Conservatives

The big artillery rolls into Rochester...but will voters care?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, October 17 2014

We were promised that the Conservatives would blitz Rochester and Strood with the party's big hitters and hundreds of activists and for once, no-one can accuse a political party of breaking its pledge.

The frenzy of activity will reach a new level this weekend when the Conservative machine deploys a reported 1,000 activists to Kent to drum up support for a still unknown candidate.

Buses will be bringing down this army from London to distribute leaflets, knock on doors and generally remind us - as if we needed to - that there is a byelection going on.

There is every chance that they will bump into Ukip activists, who are doing much the same with supporters coming from outside the county to rally behind its candidate.

For the Conservatives, this strategy is all about signalling that - unike Clacton - they will not roll over and are going to be putting up a fight to stem Ukip's purple wave. It is as much about the deep loathing for Nigel Farage as it is for defector Mark Reckless.

And there is clearly no love lost between the Ukip leader and Mr Cameron, who said that if voters plumped for Ukip "all they are doing is giving Nigel Farage the chance to have a long gloat in the pub."

Much of this activity is designed for media consumption, of course, but you do wonder if the high-intensity strategy might prove counter-productive if it carries on at such a velocity until November 20.

For the Conservatives, the risk is that while it will be effective in shoring up support from core supporters, it gives the impression that it is concerned about the outcome. Cameron's own personal involvement means that if Ukip does produce a coup, his leadership will come under the spotlight. I suspect that the game plan is as much about trying not to lose badly as it is about trying to win.

The other risk is that the scale of activity only serves to remind supporters of other parties lacking similar battalions of activists (and deep pockets) that there is an election going on.

Still, anyone who does not like politics or politicians may be advised not to answer the door for the next four weeks.

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The Conservatives deserve some credit for opening up its selection process to all voters in Rochester and Strood, although the compressed timetable has rather limited the amount of time for residents to get to know the two who were shortlisted well.

Its big event was the hustings meeting this week in the Rochester Corn Exchange, which was open to everyone. That is everyone but not journalists from the national media.

They were kept out as party managers had decreed that only local media could attend, which meant myself and Radio Kent.

This provoked some tension behind the scenes, with Professor Tim Luckhurst from the Centre For Journalism,- who chaired the event, along with invited guest Dr Sarah Woolaston MP, suggesting unsuccessfully that the ban be reconsidered.

It wasn't and the net result, unsurprisingly, was that the national media turned away at the door rmade the ban the focus of their reports rather than what was said at the meeting.

And to rub it in, managed to get a transcript of the event anyway.

In fact, both candidates acquitted themselves well and had interesting things to say, not least on immigration.

Whoever gets the nod will be in a high-pressure political cauldron for four weeks and under forensic scrutiny from the media.

This week's hustings could have been useful acclimatisation.

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Professor Luckhurst says the Conservatives made a mistake in having only selected media present.

"I believe the Conservative Party’s decision to exclude from the hustings journalists from national newspapers and broadcasters  was foolish and entirely unnecessary. Freedom of speech is a core democratic principle and no political party should restrict it.”

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When Labour leader Ed Miliband turned up in the County Town of Maidstone last year for the county council election campaign, he did so to demonostrate that there were no "no-go" areas for the party.

It's early days but in comparison to Ukip and the Conservatives, Labour appears to be taking a low key approach to the fight for Rochester and Strood. No single comment has come from a senior member of the party's leadership about the election to date.

Perhaps it is waiting for the Conservative bandwagon to run out of puff.

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You can't draw too much by way of portents for November 20 from a council ward by-election where only one in five voters bothered to exercise their vote but Ukip notched up a small victory in Kent this week when it romped to victory in the Sheppey Central ward in Swale.

And it was pretty comprehensive, too with the victoriuos candidate getting nearly 60% of the vote.


 



 

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Categories: Conservatives

How the race to become Kent's first elected police commissioner was won...and lost

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Sunday, November 18 2012

Conventional wisdom has it that elections are lost rather than won. In the case of the race to become the county's first elected police commissioner, it was a case of both.

