do!
I have always seen our County Committees as a potential force for good. They cover a sufficiently small area geographically to allow bonds of trust to develop and to make use of local knowledge, without being too top-heavy or remote. Regrettably, many County Committees have turned into Elephant's Graveyards where former MPs and cantankerous County Councillors are sent to get them out of the way. The new Kent Area Management Team is just the opposite - they are relatively young, with successful constituency  Associations behind them and with a very strong bias towards target based campaigning.
One of the first things I wanted to do was a Kent County Conference; an opportunity to bring key activists, donors and supporters together to meet, participate in political debate, share best practice and make new friendships. When I first suggested it I encountered all the tired excuses; we tried it before and it didn't work. What if no-one comes.  We might not attract any interesting speakers. What if it loses money. It might clash with something which might be happening elsewhere. This negativity drives me mad.

"We won't do anything new in case it fails, and we won't do anything we have done before as it didn't work last time. Instead, we will sit here, with our thumbs up our arses, and talk about the golden days that never were." 

That's not leadership.
After much haranguing (and with support from the newly elected Officers) I was given permission to investigate the options. That was all I needed - I was off like a rat up a drainpipe.  By the time I 'reported back' I had booked then venue, arranged the speakers and sent out the invitations.  It was a risk, but one I was willing to take.
And guess what...
  • In ten days time we have our first Kent Area Conference in the splendid surroundings of Tonbridge School.
  • We have a sponsor, DA Printers Ltd of Rochester, whose generosity is covering the venue hire costs, so delegates don't have to pay to attend.
  • Our speakers include four MEPs (Dan Hannan, Nirj Deva, Richard Ashworth and Marta Andreasen), three MPs (Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Greg Clark,  Party Vice Chairman Bob Neil and Justin Tomlinson), Blogger extraordinaire Iain Dale and ConHome Editor Tim Montgomerie and we have a galaxy of the great and good from the National Party, including Charles Heslop, President of the National Convention and Vice President, Steve Bell.
  • We have three break-out groups providing training and support on Membership Recruitment, Postal Votes and Local Government Selections. 
  • And most importantly of all, we have 170 members attending. Every constituency is sending people - members are even coming from London, Essex and West Midlands to see how it's done, so they can do it themselves in their own counties.
And here is the front of the programme and agenda

And the reverse

Pulling all this together from scratch and with no base from which to start, demonstrates what one person can achieve. And if we can do it on this scale across Kent, then every Chairman, Deputy Chairman, Branch Chairman and councillor can do something in their own area which will also make a difference.

About 20 years ago, on the eve of opening my Wine Bar and Restaurant, my closest friend, Mark Sands, sent me a good luck card. Written on the inside of the card was the following message
"When first you dream you start to succeed,
and when you succeed, you start to dream again."

I have never found a source for that quote, perhaps Mark wrote it himself. 

Monday, 11 March 2013

Perhaps there is still hope?

Last month we circulated Voter ID Surveys to various groups in Chatham & Aylesford, where the incumbent MP is the excellent Tracey Crouch.  I was interested to test respondent's perceptions of Tracey's various votes against the government on tuition fees, Europe, circus animals and badgers. The details of each issue was set out unemotionally, followed by the simple question, "Does this make you more likely or less likely to support her, or does it make no difference?  

The answers did not surprise me, apart from the issue of the proposed increase in the EU Budget, where the level of opposition was more overwhelming than I anticipated. Even Lib Dem voters, who are the most Europhile of all, supported Tracey Crouch's vote against additional EU funding by a margin of 76% to 16%.

As luck would have it, one of the local branches in Chatham & Aylesford had invited Dan Hannan to fund raising lunch in April. I obtained permission from the local branch Chairman and sent a speculative invitation to a sample group of two-hundred Eurosceptic respondents who lived nearby, asking them if they would like to attend. Much to my surprise twenty of them (10% of the sample) have already responded and purchased tickets!

In an era when all major political parties seem to have abandoned the hope of returning to a mass membership based organisation, this gives me hope. To actually have 20 people, none of whom are previous members or donors, or have ever attended a party function, to respond positively to a mailshot, demonstrates that when we talk to traditional conservatives about the issues which matter to them, they are still willing to not only listen but also respond and participate.