Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Voluntary Party Reform - It's Now or Never

A million words, probably too many words, have already been written about the Conservative campaign, the manifesto, the Party Leader and what went wrong. There is nothing new I can add, so I will not try. My analysis will therefore be confined to the one subject I can speak about with authority and knowledge: the voluntary party and the increasing need for reform.

Over two years ago, in the warm glow of June 2015, I wrote

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 to 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.”

How prescient those words were, and how real my fears that we would prevaricate and dither. The consequences of this were plain to see on Thursday 8th June when it has been widely acknowledged that our ground campaign was woefully inadequate. We were no match for Labour and Momentum. Our troops, what few we had, were in the wrong place at the wrong time. A lack of local political experience resulted in candidates signing up to a national print package with barely any local content and which, too often, arrived too late. The news agenda moved faster than the messaging and we were constantly responding to events rather than leading them. And perhaps, most noticeably of all, without the infrastructure provided by Team 2015, we simply had no way of directing resources to where they were needed most, nor the local knowledge to pick up when target seats had become lost causes – so we carried on campaigning in seats where Labour produced five-figure majorities.

Every single one of the above failures could have been avoided if more groupings had been formed in the two years we have been talking about it. Since the West Kent Group was launched I have spoken to hundreds of Associations about the benefits of joint-working; Suffolk, Cheshire, Cambridgeshire, East and West Sussex, Berkshire, Birmingham, and dozens more individual Associations. Every one, without exception, has agreed it is the way forward – but nothing has happened. The good intentions of the progressives are always overcome by the negativity of the backwoodsmen, who will fight to the bitter end over the ownership of the Risograph to stop the change we need happening, whilst all the while our Associations wither and our campaign ability atrophies.

We have fiddled while Rome burned around us and the ruins of our procrastination are evidenced by our Parliamentary majority. Let there be no doubt that if we had had an effective and focussed ground operation in 2017 the outcome in those 19 seats which we lost by fewer than 1000 votes would almost certainly have been different, and Theresa May would have had her majority.

How could nationwide groupings have made a difference?

1.    With qualified and professional leadership, each group of candidates could have produced their own local literature, with local content tailored to the priorities and needs of their local communities. We did this successfully in West Kent, producing, I believe, better quality literature, all of which was delivered on-time, and with within budget.

2.    By pooling resources and providing strong and clear leadership we will increase our ability to provide campaign support to target seats exponentially. For example, every day of the campaign West Kent provided between 10 and 20 helpers to target seats. This increased to 30-50 at weekends and, on Tuesday 6th June, over 120 West Kent activists were campaigning in target seats outside Kent. This is the equivalent of two coacheloads. Imagine if that could be replicated 20 times across the country – we would have a peripatetic army of 2,500 campaigners fighting on the doorsteps where they are needed most. All that is needed is vision, organisation and leadership.

3.    Perhaps most importantly of all, by selling off buildings which are never occupied, cancelling leases on equipment which is never used and using our combined buying-power to negotiate best value in what we purchase, we will have the resources needed to employ professional staff with the skills to fight elections and build our voluntary party, rather than paying dozens of part-time secretaries, too many of whom just print event tickets and type-up minutes of internal meetings.

In light of what happened last week I think we must be much bolder in our approach. MCAs are too little, too late. Putting together 6 failing Associations will not make a successful group. And whilst I have a lot of time and respect for our young generation of Campaign Managers (indeed many have become friends) expecting a 25 year-old to bang heads together and to resist the competing demands of MPs, Council Leaders and “Very Important” activists simply isn’t fair or realistic. A grouping of this nature needs a hardened “grey beard”, unafraid to make unpopular decisions as he or she is sufficiently competent and experienced to do so.

So here are my revised proposals to build the voluntary party we need for the next General Election.

1.    Groupings of 15-20 constituencies, which will provide the pool of manpower and money necessary to sustain the operation. If this means crossing County boundaries, so be it.

2.    The Associations within each group to retain their own autonomy, with their own officers, finances, internal structures and the right to select candidates.

3.    A new Group Headquarters in “fit-for-purpose” modern office accommodation, with sufficient technology to run a modern business, and space for the staff. Current freeholds to be sold (with the money to be retained by the original Associatons) and leases terminated on rented properties.

4.    Present staff re-employed and re-assigned by the group only if they have the skills needed. If not, redundancies arranged under the best possible terms.