Ann Barnes, an independent, deftly exploited the public unease that there was something wrong about the idea of having a party politician in charge of policing - even in a strategic role - and exploited it for all it was worth. She was aided by the fact that the issue of policing independence was also dominating campaigns elsewhere and media coverage duly reflected that. It is worth noting that she was not the only independent voted in on Friday - five others were, too.

The campaign never really got into the issues that it probably ought to have been about - which candidate had the best and most credible manifesto for cutting crime and making our towns and villages safer.

To the extent that it did, all six candidates pretty much said the same thing - more visible policing, a crackdown on drug dealers, better value for money etc - leaving voters, already perplexed at the whole concept, wondering just what the difference was between them in any case.

For the Conservative team in Kent - who I am told knew on Thursday they had lost and had tipped off Central Office to tell them so - the frustration was that they were seen as the party that was responsible for "politicising" the police and were tainted by association, no matter how many times Craig Mackinlay, who deserves credit for accepting defeat graciously,  declared he was his own man.

Still, it was a bitter defeat for the Conservatives, who tried unsuccessfully to portray Ann Barnes as a Liberal Democrat in disguise and actually fought a reasonably solid and clear campaign.

But they knew that even among their own supporters, there was disquiet about the idea and plenty chose not to vote or if they did, either backed Ann Barnes or chose her as their second candidate - or simply stayed at home.

Ann Barnes' campaign worked because it struck a chord with people and that chord kept playing throughout the entire campaign. It was a simple, coherent message and she was even able to avoid too much focus on the fact that she had, as chairman of the police authority, spoken out against the whole idea.

Of course, winning the election is one thing. She now has the arguably much more important job of implementing her crime plan and dealing with the shrinking police budget. Overshadowing that is the story of the arrests of five officers facing accusations of manipulating crime figures.

It will not be easy and as a candidate who has vowed not to countenance more cuts to the budget, she may face some awkward decisions. One of the problems with commissioners is that they will be balancing want against need in a much more direct fashion than the appointed police authorities.

And it would be naive to expect any commissioner not to have one eye on their popularity with the public as their term of office gets underway. They know, even if they are independent, that come the next election, they will be judged on results and whether crime has been cut.

The debate about politicising the police will no longer have quite the resonance it did this time round.

Like it or not, Ann Barnes will be just as much a political figure as anyone who comes from a mainstream party political background.

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Categories: Conservatives | Politics

County councillors wield the axe...over themselves.

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Monday, January 24 2011

Councillors can get a bit touchy about their allowances and at £1.8m last year, you can understand why KCC 84 members might find the subject of how much it costs the taxpayer a little sensitive.

So, let's give them one cheer for understanding that as they preside over a budget making £95m of savings, they ought to look to themselves to see if they can save the taxpayer a bit of cash. (I'll gloss over the number of times that I've been told by various councillors that much as they'd like to do something, the council is tightly bound by the recommendations of the independent remuneration panel that makes them. They are not and never have been).

Councillors allowances to be cut>>>

Some £200,000 is to be chopped from the budget for members' allowances and various options are being weighed up - including an across-the-board cut for all members.

There will, in any case, be some savings because of the re-organisation underway at County Hall that will see the number of directorates slimmed down and the word is that will mean a smaller cabinet, which at some point will mean a potentially interesting re-shuffle. Currently, each cabinet member gets a special responsibility allowance of £23k on top of a basic allowance of £13k.

But if I was looking at where the axe might fall, it'd be on the number of councillors who have jobs as deputy cabinet members. There are 13 councillors in such posts and they each get £11,837 on top of their basic allowance. If I was in one of these roles - and there are a lot of them - I'd be feeling a little anxious just now.   

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No surprise that the Conservatives won the by-election for the KCC division of Tonbridge following the death of Godfrey Horne. The result provides KCC with its first mother-daughter team - the winning candidate was Alice Hohler, the daughter of Sarah Hohler, cabinet member for education.

Alice romped home with a healthy majority of 2,013 but it was a grim night for the Lib Dems. Its candidate polled 561 votes against the 3079 the party's two candidates who contested the division in the 2009 election secured and to add to the party's discomfort, got beaten into second place by Labour, who in 2009 were did so poorly, they got beaten by UKIP.

All of which suggests that disaffected Lib Dem supporters are gravitating to Labour while the Conservative vote is holding up reasonably well in its safe territory. So, along with deputy cabinet members, these are anxious times for Liberal Democrats ahead of May's locall elections.

