Sunday, 22 May 2016

It's time for radical reform of Local Government

Last year I took a call from a resident in one of West Kent’s rural parishes. The resident was in despair. The street lamp directly outside her bedroom window had been flickering on and off for three weeks, disturbing her sleep. Her local parish council said that whilst they owned the grass verge, the lamp was not their responsibility. The district council confirmed responsibility for the pavement, but said the lamp belonged to Kent Highways. Kent Highways had a recorded message referring callers to their online reporting page. The only problem being the “online reporting page” required a “street lamp identification number”, which was missing. For three weeks our sleep-deprived resident had been passed around 8 different people at 3 local councils ... none of whom were able to fix her street lamp. Across three tiers of local government, our resident is represented by 11 elected councillors – yet she could not get her problem resolved.

“All I want is the light-bulb replaced”, she said.

I write this article with trepidation as I know the bad-will that is generated whenever local government reorganisation is mentioned. Most councillors tend to agree that the present system doesn’t work, and “something must be done”. Securing consensus for the need to change is relatively simple – agreeing the basis for that change is not.

I fear that the Department of Communities and Local Government, never having recovered from the rows in 1974 and Prescott’s botched reforms 30 years later, have abandoned any top-down reform, and have instead adopted a policy of “let a thousand flowers bloom”. I also know of many district leaders hungry to promote reform, but who are reticent to commit expenditure on detailed planning without knowing if their proposals will gain government approval.

Councillors rightfully take pride in their work, but they should be careful not to confuse this with emotional commitment from residents to the largely man-made boundaries which now define local government. I have no hesitation in telling people that I live in Rochester, and am proud to show visiting friends around our lovely city. However, despite it being an efficient Conservative run council which has continually out performed electoral expectations, I have never said, nor heard anyone say, that they are proud to live in the “Medway Unitary Authority” area.

The relationship between tax-payers and local government has also changed. Last year Bedfordshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner held a referendum to ask residents to approve a Council Tax increase of 48p per week to finance 100 additional police officers. On paper the sum was relatively small and the benefit to the community obvious. Despite this apparent “easy sell”, the proposed increase was defeated by a margin of more than 2:1.

In this climate of “more for less” can local government really continue in its current form?

Does Kent really need 12 district councils, a unitary authority and a County Council to administer its affairs?  Are the tax-payers of Kent best served by financing so many council buildings, senior officers, councillors and portfolio holders – all drawing salaries and allowances whilst often duplicating each others’ work? Is scrutiny and accountability best served by having 2 or 3 councillors serving each ward and up to 3 councils representing each community, with each council and councillor blaming the other for service failures? I suspect the lady with the flickering lamp thinks not.

I believe there are two basic levels of service that people want from their local council. The first are the strategic core services: education, social care, highways, refuse disposal, planning, economic regeneration etc. Residents expect these services to be delivered to a high standard at the lowest possible cost. I don’t believe anyone cares about the livery of the bin-wagon providing it collects the rubbish efficiently.

The second level of services people want locally are what I would call the “emotional extras”. They want nice parks and gardens, safe play-areas for their children, well-maintained grass verges, flowers in public spaces, quality bench-seating in places where people gather, a vibrant and accessible community hall – and all those things which build communities and enhance the quality of life. Exactly the things that financially hard-pressed districts have neither the time nor the money to do as well as they once did.

The skills to deliver these services are also very different. Councils which provide strategic services need councillors with business experience, capable of negotiating contracts, managing KPIs, achieving targets and implementing a long-term plan. These are very different, but no more important, than those needed by local community champions who are passionate about their town or village and are determined to make it a pleasant place to live. Putting the right type of councillor in the right council will be key to that council’s success, and that councillor’s sense of fulfilment.

So I believe it is time for radical reform of local government and a managed move to unitary authorities, along with enhanced status for parish (or town) councils. One size seldom fits all, but I think our existing districts should be the building blocks. There may be areas where county-wide unitary councils will work, but generally I suspect they will just be too big and remote, as in my home county of Kent.

