Joseph Lee is a property professional. He stood as a Conservative candidate in Addiscombe East ward, Croydon, in the local elections in May. Cllr Jeet Bains is a councillor in Croydon and a management consultant.
Labour’s Sadiq Khan doesn’t exactly have a reputation for listening. In fact his ‘hands-over-ears’ approach is a common complaint amongst charities, campaigners – and even Labour-controlled councils. However, following months of hard work, grit and resilience, a grass-roots community campaign, spearheaded by Conservative activists on the outskirts of Croydon, has managed to cut through the bureaucracy and raise alarm bells at City Hall.
Addiscombe in Croydon is a vibrant borough suburb, home to a diverse mix of people in terms of age, occupation, and background. In August 2016, Blackhorse Lane Bridge – a crucial piece of infrastructure that serves as a gateway to the north of Croydon and central London – was closed to vehicle access by Croydon Council and Transport for London for an undefined period. One year later, nothing had changed. It was time for local Conservatives to act.
As soon as we started talking to local residents about it, the scale of anger became clear. Since the closure of the bridge, traffic congestion had reached crisis levels during rush hour, affecting commuters, local businesses, and families taking their children to school. The knock-on effect to the neighbouring bridge and local tram stop meant that frustrations were also growing in the wider community.
Our campaign effectively had four main elements:
- Regular written communication – Mentioning this campaign in our regular leaflets wasn’t enough (although we did that as well). Over the course of nine months we regularly sent letters, bespoke flyers and other communications to residents. By focusing on a single issue we attracted a far wider readership than we would otherwise have encouraged.
- Social media – A closed bridge surrounded by closure signs are God-sends for captivating pictures and videos. Within a few days of tweeting, we were not alone – residents started engaging. We had photos taken next to the concrete obstructions and no-entry signs, and a devastating video made next to the office of the local Labour MP – whose office is right next to the bridge. The video was shared thousands of times on Twitter.
- Residents petitions – Knocking on doors and talking to local people is great, but to take it to the next level we wanted people to join the campaign. Through organising a petition – both online and off – we were able to show the strength of local anger and deepen our engagement. We attended council meetings to present these petitions and to ask public questions.
- Business engagement – Given the length of the bridge closure, small businesses on the local high street were naturally affected. Business owners started a campaign for a business rate discount to compensate for lost earnings. We continue to support this campaign and help give it exposure.
It wasn’t long before the local Labour party started agitating. The Labour MP wrote to residents and expressed her displeasure. The Council started to recognise the seriousness of the issue but passed the buck to the Mayor. Our London Assembly Member, Steve O’Connell, quizzed the Mayor personally although, hilariously, the primary response of Labour-controlled City Hall was to pass the buck straight back to the Labour-controlled Council. Crucially, however, we got Mayor Khan to state on the record that this wasn’t good enough and that he will be taking a personal interest in this.
Finally, TfL and the Council wrote to residents acknowledging the concern and promising action. A new date was set for the reopening and the job of the campaign is now to hold the various Labour-controlled bodies to account.
The campaign was designed with the primary purpose of representing residents and serving the community. However, it also brought political results. In this year’s council elections, we won a council seat in the Addiscombe East ward by just eight votes – one of the few Conservative gains in London.
This campaign was hard work over a number of months and there is no transferable formula that will work for everyone. However, for anyone thinking about planning a similar campaign we would recommend the following:
- Keep it hyper-local – Those of us interested in local politics tend to think about a Council ward as the smallest building block of community. But in reality this is far too big to be considered ‘local’ by residents. A really local campaign needs to be something that will be of interest to a cluster of streets.
- Use as many platforms as possible – From council meetings to social media we saturated the campaign across every channel available. Initially we were sceptical as to how social media would work. But not only did this help us reach younger people but we were surprised by the number of people who told us that their grandchildren had shown them a picture from twitter or similar.
- Too much, simply isn’t – When we’re caught up with a campaign we live and breathe it day and night. As such we naturally worry that we’re boring people with a simple issue. In reality, people who lead busy lives might hardly notice unless we really go at it hammer and tongs. For every resident who says they’ve received a number of communications on it, there will be several who have no idea that a campaign is in motion.
- Expect dirty tactics from other parties. As Conservatives we naturally gravitate toward fair play. Other parties do not always play by the same rules. If a campaign is gaining traction, expect personal attacks and deceit – especially on social media – and make sure you have prepared yourself psychologically.
We all know that when Labour is in control, listening is not exactly top of their agenda. But as we have shown in a small corner of Croydon, when we tap into the anger of residents, craft an effective campaign, and pursue it with resilience, it is possible to create real and lasting change in our communities.