Cllr Edith Bald is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Milton Keynes Council.
This year’s local elections in Milton Keynes are going to be a close run race. Currently Labour holds a minority administration with 23 councillors; the Conservatives hold 22 seats; and the Liberal Democrats have 12. With 18 seats up for grabs this year, UKIP don’t seem to be a feature here after losing their only seat in last year’s elections. Their local association is as good as collapsing.
While well known for our concrete cows and roundabouts, Milton Keynes, or MK as we locals call it, began as a new town in 1967 and has grown from a collection of villages and small towns with a population of 60,000 to become a large Unitary Authority with 258,000 people. The size of Southampton, we are projected to grow to 300,000 by 2026, making us as large as cities such as Nottingham and Cardiff.
Our wards are a mixture of urban and rural, and like other places, the Conservatives tend to fair better in the more rural fringes of the city. Politically, there is always change in MK – a bellwether seat, the council chops and changes hands. This last occurred in 2014 when Labour won back control after we had gained it in 2011.
We showed ourselves to be very capable in administration under our Leader Andrew Geary. He built our reputation nationally and even saw us win the bid to host the Rugby World Cup here. However in 2014, we had boundary changes and an all-out election saw us lose to Labour. It came down to one thing: we ran a very bad campaign.
As happens when you’re in administration, the Cabinet was very busy running the Council and we failed to see Labour mounting a hugely strong campaign with direct mail, a postal vote drives, and the usual leaflets and canvassing. They also had an army of activists and help from Labour HQ and their Get Out the Vote polling day action was very strong. Looking back we should have realised what was happening but we didn’t until it was too late. A lesson learnt the hard way but we definitely learnt from it.
I became leader in opposition 2014 which, never having been in opposition before, was a baptism of fire. My previous job as a senior player at BT helped enormously in terms of the management task as well as the political task.
I have driven hard from the outset, the need to be organised and to work as a team. We have brought in new councillors and improved their calibre and our local Conservative Association has been revamped, restructured and is also stronger financially.
In opposition we have attacked Labour effectively, focusing especially on financial credibility and their abysmal failures to protect vulnerable people. This has given us great media coverage and we have driven these messages home in leaflets, at council, on social media, and at every opportunity.
In 2015, general election year, we did not waste the opportunity to get on the back of the MP’s campaigns. We won four seats taking us to 22, one short of Labour who continued to lead the Council. At our first Conservative Group meeting one day after the elections, I appointed Alex Walker, a new councillor who ran the MP’s election as my campaign manager and announced that our goal was to take the council back in 2016. We have been working on our campaign ever since, with no let up.
Throughout this year I have spoken with neighbouring Conservative council leaders and picked up lots of tips. Many are coming to help in our campaign. We have published a manifesto with a strapline “Vote for a Better MK”. We are leafletting, doing press releases every week, and canvassing. We have really boosted our social media presence via facebook and twitter and we try to drive electors to our website where they can see our manifesto and lots of news items.
We have seven target seats which would give us overall control of the council. We are a target council for CCHQ which helps enormously in terms of getting ministerial visits and through good media coverage.
We are sticking to our plan, despite national issues threatening to derail us somewhat. Our message to the electorate is to vote on the local issues and to vote for the team with the vision, leadership and experience to deliver a Better MK.