Monday, 30 December 2013

Internship Opportunities in West Kent Campaign HQ

West Kent Conservatives will soon be recruiting at least one, possibly two, Campaign Interns to assist during the 2014 Local and EU elections, with a high possibility of a full time position being available later in the year (our last three interns were all placed in full-time paid positions, either in Parliament or internally).
We pay interns a basic wage plus travel costs. Hours can be flexible to fit around study or other employment related commitments, but we will require at least two/three days per week. You will be based in the new West Kent Campaign HQ in Paddock Wood. The Office is 2 minutes walk from Paddock Wood railway station. 
Please register your interest by sending a CV to
Please ensure that you list (either on your CV or separately) your direct campaign related experience (please be honest - I have been around 25 years and I know enough people to check the reality!) Please also provide two references (Association Officer, AME member, Member of the Party Board, Conservative Councillor, Member of Parliament or similar). 
West Kent is a vibrant and progressive campaign unit looking after five Conservative Associations, five MPs, 200 Conservative Councillors and nearly 2,500 party members in Tunbridge Wells, Chatham & Aylesford, Tonbridge & Malling, Maidstone & The Weald and Faversham & Mid Kent constituencies. We also offer strategic political advice to three LG Conservative Groups and Campaign Support to several neighbouring marginal constituencies. Our office is constantly busy, stressful, noisy, boisterous, fun - and not for the faint hearted!

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

A Diary of a Conservative Party Agent - 12 months later

I started writing this blog to entertain, vent, share good ideas and blow my trumpet. A year later, with over 450 posts and 140,000 visitors, I think I have done just that.

I try through these pages to provide a mix of best practice, gossip, examples of our work and commentaries on the more absurd aspects of my job. So, with little fresh political news this week, here are a few of my personal favourite/best read posts from my first 12 months as a blogger.

Thank you for reading, for your comments (public and private) and, most important of all, to those readers whom I know personally, thank you for your forbearance and, in so many cases, your friendship. I wish you all a very happy Christmas and send my best wishes for a healthy, happy and successful 2014.

The Eastleigh by-election filled me with rage. Not at the fact we lost or even came third behind UKIP- that's democracy, but that we shouldn't have lost. This post, more than any other, established this blog in the political village; it was picked up by the Sunday Times and reproduced almost verbatim as part of their by-election analysis. Nearly 20,000 people visited as a consequence. Addressing the demise of the voluntary party, and challenging the myth that all we can do is "manage decline" are the two issues which motivate me most.

One of my favourite kinds of post to write (and judging by your reaction, your favourite to read) are the "parliamentary sketch" style reviews of the more absurd aspects of my job.  I don't like to do these too often, as they can be a bit sarcastic - but at times the things that happen are so surreal and farcical, comedy is the only suitable narrative. This is a prime example; it features Tunbridge Wells Conservative Ladies, Danny La Rue's dressmaker, a semi-retired Drag Queen and me racing against the clock to find a black tie to mourn Mrs Thatcher.  Joe Orton couldn't have made it up.

No blog post has ever struck such a cord with the people who were there more than this one. My two-part review on the South East Region European Selection Contest perfectly captures the absurdity of 100+ people wasting a day of their lives, sitting amongst the Cha Cha Cha trophies to select candidates for a parliament few of us believe in.

The overwhelming majority of our members and donors give money to support our work, but apart from casting their vote at election time, most do little else. Their money makes a valuable contribution, and without their financial support we wouldn't survive. A smaller number not only pay money, but work their fingers to the bone on the party's behalf. They are worth their weight in gold. Sadly, there is a small minority, and we really are talking about a very small minority, who have absolutely no interest or commitment to the party other than using it to further their own ambitions. I have absolutely no time for these people, and I didn't hold back when they started jostling for position in our parliamentary selection. A few read my blog and took "great offence".  The fact is, they clearly recognised themselves from what I had written, which somewhat proves my point.   

Evidence that I am not perfect!

"Tories drink Champagne whilst the people of Medway starve". We've never had a Strawberry Tea picketed before!

Long before the Tonbridge & Malling Association turned its attention to the Parliamentary selection, I set-out the case for open primaries, and received overwhelming support from the T&M Members. The rest is history.

After months of drafts which I never had the courage to publish, I finally hit the "send" button and put into the public domain my own battles with stress and anxiety, which has seriously affected my health and wellbeing in 2008 (though thankfully, not since). Publishing my story (with the support of my partner Steve and also the MPs I work for) was partly cathartic but mainly to help the many people who, like me, have spent too long suffering in silence, afraid to seek help in case it ruins their careers. The response was overwhelming. Thousands read the post and hundreds wrote or emailed to thank me for speaking out, including many people I knew well who I would never have guessed were living with depression and anxiety, as I had been. As a consequence of publishing this post, I was asked to address conferences and write further pieces about my own experiences. I declined all such offers; I had achieved what I wanted to achieve - I didn't want to become a cause celebre nor did I want the issue to define me. I remain humbled by the response and yes - a little bit proud that I found the courage to speak publically and in doing so bring help and comfort to others.

