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.

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’)

Reflecting of the reasons for the Conservative victory in the Westbourne by-election

First of all, congratulations to Graham Cox on his victory. Here is the full result:
Graham Cox (Conservative) 1027
Nigel Jenner (Labour) 826
Louisa Greenbaum (Green) 645
Gareth Jone (LibDem) 45
Paul Perrin (UKIP) 36
Pip Tindall (TUSC) 26
Susan Collard (European Citizens) 13

It was definitely a good night for the Tories made all that better by Labour beating the Greens into second place. I think there are three factors that resulted in this good result:

Graham Cox: Graham, as I have said since his selection, was an inspired choice. His appeal transcends traditional party loyalties and we can expect to see him rising very quickly into a leadership position within the Tory ranks.
The Legacy of The Bishop: Graham’s predecessor, Brian Oxley, was well-respected and some support for Graham will have been derived from Brian. Graham will no doubt convert those loyalty votes for Brian to his own.
Mike Weatherley: In spite of rumoured tensions between Graham and Mike, the current standing and high profile of the MP for Hove will have benefited Graham.

Labour’s performance will have brought some quiet satisfaction. While they did not win the seat, Labour achieved its primary objective of beating the Greens. It was noticeable that the tone of most of Labour’s message at present in Brighton and Hove is anti-Green. Perhaps now it will turn it’s focus on the Tories who are, after all, enforcing the cuts on Brighton and Hove. The unrelenting attacks on the Greens is somewhat disingenuous.

For the Greens, third place behind Labour in second is the second worst result possible. (The worst result would to have been beaten by UKIP). In May the Greens did little work in the ward. In this by-election they worked it to win but did not improve their position or share of the vote.

As mentioned above, the Greens have been subjected to unrelenting attacks from the Argus and by three individual Labour members, Lord Bassam, Caroline Penn, and councillor Warren Morgan. While Jason Kitcat has diligently responded in a statesmanlike manner, the attacks are what the Greens must expect for the next three and a half years leading up to May 2015.

Labour’s LOLA campaign (Leave Our Loos Alone) shows some imagination. I would be interested to know who came up with this idea. More of that kind of propaganda will serve Labour well.

The Tories have cause to celebrate, Labour too. The Greens need to lick their wounds, reflect on where they have arrive in the political cycle, and devise a strategy for recovery. I will return to this theme in the new year.

But there was one big loser in this by-election whose performance betrayed his previous unblemished record, and that was the prediction of your Humble Blogger. As my three regular readers (Doris, Biker Dave and Grizzly) will know, my forecasts are usually spot on. But this time, failure. In mitigation, I did recognise the personal strengths of Graham Cox from the moment he was first selected and thought that his selection made a Tory victory a real possibility.

By way of contrition, I will share something later this evening about councillor Cox and me. This revelation will not doubt be the talk around Christmas trees of Brighton and Hove this Festive Season.

Graham Cox, Conservative, wins the Westbourne by-election

The holding of the seat by the Tories has little consequence to the overall political scene in Brighton and Hove. Yes, both Labour and the Greens will be disappointed not to have picked up the seat, but The Bishop (Brian Oxley) had a good reputation and both The Bishop’s legacy and the reputation of Graham Cox will have swung it for the Tories.

Labour will be pleased to have retained second place but they need to pickup seats like Westbourne if they are to challenge for control of the City Council. The Greens will inevitably see this as a set back, not least for their ambitions in Hove. They will have to get used to the unrelenting attacks on the administration, and learn how to combat such attacks.

But my initial reaction to the result is that an extraordinary candidate can capture the imagination of the electorate. Caroline Lucas did it in Brighton Pavilion, and Graham Cox has done it in Westbourne. There are few candidates who will be as well know, have such a long track record in the area, and be as widely respected as Graham is by supporters of all parties and none.

Congratulations to councillor Graham Cox, and commiserations to the other six candidates.

I will reflect more overnight on the implications for Labour and the Greens.

