Friday, 28 August 2015

Barnes-storming on the High Seas

Returning to the ship last evening after a day in Orkney I found several messages on my mobile and social media (many with hyperlinks) telling me that "Ann Barnes has done it again". Sadly, no-one actually told me what she had done, and by the time I had returned to my cabin to dress for dinner and read the messages we were back on the high seas with no internet access.

This morning at the breakfast table a fellow passenger from Kent greeted me with, "when are we going to be rid of that bloody woman"? I was still none the wiser, and not wanting to comment with knowing what she had done or said, I passed-off the comment with a joke about the onions.

It didn't take long however as just after coffee was served the Head Waiter brought around the daily copy of "Braemer News" containing a summary of the top stories from the UK papers. And there, right on the front page, was the headline

"Police Chief in tantrum over a glass of wine"

Apparently our totally independent police commissioner Calamity Ann was so rude in a local pub that she reduced a waitress to tears then stormed out "in a strop" announcing that she would "never be back" when she was charged for three glasses of wine instead of the two she said she had consumed. And who can blame her? Three glasses of wine might well have invalidated her insurance, perish the thought. 

Then an hour or so ago at lunch we found ourselves chatting to another couple who know her well - they attend the same Am Dram group. Apparently a few weeks ago one asked if she was "looking forward to retirement?"   Calamity Ann's response, "who said I am going to retire?"

Bring it on!

But Ann, with your track record, I suggest between now and the election you limit your drinking to cup-a-soups just in case.

Monday, 24 August 2015

All at sea!

Having lit the blue touchpaper on Conservative Home yesterday I have retired, to a very safe distance, to watch the reaction. I am typing this from the library of the Fred Olsen cruise ship Braemar, which is currently in the middle of the North Sea, 60 miles east of Hull, en route to Edinburgh.  Sadly, modern technology and broadband now reaches the middle of the high seas, so I am able to watch (and at time wince) at some of the comments!  Best of which was from someone called (or using the name) Rupert Butler. As far as I know I have never met Mr Butler, but the crux of his argument against my plan was based on (and I quote)

Incidentally, I hope he is a much nicer person than the CCHQ nark pictured. 

As one friend commented, "you know your enemies have run out of arguments when the resort to personal abuse."  Quite. 

I decided (sensibly I believe) not to engage in arguments and debates in the comments section of ConHome. I thought little good would come of it other than dominating the narrative with tit-for-tat posts of little interest or value to the true discussion.  Later this week, on this blog, I will deal with the genuine concerns and valid points raised.

One of the things I have noticed about the reaction from those who are opposed to my suggestions is they very seldom (if at all) offer a different, let alone a better, solution.  By all means argue, disagree and debate - but if you are going to do so, at least have your own well thought through plan to put forward instead. Simply saying "this won't work" or "this is a CCHQ plot to take over the universe" without any supporting evidence, really isn't good enough! 

The most common theme opposing grouping - "we tried it locally and it fell apart due to *lack of strong leadership / *inability to get on with each other / *selfish behaviour (*delete as appropriate). Given many Groups work well and some fail due to disfunctionality, the answer to me isn't to get rid of the concept of grouping but to address the problem of disfunctionality and poor leadership.  Perhaps I am being naive?

Thank you for your comments (on Con Home, Twitter, Facebook) and in particular to the many people from the branch activist in Liverpool to the member of the Cabinet, who emailed my privately to say how much they agree. 

Sunday, 23 August 2015

The future of the Voluntary Party; my article on Conservative Home today

We need an unemotional debate about the true purpose of the voluntary party. Is it there to facilitate meetings to discuss internal bureaucracy, or should it be dedicated to delivering victory at every election? Our response to these questions will not only define the voluntary party of the future, but more importantly it will determine how seriously we are taken as a campaigning force. 

Associations have two basic functions. The first is the management of our affairs (meetings, minutes, fund-raising, membership and branches). The other is campaigning. Admittedly the first needs to be done effectively to facilitate the second, but for too many Associations the internal administration has become an end in itself, rather than a means to an end. 