In a nutshell, here is my vision 
  • Re-empowered and re-established parish/town councils – filled with volunteer “local” champions, whose ambition is to deliver outstanding local amenities for their local community. This includes re-establishing town councils in our towns to help restore a sense of civic identity, in areas where ancient town councils were previously subsumed into districts.
  • Cost-efficient Unitary authorities, based on amalgamated districts, focussed on core strategic service delivery.
  • Redrawn single-member wards, with a reasonable level of remuneration, to attract councillors with the skills and experience needed to promote economic regeneration, attract jobs and businesses and manage large-scale contracts.

One of the failures of the 1972 Act was that too many Conservatives opposed the plans, refused to engage, then insisted on retrospective change which fell short of what was needed. Everyone knows that sooner or later change must come. Rather than repeating the mistakes of the past our local councillors should be leading from the front, and ensuring that the Conservative voice is heard in the debate which will shape the future of local government in England.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Conservatives in Northern Ireland - squaring the circle 27 years later!

I often think how strange it is that a chance encounter can shape your life, change your views, or take you off along a road which would never have been travelled had that chance meeting not taken place. 

A recent "social media" friendship brought such an encounter to mind. It happened during the 1989 Conservative Party Conference in Blackpool. I was in the scrum waiting to be served at the bar in the Imperial Hotel. Standing next to me was a distinguished gentleman with a home made addition to his "observer" conference pass, which read "North Down Conservative Association". I asked him what it was about. He explained that he and a growing group from North Down constituency were loyal and committed supporters of Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party. They had formed their own thriving Conservative Association, which had continually been refused "recognition" by the National Union (the predecessor to the present Party Board). The Party were apparently concerned that the formation of active Conservative Associations in Northern Ireland would alienate our traditional allies in the Ulster Unionist Party, as well as risking further splits in the pro Union vote, which could enable the election of left wing Nationalists in constituencies with large Catholic populations. The gentleman's name was Dr Lawrence Kennedy. 

The following lunchtime I attended his fringe meeting, held in the basement of one of the many seafront hotels. A senior party agent stood angrily at the door making a note of the names of those attending, and of what was said. Coming from a traditional right wing working class protestant Liverpool family I had some sympathy for the "don't split to Unionist vote" argument, but the strength of Dr Kennedy's case won me over to his cause. In a nutshell;

  • Peace and normality in Northern Ireland was being impeded by the continued unchallenged dominance of sectarian based politics
  • Right wing/ free market Roman Catholics were effectively disenfranchised as the two parties Catholics could happily support were both Socialist.
  • And most surprisingly to me was that a very significant minority (at least 45%) of Catholics in Northern Ireland were in favour of Northern Ireland remaining within the United Kingdom, yet due to hardline sectarianism in the Unionist Parties only 1% of Catholics voted Unionist. The status quo was actually damaging the election of pro Union politicians.
In those days Party Conference was a very different beast to what it is today. In a rare (though sadly short-lived) flirtation with democracy, the National Union allowed a members' ballot to choose two motions for debate. They did not however make participating in the ballot particularly easy. The ballot papers were available from a far flung information desk between 9am - 10am and the ballot boxes were hidden away somewhere else (no-one seemed to know where) with voting only possible (if you could find the ballot box) between 3pm and 3.30pm that same afternoon. Given the entire party hierarchy (CCO staff, agents, regional officers and MPs) all seemed to have ballot papers and "guidance notes" the result of the ballot was usually assured. This time, however, the peasants revolted. A group of about 30 of us lobbied members, handed-out leaflets (with a map showing where to find the ballot box) and guidance notes on what "motion number" to vote for.  We won the ballot, we won the debate and Dr Kennedy received the official recognition he and his colleagues deserved.
For a short period the Conservative Party flourished in Northern Ireland. We were the largest political group on North Down Council and at the 1992 General Election, Dr Laurence Kennedy polled 14,371 votes in North Down, coming within 4,900 votes of winning the seat. It was an outstanding achievement and I had a degree of satisfaction that I helped in some way to make it happen. 

