Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
It’s a great time to be a Conservative, right? We have our first majority government in 20 years, and, on a local level, we’ve finally been taken seriously here in Durham. It would make sense, therefore, to make this – my initial reflections on last week’s election – entirely positive.
But, at long last, I don’t need to. Everything I’ve previously written for ConservativeHome has been honest, but this is the first time that I’ve been able to do this without the constant self-awareness of being a parliamentary candidate. I’m rejoicing in the return of my non-partisanship.
It seems that most of Britain has shown its sensible side. Sensible, in putting the country first by choosing the Conservatives, as a recognition of the past five years’ recovery. Sensible, in declining an insubstantial, and mostly negative, Labour challenge. And sensible, in returning only one UKIP, and one Green MP. Sensibleness is underrated.
The result, however, has effected a sad minority reaction to a decisive majority win. A current glance at social media shows the power of group mentality. How much of this has been provoked by frustration at the lack of representation on the left of the political spectrum? The Labour and Liberal Democrat parties are in the midst of identity crises so severe as to have left them defunct. The only solution might be for the centre-left of both of these parties to come together, reborn. There is real space – and need – for this.
Now, Scotland. Where to start? Even without last week’s SNP snowball, Labour would have struggled to win a majority without the Scottish seats it lost in 2010. But the ‘Red-Nat’ theory (which I first heard expounded by YouGov’s Peter Kellner) has surely played out: when those voters, who used to back Labour for Westminster and SNP for Holyrood, voted against the former in the IndyRef, they lifted a barrier, which remained ajar on Thursday. There may be similar future repercussions regarding 2015’s first-time Conservative voters. And, indeed, those ‘non-voters’ who countered expectations by voting. They – by definition – don’t like being polled, and surely helped to foil predictions.
It’s hard, however, not to translate the rise in the SNP vote as another surge of Scottish nationalism. Whether this is what its voters really want (probably not), it’s what they’ll get. Surely we’ll see another referendum in the next few years. Otherwise, it’d be like voting in the Let Them Eat Cake Party, and then forgetting to replenish the bakeries.
A little further south- here in the North East – came some incredible results. Against the backdrop of the past few decades, the conclusive wins of James Wharton, Guy Opperman, and Anne-Marie Trevelyan are even more impressive and well deserved.
In the City of Durham, we saw the sixth biggest Conservative vote increase in the country (8.95 per cent). We managed, finally, to come second, here. (This replicates the party’s vote position in the region: an overall contextual success, I think.) And it feels significant, not least because, for about the first time in my life, nobody can tell me that a Conservative vote is wasted in Durham. I don’t think a considered vote is ever a wasted vote, but there has been a custom of Conservatives voting tactically in this constituency.
Being a north-eastern Conservative candidate ten, or even five, years ago, might not have been a pleasant experience. And there was indeed much unthinking opposition: people who don’t feel the need even to try to justify their attacks. But, above all, there was positivity, kindness, and support, often from the most unexpected places. The experience provided an unrivalled opportunity to think, too – particularly in preparation for a couple of dozen hustings and debates, endless 7am radio discussions, many writing opportunities, a short documentary, and regular television interviews on contentious topics.
Throughout the campaign, Labour’s ‘I love the NHS’ position has been frustrating: if you want something to succeed, you must constantly hold it up to scrutiny. It’s unhelpful to support an organisation as blindly as you might your friends. A responsive movement like conservatism should excel at self-criticism.
However, in the still undeniably bipartite land of British (or, English, anyway) politics, this can result in vulnerability. Limited political competition fosters quick opportunism at the sight of a rival’s weakness, and encourages disdain for honorable U-turns.
So, amongst the positivity – positivity that the country has chosen the correct government, and that the recovery will continue and flourish – here’s some balance. A winning strategy doesn’t necessarily exemplify the best possible approach. The thinking behind the 40/40 tactic is understandable. For many key constituencies, it may have proved essential. However, it has risked short-termism, and has – especially in neglected areas – eroded long-standing support in the grass roots of the party.
I refused to abide by orders not to campaign in the City of Durham over the final weeks before the election. Not only because it seemed vacuous to refrain from leafleting near my house in spare half hours. But also because the constituency is my home, and I could not abandon my local Association, and the incomparably keen and helpful Durham students, in this way. This was clearly profitable, and did not prevent me from spending many days supporting the local target seat (albeit a little less cheerfully than when I was choosing to do this, which I had been since before my selection).
Yet what depressed and disillusioned me was the rude, and – on occasion – downright bullying tone of the phone calls and the badly-written emails which some of the management side of the party used to attempt to enforce this. (And the general militarisation of the voluntary wing). Not to mention the informancy it attempted to induce. Or the demands for candidates to sign in every night with an email summarising how their day had been spent. (I’m afraid I ignored this, too, resisting the temptation to comply in Diary of a Nobody-style pastiche). Where’s the conservatism in all this? Where’s the respect for personal responsibility, and the avoidance of statist bureaucracy? Volunteers of all kinds were central to last Thursday’s result; volunteering hinges upon choice, not coercion.
An organisation is only ever the summation of its current parts, and is weakened through uncritical loyalty. The Conservative Party has many excellent representatives and policies; millions of people believe this because they have just voted for it. It now has the opportunity to prove them right.
So, here’s to a difficult, considered, recuperative, compassionate, and positive five years.