Many Associations do the internal stuff well – and there are others which do the campaigning well. There are some that do both well. And there are many that do neither.

Recently I was invited by Lord Feldman to attend a meeting of his National Review Panel to talk about what we had achieved in West Kent. For my presentation I used my home county as an example. In 2014 the 17 Associations in Kent had an income of £567,000 of which just £73,000 (13%) was spent on campaigning. More money was spent on rent, rates and property maintenance (21%), internal administration (19%) and employing staff (41%) than on winning elections. Some would argue that a percentage of the staff and establishment costs were also campaign-related, though I suspect these figures would be the same regardless of the election cycle.  

We also need to look dispassionately at how we spend money on human resource. I am the last full-time paid Agent in Kent (with one part-time Agent in the east of the County) – the remainder of the salary costs are spent predominantly on part-time secretarial support and office management. Whilst many of my Kent colleagues do an outstanding job, often with little support and no formal training or development, I know from the many calls and emails I receive that the majority of the work they do is administrative rather than campaign related.  

So what about the future?

The easy and obvious solution would be to recommend West Kent-style groupings nationwide, but this would be a staging post rather than a long term solution. Campaign technology is constantly changing and we need the capacity and money to buy-in the support we need to remain competitive in an increasingly technologically-driven environment. Future elections will still require boots on the ground, but the weapons of war will move from doorsteps and telephones to social media, metadata and micro-targeting - specific skills that we cannot expect volunteers or broad-practitioners to possess. Nor will 130 Campaign Centres, each covering five constituencies, have the financial capacity to maximise our use of such technologies.

My proposal to Lord Feldman’s Review Group therefore was that we should move toward County-based organisations with 15-20 constituencies working together. In some areas this may mean two counties sharing. Again using Kent as my example, for exactly the same salary bill as we are currently paying, a Kent-wide organisation could employ a county campaign director, two assistant campaign managers, two paid campaign interns, a full-time admin manager, a part-time assistant to look after data management, a part-time designer to ensure everything we produce is of the highest quality plus professional help with accounting, social media and websites.  The organisation could be housed in a modern fit-for-purpose central Campaign HQ, with full-colour print facilities and a mail-fulfilment capability along with training and meeting rooms, for probably 50% of what we are now spending on 13 local offices. However we look at the figures, financing a county-wide organisation would produce enormous savings of scale and leave our Associations around £300,000 per annum to spend on campaigning or recruiting new helpers and supporters.

Another advantage would be the ability of Associations to turn their buildings from cash drains into tangible assets. Freeholds could be sold or sub-let, producing additional income to be used on campaigning. Whenever I am invited to speak to Associations or Area Management teams to talk about ‘grouping’ one of the major concerns is the loss of their assets and a fear that CCHQ will grab their cash. I made these points to Lord Feldman’s Review Group and was pleased to receive an absolute guarantee that this would not be the case; any capitalized assets would be retained locally (as indeed they were when Tunbridge Wells sold their freehold to join West Kent).    

Even our strongest Associations (and I am fortunate to help run some of these in West Kent) are too reliant on too-few people. We are constantly “running up the down-escalator” to maintain membership. Too often new activists are not welcomed, subscriptions are not collected, fund-raising isn’t maximised, and our electoral advantage is not pressed home due to lack of time, skills and resource.

There are understandable concerns which must be addressed, usually around the effect on voters and members when the local offices are combined. In West Kent we have proved that having one office covering five Associations is not a handicap to electoral success as three of our five constituencies achieved their best ever election results in May and all five have shown an increase in membership. The advantages however are great and many. Every campaigner (from parish and district councillors to MPs) would welcome access to local, cost-efficient design, print and mailing facilities, the latest campaign technologies, legal and compliance support and the enormous organisational advantages of having activists from 17 constituencies liberated from the administrative chores and free to focus their drive and energy on our prime purpose; winning elections. 