Westbourne by-election: it could all be down to the weather this evening

Folklore has it that the Tory vote comes out in the morning and early afternoon, with Labour and Green voters turning out after 4pm. If that is the case, the Tories must be pleased with the glorious weather so far today, and must be feeling some optimism.

I will be watching the weather closely in the early evening. If it rains then I think the Tory candidate, Graham Cox, should edge it.

The Greens had a real boost to their campaign yesterday evening when the Tories declared it a two horse race between them and the Greens. Voters undecided between Labour and the Greens might just, as a result of this leaflet, decide to go with the Greens. It won’t take many, perhaps just a couple of dozen, to go Green rather than Labour.

The postal vote turnout was pleasing from a Green perspective, with around half of those with postal votes not returning them. Given that the Greens have never really worked Westbourne until this by-election, the majority of postal voters will have been for the other parties. Having said that, the Greens did run a postal vote campaign and have been expressing quiet satisfaction that the Green postal voters have returned their ballots.

The Tories have pulled out all the stops to hold on to this seat and get their candidate, Graham Cox, elected. The Labour campaign has been one that characterises Labour in recent years, a small, dedicated band of activists doing what they can, but not setting the election on fire. The one high point was the arrival of Hillary Benn who brought much needed publicity for LOLA, Labour’s Leave Our Loos Alone campaign. No matter what might have been suggested, this isn’t an election winning issue, it is a good hook to hang some campaigning on, and could, in due course, capture the imagination, but LOLA won’t be enough for Labour’s Nigel Jenner.

Both Labour and the Tories have been keen to have a go at the Greens Louisa Greenbaum, suggesting that both parties believe she is the candidate to beat. Weather permitting, the superior Green organisation should see Louisa home. There may be glorious sunshine right now, but there are rain clouds on the horizon. That is no metaphor for the fortunes of the parties, just a meteorological observation!

Westbourne by-election, and the record of the Dear Leader

“I was sad to hear that Councillor Bill Randall has stepped down as Leader of Brighton and Hove City Council. I have never heard a bad word about him and I wish him well as Mayor.”

This is clearly the season of good will for these are not my words but those of the Deputy Chair (Political) of Brighton and Hove Conservatives, Robert Nemeth writing in today’s Brighton Argus.

But the Christmas spirit quickly evaporates and bad words are implied, if not said, against the Dear Leader (Randall, not Kim Jong-il). The “Greens did not hit the ground running”, decisions were taken “on the move rather than making the changes that were promised”, and that the situation has “no doubt been exacerbated by the internal squabbles”. He points to “chaos” on the issues of council tax, Falmer Stadium, and the Victoria Gardens campsite.

If that is not saying bad words against the Dear Leader, then I don’t know what is. And also, am right in thinking that history is being re-written? The Dear Leader hasn’t stood down after 6 months. He will remain the Dear Leader until the annual Council at which point he will become the Dear Mayor.

As for the Greens not hitting the ground running, my perception is that they did just that, and the approach to the budget has been quite extraordinary. By taking an open, inclusive approach to its preparation, and the invitation to Labour and Tory councillors, the opposition have been wrong footed, hence the all-out attack on the Greens by Labour’s Lord Bassam, Caroline Penn and Warren Morgan, and now Robert himself.

To suggest that there has been “chaos” is nonsense. These issues are the normal challenges that face a new (and yes, inexperienced) administration.

I don’t detect “internal squabbles”. There is debate and there are differences, but this has largely involved organisation and, to a lesser extent personalities. But such differences pale into insignificance when compared to the split between the the Hove and Pavilion Conservatives and the Kemptown Tories.

But enough of the Dear Leader, and enough of Mr Nemeth. All thoughts have turned to Christmas. Oh no they haven’t. Oh yes they have. OH NO THEY HAVEN’T!!! All thoughts are focused on Westbourne and tomorrow’s by-election.

