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.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Teamwork makes the dream work

One of the most difficult things any campaign manager must to do is manage resources, particularly when managing the hopes and expectations of candidates who are fighting seats which we are almost certainly not going to win, and convincing candidates in safe seats that adding a further 500 votes to their 2,000 majority at the expense of the target seat next door is not in the best interests of the Conservative Party.
For me, this lesson struck home in 2003. I had just moved to Kent and my predecessor as Tonbridge & Malling’s Agent asked me to “adopt” the candidates standing for council in the neighbouring constituency of Chatham & Aylesford.  The constituency had been newly formed in 1997, bringing together the two weakest parts of otherwise safe Conservative seats. Rallings and Thrasher has predicted a notional Conservative majority of 14,000, but the constituency was won by Labour by 2,800. This was further increased in 2001 to 4,400. By the time I arrived, the Association was lacking manpower, money and motivation.
I remember to this day turning up on a cold and blustery March morning to find a gaggle of confused and demoralised candidates who had been over-promised and under-resourced. The older candidates had lost so often that they had given up hope. The new recruits, though no fault of their own, had little training and no guidance. By the time of my arrival the die was cast; the best I could do was provide practical help and bolster morale until we could regroup after the inevitable defeat.
And what a defeat it was. Despite the best (albeit misplaced) efforts of the candidates and their small teams of helpers, just four Conservative Councillors were elected (from a total of 29) – and this was during the mid-term of a second Labour government in a generally affluent area of Kent. Of those four wins, three were holds and there was just one gain. A further 19 seats which we had hoped to gain were lost. After ten years of fighting, the constituency had a Labour MP, two Liberal Democrat County Councillors and, at district level, we held just four seats compared with Labour’s 13 and the LibDems’ 12.
But in hindsight, the defeat was a blessing. The battle and the ensuing disappointment formed bonds and friendships which are rarely seen in politics, and which still endure today. But, just as importantly, it brought home the need to work smarter and target resources effectively. After so many successive defeats, it was obvious that “one more heave” would result in “one more defeat”.
So members accepted that we would need two elections to reach our goal, and wards were allocated and targeted on that basis. Candidates were selected almost immediately to ensure maximum campaign time, and were chosen for the non-target wards on the basis that winning would be a two-term slog, and they would be expected to help deliver victory elsewhere first. The strategy paid dividends. In 2007, we won all eleven targets and, by 2011, we had won ten more – and, by this time, the parliamentary seat and two county seats, too.
Chatham & Aylesford has always been a small Association of 150 members who have “punched above their weight”. But what drove them on was teamwork, and the brutal realisation that it was better to share in someone else’s victory than to suffer yet another personal defeat. And on that wonderful night when the votes were counted and we gained eleven opposition seats, the loudest cheers came from the losing candidates, because they always knew they were not going to win (their turn would come) but that, for the first time in over a decade, they could share in a victory which their teamwork had helped deliver.
During the lead-up to the 2010 general election, this small team were delivering more leaflets and recording more canvass data than any other in the UK. Our CCHQ Campaign Manager wrote at the time:
“I have never known an Association which so closely resembles the very voters they seek to represent. They achieve so much, as they are far more united by a collective determination to win than they are divided by the personal squabbles and personality clashes which so often lead to conflict.”
We are fortunate in West Kent: due to sharing establishment and staff costs six ways, our Associations are generally free from the financial constraints which affect so many, but we are still limited by time and manpower. Sadly, too often, this does not stop candidates in seats which have returned Conservatives with 70 per cent of the vote since the 1950s demanding more resources – or candidates who were selected on the basis of them being a “paper candidate”, with the expectation that they will support the marginal seat next door, from suddenly believing they can pull off a victory despite the Conservatives polling just 22 per cent last time.
Recently, a paper candidate who had received a firm “no” after several consecutive requests for more resources said to me: “the trouble with you, Andrew, is that all your care about is the Party, and not the feelings of the individual.” This comment hit home: I accept that my focus is on the collective outcome, with perhaps too little consideration for the feelings of the individual. But in fairness, those candidates were selected on that basis, and it is not me who is trying to move the goalposts.
Perhaps I should let go of those memories from 2003 when we all suffered from the equal sharing of misery. For me, dream work makes the team work. Losing an election by 200 fewer than last time is no consolation in a contest when the winner takes the only prize. Personally, I would rather bask in the warm glow of a colleague’s victory than enjoy a defeat of my own creation.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