Sadly, this was the high water mark. Within three years our fortunes declined as rapidly as they has risen. I suspect the momentum and excitement gained from the campaign to achieve recognition subsided once that battle was won, along with the enthusiasm of the grassroots, demoralised as we all were by Black Wednesday and John Major's somewhat inept handling of Europe.

I thought little about the fortunes of the Northern Ireland Conservatives since those heady days, until a few months ago when I received a Facebook request from a chap named Neil Wilson. Neil was the Conservative Party candidate for East Belfast for the NI Assembly elections. 

Over a period of six months I watched in growing admiration how he set-about building a grassroots organisation from scratch, how he trained and motivated his team, designed and delivered literature and without any of the structural support we take for granted here, he executed a campaign which I would have been proud to fight in West Kent. 

On the day, Neil did not get the result his campaign deserved - he polled 477 first preference votes. Having said that, the Conservative Party polled badly throughout Northern Ireland. In North Down - the home of Northern Ireland Conservatism where we once controlled the council and nearly won the parliamentary seat, the Conservative candidate there polled just 672. You can read Neil's moving final campaign blog HERE  

And for the anoraks amongst my readers (and I suspect that's most of you) there is a fabulous website HERE which has a super graphic which not only shows the results seat by seat, but also shows how each candidate's "second and third" preference votes are reallocated as candidates are eliminated from the ballot. Neil and his team have every right to take pride and satisfaction that he drew support from all sections of the community, thus in some small way fulfilling Dr Laurence Kennedy's vision of providing a non sectarian party which can bring hope and normality to Northern Ireland.

I was so impressed with what Neil and his team achieved that I offered to visit Belfast to help with a campaigning or training day, and I was delighted when he said yes. It will be my first visit to Belfast, and I am looking forward to it greatly. 

I am truly delighted that the John Strafford (who was then Wessex Area Treasurer) sent me the following YouTube clip from the 1989 conference, showing his magnificent "winding up" speech in support of the motion. I had forgotten just how good it was.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

SECEN has Questions to answer....

It will come as no surprise to regular readers that I am firmly on the side of Brexit. However, I am also professional and completely endorse the Conservative Party's official neutrality on this issue. Despite my wholehearted support for Vote Leave I have steadfastly refused to do any work for the Leave campaign in the run-up to the local, PCC and London Mayoral elections on Thursday 5 May, and have openly criticised local Conservative activists who have campaigned for (or against) EU membership when we had vitally important elections to win on our doorstep.

I was therefore surprised to receive an email yesterday from a group called South East Conservatives Europe Network (SECEN). Attached to this email was the Group's newsletter, which was five pages of pro-EU propaganda written by the Group's leading lights, with no balancing arguments whatsoever. Hardly surprising given the Group's "Mission Statement" printed at the top of the page, proclaiming

What intrigued me about this organisation is that I had never heard of them nor knowingly given them my email address, particularly as the one used was my private email, not in the public domain. A quick round-robin to friends and colleagues in the South East indicated that most had also received the newsletter despite never knowingly providing their data or requesting to be put on the organisation's mailing list. 

A bit of further digging then highlighted that the registered address for the Group's website was listed on as being the same address as a Buckinghamshire Conservative Association, as indeed was their registration details with the Information Commissioner's Office. 

I need to place on the record here that I fully appreciate that many fellow Conservatives feel passionately that the UK's best interests are served by our continued membership of the EU and they are absolutely right to campaign vigorously for those beliefs. Unlike too many hot heads (on both sides of this debate) I do not regard those who feel differently as "unpatriotic" or "traitors" and I actually recoil when I read such comments being made. This issue, however, is one of fairness and trust. And SECEN has questions to answer:

1. How did they obtain my email address and that of so many others, who have never knowingly signed-up to receive such information?

