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Friday, April 13, 2007 

Conservatives piss on cross-party cooperation

Surrey Advertiser - 13 April 2007

There is no way that the Surrey Advertiser could be described as partisan in its general output or editorial content, which makes this stand that they have taken all the more significant...

Surrey Advertiser - Tories' hospital tactic 'is unhealthy': Guildford Tories are using the threat facing services at the Royal Surrey County Hospital to try and retain political control of the borough council in next month's election. Party campaigners in the borough have billed themselves on the ballot papers for the local election on May 3 as Conservatives: Stop the Hospital Cuts. However, whatever political party is in charge at Millmead after polling day they will have no influence on the plight of the Egerton Road hospital. As with every other borough authority in the country, Guildford Council has control over leisure, rubbish collection and recycling, but no say on the future of the NHS. The Conservative tactic of using the groundswell of support for the hospital in the borough election has angered many.

For those who don't understand the reasoning behind this measure, here it is in a nutshell:

The ballot papers for the local elections will display each candidate's name, address and, under a 'description' field, their party status - i.e. which party they belong to or if they are standing as an independent.

What the Tories appear to be doing is using the latter 'description' field for campaigning purposes - they want to reach those uninformed/undecided voters at the very moment that their pencil hovers over the paper and convince them that voting for the Conservative candidate(s) will help to save the Royal Surrey Hospital from closure.

Yes, slipping campaign material into a ballot paper in this way does appear to be legal, but that and the following mealy-mouthed defence (from the article linked above) just doesn't cut it, not least because the Conservatives' general turnaround on their approach to NHS matters is a recent and downright cynical one...

Surrey Advertiser - Tories' hospital tactic 'is unhealthy': Tony Rooth, Guildford Conservative Association chairman, who is also defending his borough council seat in the Pilgrims Ward, said the use of "Stop the Hospital Cuts” under the party description was appropriate. "Nationally, the Conservative Party has taken a major interest in the fight to stop hospital cuts and we in Guildford have been the same," he added. "On the doorsteps, the Royal Surrey is the electorate's major interest, above almost anything else, and they are concerned about what will happen with their health and wellbeing."

What makes the measure even more reprehensible is that:

a) the candidates listed in this way - if elected - will have no formal say in the future of the Royal Surrey Hospital, and this suggests otherwise

b) the campaign to save the Royal Surrey Hospital has been a cross-party effort, and this suggests otherwise

c) this measure drastically undermines the trust that is so vital to cross-party cooperation

d) this measure is potentially damaging to the integrity of the hospital campaign in general

There has been an *exceptional* level of cross-party cooperation in the effort to save the Royal Surrey from closure for one very good reason; it can easily be said without fear of hyperbole that lives are at stake.

By registering the name 'Conservatives: Stop the Hospital Cuts' with the Electoral Commission and presenting almost every Conservative candidate in the Guildford Borough under this banner, the Tories have sought to capitalise on the issue in the most cynical and damaging way possible.

Actually... wait... hold the phone... that's unfair. I'll withdraw that last part and instead say this:

*Certain* Tories have sought to capitalise on the issue in the most cynical and damaging way possible... and now we come to the part that the Surrey Advertiser hasn't quite managed to nail down... yet:

The editorial at the top of this post suggests that there is some uncertainty as to whether this is the brainchild of local Conservatives or Conservative Central Office.

Let's try to find out together, shall we?

CLUE #1 -

Election information for each of the Guildford Borough Wards.

With the exception of Ash South & Tongham, Ash Vale and Ash Wharf, each ward lists the Conservative candidates from the Guildford Borough as highlighted below (in blue):

Guildford Borough

Election information for each of the Waverley Borough Wards (PDF).

Without exception, each ward lists every Conservative candidate from the Waverley Borough as highlighted below (in blue):

Waverley Borough

Waverley Borough borders Guildford Borough, and most of the Borough of Waverley falls within the Royal Surrey catchment area; the potential closure of that hospital is just as big an issue here as it is in our neighbouring borough.

Simple logic dictates that any instruction to capitalise on the Royal Surrey issue - if it came from Conservative Central Office - would have been issued to the Waverley Tory team as well as the Guildford Tory team.

What this leaves us with is a very good likelihood that - if the instruction did come from Conservative Central Office - then it was resisted at a local level here in Waverley. That the 'Ash' series of Guildford wards did not take part would seem to reinforce this.

Either way, someone in Guildford thought this was a good idea, which leads us to...

CLUE #2 -

This is not only a deeply cynical move... it's a desperate and downright stupid one. And by that I mean really, really dumb.