May the (Lebanese) Forces be with you

As part of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy's outreach programme, West Kent Towers were hosts today for the centre-tight Lebanese Forces political party, who were visiting the UK to learn about UK Parliamentary Democracy, grassroots campaigning and building an inclusive and open voluntary party. 

This is the second time we have hosted overseas visitors, having entertained 12 members of our sister-party from Ecuador in November last year. Today, it was particularly gratifying to hear the visit organiser say that West Kent was probably the best grassroots political campaigning organisations in the UK. High praise indeed. 

After looking around our palatial offices (both rooms) Jon and I presented on our work, including how we recruit members and helpers, fundraising, campaigning and identifying and training candidates and activists.  This was followed by a traditional British Pub Lunch in one of our nearby villages and then two hours of street campaigning in Tonbridge.  

Thursday, 9 March 2017


Great amusement and slightly too much raucous laughter from the office volunteers when an delivery driver turned up a few moments ago at West Kent Towers and announced "Delivery for Dandy Kennedy!"

Turned out to be a bottle of Berry Bros Champagne, so I will forgive the sender. 

I am told "the person who took the telephone order must have misheard me.....

I now have an office-full of volunteers calling me DANDY. An amusement which will (very) soon wear thin! 

A thoughful and appreciated gesture

A few weeks ago Faversham and Mid Kent MP Helen Whately sent-out a survey to 6,000 rural voters. Rather than use paid staff to pack them, I offered our team of regular volunteers at West Kent Towers, saving time and taxpayer's money in doing so. Over twenty volunteers worked in shifts and got the job done in a day. 

A few days later, without any prompting from me, each of the volunteers who gave up their time to help received a personal hand-written 'thank you' note; a generous gesture and one which was greatly appreciated by the team (particularly those who came from outside Helen's constituency to help).

Friday, 3 March 2017

Lunch with Rt Hon Andrea Leadsom MP

To reserve your place(s) at this event, please use the payment button below.

Lunch with Rt Hon Andrea Leadsom MP

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Wednesday, 1 March 2017

They don't make them like this any more...

We are in the process of delivering 100,000 surveys to target voters across our six West Kent constituencies, all printed, mail merged and packed in house. Anyone who has asked 100,000 people for their views will have an inkling of what we are going through. On Monday our post did not arrive; when Cllr Paperclips complained he was told "we know - you have so much we are sending it in a van."  It took two volunteers almost four hours just to open the envelopes!

As our teams data-capture the surveys in relays, candidates go straight to the "issues box" to see what people are thinking. I go straight to the VI to see how they will vote. Agents are from Mars / Candidates are from Venus! 

Today however we found a real delight. Stapled onto a survey was this note from a resident of Maidstone. They don't make them like this any more (more's the pity). 

Our new members : Nine months later

In the weeks that followed the EU referendum, somewhere over 50,000 new members joined the Conservative Party. The surge took us all by surprise. Over 600 of those new members lived in West Kent, taking membership of our five local Associations back to the levels last seen a generation ago.

Curious as to what was motivating such large numbers of people, I undertook a detailed survey in which I asked who they were, where they came from, what was their motivation, and what they hoped to gain from their membership. The results of that survey were published on ConHome on Monday 18 July and can be reread HERE

Over the weeks that followed a not insignificant number let it be known that their primary motivation was to vote in the leadership election, which of course was not possible due do our longstanding “three month rule”. The numbers complaining about this led CCHQ to place a notice explaining the requirement on the online membership page and I understand that many refunds were issued. Personally, the fact so many had joined without any previous interest or involvement simply to try and influence the leadership election is total justification for having the rule in place and I hope we continue enforce it in the future.

