Nabil Najjar is director of Conservative Progress and a former member of the Party’s London Regional Management Executive. Alan O’Kelly is Head of Events for Conservative Progress and Deputy Chairman (Political) of Wandsworth Conservatives.
The outcome of last year’s local elections in London was not as bad as once feared. It prompted debate about what needs to be done to rebuild our Party and take the fight to Labour on the streets of the capital.
The (relative) success of this campaign demonstrated that a well-organised and strategic deployment of resources could, in some way, overcome some of Labour’s inherent advantages. However, as noted by many commentators on this site and others, we cannot allow ourselves to become complacent, and we must recognise and accept the scale of the challenge that the Party continues to face.
That message seems to be getting through and has been recognised at the highest levels. The Vice Chairman for London, Paul Scully MP, has put considerable time, energy and resources into rebuilding the London infrastructure ahead of the Mayoral and London Assembly elections next year.
The most obvious example of this commitment has been the early selection of our Mayoral candidate. Over the summer of 2018, the party undertook a wide-ranging search for a candidate, in the hope that this would provide the chosen candidate with enough time to build a campaign, raise their profile, and prove a strong opponent for Sadiq Khan in twelve months’ time. Whether this is in fact what happens is down in no small part to the candidate himself.
Our concern is not with the Mayoral campaign itself, which has clearly received the attention it deserves, but rather its often overlooked sibling, the elections for the London Assembly. The Conservative Party is currently in the process of sifting through candidates and selecting candidates for the list and constituencies.
We believe it is vital that the Party recognises the importance of the London elections, and that it allocates enough time and resources to an effective campaign. The London Assembly is often overlooked but it serves several important purposes, both for the people of London and the party itself.
Firstly, the London Assembly plays a crucially important role in supporting a future Conservative Mayor or acting as a counterweight to a Labour Mayor, shaping budgets and scrutinising policy. Over the past two years, Gareth Bacon and his team have led from the front in holding the Mayor to account and highlighting his litany of failed pledges and broken promises.
In terms of its role within the Party, the London Assembly has, in the past, served as an important proving ground for future Parliamentary candidates, many of whom have gone on to serve as Members of Parliament. Former Assembly Members such as Victoria Borwick, James Cleverly, Bob Blackman, Kemi Badenoch, and Kit Malthouse have served on the Assembly before establishing themselves as national politicians, and it is not unreasonable to assume that this will continue to be the case in future.
There has been a tendency to see the Mayoral and the London Assembly campaigns as two sides of the same coin, and that campaigning for the Mayoralty equates to campaigning for the Assembly, but we believe that there are fundamental differences in the campaigns, and in the roles themselves, which mean a different approach must be taken for each.
Mayoral campaigns are presidential-style contests which focus on the candidate. They are wide-ranging and rolling campaigns that move across London, and when up against a sophisticated campaigner and prominent figure such as Sadiq Khan, this takes on an added importance. The London Assembly election is an altogether different prospect. An important, and often overlooked, upside of that body is that it provides the Party with an opportunity to build a campaign and an effective organisation across London by offering members and activists the chance to take part in an important campaign in their locality. It brings together neighbouring constituencies and Boroughs within the same constituency (for example Merton and Wandsworth, Havering and Redbridge and Croydon and Sutton), encourages mutual aid and the sharing of activists and resources.
Active constituency and list Assembly candidates can act as local leaders for the voluntary Party, support the recruitment and retention of activists, and act as an effective mouthpiece in opposition to the Labour councillors, Assembly Members, MEPs and MPs, who at present vastly outnumber our own.
To achieve this, we believe that the Assembly campaign must be established as a separate, specific, but complementary campaign to the Mayoral campaign. It should be given prominence, its own team, and the freedom to build its own strategy and approach. The campaign, and the list system, reward candidates for turning out their vote, even when constituency seats are lost. This, coupled with the need to turn out the vote for our Mayoral candidate, provides a unique opportunity to flex our campaigning muscles in the constituencies where we are activist-rich, but whose activists are normally redirected to more marginal neighbouring seats.
It offers us the opportunity to build in areas where we are currently strong, and seek out votes in areas where we do not traditionally campaign. Because of the list system, there are no “no-go” areas, and even a handful of additional votes drawn from long-held, deeply Labour wards could be crucial to the success or failure of our campaign and could swing the balance of the Assembly.
At Conservative Progress, we believe it is essential that the London Assembly campaign is given strong, sustained and committed support from across the Party. For our part, we are committed to focusing on the campaign, creating opportunities to enhance the profile of Assembly candidates, and working with talented, hardworking and proactive candidates to support their campaigns however we can.
The Mayoral and London Assembly campaigns are the next step on the road to the General Election, and the local elections in 2022. An investment in our campaign infrastructure, our activists and our Party today will set us on a strong footing for when those elections come round. To do otherwise is to miss a vital opportunity to rebuild the party.