Saturday, 31 August 2013 the Chatham & Aylesford BBQ

Door to door enquiries have been launched in a prosperous suburb of Aylesford after a young woman gate crashed an annual get-together of pensioners, pushed her way to the front of the queue, and helped herself to large quantities of burnt food.

After haranguing the crowd about badgers and football, she started picking random coloured tickets from a wicker basket and shouting at the confused onlookers. "92 green who has 92 green?"

Local pensioner, Jocelyn Glad (82), who organised the reunion, said, "suddenly she appeared and started asking if Nicholas Soames should come for dinner. I didn't know what to say. I wasn't sure if there would be enough food."

Another guest, Allan Sullivan (91), said, "I've had lovely time, but when is matron coming to take me back. It's well past my bedtime."

On the doorsteps of Chatham, Malling and Paddock Wood

We had three campaign teams working in West Kent today; Tracey Crouch was leading a team in Chatham, Ed Pugh and colleagues were out and about in West Malling and Greg Clark MP joined local councillors Elizabeth Thomas (left) and Bill Hills (right) as part of a magnificent team of thirty three campaigning in Paddock Wood (in the Tunbridge Wells constituency).

Between them, the three teams knocked on 2,000 doors and delivered over 5,000 leaflets.

Comments of the day:

"You politicians only come around at election time." 
Well - we're here now, in August, and there are no elections! 
"Yes, that's because you know people get sick of you coming at election time, so now you come early instead."


"Me, nah I never bother voting. If you vote they get in." 
Well, they get in anyway, so you should vote.
"That's the point, if they're going to get in anyway, what's the point of voting?"

Hmmm...some perverse logic in that!

My thanks to everyone who came to help across West Kent. I am fortunate to not only work in such a lovely part of the country, but to work with people who are so willing to campaign hard for what we believe in, and most importantly work as a team towards shared goals.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

She's got cahoonas, that Tracey Crouch

An email has just arrived at the office from a resident, following Tracey Crouch's TV interview last night about Syria. It deserves to be shared:

"Saw you on the news last night - thank you. 
When Margaret Thatcher died I sent you an email saying in delicate words how great Margaret was. You sent back by saying ' I think the word your looking for is she had balls' . Well I think we have to say the same about you !"

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Cllr Andrew Mackness learns a new language

My good mate, Cllr Andrew Mackness, is a top guy and a really hard working and effective councillor. If I ever found myself in the trenches, I could think of no-one I would sooner have alongside me; even if for no other reason than his catering company make good sandwiches.

However, I was amused to read a series of Tweets this morning, demonstrating the Cllr Mackness has learnt a new language. That language which baffles 99% of voters but is beloved of local government employees and some councillors: Acronymitis.

Here is the best of many examples

Can anyone tell me what it actually means ?

"No thanks - we don't need any help!"

A good friend (a former Party Agent whose husband is a councillor in one of my Associations) recently emailed another Association, asking if they needed any additional help from her 19 year old nephew. I receive emails like these regularly, and always respond positively.  Even at quiet times, there is always something to do. Furthermore, a refusal sends out all the wrong signals; one of the surest ways to ensure the volunteer never offers to help again.  

She was therefore surprised to receive this reply

What's even more surprising is this Association has is a critical marginal with a majority of just over 4,000 votes, and at the County elections in May they lost three seats to the opposition.
At the moment in the West Kent office we are:
  • Data capturing three constituencies worth of marked registers
  • Data capturing responses to a 30,000 postal vote mailing to pledges
  • Data capturing Voter ID surveys from five campaign teams who are door knocking each month
  • Packing 15,000 Christmas draw ticket packs
  • Packing 3,500 surveys to attainers (which will soon need data capturing)
  • Removing 620 invalid email addresses from our database and adding new ones
Perhaps the Association has done all of the above, but I would be surprised!
If they have, why not ask the young man to help recruit postal voters? How difficult would be for them to give him a list of pledges who did not vote in a critical marginal ward, and ask them to pay a visit and sign them up for a postal vote? Such an exercise would boost his confidence, make him feel wanted whilst doing something really useful for the party?
If they don't want to do that, why not choose a target ward and give him a list of strong pledges to contact by phone and ask them to deliver newsletters to their own road at election time?   Again, something really useful which we usually don't have time to do due to everything else pressing on our time.
Or perhaps call lapsed members to see if they would like to re-join ?
But maybe this marginal constituency who have lost their council seats have more than enough delivery helpers, have no lapsed members, don't need any help recruiting postal voters and have done all the things they need to do to help win the next election.
If so (and it's a big if) there is still one job they could ask him to do. They could ask him to update their website, because when I checked it 20 minutes ago it hasn't been updated since 2011!
Am I cynical to assume that an Association which hasn't updated its website for two years probably isn't doing all those other things they should do enable us to win. 
But never mind.... far easier when an enthusiastic young man offers to help to say "we don't need any help" than to actually make him feel welcome and wanted.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Christmas comes early (or at least the raffle tickets do!)

A lovely long weekend came crashing to a halt today with the arrival of the Christmas Raffle Tickets. I must remember to thank Philip Dumville (Promotor of the National Conservative Draws Society). Fifteen thousand books of Christmas Draw tickets is just what we wanted in August. Fortunately, having had a few quiet days last week we have already printed the covering letters, embedded labels and reply slips, so we are ready to roll!

After a year of treading water sending tickets only to long term supporters and donors, I feel sufficiently confident of our position in the polls to seek to expand the fund raising base this Christmas. Therefore, as well as sending tickets to known donors, I will also be prospecting for new donors, targeting 6,000 carefully selected households for the first time. If anyone would like details of how I have selected my targets, please feel free to get in touch using the "Contact Me" section to the right hand side. If we don't know each other, please provide your name what office you hold in your local Association when you email, as I like to know who I am sharing information with. A few people have also asked for another (downloadable) link to our West Kent Best Practice Guide for maximising income from the two annual draws, which I am happy to provide below.

