Friday, 18 April 2014

"She'll attend the Opening of an Envelope if there's a free drink"

We hosted a reception yesterday for West Kent's finest envelope packers. 

They came from the four corners of the county, brandishing their paper cuts as a warrior would bear his battle scars. The event was an Open Day for our army of packers (or stuffers if you are from Chatham and Aylesford) - the unsung heroes of ten thousand mail shots.
Lady Birch (second left), who would allegedly attend the opening of an envelope if there was a free drink, kindly brought along her Maid, Gardener and Cook
The face than lunched a thousand chips - the Doyenne of the Ladies Lunch Club,
Trish Robinson, with Plate Carrier and Washer-up In Chief, Dr Tony Robinson
Director of Paper Clips, Jon Botten, with Queen of the Raffle, Janet Sergison

Maidstone and Faversham & Mid Kent's finest
(just Norah Batty short of a sitcom)
West Kent Oberleutnant (far left) with a delegation from SAGA holidays,
who wandered in by accident.

Jon Botten finds Basil Hallward's portrait, which he had hidden in the attic 80 years ago

Thelma, Lady Liptrap of Sherwood, added a touch
of Tunbridge Wells glamour

Consent to Nomination; the mystery deepens

Three days ago I reproduced, in good faith, an email I had received from a local Returning Officer. I did so to warn other agents and candidates of a potential issue with the Candidates' Consent to Nomination Form. One of my ROs had emailed me to inform me that the Electoral Commission had omitted the box for the witness to date their signature, and it was required for this date to show.  The email continued, 

"If you can confirm that the witness did sign the nomination paper the same day as the candidate did could you please mark this date on the nomination paper next to the witness signature. I thought I would let you know this before you came just in case you had to chase to do this before you came in." 

Fortunately in this particular council area every candidate had signed their forms in my presence, so I was able to assure the RO that the witness signature was correct. I was concerned, however, that if I had been unable to verify this (as would be the case in many constituencies) there could be a great deal of inconvenience with candidates being asked to sign the form again. Indeed, had candidates gone away for Easter, it was not inconceivable that they might not be around until after close of nominations, with particularly catastrophic affect. 

Subsequently, the Electoral Commission have published  the following statement (which I am happy to produce in full)

There is no requirement in law for the consent to include a date alongside the witness signature. The form is prescribed in law and the form provided in the election rules does not include an option for the witness to date their signature. However, the prescribed form, just like the form we have produced, clearly asks the witness to state that the candidate has signed the form in their presence. This is accomplished by the witness signing the form. The signature and details of the witness are sufficient for the consent to meet the legal requirements.

As a blogger, with a not insubstantial readership, I feel a duty to be honest and to acknowledge and correct any errors, howsoever caused. I am therefore not only happy to publish this correction but also apologise for any concern my original post may have caused. With hindsight I should have perhaps challenged my ROs ruling or checked the necessary legislation prior to blogging. A lesson I will learn for the future. 

Notwithstanding the above, I must still ask why this advice was issued. Was it, 

(a) Human error on the part of my local RO? After all, everyone can make mistakes - especially when under pressure.  Or,

(b) My local RO adding an additional level of bureaucracy not required by legislation. Or,

(c) Perhaps the council were advised incorrectly (either by a local compliance officer or someone else) and that advice was retrospectively rescinded. 

I deal with six ROs and find them all helpful, accessible and dedicated. Along with the agents representing all other parties, I have no complaints with the service we receive. However, informing an election agent / candidate that candidates might need to re-sign paperwork submitted in good faith could well have caused a great deal of anguish and inconvenience. 

I have written to the RO concerned and asked for further clarification about the events leading to this advice being issued. I am not going to publish the correspondence or name the Council as to do so would simply cause ill-feeling, though I will probably publish the outcome of my enquiries for the sake of bringing the issue to closure.  

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Yes, I am a bit stressed. here's why...

One of the things members often say when they phone is, "Oh, you sound a bit stressed..."

There's a good reason for that. I often am.  And here's an example why.

We are now on the cusp on local government nominations. Two weeks ago I spent a whole morning briefing and training candidates, in detail, about how to complete their nomination papers. In fact, 70% of the paperwork was completed there and then, with me going through line by line, advising them what to write. All they had to do was get the requisite ten signatures (for which I gave them an electoral register to check they were registered voters). 


As usual, with no names mentioned...

Candidate One managed to submit a paper with seven of the ten signatures invalid. When I asked why so many non-residents had signed his paper he replied, "I took it around my local pub".  But two thirds of them don't live in your ward....  "well, that might be the case, but they were in my ward when they signed the paper..." 

Candidate Two managed to ask a Thai lady, who is not even a UK citizen, let alone a registered voter, to sign her paper. Strangely, however, despite not being registered she had a roll number alongside her name (although the number didn't exist). When I asked where the roll number came from, the candidate replied, "Oh I couldn't find her, so I added her to the end of the list and made-up a number for her." 

