Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Faversham and Mid Kent Selection

During the Tonbridge & Malling selection in November 2013, both the Association Officers and I as the Agent received many plaudits for the open and accessible way we conducted the process. Being a "fallow" time of the electoral cycle I was able to speak to any candidate who phoned or visited, and we kept everyone informed of the process through regular updates on the Association's website, the special "Open Primary" website we launched and via this blog. It is fair to say that managing the T&M Open Primary was probably a full time job for the four preceding weeks. 
Unfortunately, with the parliamentary and local elections just 100 days away, along with a change in my working pattern (we now manage five Associations from the West Kent Office, rather than the three we looked after in November 2013) we simply do not have the time or resources available to offer the same.

For the sake of transparency I am publishing below the email I have sent to applicants seeking a meeting. As I have written in the penultimate paragraph "I am sorry if this sounds unhelpful as it is not in my nature to decline any request for help. I do hope you understand."   If I met or briefed one applicant, I would have to offer the same service to all, and I could not do so without jeopardising our campaign plans and placing an unfair burden on my already-overworked colleagues. 

I hope all applicants will understand, whilst accepting my assurance that I will work closely with the Association Chairman and officers to ensure the process is open and transparent and, of course, I will keep all applicants informed of developments promptly and courteously throughout.
Thank you for your email and for your interest in Faversham & Mid Kent. However I must - with regret - decline your request for a personal briefing or meeting. Please allow me to explain why.

During the Tonbridge & Malling selection in 2013 we made a decision to be open and accessible to all potential applicants. I happily briefed any who phoned and had a prepared script to ensure all callers received the same information and detail. I also prepared a written briefing paper which was sent to all applicants, and I spent time with any applicant who requested a face to face meeting. Our openness throughout the process was commended by CCHQ and the applicants alike, and I take some pride that our guide on how to run an Open Primary has been used throughout the country. 

Since then my role has changed and expanded. The West Kent Group now covers five constituencies and, unlike the T&M selection in November 2013, we are now just weeks away from the election.  We have 5 parliamentary campaigns and 180 district council campaigns to manage as well as the routine business of managing five large and active Associations.  Our small team (me plus our Office Manager and a p/t intern) are already working 10 hours per day to manage the campaigns and meet print and design deadlines.  If I were to brief one applicant I would be honour-bound to offer the same service to all, and I am afraid that I simply do not have the time to do so. By way of example, I have already received over 60 calls and emails from candidates requesting meetings or briefing by phone. Half an hour spent with each would equate to almost a week of working time.
I can inform you that CCHQ will be advertising the vacancy on Wednesday (28th January 2015) and I understand the deadline for receipt of applications will be 9th February, with a target to complete the selection at a General Meeting of members by the end of February. The precise date and process subject to approval by the Association's Executive Council. 

I am sorry if this sounds unhelpful as it is not in my nature to decline any request for help. I do hope you understand.

Good luck with your application and I hope to meet you during the process.
With best wishes


Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Congratulations to Tom, Chris, Victoria - and now Ed Argar too!

I am delighted to have just read that Edward Argar has just been selected for Charnwood. This means that the four outstanding candidates who were in the Tonbridge & Malling Open Primary have all won selection in Conservative-held seats. 

As well as Ed in Charnwood, Chris Philp was selected for Croydon South, Victoria Atkins in Louth and Horncastle and, of course, Tom in Tonbridge & Malling. 

I have just dug out the photo of all four together, just before our Open Primary. I have always thought we were fortunate in Tonbridge & Malling to have had such a first class group to choose from. I blogged at the time, "any would have made an outstanding candidate, and I have no doubt that one day they all will." 

Next stop Faversham & Mid Kent - I believe the vacancy will be formally advertised tomorrow! 

Landing on a doormat near you...

Here are our Introduction Cards / Calling Cards which our local and parliamentary candidates will be handing-over on the doorsteps whilst canvassing the voters of West Kent between now and 7 May. The first batch arrived yesterday and are already landing on the doormats. 

Here is the Tonbridge and Malling verion:


And here is the Chatham & Aylesford version:


The odour of Odd Job

Westbourne Communications have published a very interesting and detailed booklet highlighting the likely winners and losers at the next election, along with a short profile about "the ones to watch", including this very interesting piece on Tom Tugendhat

If Tom has the "whiff of James Bond" do I have the "odour of Odd Job?"

Anyway, for the geeks and insomniacs, here is a link to download the publication. 

The Next Generation

Saturday, 24 January 2015


Amused to pop into my Rochester local this afternoon and see these beer mats scattered around the bar!

