Tuesday, 30 April 2013

What a small world...

If you are a retired Conservative Party Agent, and live in the West Country (St Neot, to be precise) and your local vicar is named Andrew Balfour, then I would like to say thank you for your kindness.

By way of explanation, Andrew Balfour has a parishioner who is a retired party agent. Andrew's brother, Matthew Balfour, is a Conservative councillor in the Tonbridge & Malling Association and a good egg! Earlier today, Andrew telephoned Matthew and told him all about a Conservative agent in Kent who is doing good work for the Party and whose reputation has reached Cornwall.

Given I do not believe I know a retired agent living in Cornwall, I can only imagine that he reads my blog.

The chances of a retired agent reading my blog and just happening to live in a parish 300 miles away, where the priest is brother of one of my local councillors is random in extremis, but does demonstrate what a small world we now inhabit.

Monday, 29 April 2013

Don't break my achy breaky heart!

At one point today we had seven people working at the office, packing, folding, printing, stamping and data-capturing. A great team effort - so much so that we ran out of chairs and desk space.  Jon moved his phone, dairy and spread sheets to the landing and I took up residence on the office floor. Between us, we managed to print, fold, pack and stamp 1,400 pledge letters, data capture 650 pages of canvass data and even finish packing and posting one constituency's worth of raffle tickets. A big thank you to Owen, Christine, Jacques, Adrian, Pat for their help and support.

Tonight I organised Merlin Campaign Centre training for GOTV Organisers. This was held in the Committee Room of the Tonbridge Constitutional Club, which was quite small for the numbers who came, especially with a data projector blasting out heat. Amusingly, we were sharing the building with the South Tonbridge Over 50s Line Dancing troop, which made the proceedings somewhat surreal; 14 perspiring and jaded Tories packed into a box room discussing whether we should be targeting Bungalow Utopia whilst "Don't Break My Heart, My Achy Breaky Heart" drifted up the staircase. Someone did suggest we should write-up the words and get each teller to sing it as voters approached the polling station!  

Meanwhile, in the real world, we had another super team of sixteen helping to GOTV for Peter Homewood in Malling Rural North East, including Medway Council Leader, Rodney Chambers and many of his Council and Cabinet colleagues. Thanks for your help!

Rain Man Comes to Kent

I am now reduced to sitting on the floor by the bins, rocking myself backwards and forwards, like Rain Man.   A volunteer looks on in embarrassed sympathy. This is the normal agent behaviour pattern on D-3. 

PS - for the record, I was sitting on the floor as we had so many volunteers in the office there were no chairs left, and I was actually collating supplies for Adrian (the chap next to me packing the envelopes).

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Getting Out The Vote

We have just commenced delivery of personalised Get Out The Vote leaflets to pledges in target County Council divisions.
This year, we have taken our targeting a step further. Not only is each leaflet personally addressed with the voter's polling station and roll number printed, by using 'variable paragraphs' we have also targeted our message to particular groups of voters, thereby ensuring the message is relevant to the recipient.  A strong pledge will receive a slightly different message than a potential switcher or a postal voter.
The reverse of the leaflet contains a very strong message from former UKIP MEP Marta Andreasen on why she left UKIP and joined the Conservatives.
(For anyone concerned about data protection issues; the name, address and polling number shown on this sample letter are false.)

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Not a bad day for a Party "in decline"

There were almost 80 Conservative campaigners on the streets of Chatham & Aylesford, Tonbridge & Malling and Tunbridge Wells today, and that does not include all individual members and supporters delivering leaflets. Not bad for a Party which the media like to portray as 'in decline'.

From left: Mike Parry-Waller, Russ Taylor, Matthew Dickins, Chris Philp, Andrew Mackness, Victoria Atkins, Jacques Arnold, Peter Homewood, Richard Ashworth MEP, Nick Brice, Sarah Hohler, Jonathan Galbraith, Sophie Shrubsole, Craig Mackinlay, Alan Mak, Anne Moloney, Steven King, Alice Hohler, Dave Davis and Michael Payne (I took the photograph). 

Our campaign teams included:
  • Richard Ashworth MEP leading a team of 26 in Leybourne
  • Greg Clark MP leading a team of 10 in Southborough
  • Sir John Stanley MP leading a team of 6 in Offham
  • Tracey Crouch leading a team of 6 in Snodland
  • Jacques Arnold leading a team of 10 in West Malling
  • A further 18 in Tonbridge and Hadlow 
From left: William Rutherford (TW Chairman), David Elliott, Julia Soyke, Peter Oakford, David Scott,
Greg Clark MP, Nicholas Rogers, Nasir Jamil, Dave Street and Colin Bothwell (taking the photograph).

I have always liked organising large groups to campaign. There is not only strength in numbers, but mutual support and camaraderie, too. There is little worse than turning up to help, especially in an area you don't know, to be handed a canvassing card and sent out to face the voters alone.
Whenever we have a large team canvass, we endeavour to pair visitors with locals, to ensure each group has someone familiar with the area and understands the local issues. And we try to arrange hospitality at the end of the campaigning. Today, we all re-grouped in The Old Rectory in Leybourne, where I had arranged for a comfortable corner to be sectioned off for our private use, with platters of sandwiches and a modest sum behind the bar for coffee and drinks. If 26 people have given up their Saturday morning to help, the least the Association can do is buy them a coffee and a sandwich, and allow people time to chat and socialise.
Richard Ashworth MEP joined us today, and had driven from his home in Surrey. I am sure there are 101 things he (and the rest of the team) would prefer to have been doing on a Saturday morning.  He made the point of saying how good it was to be in a large team and was appreciative that we had made the effort to thank people afterwards. He said that in so many areas he would turn up to meet the local people on a street corner, often to be given a canvassing card without so much as a map or a briefing note, and  told to drop the completed card through someone's letterbox at the end, without even a cup of tea or a word of thanks!  At times, he might have driven two hours to be there and then face a two hour drive home again afterwards, so I can fully understand how he feels when he said, "I often wonder why I bothered".
Having been on the receiving end myself, I know just how he feels - and that's why we always try hard to say thank you and encourage people to come again.  Perhaps that's why, on a chilly Saturday in a difficult mid term campaign, we can muster eighty people to tramp the streets on our behalf!