Today we also launched our new email communications tool, using the same house-style across all West Kent Associations. e-coms will now carry one of four banners (News, Events, Campaigning, Meetings) each with their own tailored recipient list. Here is a sample of the banner which will be used in Chatham & Aylesford when we circulate Tracey Crouch's E-newsletter:

We are also working on an e-booking system for events, where recipients can click on a link to book tickets and pay online. The payment will automatically generate an e-ticket to the purchaser, whilst sending an email informing us of the booking and payment details. We are a few weeks away from launching this service, but early trials have worked well.

This coming weekend is shaping-up nicely. We have three campaign teams out across West Kent - including a team of 30 campaigners in one council ward, where we aim to survey canvass the entire ward in a day.

Finally, a massive well done and congratulations to Tunbridge Wells Councillor, Chris Woodward. A few weeks ago I posted about Chris raffling his motorbike to raise funds for a community centre in his ward. See HERE.  Well, he's done it!  The draw was held on Bank Holiday Monday (I understand Greg Clark MP pulled the winning ticket). Chris has worked his socks-off, selling tickets in TW Town Centre every Saturday and at various fetes, fun days and community events throughout the week. He has roped-in council colleagues, party activists and friends to sell tickets too. At the time of writing (with money still coming in) he has raised nearly £3,000.  A magnificent achievement. 

Could it be Magic ?

Something new and exciting to look forward to in the New Year!

If any of readers would like to attend, please email me or get in touch via the Association Office on 01732 842794.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

If Blackpool was a woman she would be a tart

As the party conference season approaches, the view "it was so much better in the seaside towns" once again starts circulating. Looking back through rose-tinted spectacles is human nature, and perhaps in some ways it was a bit friendlier and less corporate then. But there are some myths which deserve to be challenged.

The first of which is accessibility. In the "good old days" associations were allocated tickets for the senior officers (Chairman, Vice Chairmen, CWCC Chairman and YC Chairman and so on). If these people all wanted to attend, and most did, it left no space for others. Activists who did not hold constituency office were often excluded. I remember my mother and a group of her branch colleagues frantically ringing-around Liverpool associations trying to obtain unallocated tickets. Often when the conference was in Blackpool they simply could not attend as there was no space. At least now every member has an equal opportunity to register - surely a good thing.

Then I hear about how much more fun it was in seaside towns. Really?  Please don't misunderstand me, Bournemouth, Brighton and Blackpool are all super places. I have enjoyed weekends away in all of them. But for a whole week? In October? My memories of seaside conferences are of long walks in the dark, along rain-drenched promenades with the wind howling in from the sea, trying to find obscure hotels which offered their dank basements as venues for the fringe.

I recall spending far too much time looking for somewhere to eat which didn't serve food at Formica-topped tables from laminated menus showing pictures of what the selected dish *should* look like. Then we found the wonderful "September Brasserie" an upstairs culinary oasis in a desert of chips. The September Brasserie was opened and operated by the former Chef at the Savoy (the real one in The Strand), who took early retirement with his wife, returned to their home town of Blackpool, and decided to serve vegetables al dente and not from tins. I once took a group of eight there for a birthday dinner (driving from London). It was probably one of the best meals I have ever eaten.  Sadly, the owner told me he was only ever busy during conference season and he simply couldn't make it pay.

Then there is the price of hotels. Someone said to me the other week how much cheaper it used to be. Well, let's be honest, everything was cheaper in the 1990s!  I recall paying £20 per night back then for a fairly basic B&B, but that was 20+ years ago. Two years ago in Manchester I paid £40 per night for a decent clean room with an en suite in Salford, 15 minutes tram ride from the venue. And last year in Birmingham I paid £50 per night for an equally pleasant hotel about 15 minutes walk to the city centre.  I suspect you would pay a fortune to stay at one of the main city centre conference hotels, but you would have paid similarly to stay at the Grand or the Highcliffe or the Imperial back then too.

One year I took a party from my local association to Blackpool, where we stayed at Holiday Flatlets by the North Pier. It was, shall we say, an experience. Plastic sheets on the beds (I am not sure if they always were, or if he had put them on specially for us) and suspiciously placed spy holes in the communal showers (which we spotted and covered with tin foil!). On the day we arrived my constituency Treasurer (now an MP) got out of the car, cast a suspicious eye along the windswept promenade, with its flashing lights, 'Kiss Me Quick' hats and the pervading odour of stale chip fat, and announced "My God, if Blackpool was a woman she'd be a tart". Talking of which, I bumped into a contingent of friends who had booked themselves into Trades Hotel (the clue is in the name). "You look a bit jaded" I said when I saw them one morning. "Yes, darling - it's the only hotel I know where they have swapped the bedroom doors for turnstiles".

Maybe it was more fun back then! And if we return; great! But I am sure that any return to the seaside in the future will result in equally vocal groups complaining about the lack of modern facilities, the long cold walks between venues and the sound of seagulls keeping them awake.

See you all in Manchester!

50% tender with several strong opinions. Who'd have thought it?

I am a little dubious about these online 'political compass' tests as I think most people adjust their answers to ensure the outcome fits how they wish to be perceived.  This one, however, seems better than some (and regardless of their accuracy, they are quite good fun to complete).

Here is my report:

Overall, fairly accurate, though many who know me might question the 50% tenderness and the fact that I only have "several" strong opinions.  I must try harder.

Hat-tip to Edward Cain for the link.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

The things you see in pubs !

In the pub after canvassing in Tunbridge Wells this morning, ten very wet campaigners were disturbed to see a charity collecting box on the bar counter, which bore a scary resemblance to a former dictator.