I hear that both the Tories and Greens are pleased with their postal vote campaigns,I and that Labour and the Greens are pleased with their poster campaign. On postal votes, the Greens usually think they don’t do too well here, but they are quietly pleased with what they have achieved in Westbourne, and confidence levels are rising. But I hear from deep within the Labour camp that they are pleased with the number of promises they have secured for Nigel Jenner. The question is, how firm are these promises?

My prediction? I correctly ‘called’ the Goldsmid by-election, the Brighton Pavilion result (although I thought Chuck Vere would come second), and the number of seats the Greens would win in May (I said 22 or 23 – I didn’t see Chris Hawtree winning although he did). But this by-election is the most difficult ‘call’ because of the, likely, very low turnout. If this by-election was to take place in, say, May, I would think the Greens would win. They have the Big Mo, a candidate who lives in the ward, and in Luke Walter, the best election organiser in the City.

But the Joker in the Pack is the Tory candidate, Graham Cox. He is the equal to the Green’s Louisa Greenbaum, he is a first rate candidate. Without the other, either of these candidates would swing the result in an election as close as this.

If pushed, I would call it for Louisa Greenbaum, but it will be one of the closest results in years. I think that given the low turnout it could still go any one of three ways.

Best wishes to ALL candidates tomorrow. My respect for candidates remains, and I thank all seven of you for making democracy a reality.

(The original version of this post referred to Caroline Pegg. Her name has been corrected to Caroline Penn).

What defeat will mean for the losers in the Westbourne by-election

There are just two full days of campaigning left before the Westbourne by-election. And the result is too close to call.

As the Conservative candidate, Graham Cox, admitted in a comment on this blog earlier today, the Labour and Green candidates have him well beaten on the poster front, but added mischievously, that all the windows in Westbourne without a poster must be supporting him.

My Pal Paul, the UKIP candidate Paul Perrin, claims to have beaten Graham in the poster race. A good result for UKIP will be fourth place, ahead of the Lib Dems.

The only good result for the Tories would be to hold the seat but a narrow defeat (a majority of less than about 20 votes) can be explained away by a low turnout and the poll taking place when most people’s thoughts will be on turkey, duck, and sprouts, or if you are a Green, nut roast and organic cabbage.

Graham Cox, if he is elected, will prove to be an exceptional councillor, if his previous track record as a police officer is anything to go by. He will not be your ‘normal’ Tory councillor, with an appeal that will transcend normal party lines. (I also have a shocking revelation about Mr Cox which I will share with you at the weekend if, and only if, he is elected. It is a revelation that can only enhance his reputation).

For the Labour Party, a win is still within their sights, and a win would prove to be a huge boost for the Party. It would see them start 2012 with renewed confidence and could be used to argue that the corner has been reached. If Nigel Jenner holds on to second place behind the Tories it would be acceptable because Labour would have beaten the Greens, a greater priority for them than even winning the seat. Third place behind the Greens in second would be a further set back, but a Green win would be a disaster for Labour in the City. No matter how much they argued low turn out, nut roast and pantomime distractions, and no matter how close they might come, it would be further evidence of the Green tide (copyright L. Walter) spreading into Hove.

The Greens, however, have the most to lose. Third place behind Labour and the Tories would be a disaster. Such a result would be presented as a rejection of the Green budget, and a sign that the honeymoon is over. Much would be made of the Green’s decision to have the by-election on December 22nd. The only result worse that third place behind the Greens would be fourth place behind UKIP, but that is even beyond the wildest dreams of My Pal Paul. I also believe that given the strength of the Green candidate, Louisa Greenbaum, the Big Mo still enjoyed by the Greens locally, and the superior nature of its election machine, Ms Greenbaum must be joint favourite alongside Graham Cox.

Second place for the Greens behind the Tories would still be a good result, establishing them as the challengers for 2015, and providing further evidence that they, and not Labour, are the party to rival the Tories in Hove.

I am now willing to make a prediction: there will be a low turnout and if it rains or snows, a very low turnout. All parties might hope for that since it will give the losing parties an excuse for the result. For the winner, a majority of 1 on a 15% turnout will feel like a landslide.