5.    Each group to be headed-up by an experienced County Director, with as many campaign assistants working for him/her as circumstances demand (approximately 2 or 3 per county). Each group to also have an administration manager, a part-time book-keeper, part-time graphic designer and secretarial support as needed.

6.    Annual KPI assessments to judge each group’s performance, with a national assessment team to supply additional support and training where needed.

7.    Groups to be financed by each member Association pro-rata to their membership and ability.

For example. Let us imagine a fictitious group in Barchester County, of 17 constituencies. My proposed structure would give Barchester a County Director, 3 Campaign Assistants, an Admin-Manager, a part-time book-keeper, graphic designer and secretarial support, plus rent on a modern office for around £225,000 pa, or an average of £13,000 per Association. In reality, this would probably mean the financially weaker Associations paying £8,000 pa, and the stronger ones paying £18,000. This is much less than most pay now, for a part-time secretary and an office that seldom functions.

For four years now, I have banged on about groupings. Along with others, I contributed to the Feldman Review, and have spent countless evenings and weekends up and down the country evangelising their benefits. My fortnightly columns on Con Home have highlighted best practice. I have met no-one able to make the case for the status quo.

Our inaction, both locally and nationally, contributed greatly to the disappointing results we achieved last Thursday. We got away with it (just) in 2017 – unless we take action now, we won’t get away with it again.

This is the last article I will write on grouping. West Kent have shown it can work, and it is now for others (with the authority to bring about change) to have the courage needed to make it happen.  

Thursday, 8 June 2017

West Kent's GE Literature Pack

A lot of candidates, agents and activists have complimented our West Kent organisation, in particular how fast we were "out of the stalls" and the volume of local literature we produced, the first piece landing on the doormats the day after the County Council campaign finished on Friday 5 May. 

I have written before that other peoples' election leaflets are like baby photographs, only of interest to those whose name they bear, but for the record here is what we have thus far produced. In total, we will be producing 11 separate items of literature for our seven candidates, so between us and our print and design team, by polling day we will have designed , printed and mail merged 77 different leaflets totaling 1.38 million pieces of paper!

For the record, here is what we have so far put out. I am only publishing literature which has already landed on the doormats for obvious reasons, but I will add new items as and when they go live. 

Regardless of which example I use in this blogpost, each of our seven candidates (Greg Clark, Tom Tugendhat, Tracey Crouch, Helen Grant, Adam Holloway, Helen Whately and Craig Mackinlay) have had the same support. 

The very final piece of literature produced for our local West Kent candidates was this handy A6 "pledge card", delivered (knock and drop) to known pledges this morning. Lots went into windows during the day, boosting spirits and and showing support.   

The penultimate piece of West Kent literature landing on the doormats next week are A5 personalised pledge cards. These are going to C P K Q T M voters plus certain targeted MOSAIC groups.  These cards are overprinted with the elector's name and address, polling station and roll number. On the reverse is a small window or car poster.

Election Address 4 (EA4)
The fourth and final piece of Royal Mail Election Freepost started landing on doormats today. This is EA4 and is being delivered to the second named person in each household, unless the second named person is either 18-25 (in which case the would have received EA2, the younger voters leaflet) or 60+ (in which case they would have received EA3). In these cases, EA4 would have been sent to the 3rd or 4th named person instead. Approximately 20,000 voters per constituency will receive EA4. This leaflet is A4 folded to A5 but landscape rather than portrait.

Followers of this running blog may have noticed that all four pieces of Royal Mail Election Post are very deliberately a different shape, size and design. The reason for this being we did not want any voter thinking we had delivered the same leaflet twice.

As with all West Kent literature, the content is 100% local (provided by the candidate), the leaflet was designed by me, printed and mail merged locally in Kent using our local print partners.

Election Address 2 (EA2) and Election Address 3 (EA3)
EA2 and EA3 started landing on doormats across the seven constituencies where I am Agent this morning (Sat 20th May). It was planned for these to go out together as they are targeted at very different audiences.

EA2 is 4pp 148mm square: this was sent to approximately 8,000 younger voters (18 - 25yo) in each constituency. The sample below is Greg Clark's but all seven candidates in the "group" had their own version with 100% locally produced copy.

