Cllr Barry Lewis is Leader of Derbyshire County Council.
Much attention of late has been devoted to the question of what went wrong for the Tories in the recent snap General Election. One particular area has been the view that younger voters and especially students are perceived as a demographic group that is alien to us. It seems that at the critical 14-25 age range you are either born a Tory or you are not. We forget though that these are malleable young minds, receptive to ideology and well-made arguments touched with wit and irony. Something the Left does particularly well and which we do particularly badly.
I was asked, albeit some time ago now, to write about what we did right in the county council elections in Derbyshire and this got me thinking about the General Election results. In Derbyshire we had a pretty convincing win over Labour – taking 19 seats and being the only County taken from Labour – which saw us go from being an opposition of just 18 seats to Labour’s 43, to a very respectable 37 seats versus 24 – giving us a healthy majority of 10. The Lib Dems held three seats. And we came close to winning another three. Indeed, one of which we really should have taken.
The Party Chairman, Sir Patrick McLoughlin, will not mind me saying I am sure, that he and the Party thought we wouldn’t win. At best they thought we would be in no overall control. I’m pleased to prove them both wrong – as I’m sure they were delighted to be proved wrong.
So how did we do it?
We were proud to be ideologically different and we embraced social media, particularly Facebook. Today you will find on Facebook politically engaged people of all ages. We were not afraid of using memes and a little humour to stir the hornet’s nest of rabid Corbynites out there – of which there are many.
We paid for boosted posts over geographically specific areas and filmed very short 30-40 second videos of candidates with their positive local messages. We used many of the same tricks that Labour and Momentum used to great effect in the General Election but they had not used quite so well in those local elections.
Prior to all this though, we planned ahead, selected our candidates early, ran workshops to develop our manifesto, got the candidates involved and asked them to take responsibility for their own campaigns; to be the link between us as the County Conservative Group and their associations and local teams. Our manifesto was short and snappy and everyone was invested in it. We didn’t have a single manifesto printed, again favouring social media and our website to disseminate it. It worked. And we’re still doing it, not being afraid to pitch ourselves as an ideological alternative to the local hard-Left.
So coming back to title of this piece: I accept that there were other factors that did not help us in this election. But two areas, conjoined in a way, where we did ourselves no favours, were: not engaging with the young and students; and not using social media effectively. The former is something we have forgotten to do for a long time; if we ever did it well at all.
We hide our light under a bushel sometimes, not expressing simple truths like the power of considerate capitalism to do good – a highly successful ideological principle with a longer, deeper, more convincing history than socialism and its history of failure and misery.
Yes, capitalism is not perfect but we shouldn’t shy away from it. And shy away is exactly the right term – in the face of the worst sort of socialist rantings we should be shouting more about its success.
There is something here we can all do to develop this. I’ll give you an example: here in Derbyshire we have the Derwent Valley World Heritage Site, famed as the birthplace of the factory system and the start of the Industrial Revolution and yet throughout the many publications, museum displays and narratives you will struggle to find a mention of capitalism, much less its successes. You’ll find many more mentions about workers rights, the development of the unions and similar movements – whilst that is appropriate too it has over time become the more dominant narrative.
The built heritage and subsequent well-being of society is just something incidental it sometimes seems, arising from industry and technology, not from the key driver of the age, which was the acquisition of wealth and despite the wider societal issues of the age, the good and improvement it did locally. This is not the only example, I am sure many of you can think of similar instances where this ‘oh so subtle’ intellectual creep of ideas has become mainstream. Schools are a classic case in point and we’ve stepped away from tackling these issues because they are too “difficult.”
We have let it be so. By accepting, because Conservatives are reasonable thinkers, that capitalism is not perfect we have allowed a contrary narrative to build itself and gain critical mass. This has legitimised a view that capitalism, despite is apparent and obvious successes is bad thing and this has allowed space for a contrary ideology, despite its long history of dangerous failure to take hold. The consequence of not championing our principle cause, ideology, and narrative and letting other perspectives take over has led to the erosion of truth. Perhaps we feel too self-assured that such things will just be known by all and taken for granted. Be assured they are not – social media has turned the world on its head and we are only just awakening to that reality and threat.
We need to fight our corner more. As councillors, MPs, and members of a great Conservative Party we have much that is good we should be championing. From our museums to our school curriculums the value and good that capitalism, considerate and socially responsible capitalism, has done for humanity needs more space.
Engaging the young is critical, and enticing them to the idea that wealth creation, entrepreneurship and capitalism are key components that ensure a happier, wealthier, and more fulfilled society can be built. And I’m not talking here about pushing capitalism and money making at any cost but as a means of building a decent society where those that are prepared to work will have good lives and those that cannot or have less through genuine need can be assured that the system will not let them down. This is a good philosophy and ideological platform, we just need to be less reticent about using this narrative lest we lose the social media battle we have ahead. As a consequence we could lose the very people we need to reach the most to ensure our party’s future.
The alternative is stark; it is frightening; and it cares little for democracy. Corbyn, a toxic socialist ideology promoted by Momentum zealots, the clear potential for a Venezuela-like economy, a debt crippled state, and mass unemployment: all painted over by a glossy veneer of sugar and free cash on a Glastonbury stage.
We need to win the hearts and minds of our youth and students with a better alternative, not be afraid to call it ideology and make a pitch that rings clearly across social media – and use it as a devastating force for good.