Overheard in the main conference hall: 'ERE GLADYS, WHAT DOES THE BME MEAN?

A surreal evening at CCHQ - nobody knew which way to turn.

We really did let the people decide. The people choose well!  A photo-diary of events at the Tonbridge & Malling Open Primary (with thanks to our photographer, Matthew Plummer) 

In the months leading-up to the Open Primary, I read and heard enough ill-informed crap to last me a lifetime, usually posted on Con Home and elsewhere by people who think elections are won from behind a laptop. Unusually for me I forced myself to stay above the fray as I didn't want a to let a row spoil what was our big event. Until Sunday 3 November when I told a few home truths!

Life at the coalface was not as glamorous as the son of a Russian Oligarch had hoped!

Monday, 23 December 2013

Why I'm not jumping of the anti M&S bandwagon

Many years ago I was a senior manager with British Home Stores, and for a time I was based at the Birmingham store, where about 30% of the staff were Muslim.

During that time I had absolutely no issue at all with Muslim staff taking time off for Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. The uncertainty of the date, often unknown until 24 / 48 hours beforehand, caused major staffing issues, but respecting their customs and faith was the right thing to do.

I understand why many people struggle to accept Marks and Spencer's latest decision, but we live in an increasingly multi-faith., multicultural world. If we, as a society, are sufficiently accepting and tolerant to allow same sex-couples to marry, then not insisting that a Muslim member of staff sells you a pork chop or a bottle of Jurgemeister really isn't going to bring down society, is it?

I appreciate I hold an exceptionally liberal view on these matters, which will be alien to many friends and colleagues, but I passionately believe that we earn respect, friendship and understanding by showing respect, friendship and understanding.

Do we really need 714 politicians to run local government in Kent?

One of the disadvantages of having a Group Office is we now have seven of those ghastly municipal charts lining the wall, each showing the photographs of the local ward councillors.  West Kent Towers covers three local authorities entirely (Tonbridge & Malling, Tunbridge Wells and Maidstone) with partial overlapping into four more (Sevenoaks, Swale, Medway and Kent CC).

The fact is we have far too many councils and far too many councillors.

Across Kent we have 630 district/borough councillors and a further 84 County Councillors - making a total of 714 elected representatives. And this doesn't include perhaps a further 1,500 (guesstimate) parish and town councillors who are also part of local governance.

The question we must ask is do we really need more elected politicians to run our local government in Kent than there are Congressmen, Senators, State Governors and Members of the Presidents cabinet elected to run the USA? (605 v 630). OK, I admit the comparison is not like-for-like - but it's a point worth making.

A local party member recently had an issue with the land outside her home. Three different councils were involved (one owned the grass verge, another looked after the pavement and a third was responsible for the lamp post (though not the actual lamp - maintenance of which had been subcontracted to someone else). It took her 12 phone calls, 6 emails and a personal visit to the Parish Clerk to find out who was responsible.  This is not only unacceptable but also a nonsense. You couldn't run a business that way - and if you tried you would soon go bust.

Multi-member wards also need reviewing. In some of our areas there is absolutely no social housing and the lowest levels of depravation in the UK. Councillors in these wards can often go weeks without a call or email seeking assistance. Yet councillors in other wards within the same Borough can receive twenty plus items of casework a week.  Too often I witness councillors playing one off against the other, or in some areas a long serving councillor builds such a strong reputation that 90% of casework lands on his or her desk, whilst ward colleagues cruise along doing the bare minimum. And I know from speaking to colleagues in the opposition parties, this is something which affects them, too.

And then there is the potential for conflict and buck passing (not just between ward colleagues) but from one authority to another. How often have I heard a resident being fobbed-off with "that's a County issue" or "I'm a County Councillor, you need to speak to your district councillor about that". The poor bloody residents doesn't (and shouldn't) need to know this - he/she pays taxes and should be able to report a problem and have a named person allocated to obtain resolution and report back, without being passed from pillar to post in search of someone who will actually take responsibility.

For decades Labour and Conservative governments have fiddled around with local government, to a point where we have so many models it lacks credibility. Ignoring Parishes, we have:

  • Unitary authorities within counties (Medway / Brighton & Hove, Southampton)
  • District or Borough Councils within two-tier counties (Tonbridge & Malling, Shepway and Sevenoaks) each ward electing one, two, three and some cases four councillors)
  • Directly Elected mayors (Bristol, Bedford, Salford, Tower Hamlets)
  • Unitary County-wide councils (Berkshire, Cornwall, Shropshire)
  • Metropolitan Single Tier Councils (Wirral, Birmingham, Dudley)
  • Enlarged Single Tier District Councils (West Cheshire & Chester, East Cheshire)
  • Unitary District Councils (West Berkshire, Windsor)

Not only do we have this ridiculous mish-mash of systems, we also have councils with all-out elections in four year cycles, councils on two year cycles, councils electing in thirds, most using first past the post, Mayoral elections using city-wide lists based on PR with the Mayoral candidate elected using various forms of AV - and this is before we look at the systems used in Scotland and Wales.

