Amy Gray is the Conservative candidate for Mayor of Hackney.
How many times have Conservative activists walked down leafy streets that vote Labour, SNP or UKIP (or in past years, Lib Dem) and said with exasperation “These should be Conservative voters!”. But how often do we say that of streets in our inner cities? As a party we should feel the same frustration when failing to engage voters in the inner city as we do when failing to win over the areas we view as our ‘natural territory’.
When I told people outside London that I was our Parliamentary candidate in Hackney North and Stoke Newington last year, I never quite got used to hearing that I was “brave” – as if I was engaged in a battle with voters. The problem is that battles are between opposite sides, and the voters in Labour, SNP or UKIP-held constituencies aren’t our opponents – in Hackney they’re my neighbours.
I’m standing for election again in Hackney, this time to be the Mayor of the borough, because the people in Hackney need to know that our party cares about their lives and because our party needs to represent every part of our great nation.
In her first speech from Downing Street, Theresa May laid down a gauntlet when she said that “life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise”. Disraeli’s idea of two nations endures but we are, however, sometimes in danger of misidentifying them as Tory versus Labour, or right and left wing, or even public and private sector. In truth it boils down – as Disraeli said – to the have nots and the have lots.
The Conservatives must have a message to unite both nations which is compelling for every borough and constituency in the country. In Hackney that means I’ll be talking about the need for more affordable and social housing, more school places (which free schools and academies can deliver), safer streets and more support for small businesses – all things which bring those two nations together.
A lot of people in Hackney are just the kind of people the Prime Minister identified as the voices that will guide her Government, people for whom life is not easy. But it’s an outdated and mistaken perception of inner London to see it as a monolithic area of trapped and needy people. Life is not easy for some, that’s true, but Hackney is a very young borough with many recent arrivals from other countries or other parts of the UK, and they do believe things can change for them and their families – partly because they’ve seen big changes locally already. Things may be tough at the moment, but people in Hackney are full of enterprise and aspiration, meaning that they share Tory values and are receptive to our messages if we can reach them on local issues.
We need to listen carefully to everyone but there is a special obligation on politicians to listen to those who didn’t vote for them. This is an important part of the social contract that all citizens have with the Government but it’s also an essential quality of any party that aspires to win elections to attract more support.
What won’t help anyone in the inner cities is listening to Mr Corbyn’s Labour Party. My opponent in Hackney North last year was Diane Abbott (one of Corbyn’s “Core Group” according to his office’s leaked list). Our constituency neighbour to the west is Corbyn himself. The voices of Corbyn, Abbott and their comrades are not the voices of either of our two nations, but the death cries of a sect whose leaders are relics of a bygone era and whose followers place purity of belief above real power to improve people’s lives. The Labour Party under Mr Corbyn has nothing to offer the British people, let alone the people of Hackney.
North and East London have undergone dramatic changes over the past decades. Only a decade ago, Hackney’s reputation was mixed at best; now its schools get among the best results in London, businesses are thriving and it’s the best place to live in London (though I would say that). This transformation is what makes Corbyn and Abbott’s stagnation so surprising, especially when there are some in the Hackney Labour Party who know the world has changed.
The outgoing Mayor of Hackney, Jules Pipe, understood that a wealthier Hackney was the best way to improve services for all. It’s just a shame that his ideology stopped him from embracing pragmatic solutions to school shortages like more free schools – and yet didn’t stop him embracing some dreadful planning decisions. Meanwhile Meg Hillier, MP in Hackney South and Shoreditch (“Core Group Hostile”), is now chair of the Public Accounts Committee and playing a serious role in holding the Government to account. Thus the two Hackney MPs provide a neat microcosm of Labour’s current travails.
With Labour having nothing to say to the people of Hackney, the Conservative Party has a unique opportunity over the next four years. We are generally a Party that shuns ideology in favour of pragmatism, but without many MPs in the inner cities our Party isn’t always able to hear the voices of places like Hackney. Thankfully, we have Conservative councillors here and we’re determined to build on their work, hopefully with a Conservative mayor and then to win more council seats in 2018.
We should never have let Labour get away with seeing such areas as ‘theirs’ and our rapidly growing group of local activists won’t let that happen. It’s my belief that a greater attentiveness to areas of Labour dominance will not just produce pragmatic policy responses for the inner cities but will allow us to see patterns across the whole country. Inner cities, coastal areas, small and garrison towns and post-Brexit rural communities all face challenges in which the Government, be it local or national, has an important role to play. In Hackney, I’m determined to show that the Conservative Party is the party for all of the UK.