Candidate Three: Not a single roll number matched the ones on the register, though fortunately everyone lived in the ward. Apparently, the candidate couldn't find the electoral roll I had given him four days earlier, so used last year's.  "Does it really matter?" he asked.  

Candidate Four: Now this is a first. This candidate got "somewhat confused" over the paperwork and entered me as the candidate and him as the election agent. When I pointed out the error, he asked, "Oh that's OK - would you like to stand instead?"

Candidate Five: This candidate couldn't find a tenth signatory, so signed the form himself. 

SO, if you are a branch Chairman and phone the office during an election (when we have 50 candidates to look after) and ask me to print your luncheon tickets (which you have known about for months), or ask if we can photocopy 20 copies of your 200 Club accounts and post them to you (when it would be cheaper and quicker to run them off on your own printer) or even phone, demand to speak to me, then ask me to look-up a councillor's phone number (when you could have found it yourself on the council website), please don't be surprised if I sound "stressed". 

Andrew x

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Oh dear - this is what happens when you create layers of unnecessary bureaucracy...

Just received this from one of my local Returning Officers

As it happens, all of my candidates complete their forms in my presence, so I am able to confirm with absolute certainty that the witnesses did actually witness the candidate complete the form and sign, as required by law. Just imagine, however, if an Agent or Association officer had given each candidate their forms with a return date - and was unable to make such a declaration. Or even worse, if a candidate, having handed in their forms in good faith, went on holiday (as many have done over Easter) and were not back in the UK until after nomination day. Would that candidate be disqualified due to the Electoral Commission's error? 

Monday, 14 April 2014

Campaign? Oh God no - who'd want to do a thing like that ?

I am a great fan of Party Conference and encourage as many people as possible to attend. I am pleased that most who attend on my recommendation usually return in future years. This year I have signed-off over 50 applications for members from Kent - which I think is a record (at least in recent years).

Earlier today, however, I took a phone call from a  young chap whose name I recognised, but whom I have never met. He is not a member, at least locally. He paid a few years ago but has not responded to membership reminders since.

He wanted to attend conference and was hoping I would countersign his form. The form in question requires me to sign a statement that "I have personally known this person for a minimum of six months".  Unfortunately, in his case I couldn't even say that I had known him for six minutes. And whilst I wanted to be helpful, given this form is part of the Special Branch / Police security process, I was not prepared to lie. Nor, in fairness, did he ask me to (though he did say the person who had signed his form last year had never met him - which does cause me concern!)

I suggested his local councillor or branch chairman / organiser could be asked to sign. He didn't know who that was - he had never met them. How about your Association Chairman or another Association Officer. That was no good either - he had never attended a meeting. How about the person who organised the last campaign event you attended. He sounded somewhat bemused by this! Apparently, he had never gone out campaigning - he was far too busy to do such a thing (though clearly not too busy to attend Party Conference on the discounted Party Members' ticket!). When I pointed this out to him he seemed surprised that people actually "do that sort of thing". Quite!

After five minutes of going around in circles, I simply ran out of ideas, and suggested he should contact Fingerprint Events for advice. I am sure he isn't the first completely inactive activist  to have this issue.  

"If you ask me it's a stupid system with dumb rules" he said. "Well, maybe if you'd like to come out and help with the local elections I will have the chance to meet you, and then next year I will be able to sign your form", I offered, more in hope than expectation.   "Oh God no - who'd want to do anything like that."  

Tom Tugendhat launches West Kent Phone Bank

We were pleased to welcome Tonbridge, Edenbridge & Malling's new Parliamentary candidate, Tom Tugendhat, to the West Kent Campaign HQ today to officially launch the Phone Bank. 

Tom Tugendhat (seated centre) with (from left) Brenni Wilson, Elizabeth Thomas, Allan Sullivan, John Wilson, Jon Botten and Bill Hills). 

We had all ten lines in use and made over 200 voter contacts in just over an hour! 

Candidates have each reserved two or three evenings on the Phone Bank between now and the 22 May elections. A tremendous campaign asset for our local candidates!

My busman's holiday in a draughty Rochester attic

Sunday was a Busman's Holiday. I spent a day as a volunteer - for my local Conservative Association!

In fairness, my day job extends into most evenings and weekends, and as a consequence I have little time to help the Rochester and Strood Constituency Conservative Association, where I live and where I pay my membership subscription.   I was therefore pleased to accept an invitation from their Executive Council to be one of a five-strong panel charged with interviewing and approving incumbent councillors seeking re-election for May 2015. 

As I have previously blogged, I am a strong supporter of the Mandatory Selection Guidelines, which give real power to Associations to control their Approved List and ensures local branches, where properly constituted, have the right to select their candidates. Associations and branches must have a sanction against non-performing councillors, and ensuring all incumbents are interviewed and assessed against agreed Key Performance Indicators is a marked improvement on the old system of nods and winks.  