 

 

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Categories: Conservatives | Councillors pay | Local Politics

Between a rock and a hard place: KCC's care homes plan

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Thursday, January 13 2011

KCC would have known many months ago that its proposals for a shake-up of its remaining care homes would touch a raw nerve, which is one of the reasons it embarked on such a lengthy consultation and took pains to hold countless public meetings.

Care homes inevitably have an emotional resonance for families and the upheaval involved in closing homes can trigger great anxiety. No-one could accuse social services chiefs of being either insensitive or unaware of these feelings but at the end of the day, it has opted to make no changes at all to the original proposals, which will unfortunately and probably unfairly make it look rather cavalier.

Where the authority has perhaps been a little disingenuous is in its argument that this is not about money.

It is, for the very simple reason that the costs of providing in-house care far outstrip the costs of buying care in the independent sector. This was reinforced at a cabinet meeting this week, when in a presentation about the proposals, an officer made the point that KCC's costs were double what it would need to pay in the private sector.

Furthermore, KCC has always made it plain that it doesn't have the cash to do up the homes it runs to the standards it wants - again, a money related motivation.

And in a press statement about the decision issued today, the council makes much of the fact that its decision for Bowles Lodge at Hawkhurst, Cornfields at Dover and Manorbrooke at Dartford will see a £70m investment by using the sites for extra care housing schemes, built in partnership with district councils.

That's £70m that with the best will in the world, even the most prudent county council would never be able to lay its hands on.

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I was among the hundreds of people who suffered the consequences of the latest fiasco on Southeastern rail services yesterday as I struggled to get to London.

So, too was Private Eye editor Ian Hislop who joined the train at Staplehurst at the very moment that an announcement was made that it was stuck in a growing queue behind a broken down freight train and was not going anywhere at any time soon. Even though the breakdown happened at 7.30am no-one had the foresight to alert Ashford station.

There was much derision from angry passengers when a guard appeared and said the train was to have been diverted via the Maidstone line but the driver "did not have a licence" for that particular line - a very novel excuse.

The surreal nature of events took another twist when we all trooped over to the other side of the line to return to Ashford to get a fast train to London. Having been told that the London-bound train was not going anywhere, guess what it did a few minutes later? Yes, move off in the direction of London...

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Categories: Conservatives | Politics | Protests | Southeastern

Vince should have kept things Strictly professional

by The Business Blog, with Trevor Sturgess Thursday, December 23 2010

Vince Cable is no buffoon but he is increasingly looking like one.

He was a thoughtful analyst of the global financial crisis, talking more sense than many other politicians. 

He was a “big beast” in the rather limited Lib Dem firmament who cut a heavyweight figure when it came to choosing David Cameron’s Cabinet.

He was a natural for the Business Secretary role, and he brought a refreshing sceptical style to the role. It was encouraging, for example, to hear him denouncing banks and their bonus obscene culture instead of the half-hearted rap on the knuckles with a feather duster.

In this, he was on the side of the public who have suffered in recession, lost jobs, faced diminishing income from pay freezes, low interest savings rates, and above-target inflation.

In other words, he was one of the more acceptable Cabinet faces.

But then he blows it.

Why does he ruin his reputation when a couple of young doe-eyed “constituents” – aka Telegraph reporters – flutter their eyelids over his constituency office desk.

How can he be so naïve as to fall for this honey trap?

Increasingly, his absurd hat and appearance on Strictly Come Dancing special make him look foolish.

It is worrying for the business community that someone of whom they had such high hopes has let them down by demeaning the image of their sector.

Business already has a tough enough time convincing the public it is a good thing without their main representative in government bringing the subject into disrepute.

What a shame! Vince, who owes keeping his job to the fact that he’s a senior Lib Dem – Tory Lord Young was fired like a Lord Sugar apprentice after saying far less than Cable -  may now be on borrowed time, with David Laws waiting in the wings for rehabilitation in the Cabinet.

He has a lot of rebuilding to do if he is to restore a semblance of respect.

As for the Telegraph’s investigation, what a scoop. Brilliant idea, well executed. After the MPs’ expenses revelations, expect more awards for the Torygraph. 