Friday, 26 April 2013

I never tire of seeing her in that frock

Well, I survived the Ladies Luncheon Club.
What a formidable and wonderful bunch Tory Women are! The atmosphere in the West Malling Golf Club Bar, where reception drinks were being served, was a combination of the Day Room at Twilight Lodge and the Hip and Knee Replacement Society's Annual Reunion. They arrived in groups of two and four, clasping each others' arms and elbows, as much in physical support as mutual friendship.
Trish Robinson, Matriarch of the Ladies Luncheon Club, sat like Queen Bee whilst the drones paid homage and offered gifts of raffle prizes. Each was scrutinised and either placed on the table or discarded into a nearby box. I am not sure if the box was for prizes deemed too good for a 20p raffle, and thus retained for some future, grander event, or if it was for prizes 'beyond the pale' to be donated to the Snodland branch jumble sale.
Sherry, un-spiced tomato juice and Cinzano seemed to be de rigueur. Misses Browne (there are two of them - Claire and Janice) sell the raffle tickets. Or they did, but sadly Janice has recently had both a hip and a knee replaced and now struggles to get around, so her sister runs the raffle. Tickets are £1 a strip. There are five colours and the expectation is you buy one of each colour as this comes to £5.00 and thus saves them having to organise a float.  I subsequently noticed however that the entire strip of five tickets went into the raffle drum un-separated, and suggested that it would be just as simple to sell the tickets for £1 each rather than £1 a strip - as this wouldn't affect the odds. My humble suggestion was dismissed without a moments consideration, "what a silly idea, who would spend £1 on a raffle ticket." Serves me right for daring to interfere!

Half way through the reception I noticed two of the younger and sharper ladies vanish conspiratorially into the dining room - only to reappear sheepishly a few moments later. I questioned them on what they were up to. "Oh, we always move around the place cards so we don't end up sitting next to the gaga ones" admitted Mrs X.  Shameless!
Lunch was served; roast beef, carrots, peas, broccoli and roast potatoes followed by lemon tart and coffee. There was no vegetarian option, and I suspect if anyone dared ask for it, they would never be invited back. Conversation around the table went from trivial comments about the weather, to enquiries about those missing (she said if she ever recovered from her bladder problems she would go to live in Rye) to the most eye blistering critiques of other guests in that wonderful sotto voce delivery which implies a degree of discretion whilst knowing others can hear it too.  "I never get tired of seeing her in that frock" was amongst the best!  And I thought gay men could be bitches.
Suddenly, Madame Defarge was on her feet and reading my introduction. Apparently I was born "with a blue rosette pinned to my nappy", and after a brief potted history of my political life, guests were informed that, "Andrew lives on a canal boat on the River Medway with his partner, Steve who is not only a Vicar but a member of the Labour Party!"

I am not sure what shocked them most, but to their credit, they didn't flinch.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Lunch with the womenfolk

I am singing for my supper (or lunch) today as guest speaker at the Tonbridge & Malling Ladies' Luncheon Club.

Amusingly, last year, after having recently addressed the Tunbridge Wells Luncheon Club, I mentioned this to the T&M Ladies' Chairman, Trish Robinson. "Really?", said Trish, eyes widening and with a sound of incredulity in her voice. Then adding, "who'd pay good money to listen to you."

A year later, here I am!  I've clearly gone up in her estimation. Or as Jon said (always able to bring me down to earth with a bump) "because it's the busy election period she couldn't get anyone else and you were her last resort."

I suspect he is probably right!

There is light at the end of the tunnel

After a fairly gruelling day yesterday, someone switched the light back on at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps it's the weather or simply a good night's sleep, but everything fell into place today and we started making real progress.

My predecessor as Agent, Anne Moloney
(no in tray, no out tray - just an ash tray)
First off was a visit from my long serving predecessor as Agent, Anne Moloney (now Cllr Moloney). Anne worked at Tonbridge & Malling for over 20 years, and despite staying local after her retirement, and indeed winning a formerly rock solid Labour seat in her home town of Snodland (yes, there really is a place named Snodland), has never tried to interfere or undermine my plans or the changes I implemented, which must have been terribly difficult.  Many people, me included, thought Anne could be quite rude. Having now done the job for five years, I think she had the patience of a saint, though stories of her abrupt nature abound. 

There was one very elderly chap in his 80s who would come in to pack envelopes. Being recently widowed he was lonely and liked to chat - but Anne was having none of it, and banished him to the attic as he was making too much noise. One day, having sent him to the attic she went home, locking him in the building. He was stuck inside for hours before he could raise the alarm and someone came to let him out. When he told her this the following week she apparently said, "well it's your own fault for not letting me know you were still there when I left."  They don't make agents like Anne Moloney any more!

Anne had popped in to check if we were coping with the pressure. Apparently one of her ward colleagues, who reads my blog every day, thought I was sounding stressed, and asked Anne to check I was OK. I was very moved by this random act of kindness. I won't name names - but thank you for being so considerate Mrs BB of Snodland, I appreciate it very much.

Summer Raffle: 500 down, 2,500 left to pack!
Our 30,000 Get Out The Vote letters all left the office today, creating space in the attic and on the landing, which I immediately filled with the first batch of 500 packs of summer draw tickets (500 down, 2,500 to go!). We also found time today to print 15,000 polling day leaflets.

One big push now on Saturday when I have mustered a team of 30+ activists to go on the warpath in Malling Central, the seat of Kent Lib Dem leader, Trudie Dean. Our candidate there, Russ Taylor, already has one Lib Dem scalp, having defeated former Tonbridge & Malling Lib Dem Leader, David Thorneywell, in 2011 - and in doing so gained a seat held by the Lib Dems for over 30 years. Can he make it two in a row - the canvassing returns show us edging ahead. It's game on!