For two years I have been the party’s unofficial ambassador for grouping and have spent that time touring the country speaking to Associations, County AMEs and regional conferences. This experience has taught me that despite the genuine enthusiasm, thoughtful questions and warm applause we almost always settle for the line of least resistance. It is a sad but unavoidable fact that not a single new Group has been formed, despite the almost unanimous goodwill wherever I speak. 

We must ensure that any changes are bedded-in before our next major electoral challenge. Perhaps the basis for the future should be county-wide Associations or federations, stripping away layers of bureaucracy and introspection. Whatever we do we should not allow a small number of recalcitrant Associations to use self-interest to block essential reforms which in our hearts we all know must come.

The Party is in a unique position of strength. We have won an election that most people didn’t expect us to win. Our opponents are in disarray. We are ahead in the polls and our finances are strong. The temptation is to do nothing, or simply to “tinker”. To do so would be a dreadful missed opportunity. It could be decades before the moons are in such favourable alignment again. Having helped win the war, I really hope Lord Feldman and his group have the courage win the peace and bequeath a voluntary party fit for the future.

Andrew Kennedy is the Group Agent & Campaign Director in West Kent. He blogs at .The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views five Associations in the West Kent Group.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Fantastic in Fant - almost 50 activists on the doorsteps of Madstone today

A great day on the doorsteps in Fant today as friends and activists came not just from Maidstone but across the South East to support Matt Boughton's campaign.

First task was to deliver Matt's latest newsletter to 4,200 homes.  It was a full-colour A3 newsletter expertly designed by The Talented Mr Ripley Stephen Ion. I asked Stephen to leave the bottom left hand corner blank (see below). I then set-up a simple database of local issues on a street-by-street basis (the issues having already been identified on the doorsteps and via our Residents' Surveys and online polling) and used variable paragraph mail merge to produce separate editions of the leaflet for each road in the ward. (see photo 3 below). This gave the leaflet a truly local feel and ensured the issues being raised were specific to those receiving the leaflet.

After we had delivered the whole ward we went out canvassing, knocking on doors for a third time (in some cases a fourth and fifth times) in search of pledges from the last remaining residents who were 'out' on previous visits. The depth of our canvassing is so good that we have about 20% of the roads in the ward with recorded VIs for every resident. 

This has all been made possible by a small army of supporters who willingly give up their time to assist. Our core Ward Campaign Team of Stephen Paine, Alan Chell, Alan Bartlett, Joe Mamo were supplemented today by additional helpers from Faversham & Mid Kent, Tonbridge & Malling, Chatham & Aylesford, Sevenoaks, Hastings & Rye and teams from Kent CF and London CF. In total we deployed almost fifty activists in Fant ward today. a big thank you in particular the Conservative Future team who travelled from London; Peter Cuthbertson, Stephen Canning, Alexandra Paterson, Michael Vivona, Ed Roseff, Marie Walker, Luke Springthorpe and the organiser-in-chief, the lovely Thea Dickinson.

Each and every person today made a valuable contribution, but I want to say a special thank you to Liam and the team from Hastings. A couple of months ago we took a few carloads down to Hastings to help them with a by-election.  Hastings is a bit like Chatham & Aylesford, a small Association who have to fight like lions to keep their constituency Conservative. Today, as a 'thank you' for the help we gave them, they came to Maidstone. West Kent are major providers of mutual aid, and rightfully so. When we help another constituency we do so not expecting anything back in return, which is just as well.  So thank you to the Hastings members who made the effort to help us - a true example of 'mutual aid'. 

Finally, if any campaign team comes to help in Kent and want a 'selfie group shot' taken, don't ask the agent. Here is the hard working team from Chatham & Aylesford.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Rehabilitation not retribution

Last year my brand new bicycle, which I had been riding for just two or three weeks, was stolen from Strood railway station. 

Much to my surprise British Transport Police took the matter seriously. My designated case officer kept me informed, and I was pleased when she phoned to tell me they had arrested someone who had subsequently been convicted and ordered to pay me £200 compensation. The money only covered 50% of the bike's value, but I was pleased that justice had been done. 

