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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Condemning the rent-a-mob antics of the anti-Traveller Tories

As my regular readers (Momma Grizzly, Doris and Biker Dave) know, I am a big fan of Thatcher’s Granny, councillor Dawn Barnett of Hangleton and Knoll. I like her style if not her politics.

But I was disappointed that she apparently led a group of 50 or so to disrupt a constituency surgery of the MP for Brighton Pavilion, Caroline Lucas.

As a child I was always told that there are two areas of political neutrality. The first being the polling station where numbers are collected and shared by agents of each party. There is no political point-scoring and, if you have ever had the huge good fortune to team up on such an occasion with campaigner-extraordinaire, Christopher Hawtree, a fun time is had by all.

The second is the MP’s constituency surgery. This is a relatively modern creation, dating back to the 1970’s and created by theLiberal Party who were re-inventing politics with there concept of ‘pavement politics’. Roy Hattersley quotes one of his predecessors giving a pledge to return to the constituency every three months to report on his work in Parliament. The idea of MP’s becoming super social workers is new. Yet it is important part of their role, yet one that is under-resources necessitating the lovely Momma Grizzly to have a second job packing shelves at Asda.

The MP’s surgery allows constituents, many of whom are troubled, desperate, even distressed, to meet one of their elected representatives. There sometimes needs to be anonymity because of the sensitive issues that might be being brought.

Imagine then, if you will, the sight and noise of 50 protesters ‘dropping in’. Councillor Barnett had been led to believe it was a public meeting. It wasn’t. Mistakes happen and I am sure that had Dawn realised it was a surgery, she would not have disrupted it.

Similarly, councillor Brian Pidgeon was there. I wonder how his constituents from Patcham, who had come to see their MP, felt about him being part of this rent-a-mob.

Why was councillor Barnett there at all? It isn’t in her ward, not even in the constituency within which her ward is located. When I questioned why the People’s Mike was doing more in Brighton Pavilion than in his own constituency, I was told it was because Caroline Lucas wasn’t doing a good job. Anyone who has dealt with Ms Lucas knows that she is an extraordinary dedicated, hard-working and diligent constituency MP.

But I digress. Back to Thatcher’s Granny. Does she feel a need to intervene in the affairs of Patcham ward because the ward councillors are doing such a bad job? If so, Brian Pidgeon should have a word with his Conservative colleagues in Patcham, Geoffrey Theobald and Carol Theobald, rather than inconvenience ordinary citizens by interrupting the MP’s surgery.

The issue of travellers might be contentious, but it does not justify councillors Barnett and Pidgeon acting like lawless hooligans nor using local residents with a genuine, but perhaps ill-conceived, concern regarding Travellers as pawns in their highly politicised campaign against the Green Member of Parliament.

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.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles (not forgetting the buses)

Planes, Trains and Automobiles was a 1987 film starring John Candy and Steve Martin. Twenty five years later we could be in for a remake set in Sussex called Trains, Buses and Automobiles. These are issues that could influence the 2015 general and local elections.

The Government has announced that rail fares are going up by more than the rate of inflation for the tenth year in a row. Why is Mike Weatherley not press releasing his support for his government? He knows that this is a source of increasing anger for commuters. Caroline Lucas was quick off the mark, along with one of the Green’s European Parliament candidates, Alex Phillips, leafleting at Brighton Station and appearing on the local news.

Public transport, and trains in particular, is the remit of Norman Baker, the Lib Dem/Conservative Coalition MP for Lewes. The good news for Stormin’ Norman is that rail fare increases will have little impact on his chances of re-election because he is already toast. We haven’t forgotten his written pledge to oppose increases in tuition fees, and then voted to support such increases. (Old joke: what is smaller than the Higgs Bossom god particle? A Lib Dem’s backbone).

Labour has done well on the buses, scoring a couple of direct hits on the Greens. That should serve them well in a couple of wards, although these wards are already Labour held or in the case of Rottingdean Coastal solid Tory. It is fortunate that come 2015 the octogenarian Brian Fitch will step up his campaigns to save the threatened numbers 5, 49, 27, 81, 26 and 50. What would help Labour is if the party at a national level came out with a bold policy saying that it will increase subsidies for local bus and train routes in order to get people out of their cars and onto public transport.

Automobiles, and in particular parking of such, will be an issue in the locals in 2015. Tories and Labour continue to make hay about the downturn in visitor numbers and blaming the increase in parking charges. I am not so sure if that is the whole picture. The Olympics, the ‘summer’ and the economic downturn are likely to have been more significant factors.

The People’s Mike hasn’t been completely quiet, writing to the City Council’s outgoing Chief Executive, John Barradell, urging greater provision for bikers. Is this a huge vote winner in Hove Park where Labour is campaigning energetically? I am told that Labour had an “amazing day in Hove Park. No exaggeration, we were really surprised how many Labour votes there were – and disaffected Tories”. Mike will certainly be relying on the Hell’s Angels Chapter of this parish for his re-election. He certainly can’t rely on the commuters.