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

We have a Dreadful Catastrophe.

Around this time I usually hit what a marathon runner would call 'the wall'. I am physically and mentally exhausted. A month of 14 hour days, often seven days a week, take their toll. I will no doubt get a second wind as Thursday approaches.

The most difficult things to deal with when fatigued are the stupid, thoughtless and plainly inconsiderate phone calls and emails, which would normally be repelled like water from a duck's back. Here is a selection of today's crappage, which has driven Jon and me to despair.

1. The candidate who phoned to ask if we could Google a map of his ward, print it off and pop ten copies in the post. When it was suggested that it might be faster and less troublesome for him to print off ten copies off his own laptop, he replied, "it's simpler for me to phone and get you to do it." 

2. The candidate who, when questioned about the large number of outs, informed me that she only ever canvassed previously identified Conservatives and she didn't like calling on people whose voting intention is not known. I despair!

3. The candidate (along with the Association Chairman) who barged into the office demanding immediate attention as there was a 'dreadful catastrophe". Apparently, none of the leaflets had been delivered, and the man responsible for delivery had been called away due to family illness and could I find out where he is and get a spare key to retrieve the literature. Given the man in question is one of our most reliable stalwarts and I had seen him and his wife a few hours earlier, made me suspicious of the entire drama. A quick phone call resulted in the man answering the phone and reassuring them that all was well. In fact, not only was he on is way out delivering, but he hadn't been away nor was there a family illness.  Neither of the Drama Queens could tell me how the story originated, but a simple call before panicking would have saved us all a lot of time and inconvenience.

4. How about this one; a TW candidate who called first thing to ask for another 800 Out Cards, despite emailing me yesterday to say he hadn't done any canvassing. When questioned about what he had done with the 1,000 Out Cards I supplied at the start of the campaign he admitted to having thrown them away as he wasn't planning to canvass, but has subsequently changed his mind so wants more.

5. The branch Chairman who, despite it being D-8 and we are trying to mail merge over 30,000 pledge letters, emailed to say he would like flyers and tickets printed for his Wine & Canap├ęs Party and can I ensure they are ready by 5pm.

6. Then we had a call from a candidate who wanted to know if Merlin could identify Christians, as she wanted to deliver leaflets on Sunday, but wished to avoid church goers in case she caused offence.

In between this, we mail merged about 15,000 pledge letters, designed and printed two In Touch newsletters and even started producing the May mailshot with the Summer Draw tickets.


Another example of the Tories 'well oiled machine'!

Further to last night's blog about our "well oiled machine", here is a picture of it, in all its oily glory!

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

A wheel has fallen off our well oiled machine !

I laughed out loud this evening when I read on a Labour parliamentary candidate's blog that he was facing an uphill struggle as the 'Kent Tory machine was well funded and sleek with modern equipment and modern, fully staffed offices'.

Apart from the fact that every penny we spend we raise from the voluntary contributions of our members and supporters, whereas Labour's campaign war chest will be bankrolled by £20,000,000 from the Trades Unions, the concept of our West Kent office being 'modern and sleek' came as a surprise to the two of us who toil away here. 

For example; this morning we were due to continue merging letters to pledges (for the uninitiated, pledges are voters who have pledged their support on polling day).  Our laser printer worked happily all day yesterday without complaint, but this morning, for no apparent reason, whenever it printed a voter's name and address it added a random sentence "return your summer draw counterfoils along with your cheque in the freepost envelope supplied".  Given that even I haven't yet sunk to asking pledges to send a cheque before voting for us, we had to take action.

"I'll take it apart and clean it", I said. Jon looked perplexed. "Do you think that's wise, last time you did that it cost £220 to get it repaired." I wanted to argue, but couldn't, so we called the engineer (or did so once Jon has searched Google as we couldn't find the scrap of paper with the engineer's phone number on it).

Production was then transferred to laser printer #2. Unfortunately, this printer isn't networked, so we had to email across the mail merge template and the database.  Having done so, we then remembered that the data file was a more modern version of Excel than our 8yo computer could open, so it was emailed back to the original computer, converted to .xls and send back again.

As this was happening there was a crash and our desks were showered in dust. The overhead light fitting was hanging precariously from one end, with the other end bobbing up and down above Jon's chair. The fitting had fallen down previously, about 6 years ago, when my predecessor had stuck it back with a lump of Bluetac. Unable to locate the electrician's phone number (probably on the same piece of paper as the laser printer engineer's) we affected a temporary repair. This consisted of Jon standing on his desk to hammer a nail into the ceiling. Unfortunately we didn't have any nails, nor a hammer - so he banged a screw into the ceiling instead, using a spanner as a hammer.  We then attached the swinging end of the light fitting to the screw using two elastic bands and a shoelace. (Stop sneering at the back please - it worked just fine).

We then heard prolonged cussing from the attic, where a volunteer was folding the leaflets we had printed yesterday. It transpired that he was running both folding machines simultaneously, but had accidentally loaded the paper the wrong way into one of them, resulting in 500 letters being folded with the name and address folded inside, all of which had to be manually refolded.

Meanwhile in the print room we finally came to the end of the teal ink, which someone (not me!) had ordered in error and had used to top-up the ink drum, resulting in it being mixed with the residue of navy blue ink already in use. This resulted in a ghastly blend of inks which I called 'oil slick green' which was used on newsletters throughout the campaign (the only alternative being a new ink drum at £800).  Fortunately most candidates didn't notice, and those that did were told it was all part of our modernisation and decontamination strategy. 

Well oiled machine ?  If only they knew.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Then and now - a trip back to electioneering in the 1970's

I was chatting over the weekend to one of my opposite numbers in the Labour Party. Like me, he was born with a rosette pinned to his nappy, and spent his formative years parading up and down suburban streets carrying a clipboard or delivering leaflets. Despite being on opposite sides of the political divide, we get on well. This time, the conversation turned to how modern local politics and campaigning is laissez faire compared with the 70's and 80's when we were both learning our trade.

