Monday, October 05, 2009

In Praise of Party Agents

Yesterday evening I gave an after dinner speech at the Conservative Conference to 180 party agents and their guests. I will admit to being somewhat nervous at the prospect having been to one or two of these boozy events in the past. However, I shouldn't have worried as they were all in the mood for a laugh and the speech went very well. Unusually for me I actually wrote a script. Normally when I give after dinner speeches I might make a few notes during the course of the meal, but for such a big event I decided that to wing it might be a little dangerous.

As well as the funny bits, I went to great lengths to tell the agents how much I value their work on behalf of the party. It was just as well I was there to do that as there were hardly any elected representatives there - a single MP (Charles Hendry) and four MEPs. What a disgrace. No wonder the agents feel unloved and unwanted. These are the people who are fighting the ground war. Even if this internet age, their work is absolutely vital. It is often a truism that a candidate is only as good as their agent. A good agent can be worth hundreds if not thousands of votes. Here's a short extract from the serious bit of the speech

I have always been a staunch supporters of party agents. I learnt my politics at the feet of the great Phyllis Reeve and Audrey Barker in Norwich, when Dawn Bayman and Geoffrey Harper were leading lights in Eastern Area. I remember Geoffrey once saying “The best election is one when the candidate goes on holiday from the Nomination Day till 5 minutes after the declaration”.

At the last count I have played my own part I recruiting more than a dozen agents to the party over the years. I think it is true to say that in many cases, a candidate is only as good as their agent. But too few candidates in this party enjoy the services of a professionally trained agent. That is slowly changing, but it is far too slow. I was horrified to find out that CCHQ blew half a million pounds on an advertising campaign to recruit Friends of the Conservative Party – the campaign recruited only a few hundred people. Just think how many agents that money would have trained.

I remain an absolute supporter of the profession – and it is a profession. It’s not a 9 to 5 job, it’s very badly paid and you all have to deal with people who you wouldn’t normally allow over your doorstep – and that’s just the MPs.

How many MPs are there here tonight? Thought so. Let me tell you, in the unlikely event of me ever becoming an MP I would regard it as my duty to attend this dinner, to say thank you for all the hard work you put in on our collective behalves throughout the year.

We all, and I include candidates, MPs and agents in this, we all have a job of work to do over the next seven months – and I don’t just mean winning the election. We all have to show that politics can be an honourable profession and that it’s mostly inhabited by good people. We can’t achieve that in just seven months but I do think that as well as fixing the economy, restoring people’s trust in politics and politicians is going to be the key challenge of a Cameron government.

MPs have got to stop feeling sorry for themselves – let’s face it no one else does . Candidates need to show they’re going to honour the people who elect them by being transparent and honest, and agents need to do what they do best. And that’s win elections.

So enjoy the week, don’t talk to journalists, certainly don’t talk to bloggers, be nice to the 'legal necessities' [candidates] and then spend the next seven months slogging your guts out. And in me you’ve got someone who will always appreciate it.

And I meant it.


Anonymous said...

We were told that the Lisbon treaty changed nothing so there was no need to have a referendum.

How is creating an unelected president of Europe changing nothing?

Unsworth said...

Well said. And it is a disgrace that no (OK, one and four MEPs) MPs turned up. The Conservatives really need to get their act together now. Part of that is ensuring decent communication with those on the ground - and part of that is turning up to dinners such as this. Noblesse Oblige.

There's a real danger that the central machinery will become the master, rather than the servant. Look what happened to the Labour Party - and learn.

Anonymous said...

As the Party's professional campaigners, Agents were regularly drawn together to get an update on the state of the campaign nationally, give feedback and to get a heads up new techniques etc; this happened about every 18 months on average with Agents from all over the UK attending.

Number of meetings post Michael Howard 2005?


Amount of nonsense talked about joined up campaigns?

chest high

When the s**t flies in a nasty General Election I fear it it will be the derided ground troops and Agents doing the fighting amidst a sea of panicking spin doctors, malfunctioning IT and whingeing 'A' listers, I hope I am wrong.

Anonymous said...

Not the best accompanying photo, Iain! People heading for the exits, empty chairs - and the lady in front looks to be contemplating "pills - or wrists?"......

True Belle said...

Boris Johnson spoke with great humour and clarity on Breakfast BeebTV this morning re Lisbon and Blair.

We do need some decisions ASAP .

Agents work their socks off and have to deal with recalcitrant Tory councillors too + all the usual nonsense re phone calls etc.

Tory agents can be as lazy or as productive as they want if their PPC is amenable!

Mike Love said...

A big thank you for your praise for Conservative Party agents following your after dinner address.

As a former party agent, I would like to say that your kind words are greatly appreciated by all of us who have, and those who continue, to serve the Conservative Party professionally.

Your reference to the dinner reminded me of the annual agent’s dinner at party conference in 1989. In those days, the Prime Minister used to be the after dinner speaker at each annual event flanked by several members of her cabinet. In that year, Mrs Thatcher had asked me to contribute to her address and I had drafted for her a little self deprecating story that acknowledged as a Member of Parliament that Agents often described candidates at election time as “the legal necessity” because legally you had to have a candidate t fight the election, but otherwise they didn’t add much to the campaign! The Prime Minister read the line that her agent had told her that “candidates were a legal necessity” , received the smiles, laughs and applause and then paused and added “but I have to tell him and you…that some of us are a lot more necessary than others”. She was applauded to the rafters – the cheers were deafening. Sadly, just a year later her own MPs failed to hear the advice.

judith said...

Agree with you totally, Iain, CCHQ should be spending money on funding well-trained constituency agents rather than silly campaigns.

Anonymous said...

Paid agents????


strapworld said...

How times change! My father was an agent in the fifties and sixties.

Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan, when Prime Minister attended the dinner. Ted Heath did and most cabinet/shadow cabinet members and most if not all MP's.

It is an absolute disgrace. You speech was right last night and, if you have the opportunity, you should demand answers from Cameron and his team plus any MP/MEP you bump into.

Shame these people. They rely so much on agents and obviously treat them as second class citizens.

I am disgusted and am writing an email to Cameron asking why he did not attend!

Verity said...

Strapworld, Cameron and his cohorts didn't attend because they are delusional enough to think they have this election wrapped up. And, given the public's hatred of Brown and Labour, in normal circumstances, they would be right.

What David Cameron fails and fails and fails to recognise is, there is no hunger for him among the electorate.

Chris Rose said...

I am amazed and appalled that no senior member of the party turned up to this do. Very sad. Very poor.

Michaela said...

Iain- We want to read some of your gags or will you be using them again in your stand up routine later this week? !

Norfolk Blogger said...

My experience of Tory agents has almost be exlcusively positive, and I speak as a Lib Dem.

Perhaps that is why we have done so well in recent years in these parts.

The Grim Reaper said...

Is there any chance Guido can use that picture in his caption competition on Friday? I see no end of fun with it...

Thatsnews said...

Nice speech. It's that kind of speech that bucks up the spirits.