In our own survey, I gave new members a number of multiple choice options covering the areas that motivated them to join. When asked to rank these reasons, 75% (by far the highest number) chose “I joined the Conservative Party to vote in the leadership election” compared with just 8.4% who said this issue was not an important factor for them. And later-on I asked more bluntly, “If you had been aware at the time of joining that members were only allowed to vote after three months’ membership, would you still have joined the Conservative Party?” to which over 25% replied “no”.

Over the last nine months these figures have weighed heavily on my mind, and from the many questions I have been asked by some senior figures at CCHQ and around the country I suspect I am not alone. I have never had much doubt that the 25% who said they would never have joined had they known they would not have had a chance to vote would not pay again, but what of the larger number (ie, the 75% who said the leadership vote was an important factor for them). This figure obviously includes the angry 25%, but what of the other 50%?  Have we done enough (locally and nationally) to win their hearts and minds and keep them on board?

It is now coming up to nine months since the first signs of the surge and many of the members who joined early on will soon be receiving invitations to renew their membership. To test the water and to see if I could identify how our new members feel we have performed locally (in terms of meeting their expectations and keeping them informed and involved) we ran a similar survey again, the findings of which are published below. However, there is a word of caution. Our original survey attracted a 50% response rate, sufficiently high to make it significant and probably representative. This time the response rate was just below 25% - and it is highly likely that the subsequent null responders are those who have lost interest and decided to walk away. The figures below are likely to be biased and the true situation might be somewhat worse.

To the best of your memory, what was the primary reason for you joining the Conservative Party in June/July last year? Please tick as many as apply.

July 2016
Feb 2017
I was supportive of the work being done by my local Member of Parliament
My interest in politics was revived following the EU referendum
I was concerned about the direction of the Labour Party under Corbyn
I voted Remain and wanted to help shape future policy
I voted Leave and wanted to help shape future policy
I wanted to vote in the Leadership election
I have always been Conservative and wanted to help secure future victories

Given I was asking people to remember what motivated them to do something nine months ago, I think the above findings are remarkably similar, the only statistic of note perhaps being the fall in the number of respondents identifying as Remain, which could indicate some of this group may well have disengaged, which was a likely outcome given the determined and unequivocal approach being taken by the Prime Minister over Brexit.

Always conscious that Associations are often held responsible for not engaging or contacting new members, I was keen to ascertain how they felt we had engaged with them on a local rather than national level.

After you had joined the Conservative Party did you receive a letter of welcome from your local Association?



And did you then receive a personal visit or telephone call from a local organiser to introduce themselves and talk through local events and activities?



And how long did you have to wait for a letter or personal contact?

Within a few weeks
Within a month
Longer than a month
Never heard


Did you receive an invitation to meet your local association Officers and Member of Parliament at a “free to attend” drinks reception or similar, and if so, did you attend that event?

Received invitation
Attended the event

So far, so good. Despite processing 600 new membership applications, 98% received a local letter of welcome and 82% received a personal visit or contact by telephone within a few weeks of them joining. The majority of our new members also recall being invited to a complimentary welcome event, though only 14% of them attended.

Next I was keen to find out about how we communicated with them and had we met their expectations.

Since you joined you should have received regular communication from us on a wide variety of issues. Please indicate below if you feel the frequency of emails on each of the following matters has been too little, about right or too much.

Too little
About right
Too much
Invitations to attend social events
Invitations to contribute to raffles and appeals
Invitations to political / policy discussion groups
Invitations to attend campaign days
Invitations to assist with office / clerical / data work

At least they are hearing from us, and on most issues we have got it “about right” though the cynic in me would say our new members seem much more enthusiastic about attending policy discussions than ensuring we are in a position to implement those policies by campaigning and winning elections!

And finally, the million-dollar question.

As things stand, is it your intention to renew your membership of the Conservative association when it falls due in June or July



As I wrote at the start of this article, the above is likely to present a rosy view of reality as respondents will be drawn disproportionately from those who are still engaged and willing to respond. I am however confident that in West Kent our new members have been contacted, welcomed and made to feel wanted, needed and loved.