I recalled, back in the 1970's, how different campaign technology was compared with now. No MERLIN, BlueChip or Fileplan. Even Silverjay was just a twinkle in Len Harris' eye!  Yet despite the laborious nature of so much campaign organisation, I believe candidates and activists were far more focused, even dedicated, than their modern counterparts.

Here, for want of anything exciting happening today to blog about, is a wander down 1970s election memory lane. Feel free to add your own memories and thoughts in the comments section.

Canvassing cards: no such thing as computer generated canvassing cards, it was my job in January each year, to cut-up a single-sided electoral register and paste each road onto pre-printed sheets of stiff cardboard (odd and evens on different cards). Sticky, gum covered cards would be spread over tables, sideboards and floors for days on end!

Canvassing rota: the street canvass was meticulously planned. No such thing as a weekly canvass or a token effort, covering just the best roads in the ward. Back in the 1970s each and every road would be canvassed every year. In March, the branch agent (each candidate appointed his or her own election agent, who in turn reported to the professional constituency agent) would draw-up a canvassing rota, commencing in early April. The rota would list a start point and then each road to be canvassed that night in sequential order. (ie, Meet corner of Chapelhill Road and Hoylake Road at 6pm. Canvassing: Chapelhill, Carnesdale Road, Lomond Grove and Pinetree Grove - total 285 houses) and canvassing would continue until all 285 houses had been visited. At the end of April there would be blank days for 'mopping-up' any roads missed due to inclement weather. It was taken as read that the candidate, agent and members of the branch committee would be out each and every weeknight during April to complete the canvass.

Pasting-up the boards: it was not only pre computer but also pre NCR days, and the approved system for the Campaign HQ  Committee Room was to have giant hardboard sheets onto which another copy of the electoral register would be pasted. Each night after canvassing the completed canvassing cards were dropped off with the person responsible for the boards, who would transfer the voting intentions to the pasted up register by underlining voters names with either red, blue or yellow ink (to signify their allegiance).

Introductory leaflet: this was an A5 leaflet containing a formal portrait of the candidate with a brief potted biography. This was normally delivered at the very start of the campaign, to 'introduce' the candidate to the grateful electorate. Quite why they needed to know that Lucy Kennedy was 42 and enjoyed knitting and crossword puzzles, or how this would demonstrate her suitability as a councillor, I never established.

Election address: as far as I remember, each ward designed, printed and paid for its own election leaflet; they only control being the constituency agent had to 'approve' it before it was printed. This resulted in a huge variety of leaflets, styles and promises - with wealthy wards demonstrating their power and success with glossy, professionally printed leaflets and the poor country cousins using the hand turned office gestetner machine!  No leaflet, however produced, came folded - and this was another laborious job for evenings after canvassing; sitting watching TV folding and bundling leaflets.

Committee Room: There was no happy medium; Committee Rooms were either in a grand house owned by an ageing pinch-faced widow who spent all day worrying about you damaging her mahogany dining table, or else in a draughty village / church hall with smelly lavatories and no heating. In this respect, little has changed.

Car Calls: These were the big thing of the day - I recall every Committee Room had a wall mounted board with dog-eared envelopes stuck onto it, each marked 8am-9am, 9am-10am and so on up until 8pm-9pm.  Each of these envelopes could contain up to 20 or more slips of paper, each designating the name and address of a voter (usually an old lady) who wanted a car to take her to vote. This seemed to be the main raison d'etre of the day, with a fleet of Allegros, Minis and Moris Minors scuttling around taking lavender smelling old dears to vote.  Postal voting for all has killed-off the car call!

Postal Voting: In the days before universal postal votes by choice, signing-up a new postal voter was quite exciting. In my ward we never had more than 50, almost all of them Conservative. If my memory serves me correctly (and I suspect one of the retired agents who read my blog will correct me if I am wrong) there were three different forms: RPF7, RPF7a and RPF9 (covering ill health, work commitments or military service). Each had to be countersigned by either a GP, SRN or employer.

Loud-Speaker Cars: The Association had two speaker units which would be mounted on  suitable cars with a roof racks. These would tour the constituency following a long established route (each travelling in opposite directions). Two members, selected for their RP accents, were in charge of the broadcasting. Unfortunately one of the men was a well known boozer, whose accent turned into a drunken slur as the day went on. It all ended in (inevitable) tears during the 1983 General Election when, at 2pm (after several refills of his hip flask) rather than informing shoppers they should "Re-elect Lynda Chalker" they were instead instructed to, "look at the tits on that". Sadly, this signalled the end of his budding career in public service announcing, though he did continue as a councillor until he was photographed by the press, several years later, with his trousers around his ankles whilst urinating into the fish pond in the garden of his Labour opponent. 
What did Enoch Powell say about all political careers ending in failure?

Sunday, 21 April 2013

The Hadlow Tree Hugger met her Waterloo

West Kent's Conservative 'war horses' got a sniff of the gunpowder this weekend and upped the ante in the battle for KCC.

Across the three Associations we had 60+ people campaigning in our key marginal seats - with additional help and support coming from Medway, London and Croydon.

A group of twenty were out in Hadlow supporting candidate Matthew Balfour. Reports back indicate the Conservative vote is holding up strongly, though poor Chris Philp (pictured on the right hand side of the photo above) did meet a ranting woman who screamed abuse after him as he walked up the road. Having fought Glenda Jackson in Hamsptead & Kilburn in 2010, I am sure Chris was quite prepared for acid tongued old harridans.

At another property an encounter with a Tree Hugger ended in a delightful home win!  At a particularly large detached house one of our canvassers was harangued by a Green Party supporter. Apparently we should canvass by phone as this doesn't result in petrol pollution, and the manifesto should be emailed in pdf format to save print and paper. Just as Ms Nut Cutlet was puffing herself up into a state of high dudgeon, a Parcelforce van pulled up and delivered a large quantity of books from Amazon. I am delighted to report that our canvasser immediately seized on the hypocrisy and suggested that investing in a Kindle might also help save the planet.