I appreciate that areas are different and one size seldom fits all, but surely we can all agree on the basic need for single-tier local government?   I suspect (for good or bad) the days of municipal pride and activism are long gone. Local Government no longer had the power, the money nor the scope for the kind of grand projects that were prevalent in the days of Joseph Chamberlain. If people have geographic pride, it's in their town (Canterbury, Tunbridge Wells, Rochester, Bath).  This will not change, regardless of the name of the council or how the boundaries are drawn. The people of Knutsford in Cheshire still live in (and I hope love living in) Knutsford, as much now that the Boundary Commissioners have placed it in East Cheshire as they did previously.

Residents no longer want or need grand town halls, fleets of liveried dustcarts nor legions of elected representatives with their branded Barchester District Council ties, document wallets, diaries and name badges. People want their bins emptied, their elderly taken care of, their children educated and their streets swept efficiently and cost effectively.

And I suspect they would be quite happy to see the number of elected councillors cut by at least 50%, perhaps single member wards, with their local representative paid a reasonable sum of money to do a good job and be accountable to the electorate for their success and failure. No more book passing from one member to another, or from one council to another. Clean, efficient, accountable and fair.

I hope a future Conservative government will have the courage to truly reform local government, ensuring we are all represented fairly and equally and those responsible for good local governance (whether they are elected councillors or officers) are transparent and accountable to the taxpayers and voters alike.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Email hacked - but at least we didn't offer them the best sex they've ever had !

When my Blackberry starts consistently "pinging" at 7am I know something has happened. Either Iain Dale has written something nice (or rude) about me in his ConHome Diary or one of the MPs I work for has said something controversial. So it was with a degree of forboding that I looked at my inbox in the grey light this morning.
The pinging was caused hundreds of  "confirmation" or "unable to deliver" emails landing in my inbox. That could only mean one thing - someone had sent out 100s of emails to people in our address book.  Yes, the Tonbridge & Malling email account had been compromised, and over 2.000 people (including 20% of the Parliamentary Party) had been sent a spam email with a virus. Red face time.
My immediate thought was to send another email warning people not to click on the link - but whoever had accessed our account had deleted our entire contacts list!  By this time people were kindly phoning me to warn me. They phoned my Blackberry, my landline and they even phoned Jon Botten's mobile and left messages at the office. They Tweeted, sent messages via Facebook - someone even phoned Sir John Stanley!  Interestingly, people who replied to ask "is this genuine?" received a response from the hacker assuring them it was all OK. One councillor emailed to say, "I knew it wasn't you, the email was far too polite." 

All's well that ends well. We regained control of the account within 15 minutes and managed to restore the contacts list, so hopefully no harm done.

Which is not what could be said about a poor councillor whose email account was similarly hacked a few years ago.

This particular young councillor (who is openly gay) sent an email to the entire Conservative Association and to about 200 of his ward residents entitled;


Allegedly half of the recipients were outraged, the other half are seeking a refund!

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Thank you Grant Shapps

The Chairman of Chatham & Aylesford Conservatives, Adrian Gulvin, received a completely unexpected letter this morning from Party Chairman Rt Hon Grant Shapps MP. The letter was to congratulate him and the Association members on achieving such a great result with the Christmas Draw (Over £3,000 raised - more than any other Association in Kent).

Gestures such as this mean a great deal to local volunteers, who must often wonder if anyone knows, appreciates or even acknowledges the work they do for the Party. So well done and thank you to the Party Chairman for taking the time and trouble to write. It means a great deal!

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The West Kent Group - it's official!

After two years of detailed planning, the West Kent Group of Conservative Associations finally came into being tonight, when the Chairs of all four Associations signed the Memorandum of Understanding, the document which gives Legal Effect to the new arrangements.  Further good news came tonight via an email from the Faversham & Mid Kent Association, whose Executive Council had voted unanimously to join the Group. Their application was unanimously approved.

William Rutherford holds-up the Memorandum of Understanding, signed by all four Associations.
From left: Allan Sullivan (Treasurer of Chatham & Aylesford), John Wilson (Chair of Maidstone and the Weald,
Alan Bristow (Treasurer of T&M), William Rutherford (Chair of Tunbridge Wells), Andrew Kennedy, Adrian Gulvin (Chair of C&A), Jon Botten and Jacques Arnold (Chair of T&M)

The five Associations will retain complete operational and legal independence. Each will elect its own officers, keep its own bank account, manage its own finances, collect and bank membership income, oversee its branches and all other structures, and will each retain complete control over their local and parliamentary candidate selections. However, by working together from one central, modern and fully equipped Campaign HQ, an additional £25,000 per annum of building / property related expenditure will be released for campaigning and development.  

