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.

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Craig Turton: sadness at his resignation as a councillor due to health problems

It was with great sadness that I heard this evening that councillor Craig Turton has been forced to sign his council seat due to ill health. Councillor Turton has been one third of the most formidable team of Labour ward councillors, serving the East Brighton ward with colleagues Gill Mitchell and Warren Morgan.

In a statement, Craig said: “It has been a privilege to have represented the East Brighton ward since 2003 and to have served the people of the Bristol Estate, Craven Vale, Kemp Town, Manor Farm and Whitehawk alongside my dedicated Labour colleagues, Councillors Gill Mitchell and Warren Morgan.

“I have been particularly proud to have served as the chair of the Royal Sussex County Hospital Liaison Group and to have played a part in working with the trust and local residents to see the 3Ts planning application approved.

“I would like to thank all my colleagues, officers at the council, but most importantly the residents of my ward for their continued support during this difficult time.”

Of course it is tragic that any councillor has to stand down in such circumstances, and I am sure all readers will join with me in wishing Craig all the best for the future and hopefully a return to full health.

For Labour, the by-election that will follow Craig’s resignation is the one silver lining on an otherwise cloudy horizon. Labour will comfortably hold the seat. This is down to three factors:

1. Craig’s personal popularity and the circumstances leading to the by-election.

2. The excellent reputation of the other ward councillors in East Brighton.

3. Where we are in the political cycle. Labour is best placed to capitalise on the mid-term unpopularity of the Coalition government and the Green city council.

Few will have much appetite for this by-election so turn out is likely to be low.
Hopefully Labour will select a candidate who will add quality to the Labour Group, as Graham Cox has done for the Tories. The Labour Group is not blessed by an abundance of talent. It needs to select a candidate who can do justice to Craig’s legacy and who can make an impact on the Council.

But this evening, our thoughts and best wishes should be with Craig, a well respected and popular councillor across the Council Chamber.

Dissenting voices should be welcomed by all parties

Politics, and party politics in particular, has a way to go to recover from the depths in terms of public credibility. Estate agents have been more trusted than politicians. I am not talking about expenses. I always thought that apart from excesses regarding duck ponds and moats, the debate about expenses was unfortunate. Elected politicians should be well paid and well resourced, equally so their support staff. Who would want to see Momma Grizzly having to seek out a second part time job down at Asda because she struggles to get by on the salary of a diary secretary for a Member of Parliament?

What has damaged politics is the party political system that favours party loyalists well above independent thinkers or those with experience beyond the political world. Too may special advisers, with no experience of the real world, get elected. The certain ending of political enhancement is to speak, let alone vote, with ones conscience.

This is particularly true in Westminster, but not unknown locally. Labour has a very sad record of stifling talent because it was ‘off message’. I am told that probably the brightest of all Labour councillors was Richard Stanton, a brilliant economist with a grasp of local government finance second to none, including council officers. He was kicked off the Council for his campaigning against the Poll Tax (as well as to settle a few scores for his support for the Troops Out of Ireland Movement).

More recently the likes of Joyce Edmond-Smith, Francis Tonks and Jack Hazelgrove found themselves at odds with the party establishment. How Labour would benefit from their likes again.

But all is not lost for Labour. Far from it. They have, in the wings, a number of excellent activists who have an element of independence of thought yet committed to the Party’s cause. To be successful in the local elections in 2015 the Labour Party will need to reach out well beyond its ranks and engage with those not yet supporters and, possibly more importantly, those who were once supporters, members and even activists.

The Green Party has achieved that over the past decade, attracting a broad base, from community activists (may I mention library campaigners?), LGBT campaigners, to traditional environmentalist types. It can cate unlikely bed-follows, if you pardon the expression, with the likes of Phelim MacCafferty and Christina Summers standing together, noted, under the same banner. Which is why I think the ‘process’ started against councillor Summers is ill-judged.  There is little the public likes less is the appearance of internal party divisions and the suppression of independent thought amongst elected representation.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives have created an eclectic group of councillors, from Tory-grandee types like Geoffrey Theobald to street fighters represented by Graham Cox. It is an uneasy coalition, one that ultimately could split. Indeed, where Labour has had the foresight to create a single district party, the Tories remain divided between the Hove and Brighton Pavilion association on the one had and the Kemptown association on the other.
But where the Conservatives appear weak is the damning of each and everything that the Greens say. Their opposition, and the of their MP’s , to everything the Green Administration does, weakens them since, frankly, I am bored of the press releases put out in the name of Mike Weatherley by Momma Grizzly and the other Bright Young Things between their shifts at Asda.