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Categories: Business | Conservatives | Government

Labour's by-election win. Plus the debate on the debate that didn't take place at County Hall

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, December 17 2010

It's been a pretty grim couple of years on the electoral front for Labour in the county over the last two years. Routed at the 2009 KCC election, where they lost 20 of their 22 seats, the party was wiped off the map completely when it contrived to lose every single MP in May.

So I don't suppose we should be surprised that it is rather gleeful about a modest victory in the county council by-election  in the Dover Town division yesterday, caused by the death of Roger Frayne.

They narrowly pipped the Conservatives to make a gain, bringing their number to three on the county council. Whether this represents anything really significant on the political landscape of the county is a moot point. The turnout was pathetic at 15 per cent but I guess the weather and the approach of Christmas meant people had other things on their mind.

I'm not sure, as Labour group leader at KCC Les Christie has suggested, that this represents "the beginning of the return of the Labour Party to holding its traditional seats of power in Kent" and the result "is a clear reaction to the slash and burn policies of the coalition government.”

But a win is a win. And Labour has been short of that for a while. And one interesting consequence is that it means that Labour should now qualify as a political group at County  Hall, meaning it will get more representation on some committees.

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There was a debate at County Hall yesterday about the fact that there was not a debate. It's in the nature of the weird way local politics works and the constitutional quirks of council meetings that such things can happen.

The debate that did take place focused on why there was to be no debate on Ofsted's highly critical report into KCC's inadequacy in dealing with vulnerable children. Opposition parties quizzed the Conservative administration why the report was not to be the subject of a separate debate at the full council meeting, arguing that the findings were so serious that it deserved to be.

I'm inclined to think they had a point although quite whether any such debate would have materially altered anything in terms of how KCC is responding is open to question.

But maybe that wasn't the point. Sometimes our politicians need to be seen to be taking certain issues seriously and there can hardly be a more serious issue. The paradox is that in having a debate about whether there should have been a debate, the issue did indirectly get a hearing anyway.

Labour made a half-hearted call for resignations and made much about councillors being stifled. For the Conservatives, leader Paul Carter left no-one in any doubt that action is being taken - including the appointment of three interim senior managers from outside the authority to address the situation.

If there are to be resignations, it won't be now. KCC has given itself a year to turn things around. If it hasn't heads are bound to roll but I get the impression that the council is really trying to get to grips with the challenge.

 

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Categories: Conservatives | democracy | Local Politics | Politics

So, exactly how much money will KCC need to save next year?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, December 14 2010

To help people understand how the government works out how much councils ought to get in grants to fund services next year, the Department for Communities and Local Government has helpfully published a "plain English" guide outlining how it all works. It runs to nine densely-worded pages and includes this gem:

"In the past, Government has set a single floor to limit the effects of changes from year to year. This is called damping. Instead of a single floor, this year councils have been grouped into four bands with four different floors." (Four bands on four floors? In other circumstances, that might represent a good night out).

Welcome to the impenetrable world of council funding. No wonder we have a bizarre situation in which Kent County Council can claim it needs to save £90m next year and local government minister Eric Pickles can claim that he's only reducing grants to KCC by £18.5m. And no wonder people find all this technical mumbo-jumbo, frankly, a bit of a turn off. 

Who is right? Well, KCC makes a fair point when it says that the settlement doesn't adequately reflect inflationary pressures or the rising demand for services from some quarters, such as elderly care.

As always, the debate about who is right serves as a pre-amble to the now traditional blame shifting exercise that goes on when councils do fix their budgets. But I suspect even that that will be overshadowed when KCC and others begin to publish their spending plans and have to set out exactly where the axe will fall.

KCC leader Paul Carter did not come across as overly pessimistic when I spoke to him for his reaction to Mr Pickles' announcement, hinting that he had a few things up his sleeve that might mitigate some of the cuts although job losses are another thing altogether.

We will see but expect to hear a lot about "innovation" come January and a greater emphasis on the authority's money-spinnig commercial enterprises.

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There's clearly a bit of restlessness among some Conservative backbenchers, meanwhile, about KCC's plans for a shake-up of the way it is run and a re-organisation of senior managers.

