Cllr Abi Brown is the Leader of the Conservative Group and Deputy Leader of Stoke-on-Trent City Council.
A few weeks ago at Party conference, I was given the amazing opportunity of taking part in the session with Greg Clark, the Communities and Local Government Secretary, to talk briefly about our success in May’s local elections and my group’s role in running the council in Stoke-on-Trent.
In a couple of minutes, I briefly touched on what we did to break the stranglehold of Labour in their city heartland, where not so long ago they held every seat on the council, and the idea of a non-Labour MP was unthinkable.
As in many cities, there were always pockets of Conservative support in Stoke-on-Trent, and historically we have returned councillors here in small numbers. However, the sheer dominance of Labour locally has often snuffed out any revivals outside these areas before we’ve had time to capitalise on them. A boundary review in 2010 left us with just two councillors by 2011, when we moved to all out elections, which highlighted to me that any future success needed to be built on real, solid foundations and not the cyclical populism we’d previously relied on.
The last four years have been tough – two councillors swimming against a large sea of red is hard work. However my courageous deputy, Jack Brereton and I, got stuck in on ward work, stood up in council to say what we thought, and banged the Conservative drum whenever we could. As we approached the 2015 local elections, we drafted a professional, polished and realistic manifesto, and planned meticulously how we would increase our representation.
It’s said that nothing worth doing is easy, and at times we have definitely felt this. My patch is an easy to deliver, single member ward of just under 2,000 houses, whilst Jack represents a large three member ward that cuts across two constituencies, with over 8000 houses that go from hinterland farms and cottages right through to some very tough pockets of former mining estates. We fought a hard by-election there at the tail end of 2013 – we were disappointed not to win but buoyed up that we beat Labour into third. Our tactic? Campaign harder, better and more.
This philosophy, that saw us campaigning hard in our wards all year round, was rolled out across our target wards as we approached the 2015 local and general elections.
Once again, Stoke-on-Trent was part of the City Seats Initiative, an effective jumpstart for a small federation in the run up to important elections. Our three prospective parliamentary candidates – Joe Rich (Stoke South), Ben Adams (Stoke North) and Liam Ascough (Stoke Central) – backed this ‘campaign ’til you drop’ approach with zeal, and a large proportion of the credit for our success in May must go to them for their commitment, support and enthusiasm.
With a handful of target seats, we planned campaigns tailored to our strengths, and hit those wards hard, cranking up the pressure from autumn 2014.
We selected good local candidates who took ownership of their campaigns and took the time to really understand the local issues. A flaccid local Labour Party, whose only campaign tool was the presumption that they’d win, were caught off guard. Election night was long, with parliamentary results announced as dawn broke on Friday, and all three Stoke seats having majorities under 5000. Local election counts began at 10am, and by lunchtime on Friday, I had been successfully re-elected with a healthy majority and joined by four new colleagues in the south of the city. Whilst all our wins were fantastic, the best for me was Jack’s storming performance to romp home with a huge majority and another new Conservative councillor in his ward, too. By the end of the day, I was the leader of a group of seven.
Labour lost its grip on the council – we are now part of a coalition, running the council – and their grip on the parliamentary seats has hugely weakened, clinging on by their fingertips to Stoke South with a majority barely a whisker over 2,500. Undoubtedly four years of an unpopular Labour council between 2011 and 2014 helped us, but determination, perseverance and teamwork also played a massive role in demonstrating that Conservatives can and do win in cities.
As the Party moves forward, we need to continue to make inroads in places like Stoke-on-Trent, and also gather a consistent approach to getting a foothold in other cities where Conservatives have shrunk back to nothing. It’s hard work, but we are the party of the workers and we can do it. As we have demonstrated in Stoke-on-Trent, perseverance, good local candidates and putting in the effort pays off.