This sleight-of-hand may fool that (hopefully) small number of people who know little-or-nothing about local politics and yet actually bother to vote, but it sends an unquestionable message of "Thanks for all the help, now get stuffed!" to everybody the Conservatives are going to need cooperation from in the coming years.

The measure also serves to undermine the reputation of local Conservative activists, candidates and representatives who actually have some integrity. (Yes folks, they do exist.)

So... who do we know that holds a position of authority in Guildford, has a track record of being two-faced, and is so incredibly and irrepressibly thick-headed that they might just think that this was a good idea?


Anne Milton

CLUE #3 -

Regular readers of this blog may recall that the not-at-all-local Anne Milton played a cheeky game with the ballot information system during the 2005 general election by using the address of a single-bedroom flat in Guildford instead of her actual residential address in Reigate.


On a constituency basis (as opposed to a borough basis), the wards of Ash South & Tongham, Ash Vale and Ash Wharf are all within the Surrey Heath constituency, *not* the Guildford constituency... which means that they operate under a different agent, which points another finger at the Guildford gang.

Basically, we're left with a few clues (and possibly just a *little* personal bias on my part) but nothing conclusive.

Time to hit the phones...

I called the Electoral Commission to try to find out who exactly registered the name 'Conservatives: Stop the Hospital Cuts', and they referred me to the returning officer for the Borough of Guildford. Meetings were in progress, so a message had to be left.

While waiting for a return call from the returning officer, I called Conservative Central Office. I asked them quite specifically if this idea/instruction originated from their office, but all they would say was that it was a local issue and I should therefore ask the Guildford Conservative Association about it.

(deep breath)

I called the Guildford Conservative Association, and the official line from them is as follows:

1) They stand by the statement made by Tony Rooth (quoted above via the Surrey Advertiser), which basically runs along the lines of 'we are running a local campaign on national issues'.

2) They also helped to clear up the confusion regarding Tony Rooth's position; he is not the Guildford Conservative Association chairman... he is the campaign leader for the local council elections.

[Note - Technically, this means that the ballot-paper-beefing buck lands in his lap... but that's not to say that this is where the buck stops and/or that this clever little stunt was his idea. Onwards...]

3) A further statement will be issued in a letter to the Surrey Advertiser from Jonathan Lord, who *is* the Guildford Conservative Association chairman.

[Note - You may recall that Jonathon Lord and I have had words in the past.]

4) I asked to see a copy of that letter, and was told; "We haven't decided what it is going to say yet."

5) I asked to see the letter once it was finished, and was told that I could read it in the Surrey Advertiser... next week. I wasn't 100% keen on that idea, so I grabbed an arm and twisted and have now been graciously granted permission to ask the Surrey Advertiser for a copy as soon as they receive it.

So... until I see that letter and/or the returning officer calls me back, that's all I have for now.

I hope to get back to you with more shortly. Please stand by for updates.


UPDATE (4:10pm) - I heard back from the relevant returning officer, who was very helpful, but had to refer me back to the Electoral Commission. I just got off the line from the latter.

Now, here comes what may very well be the meat of the vague denials I've been hearing about:

All parties are restricted to a maximum of 12 registered party descriptions nationwide. If you look at the Conservatives' list of registered party descriptions, only three are noted as recent changes, and the name/description 'Conservatives: Stop the hospital cuts' is not one of them... but I asked specifically about the registration of this party description, and found out that it was registered on 26 February 2007... by Conservative Central Office.

I also found out that *only* key representatives of Conservative Central Office can register these party descriptions.

So if any local Conservatives insist that the name/description itself is the work of Conservative Central Office, they are telling the truth... after a fashion.

Politicians can be downright slippery buggers at times, so often it's all about knowing how to phrase the question...

I want to know the following (and you probably do, too):

Who is the person who decided to forward this *choice* of party description to the returning officer for the relevant Conservative candidates in the borough of Guildford?

More updates to follow.


UPDATE (5:39pm):

CLUE #5 - Given that the description is available for use by Conservative candidates across the country, I decided to have a poke around and see where else this game is being played. I only found two other candidates in local council elections using this description.

Guess where they're based. Go on... have a guess.


Neighbours... everybody needs good neiiiiighbours!


UPDATE (19 April) - I've checked out the letter from Jonathon Lord, and while it contains an amusing nugget, it really doesn't say much. A reaction can wait until tomorrow.

UPDATE (20 April) - OK, here's a scan of today's Letters page from the Surrey Advertiser, including the long-awaited letter from Jonathon Lord. It doesn't say much, but it does play a cheeky little game with the "We're not the only ones!" defence.

Lord mentions other candidates in Surrey who have used the same description (should I invoice him for the research?), but does not mention that it is one or two candidates in those other areas, as opposed to damn near all of them here; in Guildford, the only candidates not using this description deal primarily with a different constituency office.