EA3 is A4 folded to A5: this has been sent to voters aged 60 and above (excluding those who received EA1 as "first in household"). EA3 has been sent to around 12,000 voters in each constituency. For those curious how who identified this data, we have developed our own macro which not only splits each household into "first on register" "second on register" and so on, but then re-runs the data and again separates into different tabs those voters we wish to target based on date of birth range. 

This is Helen Whately's EA3, but once again the leaflet was available to all local candidates with 100% local content.

Get Out The Postal Vote Card (GOTPV) with postal votes landing on doormats in just three days time, our teams are now focused on delivering a personal GOTPV postcard to over 70,000 postal voters in West Kent. This is Greg Clak's example.  

Election Address 1 (EA1) which started landing on the doormats via Royal Mail Election Sort today. This went to the first named elector in every property. Like all West Kent literature, it was designed by me and our graphic designer, Caroline Spenceley, printed by DA Printers in RochesterThe "finishing" (ie, mail merging, folding and packing to Royal Mail requirements) was done by another local business TMB Mailing in Plaxtol. It is A4 folded to DL. 

First 72 Hour Leaflet (F72): as soon as the Kent County Council campaign finished on Thursday 4 May, our teams transferred smoothly to the Parliamentary campaign, hand-delivering 20,000 - 30,000 F72 leaflets between Friday 5 May and Sunday 7 May. Most Associations had teams at the local railway stations at 6.30am on Friday 5th to meet and greet commuters along with street stalls in all the major town and village centres on Saturday 6th May.

Calling Card: We deliberately don't use the traditional "sorry you were out when we called" wording as I like candidates and their teams to hand these out "far and wide" when canvassing, something harder to do if they say "sorry you were out."  These cards can also be used to hand-out at street stalls and railway stations if stocks of other generic leaflets run low. 


Letterhead:  In previous elections we had supplies of letterheads printed, which either ran out necessitating a reprint, or there were boxes left after the event. This year, having now bought a high quality full colour printer, I simply asked our designer for a high-res pdf from which we print letterheads as needed. 

Window posters and correx boards: again, I have our posters and boards produced locally. DA printers do our A3 and A4 window posters and our correx boards are done to      exactly the same design by another local company, Scarbutts Ltd in West Malling.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

The ever changing face of Tom Tugendhat!

In mid May I received a call from a loyal member of Tom Tugendhat's campaign team. Huffing and puffing with indignation, he informed me "some local oik has defaced Tom's poster on Castle Way" (a busy main road which connects many of Kent's wealthy suburbs to the M20). 

Thinking it has been spray painted with offensive graffiti, I asked what had happened. "Someone has pasted a photograph of a Mr Bean over Tom's face."

Much to our team members surprise, rather than being outraged, I burst out laughing.  I thought it was amusing and light-hearted, and at a time when Conservative posters are being obliterated by crude and thoughtless obscenities, it was actually an enjoyable piece of political satire.

Each day since the (still unknown) culprit has replaced the face. We have had Dame Edna, Brian Blessed, Gail Potter, Tom Sellick, Tommy Cooper and many more. Not a single day has been missed.  

It is done either very late at night or at dawn, as each morning there is a new face to greet the thousands of drivers who pass this spot each day. The trouble the "artist" goes to is considerable. The face is a high quality colour print out, in perfect proportion to the body and cut out and attached with great care. 

The ever changing poster has now taken on a life of its own. The local Parish Council Facebook page posts a new photograph each day. Drivers can be seen pulling into the lay-by to take photographs and the poster has been featured on BBC Radio Kent and in both local newspapers. One lady was quoted "I have changed my route to work as seeing who it is each day it brightens up my morning."

Such is the goodwill generated that Huw Merriman (Bexhill and Battle MP/Candidate) suggested that I was doing it to gain publicity, and said he wished his local vandals were as creative as ours. I can assure readers that it is not me, I only wish I was so artistic.

Although I genuinely do not know who is doing this, I know the area well and I know most of the local "movers and shakers" in the parish. I have sent a message to ask for a very special face for tomorrow to cheer us up on the eve of poll. I await with eager anticipation to see if my request is granted. 

For posterity, here are all the posters from day one onward. To whoever has been doing this, well done and thank you for cheering up what has been a somewhat long and difficult election campaign.