The new West Kent Campaign HQ, based in Paddock Wood, is centrally located for all constituencies, with private parking and just two minute walk from the railway station.  The office will be equipped with modern print and copy facilities and an eight line phone bank.

These new arrangements have come about by five Associations realising that members and supporters donate money and pay their subscriptions to help win elections, not to maintain bricks and mortar. It is worth recording that across the five Executive Councils of the participating Associations, 212 individual members voted; of these 208 voted in favour of the Group, 3 against and one abstained; 98% support!

It is a great honour to have been part of the team who have brought this to fruition; I am fortunate to work for such an outstanding group of modern and progressive Officers and Members, who have demonstrated real vision for the future. Throughout this, I have been wonderfully supported by Jon Botten and we look forward to welcoming Amanda Hopkins, who will be joining the West Kent staff from Faversham & Mid Kent Association.

Internally, our roles will be further defined. I will be relinquishing most of the administrative duties I currently undertake alongside Jon; my new role will be focussed almost exclusively on campaigning (political financial and membership), training and developing volunteers and legal / compliance management.  Jon will be Administration and Office Manager, including day to day running of the Campaign HQ, designing and printing newsletters and flyers, direct mail and special projects. Mandy will be front of house and will take care of membership and data management. In time we hope to take on an intern and perhaps someone to assist running the print room.

Exciting times !

Monday, 16 December 2013

West Kent Towers Christmas Lunch

I was pleased to host the Office Helpers Christmas Lunch today, one of the few opportunities we have to thank the small army of volunteers who come in most weeks to assist with our work. Sadly, finances don't permit us to invite everyone who comes in to help; as much as we would like to do so.

We enjoyed a fabulous lunch at The Chaser in Shipbourne. There was no raffle, nor did I give everyone a bundle of by-election leaflets to deliver (Shipbourne is in the same ward as we are fighting a local by-election).

The office simply would not function without the help and support of our volunteers. A heartfelt thank you to them all.

Clockwise from bottom left: Gill Levine, Owen Baldock, Jenny Cooper, Alan Bristow, Joyce Gadd,
Andrew Kennedy, Jon Botten, David Elliott, Christine Baldock, Janet Sergison and Graeme Weston.
PS for those who missed it last time, here is another link for the West Kent Christmas Dancing Elves!  CLICK HERE

Just stating what's in the rules!

In additional to local activity, so far we have had two constituency-wide Campaign Days in Borough Green for our by-election.

It is very interesting that the list of councillors who have not yet offered assistance is almost identical to the list of councillors who failed to pro-actively support our Kent CC campaign strategy. When I made this point on Saturday, someone asked if it was a "veiled threat". Far from it; it is a simple statement of national party rules.  The CCHQ Candidates' Agreement, which all applicants and councillors are required to sign, states;

Candidates and Councillors must...

  • play a full, active and constructive part in their local Association and Branch during the whole of their period of office, including campaigning, membership development, fundraising, social and political activities
  • co-operate fully with the Party’s campaign strategy for elections including giving mutual aid to other Conservative candidates when asked and, when themselves a candidate, complying with the requirements of the duly appointed election agent
It is worth noting that under the same rules, following a boundary change (which will be implemented in Tonbridge & Malling in 2015) there must be open selections in every seat, with no councillors having the advantage of "incumbency".

Just stating what's in the rules!

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Oligarchs and Ideology

A few weeks ago a "bigwig" collared me at a Party dinner. Apparently he was showing a young man the workings of UK politics. The young man in question was the son of a Russian Oligarch (his father owns a bank). Following his education in the UK he has ambitions to enter Russian politics, and as part of his political education, "could I spend some time showing him life at the 'coalface' ". Always happy to help, I agreed.

Today was the last of his three day grand tour. He had been shown around the Palace of Westminster, yesterday he was at CCHQ and today it was West Kent Towers. He was already in the office by the time I arrived, delayed by an accident on the M20. He was sitting uncomfortably on the "naughty chair" - the very low one about 7 inches off the ground that we keep for visitors we don't want to encourage to return. He was surrounded by mounds of discarded raffle tickets, pictures of a derelict cinema and poster of an attractive young man sawing a woman in half. Welcome to "politics at the coalface". I wondered if CCHQ  had pictures of women being cut in half.

After the handshakes he asked about my ideology. "What ideological dreams encourage you in your work?" he wanted to know. This stumped me.  Being an Conservative Agent I left ideological dreams behind years ago. In fact, somewhat like God within the Church of England, ideology is anathema to people like me.  I droned on about liberty, the evils of Socialism, hugging huskies and voting green whilst turning blue. He looked as confused as we all did when we heard it in 2008, but it had the desired effect; he changed the subject.

