This week Cllr Paul Canal invited me to address the Redbridge Conservative Opposition Group on what it takes to win back the council in 2018. Luckily I was first on as there were 21 items on the agenda to follow. The first thing for any Opposition Group to recognise is that there are no votes in the Town Hall. Time spent in meetings takes you away from the residents that you are seeking to serve.
My own career in local government is built on a solid foundation of failure. I failed to get elected in the 1994 election in a closely fought election when my running mate, Mike Brennan, who was a former Parliamentary candidate, used to introduce me as Mike Brennan’s mate. We nicknamed our opponents as “Missing” Mike Goodman and “Nowhere to be seen” Nadeem. “Missing” Mike was a former Labour council leader who was involved in the notorious swaps scandal that nearly bankrupted the council. We fought a bitter battle and lost.
Today Sands End Ward remains a solid Conservative ward after repeated and bitterly fought by-elections by Cllr Steve Hamilton whose nickname is “Sands End Steve” to this day. I was elected for the first time in January 1996 in the relatively safe Town ward. However, it looked like we were in danger of losing that safe ward at that time which was a nadir of Conservative Party popularity.
Here is a summary of what I said which is summarised in the CPS pamphlet (A New Good Council Guide). In January 1996, the Conservative Group on Hammersmith and Fulham Council was in a sorry state. Things got even worse in1998 when the Conservatives were wiped out entirely in Hammersmith and we continued to hold no seats in Shepherds Bush or White City. We were derided as the South Fulham Conservatives by the Labour Party.
There are two ways to approach opposition. The first is to attempt to work with the administration and to try to win concessions in return for giving cross-party support for various initiatives. That is how things were in 1996. The second is to oppose vigorously the ruling group, to maintain discipline and stay on message, and to prepare to win control. That is how we fought from 1999. The choice boils down to whether you believe that you can win.
The Conservatives did not win in 2006 because of our electioneering in 2006. We won in 2006 because we started planning for victory immediately after the loss of the Council elections in 2002. In 2002, we wrote a four year strategy to win both the parliamentary seat of Hammersmith and Fulham at the General Election (which was expected in 2005); and to build on this to win the 2006 borough elections. In the 2005 General Election, Greg Hands had a spectacular victory. The Conservative share of the vote was 45.4% (with a 7.35% swing) and the majority was a healthy 5,029.
After the 2005 General Election, it was calculated that the Conservatives needed an additional 1.3 per cent swing to take control of the council in 2006. At the 2002 council elections we had already won more votes than Labour (43.1 per cent against 42.0 per cent). However, owing to the distribution of votes we had only won a disappointing 18 Conservative seats out of the total of 46. The key therefore to victory in the 2006 council elections was winning the marginal wards.
The General Election result and the closeness of the 2002 council elections proved that victory was possible. The Conservatives had momentum. And traditional Conservative policies of low tax and being tough on crime were also chiming with the mood of this inner city borough. Labour was vulnerable. Next we defined clear targets. We did not just want a majority. We wanted a clear mandate for our policies. Our target was to win 32 seats out the total of 46, with at least a 4% swing on the 2002 council elections.
To this end, we set out three strategic pillars:
- Winning policies which boiled down to lower taxes, less waste and better services (dubbed by our current Prime Minister as delivering “more for less”)
- Targeted and vigorous campaigning in the seven wards that required a 0-4 per cent swing
- Effective and frequent communication. The key is always to repeat, repeat, repeat….
The rest is history now. A Conservative Council was elected in Hammersmith and Fulham on 4 May 2006 with a strong mandate for positive change. We had won over 50 per cent of the popular vote and, with 33 out of 46 seats, had outright control of the authority for the first time in 38 years. This was the only inner city gain in 2006 for the Conservatives in the UK. For the Conservatives, the election results were impressive for a number of reasons. It was the second highest Conservative share of vote ever. The first ever Conservative councillor was elected for Shepherds Bush and White City area. In one Fulham ward, the Conservatives polled the second biggest majority of any seat in Inner London – for any party.
We had surpassed our target of 32 councillors with that spectacular win by a young, suave and handsome Alex Chalk. Alex is the new MP for Cheltenham and I was so touched to receive his endorsement yesterday to be the next Mayor of London:
“I’m backing Stephen Greenhalgh to be the next Mayor of London. He has a terrific track record of delivering for ordinary Londoners. He’s what our capital city needs to stay ahead in the global race.”
Today the Conservatives control only 10 councils in London and there are just 611 Conservative councillors compared to 1058 Labour councillors. In 2006 there were 785 Conservative councillors and we controlled 14 councils. In Hammersmith & Fulham, my political high was the satisfaction of winning an historic second council term with the loss of only two councillors.
The tears came when we narrowly lost control in 2014. I hope that we will be back in 2018 and I predict that Cllr Canal and his colleagues will win in Redbridge if they take the fight to Labour. We need these victories in 2018 if we are to stem the tide to Labour in our capital city and if we are to hold on to City Hall after Boris.