Richard Short is the National Coordinator of the Conservative Trade Unionists, Chairman of Wigan Borough Conservatives and was Parliamentary Candidate for Warrington North last May.
On May 5th, there will be a Parliamentary by-election in Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough – and there is a myth that some areas in this seat and others are out of bounds to Conservative campaigners. A council estate is assumed to be a Labour stronghold, and a leafy suburb assumed to be Conservative. While this is the stereotype it doesn’t have to be true. In a recent article for ConservativeHome, Mark Wallace hit a nail so squarely on the head that it hammered a truth home in a single blow: we need to go back to the coalfields. This is exactly what I was doing with the by-election Conservative Candidate and Director of the Conservative Trade Unionists, Spencer Pitfield.
It was clear from our door-knocking in a typical working class area of the constituency that there is no shortage of support for a Conservative candidate. It was just as clear from even self-confessed Labour supporters that they were not enamoured with their new leader and, while disagreeing with us, were never hostile towards us, as the hard left activists of the Momentum Movement would doubtless like to believe.
But there is no room for complacency. However tired Labour supporters are of their new hard left agenda, it is likely that the party’s considerable core support will turn out to vote for their candidate. To some Conservatives, this is excuse enough to stay away from the campaign trail, but such a reaction would be completely wrong. We need to re-energise the Conservative core, nurture it, grow it and start winning in areas where Labour think they have a monopoly.
I live on the other side of the Pennines in Leigh, Lancashire. Like many places in South Yorkshire, it is a former colliery town which was home to two large collieries until 1992, and there were more, lots more, in the outlying areas. I’ve campaigned in Leigh for the Conservative Party for years, and one thing that gets repeated time and time again on the doorstep is how Thatcher closed all the mines. The truth is that there were two mines at the beginning of Margaret Thatcher’s tenure, and there were still two at the end of it.
While out canvassing in nearby Astley, which is home to the last remaining pithead in Lancashire, an angry resident yelled at full volume about the thousands of miners who worked there until Thatcher closed it. The mine was actually closed in 1970 on the orders of Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. This is an uncomfortable truth for many in Leigh where, to some, voting Labour is part of the DNA but this is no reason to concede defeat.
At its lowest point, the local vote in the heart of Leigh barely got into double figures. After just a few years of targeted campaigning, this has risen to almost 35 per cent. In neighbouring wards, the success of hard campaigning is clearer, since Conservatives have been successfully elected. It is perhaps understandable that activists believe the electorate cares as much about party politics as they do, and this belief can be a barrier to getting out to campaign – but this would be a mistake. Equally, it is understandable to believe that areas such as Leigh and Sheffield are hard Labour: equally this, too, is a mistake.
When you knock on doors and speak to residents in areas of core Labour support you rarely find hostility – and any that you do find is towards politicians in general and not a particular party. The party’s core votes is made up of those who vote by habit. They have only ever seen Labour in action, and follow their instinct to vote accordingly, but they are willing to be persuaded.
Aside from my success in increasing the Conservative vote in Andy Burnham’s safe Labour seat, you only have to look at the general election campaign in which the Conservative strategy of targeting action in some marginal seats paid off more than most could possibly imagine. Reducing majorities in constituencies which were realistically unwinnable in 2015 had no place in the election campaign. The election results of the target seats that went in our favour is now a matter of record, but an examination of the constituencies not on the target list, with no intense campaigning, show a swing towards the Labour incumbents.
Mark Wallace’s analysis is correct, and we now need to build on our successes in 2015 – but I’ve found that it takes a special kind of “Get Out The Vote Campaign” in the coalfields. In communities such as Leigh and Sheffield, it isn’t enough to have a campaign of voter ID, GOTV and knock up. We need to maintain a Conservative presence through thick and thin, and never give up on the electorat -e even when it seems sometimes the electorate have given up on us. Exactly as Spencer and I found in Sheffield, there are more Conservatives in these areas than you might imagine, but you really have to earn their vote and this takes time.
This cohort has a tipping point which, if passed, brings the votes in. This is evident in areas just outside Leigh in which the tipping point has been achieved. Leigh and Sheffield’s core still has someway to go – but it can be reached.