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.

Dining Clubs, Donations and Distribution of Funds – an unfair basis for a fair election

The Brighton Argus has published details of who is financing the campaigns in Brighton Pavilion, Brighton Kemptown and Hove, with details of donations going back to 1995.  And it makes quite interesting reading, and requires some questions to be asked.  Who, are what, is the United & Cecil Club?  Or The Winston Churchill Dining Club? Or the Intensive School of English and Business Communication?

The United & Cecil Club makes very generous donations to the campaigns of Conservative candidates Charlotte Vere (£12,000), Simon Kirby (£12,000) and Mike Weatherley (£3,000).  Ms Vere is the poor relation amongst the Tory trio, having raised just £12,000 (although she was only selected late last year).  Simon Kirby  has put over £21,000 of his own money into his campaign but has still enjoyed further support of £17,000 from the Winston Churchill Dining Club.

Mike Weatherley in Hove has received just £2,000 from the Winston Churchill Dining Club, but he has rich friends such as local ‘entrepeneur’ Mike Holland (£5,000), former Tory MP Sir Timothy Sainsbury (you may wish to consider where you do your shopping in future) who has given £7,500, and property developer John D Regan (£5,500).  The biggest personal donation to the Mr Weatherley came from Stewart W Newton (£12,000).

The Lib Dems have received just £6,016 for all three seats, a reflection of their prospects in Brighton and Hove.

Labour’s Simon Burgess has received £33,324, primarily from the Co-operative Party and the GMB Trade Union. Similarly, the majority of Celia Barlow’s £12,495 has come from these two sources and a small donation from the Communication Workers Union.  But what is most significant as far as Labour is concerned is the mere £11,080 donated to Nancy Platts, again from The Co-operative Party, the GMB and £4,500 from Unite. If there was a Pound for Pound comparison for the energy and effectiveness of campaigning, Nancy Platts would win hands down between the three Labour candidates. She deserves to have had the resources channelled to Simon Burgess directed into her campaign.

As for the Greens, they have received £92,914 for their three campaigns.  It is not clear how much has gone into Caroline Lucas’ campaign, but it can be assumed that the majority has gone into Brighton Pavilion.  All the Green’s donations have come from individuals, none from ‘Dining Clubs’.

The Tories have always been funded from shadowy figures, and there remains a lack of transparency.  How much, for example, is being channelled to seats in Brighton and Hove from Lord Ashcroft? Labour candidates have always received funding from trade unions.  Afterall, it was the unions that were largely behind the setting up of the Labour Party.  A little more clarity from the Greens would be welcomed, and a redistribution of campaign funds from Simon Burgess to Nancy Platts would ‘level the playing field’ in Brighton Pavilion.

Overall, this is an unfair situation.  The boys, Kirby, Weatherley and Burgess, have received almost £150,000 between them, while Vere, Platts and Barlow just a total of £37,000.  Lucas is the exception to the rule, but then Brighton Pavilion is that party’s number one (and only?) genuine target seat.

A rant against Ashcroft and Cameron, need for tactical votes in Hove and Brighton Kemptown, and Charlotte Vere’s hopes receding

Patriotism, was David Cameron’s call on Sunday.  Ashcroft has blown that out of the water.  Still a non-dom.  To give Charlotte Vere credit, she has made it clear she hasn’t touched his cash.  Good for her.  Cameron’s refrain that the matter was a private affair between Ashcroft and HM Revenue and Customs is hollow.

But isn’t it great to see Tory politicians becoming a bit more humble.  Gone is the swagger “When I am in the Cabinet …”.  The polls continue to narrow.  The attacks on Gordon Brown have been OTT.  But what could still go wrong is the Tories mobilisation of support in key marginals, backed by Ashcroft’s cash.  The polls show that the Tories are stronger in those areas that have benefited from Ashcroft’s cash and expertise.  This is a worry in Hove and in Brighton Kemptown, which makes tactical voting so important.  The polls suggest that Charlotte Vere’s chances of winning Brighton Pavilion have seriously receded.

Ashcroft is reported to have said that he will end his non-dom status if the Tories win the election.  Cameron must come clean about how long he has known about Ashcroft’s non-dom status, and make sure that he immediately ends his non-dom status.

(Apologies for the rant.  It has been a long day with much travelling).

Are Mike Weatherley, Simon Kirby and Charlotte Vere receiving any of Ashcroft’s Billions?

The Tories have come to town and focus is on Brighton Pavilion, but it is the Brighton Kemptown and Hove & Portslade constituencies that should be attracting close scrutiny because of the funding they receive from ‘Tory HQ’.  Because behind Central Office funding lurks the shadow of Lord Ashcroft.

And the question is being asked: “Does the noble Lord pay income tax in the UK?” or does his heart, and tax status remain in Belize?

The Independent today alleges that huge sums of money are being channeled into key marginal seats that David Cameron needs to win to see him elected as Prime Minister.

The Brighton Kemptown majority is 1,853 while in Hove and Portslade it is just 448, and both are in the top 50 targets. Both have received ‘Ashcroft’ money – cash allocated by a Conservative committee chaired by the billionaire Ashcroft.

Simon Kirby (Brighton Kemptown) and Mike Weatherley (Hove &  Portslade) should do the decent thing and refuse this money if it is not clear (a) whether the cash originated from Ashcroft and (b) whether he is actually a UK tax payer.

It is not clear whether Charlotte Vere’s campaign is receiving similar funding. Perhaps she, together with Kirby and Weatherley, could put out a statement to help voters make their decision, not least because Ms Vere has been so outspoken about Caroline Lucas and her expenses.