Miles Windsor is a Conservative activist, political consultant and former councillor
‘Politics is brutal’ some will say in cold dismissal of the hurt and frustration of election defeat. They’re not wrong.
The Conservatives in Merton fought a relentless, professional and positive campaign to win back the council from a lacklustre Labour minority administration. Our key messages were exciting, tested and fully costed: a 10 per cent tax cut over four years, a fairer deal for motorists, supporting small businesses and high streets, a much needed new school, and a more responsive council with a ‘can do’ culture, to name just a few pledges.
We spent four years campaigning – virtually every weekend – out on the doorstep, consulting residents. Of course, this was alongside the hard work of councillors in dedication to their local communities – attending and chairing Residents’ Association meetings, visiting residents who need assistance and fighting on local issues in committee meetings. As a ‘young’, aspirant member of this group I was tremendously proud to be part of it and I learnt a great deal from more experienced colleagues – now dear friends.
It is no exaggeration to say that we could not have done more or worked harder to secure a Conservative council in Merton.
Labour, by comparison, had pretty much the one, single, desperate campaign message. Like the one described by Cllr Phibbs in his post-mortem on the result in H&F it was a campaign to save a hospital that isn’t at risk of closing.
They even had a ‘Save St Helier’ candidate in one of their target wards.
That was it. The extent of their campaign.
Whilst speaking to a couple of friendly Labour councillors at the count, they revealed that they had hoped to win one or two seats from us. They hadn’t expected for a minute to take eight seats. They now have ‘paper candidates’ who’ve hardly spent a moment in their wards sat in the seats of community champions – some of whom have served for 14 years. Merton is just one small part of a national picture which saw so many lose their long-fought battles to retain and indeed to gain seats.
The ‘Save St Helier’ campaign had some impact but I would suggest, as with councils up and down the country, that this result was more about national mood than local issues. The Lib Dem vote collapsed spectacularly – moving mostly to Labour and, whilst the UKIP performance in London was reassuringly poor, they did enough damage by taking chunks of natural Conservative vote. I’m biased but I’m certain that if people had voted on the basis of what each party offered in Merton, we would now be in administration.
It begs the question, why bother? Why not avoid the years of toil and just turn up on election day in the hope that the public favours your party nationally? Whilst this is beginning to sound like a long moan, I will arrive at a serious question which I believe needs proper consideration.
Councils have some considerable influence over matters that affect local residents. Their budgets are sizeable. Their policies affect the daily lives of voters. The issues aren’t always as ‘sexy’ as those in Westminster – we don’t have powers to influence international affairs, the NHS, nor can we cleave one by one from the EU (UKIP voters take note) – but what happens in local government matters. However, the message perpetuated by the national press and left unquestioned by national politicians is that these elections are just a massive set of polls to determine the mood around the national parties. Voters respond accordingly.
This has to be challenged. Local Conservative Associations and political groups (which enjoy quite a bit of autonomy from Central Office when it comes to policy development) should be looking to establish their identity in the local community as grassroots organisations with a greater level of independence from the national party. They should seek innovative and interesting ways of enfranchising and empowering the current membership in the political debate and attracting new members. Through a new deal whereby members get more than a bag of leaflets to deliver for their £25, we can develop a new generation of Conservative activists willing to take the message of conservatism into their communities – activists known for their conservative principles and their community activities.
National politicians can help by reducing the grip of CCHQ further. MPs, who understandably enjoy far more space in the media than local activists and councillors, should also be speaking about local elections in terms of the local issues that are actually at stake rather than talking about ‘mid-term blues’ and the significance of results in relation to the General Election. It isn’t all about you! And please, correct those over-excitable journos who would like this all this to be mere polling data – it’s actually tax, roads, adoption, carers, schools, housing, high streets, green spaces and, yes, waste disposal.
It’s understandable that thought and comment is focused on the General Election next year but please let’s consider how to make local parties, local councillors and local elections…local. And, one week on, spare a thought for those hundreds of conservative community champions who lost their seats to the national mood. We will be back. In the meantime we’ll continue to fight for local residents and champion Conservatism in our wards and our boroughs.