Cllr Rob Chilton represents St Mary’s Ward on Trafford Council where he is the Deputy Executive Member for Transformation and Resources.
At the 2017 local elections, up and down the country, Conservative Councillors and Mayors were elected in areas that have not had Conservative representation for decades, if ever. Even the most disappointing results were ‘no change’ or, at worst, the loss of one or two seats.
There was, however, one remarkable exception to this – that of the Greater Manchester Mayoral Election, where the Conservative Party was beaten in all but six of Greater Manchester’s 215 wards, picking up just 23 per cent of the vote. Given such superb national results, this was something of a humiliating embarrassment.
In my home Borough of Trafford, a ‘flagship’ Conservative Council, the Conservatives carried only two ultra-safe wards out of 21, and in a crucial by-election held the same day in one ward, we were roundly beaten by Labour despite a fantastic candidate and campaign.
However, the detailed context of this result should provide some reassurance.
Whilst devolution per se was largely welcomed by all in Greater Manchester, the concept of a directly-elected regional mayor was a significant bone of contention. Imposed by press-release from the then-Chancellor, George Osborne, the councillors and public of Greater Manchester were railroaded into this flawed electoral model without even the courtesy of a consultation, let alone the usual referendum vote.
This led to a degree of resentment, lack of interest, and even active hostility from the public, particularly Conservative voters, who perceived the mayor as yet another layer of expensive bureaucracy, and distrusted the oligarchic nature of mayoral power. On doorsteps and within my local community, I had feedback on the proposed Mayor ranging from the non-committal to the actively hostile. It is difficult to motivate voters, supporters, and activists for an election that nobody wanted in the first place.
This was exacerbated by all the main parties putting forward established politicians, carrying the associated baggage that comes with many years’ of media exposure. Labour candidate, Andy Burnham’s, spirited campaigning on local issues in Westminster had whitewashed his rather chequered parliamentary career, whereas Conservative candidate and Trafford Council Leader Sean Anstee’s media profile had largely been carved out by a deeply hostile local media.
The geographic scale and undue haste of the election made any kind of public identification with candidates difficult, and therefore neither campaign could do much to reach out to voters beyond their typical heartlands. Ultimately, given the political demographics in Greater Manchester, Labour had a far higher human resource to focus on getting their vote out, and a far larger core vote to call on.
Politics is at its best when the public view their elected representatives as neighbours and friends – ‘the bloke round the corner’ rather than the ‘suit in the town hall’. There are rare and charismatic exceptions to this, but due to the modest size of most constituencies and wards, the best Conservative MP’s, councillors and candidates can focus their efforts on targeted and lengthy campaigns, being seen and becoming known, carving out deserved reputations as community champions. This is equally true in Greater Manchester, and I am convinced that a revival in the fortunes of the Conservative Party is happening throughout the county as a result. Various successes in council by-elections and the previous general election proved that.
The oversized ‘GM Mayor’ is a regrettable, and tragically avoidable, hiccup in that process.