Rochester and Strood is one of the South East's most politically astute Associations, and the performance standards agreed by the Executive Council were appropriately rigorous. Each incumbent was interviewed and assessed against five performance indicators:

(a) Motivation and experience
(b) Council record and achievements
(c) Campaigning and communication skills
(d) Community involvement
(e) Branch development and supporting the Association's wider goals

To be re-approved, each incumbent had to attain a certain score and pass each of the five KPIs. It was a tough process, and I am sure I was not alone in feeling a degree of sadness when I found myself giving a low mark which I suspected might contribute to an incumbents removal from the Approved List, but we all had a duty to be honest. 

Many might say that such a demanding process might be unduly harsh and would deter people from being councillors, but it appears the reverse is true. The day previously (Saturday) a different selection panel had interviewed new applicants, and amazingly fourteen new prospective candidates were added to the Approved List.  As a consequence, there are probably three applicants chasing each vacancy. How many Associations (outside London) could claim such political activism? How many associations would love the opportunity for open and fair competition? It is to Rochester and Strood's credit that they have such a politically active and motivated Association. 

It was a long day - we started at 9.30am and finished at 5pm; but it was worth it. I was asked by the Association Chairman to say a few words at the start of the meeting, and this is what I said,

"Local participatory democracy is a tripartite process. It is right that the Conservative Association controls the quality of people who are on the Approved List. It is right that local branches, where qualified to do so, choose the best people from that list to be their local candidates. And it is right that ultimately the voters elect the person they want to represent them in the Council Chamber. The right to select candidates goes to the heart of why people join political parties; and today's meeting is one of the most important any of us could attend at Association level. By ensuring we have the best possible pool of talent available we ultimately ensure the best possible Conservative councillors are elected."
Many Associations could learn a thing or two from Rochester and Strood's example. 

Sunday, 13 April 2014

The weird and wonderful life of a political agent #125

My week on a page:

Sunday: up at 7am for a full day interviewing and assessing candidates.
Monday: breakfast with a leading member of Kent's Greek Cypriot community followed by the launch of the West Kent Phone Bank.
Tuesday: Lunch with a Silicon Valley millionaire in Soho
Wednesday: West Kent Open Day - how many of the 200 invited will come, and will they all come at once? Also, packing 4,000 Voter ID surveys and handing in two sets of LG nomination papers.
Thursday: meetings with Council leaders re manifesto. Meeting in Westminster re implementation of Individual Voter Registration.
Friday: day off!

Friday, 11 April 2014

Our three final intern applicants made me proud to be a Conservative

Much of today was spent with Tom Tugendhat preparing our questions then interviewing three truly outstanding intern applicants.

The full time paid internship is to work as part of the West Kent Campaign Team, but seconded to Tom Tugendhat's parliamentary campaign. Tom has raised the money to cover the salary, but any spare time will be used to assist with the general running of the West Kent HQ. Jon and I  are looking forward to a new member of the team, bringing new ideas and fresh thinking.

All three final applicants would have been outstanding, and each would have brought different qualities to the job. In fact, we had a to have quite a long discussion over the balance of the strengths we were looking for, to enable us to reach a decision. It was a hard choice.

One of the areas we decided to test was each applicant's ability to cope with hostile questions, and in particular how they would cope defending a party line if it conflicted with their own views; something they will need to deal with on the campaign trail.  We chose equal marriage as the potential point of conflict. Tom asked, "I am a Roman Catholic and many people of faith strongly object to the redefinition of marriage they believe it is wrong and find it offensive. Don't you agree? "

It was tough question. At the Open Primary  all four finalists confirmed their support for equal marriage, but the applicants weren't to know that.  Would they say what they they thought their potential employer wanted to hear? Would they defend the government's policy?  Or would they try to find words to avoid answering the question?

I need not have worried. All three stated unambiguously that they supported equality and social justice, two even telling Tom that they thought he was wrong. All three were fearless, principled and clearly determined to stand up for what the believed to be right, even when the thought the guy offering them a job may hold a different view. They should all be proud of their courage and principles, I am not sure if a 23 year old Andrew Kennedy would have demonstrated such tenacity and clarity of thought.

So the process is over, and Tom will be contacting all three applicants tomorrow to thank them for their efforts and congratulate the successful applicant. All of them indicated that they read this blog, so I wanted to add my personal thanks for the interest shown; not just the three we invited for interview, but to all applicants who responded to our advert. We really were spoilt for choice. But to the three who attended our interview today; you were all outstanding and I would have been personally delighted to work with any of you. Thank you!

Ringing the changes!

If any readers from outside West Kent would like to come and help, they would be most welcome!

I have deleted the dates and wards for obvious reasons, but do get in touch to offer assistance. FREE PIZZA!