Andrew Kennedy is the Group Agent & Campaign Director in West Kent. He blogs at www.votingandboating.blogspot.com.
Until recently, I paid little attention to the outreach department at CCHQ. I knew that it did good work with our faith and BME communities, but how it operated and what it did was a mystery to me. That was until four weeks ago, when my good friend, John Hayward, a former activist from Tonbridge who now works with the department, phoned me to ask if West Kent would host a delegation of visitors from the Partido Social Cristiano, our sister party in Ecuador. I readily agreed: John is an old friend, I like to be helpful, and I am also proud of what we have created in West Kent.
“This sounds exciting”, I said to Jon Botten, our Office Manager, who had overheard the conversation and was eyeing me suspiciously over his spreadsheets. Jon does not share any of my ringmaster’s attraction to the spotlight, and tends to view anything new as a gross interference into the daily ritual of data management and cheque-banking. “How many of them will there be?” he asked. “I am worried that we won’t have enough coffee cups.” I admitted that I did not know. “Do they speak English – since the only Spanish you know is “dos cervezas, por favor’?” Again, I confessed ignorance. “Where will they all sit, we only have ten chairs?” “Oh! There won’t be that many of them,” I said. “I imagine just a car full.” This was my attempt to shut down the barrage of goading questions, since I knew he was right, and that I should have checked all these things before agreeing.
A silence ensued: the awkward silence which I imagine descends when a husband is sent out shopping, and returns with only half the items on the list – a silence suddenly broken by the “chimes” signalling the arrival of an email.
Thank you so much for agreeing to host our visitors. Just to let you know, there will be 18 in the party so you will also need to arrange somewhere suitable to park the coach. As most of them do not speak English, we will also have two translators plus a number of support staff. Probably 24 in total. I am sure they would all appreciate coffee upon arrival. I really grateful for you agreeing to help and we look forward to receiving your draft programme of activities.”
In one brutal paragraph, all of Jon’s fears were proved true. Undaunted by my poor Spanish; the lack of coffee cups, chairs and space, and nowhere suitable to park a coach, we drew up what I hoped would be an interesting and stimulating programme of activities, bearing in mind that this was their third and final day in the UK ,with them having already spent a day touring Parliament and another day touring CCHQ. I was concerned that their final day in the UK would be defined by a visit to two soulless rooms above a dry cleaners in West Kent and a 50-year-old, tall, fat Scouser banging on about “more leaflets = more votes”. It seemed an inglorious end to a visit to promote democracy. In any event, the programme of events included:
- A presentation by me on the work of the Conservative Associations at “grassroots” level, including building and retaining an activist base, fund raising and street campaigning.
- Buffet lunch at a typical British country pub with three guest speakers: an MP, a Council Leader and an Association Chairman, each of whom were to make brief presentations on how they fit in to the ‘Conservative family’.
- Two hours on the doorsteps “survey canvassing” with local activists who could speak sufficient Spanish to explain what was happening.
- And finally, an evening event with Kenneth Baker – now of course Lord Baker of Dorking – who spoke about his work in Parliament and what he has achieved with the Baker Dearing Trust since his retirement in 1997, promoting vocational-based technical colleges.
I am confident that the day went well, and that our visitors found it useful, but I believe the highlight for them was the session on building and developing a local activist base. This was scheduled to last 45 minutes but, because of the number of detailed questions, it actually went on for almost two hours, and probably would have gone on longer had we not had to leave for lunch.
What I learned was that in Ecuador (and in most of Latin America) the concept of voluntary activists simply does not exist. Elections are fought at big rallies, and by neighbours arguing with each other in town squares and street corners. The concept of a small army of volunteers giving up night after night to deliver leaflets, canvass voters and pack envelopes simply does not exist. The visitors wanted to know, “Why do they do it?” “What do they get in return?” “Are they offered jobs or contracts if your party wins?” “Why don’t they want payment?” “How do you find these volunteers?” “How do you train them?” And so on.
The look on their faces when I said our activists not only work free of charge, but actually pay an annual subscription for the privilege of doing so, was met with total amazement. I thought it was ironic that the voluntary party, which is too often taken for granted, and is sometimes even patronised and ignored, is the part of our organisation which our visitors from Ecuador would have given their “eye teeth” to have working on their behalf. A lesson for us all in how we might not realise the value of what we have until it’s gone – and by then it will be too late.
The visit was financed by the non-partisan Westminster Foundation for Democracy, whose vision “is of the universal establishment of legitimate and effective multi-party representative democracy”. Training and development is delivered via established UK political parties, who each receive funding to host like-minded democratic parties, and train them to develop the campaigning, policy development and communications skills we take for granted in the UK. In terms of promoting democracy, strengthening British interests, and building worldwide alliances, I believe it is a worthwhile endeavour. See www.wfd.org for more information about their work.
Our visitors were charming, appreciative, eager to learn – and determined to win. They left West Kent with arms full of surveys, leaflets, training documents and recruitment pamphlets. The electoral maths are stacked against them and their chief opponent, the incumbent socialist president Rafael Correa (a close friend of the late Hugo Chavez) is well established, with deep roots in the machinery of the state. I like to think that in the battle which lies ahead, a fresh-faced and newly-recruited volunteer will be standing on a doorstep of Quito – handing over a show card and asking, in a refined Liverpool accent, “on a scale of one to ten, how likely are you to vote for Partido Social Cristiano on 19 February 2017?” If so, the little known and seldom acknowledged Conservative Outreach Department, along with West Kent Towers, will have, in some very small way, contributed to that success.