Random reflections on being a candidate, by Graham Cox

It’s a cold, wet January day in London and I have been summonsed to the ‘war room’ in Conservative HQ. It’s my turn to meet the legendary Aussie, Lynton ‘barnacles on the boat’ Crosby, and hear my fate.
Having only been selected as the Hove Conservative candidate the previous July, we are one of the last target seats to have been polled by ‘Lynton.’

The previous October had seen the (Lord) Ashcroft ‘marginal’ poll for Hove, which suggested Labour were ahead but just about within reach. The bookies certainly had Labour firm favourites to regain the ‘bellwether’ Hove seat. With Mike Weatherley having been forced to stand down because of his battle with stage 3 oesophageal cancer we had no ‘incumbency factor’. Labour had picked a sensible, articulate candidate in Peter Kyle, with strong links to the Blairite pressure group, Progress, and it has to be said the advantage of matinee idol good looks. Anything better than the Ashcroft poll suggested we still had a chance though.

In his Aussie accent, and with just the occasional swear word, Lynton took me through the results. Labour were 6 points ahead but ‘don’t worry there is a margin of error of +/- 4% so it could be as close as 2%,’ said Lynton kindly.  It seemed two thirds of Hove residents did not want a Conservative Government, and more of them had heard of Peter than me.

Discussing the results afterwards over a coffee in St James St with my team (well me and my campaign manager) we comforted ourselves that maybe it really was ‘all to play for’. The residents of Hove might not want a Conservative majority Government, had barely heard of me, the margin of error might actually mean Labour were 10 points ahead but at least they were not keen on Ed Miliband for Prime Minister.

Fast-forward 4 months and its now 3 days before polling day. Weeks of door knocking, telephone calls, canvassing, surveying, hustings, media interviews and endless leaflet deliveries are nearly over.  Once again I have made my brilliant campaign manager crunch the numbers in our state of the art campaign tool ‘Vote Source’. Over 16,000 Hove residents have told us they will ‘definitely or probably’ vote Conservative. ‘Turn all them out on Thursday and pick up another 2000 we do not know about and, you know, we can win,’ was the optimistic verdict.

The rest, as they say, is history – not only did we turn out those 16,000 Conservative voters, we actually found another 4,800. Over 20,800 people voted for me, the highest Conservative vote in Hove since 1992. At least 2,000 more than even our most optimistic projections – and of course I lost.

Now the dust has settled, I have the time to listen to Test Match Special, and pen an article for the Brighton Politics Blog (no I am not saying who asked me) reflecting on the experience of being a candidate.

It really was huge honour to have been selected by local Conservatives to contest the Hove seat. I had been born here, lived in the area most of my life and was the last Police Commander before the old Hove Police Division was taken over by (sorry amalgamated with) Brighton.
Being a local councillor for Westbourne had its frustrations compared to policing, not least the petty bickering and inability to get things done, but helping local people find the way through the tortuous council bureaucracy was intensely satisfying. More than once it seemed to me that I was performing a role akin to a caring vicar, but without the religion (certainly not in Brighton anyway!)

I would probably have carried on doing that – electors permitting – had Mike not announced he would stand down. I knew he had been seriously ill but had always respected his decision to treat this as a private matter and had anticipated that now he was in remission that he would stand again. It was only because it was Hove that I put myself forward.

Despite the disappointment of the result I am so glad I did. Normal life ceased to exist for 9 months. Knocking on doors every day and speaking to people about politics and the issues which concern them is strange behaviour. I did not meet too many ‘errupters’, as my Green opponent, Christopher Hawtree, described those who did not welcome a visit from someone asking for their vote.