Elsewhere, we had teams out in Pembury (led by Tunbridge Wells MP, Greg Clark), in Snodland (with mutual aid coming from Rochester and Chatham) and Larkfield - where a morning spent canvassing was followed by a community litter-pick, led by Tracey Crouch MP. 

Finally, I was amused to spot Kent Liberal Democrat Leader Trudy Dean's garden posters - from which two little words "Lib Dem" appear to have been omitted.  

If I was a Lib Dem, I would be ashamed to admit it, too!

Friday, 19 April 2013

The yellow trousered diplomat

Admiring my yellow trousers in this week's Medway Messenger
It wasn't much into the morning before I started receiving strange text messages complementing me on my yellow trousers. 

Then came a strange phone call from a friend in Rainham referring to my "caustic diplomacy". But it wasn't until 3pm, at a meeting at the offices of the Rochester and Strood Conservative Association, that I discovered the reason why.
My blog in support of the principles behind the Bedroom Tax (Spare Room Subsidy) had been picked up by the Medway Messenger's Gossip Column (amusingly called Mouth of the Medway) who summarised my "caustic blog entry" alongside an unflattering photo of me in a too tight shirt and mustard yellow trousers. I am, however, honoured to be referred to as "ever the diplomat". Not something I have been called often in my life.

I will, however, leave the last word to a friend from Chatham, who phoned to say,

"I agree with your views on the bedroom tax,
but you look like tosser in that photo."

I suppose I should show gratitude to my partner, Steve, who stopped my buying red trousers on a recent visit to Bluewater. I don't see anything wrong with them, personally!

(With note of thanks to my so called friend, Cllr Chris Irvine, for scanning said photograph (left) and publishing it far and wide, under the title "The Mustard Trousered Philanthropist.)

Revenge is a dish best served cold.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Toot Toot, all aboard the gravy-train


If you are a councillor, Association officer, activist, party member or a paid employee of the Party, you are probably, like me, a little jaded with the stream of newsletters, emails and invitations emanating from our regional members of the European Parliament.  With the selection meetings approaching, where each incumbent will need to receive 60% of the votes to 'go through" to the members' ballot to be ranked on the Regional List, it is natural that they are keen to use every opportunity to raise their profiles.

Today I had lunch with a member of staff who works for an MEP and took the opportunity to discuss the level of activity, which in some cases is so overwhelming I fear it is damaging the incumbent's chances  by causing irritation. It was only today, however, I found out the real reason why this is happening.

Unlike our own MP's, whose "communications allowance" was abolished in 2009, Europe's 754 MPs still have access to a taxpayer-funded propaganda budget, and it is this allowance which finances their public meetings, mailshots and publicity, promoting their work and that of the EU. So whilst our own MP's lose their communication's allowances and face restrictions on expenses, the European Gravy Train trundles on regardless, with even the very modest budget reductions negotiated by David Cameron being fought tooth and nail.

Yes despite this allowance being available, there is surely no need for them to spend every penny of it. One of my own MPs, Sir John Stanley, never spent his own Communication's Allowance when it was available, as he simply thought it was an inappropriate use of taxpayers' money. Why cannot our MEP's set a similar good example?

And this goes to the root of the problem.

You would think that if an MEP didn't spend his or her allowance that money would return to the general fund and thus reduce the burden on taxpayers. Right?  Sorry - not in the EU, where prudence and financial responsibility are alien concepts.  Under the rules, if an MEP doesn't spend his or her share of the propaganda pot, the unspent money is transferred to other MEPs and they can spend it instead. So a diligent and financially responsible MEP  ends up handing additional financial resources to his or her opponents with no saving to the taxpayer whatsoever. What possible incentive is there with such a system to show restraint?

So that is why we have MEPs bombarding us with leaflets we don't want to read, holding public meetings and rallies we don't want to attend and spending every waking hour popping up in every conceivable town and village, when I am sure they would rather be spending time with their families; all to ensure that money which would be better off in the pockets of those who earned it is not passed on to the benefit of their opposition.

Anywhere else such a system would be called madness. In the world of Brussels, where no-one is ever accountable and no-one is every to blame, it's called normal behaviour. 

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher's funeral

Today was a first; I didn't travel to London for the Queen Mother or Princess Diana. In fact, the public outpouring of grief around the death of Diana was the first (and thankfully the only) time I felt like an alien in my own country. But I never had a moment's doubt that I would take-up the opportunity to pay my last respects to Mrs Thatcher.  It was Margaret Thatcher who (perhaps more than anyone else, apart from my mother) made me who I am, shaped my world view and helped me form my core political beliefs.

I was joined today by good friends and colleagues, who travelled from Kent, Sussex and Cambridge to be part of our small party. We rendezvoused at Charing Cross and made our way east along the Strand. Even at 9am the crowds were three deep. Then, by pure luck, we arrived at a corner of Essex Street and Strand, diagonally opposite the back of St Clement Danes, where we had a front row view. The cortege would pass within feet, and what's more, one of the military bands were arranged directly in front of us. Within 10 minutes of our arrival, the crowds behind us were six deep.

The TV cameras and professional writers will do a far better job that I in capturing the mood, but I did find many moments incredibly moving and emotional.

  • The band playing Jerusalem.
  • The band leader's mace, and the drums, draped in black cloth as a sign of respect.
  • The military Guard of Honour standing to 'mourning attention' - their guns draped in black cloth, pointing to the ground, with the soldier leaning forward, head bowed (see below). I have never seen this before.
  • The single tolling of the church bells, echoing down the Strand.
  • The stoic dignity of the people, our people, many tens of thousands of them, who lined the streets in their suits and sombre ties, tweeds and brogues, wearing with pride and honour their regimental badges and caps, to say goodbye to our Prime Minister.
  • The young people, few of whom were even born when the traitors deserted her, who came to pay their last respects to a woman whose memory and ideals can still inspire a generation.
  • The pure and still unchallenged class of our military establishment, who can still mount the greatest pomp on earth, and do so with style and ease.