Friday, 23 August 2013

An inconvenient truth for fellow Europhobes

Something happened on the day James Wharton MP introduced his Referendum Bill.  A few scales fell from my eyes.  With just one or two exceptions, all of my friends on Social Media who were also Conservative activists were posting about "Let The People Decide" and dancing a jig that we had finally found the silver bullet which will win us the next election. But their was another story. About 50% of my social media friends are not Conservative members or activists, and something rather strange was happening. Not s single one of them was tweeting or posting about James Wharton or the EU. In fact, I doubt hardly any of them even knew, or cared, who James Wharton was. And if any of them had been privy to my newsfeeds, they would probably have wondered what was going on.

If you feel up to it, you can read my original post HERE

Now as you would expect, we are presently conducting a great deal of Voter ID work as we prepare for the forthcoming elections. Across West Kent we are inviting about 1,000 residents per week to share their views, on the doorsteps, by phone, email or post. As part of that process we ask "which three of the following issues will be most important in deciding how you will vote in 2015?"  They are then offered 17 issues to choose from. If we are face-to-face on the doorstep, we hand them a laminated show card. The top five issues are

  • National Health Service
  • Cost of Living
  • Care for the Elderly
  • Opportunities for the Next Generation
  • Britain's Deficit and Debt
Although the order of the these five vary, the same five issues come top of the list regardless of ward, demography or constituency.

And where is Europe on this list? 

Well, I am sorry to say it comes joint 15th !

I write "sorry to say" because I am sorry. There is nothing I would like more than to be able to report that Europe is the burning issue in every house in Kent. But it isn't.

Sharing this analysis with a campaign group recently, one disappointed chap told me the reason it rated so low was it was 13th on the list and people were clearly bored reading the options by the time the reached it. Another thought it was because I had referred to it as The EU and not Europe, and this confused respondents.

To reassure myself of the validity of the fieldwork, I rewrote the response forms and show cards, I changed The EU to European Union and moved it to the second item on the list.  And guess what happened?  Nothing! The percentages didn't change!

This doesn't mean that people don't care. When we asked 20,000 residents of C&A if Tracey Crouch's vote against increasing the EU Budget made them more likely or less likely to vote for her, 87% said more likely and only 2% less likely (even 81% Labour voters supported her on this issue).  So yes, people do care about Europe; by significant margins they support us on this issue. They want a better deal and they want a referendum. But they don't care about it as much as they do about the economy, health, cost of living, care for the elderly and opportunities for the next generation and almost everything else.

What is interesting, though, is the public's perception of our Party leaders.

Considering 56% of the respondents did not identify as Conservative, those figures should worry the Labour Party very much indeed.

Check, check and check again

I have just picked up the following delight on a friend's Facebook page

A timely reminder of the importance for any candidate or agent to check, check and check again!

Like poor Joy Atkins, our candidate in the Bradford North Parliamentary By Election in 1990. Her main election leaflet carried a large photograph of her standing in front of trees and a dry stone wall. It was lovely!  Until the press got hold of the original version which showed she was standing in the middle of a cemetery and we had cropped out the gravestones.

During the lead up to the 2010 GE a photographer wanted to take a picture of Tracey with her campaign team. We gathered in Walderslade Village with our balloons and posters. The photographer was insistent that we stood in a particular place. My suspicions were aroused and I started scanning shop signs, posters and A boards looking for the faux-pas which I feared would haunt me for years to come. Just as the photo was about to be taken, I spotted it. A poster in a shop window advertising a local pawnbroker was visible directly behind Tracey's head: "Ashcroft: for all your financial needs."

A few months later we were to welcome David Cameron to the constituency for Cameron Direct. We had hired a local church hall and had been working with the CCHQ events team for a few hours setting everything up. The seating, staging and lectern were all in place and the local media and 150 guests about to arrive. I stood at the back of the room and (seeking heavenly inspiration) my eyes looked upwards. And there it was! High on the wall but directly above the lectern were DC would be speaking was an evangelical poster proclaiming, in massive lettering:
There was no ladder, so as I held the press and public outside, a slim lady from CCHQ was hoisted onto the broad shoulders of a CCHQ rugger bugger, who then climbed onto a chair (health and safety be damned) and the poster was removed, saving DC some very unwelcome comparisons and denying the press a photo-op they would have loved! 

Thursday, 22 August 2013

All these friends I never knew I had!

I have been sent an amusing app from (nb that's not - don't get the wrong idea) which gathers the profile photographs of your friends on social media and turns them into a montage, which you can load onto your various sites. Here are mine.

The first question which comes to mind is, who the hell are they all ?

Maidstone and The Weald join the West Kent Group

A few weeks ago I mentioned a "new development" but have been unable to confirm details, until the local membership had been informed. With the mailshot landing on doormats today, I can now announce that the Maidstone and The Weald Conservative Association has formally voted to join the West Kent Group, bringing the Group to four strong.

The unanimous decision taken by Maidstone's Executive Council will see the Association's back of house and day to day administration being run alongside Tonbridge and Malling, Chatham and Aylesford and Tunbridge Wells.  As with the other members of the West Kent Group, however, the Maidstone Conservative Association will remain wholly autonomous. The internal structures (Management  Committee, Executive Council, Local Government Committee, branches etc) are all unchanged.

Maidstone and The Weald will benefit from improved administration, data management, access to good quality print and design plus professional political, legal and campaign support, whilst the existing members of the West Kent Group will benefit from having another partner sharing establishment costs; thus releasing funds for the purpose our supporters donate: campaigning and winning elections.

Great news for all concerned.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

The Walter Mitty Society

There was a time when I enjoyed browsing the UK Polling Report website, particularly the constituency commentary section. I would often wonder how the contributors had such detailed inside information. Then one day I saw a local lapsed member, whose knowledge of campaigning could be written on the head of a match, and who was so useless that we wouldn't have trusted him to pin on his own rosette, commenting in great detail about our 2010 GE strategy. Needless to say, his post was a work of fiction. I then realised that probably most of the people who post were just like him; Armchair Generals who believe elections are won from a laptop.