I particularly enjoyed canvassing in Portslade. The residents of Portslade and Mile Oak definitely felt that their part of the city was neglected and to some extent forgotten about compared to the more ‘fashionable’ parts of town. Maybe that is why even those who had no intention of voting for me were unfailingly polite. In Portslade I met many people who responded to my questions with something like ‘ I’m a Labour man, always have been, but thanks for calling and good luck.’
This contrasted somewhat with the response in the Victorian villas, newly gentrified terraced housing and grand flats of the latte drinking (with soya milk) areas of central Hove. More than once I nervously knocked on the (stripped pine) door of a £1million house, took in the Farrow and Ball wallpaper in the hallway, as the householder exclaimed, ‘I’m a senior manager in the Strategy Consultation, Coordination and Service Delivery Department at ‘x’ Council and I would not vote Conservative as long as I have a hole in my axxx,’ abruptly followed by a ringing slam.

The result in Hove actually fitted with similar results in parts of Metropolitan London (e.g. Hampstead) and interestingly Cambridge and Oxford. I never actually met the Liberal Democrat candidate for Hove, and am not sure he ever visited the seat from his home in Surrey. It was always obvious that the Liberal Democrat ‘vote’ would collapse here, and in contrast to the Midlands, southwest and more rural areas, in newly Metropolitan Hove this was always likely to benefit Labour more.

In fairness to Peter Kyle he fought an excellent campaign. It was no use me complaining about his targeting of the Brunswick and Adelaide and Goldsmid wards with a ‘vote Green and you get the Tories’ message – this was a sensible electoral tactic and I would have done exactly the same in his position.

Where I do take a certain amount of pride is in the effort we forced Labour to make in order to gain Hove. They had to throw huge amounts of resources – paid campaign staff, activists from across the country, volunteers and cash (and a state of the art office!) – directly at Hove. Every weekend, well according to social media anyway, they had over 50 people coming here canvassing. They carpet bombed the seat with national direct mail, they had banks of people telephone canvassing this seat specifically and on election day itself they had 100’s (one message on Facebook suggested they had 600 volunteers here) of people bussed in to knock up their voters.

Once they realised the fight we were putting up Progress, the Blairite pressure group, pretty much sent all their members to Hove to campaign from Christmas onwards.
We could never compete directly with this – nor indeed would it have been a wise use of resources by the Conservative Party nationally to have done so.

However our small but dedicated local team did get out and deliver and canvass like no other local team in a target seat. According to the Ashcroft polls we actually managed more voter contact than any other marginal seat being targeted by Labour.

As a result of this Labour were not able to redirect any resources from Hove to other target seats (which at one point I am assuming they been hoping to do). To some extent, using an analogy from my police days (military folk will know what I am on about) we were the ‘tethered goat.’ Labour had to expend so many resources fighting us that their big guns, their lions, could not go to other seats in the south they had hoped to win.

There may even be a reasonable case to claim that despite Hove providing the only gain for Labour in the southeast outside London, our small team here played a significant part in the overall Conservative victory.

That rather large crumb of comfort was not for me though the highlight of the campaign. That came in a marvellous hour I spent talking with a full class of year 6 pupils at Cottesmore School. The final question they asked certainly had me stumped – ‘Do you think Mr. Cox we should we return the Elgin Marbles to Greece?’ ‘Err, umm, yes possibly, may be not, waffle, Greek economy, err perhaps but I do not really know’ was the gist of my less than convincing answer. Sadly the question had come before the appearance of the Ed Stone.

What will I do next? To be honest I have no idea (all offers gratefully received). As well as enjoying the cricket, and picking the first winner of the Derby for 20 years under a majority Conservative Government, I am reading Steve Hilton’s book, ‘More Human’. It’s idealistic, probably unrealistic in places, but buried in his vision are coherent ideas, which all the Parties should at least consider. Decentralisation is a theme running though it, with proposals for 10,000 directly elected mayors.

Brighton and Hove, for all its famed vibrancy, has struggled for years under minority administrations that have as a result ceded too much power to the loud but small set of people who specialise in being against things. We have an opportunity to create a southern powerhouse in the Brighton City region, which can rival anything that is happening in Greater Manchester or Leeds. Steve Hilton, born in Brighton, for elected Mayor of our city region. That would be something I could campaign for.