The "Change to Keep Succeeding" programme got a bit of a mauling when it was recently discussed by KCC's Governance and Audit committee, with councillors clearly vexed by certain aspects of the plans - the most vexing being their scepticism that it won't really go far enough in terms of slimming down the number of senior directors and appears not to be saving terribly much money (£477k apparently).

That wily old veteran Cllr Keith Ferrin revealed he had already been “very rude” about it elsewhere and said he could not quite believe “that anybody has the guts to put such rubbish in front of us.”

The normally mild-mannered Cllr Richard Parry wanted to know why the number of top officers had not been “significantly reduced” adding “29 to 24 [directors] is an inadequate reduction.”

Cllr Roland Tolputt was clearly exasperated by the fact that so many directors needed PAs.

Opposition Lib Dem Tim Prater joined in, saying that if a reduction of directors from 29 to 24 was really going to tackle County Hall’s black hole of £340m “we really do need a review of staff salaries.”

It was left to cabinet member John Simmonds to hold the party line but his appeal to give the planned reforms a fair wind appeared to have not been that persuasive.

 

 

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Categories: Conservatives | Councils | Politics

Will Gove's school revolution make the grade? Plus: Why MPs are powerless over rail fare hike

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, November 24 2010

I've got a feeling of deja vu listening to and reading about Michael Gove's blueprint for driving up classroom standards. There's lots of talk about tradition - natural Conservative territory - the desire to see more pupils wearing blazers and ties and an emphasis on improving the quality of teaching. (Although I couldn't spot the word "diversity" anywhere which was littered through most of the Labour government's various reforms)

Somewhere in amongst it, there are also references to houses and prefects. It all sounds vaguely redolent of Hogwarts so I was slightly surprised to hear no mention of Quidditch and wizadry skills being introduced to the curriculum.

Of course, one traditional feature of education provision is already undergoing radical reform - namely, the role of councils and what future they will play as Gove stirs up a cauldron of reforms.

The issue was touched on by county councillors at a cross-party committee scrutiny meeting at County Hall today and it was hard to avoid the conclusion that many are struggling to grasp the ramifications of changes which will radically diminish their input.

One of the consequences of drives by this government and its predecessor to give schools more autonomy has been to leave councils with less and less direct involvement in schools (although they continue to provide vital support services.)

This has been a deliberate. The Gove mantra is that schools know best how to educate, not distant overly-bureaucratic councils.

That is why we are seeing a new generation of academies and, in time, free schools - ironically, charged with the job of "innovating" new methods of teaching, although presumably only as long as students are dressed in formal suits.

But what happens when things go wrong at a school? Where are the local checks and balances? Where is the accountability? There was a time when education authorities had the job of intervening and acting to ensure that things improved. Interestingly, their statutory responsibilities in this area are steadily being eroded.

Kent's first academy, The Marlowe Academy in Ramsgate, has just been given a notice to improve by Ofsted. But as an academy, it is detached from KCC which will have absolutely no role in tackling the school's shortcomings. (Perversely, as part of Gove's vision to haul up under-performing schools, the Marlowe could in time be "taken over" by the government and forced to become, er, an academy...)

Conservative backbencher Cllr Kit Smith articulated the general frustration felt by many at this impotence with some pointed remarks at today's meeting. "We as KCC have some form of moral responsibility to make sure children get the best education they can. These are our children for the future and if they have a bad experience at school, that reflects on our county. While the government has taken away our statutory responsibility, we still have  a moral responsibility...it would be irresponsible of us as county council not to."

Who would quibble with such sentiments?

Sadly, in the brave new world of academies, free schools, ties and blazers, no-one appears to give much for moral responsibility, let alone local accountability.

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Kent Conservative MPs have been quick to condemn the astronomic rises in rail fares for hard-pressed commuters but they, too, are impotent and unable to do anything.

More commuter woe for Kent's rail users>>>

Why? Well, as several have been quick to point out, the fares regime is tied in to complex franchise agreements determined by the previous government and the changes permitted for regulated and non-regulated tickets.

Which means that for the time being, MPs can roundly condemn the increases - but when it comes to representing the interests of passengers or pressurising for some respite, can't actually do terribly much other than sound off about how dreadful it all is.

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Categories: Conservatives | Education | Local Politics | National Politics

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