I moved the conversation on to participatory democracy; explaining the roles and responsibilities of Party members, councillors and MPs; how they interacted, and the work we did at the constituency office to support them. It was heady stuff, but the illusion was shattered when someone rang to book four tickets for the New Year Magic Spectacular Buffet". 

"So what does your family do in Russia", I enquired, trying hard to build a rapport.  "My father owns a bank, but he is not what you might say, rich. In fact it was accident, He found it."   "Yes", we heard Jon say in the background, "We'll be selling ice cream and popcorn at the interval."

We sat around making excruciating small talk until Phil "Jones the Vote" Thomas arrived to take him out canvassing. "Have you ever been door knocking before Boyo?" asked Phil. There was a long awkward silence; we all waited with baited breath. "Yes, when I was small child we knock on many doors. Then we would run away and make people angry."  We exchanged nervous glances. They couldn't leave until the fifth member of the canvassing team arrived as he had the canvassing cards. Never before have I so wanted to see the former MP for Gravesham! Finally they were despatched to wreak their collective havoc on local residents.

We had two hours of peace before they returned. "Shall we indulge in the pursuit of our ideological dreams?" asked Jon. I glanced at the list of outstanding chores; the list never ends, more jobs are added to the bottom each day than we cross off the top of it. There wasn't much ideological purity on offer, so we settled on mail-merging Tom Tugendhat's letters inviting open primary attenders to come and join us.

Before long our Russian visitor was back, alone. "Everything OK?" I asked. "Yes, I have enjoyed my experience at the coalface but I must now return home." We chatted some more about life in Russia and his own hopes. He told me his Father was about to arrive in the UK for the weekend. "Does he have a private jet?" I enquired. "No, that would be unnecessary, we are very normal people."  I asked how he was traveling back, did he need a lift to the railway station?  "No, thank you. My car is waiting outside since I arrive today."  I escorted him to the door. As we went along the hall he asked, "can I take a few of your propaganda sheets with me?"  I bridled.  "They are community newsletters, not copies of Pravda!" I said, tartly. He didn't laugh.  Outside the front door were two gleaming Mercedes, one black one white. The man in the front car jumped out and opened the door for his "very normal" passenger. The two stocky, suited, sunglass wearing men in the car behind surveyed me with suspicion. Then they were gone, leaving Jon and I alone with our ideological dreams.  

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Forthcoming Events

Two further New Year social events - all in keeping with our policy of affordability and fun!  If anyone would like further details, please let me know.  Particularly good to see celebrity chef and "Lad to Ladette" star, Rosemary Shrager at the Ashurst Branch Call My Bluff !

Tracey's Pussy Galore

I had a catch-up coffee with Tracey Crouch this afternoon. At this point I hadn't seen my Christmas card in a batch labelled "miscellaneous". Had I done so I wouldn't have paid for the coffee!

Tracey and I looked over the latest polling figures from C&A which show her retaining her double-digit advantage over the Conservative Party. The only change since our last poll is the Conservative base has increased in line with national polls. What this indicates is Tracey's lead over Labour is not linked to the performance of the Party nationally, but is personal; a just reward for an outspoken, independent-minded and diligent constituency MP.  In my 24 years I have not known an MP (apart perhaps from Ann Widdecombe) who has such high personal approval ratings. In our 30 minutes in Costa at least eight people stopped to say hello; and this was in West Malling, which is outside her constituency boundary!

Tracey told me that her office were highly amused that her pussy cats' Facebook page has more followers than she does!  (If you're not following Mungo & Basil - here is the link  This doesn't surprise me; what it shows is a humanisation of politics and a desire to reconnect, something Tracey excels at. People want their politicians to be real, human, accessible and approachable. This is why she has more followers on Twitter than any other local MP.

I have blogged many times about C&A being an Association which punches above its weight politically. Within C&A Tracey is a round peg in a round hole. They are a super team and I am proud to work for them. Even if I am "miscellaneous"!

Happy Christmas - nice to know my place!

The lovely Tracey Crouch has just dropped off her Christmas Cards for franking. I eventually found mine - in a small batch labelled "Miscellaneous". Nice to know my place!

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Monday, 9 December 2013

Chatham & Aylesford do it again!

Chatham & Aylesford Conservatives continue to punch significantly above their weight, not just in terms of Voter ID and leaflet delivery (the Association has more recorded pledges than any other in the South East), but now in cold fundraising too.

This year the Association has broken all records by raising an outstanding £3,009 on its Christmas Draw appeal. What's more, the majority of this money has come from over 200 brand new smaller donors; none of whom are members of have donated to the party previously.

This chart plots the success of the Christmas financial appeal over the last 6 years. As one would expect, the two years leading up to the 2010 General Election showed supporters at their most generous, helping build-up a war chest to match Labour's Trade Union funding.  As usual, funding dropped off immediately after the GE, reaching a low point of £700 in 2011 (ironically - this is the year I took a 12 month sabbatical from Medway politics to focus on the No to AV campaign and setting-up the West Kent Group).  Recovery started in 2012, then as you can see - we started to fly this year, breaking all local and regional records.