Lord Blogger of Brighton – Support the Campaign for Elevation

There appears to be the prospect of the Greens being offered a place in the House of Lords. For many Greens it will prove to be a step too far. It is great that the Green Party has Caroline Lucas in the Commons, but does the Party really want to become so ‘establishment’ by accepting a seat in an unelected chamber?

Out of a sense of charity and concern for the well being of many Greens, I wish to offer the purists a way out of this ethical dilemma. I am willing to sell out what few principles I still retain and take, on behalf of the Greens, a seat in the House of Lords.

I have already put my name forward to Luke Walters and I am confident he will fight my corner. We have even discussed how I will be ‘fashioned’. I favour Lord Blogger of Brighton, while Luke suggests Lord Baps of Brighton Blog-o-sphere. I think that Lord Baps is a bit too down-market. I feel I sho-uld have, no, deserve, something more classy once I become superior to you plebs.

The other interesting point, who else should join me in the Lords? Should it be Lady Grizzly of Hollingdean? Lord Hawtree of Rottingdean Coastal and Every Port Beyond? Baron Buckwell of the Agent Estate? I personally think it should be Lady Kennedy of Tabbard Stassi. She could bake cup cakes for us to share on the Terrace.

Send in your suggestions for who should become one of the deserving rich, and your views on my soon-to-be Title.

Budget Masterplan shows the campaigning skills of Mary Mears

‘Clive’ had criticised me on two or three occasions for not explaining what strategic thinking is.  He feels I have been silent of the matter for too long.  I will remain silent further –  it is not my role to get inside the head of this or any other political leader.  What I can say is that the announcement today from Mary Mears has boosted the chances of her party in May’s elections and demonstrates, once again, what a competent politician she is.

The budget announcement offering a 1% cut in Council Tax has Mary Mears fingerprints all over it.  A master stroke.  Now you and I may dismiss it as a mere political gimmick, but it is a smart one.  It will give the Tories a bounce and boost Mary Mears’ standing in the Tory Party itself.  Many of the Young Turks in its rank, (Rachael Bates, Rob Buckwell, etc.) sees Council Tax cuts as the Holy Grail, and councillor Mears is delivering. (Update: When I first posted this item, I called Rob Buckwell ‘Rob Buckley’.  I have corrected this and send Rob my apologies.  I used to know an estate agent called Rob Buckley.  Can’t think how I made that mistake!).

She told me (actually, it was a press release from the Council) “We face challenging financial times and our aim has been to ensure we are as lean and effective an organisation as possible. Our new structure means we identify how best to deliver the services that residents in the city want.

“But through robust financial management we want to help residents in the financial squeeze by reducing council tax and ensuring that we deliver essential services effectively.”

There will be a debate, of course, about the redundancies that have been announced, but even here the council (or is it Mary Mears, again?) looks to have been smart.  As the council press release says: “Job losses will be minimised because the council has already started deleting empty posts and reducing use of agency staff as well as redeploying and retraining. These principles have helped reduce the risk to jobs overall.”

Clive has also commented on my alleged ‘grudge’ against Mary Mears, as suggested by ‘The truth’: “if the blogger has a huge grudge against Mary Mears, he has an odd way of showing it.”  I recently posted an item describing Mary Mears as a shrewd operator you underestimate at your peril.  Read that post here.

One final points, Christopher Hawtree bumped into me, I mean Roy Pennington earlier today.  Chris confronted me/him, as to whether he was the Brighton Politics Blogger.  “I saw Roy Pennington today and he said, chortlingly, that the most basic textual analysis would show that there is no connection between him and the Blogger.”  Phew, that was a close call.

Brighton Politics Blogger exposed in Explicit Sex Photo Shock Horror Scandal

Since the news is about to break, I have decided myself to come out and publish a photo which was just meant to be a little bit of fun. 

 I can’t tell you, however, how sexy it feels etc etc etc. 

Please do not judge me too harshly.  The truth is, I did it for you, Dear Readers.