Seasoned campaigners know only too well that shoving leaflets through doors and walking on is simply not good enough; most will go straight in the bin. Hopeful candidates have to meet and greet voters and, preferably, listen to voters, and that means knocking on doors. The importance of the "Sorry to Have Missed You" cards when no one is at home can not be over emphasised.
If they have never met you, why should they vote for you? Yes, it's hard work, it's incredibly tiring but down every lane, every by-way, every muddy farm track there are votes to be had; in rural communities especially there are also lots of postal votes to be had. In Cumbria's 2,500 square miles and 269 villages there are lots of muddy farm tracks and postal votes! It's a big county; some would argue that it is too big. That's why unitary status is in the manifesto. Fewer councils and fewer councillors.
So why should anyone vote Conservative? Key Conservative message? Cut costs, not services. The key question perhaps is how much will national politics influence local results? There is no doubt that, in some parts of Cumbria, it will be a factor. Nonetheless, we are going to the electorate with a good slogan: "A record of action; a promise of more".
By 2015, the county council will have reduced its expenditure by £137m. Thus far, we have cut £88m from our budget and we have managed to do so with without seriously impacting on front-line services. We have not closed libraries, children's centres, recycling centres and so on, but we have reduced staffing by nearly 10% throughout the Authority… and no one seems to have noticed except, of course, those who have left us and most of those went through a voluntary redundancy deal. Clearly, we were over-manned! Also we have seriously reduced top management… and still the job gets done!
The gospel preached was not restructuring or reorganisation – we have had far too much of that – but re-engineering, value analysis to the business community. It's not new. Well it might be in parts of Cumbria! In a nutshell, it demands how can we do the job at less cost and get at least the same if not better results? Every department, every directorate has been through the same process. .
Contrary, perhaps, to received wisdom, as major contracts have finished we have brought the service back in house; highways (except for major re-surfacing work), grounds maintenance, ICT, HR and much more. Why? Because, almost by definition, contracts lack flexibility and we found we could do it more cheaply than the private sector could or would; having our own in-house work force improves the council's responsiveness… and we don't have to pay more for those little extras.
Re-engineering. Re-design. It does work. Across more than 820 different functions. So, yes, we have frozen the council tax for the third year (thank you, Eric), school standards have certainly improved, we have built new schools and extended others, increased apprenticeships, looked after 8,000 kms of rights of way, invested heavily in our Fire and Rescue Services and built new fire stations, raised the profile of Trading Standards, improved care homes, sold a record number of surplus properties …
In fact, all Directorates are showing incremental improvements. We are consolidating. By any measure, it's a very good track record. On reflection, I would vote for the local Tories! We are certainly much more efficient and more effective. And we have even settled, once and for all, Single Status. But will all of that be enough to convince the electorate? Well it might be if candidates get door-knocking … and we have no more daft ideas like a pasty tax! And in case anyone in CCHQ actually reads this (and fellow-Conservatives want to know how it can be done), Cumbria has not declared UDI, it is still part of England, and it's right up there in the top left hand corner.
You can't miss it!