2. Have they permission from CCHQ to use the Conservative Party name and title to disseminate pro-Remain information in this way?

3. Is it right that a Conservative Association office should be used to accommodate this group and facilitate its activities, when the Party and all of its branches and employees are officially neutral in this campaign?

4. Given the need for fairness and balance, will SECEN provide Vote Leave with their database so that those who received SECENs newsletter may also receive a balancing view in this important debate about our country's future?

The Conservative Party was absolutely right to take a neutral stance on this issue, allowing members, staff and elected representatives the opportunity to campaign in accordance with their beliefs. Such impartiality will be vital in restoring not only unity post 23 June, but also in rebuilding the long-term bonds of mutual trust and respect upon which our future success will be built. This approach will only succeed if all those involved accept both the letter and the spirit of that understanding. 

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

With friends like these

Many readers will know that I am on enforced bed rest at home, convalescing from a routine hernia operation last Saturday.  Bored witless, unable to walk any distance and barred from driving, I am catching-up on a backlog of reading and haranguing my friends on social media in search of sympathy.

On hearing I was incapacitated, one kindly lady from the north posted:

I am not sure if my photograph led her to assume that I was due a hip or knee operation, or whether the average Conservative activist is so surrounded by fellow geriatrics, that it was a natural assumption!

This of course, opened the floodgates

Then my good friend Matthew Plummer Matthew Plummer, on reading that I was considering watching a YouTube re-run of the 1987 GE Campaign kindly emailed me a link which he thought I might find of interest. It was a recording of the 1996 Municipal Election results for Wellington Central in New Zealand. 

Apparently if I watched carefully I would be able to see a flash of his shoes. 

I have suddenly and unpleasantly glimpsed my retirement - stuck in bed with painkillers and a bad hip and watching re-runs of Kiwi election results programmes from 1996, eagerly anticipating a glimpse of Matthew Plummer's shoes.  

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Maggie - the memories linger on

Some readers will know that my partner is a Funeral Officiant.

This morning I was listening to him dictate a "eulogy" and heard a reference to Margaret Thatcher. After he finished, I asked him about it, as it seemed a strange thing to have in a funeral service. He told me that Mrs Thatcher is mentioned in around one in ten eulogies, 50% in a positive way and 50% negatively.  

I asked him for more details. Apparently people say "we bought out first home after Mrs Thatcher allowed people to buy their council house, and we never looked back." Or, "He was so proud after Maggie broke the power of the unions and put the country back on its feet." Or, "He was a Conservative all his life but never forgave them after they knifed Maggie in the back."

There are unfavorable mentions, too. "He lost his job after Maggie sold off the (insert nationalised industry here) and he never got over it.  And, "he never forgave Maggie Thatcher for what she did to the shipyards." 

I found this fascinating and truly remarkable, though I shouldn't. 

I am one of Maggie's Children; she gave a poor lad from a single parent family growing-up in a council estate in Merseyside the hope, ambition and confidence to move on. Her vision for Britain not only informed my politics but shaped my life. Her portrait is the only one in my office. I still look back to the 1980s when she and President Reagan dominated the world stage as our true halcyon days. And I still have not forgiven those pygmies who brought her down, though even I will admit that her time was probably up.

And twenty six years (a quarter of a century) after she left office, one in ten people still want her mentioned at their funeral. With the exception of Winston Churchill, I can think of no leader before nor since who commanded the country as she did. 

Steve said the only other Prime Minister ever mentioned at funerals is Tony Blair, and that sadly is usually along the lines, "she never got over the death of her grandson in Iraq".

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

2016 Summer Draw

For those who follow and take an interest in what we do, I am pleased to attach copies of our 2016 Summer Raffle Appeal Letter. 

