Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former councillor in Suffolk.
With Government and the media seemingly overwhelmed by endless Brexit debate and negotiations, policies affecting ‘ordinary’ people’s daily lives (the NHS, housing, education) struggle to get airtime, other than criticism and demands for more funding, giving voters the impression that they are no longer priorities – that the Conservatives simply don’t care.
There is a vacuum preventing our re-engagement with voters, confused by Corbyn mania and its spend, spend, spend policies, which would take the UK back to bankruptcy. Instead of talking about the Magic Money Tree, which is meaningless, the Conservatives must counter Labour’s arguments with facts, highlighting in the simplest terms the benefits of a strong economy, which has driven high employment and business investment.
Above all, we must recognise – and be seen to recognise – what matters to people, especially in those areas equivalent to America’s ‘rust belt’, beyond the affluent South East, which are usually run by Labour and lack aspiration.
So, it was a relief to attend the Conservative’s Eastern Region conference, organised by the new Conservative Regional Team led by Chair, Ann Steward, with Deputy Chairs, Donald Douglas and Colin Noble (Leader of Suffolk County Council). Attended by about 300 supporters, including teenagers, councillors, and potential candidates, who were delighted to network and at last discover a shared vision and how it will be implemented.
After a welcome to her constituency by Lucy Frazer, MP for South East Cambridgeshire, the Party’s new Chairman, Brandon Lewis MP, took to the stage. His energy, enthusiasm and determination was refreshing as well as his clear understanding of how much work needs to be done, especially to embrace those younger voters who feel ignored by us.
Whereas Labour constantly remind us of their record membership, we have record numbers of people campaigning for us, but they are not always Party members, because they don’t think this is necessary, and there is also a difference in style. Our supporters are less likely to go on marches waving banners, preferring to protect their privacy; consequently, a new membership package will be announced shortly to attract all ages. As an alternative to Conference, which is too expensive for many people, last year’s festival was a fun event, proving popular, especially with young people, and a bigger venue is booked for this year.
He confirmed that social media improvements are progressing well, and although Labour refuses to sign up, the Conservatives are introducing a very welcome Respect Pledge; abuse is rampant in politics (especially against women) and the Pledge will hold our candidates to account if they don’t adhere to the rules.
As Brandon Lewis left to go canvassing, next on the agenda, was the 4,500-strong Conservative Policy Forum (CPF) director, George Freeman MP, who acknowledged the frustrations felt by so many in the room, following the 2017 General Election. Although Head of Policy, he was not consulted on the ill-conceived Manifesto and saw how support evaporated after its publication, despite the PM’s cringe-worthy determination that ‘nothing has changed’. Foxhunting and a ‘dementia tax’ held back what was otherwise a record vote for the Party.
Having got that out of the way, he admitted the need to ‘communicate with the electorate, and a PLAN to demonstrate to the under-40’s that they have a bright future’. Bold reform, a programme of renewal, making Brexit the key for re-energising enterprise and innovation, inspiring optimism in what the Conservatives believe in and offer. We must champion shared values and responsibilities.
James Palmer, the Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough was another breath of fresh air; he told of a meeting with Andy Burnham, his opposite number in Manchester, reminding Mayor Burnham that, whereas his domain was a drain on the exchequer, Cambridgeshire & Peterborough was a net contributor to the Treasury to the tune of £5 billion annually.
His ambitious plans for new infrastructure to meet the demands of huge growth in the region, with massive investment in the research and high tech industries, include a cap on land value to support more (affordable) housing for purchase to attract and retain skilled staff and young entrepreneurs wanting to capitalise on the opportunities.
The idea was dismissed as ‘socialism’ in a subsequent discussion I had with a senior landowning councillor. However, much can be learnt from some local authorities in the West Country, which grant planning consent for specific sites dependent on schemes providing housing for local people, rather than second homes or Buy to Let. Community Land Trusts are another option, with landowners offering a site at preferential rates, in return for agreeing planning consent on another site for commercial development. It’s about fairness, not socialism, when land ownership is limited.
The Conference received updates on a range of administrative matters, from compliance and the importance of meeting deadlines with accurate data to avoid unnecessary heavy fines by the Electoral Commission, to campaigning and the newly created central membership administration.
CCHQ is investing heavily in digital communication, with three Apps now functioning, and a witty summary of do’s and don’ts on social media, with examples of embarrassing posts which found their way to the front pages of national tabloids, was a timely reminder to keep a cool head.
Women2Win with Baroness Jenkin recognised the progress made getting more women into Parliament, and in local government, but more still needs to be done to support and mentor potential candidates, but with selection on merit rather than gender.
Overall, a day well spent; the optimism, enthusiasm, renewed focus and determination was infectious, with a cross section of impressive speakers who shared their ideas with passion, tempered by realism, but without notes – always a sign of genuine commitment and belief.
We have six weeks to communicate with the electorate in the run-up to the local elections, especially in London, where housing, Brexit and Grenfell are very raw issues.