I revisited UK Polling Report tonight to see if it had changed, only to find the following gem posted on the Tonbridge & Malling page:

This is living proof that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing!  As far as I know, two of those listed are no longer on the Candidates' List, the third has defected to UKIP (sadly missed by all who never worked with her) and the fourth, if she is interested, is not known to me or (as yet) shown any interest.

I wonder why anyone would post complete poppycock on a political forum without at least trying to establish to accuracy of what is being posted?  If it is done to make themselves look more knowledgeable than they are, then I am afraid it fails.   "Obviously CCHQ are delaying the process to parachute in their favourites" he adds. Really?  Where did that gem come from? The timetable for the selection was put forward by the local Association, agreed by CCHQ and has never changed.  And what about the "parachuting in".  More nonsense. The Association Officers indicated that they wanted to see the CVs of every applicant, and this was agreed without hesitation.

Moral of story - take every comment you read on UK Polling Report with a pinch of salt!

NB: I am grateful to Cllr Neil Baker for pointing out that in my original post I had referred to the website Political Betting when I should have referenced UK Polling Report. I have corrected the error in the above text, but wish to acknowledge the mistake and thank Neil for the correction.

True Blues - lessons from the 1990s

In the early 1990s I participated in an academic study about Conservative Party membership. The research, carried out by Professor Patrick Seyd, Paul Whitely and Jeremy Richardson, was published in 1994 by Oxford University Press and was entitled True Blues: The Politics of Conservative Party Membership. 

If any readers are interested, the research paper (316 pages) is still available for £95.00 from HERE. I am pleased to say I received a complimentary copy, which I still have.

Thirty four carefully selected Conservative Associations were invited to participate in the research, which was endorsed and supported by CCO at 32 Smith Square (as it then was). The research included a detailed (40 page) questionnaire being sent to all paid-up members in the selected constituencies, with follow-up face to face interviews with a cross section of respondents, as well as with local officers, councillors and agents. The published report examined just who joined the Conservative Party, why they did so, what motivated them and the socio-economic profiles and aspirations of our members. It was fascinating, and probably the only detailed study ever undertaken. I believe the authors undertook similar research covering membership of the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats.

Re-reading the report in light of recent headlines about declining membership, two things struck me.

Firstly, Association staff were asked to inform the researchers of how many paid-up members their local Association had. They were then asked to send a membership list. Interestingly, in all but 5 Associations, the number of members "quoted" was higher (often significantly higher) than the actual number submitted on the membership list. In many cases, the "assumed" number of members was 50% higher than the actual, and across the 34 Associations membership was overestimated by 20%. Given these figures were produced at a time when all associations were computerised (either Silverjay or BlueChip then) there was no reason for such a rose-tinted estimate. It does, however, make one wonder just how "optimistic" the 1950s figures of 3 million members must be, given such records were kept on paper lists and index-cards in the homes of 10,000 branch membership secretaries.

The second interesting detail was that my own Association reported 2,400 members. This seems an amazingly high figure compared with today's membership numbers, until one considers the whole picture. Within the constituency we had three Conservative Clubs, and each of these clubs insisted that club members were also paid-up party members. The largest of the clubs added £2 per member to the fees, which they passed on to the Association. Another added £3 per member and the third insisted that members enclosed their party membership card with their application form. Between them they added 2,000 members to our total (in those days there was no minimum membership fee).  How many of those 2,000 would have been party members is they didn't have to be to gain access to cheap beer, bingo and billiards? Interestingly upon the introduction of £25 minimum party membership the clubs dropped the party membership requirement, fearful of losing club members. Following this 95% allowed their party membership to lapse!

Looking back, it could accurately be reported that membership of this association fell from 2,400 in 1992 to 300 today - a drop of 88%. In reality, there were never 2,400 members to start with. I would estimate that the real membership figure (excluding those who joined because they had no choice if they wanted to drink cheap beer) was probably 600.

None of the above should be taken as complacency, but it should be taken into consideration when addressing the problems we face. Membership is in decline and must be addressed, but the decline is not universal. In Tonbridge & Malling we will almost certainly close the year with a small increase in membership. A handful of other Associations show similar improvements.  The Party needs to ask what those Associations which are growing are doing differently to those which aren't, and use that as a starting point for our renewal.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way....


"Well, that's the postal vote mailshot to pledges done, the Autumn Appeal printed and packed, membership cards and Q3 reminders posted, Q4 renewal letters printed, Maidstone mailing printed, packed and ready to go and everything prepared for the next five canvassing sessions. The Kent CC marked registers are data captured and all surveys inputted. What's next...?"

Me: "Let's make a head start on the Christmas Raffle..."

You might well groan, but with ten thousand tickets to pack across four constituencies, we need to be ahead of the game.  It will soon be Christmas !

Sunday, 18 August 2013

I've just witnessed a crime

Steve and I dined out at Pizza Express in Rochester tonight.

As usual, we chose an outside table as we like to watch the world go by. Two ladies (mother and daughter) soon took the only other outside table available. Towards the end of the meal a car drew up and four people (two men and two women, all in their mid-late twenties) alighted. I noticed that each went in different directions, and they were all clutching similar papers. The driver of the car headed towards Pizza Express. He was holding up his papers (pages from an estate agent) but his eyes were scanning the two outside tables. He noticed I was watching him and averted his gaze. He did, however, walk up to the table where the two women were sitting. I heard them chatting but did not hear what was said.  The man then returned to his car, opened the passenger door, put something in the car, then calmly walked back towards the restaurant and entered briefly, before leaving again.

