Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Mind your GRAMMAR!


We have just sent our 100,000 Voter ID Surveys. This respondent clearly doesn't support the expansion of Kent's excellent selective schools. Maybe if she had been to a grammar school she would have known the correct spelling!

There is a thin line between “full and frank” and “dysfunctional and unpleasant”


Over the years, to either attend or run training events or to speak about Party reform and grouping, I must have visited a hundred plus Associations. Something which has always fascinated me is the “collective psychology” of an association and how this can change, not just from one constituency to another, but often between neighbours – even when they share a council area or are two halves of a large town.

One can immediately tell the kind of Association as soon as you walk through the door. A gentle hum coming from a happy and varied crowd discussing the latest cricket scores, the weather and the best local pub for a spot of lunch lifts the heart as much as stilted rows of puce-faced angry men (each clutching a copy of the rule book) can darken the soul.

A generation ago in Kent there were probably eight “big hitting” Associations; by this I mean Associations with 1,000+ members and sufficient cash, activists and enthusiasm to campaign effectively and pay their share, with enough money and manpower left over to support their less fortunate neighbours. Now there are perhaps just two or three. Why have these few Associations survived (and in some cases thrived) whilst their neighbours have atrophied? This is particularly interesting when one considers that the electoral arithmetic in terms of vote share and majorities has barely changed in these seats.

Many years ago, when I first moved to Kent, I asked my predecessor as Agent “what was the membership of Tonbridge & Malling like?” She asked what I meant. “Were they Thatcherite? Hangers and floggers? Socially liberal? Libertarians? One Nation?”  She looked a bit pained at the vulgar simplicity of my question. “They are none of those things, they are just a group of very nice people.” I remember at the time thinking her reply was a bit of a cop-out, but over the years I have grown not only to understand but also to appreciate just what she meant, and how important this was. I have no doubt that Tonbridge & Malling is not alone in this, but they are a wonderful example of how a balanced membership, for whom politics is an important but not defining issue in their lives, leads to a happier and more welcoming group.

However, another association I know prides itself on always enjoying a “full and frank discussion”. Sadly, this full and frank discussion really means that the county councillors distrust the borough councillors, the rural members dislike the townies, the old members patronise the new ones, new Management Committee is suspicious of the old Management Committee who they think (probably correctly) are undermining them and planning a coup, and where every point, however innocently made, must be dissected for any hint of hidden malice. There is a very thin line between “full and frank” and “dysfunctional and unpleasant” and as the clock ticks invariably past the call for “last orders” I sometimes wonder what side of the line they are on.  I once asked if they thought their enjoyment of a “full and frank discussion” was in any way linked to the fact they delivered fewer leaflets, knocked on fewer doors and consistently produced the worst election results. They didn’t.

At the last meeting of the above Association there was a new member who had joined the Party post EU Referendum and had wanted to get involved. After the meeting I sheepishly asked how he had enjoyed it. “I joined the Conservatives to discuss policies, make new friends and help win elections. From what I have seen tonight I fear I am wasting my time. I am not sure I will come back.” I floundered for words to make him feel differently, but it was difficult, as I knew he was right. Fortunately within West Kent we have a sufficiently wide and loose organisation to ensure that we can engage him and utilise his skills and enthusiasm centrally, and thus keep him involved. I suspect this would not be the case elsewhere and he would simply walk away.

And this is how Associations can very easily develop a culture which is self-perpetuating, exclusive and damaging to the long-term interests of the Party. In the above example the prevailing culture is of mistrust and argument and if you are not argumentative you would probably attend one meeting but would not come back. However, if you were also argumentative you would probably feel at home, and would look forward to the next meeting with relish, thus embedding the culture further and ensuring its survival; a self-fulfilling clique talking only to each other to the detriment to the wider aims of the Party. The same argument could be made about Associations dominated by councillors, evangelicals, po-faced harridans or freemasons.

Any voluntary group will flourish when its members and leaders are drawn from the widest and deepest pools of talent, but as we have lost our agents and organisers so our collective memory of how to grow an effective voluntary organisation has faded too. More often than not this is due to lack of time or opportunity, but too often it is due to self-interest and self-survival. Encouraging and empowering new members might be opening the door to new ideas, and heaven forfend empowering a future challenge to the status-quo.

In West Kent we have an open door policy to new talent. Postcards in shop windows, councillors’ and MPs newsletters, our websites and social media, and even adverts in local newspapers, all encourage people to come forward. Last year one third of our local government candidates were brand new. Two came from speculative phone calls after I read their contributions in the letters page of the local paper. One new member was encouraged to stand in a by-election after I noticed on her Facebook page that she had run an anti-drugs campaign. Another candidate, who has quickly developed into one of our rising stars, was recruited after his mother had sent him to the office to pick up some envelopes which she was addressing and I engaged him in conversation. None of these would have come forward through the traditional routes, but they are the councillors, officers and leaders of tomorrow.

Last year in this column I welcomed the appointment of Anthea McIntyre as Vice Chairman responsible for training, and wished her well. I don’t think we have yet heard very many of her plans, but when we do I hope the training is not just about how to design a newsletter or build a delivery-round. These are simple process-driven skills. What we really need is to provide our present leaders with the soft skills and confidence to identify and develop the leaders of tomorrow.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Sometimes two letters are all you need !