Perhaps we are to blame for so many good people leaving Parliament

Another skilled and able MP, Mark Hoban (aged 50), has just announced his retirement at the coming election. Many others of a similar age are also leaving Parliament this year including David Willetts (58), Andrew Lansley (58), William Hague (53), Sir Hugh Robertson (52) and Greg Barker (48). 

I have no doubt that the parliamentary party and politics in general will survive the loss of such talent, and there will be plenty of eager newcomers keen to replace them. But as a nation we need to ask why politics is failing to retain such skilled and capable people. 

As I campaign across West Kent (or answer the phone to yet another "disgusted" voter ranting about that morning's Daily Express headline) I ask myself why anyone would wish to be an MP?

There was a time Members of Parliament were legislators, sent to Westminster to review new laws, hold the Executive to account and ensure the views of their constituents were taken into consideration during the parliamentary process. 

Then something changed. 

I am not sure why or when, but MPs suddenly became social workers and local celebrities and the public's view of them perhaps changed too.  

We now demand that our MP spend their weekends opening dog shows, drawing raffle tickets and cutting ribbons. We bombard them with impersonal lobby correspondence; thousands of people entering their postcode and clicking "send" resulting in angry 'personal' emails demanding their MP speaks out in favour of newts, supports legislation to reduce fuel poverty, oppose shale gas, demand new military intervention on "humanitarian" grounds... whilst opposing war... whilst always..."something must be done"

One MP I know recently told me they had responded to 20,000 (twenty thousand!) letters or emails in the last five years. With these new demands come the need for bigger offices and more staff. With bigger offices and more staff come more angry letters complaining about the cost of bigger offices and more staff. Gone forever are the days when Enoch Powell used to send a hand-written response to every letter, written from a shared desk in the Commons library. 

We treat our MPs as many now treat the A&E Department of their local hospital - the easiest option rather than a point of emergency. We bombard them with correspondence then complain at how much they spend on employing staff to respond to the demands we have created. We expect them to run in three-legged races or dress-up for charity, shake collection buckets whilst accusing them of being "out of touch" if they decline, then complain that "we never see you in Parliament". And we demand "better quality Parliamentarians" whilst paying the ones we have 30% of what most could earn in the private sector.  

Rather than complaining, sneering and attacking, we should be grateful that so many people (of all parties) are prepared to put up with it in the name of public service. 

But if we wonder why so many decent people are leaving parliament too soon - we should perhaps consider the words of William Thackeray,

"The world is a looking-glass, and gives back to
every man the reflection of his own face."

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The slippery slope

Earlier this week I found myself with the telephone in my hand and the ringing tone in my ear. A lady with a stern voice answered. As she did so I realised I had no idea who she was or why I had called her.  As she gave her number I scanned my desk for clues - nothing. 

"Hello, I am dreadfully sorry, but would you mind telling me who you are?" I asked, feebly.

"Surely you know who I am, you called me!" she replied, sounding much more assertive than me. 

"Yes, I know - but I have dialled your number and hit a mental blank. I cannot remember who I called and I do not recognise your voice. Would you tell me your name in the hope that it jogs my memory?"

"Certainly not, why should I give you my name?"  She said, not unreasonably. "Why don't you tell me your name and the nature of your business and I will tell you if I know you."

By this time I had a vision in my mind's eye of a formidable woman not unlike Mrs Richards from Fawlty Towers.

"I'm Andrew Kennedy, from the Conservative Party in West Kent."


I repeated it, with a growing sense of foreboding that this wasn't going to end well. 

"I have never heard of you and I don't think we have anything in common. And if you phone people you don't know and fail to remember who you called or what you wanted to say, then no wonder you didn't win the last election. Goodbye"


And that was the end of it. 

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Here's a toast to Steve Hammond and hundreds like him - they are our true local champions

Regular readers will know that I am passionate about searching far and wide to attract new candidates and activists. In recent years we have probably done more than any other Conservative Association to reach beyond the confines of our paid membership to identify and develop a new generation of candidates, including full page adverts in the local press, mailshots to charities, voluntary groups and community leaders, open days, seminars and street stalls. 

See HERE and HERE and HERE for some background on our past endeavours. 

It's been hard work; probably half of those who make contact decide public service in local government is not for them. A lot of time and energy has been invested (though not wasted) speaking to new applicants and arranging for them to attend our regular New Candidate Seminars, to hear about the role, meet local council leaders and be allocated an incumbent councillor "buddy" who they shadow to learn more. There have been times when all ten attendees have dropped out before interview, which is frustrating but better than them dropping out just before nomination day.

The upshot of this activity however has been the recruitment of a pool of perhaps 30 potential new candidates who have been available to fill natural vacancies, but perhaps more importantly to give our various Local Government Committees the confidence to challenge non-performing councillors or encourage retirement for those who offer to do "one more term if no-one else can be found".

