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.

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!