Last year after a great deal of consideration, we "opted out" of the national draw. We have no issues whatsoever with the Conservative Supporters Club and we worked with them for many years, with great success. The reason we now do our own thing is simple:

1. We have the scale, skills and organisation to do so
2. Most importantly. by running our own Summer and Christmas Draw, we can ensure all the prize winners come from our own area

Admittedly the prizes we can offer are no match for the national draw, but our research indicated that people don't buy tickets for the prizes, but to support the Party. Also, due to the quantity of the tickets we sell in West Kent (around £10,000) it is better value for us to pay for our own tickets to be printed and for the prizes (though we often have these donated) than paying 25% to NCDS.

Clearly this option is not available or cost effective for the majority of Associations with a smaller pool of ticket buyers, but it works for us. 


An audience with Jacob Rees-Mogg MP

I am delighted that Jacob Rees-Mogg MP has agreed to appear at the fifth of our popular series called "An Audience with...."

Jacob will be coming to Kent on Friday 8 July 2016 and will be interviewed on stage at the Lenham Community Centre, Groom Way, Lenham, Kent ME17 2QT by Helen Whately MP commencing at 6pm. The interview will last approximately 30 minutes and will be followed by a further 30 minutes of questions from the audience. 

After the interview, Jacob Rees-Mogg MP and Helen Whately MP will attend an "after show" Champagne and Canape Reception at the same venue. 

  • Tickets for the show are just £10.00 per person.
  • Tickets for the show plus the Champagne & Canape Reception
    are £30.00 per person

Tickets for both the show or the show and Champagne reception may be purchased online using debit/credit card or PayPal, using the link below.  

Please contact the Association Office on 01732 842794 if you have any questions. 

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Local Government Selections

If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got

Until we widen and deepen the pool of talent in which we fish for our Local Government Candidates, we will continue to put forward too many who are pale, male and stale.

One of the problems is that there are too many councillors sitting on too many councils – but that is an article for the future, as are my suggestions about how we can attract new talent. For now political parties must play the cards we have been dealt. Depending on your electoral cycle, this can result in having to find up to 50 local candidates who are committed, community-minded and good communicators from a limited talent pool.

The overwhelming majority of councillors I know work hard for very little financial reward, and often for no thanks from their electorate.  However, too often local parties take the easy option by simply reselecting the incumbent regardless of his or her abilities and performance. This is often easier than facing the difficult and unpleasant decision to deselect and to recruit and train new people from the wider community. In following this path of least resistance Associations are doing a disservice to themselves, local residents and ultimately the quality of Local Government.

At the recent Spring Forum it was announced that the Mandatory Selection Rules are going to be reviewed. Admittedly the present rules are cumbersome, but they are generally sound and, if followed, equip Associations and Branches with all the tools they require to select the best possible candidates.

Each year my performance is appraised by my line-manager. If I consistently under-perform, and make no effort to improve, I would fully expect to face a disciplinary process, and eventually dismissal. Yet across the country there are too many councillors of all parties who have “gone native”, or who simply refuse to support the campaigning objectives of their local Association. Some even seem to declare UDI, and believe they are bigger than the Party with whose brand and reputation they were elected. Whenever I brief new candidates I make the point that they should always be “champions of the people”, elected to represent their communities in the Council Chamber. Too often they become defenders of the bureaucracy, simply rubber-stamping decisions made by Council Officers.

In the “Candidate’s Agreement”, now used nationwide, there is a list of requirements for new and existing applicants, including the obligation to “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, comply with the requirements of the election agent.”  New and incumbent candidates sign this before they are re-interviewed and should therefore not b surprised when they are called on to fulfil these promises.

In one of our local Associations six non-performing councillors (around 12% of the total) were deselected (although four of them fell on their swords rather than face opprobrium.) I have found that you only need one or two deselections for the other councillors to regain their focus!