Packing teams at full capacity!

One of our County Council candidates decided that rather than ask his local volunteers to pack 10,000+ Residents Surveys for his Division, he would personally pay a mailing house to do it for him, leaving his local activists free to help with canvassing and delivery. When I discovered he was about to do this, I suggested that he paid West Kent instead - which he readily agreed to do. At four days notice we managed to raise a team of over twenty volunteers who worked in shifts over a two-day period to complete the job.


Not only did we pack and bundle over 10,000 surveys we had sufficient spare capacity to pack and post a 2,500 mailing which was scheduled for next week!

Thank you to a great team of helpers, including Gill Levine, Glynis Coates, James Scholes, Dr Ronen Basu, Gill Lloyd, John Reynolds, Nicola George, Lynne Weatherly, Dennis King, David and Catherine Adams, Sally Revell, Pam Bates, Jenny Cooper, Jeff and Joan Tree, Max Martin, Susan Coleman, Susan Potter, Alex Maiken, Tim and Mary Streater. Special thanks to Sylvia and Brian Griffin and Mrs Buckwell who came from Rochester and Strood (not even part of the West Kent Group) to thank us for our help in the Rochester & Strood By-Election two year's ago!  A great example of "mutual aid" for which we are very grateful.  

Thanks to the hard work of our volunteers and the willingness of our KCC candidate, our efforts have raised £500 for Association funds. This might not sound like a forune, but it is the equivalent to 20 new membership subscriptions at £25 each! 

Monday, 6 February 2017

EU Ref - Voting statistics by ward






Martin Rosenbaum from the BBC has published the official results of the EU Referendum in 1,070 wards across the UK. I have asked how they obtained this data and apparently a number of local authorities across the UK (though not all) actually counted and tallied results on a ward-by-ward basis. The BBC obtained this information through FOI requests to the local authorities responsible for the 23 June vote count. 

Whilst I question the financial prudence of two publicly-funded bodies FOI-ing each other to obtain data which is to all intents and purposes redundant, it does make interesting reading for the geeks and psephologists out there. 

You can access the data by clicking HERE  Scroll over the map and click on specific wards for that ward data. 

Nice to see a substantial splodge of unbroken red in my patch! 

Hat-tip to Matt Richard for drawing this data to my attention.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

A country that works for everyone

Earlier this morning my partner read to me a Facebook post from someone he works with.

The guy who posted this is employed as a funeral assistant by a large company of funeral directors in South London. He drives the limousines and is one of the men who carry the coffin from the hearse into the church. It is physically demanding work and can have a great emotional impact too, being surrounded by grieving families all day, every day. It is not the type of job I (or I suspect many of my blog readers) would want to do.  For this work he is paid around £22,000 a year (probably improved by some occasional overtime). On this money he pays his rent and supports his two children.

Here is what he posted on Facebook today, obviously I have protected his identity:


Guys like this, working hard and doing their best for their families and kids, for what many of us would consider a very basic wage, are all around us, not just in the less economically vibrant areas of the UK. In fact, I suspect struggling to make ends-meet when you are surrounded by money and success makes it an even harder pill to swallow.

I don't know this man and have never met him. Steve, my partner, does. Apparently he is a loving family man with no strong political leanings whatsoever, other than a feeling he is working his balls off for little gain and no quality of life. He voted for Brexit and feels politicians have all let him down. Who can blame him?

When the Elite sit around licking their wounds and wondering what caused Brexit and Trump, they need to remember that for every Public Affairs consultant earning £100,000 a year there are 1,000 guys hidden away trying to keep their home and families together on one fifth of that.

When Theresa May speaks of "A country that works for everyone" this chap and probably hundreds of thousands like him will hopefully listen in hope. If we are to regain their trust and their votes we need to act. The rewards for doing so will not only transform millions of lives but will also demonstrate that politics really can be a force for good.



Friday, 3 February 2017

Fur coat and no knickers

There are many reasons someone might Google "No Knickers" but I am mystified why such a search should end up with them visiting my blog!



The West Kent Five becomes SIX!



Over recent months I have been working closely with members of Gravesham Conservative Association on their application to join the West Kent Group, and I am delighted to confirm that at tonight's meeting of the Association's Executive Council members voted to accept terms.

The Association will formally join the West Kent Group on 1 March 2017, just in time for Gravesham's three Labour County Councillors to feel the benefit of my "special attention". I suspect they already know what is coming their way as last August I was asked to help run a by-election in the town, resulting in a Conservative gain from Labour on a 7% swing. In fact, I think it is safe to say that it was our help and support in that by-election that probably convinced the local Association of the benefits of joint working.

General Elections are won or lost in the North Kent marginal seats such as Chatham & Aylesford and Gravesham. I greatly look forward to working with some great local people in the months and years ahead as we fight to keep Adam Holloway in Parliament and keep Gravesham Council in safe Conservative hands. Roll on Thursday 4 May.

Welcome on board!


Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Don't tell them your name, Pike !