As he was walking away, one of the women shouted that he had stolen her phone. Calmly he walked back and remonstrated with her, accusing her of dishonouring him. The woman was insistent. Her phone had been on the table when he had approached them a few moments earlier. Apparently (she claimed) he had put his papers down on the table (they were estate agent's papers) and asked if they knew where the featured property was located. As he picked up his papers to return to the car, he had picked up her mobile phone and stolen it. The man, in broken English, was cool and calm. He invited the ladies to search him and search his car, whilst continuing to say they were abusing his honour. Even though I was suspicious from the start, I too doubted he could have taken the phone whilst remaining so composed.

The women however were showing no such doubt and called the restaurant manager and told him to phone the police, which he did.  The driver was stuck, his colleagues had not returned to the car, so he couldn't drive off and leave them, but clearly the net was closing. One of his colleagues reappeared and he went back to the car and spoke to her. Calmly he returned to the table, insisting that the woman allows him to search her handbag to "restore my honour". As he dived into her bag, the phone suddenly "re-appeared". The restaurant manager, however, saw it happen. As his hand entered her bag, the phone dropped from his sleeve back into place. He then started demanding that the lady apologised for accusing him of being a thief.

At this point the second of the two women was on her phone informing the police of what had occurred. And here is the worst aspect of this whole story. Despite the theft and the return of the phone being witnessed, and the man responsible standing feet away, and his three accomplices probably pulling similar stunts in nearby pubs, the police operator said, "oh well, as you have your phone back there's no point us coming out, is there?" 

By this point the other three had returned to the car, the driver calmly walked back to his vehicle and drove off. Although there is no evidence to make such a claim, this looked like a very well organised gang.  I am sure whilst the driver was stealing phones in Pizza Express and then facing down his accusers, his three colleagues were not walking around the cathedral precincts enjoying the evening air.

Despite there being witnesses and CCTV cameras all around, the police did not attend, and I guess as the phone was returned it would have been recorded as yet another "no crime" in Kent police statistics. The victims passed on the number plate to the police, I wonder what will come of it?

Further info on Kent Police's enthusiasm for "no crime" stats HERE

Stuck in the middle of you....

I was amused to see a link on Con Home today which led to an article in the Mail on Sunday about George Galloway, who is allegedly selling his Streatham house for £1.5 million. See HERE.

What the Mail did not mention is that Mr Galloway's house is (or was) right next door to the one owned by Cynthia Payne, the former "Party Hostess" whose guests swapped luncheon vouchers for lingerie and spanking!

Caught up with these neighbours from hell in Streatham's tree lined Ambleside Avenue was a very good friend of mine, a vivacious and ballsy Irish psychiatric nurse. During the heyday, her evenings were regularly interrupted by erroneous callers, either nervous elderly men in pinstriped suits asking "is this Cynthia's house" or  else left-wing firebrands in search of Comrade George.

Apparently, even though she enjoyed the "comings and goings" she would occasionally, out of pure mischief, redirect people to the wrong houses. I can only imagine the horror of a senior member of the Establishment, expecting a door to be answered by a sexy semi naked nymph, only to find himself face to face with George Galloway.

The mind boggles.

Hair shirts and self flagellation

I am an enthusiastic proponent of reform. I believe we must change how we operate and the methods we use to engage people with our work.

I am on the record in support of open selections and am encouraging the Management Committee and the Executive Council to select our new parliamentary candidate in T&M at an open meeting.

In Tunbridge Wells we have gone a step further; the Local Government Committee unanimously endorsed my plan to advertise for potential candidates from the wider community and to hold a ballot of all residents in a trial ward to select the successful applicant. If these reforms extend our offer, bring new people into the fold and help renew our organisation, what possible reasons are there to oppose them, other than reluctance to change?

However, in the mad rush to reform, we need to take care we do not sacrifice the one major trump card we hold; in much of Britain, especially the south and in those seats we must win, we still have our finger on the pulse of middle Britain.

After our poor showing at Eastleigh, most commentators agreed that our local organisational demise in the constituency brought about by the loss of our membership and the eradication of our local government base, was a major contributing factor to our failure. Yet Matthew Paris, writing in The Times, said that we should admit defeat, close down local Associations, transfer membership to a national database and select all parliamentary candidates by open centrally organised primaries. Personally, I could think of no better way to ensure the problems that handicapped us at Eastleigh are replicated nationwide.

If your politics are viewed solely from a national perspective I can see why such a plan would appear attractive, and I suspect the Labour Party high command would like it too. No more demanding activists, no more Walter Wolfgangs or Ben Harris-Quinneys, no rank and file or grass roots making unreasonable demands for ideological purity.  Yet it is these trivialities, and the need for leaders to state their case and win their arguments, which keep political parties grounded and provide legitimacy.

My opposition however is not for any of these reasons, it is far more mundane. If we lose our local organisation and fight elections solely by direct mail, regional phone banks and via the media, we hand a massive advantage to whichever party seizes the opportunity and retains its local base of activists.  Admittedly, most people never change their vote, and those that do are more influenced by the national narrative than the local campaign, but I would guess that there are 100+ seats where the margins are so tight that the local campaign exceeds the margin of victory (or defeat).   

Yes, we need fundamental reform, but in this 'my shirt is hairier than your shirt" self-flagellation we are in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If membership is in terminal decline (and I suspect that it is) let it whither naturally on the vine, whilst using the breathing space to build a viable alternative.  If we can convince 3,000 voters to pay a token £1-£3 each to "register as a friend", and they then help our campaigning, we will have achieved something very significant indeed; we would have found a way to reverse decades of decline.  

In fact, I am going to suggest to one of my Associations that we mailshot a carefully selected 2,000 voters and ask them to do just that, to test the viability and likely response.

But however we change, it would be a tragedy if we don't retain our roots and understanding of the communities we seek to serve.  If we were to lose that connection we will have learned little from the lessons of Eastleigh.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Losing their bottle in Tonbridge

Well done to the Tonbridge Branch, led by Jon Botten (assisted by his girlfriend Victoria Cole), local councillors Jess Elks and Jean Atkinson and committee members Benjamin Elks (with a hangover) and Jenny Cooper. They raised almost £200 for Association funds from running a bottle tombola at a charity summer fete this afternoon.