Highlighting the commitment of Mike Weatherley MP to the people of Brighton Pavilion

From time to time my Labour and Green friends say to me: “You know what, Bappy, you hardly ever comment of the local Conservatives. Are you sure you are not a closet Tory by any chance?” If the truth be told, the answer is …. no.

So I thought I would reflect today on the work of Mike Weatherley, the Conservative Member of Parliament for Brighton Pavilion. (Shurley shum mishtake – Ed).

Now, a great myth of our time is that Mike is MP for Hove, something the Argus has consistently reported. Now there is evidence to support my claim. I had a look at the website of The People’s Mike and carried out a forensic analysis of the press releases he has put out for the two months of June and July. I looked at how many related to Hove, and how many to Brighton Pavilion.

Of the 41 press releases, just 5 were directly about Hove (travellers in Hangleton, a local restaurant being commended in a House of Commons curry competition, the Olympic torch visiting Hove, opposing development at Toad’s Hole Valley, and a petition to do with Medina House).

There were four other press releases that indirectly related to Hove (experience of commuters at Victoria Station, warning about a Council Tax scam, a call for better maps at bus stops, and a parliamentary motion supporting local shops). But each of these equally applies to Brighton Pavilion.

And then there is his fascination of all things Brighton Pavilion. He has put our 8 press releases about Brighton Pavilion – 60% more than those put out about Hove. He talks about the Brighton Toy Museum, travellers at Horsdean (Patcham), Jubilee protests in central Brighton, the Horsdean travellers site (again), a trip to Brighton Museum, Portas Money for London Road, the eviction of squatters in Middle Street, and a government initiative supporting Malpass Meats Direct (and the Big Lemon in Brighton Kemptown).

The remaining 28 press releases either have nothing directly to do with Hove (or Brighton Pavilion). So move over, Caroline Lucas, and stop pretending that you are the duly elected representative of the people of Brighton Pavilion.

A new dawn and the hand of history greets the new Labour Party in Brighton and Hove

The new Brighton and Hove Labour Party formally came into being this morning with an all-City AGM. New officers have been elected and my source at the centre of power believes the new line-up of officers makes “a strong team” and that there will be a new focus on campaigning as opposed to endless meetings.

Adrian Morris is the newly elected Chair. (I know it will upset my Labour friends when I remind them that Adrian stood down at the 11th hour as candidate in St Peters and North Laine in the 2011 elections. I hope he has greater staying power this time).

The two new vice-chairs are Nigel Jenner (who did well in the Westbourne by-election in December) and Christine Robinson (who I respect as a strong trade unionist who works for GMB). The new executive committee is made up of Juan Leahy, Tracey Hill, Caroline Penn, former councillor Kevin Allen & Chaun (I am sorry but I don’t know her surname, but
she impressed with what sounds what appeared to be a great speech).

I understand that this AGM marks a watershed for Labour in Brighton and Hove with a shift of focus away from the internal reviews to a new focus on taking on the Tories & campaigning on national issues. Mike Weatherley will be a main focus of some of the campaigning, but it remains to be seen whether the New New Labour in the City will be able to let go of their obsession with the She Devil and All Her Works (my regular readers, Momma Grizzly, Doris and Biker Dave know that that is a reference to Caroline Lucas – not my view but that of the likes of Harris Fitch).

It looks as though Labour will field a candidate for Police Commissioner, which is a shame since the Party has no chance of being successful, where as an independent might just spring a surprise.

The Greens could take a leaf or two out of Labour’s book when it comes to selecting candidates for the European elections. Labour’s selection will have gender balance so if (as expected) Peter Skinner is number 1 on the Labour list, number 2 will be a woman.

So we have a new dawn for Labour in Brighton and Hove which can be nothing but a good thing for the political process. It really isn’t a time for sound bites, but I sense the hand of history on my shoulder …..

(Update: Chaun’s surname is Wilson)
(Update 2: changed ‘sound items’ to ‘sound bites’)

Mike Weatherley saves Hove Library

Previously on this blog I have mentioned a veteran Labour councillor who has made a successful political career from his tireless campaigning to save bus routes faced with the axe. As a councillor for Hanover ward in the 1980’s he regularly saved the bus that runs (ran?) up Southover Street, the number 38, I seem to recall. He will remain nameless, but I did speculate in the run up to May’s local elections as to whether he would campaign to save the number 5 to Hangleton where he was standing.

This is how it works. Draw attention to a popular service, like a bus route. Tell everyone that it is under threat. Launch a petition. Get publicity. Then, in due course, announce that the campaign has been successful. The bus route will stay running!

Now our mystery Labour veteran has a pupil, someone who is modelling himself on the campaigning style of Fitch the Elder. This is what the pupil, Mike, has done. Draw attention to a popular service, like Hove Library. Tell everyone it is under threat. Launch a petition. Get publicity. Then, in due course, announce that the campaign has been successful. The library will stay open!

He, whose name I dare not speak, is learning well. But perhaps it is time for him to admit that, like the number 38, there is no threat to Hove Library. At least Labour’s LOLA campaign (Leave Our Loos Alone) is focused on an proposed cut. Perhaps Brian Weatherley should become part of something real and join the LOLA campaign.