Some Labour activists fall into this trap as well. I would rather hear positive stories from Labour about their plans and policies. I have enough independence of thought to make my mind up about how the Green Administration is doing. Perhaps Labour could produce and widely consult on a range of policies that could form the basis of its 2015 manifesto. But if it is to do that, it must be more than lip-service, and party officers should not be looking for approval from their masters in Westminster.

The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round

What are you doing, Brighton? Since I last commented on the affairs of this fair city the wheels on the bus no longer seem to be going round and round, but seem to have fallen off.

In the space of 3 months the Dear Leader, Bill Randall, has been replaced by the Son of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-Kitcat, or Jason as he prefers to be known. Well, that had been anticipated for many months, so no shock there. But from a tier of 5 senior officers (a chief executive and 4 Super Directors) three are moving on to pastures new.

In September chief executive, John Barradell, is moving to take up a similar position in the Corporation of the City of London, Charlie Stewart is to become the chief executive of Stoke-on-Trent City Council, and David Murray is heading off to, actually I have no idea where.  In the case of Biker Dave, it was a bit of a pantomime, a matter of “is he going? Yes he is. Oh no he isn’t, he’s going to become interim chief executive! Oh no he’s not! Oh yes he is!” etc.

In fact Finance Director, Catherine Vaughan, who has never before enjoyed such high prestige (by which I mean featuring in this esteemed blog), has been recommended to act up …. as interim chief executive. Catherine is highly respected, and is said to have a good working relationship with Jason Kitcat from his time as Finance Chief. They will need to work well together because the next year could be brutal as the Council has to make up the amount to be lost following Labour and the Conservatives acceptance of the government’s council tax freeze bribe, and further cuts to budgets. How they managed the budget process for 2012/13 was very impressive, and bodes well for Jason Kitcat’s leadership should he remain engaged and responds on a political level.

Back to wheels on the bus. The axing of the bus routes, and the confusion over bus tenders, hasn’t looked good for the Greens. A u-turn in the last couple of days, when a wedge of cash was found down the back of the sofa, has saved the services. Is this yet another great result for the fearless campaign to save the number …? What number is it this week, councillor Fitch

Labour has run a successful campaign to save the bus routes. And credit hear should go to councillor Gill Mitchell and the party dynamo, Caroline Penn, who always seems to be snapping at the heals of the Greens and Tories, taking well aimed bites along the way.
Labour seems to be in good spirits following its restructuring, and once again full of fight.

The Enigmatic Flo has lamented my absence in recent months, asking why I was not giving credit where credit is due. She has chastised me saying it is about time I said something nice about Labour. Yes, the Labour Party in Brighton and Hove seems to be in much better shape, taking the Greens on in a concerted fight back. Target seats have been identified, with Hollingdean and Stanmer being high on their hit list.

Being the political establishment is never easy, and the Greens have taken a knocking in recent months. Labour made a mistake some years back when they had highly competent people at the helm of the City Council, but they lost the political argument. Something similar is happening with the Greens. The bus fiasco hasn’t helped.

The Tories are not benefiting much from the Green’s ill-ease. Apart from Bulldog Bobby from Westbourne, my identical twin brother, Graham Cox, they are lacking punch. The Bulldog appears to be doing all the running, and my prediction is that it will be Bobby who leads the Tories into the 2015 local elections.

But neither Labour or the Conservatives should be complacent over the difficulties being experienced by the Greens. All administrations have difficulties, but there are some good political tacticians within the Green ranks. As long as the Green Group doesn’t assume it is the Green Party locally to the exclusion of others (as the Labour Group did in Brighton from which it is only just recovering) the Greens will remain a political force locally. After all, the Greens have a trump card, and one that infuriates Labour activists. Remaining the outstanding politician in the City, head and shoulders above the rest, is Caroline Lucas.

Britain’s first-ever Green Mayor to lead Brighton Naked Bike Ride on 10th June

My regular readers, (Grizzly, Doris and Biker Dave) will know that I am often accused of being a crypto-Green. Indeed the Enigmatic Flo has been known to voice such concerns herself. But not today. I must say that the announcement by Mayor-elect, Bill Randall, that one of his first engagements after standing down as Council leader to become the City’s First Citizen, is not in keeping with the status and dignity of the Mayoralty.

Councillor Randall has announced that he will be leading the Naked Bike Ride on 10th June wearing nothing but the Mayoral Chain.