Not only did this enable members to clear out the back of their cupboards (all those ghastly bottles of wine won at previous Tory raffles) but it also raised money from a different group of people to those who always contribute. And it 'flew the flag' at a charity event run by the community centre in our key marginal ward.

Here (left) is a hopeful local punter picking his lucky tickets, no doubt hoping to win a bottle of Tesco Liebfraumilch.

Any resemblance to parliamentary hopeful, Alan Mak, must surely be a co-incidence!

Thanks to all who donated bottles, set up and run the stall - and spent their hard-earned cash trying to win back the prizes they donated. No doubt we shall see a few of the bottles back in the next raffle.

By the way, in C&A we once had a bottle of De Kuyper Apricot Brandy which appeared in every raffle for three years before someone kept it.  It was like a bereavement.

Friday, 16 August 2013

For all other enquiries, please press #0

One of the unintended but interesting consequences of this blog is that I am now seen as a "resource" for any activist who needs help or advice, from across the UK. I don't mind this at all, in fact it is flattering to be asked and I like to help where I can. I do, however, always check that the enquirer is a Conservative, having spent some time emailing a very nice lady who asked for advice on her election expenses, only to find she was a failed UKIP candidate.

I will often receive five or six emails per day, mainly from activists in seats where there is no agent or organising secretary.  I fully support the need to target resources into the seats we must win in 2015, but my heart does go out to those activists in Associations which are not on the 40:40 target list, but where we are fighting to retain (ort re-establish) a local government base.

One of the things which really fascinates me is the range of questions and topics raised; a real random snapshot into the heart and soul of the Conservative Party in the country. For example, tonight's batch of enquiries include:

1. A hard-working activist who wanted to know about imprints on Facebook and other social media during a by-elecion

2. A Deputy Chairman (Fundraising) from Lancashire who had been trying for two days to work out how to print addresses onto the embedded draw ticket labels.

3. Someone in Liverpool wanting to know how her sister, who lives in Benalmadena, can get a proxy vote form.

4. A chap from New York who is moving to Kent and asking for a local contact for him to join the Party and help with campaigning, and

5. Someone wanting to know if the Association's election insurance policy covered medical expenses for volunteers who have been bitten by a dog
Perhaps I should set-up a premium line phone service.  Press #1 for raffles and mailshots, #2 for Mandatory Selection Rules. #3 for ......

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Beware the municipal elites

A question we need to resolve if we are to improve the perception of local government is "what are councillors actually for"?  

Are they primus inter pares, first and foremost champions of their local communities, there to hold the Executive to account and ensure the Council acts in the best interests of electors and tax-payers?

Or are they now part of the municipal political establishment; there to defend the actions of the Council to the wider population who do not understand the pressures that Officers work under?

Over recent weeks I have attended lots of local government interviews and training sessions for new and incumbent councillors, and I have grown increasingly concerned how many councillors referred to the Council as "we/us" and the Association and Party as "them/you". For example, "we do our best with the resources we have, but often you don't understand."  What better example could you want of a councillor 'going native' and seeing themselves as part of the establishment?

The reason businesses traditionally gave their public facing workers branded ties, pens and folders was to promote a corporate image, ownership and identity. How do you hold your Officers to account if you are seen to be part of the ruling elite? How to you convince your electorate that you really are on their side when you turn up on their doorstep with your municipal tie, lapel badge and clutching your embossed leatherette document folder?   Councillors who wish to be seen as champions of their local community should think carefully before they allow themselves to be branded in such ways.

Caption Competition

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Giving the train spotters a right of reply !

One of the placard waving train spotters who picketed the recent Conservative Garden Party has been in touch by email to complain about my blog. In case you have forgotten, here it is:

For the sake of fairness and accuracy, here is his email

I was there! The lies that you spread. We took your tea and cakes but you are exatarating. You liars. Racist Torie polces are made to be fought. You scapegoat immigrants and people on benefits. How dare you. The ATOS system kills. The Conservaive pary has blood on there hands.

That hopefully clears that one up! 

Inform the agent that I shall be visiting the office....

Amused to hear from Jon of a phone call which came in last Friday, whilst I was off.

"Hello, my name is (xxx xxx) and I intend to be your next MP. Is the agent there?"

Jon: No, he's off today.

"OK yah, well kindly inform him that I shall be visiting his office next Tuesday for a chat about the process."

Jon: I suspect you won't.

"Oh I will."

Jon: Well. he will probably be happy to give you a telephone briefing, as he does for anyone who calls. Secondly, he is not meeting applicants on the basis that last week alone 26 phoned-up, and if he met one he would need to meet them all, and he wouldn't get any work done. And finally, calling to tell us what you are doing without checking it's convenient is not really the way we operate here. 

"Oh, very well. Click."

I am pleased to say she hasn't turned up!

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Re-approving and selecting local candidates

Far from objecting to the CCHQ mandatory Local Government Selection Rules, our local Associations positively welcomed them (apart from one or two councillors who preferred the old way, but I am not going to lose too much sleep over people complaining that they don't think they should be accountable.).

It is right that a national standard is set for selecting local government candidates, rather than the hotchpotch of local arrangements that were in place previously. It is also good that CCHQ has defined what constitutes an "active branch" based on a simple to understand membership threshold. Too often I have seen dubious branch committees consisting of the candidate, his or her spouse and their next door neighbour, holding on to positions simply to ensure the continuation of the status quo, whilst refusing to contribute anything of worth to the Association in terms of campaign activity, mutual aid or fund raising.

