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

Dandy!

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


How many tickets?

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
23%
31%
My interest in politics was revived following the EU referendum
47%
39%
I was concerned about the direction of the Labour Party under Corbyn
16%
9%
I voted Remain and wanted to help shape future policy
39%
27%
I voted Leave and wanted to help shape future policy
29%
31%
I wanted to vote in the Leadership election
45%
39%
I have always been Conservative and wanted to help secure future victories
43%
48%

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?

YES
NO

98%
2%

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?

YES
NO

82%
18%

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

84%
11%
3%
2%

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?

YES
NO
Received invitation
87%
13%
Attended the event
14%
86%

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
3%
81%
16%
Invitations to contribute to raffles and appeals
0%
48%
52%
Invitations to political / policy discussion groups
25%
62%
13%
Invitations to attend campaign days
11%
31%
58%
Invitations to assist with office / clerical / data work
2%
73%
25%

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

Yes
No
Undecided

63%
23%
14%
  

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. 

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Labour; hapless, hopeless and geographically confused!

Nice to see the Blackpool Labour Party are as clueless about geography as they are about policy and leadership. A local Labour Party leaflet delivered to thousands of homes in Lancashire refers to Bromsgrove, Kent, which I suspect will come as a surprise to the good people of Bromsgrove who have been happily living in Worcestershire for all these years!

Maybe they meant Bromley in Kent (even though Bromley has officially been in Greater London for 40+ years). Unsurprising that the comrades should have such a rose tinted view of the 1970s; that was the last time their brand of Socialism was taken seriously.


Hat tip to my friend Simon Renwick for the cutting!

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.