What this shows is even mid-term, after three very difficult years, Conservatives are still willing to put their hands in their pockets and help to financially support a popular and hard working MP. It also demonstrates that when we get off our backsides and stop 'managing decline' we are able to identify hundreds of brand new small donors, who will no doubt give again or might even join or help.

So let's hear no more whining that "we can't find anyone to deliver leaflets" or "we don't have the resources to knock on doors" or even "we can't find new helpers or donors". If little old C&A, with one of the smallest memberships in the South East, can top almost every KPI - then there is no reason others shouldn't follow. What it needs is leadership; doing what's right even in the face of negativity.

Leaders think and talk about the solutions.
Followers think and talk about the problems.
—Brian Tracy

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Turkey in Tunbridge, Lagavulin in Lincs and two handsome men in Soho!

It's been a frantic weekend of politics, booze, food and friends. The type of weekend which, had I been 20 (even 10) years younger, I would have relished, but one which left my (and my kidneys) asking "why did I have to pack it all in to 72 hours?"  That being said, I enjoyed every minute of it, even if my overnight bag seemed to get progressively heavier at each stage of the journey.

The weekend's activities commenced on Friday morning with an early stint on the doorsteps of Borough Green, with our outstanding candidate Stuart Murray and friends from Croydon, who had dropped-by to help. I had to leave them campaigning to pop across to High Rocks for the annual Christmas Lunch, organised by the Tunbridge Wells Conservative Ladies Group.  At the lunch I was presented with a cheque for £1,200 for the campaign fund.

Lunch was followed by coffee with two potential new local government candidates, and this was followed by one of my regular catch-up sessions with Greg Clark MP. At 5pm I was delivering the last of my leaflets around Rusthall, advertising our Christmas Fete, then to the Church Hall with association Chairman, William Rutherford, to set-up the stalls for the following day's activities. Finally, a brief visit to La Fiamma for the TW Speakers' Corner Christmas Meal.  Home after 11pm.

Trolley Dolley; Edward Cain proactively selling tea and coffee
Saturday I was up, dressed and packed and on the road by 7am, arriving in TW by 8.30am for the Christmas Fete. Along with William Rutherford (Chairman) and Edward Cain (Vice Chairman, Communications) I had agreed to run the refreshments. The thought of three blokes running the catering was met by derision and incredulity by the womenfolk, who took it in turns to wander into the kitchen offering advice and guidance on everything from "how to fill the urn" to "how long tea can be left in the pot before it "stews".  "I see they've forgotten the washing-up liquid" said one, unknowingly within my earshot. "Yes" said her friend, "but they're using  disposable paper cups!"   There was a long silence. "What,
paper cups? In Tunbridge Wells. The Association really is going downhill..."  It is therefore with a degree of satisfaction that I can report the "three clueless blokes" contributed £120 to the grand
total - more twice what was made on refreshments last year!

The fete raised £1,200; and our takings were further boosted when Cllr Julian Stanyer (below) donated £500 on behalf of Langton Green, Speldhurst & Bidborough branch (see below).

Other stalls included home made cakes, infused oils and vinegars, children's gifts, chocolate galore, hand made jewellery and a Christmas Hamper raffle which alone raised £360.

We even had the local UKIP leader Victor Webb (left) spending his money at the bottle stall! 

Association Chairman, William Rutherford (left) accepts a cheque for £500 from
Cllr Julian Stanyer (right) on behalf of Langton Green Branch
It was then a quick dash to the railway station for a series of connecting trains to Grantham, where I was joining old friends for a formal dinner party at their magnificent home in the lovely village of Hough on the Hill. I had not seen these friends for 13 years; we had sadly drifted apart. Fortunately, Stephanie had seen references to this blog in the Sunday Times and managed to trace me via the party, and last night was the re-union. There were eleven of us for dinner, seated around a magnificent oak dining table in their red dining room, lit solely by candlelight and the flickering log fire. We talked, reminisced, laughed and drank into the small hours, causing considerable damage to Glenn's single malt collection.

This morning I was hoping to catch up with more old friends, Karl and Cordellia McCartney in Lincoln but time simply ran out, as engineering works resulted in 3 trains and a replacement bus service to get back to London. This I managed (just) to meet up with Richard Cheadle and Rupert Barton for lunch at Andrew Edmunds in Soho at 1pm (with a thumping Lagavulin hangover). Rupert and Richard I have known for 15 years; they came to work with me when they were both students - and we have remained friends ever since, though we only see each other annually at our Christmas meal. They are both now in their early 30s and are hugely successful in their chosen fields of law and hedge funds. It is lovely that they make the time to stay in touch - even if walking down Old Compton Street with a young handsome bloke on each arm attracts a few suspicious (if not envious) looks!