Unsurprisingly the culprit decided that using what money he had to pay me was not one of his priorities. And, whilst being angry at the theft, I have long believed that we should seek to use the criminal justice system as a vehicle for rehabilitation rather than a means of revenge. I wasn't therefore going to bombard the police and the courts with angry demands for retribution. 

This morning out of the blue I received a letter from HM Courts and Tribunals Service informing me that

Once police time, court time, transportation, security and legal aid costs are taken into account a single court appearance costs taxpayers around £3,700. And every additional week served in a Young Offenders' Institute adds an additional £1,100 to the bill. So if the court decides he deserves a further week in prison for failing to pay his £200 fine, the cost to the taxpayer would be almost £5,000.

And then (irony or ironies) the money he was originally ordered to pay as compensation would be "written off"

The next paragraph reads:

Well, I have thought long and hard about this, and I have decided to make a representation. 

I have written to the court to say that I can see no advantage in extending his custodial sentence and suggesting instead that I would prefer him to write to me (via the HM Courts and Tribunals Service) to explain why he stole by bicycle, whether he considered the consequences, what he did with it and how he would feel if the theft had been from him or a member of his family. I have also suggested that his court appearance should be cancelled and the money saved should be given to one of the recognised drug rehabilitation charities who just might be able to use it to do some good for society.

I suspect many of you will think I have lost leave of my senses for taking such a liberal stance, but forcing people to consider the consequences of their actions is, I believe, far better than keeping them locked-up and further alienating them for any chance of rehabilitation. 

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Sponge Bob Square Pants to the rescue

Most MPs turn up at village fetes and events to support the community and to be seen. In Chatham & Aylesford the MP takes it a stage further. 

When the village of Wouldham advertised on its Facebook page for qualified 'first aiders' for their annual Village Fun Day, Tracey offered her services. Apparently a first aid qualification is required for all football coaches and managers, so she was well placed to do so.

Unfortunately on the day the goalie sustained an a nasty injury during the village football match. Just as the organisers were considering calling an ambulance, Tracey stepped in with an ice pack and a cold wet sponge.  And judging by this exchange on Facebook her skills were appreciated...

You can just imagine the exchanges at future family re-unions as bored grandchildren try to look impressed as Grandad once again reminisces about how his life threatening sporting injury was treated by the then Minister for Sport.

Beans Means MPs

Several years ago the winner of the "stupid things to ask your parliamentarian to do" award was the man from Snodland who phoned up wanting Tracey Crouch to fix his leaking toilet... "well, MPs fix things, don't they?"

The is however a new winner. 

Earlier today a man phoned the office asking to see his MP. As always I enquired what it was about, hoping I could either help or direct him to someone who could, thus avoiding waiting for the MPs next surgery. 

It transpired that the man has just been to Debenhams in Lakeside and was dismayed because he sat down at a dirty table where the previous occupant has spilt baked beans. The man had placed his plate on top of the beans, which subsequently made the bottom of his plate dirty, thus 'ruining his dining experience'

Apparently his MP should intervene to instruct a department store manager to ask his staff to clean up baked beans more promptly. 

I suggested it would have been simpler for everyone had he not chosen a dirty table and then, having done so, put his plate on top of discarded food. 

This suggestion seemed to catch him by surprise.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Left, left.... left left left

Almost 40 years ago Michael Heseltine reflected on the leftward lurch of Labour Party. His words are as amusing and true today as they were in Blackpool in 1976.

'A one-legged army limping away
from the storm they have created.
Left, left, left left left'

OCD Agent Alert!

I wish I could deny it...   but he's right.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

CaughtOut by LinkedIn!

I am regularly amused when I read the LinkedIn profiles of people I know, and see what powerful and influential jobs they have.  In recent weeks I think I have seen at least 22 people who claim to have run the national NOtoAV Campaign, including one chap I know whose chief responsibility was to control the helium balloon canister.