I have blogged previously about the work we are doing to boost the Approved List, to ensure branches and the Local Government Committee have the widest possible choice of candidates. Locally we have also published guidelines on how incumbent councillors and new applicants should be assessed (yes, we insist that all incumbents are re-interviewed and re-approved each cycle, and where a councillor has continually underperformed, in extremis we have actually removed them from the list).

The Chairman of the Tunbridge Wells Local Government Committee, Cllr Nick Rogers, has produced a simple to use Interview Assessment Form.  This was developed in consultation with local members who have extensive HR experience in two of the UKs largest PLCs. The form assists the members of the interview panel to assess each applicant across a range of pre-defined performance criteria, allocating scores for each sub-set. At the conclusion of the interview, the candidate's performance in each area is calculated along with an overall score.  Feedback is given in areas where the candidate is considered to have performed poorly (and recognition where they have exceeded expectations).  Applicants needs to score 60% for automatic re-approval. 50%-60% requires a reassessment. Under 50% results in that applicant being removed from the Approved List (though they may appeal to the Executive Council if this happens). Nick Rogers is now developing a similar tool for new applicants.

Such a system is objective and fair for all concerned. We have now adopted this system across all there West Kent Associations. A copy of the assessment may be downloaded at the following link:

Monday, 12 August 2013

Footnote on my weekend blog post on mental health

On Saturday I pressed the "send" button on my blog post in which I wrote about my own battles with anxiety, and waited for the reaction.

I was in little doubt that my friends and colleagues would rally to my side, and I am grateful to each of them for doing so. What I didn't expect was to have the story re-tweeted 100 times to over half a million people, and for almost 3,000 of them to visit my blog. Nor did I anticipate almost 200 messages of support, encouragement and thanks. The comments came in via direct messages on Twitter and Facebook, emails sent via my blog and even from a few people who had traced my local Conservative Association's email address and contacted me there. 

The messages fell into four categories:

1. Support from friends and colleagues. The kindness shown was truly moving. Friends emailed to praise my "courage" and to reassure me of their love and support. Some of the messages were very emotional; such as the friend who wrote to say my words had moved her to tears as she realised that even after ten years she felt she didn't really know me, and apologising for not realising my 'problems' before - as if anyone could be blamed for my own secrecy.

2. Thanks and encouragement from strangers. This is the group which caught me by surprise, over 100 people who I had never met got in touch to thank me. Many spoke of how telling my story would help someone they knew. I suspect that for many, the person they 'knew' was the one looking back at them in the mirror. I shall never know for sure, nor does it matter. 

3. Friends and strangers sharing their own stories.  A surprising number of people I knew told me that they too had been through what I had dealt with, and quite a few were still coming to terms with it. Some of these didn't surprise me as I had spotted the signs or we had talked previously, but the most moving story was someone I know well, who wrote to say, "I hope you now understand why so often I don't come out canvassing when you ask. I don't want to let you down, but there are times when I simply cannot face strangers."   I should have realised.

4.  Those for whom reading my story may made a real difference. I don't make this claim lightly, but there were a few emails which made the anguish of baring my sole worthwhile. 

The 25 yo political activist from the north of England who emailed to say he had been living with similar symptoms as I had described for two years, but was afraid to seek help as he wanted a career in politics and he thought admitting to his depression might damage his chances of selection. He told me that he was going to see his GP this week as my post gave him the confidence to do so.

The chap who has been on tranquillizers for 8 months and hadn't told his wife or children as he thought they would think less of him if they knew. He was going to use my blog as a gateway.

And Mary Harris, the long serving and highly respected journalist from Tunbridge Wells (named with her permission) who messaged to say that she had been looking for an opportunity to get her story out on Twitter, and thanking me for the opportunity to do so.

It has been an emotionally trying yet satisfying weekend. I have been moved by the kindness of strangers and humbled that so many people have shared their own story.  I would like to thank everyone who re-tweeted my post and enabled me to tell my story to a much larger audience than would have otherwise been the case. In particular I would like to thank Steve for his love and kindness, and also Greg Clark MP and Tracey Crouch MP for their support and encouragement. Thanks even to the person who Tweeted a link to my blog with "Tory agent tells how he recovered from mental breakdown". Not quite what I wanted to read over my Sunday cornflakes, but I managed to see the funny side!  

This will be my last post on this issue. I told my story because it needed to be told, and I hoped it would help others.  It is part of my life, but not what defines me. I am pleased I did what I did, but now it's back to business. 

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Keeping my own Black Dog on a lead

Like many of my generation, I thought people suffering from depression, anxiety and similar mental health related conditions simply needed to "pull themselves together". I suspected most people claiming such illnesses were malingerers; using it as an excuse because they struggled to cope with the realities of life. 

That was until 2007 when it happened to me.

It has become a tradition that Steve and I go on holiday immediately after the May elections, and he has often collected me from the count with our packed bags in the car. After two months of 14 hours days, I am ready for a break and Steve is ready to regain a partner who had spent more time with his candidates than with him.

And so it was in 2007. I had just completed the all-out district elections. I was responsible for two boroughs and almost 100 candidates. Expectations were high; mid term in what we hoped to be Labour's last government. Although we were strongly placed and in control of both authorities, we had to make gains over what had been a strong performance in 2003. Any sign of slippage would have stopped the bandwagon rolling towards our hoped-for victory in 2009 or 2010 in the three marginal Medway Towns-based constituencies. In the end our results exceeded our own expectations.

Almost as soon as I had stepped foot on our boat for a holiday on the Thames, the symptoms started. I felt my chest was constricted and that I couldn't inhale sufficient breath. I could 'hear' each breath and the more I focussed on it, the worse it got. I began to fear bed as I knew lying quietly in the dark with nothing to distract me, the sound of my breathing and my inability to breath as deeply as I needed, would magnify. I was convinced that, like my mother and grandmother before her, I had lung cancer.