While Brighton and Hove welcomes all-comers, has a raffish-reputation, and (as councillor Randall likes to quote Keith Waterhouse) a town that appears to be helping the police with their enquiries, there are certain things the Mayor should not do.

Quick to condemn the Mayor-elect was Hangleton and Knoll councillor, Dawn Barnett: “I cannot believe the bare-face cheek of this. I certainly hope he won’t be displaying his wares in Hangleton although if he did visit the ward he might frighten off the travellers.”

Fellow Green Christopher Hawtree said: “Bill Randall is a Rabelaisian sort of chap. Not many councillors would do this, but I believe Bill Randall can pull it off.”

Councillor Randall has defended his decision: “The Brighton Naked Bike Ride is part of the World Naked Bike Ride, an event that celebrates bikes and bodies, protests against car culture and demonstrates cyclists’ power and vulnerability. It’s also great fun! Rides have taken place every June since 2006 but this is the first time the Mayor will have blessed it with his or her presence.

“I am a bit nervous but I am sure that the event will flash by.”

Is Jason Kitcat right to be seeking selection as a candidate for the European elections?

The decision of the leader-elect of the Green Party in Brighton and Hove, Jason Kitcat, to put his name forward for the panel for candidates for the European Parliament is, unsurprisingly, attracting criticism. Conservative councillor Graham Cox, for example, has tweeted “New Green Council leaders pledge lasted 14 days. Already trying to leave for Brussels.” He tweeted later “Why are the Green leaders so keen to head for Brussels? Are they bored with us locals in Brighton and Hove already?”

It is inevitable that a newly elected administration will make some mistakes and it is expected that some of what they do will be misinterpreted and misrepresented. However, some things can be avoided. Putting one’s name forward for election to a different body within weeks of being chosen to be your party’s leader on a local authority is something that could have been avoided.

Questions were raised when the current leader, Bill Randall, decided to stand down after just one year in office. He is likely to be formally elected as the Mayor at the May Council Meeting. I personally understand why councillor Randall has made his decision. As you would expect with someone like councillor Randall, it was done for very proper reasons and came as no surprise to many, including this Blogger.

Should councillor Kitcat be elected in 2013 to the European Parliament, the Greens on the City Council will have their third leader in just over a year. I for one would hope that councillor Kitcat withdraws his name from the Green list for the European Parliament in order to focus on leading the Greens up to and beyond the City Council elections in 2015. He is extremely able and should he go to the European Parliament, he would be a huge loss to the City as there are few to match his ability.

Reflections on the Budget Council meeting at Brighton Town Hall

So what to make of tonight’s Budget Council meeting? Labour and the Tories voted down the Green Party’s Council Tax rise, and then the Greens joined with Labour and the Tories to vote through the Budget 53-1 (the one being Green councillor Alex Phillips who appeared not to be able to stomach this compromise).

For the Tories the stand out impression (other than the tie of the wonderful councillor Janio and his reference to the “great man” Ronald Reagan), was the emergence of their Leader-in-Waiting Graham Cox. His speech put clear blue water between the Tory Group and the rest. He is the Newt Gingrich of Brighton politics, the one who could capture the public imagination. Labour and the Greens be warned, he could see a Tory revival in 2015.

Labour were in a no win situation. The one Labour councillor who understood the politics of the occasion was Brian Fitch. It was he who articulated that Labour would OT be supporting the Tories. In the event, the Tories supported Labour. Labour will make much of this, countering the Green claim that Labour and the Tories had voted together. They will both be right. But there will be a nagging feeling amongst Labour supporters that the Tory and Labour budgets were not that dissimilar, and that Labour hardly ushered a word against the Tory government, focusing all their fire on the Greens.

For the Greens, Jason Kitcat was impressive, in command of his brief, and replied well. If this, his first major outing, is anything to go by, he will do fine as the Green leader. I was uncertain about the Greens voting for the budget. An honourable (?) abstention was what I would have expected from most, with more than Alex Phillips voting against. I imagine that, as Geoffrey Bowden said, most voted with a heavy heart. I thought the speeches by councillors Phillips and Sven Rufus were ones that should be noted regarding conduct.

But that’s not to say there shouldn’t be some humour, even some slapstick to lighten the mood. Councillor Janio’s ‘dual’ with councillor Hawtree is fast becoming the matter of legends, and councillor Hawtree’s repost was pure class. Perhaps a way of raising funds for this cash-strapped Council would be for the two of them to go on stage together, with half the proceeds going to libraries, the remainder to the third sector, after all, councillor Janio would not trust even a £3 note to local government.

It feels good to be back.