In ensuring the best people represent the Conservative Party locally we need to ensure that those who select our candidates have the skills and abilities to do so. This means that each Association’s “Local Government Committee” (or Approvals Committee) is comprised of people with the confidence, vision and courage to do what is right – and, where necessary, their tool-box should include the willingness to remove from the Approved List habitual poor-performers, self-servers and non-starters.

Too often I am told that local branches simply reselect the incumbent because it’s easier and kinder to do so – that is precisely why the Local Government Committee should make those difficult decisions for them. If a non-performing councillor is removed from the “Approved List”, then the local branches are spared the task of telling “Good old Harry” that it’s time to call it a day. Sometimes the very decision is an act of kindness; “Good old Harry” is often doing “one more term” because he thinks there is no-one else, whereas in reality no-one else will come forward until “Good old Harry” retires.

However .... “Good old Harry” does not always go with grace.

One of the questions I am most often asked is about Local Government Candidate Selections. This normally comes via a plaintive call from an Association Chairman who is facing the wrath of a deselected councillor. My advice in such circumstances is always clear. “If you have followed the rules, there is nothing to worry about”. Appeals against deselections can only be accepted if due-process has not been followed. The fact that a disgruntled councillor, or his supporters, don’t like the outcome is irrelevant.

It is right that where there is an active branch which meets the CCHQ “Qualifying Threshold” for Branches to run the interview process, that they are allowed to do so. The rules specify that to qualify for self-selection from the Approved List, a branch must have either 20 qualifying members or a membership equal to 2% of that ward’s Conservative vote, whichever is the greater. This is designed to ensure that a cabal of councillors and their friends cannot dominate the process for perpetual self-interest. The weakness, however, is that the Mandatory Selection Rules do not define “an active branch”. There are too many branches which never campaign, raise money, or contribute to the Association’s success, but miraculously spring into life when the reselection process starts. In two of West Kent’s Associations we defined an “active branch” as one which (i) holds a legally constituted AGM, (ii) raises money over and above membership income, and (iii) meets regularly throughout the year.

There are, however, some who confuse attending endless (and often pointless) Council committee meetings with community campaigning. And yes, there are also a small number who are simply bone idle. In a recent West Kent by-election, in a critical marginal seat, nearly half of that Borough’s Conservative Councillors did not turn out to help – while over 70% of the neighbouring Borough’s councillors did so. This is what we must address.

Earlier in this article I referred to the “Candidate’s Agreement” which is signed by both new applicants and incumbent councillors seeking re-approval. The second clause of the “Agreement to Stand” states, “Councillors and, where appropriate candidates, 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, fund-raising, social and political activities.”  It is not unreasonable for Associations to insist that those who sign such an agreement uphold their promises – and to take action against those who don’t.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

D Day in West Kent - Live Blog

A short video of our wonderful West Kent GOTV Team in action. 

12.30pm - Now at capacity and making 400 - 500 calls per hour.

10.15am - Greg Clark MP for Tunbridge Wells and Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, reports for duty at the West Kent Phone Bank. 

10am - Just received a lovely good luck message from Tracey Crouch MP... "Just to let you know Freddie is wearing red trousers today to show solidarity with the West Kent Agent." 

9.30am - early bird Cllr Sophie Shrubsole turns up to make the first calls to supporters. Our target today is 5,000 calls. 11 down, 4,989 to go.

7am - The ever ebullient Cllr Matt Boughton delivering the Dawn Raid in Fant. Not sure if he's smiling or grimacing.  

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

New technology helping us to Get Out The Vote

Across West Kent candidates in our target wards have just completed delivery of their target voter leaflets. 

We have done targeted deliveries for many years now, but this year we have tried something new. By linking our pledge database with what people have told us via Residents' Surveys and on the phones and doorsteps, we have produced personalised leaflets for each voter, dealing specifically with the issues that elector or family have told us are important to them. In total there were over 900 versions of the letter, produced by using "variable paragraph" mail merging. 

Today we commence the final stage of our GOTV campaign, again targeting specific messages at different groups of voters with our personalised GOTV cards: