Tomas Thurogood-Hyde is the Chairman of the Camberwell and Peckham Conservative Association and a school governor in Southwark. Twitter: @
The scariest prospect of a Corbyn victory in Labour’s troubled leadership election is not that Trident will be scrapped, taxes hiked or housing supply crushed by yet more intervention. Labour will not win under Corbyn. They probably cannot win in 2020 anyway. The worst outcome will be poor opposition, providing an excuse for poor government. Imagine a debate on defence: a decent, patriotic Labour MP stands up to denounce (somewhat gallingly) cuts to our Armed Forces and the minister merely brushes it away, “The honourable lady talks of defence but her party would leave us without Trident, without expeditionary power and would have Hamas into Number 10 for a chat!”
Bad opposition allows bad government. And so it is in Southwark. Like too many other parts of our country, Southwark is a one party state. Labour holds 48 out of 63 seats and pushes its agenda with impunity. Whilst courts slam its inadequate provisions for homeless people and too many families are shunted around Bed & Breakfasts, Southwark Council wastes money on vote-grabbing policies.
In 2014, Conservatives in Camberwell and Peckham led with opposition to Labour’s plan to make pool and gym membership “free” to residents at an estimated deadweight loss of £6 million. The Council provides “free” school meals to all primary school pupils (even those with well-off parents), but has cut other education support services. These sound like nice ideas, but they are a giveaway to people who can afford to pay and who already do. These are straightforwardly regressive policies, paid for by low income council tax payers.
Meretricious policies endure because good arguments against them are so easily shouted down and because, in Southwark, Labour conveniently blame us for each and every cut – cleverly presenting their choices as ours, they leave voters in no mood to listen to our concerns. But we cannot blame Labour for acting on its nature; it is our electoral failure that leaves it unchecked.
The first task is to remind ourselves what we are here for. Matthew Gass, wrote recently about the work of Associations like ours. It is vital that we provide voters with choice and that we fulfil one of the principal purposes of a political party: to challenge and hold to account those who wield power in our name. We should also recognise that our members have joined us because they want to be a part of improving their community and country; we should be giving them every opportunity to do so and, thus, developing an experienced body of campaigners that can be put to work locally and by other Associations. We should also recognise that, as the party of government, we have a duty of accountability to our communities: for better and worse, government policies affect people’s lives and the opportunity to tell us so on the doorstep is the minimum a citizen of our country should expect. We believe in democracy as a political system, but it is under threat from apathy. An active opposition in a one-party state is part of the solution to this.
There are some things that Associations in Labour’s strongholds can do:
- Work more closely with our neighbours to overcome atomisation. This might mean leaving some local wards for another day, but the people in those wards will be better-served by a more accountable local authority.
- Keep up the pressure between votes, making the Association known to voters so that they are not starting from scratch come the short campaign. Petitioning residents on a local matter such as the extension of a bus route or a Tube line is a good basis for engaging with them (and a useful way of collecting contact details).
- Research. Submitting Freedom of Information requests, setting up news alerts, attending council meetings and knowing what is going on when we talk to voters.
- Link up with local campaigns. Residents have been left to become the opposition to one-party councils; where we agree, we should support them, even if only by pushing our members in their direction in a private capacity. Sharing information about campaign opportunities like this also prevents outreach getting bogged down and ultimately lost in the bureaucracy of the Association executive.
- Canvassing. Most people just want to leaflet, initially at least, and those of us that like talking on the doorstep do not like the scripts, but small Associations must be highly efficient when it comes to local campaigns and this is best-achieved with data to identify where our support lies.
- Share best practice, resources and campaign opportunities with better-organised Associations. The experience will prove vital when the local votes come. Campaign groups like Road Trip 2015 gave active members lots of experience and insight into our most competitive campaign strategies; Associations should make use of these skills.
As Lord Feldman’s review of the party stirs up debate about the best way to organise and win, we must bear in mind the importance of Associations in Labour’s strongholds. Participating in our democracy will not always mean winning, but our local parties can lay the groundwork for the day that our communities do entrust in us the responsibility we seek.