Brian Blessed

Chris Kamara

Barry (Chuckle Brother)

Dame Edna Everage

Gail Platt (Coronation Street)

Harry Hill

Hulk Hogan


Mr Bean

Mr T

Mrs Browne

Phil Mitchell

Rik Mayall

Tom Sellick

Tommy Cooper




Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Ballot Box Sampling Spreadsheet

The 2017 GE counts will be the second outing for the West Kent Ballot Sample / Analysis Spreadsheet.  

This fabulous piece of work enables count coordinators and their teams of counting agents to take up to four separate samples from up to 60 ballot boxes. As the data is entered into the grey cells on the spreadsheet, so the "constituency total" is constantly updated, giving a minute-by-minute indication of the count total during the verification process. 

Obviously the accuracy of the figures will be wholly dependent on the skill and accuracy of the counting agents, but by way of example in 2015 we had predicted Tracey Crouch, Tom Tugendhat and Greg Clark's majorities to within 0.3% in each constituency.

Another joy of this spreadsheet is "auto completion".  Simply enter the candidates' names in column A and their respective parties in column B and this data (including party colour) will populate across the whole spreadsheet, saving you hours of repetitive ""cut and paste". 

if you would like a copy of our spreadsheet for use at your count, please contact me using the contact form to the right of this blogpost. if we do not know each other personally, please use your Association's email address so I know I am sharing our knowledge with our own team!



Sunday, 21 May 2017

A few thoughts on social care

25 years ago, when my dear Mum was dying of lung cancer, there was a brief period of remission. Understandably, she was desperate to “Go home” for the last few months of her life – though both she, and I, knew that she didn’t have the strength to keep house for herself and do her own shopping, cooking and cleaning.

My mother was not a wealthy woman, but was proud that in her latter years, she had saved from her pension and her part-time job, about £20,000 which she always told me was her “nest egg”, which she wanted to come to me. At the time I didn’t have two buttons to rub together, and that inheritance would have made a huge difference to my life too.

To enable Mum’s wish to go home we needed to arrange some basic home care for her; someone to cook and clean and do her shopping, and as her health deteriorated, to provide her with personal care too. Money for this came from what my Mum had saved. She would never have dreamed of expecting tax-payers to pay, nor for one single moment did I begrudge Mum spending this money on herself and her care. By the time Mum was readmitted to hospital for the final weeks of her life, all but £5,000 was spent.

Quite frankly I find the vested interest and selfish behaviour of those who expect tax-payers, many of whom are struggling to make ends meet, to pay for their own parents’ social care so that they can inherit a fortune, to be simply vulgar. I acknowledge the arguments about those who have frittered their money on booze, fags and bingo – but ultimately we have a responsibility for ourselves and our families. It is wrong to rely others to pay our bills.

If Theresa May had not introduced this bold policy into the manifesto, and had tried to ignore the huge fiscal time bomb that social care carries with it, she would not only have been falling short of the office of Prime Minister, but would have been accused of ducking difficult issues. The reality is, the money has to be found. The truth is that we are responsible for our own lives.

The State is there as a safety net; not an alternative for self-reliance.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Kiss Greg Clark for £10 a go!

Can you tell them apart?
There was a time when candidates would kiss babies....

Last Saturday Greg Clark and his team were running a street stall in Tunbridge Wells town centre. Greg was happily chatting to a constituent as was his Association Treasurer William Rutherford, (above left). 

Suddenly a young bloke in his late teens ran up to William, flung his arms around him and planted a kiss on his cheek and shouted "I love you Greg". This took all by surprise, especially Greg who wondered what he had missed and William who knew what had happened but probably wished that it hadn't!

William and Greg watched in bemusement as the guy ran back and joined his mates observing from a street corner nearby, all of whom were applauding and handing over £10 notes for a successful "dare". Little did they know that rather than kissing the Secretary of State, their mate had actually planted a kiss on the cheek of a local councillor and bee-keeper!

I am not sure who came out worse.... but rumours that William has been standing in the same spot every day since have been strongly denied! 

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Size Queens of Cornwall

Local councils are constantly complaining about lack of resources and the need to cut services and staff. This lack of resource did not however stop Officers of the former LibDem led Cornwall Unitary Council from turning into rosette size queens.

At 7am on Thursday morning (4th May) a good friend who was standing for election in Cornwall turned up at his local polling station for a spot of early morning telling, whereupon the Presiding Officer promptly appeared to measure the size of his rosette to ensure it was "compliant" and not 'over sized'.