One man who is standing for the first time is a perfect example of the type of community activist who would never have come forward under the traditional way of selection.  His name is Steve Hammond and he is our new candidate in Aylesford South ward.  Steve has been helping and supporting our councillors with their newsletter delivery for 5 years but never thought about standing himself. He told me recently that he thought councillors had to be "political animals" and didn't think he had the qualifications to stand. Thanks to the open, friendly and accessible nature of Chatham & Aylesford and with the enthusiastic encouragement of Tracey Crouch MP, Steve is now on board and has taken to campaigning like the community champion he is. 

By co-incidence Steve's life story was featured in this months edition of the Royal British Legion Magazine (he lives on an estate for ex-services personnel in Aylesford's RBL Village).  Like so many in his position Steve has never bragged nor boasted about his service, all I knew was he was a former soldier. Before joining the British Army he was a professional footballer. He joined the Welsh Guards, served in Northern Ireland and in the Falklands on board the troop ship Sir Galahad when it was hit by an Argentinean Skyhawk missile, which killed 56 of his colleagues and injured a further 150, including him.   You can read his moving and courageous story HERE or below.

Steve might not be a professional politician, but he has more experience than most and I have no doubt will bring compassion, understanding and dedication if elected, which I am sure he will be. Here's a toast to Steve Hammond and hundreds like him who have so much to offer, but are too seldom asked. 

Sunday, 18 January 2015

From Finding Nemo to Matthew Plummer's Beauty Dish

Saturday was a perfect microcosm of the life of a Conservative Party Agent, with a mix of internal bureaucracy, training & development and campaigning, finishing off with dinner with Kent Area Chairman, Andrew Mackness. 

I was up 7am and out by 8am for long drive across the beautiful Weald to officiate at two contested LG selections in Cranbrook area. Both were being held at The Weald Sports Centre in the only room they had available for us -  the creche. It was probably the best attended LG Selection Meeting I have been to for a long time with around 65% of eligible members participating. I was however somewhat strange to see members sitting on Thomas the Tank Engine shairs whilst applicants delivered their well-rehearsed speeches in front of life size cut-outs of Elsa, Anna and Olaf with the blue shark from Finding Nemo hoving into view from stage right. 

All four applicants for the two available seats were outstanding and I look forward to working with Cllr Linda Hall and James Hannam as we head to Thursday 7 May. 

Big turnout to select two Local Government Candidates at The Weald Sports Centre

Next up was Tunbridge Wells where I was co-hosting the Candidates' and Campaign Managers' Election Briefing with Greg Clark MP, TW Council Leader David Jukes and Association Chairman William Rutherford.

The charming Matthew Plummer had come to take the photographs. As he was setting-up his studio alongside the buffet I noticed him unpack a strange piece of equipment. "What's that?" I enquired.  He told me it was a "beauty dish" (I kid you not). Apparently it absorbs excessive light from the flash thus "ironing-out" wrinkles and blemishes and making the subject look better. I did wonder if he should have brought a larger one.

Matthew Plummer Matthew Plummer shows off his large Beauty Dish
Tunbridge Wells is a great Association, still buoyed by last years excellent election results which uniquely in the South East showed UKIP in decline and the Conservatives increasing both vote share and making a net gain of council seats. It was a lively and positive meeting and we have a great team of candidates and organisers. 

Across West Kent we had campaign teams working in Tonbridge, Maidstone and Chatham & Aylesford- in total 30 activiists of the doorsteps on a cold but sunny January Saturday. Here is Tracey Crouch MP and our local candidates Benjamin Walker and Carol Gale working hard in Ditton.

Tracey Crouch MP and the team campaigning in Ditton

Friday, 16 January 2015

The journey of Tory leaflet - from concept to design and production.

Ask anyone who helps organise an election campaign what single issue causes them most stress, and I suspect they will all give the same answer - candidates who don't meet their deadlines!

Rather than just ranting and moaning (which I have done previously) I thought it was worth spending a few minutes explaining why deadlines are so important and the consequences when we fail to meet them. I hope by publishing this, the errant minority who are almost always late will understand not just what I get snippy and short-tempered, but the consequences for the printer, the wider campaign and their colleagues.

In most of West Kent we take a collegiate approach to campaigning. We don't just have local or parliamentary leaflets; almost everything is shared - with 50% MP/national copy and 50% local council copy. This approach is much more difficult to manage, but it shows us working as a team, it shares production costs between the local and parliamentary campaign budgets and makes literature more diverse and interesting to read. What's more, to make every leaflet relevant, we produce many ward-specific editions. Our latest newsletter which went to print today has 45,000 identical backs but the front page changes 22 times, so each ward had their own local news written by the ward councillor(s).