This morning however I came across the best one yet.

A lady that neither I (nor the relevant Kent MP) have ever heard of, let alone met, informs the world that she was this MPs 'strategic campaign adviser' at the 2015 General Election.

Almost as good as the intern applicant who put on his CV that he was "a key member of Greg Clark's 2010 Campaign Team responsible for comms and social media" when in reality on the two occasions he had offered to come and help he failed to show up; once as he boarded the wrong bus and secondly as he turned up late and couldn't find us.

I often wonder if they realise that the political jungle is actually a very small village?

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Matt Boughton on the Wireless

For the few of you who don't have your wireless tuned to Maidstone United Football Club's radio station 'Stones Live', here is a link so that you may 'listen again' to our very own Matt Boughton explain why he is the right man for Fant.
Click HERE

Monday, 10 August 2015

Narrow vision over narrow waterways

Britain's inland waterways remain one of our hidden gems. Most people know, or have visited, a canal - but few appreciate their size and scale. It is a network which runs from Godalming in Surrey to the North of Yorkshire and connects nearly every major city and town in between. In total, our navigable waterways cover over 2000 miles, the same distance as all our motorways combined. They are home to approximately 30,000 residential boaters and a further 35,000 pleasure boats - including me! 

Our waterways are maintained by the charitable "River and Canal Trust", with an annual budget of £135 million  - it employs over 300 people directly, with thousands more employed in anciliary businesses such as boat-hire, boat-building and maintenance, canalside pubs and restaurants. Britain's inland waterways not only provide homes, holidays and enjoyment for hundreds of thousands of people, but bring major economic benefits for our country. However, too often the canals are ignored by the towns through which they pass.

Our journey through Banbury today is a case in point. 

Banbury is one of the spiritual homes of the waterways; Tooleys Boatyard, in Banbury, was where the late Tom Rolt refurbished "Cressy" in 1939, the boat on which he toured Britain's then neglected waterways demanding his "right of navigation" set out in law - thus, not only raising awareness of the dereliction, but forcing the government and various local councils to restore our waterways to a navigable state. Without Tom Rolt there is every chance that our canals would have been left to go to ruin as so many did before his action.

Like most major towns, Banbury is a magnet for boaters. Today we counted over 40 narrowboats moored on the towpaths either side of the canal through the town centre. Most of these would be holiday makers with money to spend and in search of somewhere to spend it. Yet in Banbury, as in too many other "recently redeveloped" towns, this is the view from the water ...

This is the face Banbury shows its visiting boaters; the backside of Banbury's main shopping mall, sitting immediately by Town Lock. Not a shop, cafe, bar or bistro in sight. In any other country the balcony overlooking the water (above) would be bustling with people enjoying the water and watching the boats, rather than a storage area for the bins. This in turn would provide jobs and prosperity. Immediately after the above mall there is a concrete car park and this, in turn, is followed by the storage area for local warehousing. On the opposite towpath there is a cafe (attached to the Banbury Museum) but this shuts its doors at 5pm, just as tourists are looking to eat. I apologise that Banbury is the butt of my frustration; this blog could have been written about 100 towns all over Britain, I just happen to be here.

Given the chance, I evangelise about our inland waterways, and would love the opportunity to serve on the River and Canal Trust - preferably as one of the elected lay-members. I understand perhaps as well as anybody the economic benefits the waterways can bring, and what needs to be done both politically and emotionally to make that happen.

If developers and town planners want to see how our waterways can be integrated and made to work for both visitors and residents, they should take a look at Birmingham and use that as their model. This is why the River and Canal Trust need someone who understands the opportunities, has the political contacts, and the vision to help maximise opportunity and add value to one of our greatest assets. 

A strange encounter in Burford High Street

Apologies for light blogging. I am taking advantage of August to have a long weekend away on our canal boat and we are happily making our way from Oxford to Cropredy in no great hurry, handicapped in my blogging by (a) too many canal side pubs selling Hook Norton ale, (b) a lack of internet access, and (c) a lack of politics of any kind to make a blog worthwhile.