The asset may have been available nationwide, it may even be in use nationwide, but only here in Guildford is it being used almost borough-wide.

I think I have a lead on a form that will at least tell us who signed this off. In the meantime, here is a vox-op article from the Guildford Times and an editorial piece from Albert Jack in the Surrey Advertiser. You may also want to have a closer look at the letter page scan linked above for an entertaining game of 'Spot the Tory Ringer(s)'.


Thanks for highlighting this. I hadn't seen the Surrey Advertiser piece.

The sad fact is, I believe many people will think that the candidates involved will be part of a conservative off-shoot, rather than the main party. The problem here being, as you rightly point out, there's no difference.

Gravest of all is taking advantage of the save the hospital campaign. Hopefully this won't damage it.

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Yet another disadvantage for the local Tories in general, then.

It probably hasn't escaped attention that Milton and her team of cronies have been enjoying a very easy ride lately because undermining them in any way during the campaign to save the Royal Surrey was potentially damaging to it.

Ironically, most of the stuff I've been letting slide involves Milton hijacking that same campaign for party-political purposes.

At the same time, anonymous weblogs have been popping up (with some very familiar fingerprints on them) claiming that it's the Lib-Dems who are exploiting the issue.

This stunt - and Sue Doughty's reaction to it - proves otherwise:

"Despite what the Conservatives have done, we will continue to work in a cross party, cross community basis for the fight to save the hospital - that's not going to change."

It's my opinion that the only thing that can save the Tories further embarrassment and return integrity, strength and trust to the hospital campaign is an unreserved apology for this stunt... and someone's head on a stick.

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That's unlikely to happen, though, isn't it? Local and regional authorities are so divorced (at least, that's the impression they like to give - understandable really) from the central party matrix that one really does not want to be seen to touch the other.

Living in the Tory fortress of Reigate and Banstead means, it's easy to see that, despite what the local conservatives get up to, there's almost no hope of shifting them despite:

1) Buggering up school places. They're offering to send nearly 30 kids on a 16 mile round trip (by taxi) to Epsom because Reigate is out of school places. Understandably, parents aren't keen on putting their four-year-olds through this. The council claim this is a one-off - despite the hundreds of family homes being built in the area. There's no provision for extra places under the current plan, which still has several years to run. Interestingly, the council receives a substantial payment from developers on every new site. This is supposed to be spent on infrastructure - particularly education. To date, the council claim they have no idea where this money has gone. There's a potential time-bomb if ever I saw one.

2) The roads in and around Reigate are falling apart. This is largely due to cost-saving that saw road maintainance staff lose their jobs. The council has now found the money to make the improvements - but have nobody to actually carry them out. This will now have to be subcontracted out. Now that's what I call delivering value.

3) East Surrey hospital has a terrible probable with antibiotic-resistant infections. I mean, really bad. Talking to someone there, who has cause to visit several wards during the week, he now has to wear a disposable gown each time he visits award and covertly advises patients on which wards they should try and get transferred to as there's less chance of catching something. However, the number of infection-free wards is diminishing. He, like many others, has seen the lack of infection control present (I know a pensioner, infected there with a resistant strain of Staph, who was placed on a neo-natal ward). The hospital, part of a backrupt trust, is desperate to avoid lawsuits from infected patients and is spending money hand-over-fist to settle out of court.

What fun.

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Hey there. Apropos of not very much, using a local yet national issue in local elections isn't entirely unheard of. Take, for example, sunny Enfield (my current area) where a local group of residents stood in the last locals as "Save Chase Farm" (the local hospital, threatened with A & E closure).

Now, this is not the same. The issue you are highlighting seems to be, as you say, much more about using this for party political points, and very tawdry it sounds too. But in the analysis, I'd lay off the "using national issues for local elections" - that is a tactic widely used, for the simple fact that people tend to vote nationally in local elections as much as they vote locally, if you know what I mean.

Just a thought.

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I just wanted to say thanks for bringing this to my attention. I was just wondering why Dennis Paul is not up for election? Has this been covered? Am I being very slow?
Love your blog:)

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Dennis Paul is standing in Worplesdon.

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For your info, some Tory candidates in North Norfolk District Council also used the same description 'Conservatives: Stop the Hospital Cuts'. See http://www.northnorfolk.org/downloadfiles/notice_of_poll_district.pdf
(www.northnorfolk.org is the website of North Norfolk District Council, which is run by the Lib Dems).



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Thanks, Mark.

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    Hi. I'm Tim. I live in Guildford. I've built a few political weblogs here and there. If you're wondering why I decided to start this particular blog, click here.


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