How does one judge what is or is not "oversized" as I do not think there is case law on this? And what one person may think of as "huge" might be perfectly normal to someone else.

Perhaps things will improve now the Lib Dems have lost control.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Then there were four!

A fourth West Kent Association has "upped the ante" on councillors who fail to do their fair share. Respect to Chatham & Aylesford Chairman, Cllr Michael Base, who sent this email today to the habitual slackers!

Friday, 21 April 2017

The Ring Behind the Swing !

Almost 8pm on Friday night and still going strong. My thanks to a marvelous team of over 50 volunteers who have helped man the phones and between them made over 6,000 contacts with postal voters in our key marginal wards. #ReallyWinningHere

The Roll of Honour: Elen Gente, Ron Leagas, David Grant, Betty Williams, Lee O'Toole x2, Mary Ratcliffe, Chris Woodward, Sarah Hohler x2, Harry Rayner, Sue Nuttall, Rose Tanner x2, Brian Bissell x2, Owen Baldock, Chris Baldock, Jon Botten, Matt Bailey, David Adams, Catherine Adams, Pam Bates, Jane Shepherd, Ann Kemp, Alex Hyne x2, Robin Betts, Nicolas Heslop, Alex Lewis-Grey x2, Sandra Garside x2, Jenny McDonnell x2, David Cure, Lynne Cure, Matt Boughton, Janet Walker, Georgie Wellford, Peter Homewood, Jo McTavish, Claire Stewart, Rosina Mercier x4!, Bev Palmer, Stanley Ward, Thelma Huggett, Barbara Cobbold, Matthew C F Dickins, Ade Kosoko, Steve Perry and Julie Perry.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

And we're off

Less the 48 hours after the Prime Minister announced the date of the General Election, West Kent's MPs are about to be presented with their locally produced campaign packs.

Exciting times.  

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Nurse Crouch to the rescue

Chatham and Aylesford MP and Minister for Sport, Tracey Crouch, was recently guest of honour at a lunch hosted by a nearby Conservative Association.  After the pudding had been cleared away and coffee served, Tracey started to deliver her speech. Half way through there was a loud and unpleasant thud - one of the guests had collapsed and landed on the floor underneath his table.

Undeterred and without hesitation, Tracey sprang into action - removing her jacket and crawling under the table to administer first aid whilst someone called an ambulance. Our poor chap was taken off to hospital but thankfully made a full recovery and is now back home. 

Was it too much sherry in the trifle or the thought of Tracey in her football kit?  Whatever the reason I have a horrible feeling that now our older male members know that collapsing at a lunch might result in Tracey stripping off to administer CPR under the table might start a trend.   

Data Data Data

With much of the country focussed on May’s elections, this is a good time to examine what we do on the doorsteps, what we need to achieve and how the data we collect should be used to maximum effect.

One of the challenges we face in West Kent is to convince our more traditional campaigners that canvassing is no longer about having a detailed discussion on every doorstep with the aim of converting the misguided into changing their ways. Similarly, to persuade our newer helpers that canvassing is a simple data gathering exercise and they do not need detailed knowledge of every aspect of party policy.

With so many Associations being wholly reliant on volunteers there is a danger that some may lack people with the training and knowledge now needed to gather and store data and how it should be used to maximise our chances. This includes:

  • ·         How to choose the targets and why certain groups are important
  • ·         The questions to ask to maximise accurate and useful responses
  • ·         The medium used to ask those questions (postal survey, doorstep, phone or email)
  • ·         How to record and store that information legally and in an accessible format
  • ·         How that data can be used to build future success

And when I refer to “future success” I don’t just mean electorally, though that is clearly our primary concern, but also in terms of recruiting members, donors, activists, postal voters and possible even future LG candidates.

In a previous era when 90% of people voted either Conservative or Labour a simple “may we count on your support” was probably sufficient; you were either with us or against us. That is no longer an option. Voters, even those who identify a Conservative, happily switch their votes at local, parliamentary, EU and PCC elections, and even at the same election as anyone who witnesses the bizarre vote splitting in multi-member wards will testify.

In this climate, we must be smarter and more accurate. Understanding a voters’ second preference is probably just as important as recording their first, and the ability to target nuanced GOTV messages to different groups is now vital in delivering victory in marginal council wards.