When we decide to publish a newsletter an awful lot of activity occurs behind the scenes to make it happen. The first stage is I speak to the printer and discuss timescales and capacity. Printing 45,000 leaflets with 22 changes to the front is a significant job, probably taking the best part of two days in production. The printer has to block two days of his factory time for the work (the leaflets have one side printed one day, the reverse the next day, then they are folded, packed and delivered on day 3). No printer with wages and establishment costs to pay can leave his presses idle, so he will have other jobs booked on the days either side of ours. We are fortunate in West Kent to  have a printer who is politically supportive, gives us a substantial discount and is more accommodating and flexible than he needs to be; but he still needs to pay his costs and make a living.

More often than not print buyers demand financial penalties for late delivery; so our printer may well lose significant sums of money if he is late delivering the job due to be printed the day after ours. If he is forced to delay due to us being late providing our artwork he will have two choices. Either (a) pass the late charges to us, as we were responsible for making him run behind schedule, or (b) put our print run back to his next available slot (which might be weeks away). Neither outcome is acceptable. 

There is another issue which many candidates often don't realise. It is standard practise to print leaflets "two-up" or "four-up" depending on size. For example, if four wards need the same number of leaflets (say 3,000) all four will be printed at the same time on the same printing plate, then guillotined and trimmed after production. This saves time and money for us and the printer. If just one of those four wards is late, the other three are also delayed as the print run cannot start until all four sets of artwork are ready to go. Late delivery of artwork not only causes delay and inconvenience to the office, potential delays and financial penalties for the printer but can also cause delays for your colleagues. 

As we approach an election I always publish (usually six months ahead) the literature plan. This informs everyone involved what will be produced, when we will need copy, in what format I would like the copy provided, the deadline for receipt of copy, the purpose of the leaflet, target audience and delivery completion deadline.  Here is an example:

This information is provided for each leaflet, mailshot and project up to polling day. Everyone involved knows what is happening and by when. The deadlines for this week's leaflet were known on 18 December. Plenty of time (even with Christmas) to write 5 short news stories. 

One of the things I hear often hear is "oh I know you always have a few spare days up your sleeve". And the answer to that is yes, we have - but every hour of those "spare" days is needed to turn your words and jpgs into professionally designed newsletters (Jon and I do all this in-house to save graphic design charges). 

Technically, if everyone followed the instructions we would receive 23 emails (one from each ward containing their words and jpgs and another from the MP). In reality, this never happens. Candidates send through their stories and photographs in dribs and drabs. Candidates fall out over each others words - often Jon and I are "piggies in the middle" as candidates send us "private and confidential" emails complaining bitterly about what their ward colleagues have said, done or written. Photographs are a particular bone of contention. Four years ago an incumbent councillor actually ended-up phoning the 10 Downing Street switchboard to complain that she didn't like her election photo and demanding the PM intervenes.  The photograph she wanted me to use showed her standing in front of a grandfather clock with the hands poking out the top of her head like the horns of the devil. I shall say no more.

What candidates often don't realise is just what happens from the moment their words and photographs arrive by email to when they receive their proof 48 hours later. Around 50%  of copy has to be converted into a print format which is compatible with Publisher. To protect our candidates from opposition attacks, all facts are checked and independently verified.  Photographs are scanned and studied, if there are group photos inadvertently showing children or car number plates we airbrush them out to ensure the photographs are legally compliant. "Exit" and "way out" signs are removed to save candidates being embarrassed or ridiculed.  We also remove trees and lampposts poking out of heads, surly youths making rude hand gestures and in one case we removed a large dog squatting "mid poo" just behind a candidate in a Tonbridge park  All this done without most candidates even noticing. 

Each version of the leaflet takes between one and two hours to produce. With 22 versions that is probably 30 hours work. Then we send them back for proofing. Many candidates think proofing is an opportunity to rewrite the whole thing, not just correct errors. For this leaflet Jon and I dealt with over 400 email exchanges (an average of twenty email exchanges per ward). If you think this is a lot, multiply it by three as this week we also produced similar newsletters for Chatham & Aylesford and Maidstone.

Finally, by 4pm today they had all gone to print. Across the three constituencies almost 50 different editions and 150,000 copies all designed, proofed and dispatched in five days.  The process is physically and emotionally exhausting.  Physically exhausting as Jon and I have done nothing else - 10 hours a day staring at our screens, airbrushing, rewriting, editing, adjusting and designing. Emotionally exhausting as every few hours we deal with an upset or angry candidate demanding something is changed. Sometimes we snap back. At the end of the day we are all human and tempers fray, especially when people are stressed or tired.  Tonight we went to the pub to celebrate a job well done, but we were so tired we sat in silence staring dead-eyed into our pints. 

Next week's job? 100,000 Sorry You Were Out cards !