As the cortege passed, people bowed their heads or made the sign of the cross, then something quite unexpected yet magical happened. People started to clap, then cheer. I have never clapped or cheered at a funeral before, yet it seemed absolutely right. For we had come not only to say goodbye, but also to say thank you.

We shall not see the like of her again. 

One of the soldiers providing the military Guard of Honour,
standing to 'mourning attention'. His gun draped in black and pointing to the ground,
the soldier, leaning forward with his head bowed.

Following the funeral we lunched at Simpson's and drank a bottle of Champagne in Mrs Thatcher's memory.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Keeping ahead of the pack !

Keeping ahead of the pack

One of the strange things about being an agent, my work life is always a month or so ahead of the pack.

For example, for candidates, campaign organisers and activists, the peak of their campaign workload is about to arrive (whether the know it or not!), with massive GOTPV and GOTV efforts across the constituencies. For Jon and me, the election is all over bar the counting. We have signed-off the last leaflet and sent it to print. Apart from a bit of basic IT training for new people who have not previously used Merlin Campaign Centre, their is little left to do, at least from an administrative perspective. Having said that, I held my first campaign planning meeting for these elections back in June 2012, when many of the candidates were not even selected, and will no doubt soon commence the next round of selections for Tunbridge Wells Borough, which still elects in thirds so has elections every year!

Last week I posted a photograph of our office volunteers frantically franking and sorting thousands of letters for this week's target mailshots, whilst piled-up menacingly in the hall were 40,000 Summer Draw tickets, waiting to take centre stage. Today they took a small step closer to the spotlight as I mentally drafted the appeal letter which will go out with them. This is part of my planning process, which usually begins in the back of my mind, several weeks ahead of anything being committed to paper. I have found over the years that whatever 'mental draft' comes into my head when I first think about it, is usually verbatim to the final copy committed to print several weeks later, though the original draft is rewritten a dozen times before I return to my original draft!

Another discipline I have adopted over the years, which often causes surprise, is I never retain any draft letters or leaflets following either an election or fund raising campaign. Many years ago I visited a long-serving agent in a 'safe' seat, who had probably been there a few years too long. I remember the horror (and also sense of sympathy) I felt  when he opened-up the previous year's appeal letter and simply changed the date.  "It's the same letter I have been using for years, no-one ever notices."  That may, or may not, have been true, but he knew, and I suspect others did too.

Maybe the same people sent the same money as the always did, but he was clearly stale and had given-up trying to achieve new goals. I suspected that if he simply changed the date on the summer raffle letter, he almost certainly did likewise on the members' newsletters, membership renewals and perhaps even the election leaflets, too. I promised myself that every year I would start with a blank piece of paper and recreate everything from scratch - as if I was doing it for the very first time. Obviously over time you build up a mental library, but I at least try to keep it fresh. If I ever find myself simply changing the date it will be the time I seriously consider moving on to pastures new.

A number of readers have emailed to ask how we run our draw and make so much money. I will post samples of our letter and how we approach members and donors, as well as how we identify potential new draw donors, as soon as I have finalised the letter. Or, I could simply post last years - no-one will notice, will they? 

Monday, 15 April 2013

Embarrassing incident of the year award!

On the way home tonight I stopped at the local petrol station to buy a few groceries; coffee, milk, cat food etc. As I left the shop I was furious to see an old bloke driving off (stealing!) my lovely car.

I shouted "he's stealing my car" as loudly as I could, dropped my two bags of groceries and took off in pursuit, hoping he would get stuck at the traffic lights. Very gallantly, another man, somewhat younger and fitter than me who was filling his car with petrol, also ran after him to try and help.

However, rather than speeding off as I anticipated, the driver indicated, pulled over to the side of the road and waited for the two of us to catch-up.  It was only then I realised that whilst it was exactly the same make, model and colour as my car - his number plate was different. My car was exactly where I had left it - in the parking space in front of the ATM. What's more the "thief" was a kindly 70 year old man wearing a tweed jacket and a pork pie hat!

By the time I caught up with him I was red-faced and huffing & puffing like the Fat Controller running after a train. Through wheezes and coughs, I apologised profusely (to the old man and the chap who tried to help). By this time, the commotion had ensured everyone at the petrol station and all those inside the shop had come out to watch. With my head bowed and trying to control both my breathing and my embarrassment, I calmly walked back and then had to start scrabbling around for my groceries, which had rolled all over the forecourt and underneath peoples' cars.

And on that note, ladies and gentlemen, goodnight!

But you don't understand....I am "ENTITLED"

I have just taken a call from a resident about the bedroom tax.

She lives with her two young children in a three bedroom property and is now being asked to pay extra for the third room. But apparently she's "entitled" to the additional room because her 6 year-old is "hyper-active" and keeps the 5 year-old awake by shouting and screaming into the night.  Apparently it's 'not fair'.

I asked her if she thought it was fair that my assistant, who is 25 years old and works full time, should be asked to pay additional tax to subsidise her unruly child having a bedroom of his own, when he still lives at home with his parents. And whether she thought it was fair that he cannot possible afford the deposit on a one-bedroom flat, let alone a three bedroom house.

I suspect she won't be voting Conservative. 

Sunday, 14 April 2013

A chance encounter in Whitstable defines The Big Society

Every so often a politician or government sets-out a narrative which is understood by society and supported by the public mood.
Margaret Thatcher did just that with Popular Capitalism - two words which underpinned greater home ownership, privatisation and extended share ownership, opting out of SERPS, lower direct taxes and much more.
John Major failed spectacularly with Back to Basics which, however revisionists try to redefine it, deservedly fell flat on its face. Tony Blair had better luck with the Third Way, a mixture of Corporatism and Social Democracy masquerading as New Labour, but he too failed with Cool Britannia.  I am not sure if Gordon Brown ever had a philosophy to define apart from 'It's Not My Fault'For David Cameron it was The Big Society.