By the time we reached Abingdon I was so distraught I had to seek an emergency visit to a GP. I cannot remember the name of the doctor who I saw, but I shall never forget his kindness. I suspect GPs dislike the additional work caused by visiting patients, but he gave me 40 minutes of his time. He talked me through my lifestyle, the pressures of my job and my general health.  After a thorough examination he told me that he could detect no evidence of a physical condition, but everything I had said, along with high blood pressure and the symptoms I had reported, led him to believe I was suffering from anxiety. He then patiently took me through medical text books showing me the symptoms, cause and effects, and in the end I was prepared to acknowledge that he was right. 

My first question was "how can I have anxiety? I have just lived through two months of hell with no symptoms or signs of distress, produced fantastic results and I am now relaxing on holiday without a care in the world."  "And that's your problem", said the doctor. "Your anxiety is caused by the fact you have nothing to do. You have allowed yourself to become so driven by your goals that now they have been taken away and you are no longer consumed by your task, you are struggling to cope." I had always believed that stress and anxiety were caused by inability to cope with pressure, in my case it was inability to cope without it.

The greatest service my Abingdon doctor did was to encourage me to acknowledge to myself the cause of the problem. Realising I probably didn't have cancer was an enormous relief, though accepting that I had a mental health issue was a very difficult thing for someone as proud as me to accept. But acceptance was the first step to recovery. I declined his offer of prescription medication, preferring, as a first step, self-help. He recommended several books about dealing with stress and anxiety which I bought the following day when we stopped at Oxford. Slowly over the following weeks I brought it under control.

A year later however it manifested itself again.  The latest issue followed my usual winter cough and cold. The cold went away but I was left with a cough which developed over several weeks into a lump in my throat. To me, the lump was very real and I was conscious of it all the time. Once again, I convinced myself that it was something worse. My local GP was dismissive and brusque, he simply referred me to a ENT Specialist and I was told I could wait up to three months for an appointment. The thought of waiting three months thinking I had throat cancer was unbearable, so I asked for a second opinion from another GP in the same practice. Fortunately, once again I was seen by someone who had the time, consideration and kindness to listen to my story and explain what was probably happening.  After examining my throat, she assured me that there was no obvious obstruction, and that she believed I had Globus Hystericus, an anxiety-related issue often reported by those who had previously suffered from hyperventilation. Having been on a similar journey a year earlier, I was open and willing to acknowledge her diagnosis and seeking a solution. I again declined medication and sought to deal with the illness through self help and relaxation.

This all happened 5+ years ago. How am I now? Well, I am fine, though I actually believe that people who have suffered from anxiety and similar conditions are probably never fully "cured". What I have learnt to do is recognise the early signs and make changes to head them off.  Knowledge is power, and knowing and accepting that I am prone to anxiety has been the single biggest tool in my armoury in overcoming it.

Writing this blogpost has caused the return of some of the symptoms, as I suspected it would when I started to write. But rather than allowing them to develop and dominate me, I can control them. By focussing on my breathing and not allowing fear of the unknown to control me, the symptoms will pass. In my job I still work as hard as I ever did and continue to set tough goals; I have not allowed it to affect me or change who I am or what I do. I have learned over the years to control it, I will not allow it to control me. In that I am fortunate, but I also accept that one day I might need professional help again.

I have thought long and hard about publishing this blog post. In fact, I have written it a dozen times but never had the courage to press "send". My wonderful partner, Steve, whose unquestioned love, care and support helped me through these problems, was concerned that I might be giving people a stick to beat me with. I understand his concerns and he might be right, though if anyone does try and use it to attack me or undermine what I do, I genuinely believe it will reflect badly on them, not me.  Two of the MPs I work for, Greg Clark and Tracey Crouch, have both spoken on mental health issues and done much to raise public awareness. I discussed this with both of them recently, as I was concerned that attacks on me might affect them. I am hugely grateful for their support and encouragement in writing my story.

The real reason I am publishing this, however, is to offer hope and support to others. There has been huge progress made in recent years in the way society deals with mental health.  Recent speeches in Parliament by Charles Walker MP and Kevan Jones MP, during which they spoke of their own battles with OCD and depression, were met with the sympathy and support they deserved. It was a courageous thing for them to do, and I admire them greatly.

Despite this progress, talking about mental health is still a taboo for many, and for some an issue of ignorance and dismissal. As it was for me before it happed to me.  If by telling my story provides help, support or encouragement to others, in however small a way, then I will have achieved my goal.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Bomb Scares, Fake Ricin and Mad Axe Men

Another afternoon of high drama at Tory Towers in sleepy West Malling, when a masked axe man held up the jewellery stop beneath the West Kent Campaign HQ.

I had popped out to drop off a batch of postal vote forms when the incident happened, arriving back just as the police were cordoning-off the crime scene. Some brave (or stupid) passer-by actually stopped to take a photo of the axe man inside the store!

Last September, West Malling was closed for three hours when the police, accompanied by decontamination units, military personnel, bomb disposal experts, ambulances and paramedics turned up after a suspicious package (containing an unidentified white powder) was delivered to our office. 

Full story: HERE

At 15 seconds you can spot Jon (blue shirt) lurking in doorway!

The suspicious substance subsequently turned out to be bleached sand.  I was told by the police that DNA was recovered from the gummed envelope, but sadly there was no match on the DNA database and no arrests were ever made.

I remember Jon opening the post and the white powder pouring out all over him.

Jon: "Oh f*ck, there's loads of white powder in this envelope..."
Me: "what does it look like?"
Jon: "Like this" [pointing to his lap]
Me:  "Does it smell of anything?"
Jon [sniffing envelope] "Nah..."
Me [leaning over desk and prodding envelope with a 12 inch ruler] 'I hope it's not ricin..."
Jon "so do I, it's all over me and I have now sniffed it."

The worst of it was - it was sent in one of our freepost reply envelopes so we had to pay the postage!