Friday, 6 December 2013

Cold Turkey

Today I attended my sixth Christmas meal of the season. There's quite a psychology in organising these Christmas parties - the way they are run speaks volumes about the style and personality of the organiser.

Today's event ran like clockwork; but what else would you expect from the Tunbridge Wells Conservative Ladies? The trick is how to prompt people into remembering what they ordered, The fact being, unless you are tragically anally retentive, you will not remember what you chose from the "Christmas Banqueting Menu" which was sent to you in August along with the booking form.

Over the years I have seen all sorts of methods. Sometimes the table host has a secret list. Today we had a pre-printed list on each table with the choices printing alongside your name. The cleverest I have ever seen is a series of codes written on your place card.

Last Monday I attended a dinner with local councillors, where the organiser relied on people remembering what they had ordered, which was asking for trouble considering some of them cannot remember what day of the week it is. 

The only list available was held by the waiting staff - but that only had first names, many of which were duplicated; for example we had three Andrews and four Johns. Matters were further complicated by the fact that there had been two menus circulating for the same event (one menu was actually for the local Masonic dinner which was sent around in error by the organiser, having mixed-up his email lists).   Each time a plate of food came out of the kitchen, the poor waitress had to shout "Ray, this is Ray's goose. Ray ? RAY?" Unfortunately Ray (along with several others) is as deaf as a doorpost, so by the time someone had realised they were calling his name and poked him into action, the waitress (along with the goose) had vanished back into the kitchen. 

Notwithstanding the above, today's lunch was super - so a big thank you to the Tunbridge Wells Ladies who organised everything, along with a thank you to Giuseppe Cappellazzi and his staff at The High Rocks in Tunbridge Wells, who always look after us.

And most importantly of all; thank you to the TW Ladies Group, who not only organised the lunch, but also presented me with a magnificent cheque for £1,200 towards Party funds. Well done to Judith, Susan, Jenny, Thelma, Jane, Gillian and all who work so hard for the Party in TW.
From Left: Thelma Huggett (Treasurer), AK, Susan Potter (Deputy Chairman) and Greg Clark MP
I am holding a cheque, presented by the Ladies Group to the Association, for £1,200

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Another fine mess...

Last year I took a bit of stick as the poster advertising the TW Christmas Fete was a pitiful. The general consensus being "it resembles something the Labour Party would put up to promote their jumble sale". This year, still smarting from the deserved criticism, I decided to push out the boat. I sent our printer a copy of our full colour 'flyer; and asked him to produce a "giant poster-sized version" to erect outside the church hall.

I have a strong relationship with our printer and he never lets me down, so having given him the brief I thought no more of it. I glanced at the proof to check for errors - as always there were none, so happily replied "ok to print". The following day he told me it was ready. I stopped by en route to the office yesterday and picked it up. The poster was tightly rolled into a protective tube, as they always are. I popped it into the back of my car and thought nothing more of it. Until today.

Having recruited a volunteer in TW who was going to assist me mount the poster onto a board and erect it outside the hall, I thought I should hang it up to allow it to fall flat. Then I spotted the problem. It was somewhat larger than I anticipated. In fact - it was over three times larger than I anticipated. When pinned to the picture rail the bottom was trailing on the floor.  The giant smiling face of Greg Clark MP peered at me at a jaunty angle, surrounded by baubles and holly and amongst offers of "chocolate galore" and "infused oils and vinegars".  

I arrived at the home of Brian, in one of the more distinguished roads in TW, not far from where Montgomery had his secret underground command post.  Brian's wife had wisely escaped for the afternoon. He showed me into the kitchen. "Is that the poster?" he enquired, pointing at the 7ft sail which I was towing behind me, "it's bigger than I was anticipating!"  "It's bigger than I was anticipating, too", I said.  I draped the poster over his large kitchen, its ends dangling either side, attracting the attention of the cat.  Brian and I stood looking and scratching our heads - Laurel and Hardy's Dance of the Cuckoos was my ear-worm.  "It is quite large" he said, "let's pop into the cellar, see if I have an offcut from the days I designed sets for the local amateur dramatic club."  We were out of luck. 

Back to the kitchen we made various false starts. We tried gluing it to old correx posters, but that didn't work. Brian suggested he unhinged a door, but that idea was quickly dropped when I asked him what his wife would say. We gathered up all his 2x2 as he thought about making a frame, but the sheer engineering required frightened us off that plan (thank God). Finally, after probably two hours of aborted efforts, I relaised that Homebase was just down the road - and they cut timber to size.

I headed off to Homebase, and within 10 minutes I had not only found what I needed, but it was cut to perfect size by Dan. Then another problem; there was no way I could get a piece of 7ft x 3ft hardboard into my car.  Back to Brian empty-handed, he looked at me with an air of disappointment "you've let yourself down, you've let the Party down..." He had a friend with a hatchback, unfortunately he wasn't in. Another friend had a Volvo, but he wasn't well. Time ticked on. It was now three hours since I had arrived. "There's only one thing for it, well cut the poster in half and put the two halves up 'side-by-side'." 