At West Kent Towers we are now working on our targeted GOTV material for delivery during polling week. For us, the days of a simple “Don’t forget to vote on Thursday” are long gone. In our target wards our teams will be delivering at least seven versions of GOPTV material

  • ·         Strong pledges who always vote
  • ·         Weak pledges who sometimes vote
  • ·         Conservative postal voters
  • ·         UKIP voters who would prefer a Conservative councillor to Labour or LD (Q voters)
  • ·         Labour pledges who prefer a Conservative to Lib Dem or UKIP (T voters)
  • ·         LD pledges who prefer Conservative to Labour or UKIP (M voters)
  • ·         Uncanvassed voters in target mosaic groups

For this to be effective however we must have the data in the first place, and this requires our doorstep and telephone teams to have the training and confidence to ask the right questions and enter the correct codes on the canvass sheets.

Other initiatives we are (or have been) working on include:

The time of day people vote: by time-stamping tellers sheets and recording this data, we can build up a picture of when people vote (morning, lunchtime, afternoon evening). This allows our teams to focus GOTV efforts where needed, for example not calling on evening voters in the morning releasing time to target those supporters who we need to turn out before dark.

*Variable paragraph pledge letters: by ensuring we ask the same questions by post, email, telephone and doorstep we are able to build a database of the main issues which concern individual voters. This information is then recorded and used to produce personalised letters from the candidate dealing specifically with the issues voters have told us concern them.

*Street-specific newsletters: again, by recording specific issues which affect roads or groups of residents, we have been able to produce a generic newsletter with a tailored “lead story and headline” for each road or target group of residents.

*So far we have only had the resources to do this for by-elections, but where we have the impact has been very considerable.

Data is key to almost everything we do. Knowing which voters will never consider voting Conservative (or who will vote for whichever party is best placed to defeat us) is just as important as knowing who we need to target. I will always remember Britain’s longest serving Council Leader, the late Mark Worrall OBE, telling me “the first step to winning an election is not to do anything which sufficiently irritates your opponents to motivate them to go out and vote against you.” And there is nothing more likely to motivate a laissez faire Labour voter than having a constant stream of Conservative literature landing on his or her doormat. It is for this reason I don’t like window posters, street stalls and loud speaker cars; they are indiscriminate in their audience and thereby reduce our advantage.

And after the dust has settled, good quality data is the gift that keeps on giving.

  • ·         Overlaying the pledge base with the marked register, you can identify pledges who did not vote and use peacetime to sign them up for a postal vote.

  • ·         Identifying your strongest and most consistent pledges you have a pool of support in which you can fish for helpers, activists, members and even future local government candidates

  • ·         Each year you can target one or two well canvassed wards and send every pledge a book of Christmas draw tickets; the response rate may only be 5% but the exercise covers costs and provides an easy gateway to build your donor base for the future.

All of this however relies of good quality data and that means we have to spend time and effort explaining to our volunteers why accurate data really matters and providing them with the skills and knowledge they need to ask the right questions and in the right way. 

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Time to come home to the Conservatives...

In today's post just over 1,800 former members, who stopped paying their membership during the Major -to Cameron years and who are still on the current electoral roll, will have received this letter from me inviting them to "come home and help us re-build the Conservative Party of tomorrow." It was sent with a copy of the excellent CCHQ Brexit leaflet and of course a membership form and a reply-paid envelope.  

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Britain's best days are yet to come

At 12.30pm and under the watchful gaze of Maggie, the West Kent team toast events in Brussels and wish the Prime Minister every success in her negotiations to secure the future of our independent country. 

We have a duty to present the best candidates for local government

The new Local Government Selection Rules are, on balance, an improvement, bringing further clarity to the composition of the LG Selection Panel, the appeals process and perhaps most importantly the replacement of the convoluted rule about “branches can run their own selections if the membership is at least 2% of the Conservative vote at the most recent election.”

But five pages of rules and procedures about how we select our council candidates are of little use if the incumbent is automatically reselected as there is no-one else, or if the pool in which we fish for talent is so shallow that all we can catch is grey mullet. And regrettably as Associations stumble on with little training and support, apart from access to printed “Best Practice” guides, so the soft skills required to identify and develop not just potential council candidates but the leaders of tomorrow, continue to wither on the vine.

