Cllr Robert Pritchard is the Deputy Leader of Tamworth Borough Council.
Now the date is set for the EU referendum I am sure some of us in local government may take opposing positions on the issue. We may even bump into each other whilst out delivering leaflets for either side.
Whatever your personal choice, we have to be a strong Conservative team. That is something that must survive the referendum, because long after its over, we all have a very important job to do.
In the short term, however, the referendum is actually a big risk for our local election campaigns. Apart from a hollowed-out CCHQ, with many key staff and field team members off campaigning for referendum organisations, taking much General Election experience with them, local government has a habit of losing its head with the next big exciting thing. More than ever, Conservative groups need to pull together and go out fighting, not for the referendum, but for the local elections.
The referendum campaigning can come after May 5th. Unlike other parties such as UKIP, Lib Dems and Labour, who can campaign for the EU referendum and local elections together, we can not. So we must be disciplined in our focus on winning seats first.
Being a team is the name of the game. Falling out is for the MPs to do, Labour have got especially good at it since Corbyn came to power, so no one wants Conservative council groups falling out over the referendum.
So here are a few golden rules all groups should follow:
1. We are all entitled to our opinions and free to campaign for any side. This is a personal choice and entirely up to the individual. It is not a group, council, or whipped matter. So we can all agree to disagree.
2. Make sure this doesn’t come into conflict with our own election activities, getting elected or re-elected should be our first priority above anything else.
3. Don’t give away our campaign secrets to either local In or Out campaigns. We don’t want the other parties inadvertently learning our trade secrets. The 2015 General Election showed just how much Labour don’t know about campaigning, and in most places UKIP can’t even muster a working database.
4. The party is officially neutral in the referendum, therefore no party resources can be used for either side. So excited councillors should stop asking the groups or association to campaign on either side, that’s what the In/Out campaign groups are for.
5. No Blue on Blue attacks. It doesn’t help us and would most certainly be used against us by other parties. That includes social media.
6. We are only having the referendum because the Conservatives promised it and then delivered it. It was our manifesto pledge. Like or loathe the PM’s deal, it took balls to get it. He is still the only UK PM to veto treaty change and reduce the EU budget – even Margaret Thatcher didn’t do that. So be proud we have delivered an historic vote for the country.
7. As always, you are a councillor and your actions reflect the group, party and council. So, as you always do, be on your best behaviour.
8. If anyone goes too far it’s best the leadership has a word privately. There should not be public showing ups. And most importantly if your leadership speaks to you, its in your interests they do so, don’t be offended.
9. No using of titles for either side. If I help a campaign I do so as me, not the Deputy Leader of a Council.
10. After all this is over, whatever the result, our focus is serving the public, which is who we are elected to serve.
11. All campaign activities for the election are just that, no pro or anti messages or literature should be piggy backing on our campaign. You will upset as many as you will impress and ultimately water down your own campaign message. This may be a drawback for the other parties having a combined EU & local election message.
12. Get past the red mist and excitement over the referendum; now you need a level head, because you don’t want to wake up on the 24th June feeling happy or sad at the results of the referendum but then realising you missed the local elections.
13. And finally don’t expect the referendum to help you win. Only good local campaigns targeted effectively win seats, not letting the national picture or Jeremy Corbyn win it for you. Our election fate is in our hands, and our hands alone.
We should also be prepared for a fair bit of goading from opposition parties in the Chamber, trying to divide us. We have to be firm and remind them that unlike other parties, we are free to do as we wish, our party is neutral and whichever side we take, it is our own personal choice. That flexibility can often be one of our greatest strengths, so lets make sure that it is, when we come to the referendum frenzy.
So let’s keep our heads, win our seats, and then worry about supporting a side after May 5th, because when I support a side, I want to still be a councillor and still be in control.