Andrew Kennedy is the Group Agent & Campaign Director in West Kent. He blogs at www.votingandboating.blogspot.com.
The Party’s new Local Government selection rules are, on balance, an improvement, bringing further clarity to the composition of the Local Government Selection Panel, the appeals process and, perhaps most importantly, the replacement of the convoluted rule about “branches can run their own selections if the membership is at least two per cent of the Conservative vote at the most recent election”.
But five pages of rules and procedures about how we select our council candidates are of little use if the incumbent is automatically reselected if no-one else applues, or if the pool in which we fish for talent is so shallow that all we can catch is grey mullet. And, regrettably, as Associations stumble on with little training and support, apart from access to printed “Best Practice” guides, so the soft skills required to identify and develop not just potential council candidates but the leaders of tomorrow continue to wither on the vine.
Just over two years ago I recruited a hundred volunteers to each hand-address a thousand envelopes as part of our general election GOTV campaign. A chap in his mid-20s turned up to collect supplies for his mother, who had offered to help. As with every new face, I engaged him in conversation. He was also a Party member and had been so for ten years but, until that day, the only contact he had had with his local Association was three letters a year – one asking him to pay his subscription, another asking him to buy summer draw tickets and the third to buy Christmas draw tickets.
In those ten years he had not been contacted, not been asked to help, not been invited to a social or political event and not been welcomed. The happy ending to this story is that last year he was one of our hardest working council candidates and, this year, he became Association Chairman – part of a new and young officer team trying to turn around a somewhat moribund and inward-looking Association.
Whether the need is for a branch fundraiser, a campaign session or to identify volunteers, I have lost count of the times I have heard: “well, I sent everyone an email and very few responded.” That is the trouble with emails: they are fast, they are easy, and they are transient. If you have ever said to yourself “Oh, it’s just another email asking me to buy a “Theresa May tea towel made for everyone”, there is no reason to believe your equally time-restricted members won’t do the same when your email pings into their inbox – saying “Oh, it’s just another email from that woman asking me to be a candidate” , before firmly hitting the delete button.
Last year in Tonbridge, we faced a difficult by-election in a ward which had been solidly Labour for over 60 years. We narrowly won it in 2007 after recruiting a local community activist as candidate, and even then only at her third attempt. Following her death, the expectation was that without her name on the ballot paper the seat would almost certainly revert to Labour.
Having exhausted our database in previous years, I knew there was no obvious candidate amongst our older members, so I trawled through the many new members who joined post-referendum, and this included looking at what was publicly available about them on their social media profiles. One potential candidate lived in the ward and ran the local youth football team. The other was born and bred in the ward and had been educated at the local school; her grandfather chaired the local community centre, and she had run campaigns using local bands to dissuade teenagers from drug and substance abuse.
I arranged to meet them both for coffee and to explain the work of a local councillor; and both agreed to put their names forward. Fortunately, the man had just become a father, and so wanted to wait until 2019, but the woman was subsequently selected and was the perfect by-election candidate – well-known on the doorsteps, respected for her community work and hugely popular. We held the seat with 62 per cent of the vote on one of the biggest swings to the Conservatives last year. What is interesting about the above case is that both candidates had received emails from us asking if they would like to be a candidate, and neither replied. Indeed, when I asked them, neither recalled having received the email – another example of why personal contact is vital when it comes to identifying and nurturing future talent.
Across the six constituencies of the West Kent Group, we cover four district councils and overlap with three more. In a full electoral cycle, we need to find 328 local government candidates. Identifying and training so many candidates is a major part of my work, but I also try to ensure we have an available pool of talent so that branches have options and do not have to “settle” for Hobson’s Choice. For example, this year over half of our county council divisions had contested selections. All but two incumbents were reselected, but the process highlighted the fact that the post was not a sinecure, and having to explain their record an set-out their campaign plans was helpful in focussing minds on the task ahead.
There are many ways the West Kent Group identify and recruit potential local government candidates:
- Adverts in local newspapers.
- Professionally designed postcards in shop windows and noticeboards
Mailshots to parish councillors, Townswomen’s Guilds, Rotarians, Neighbourhood Watch Groups, Women’s Institute Groups and similar community-minded organisations.
- Adverts in In Touch newsletters and on surveys (a recent Voter ID survey to 10,000 residents in one County Council Division identified almost 20 potential LG candidates). And even our MPs will sometimes put a paragraph about the importance of good people putting themselves forward for local government and directing those interested to their respective political organisations.
Throughout the year, all potential candidates are logged and nurtured, and about two months before the selection process starts they are invited to an open evening with other potential candidates. They hear from one of our council leaders about the work of local government, and then from me about what will be expected of them in terms of campaigning and political involvement. I think it is important that all applicants are fully aware that they will not only be expected to campaign, but also to support the political and social life of their Association. Finally, over wine and food they have a one-to-one session with an incumbent councillor about their work in the community. This councillor will go on to be their mentor if they proceed with the application.
Overall, about 25 per cent of people who originally express an interest end up being interviewed and selected, and many go on to be outstanding campaigners and councillors. Too often, I fear we take the line of least resistance because it is easier than the alternative. I believe we owe it to our members, our supporters and most importantly our communities to do better.