I actually liked The Big Society. I immediately understood what it meant and how it was so relevant in 21st Century Britain. I knew how expanding community and social activism was vital to the cohesion and advancement of austerity Britain; how it could bring people together, replacing the state as the focus of provision, and empowering people to take responsibility for their lives and their communities. The theory is not at all alien to traditional Conservatives, though the terminology might be. We see it in action every day; the volunteers running the tea counter at the local hospital, the drivers for the local Meals on Wheels service, those on the coffee and flower rota at the local church, the local WI, Towns Women's Guild, the Rotarians, Round Tablers and Buffalos shaking collecting tins and doing good works throughout the year for no personal gain or advancement.  The first President Bush referred to volunteers and community groups as "a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky."  I am not claiming that all people who do such good work are Conservatives, but I would wager that more of them support us than any other party.

I am therefore saddened that The Big Society appears to have vanished from the Coalition agenda. Perhaps it was too difficult to define, or in times of acute hardship for many, the public mood was not open to such notions. If so, we are the poorer for it.

Today, for example, in one small way, I witnessed The Big Society in action.

Steve and I had driven to Whitstable for lunch, as we often do. As we drove in, a slow moving line of cars caused concern; would there be anywhere to park? Several times in the last year we have driven into town, spent 30 minutes searching for a space before giving up and moving on to Canterbury instead. On the first really clement day of spring we were not optimistic. But as we drove down the High Street a sign reading "Charity Car Park" directed us to a local school. We drove into the school grounds and were cheerily welcomed and directed to the school playground, where probably 60+ cars were already parked. As we walked out, we stopped to chat to the volunteers at the gate. As well as parking cars and giving directions, they were also selling cakes, drinks and home produce.

It transpires the idea was down to Josh and Charlotte, two 17 year olds pictured with me (above). They need to raise £4,000 to finance their trip to Ecuador, where they were going as volunteers to teach English as a Second Language with the charity Camps International.  The car parking idea, backed by the school Head and the PTA, was just one of many things they were doing to raise the required funds; but the profit from this initiative was been shared 50:50 with the school to provide new play equipment.

Surely this is exactly what The Big Society is really all about. Here we have a group of volunteers, using infrastructure already in place, to provide a service for the benefit of others (the car drivers), which will also benefit the wider community (the town's retailers), whilst increasing resources for the local school and enabling two young people to travel to do voluntary work for the benefit of children in a far less prosperous society than ours.

Just think how this could be built upon. How many busy tourist communities and towns turn visitors away through lack of parking? Greenwich, Blackheath, Camden, and Hampstead Village are just four examples, yet each of these have numerous schools with large car parks and concreted areas which could offer exactly the same service as the one being provided by Josh and Charlotte. Imagine the tens of thousands of pounds that could be raised every weekend for no capital outlay; the new play equipment or books that could be purchased for underfunded schools, or money raised for good causes, all whilst providing a service to visitors, able and willing to pay. The possibilities in this small area alone are endless.

I was so impressed with this initiative that I probably donated 3 times what it would have cost me to park in the local car park (had we been able to find a space), but I was happy to do so. It was worth every penny to support and encourage two young people with drive and initiative whilst helping the local school too.

Come on Prime Minister - bring back The Big Society; it really does exist and it makes a real difference. All you need to do is find the language to define and promote what it really means. 

My letter in this week's Kent Messenger regarding Ann Barnes

My letter in this week's Kent Messenger, directly beneath the photograph of Ann Barnes.

Kent Messenger Malling
12 Apr 2013

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Poll results - why people read my blog!

Over the last ten days I have been running a poll on my blog. I was keen to ascertain who read it, how they reached me, what they did (and didn't) like reading and how it could be improved. 
Almost 200 readers participated, and I am grateful to so many people for taking the time to contribute.
How do you reach / find my blog? There were quite a few interesting, and unexpected, findings. I originally thought the overwhelming majority of visitors would come via links on my other social media accounts, but not so. In total, 28% come to my blog via Facebook and Twitter, but the majority visit me through "my favourites" or via RSS, Politicus, Feedly, Google Reader or similar.  This is encouraging as it demonstrates that whilst friends and colleagues account for a good percentage of readers, they are not the majority, and I am building an audience from beyond my base of friends.
How often do you visit? 63% read daily or every couple of days with 21% clicking through when they see a link which interests them.  This is gratifying, but does show the importance of blogging at least once a day. I know how quickly I lose interest if I visit a blog and the same story appears for several days running.
I asked people why they read my blog.  The largest group by far (over 50%)  responded "I enjoy reading blogs and I find yours interesting".  Other reasons were "I am an activist from an Association where we don't have an agent and I value your campaigning and best practice advice" and 18% were "an activist from one of the Associations which employ you, and I am keen to see who you are  b*tching about" !   3% admitted to being on the Parliamentary List and keen to hear about the forthcoming selection contest. Only three respondents said "I see you regularly and I fear you will ask questions about what you blogged yesterday and sulk if I cannot reply."  I think I can safely guess those three respondents were Steve Browning, Jon Botten and Allan Sullivan ! 