Yesterday we drove into the lovely Cotswold town of Burford in search of dessert spoons, teaspoons and port glasses - and happily found all three. If you have never visited Burford, you really should. It is a town of rare beauty, nestled in the Cotswolds close to the River Windrush, a few miles west of Chipping Norton. It has one of the most beautiful medieval High Streets imaginable, lined with pretty shops built from Cotswold stone, glowing in the August sunshine.
I got the impression that Burford is one of those towns (like Hampstead and Port Isaac) far more attuned to the needs of visitors than locals. There were six shops selling Panama hats and three selling red trousers, wood carvings and wholemeal crepes aplenty, but if we had gone in search of anything as mundane as lavatory paper or potatoes I fear we would have left empty-handed. 

Another novelty in the Town was 'diversification'. One shop sold 'hats and books' (where I bought a copy of Philip Gould's 'When I Die - Lessons from the Death Zone' (happy holiday reading) and later I popped into an art gallery which also sold brushes and shoe shine supplies. The lady behind the counter was very welcoming and chatty, but also seemed familiar, though I had no recollection of us ever having previously met. After a few pleasantries I asked if any of the paintings were hers, to which she replied that she was a writer not an artist. 'And what do you do?' she inquired. I told her I was a Conservative Party Agent in Kent, at which point she beamed enthusiastically whilst digging into her cleavage and pulling out a gold necklace adorned with a portcullis pendant.. It turned-out that she was the widow of former Hampstead & Highgate MP Geoffrey Finsberg.  

We had a lovely chat about people we both knew, people she thought I knew and people I once knew, and as I left she gave me a few messages to pass on to various people at CCHQ and Westminster with whom she had lost contact, which I have now done. 

I don't know what it is about politicos, but we always seem to find each other in a crowd. Maybe we are like Freemasons, giving out hidden signals and codes, or perhaps we have our own pheromones - but it is remarkable how often something like this happens.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

A busy day at West Kent Towers

With two local government by-elections to fight (one in Maidstone and the other in Tunbridge Wells) any hopes of a quiet August have gone out of thee window at West Kent Towers. Today we had an office-full of volunteers packing, opening, sorting, data-capturing and franking. Last Saturday 7,000 Residents' Surveys landed on the doormats with a further 4,000 going out this Saturday. We also have a fantastic team of 28 people canvassing this weekend. No wonder the press refer to August as the silly-season.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Boughton hits the airwaves

Great to see Matt Boughton​ accepting an opportunity to speak on local radio tonight about his love of football and how sport can enhance communities and help build confidence, discipline and teamwork in young people. Later this week Sports Minister Tracey Crouch will be on the campaign trail with Matt in Fant ward.    

Well done #Matt4Fant - what a fantastic candidate. 

Sunday, 2 August 2015

We're backing Boughton #Matt4Fant

Matt Boughton is one of the nicest. hardest working and thoroughly decent people in local politics, and his many years of hard work on behalf of others was reciprocated on Saturday when 30 activists came to help launch his by-election campaign in Fant ward (Maidstone) caused by the sad death of incumbent Conservative councillor, Alistair Black.

The above picture shows just one of two teams working the ward on Saturday morning, the other team congregating at the station and working up Tonbridge Road. 

My thanks go to everyone who helped, including (not all in the photo), Anne Marie Nelson
Allan Sullivan, Adrian Gulvin, Sam Watkin, Joe Mamo, Alan Bartlett, Jon Botten, Alan Chell,
Vivian Branson, Richard Long, Jacques Arnold, Chris Brown, Wendy Palmer, Ed Godskin,  Stephen Paine, Brian Moss, Pat Moss, Matthew Dickins, Matthew Scott, Michael Horwood, Piers Montague (+2) and Tom Tugendhat MBE MP- plus Matt's family and me. 

Over 7,000 surveys were delivered in just two hours showing what can be achieved by teamwork.