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November 07, 2005

The Joy of Local Politics: Harry Phibbs on the recherché pleasures of being a local party ward chairman

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Leafleting, buying raffle tickets, organising speaker meeting, having complete strangers around one's house - Harry Phibbs recounts the recherché pleasures of being a local party ward chairman.

For all the cynicism about politicians ("On the make and on the take", "Show business for ugly people", etc, etc) the vast majority of political activity takes place unpaid and without glamour by volunteers. They are students, or housewives, or retired or have real jobs in the daytime. To be fair to the cynics, some who toil away might have an ambition to be a local councillor (which pays a bit) or a Member of Parliament (which pays rather more). But most have no such ambitions. They do it because they believe in the cause and because they enjoy it. In some ways it is similar to other forms of voluntary work such as work for a charity - but while work for a charity is accepted as being worthy, work for a political party carries something of a stigma.

I am Chairman of the Ravenscourt Park Ward Conservatives in Hammersmith and Fulham in west London. Earlier I had the same job for the Shepherd's Bush Green Ward. A vital cog. A grass root. Each constituency consists of several Wards, perhaps a dozen or so. Local councillors represent individual wards. A lot of my time is spent pushing leaflets through people's letter boxes - a more challenging task than you might imagine due to the stiff brushes that people often install on the inside. I have often wondered why people do this. Is it to improve insulation? To stop arson? Or to deter leafletters?

Then there is the dilemma of how to respond to signs saying "No Junk Mail". I tend to give them a leaflet on the grounds that they would surely not wish to be excluded from a fully functioning democracy and that such missives could therefore scarcely be regarded as junk. What if the sign says "No Circulars"? Surely they mean just "No pizza leaflets". But perhaps this is presumptuous. What of the large number who abstain in elections but enjoy eating pizza?

Usually the leaflets are local and designed to make people aware of what causes the local Tory MP and local Conservative councillors have been championing. The Mayor of London Ken Livingstone is denounced for his plans for the Congestion Charge Extension and a giant tram scheme to block Uxbridge Road. The Labour-run Hammersmith and Fulham Council is denounced for its high Council Tax and inefficient services.

Naturally as the Chairman my duties don't just extend to pushing leaflets through people's doors. Another important task is ringing up and asking other people to push leaflets through doors. I feel awkward about doing this and tend to ask people in an hesitant, apologetic manner which paradoxically makes them feel sorry for me so virtually everyone agrees to do their own street. Usually the people who help in this way are paid up members but not always. Sometimes people have an aversion to joining, fearing this will in some way restrict them or commit them, but they are still willing to help.

Then there is the business of raising the money to pay for the leaflets. There are the membership subscriptions, of course. The minimum is £15 but sometimes people might pay £50 or even £100. But then there is also the cost of maintaining the constituency office. So rather than just rely on membership subscriptions, fund raising events are held. On a constituency level these tend to be rather lavish events (in our case, for example, a ball at the Hurlingham Club) but at Ward level they are modest parties held in people's homes.

I am astonished by the willingness of myself and others to open their homes up, often to complete strangers, for these events to take place. To the casual observer they might look like normal drinks parties. But then certain tell tale signs emerge that something is different. Someone wonders round with a book of cloak room tickets asking people if they would like to buy a raffle ticket, explaining that the prizes include a copy of Brideshead Revisited - autographed by Michael Howard.

Former Tory MP Gyles Brandreth recounts his perspective on raffles during his time in Parliament:

As the MP I would often be involved in several raffles during the course of the weekend for different Party and charity events. I would be asked to donate the prize for the raffle. Then when I came along I would be asked to buy tickets and so have the chance to win back the prize that I had donated. Then as the local MP I would be asked to draw the ticket. Quite often I would draw my own ticket but then would have to draw again as to have taken the prize would have looked bad. It was a lose lose situation. Once in the Commons tea room the then Prime Minister John Major came up and said I was looking a bit gloomy, what was the matter?

"It's the raffles," I told him.

"You don't have to buy a raffle ticket at every event", he told me.

"I do, I have a marginal constituency", I replied.

"You do not", he insisted and pulled some strips up from the breast pocket of his jacket so that they were clearly visible. After that whenever I arrived at an event I would pull up the same old strip of tickets so it could be seen.

Of course Brandreth lost his seat.

Another indication that such drinks party are different is that at about 8.30 pm, after people have had quite a bit to drink but before the lasagne is doled out, someone stands on a chair and starts speaking. Being close to central London we have been well placed to get good speakers. David Willetts, John Redwood, Times columnist Matthew Parris, the Tory Euro MP Dan Hannan, Adam Smith Institute President Madsen Pirie, Stanley Johnson, father of Boris. They have all come and stood on chairs in my home and declare what an honour it was to have been invited to do so.

In this highly mobile age of long working hours, fast living and insecurity one often reflects what a pity it is that community links seem to have been weakened. Joining a political party is a means of meeting a random collection of individuals from streets adjoining your own who are united by a common cause. One final thought. Far from being the nasty party, I am struck by how many local Tory members are also involved in voluntary work - whether it is gardening in the local park, helping local children with their reading or raising money for charity.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist. To follow Harry Phibbs on his progress through local politics, see: The Joy of Local Politics II: Harry Phibbs on being elected as a councillor and The Joy of Local Politics III: Harry Phibbs gets down to work as a councillor.


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