Just over two years ago I recruited 100 volunteers to each hand address 1,000 envelopes as part of our General Election GOTV campaign. A chap in his mid-20s turned up to collect supplies for his mother, who had offered to help. As with every new face I engaged him in conversation. He was also a Party member and had been for ten years, but until that day the only contact he had with is local Association was three letters a year. One asking him to pay his subscription, another asking him to buy summer draw tickets and the third to buy Christmas draw tickets. In ten years he had not been contacted, not been asked to help, not been invited to a social or political event and not been welcomed. The happy ending to this story is last year he was one of our hardest working council candidates and this year he became Association Chairman, part of a new and young Officer team trying to turn around a somewhat moribund and inward looking Association.

Whether it is for a branch fundraiser, a campaign session or to identify volunteers, I have lost count of the times I have heard “well, I sent everyone an email and very few responded.” That is the trouble with email. They are fast, they are easy and they are transient. If you have ever said to yourself, “Oh, another email asking me to buy a “Theresa May tea towel made for everyone” there is no reason to believe your equally time-restricted members won’t do the same when your email pings into their inbox, “Oh, another email from that woman asking me to be a candidate” before firmly hitting the delete button.
Last year in Tonbridge we faced a difficult by-election in a ward which had been solidly Labour for over 60 years. We narrowly won it in 2007 after recruiting a local community activist as candidate, and even then only at her third attempt. Following her death the expectation was that without her name on the ballot paper the seat would almost certainly revert to Labour.

Having exhausted our database in previous years I knew there was not an obvious candidate amongst our older members, so I trawled through the many new members who joined post referendum, and this included looking at what was publicly available about them on their social media profiles. One potential candidate lived in the ward and ran the local youth football team. The other was born and bred in the ward, educated at the local school, her grandfather chaired the local community centre and she had run campaigns using local bands to dissuade teenagers from drug and substance abuse.

I arranged to meet them both for coffee and to explain the work of a local councillor; and both agreed to put their names forward. Fortunately the man had just become a father so wanted to wait until 2019, but the woman was subsequently selected and was the perfect by-election candidate, well known on the doorsteps, respected for her community work and hugely popular. We held the seat with 62% of the vote on one of the biggest swings to the Conservatives last year. What is interesting about the above case is both candidates had received emails from us asking if they would like to be a candidate, and neither had replied. In fact, when I asked them, neither recalled ever having received the email. Another example of why personal contact is vital when it comes to identifying and nurturing future talent.

Across the six constituencies of the West Kent Group we cover four district councils and overlap with three more. In a full electoral cycle we need to find 328 local government candidates. Identifying and training so many candidates is a major part of my work, but I also try to ensure we have an available pool of talent so branches have options and do not have to “settle” for Hobson’s Choice. For example, this year over half of our county council divisions had contested selections. All but two incumbents were reselected, but the process highlighted the fact that the post was not a sinecure, and having to explain their record an set-out their campaign plans was helpful in focussing minds on the task ahead.

There are many ways the West Kent Group identify and recruit potential local government candidates:

  • Adverts in local newspapers
  • Professionally designed postcards in shop windows and noticeboards
  • Mailshots to parish councillors, Townswomen’s Guilds, Rotarians, Neighbourhood Watch Groups, Women’s Institute Groups and similar community-minded organisations
  • Adverts in In Touch newsletters and on surveys (a recent Voter ID survey to 10,000 residents in one County Council Division identified almost 20 potential LG candidates)
  • And even our MPs will sometimes put a paragraph about the importance of good people putting themselves forward for local government and directing those interested to their respective political organisations.

Throughout the year all potential candidates are logged and nurtured, and about two months before the selection process starts they are invited to an open evening with other potential candidates. They hear from one of our council leaders about the work of local government, and then from me about what will be expected of them in terms of campaigning and political involvement. I think it is important that all applicants are fully aware that they will not only be expected to campaign but also support the political and social life of their Association. Finally, over wine and food they have a one-to-one session with an incumbent councillor about their work in the community. This councillor will go on to be their mentor if they proceed with the application.

Overall about 25% of people who express an interest end up being interviewed and selected, and many go on to be outstanding campaigners and councillors. Too often I fear we take the line of least resistance because that is easier than the alternative. I believe we owe it to our members, our supporters but most importantly our communities to do better.