There was a qualitative section for this question too, where respondents could write in their own reply, rather than simply ticking a box. This is always more interesting as people have free reign to say what they wish to say, rather than being funnelled into pre-selected answers.  Here are the qualitative comments:

I like Iain Dale's blog and am reading yours on his recommendation
4/13/2013 12:43 PM                 
floating voter interested in reading political blogs such as Iain Dale, Tim Montgomerie, Dan Hodges etc clicked onto yours whilst reading Iain Dale
4/12/2013 4:44 PM                 
former tory activist in kent and now retired to wester ross and joined ukip
4/12/2013 3:02 PM                 
It is witty, erudite, self deprecating and entertaining. I am also a Tory activist.
4/11/2013 12:07 PM                 
I'm a Tory who knew you in school and find your blog interesting.
4/11/2013 12:19 AM                 
I respect your work for the party immensely and look to tap into your experiences in work i am passionate about
4/10/2013 10:36 PM                 
General political interest and once resided in the TW area
4/7/2013 8:41 PM                 
I'm a former Conservative Party agent and laugh a lot at the honesty of your observations!
4/7/2013 8:37 AM                 
Honestly, because it is amusing.
4/6/2013 7:28 PM                 
I am tired of reading so much negative stuff on the coalition. I find your blog encouraging and positive - Thanks!
4/6/2013 7:21 PM                 
Insightful, well written and fun
4/6/2013 2:59 PM                 
You write well about interesting things
4/6/2013 1:14 PM                 
I am you're friend
4/6/2013 11:25 AM             
Your blog brightens up my day!
4/6/2013 12:22 AM         
I find your blog fun and amusing
4/6/2013 12:01 AM    
I find it interesting, often informative and very funny at times. Gives me other view poits which can only be good.
4/5/2013 11:31 PM  
You have amusing annocdotes
4/5/2013 11:15 PM  
A former Agent (now a Campaign Manager in a marginal Warwickshire seat) and see myself agreeing with much of what you have to say                                
4/5/2013 9:30 PM    
You just talk so much sense and are extremely funny
4/5/2013 8:07 PM    
I am a Liberal Democrat Cllr and enjoy reading about similar experiences :-)
4/5/2013 6:51 PM   
I am an antiquated Agent - as is my other half. We are retired but still like to know what's going on in the Party on the ground.
4/5/2013 6:28 PM       
I love your 'original' spelling
4/5/2013 5:35 PM     
You're the best agent in the party who keeps it real!
4/5/2013 5:30 PM    
I am a libertarian blogger monitoring interesting sites of statist parties.
4/5/2013 5:28 PM   
I am friends with you :)
4/5/2013 5:10 PM                

I then asked what would you like to read more (less) about on this blog.  Interestingly 85% want to read more about my life as an agent! This can be quite difficult as much of my job is routine and very repetitive and I do like to keep the blog fresh.  43% would like more about living on a narrow boat and 54% would like more campaign tips and best practice. Amusingly, 2 respondents wanted less about life as an agent and less about life on a narrow boat, which makes me wonder why they are reading my blog in the first place! More amusingly, both also ticked that they visit every day. Clearly there are two people out there who hate reading what I write, but do so every day; perhaps it's some form of new media self flagellation - a latter day version of those who try to read Proust.

Finally I asked "what could I do to improve the blog".  This question was qualitative, allowing people the space to write exactly what they thought, rather than funnelling their replies with pre-selected options. Always a danger (especially when anonymous) but I thought it was important if I wanted to read a honest assessment. Again, I am grateful to the many people who took the time and trouble to respond. I have printed all the answers below (exactly how they were posted) but have edited some to remove any possibility of identifying the respondent.

will read it again - note that the link from Iain Dale's blog didn't work. googled it.
4/13/2013 12:43 PM
keep doing it
4/12/2013 6:57 PM                            
very enjoyable read
4/12/2013 4:44 PM                             
too early to say
4/12/2013 3:02 PM                            
I think it is excellent and should be a benchmark for agents, activists and frankly just citizens in other areas. Keep up the good work.
4/11/2013 12:07 PM                 
I love your observational humour within the blogs Graham 'make em pay pay pay' !
4/10/2013 11:23 PM     
A spot more proofreading, or spell checking. Though I appreciate that you often dash something off at the end of a long day, and the thought of having to make it perfect might deter you writing anything. That would definitely be worse. So if the choice is regular but a bit rough around the edges, or perfect but once in a blue moon, stick to the current plan!
4/8/2013 8:59 PM                 
More parliamentary candidate gossip please.
4/8/2013 1:02 PM                 
Keep it as it is. Coming from a constituency where we can't afford an agent, your insights and tips are well worth a read, as well as being entertaining
4/7/2013 10:18 PM                 
It's just fine - I came to it via Iain Dale's recommendation and thanks for taking the trouble to post after a hard days work,
4/6/2013 7:21 PM                 
It's a good balance. If you just write about politics you'll go mad - keep the boating stuff!
4/6/2013 4:11 PM                 
More photos of what you write about.
4/6/2013 2:59 PM                 
Keep going
4/6/2013 1:14 PM                 
Keep doing what you are doing. You have a natural ability to write and to be funny.
4/6/2013 7:25 AM                 
Don't post on April the 1st !!!
4/6/2013 12:22 AM                
Keep up the good work
4/6/2013 12:01 AM                
No.....just don't stop!
4/5/2013 11:31 PM                 
Keep on going. Entertaining and informative.
4/5/2013 9:59 PM                 
Keep going as you are, and write about whatever you have on your mind at the time, even though I'd like to read more about a fellow Agent and how you do things in Kent, I also love people and enjoy reading your non political postings too - keep up the blog
4/5/2013 9:30 PM                
It is brilliant and a joy to read
4/5/2013 8:07 PM                
Always find it interesting
4/5/2013 6:51 PM                 
We are heartened to know that there are still a few "real" ie trained Agents around, and that there is some activity going on somewhere.
4/5/2013 6:28 PM                
Have more of a conscience.
4/5/2013 6:27 PM                
Keep it up. I enjoy your style of writing and feel much encouraged by it. Your tips on best practice are greatly appreciated. Thank you.
4/5/2013 6:02 PM                
Keep it up! It's a great insight into the weird and wonderful world of politics and its people. It's a great read, interesting, exceedingly funny at times. So please keep it going!
4/5/2013 5:40 PM                
Add a disclaimer that you don't represent the Conservatives and let rip with what you really think.
4/5/2013 5:28 PM                
Life and stories are everything - keep at it
4/5/2013 5:18 PM                
Fewer double spaces! :)
4/5/2013 5:18 PM                
Its a fantastic, unique blog. Keep up the good work!
4/5/2013 5:10 PM