Alarm bells started ringing at West Kent Towers when the following email marked URGENT!!! pinged into my inbox. It was from a candidate in what might be considered a solid Conservative ward:.




The panic didn't last long however as 15 minutes later the original email was followed-up by:




Councillors should shape up or ship out!

Last year at one of our Associations’ Local Government Committee/Approval Meetings, a grand County Councillor arrived for his interview. He was late for his appointment as he had gone to the wrong building. He had actually turned-up at the office his Association had vacated three year’s previously when they had joined the West Kent Group, indicating that not only had he not bothered to read the letter properly inviting him for interview, but that his involvement with his Association was so insignificant that he had not noticed they had moved offices a few weeks after he was last elected.  

After the usual exchange of pleasantries, the Association’s Deputy Chairman (Political) opened the questions with,

“Cllr Bradshaw (not his real name). I have been Deputy Chairman Political for two years now. In that time we have fought two local elections, a parliamentary election and a critical by-election in a marginal seat. Could you kindly explain why this is the first time I have ever met you?”

Fast forward to another West Kent constituency several months later. Another incumbent was being challenged after the hard-working activists who run his two local branch committees had decided “enough was enough”. These two branches each meet six times a year, between them raise £3,000 per annum for Association funds and rise to every challenge set for them, fully canvassing and delivering their large patch every time they need to do so.

Their incumbent County Member had not attended a single branch meeting nor event since he was elected in 2013. When asked why, he successfully managed to alienate his selectorate even further by starting his answer with, “what you lot need to understand….” And when a popular and respected Borough Councillor asked him to list what he had done to help in a recent marginal by-election in his own patch, he replied, “Oh, I knew there would be enough of you lot running around for me not to have to bother.”  At least he had the decency not to look too surprised when the hands that fed him decided to offer the job to someone who might show them a little more courtesy and respect.

After each round of selections (run in accordance with the National Mandatory Selection Rules) there are the inevitable cries of outrage followed by demands for a review. The fact is that serving councillors already have a significant advantage, both in terms of the power and reach of incumbency and through the rules which state, “For a sitting councillor, preferential treatment will be given in their current seat.”  This preferential treatment includes the right of an incumbent to be in the final, regardless of their work record or local support.

There is an unwritten “constitutional settlement” under which Conservative members are permitted to select their candidates, who then receive their dedication, money and shoe leather. In exchange for this not unreasonable right to choose who represents them at Town or County Hall, they then allow councillors a virtual free hand in setting policy, allocating jobs, running the council and dividing the crumbs. There is a real danger that if Council leaders should try to throw around their weight and dictate who should be selected against the wishes of the membership, then it might follow that the membership might start demanding an input into council policy and who is selected for which job. Personally, I think both groups would be wise to recognise the benefit of maintaining the status quo.

At the heart of dissatisfaction appears to be a reticence (of some) councillors to engage with their local membership, support their branches and pull their weight on the doorsteps. From what I can tell, Party members appear more-or-less content to leave council/committee performance to the Group Leader and Whip. The question we must address is “are members right to expect their elected representative to support the work of the local Association and contribute to the wider goals of the Party?

At the heart of this is the Candidates’ Agreement. This forms part of the official application form, freely signed by both new and incumbent applicants. I will quote just two sections;

Councillors and Candidates must:

Play a full, active and constructive part in their local Association(s) and Branch(es) during the whole of their period of office, including campaigning, membership development, fundraising, social and political activities;

Must co-operate fully with the Party’s campaign strategy for elections, including giving mutual aid to other Conservative candidates when asked and, when themselves a candidate, complying with the requirements of the duly appointed election agent.
           
I might be mistaken, but surely someone seeking election to office with oversight of millions (and in some cases tens of millions) of public money, should surely have read the words of the agreement before putting their name to it? If not, then should they be councillors? If they did read it they can hardly be surprised when their Association and the Membership seek to ensure they do what they agreed to do when they signed that agreement in the first place?

Several Associations have introduced time-sheets with the doorstep hours of each councillor and candidate painstakingly recorded and automatic deselection for those who don’t perform. This might work in some areas, particularly London, where the average allowance with SRA is over £20,000 and where many see a victory at local government as a stepping-stone to Westminster. But in rural districts where the call to serve is a form of duty and most have no other ambition than to look after the needs of their town or village, and where the remuneration after tax can be below £35 a week, such a draconian approach would be heavy-handed and unfair.

When bemoaning the lack of campaign support from some of our elected members I will often hear, “But you are paid, Andrew, this is your job.” And to a degree that is correct. But what people often choose to forget is I am paid for 38 hours a week and seldom work fewer than 50, so for 12 hours a week I am a volunteer, too. I do this extra work without complaint as we all go that extra mile for the Party. All of us actively involved in politics make sacrifices for the cause in which we believe. We all invest our time, our money and our physical and emotional energy in helping our team win. That is why we are here.


Do those who tramp the streets, receive abuse on the doorsteps, attend meetings, raise funds and pay an annual subscription for the privilege have the right to feel aggrieved when those they elect to represent them fail to do their fair share? Yes, I believe they do!