Back to Homebase in the hope than Dan would saw my 7 x 3 into two pieces of 3.5 x 3, but upon arrival my 7x3 had vanished. I had left it tucked behind the trolleys with "do not touch" written on it, but someone had touched it - it was no longer there. I asked a man in a Homebase apron if he had seen it. "Ah yes, did it have DO NOT TOUCH written on it?" he enquired, completely oblivious to the irony. "I saw it and thought 'someone has forgotten that', so I took it inside."  He escorted me inside to where I would find board, but it was not there. Then Dave appeared. "Are you looking for a large piece of board with DO NOT TOUCH written on it?" he enquired. It was like Groundhog Day.  "Yes", I said. "Ah, I assumed it had been left, so I put it back into stock." Fortunately, no-one else had touched it since Dave - it was still on top of the pile.

I lugged it back to the "we saw your timber to any size you want" counter and pressed a red button, with an attached sign that read, "if no-one comes within two minutes you will get 10% off". No-one came. So I pressed it again. Still no-one came. I lugged it over to the Customer Service Desk. "I've pressed the two minute discount bell twice and no-one has come, do I get 10% off?" I enquired. She looked at me as if I was a cretin. "Not after 4pm on a Tuesday", she said. "It doesn't say that on the bell" - by now I was a bit peed off. "Ah, it does say 'terms & conditions apply' - and that's one of the terms and conditions", she said, triumphantly.   Apparently I was out of luck. Dan had gone home, and there was no-one left who was trained to use the sawmill. By this time I was heading into despondency. Here I was, back to square one - I had a seven foot long piece of board which wouldn't fit in the car - and it was now getting dark.  I decided I needed to get a grip. I bought a roll of extra strong gaffer tape, placed the 7 x 3 on top of my car and stuck it down by rolling the gaffer tape around and around, passing it through the open windows of the car to secure it. I then attached the front of the board to the windscreen wipers also using gaffer tape - and I headed back to base. Thankfully I could take the side roads and nothing went wrong.

Once back inside I found Brian sitting at the table with the staple gun in a hundred pieces around him. "It was jammed so I took it apart and now I have no idea how to put it together again", he said, looking as despondent as I had felt 20 minutes earlier. Fortunately, Brian's nephew also had a staple gun, and he lived 5 minutes away, so we drove around to borrow his. Unfortunately, it was out of staples, and the staples Brian had were a different gauge and did not fit. Back into the car to borrow staples. Finally, five hours after first arriving in Tunbridge Wells, our poster was mounted onto board, wire was threaded through the holes and we headed off to Rusthall to erect it.

And here, Ladies and gentlemen, it is !


Monday, 2 December 2013

A Daley Dilemma

I fear this post may make me sound like an old grump, which is not how it is intended. But I am probably one of the few people I know who isn't jumping for joy or glowing with pride at Tom Daley's news today.

Don't get me wrong; what Tom Daley did was courageous, and I suspect he has made living much easier for thousands of other young people in the same position as him. For anyone (whether young or old - a famous Olympian diver or a Tesco shelf stacker) informing their family and friends that they are gay (or bisexual, transgender, or whatever term they wish to use) takes courage and should be respected.  "Coming out" is seldom easy, and to do so in the glare of the world's media must be so much harder.  So full marks to Tom Daley for doing that.
I am, however, a libertarian. I use a small l quite deliberately, as I would when describing my politics as Conservative with a capital (not a lower case) c. I have been libertarian as long as I can remember holding any political views at all. I never knowingly decided to become a Libertarian - I simply grew into it, genuinely not giving a hoot what people are, how they lead their lives and who (or what) they do. Provided they don't hurt, damage or inhibit the freedoms of others, I really don't care. I wear my libertarianism lightly; I don't quote Ayn Rand or try to emulate Howard Roark - it's just what I am and how I react to others. Perhaps the one thing which sets me apart from many Libertarians, I do accept that liberty and freedom also requires duty and responsibility. There is such a thing as society - it's just not the one imposed by the state!
Which brings me back to Tom Daley and the reason for my antipathy. It's because I really don't care. I don't see his sexual identity as of any interest to me.  His gender is as much my business as his faith, his height or his eye colour. If Mo Farrah 'came out' as a Zoroastrian and announced that he was dating another Zoroastrian, no-one would care. If Chris Mears posted a YouTube clip to inform people he had green eyes and was dating someone else with green eyes, no-one would care.  And equally, I don't care that Tom Daley is bisexual and dating another man.

And that is the problem. I wish Tom Daley every happiness in his life; he deserves it (as we all do). But the fact that he felt the need to announce his sexuality to the world, and that it trended on social media, indicates that we still have a long way to go. Yes, the reaction has been positive and supportive, but personally, I long for the day when the issue is so irrelevant, that no-one feels that have to announce it at all. When it does, we really have taken a step closer to equality.