Cllr Gareth Lyon is a councillor in Rushmoor and the Chairman of the Aldershot and North Hants Conservative Association.
The local election results throughout Hampshire and Surrey make grim reading for our Party. The blame for this is rightly being laid at the feet of the Prime Minister and our Parliamentary party. As predicted, the very public and constant drip of stories about Brexit completely overshadowed every other issue in this campaign.
A notable exception to this tale of woe was in Rushmoor (Farnborough and Aldershot) – where our hard-working, tight-knit team of councillors and activists withstood everything the other parties could throw at us and ended the night with the same number of seats as we started it (having lost two and gained two, one from Ukip one from Labour).
I am hugely proud of our team here and everything we did to stand firm. Some of the biggest factors in our success were:
- Teamwork. Before the campaign even started we made a point of getting our candidates together to build a shared view on which were our target and at-risk wards. By getting candidates to take the lead in the process we secured an impressively self-sacrificial level of buy-in from them in terms of where we chose to target our resources. In years gone by our hard-working ward councillors launched themselves into election time primarily focussing on their own wards. This is commendable but often led to massively inflated majorities in safe blue areas whilst we fell just short in other wards. This year we got the agreement of candidates in safer seats to spend a great deal of time helping elsewhere. This meant that we were able to focus on the second key plank of our strategy:
- Putting Labour on the back foot. We knew we would be up against an unfavourable national picture this year and that the socialists would be doing all they could to capitalise on it. We countered this through some of our most energetic and effective campaigners making moves on Labour wards early in ways which the socialists had not seen us do in the past. This very quickly induced panic in the Labour ranks and led to them diverting resources which might otherwise have been targeted entirely at our marginal wards. We started by not expecting very much of these campaigns – but in the end, we slashed Labour majorities, which will in itself pay dividends next year. The main advantage though was that we were on the front foot for the whole campaign and the socialists were never quite able to implement their plans.
- Finding new areas of support. In Rushmoor we are proud to be home to a large Nepalese community, a legacy of the long relationship Aldershot has with the Gurkha regiment. For a number of years, Labour have tried to treat these residents as a kind of client group, and made all sorts of unrealistic and misleading promises of future handouts. Over the past couple of years though we have tackled this. The leadership of our local council has worked on building friendship and rapport with the Nepalese community. We have attended their events, supported their fundraisers and made more of an effort to welcome them into the heart of our community. As this has happened we have discovered that key planks of Nepalese traditional culture – respect for the family, history and the military, patriotism, self-reliance and support for small business – are actually profoundly Conservative. Not only that but the Nepalese have seen through the smoke and mirrors promises of the Labour Party and seen how in Conservative run Rushmoor we can actually deliver – and do not over-promise. This alliance led to a surge in Nepalese support for our candidates this year which made the difference in many wards. It also now has a visible symbol in Rushmoor’s first Nepalese candidate – the impressive Prabesh KC who took a Ward of Labour into the bargain!
- Sticking to our great local record. In Rushmoor we have one of the lowest rates of council tax in the region and are on course in future to start freezing then cutting our rate. This is possible because our investment strategy is bringing in an ever increasing proportion of council income, saving our residents money and ensuring that our local services remain well funded. Indeed, alongside becoming more customer-centric and efficient this is one of the main reasons we have been able to improve rather than cut any local services. That’s not all – we are working with private sector partners to leverage hundreds of millions of pounds into hugely ambitious town centre regeneration projects in Aldershot and Farnborough. We know that we are a well run local council and that residents respect us for it. No matter how any conversation on a doorstep started this year – we made sure we finished by talking about our local record. We even went so far as to describe ourselves as “Local Conservatives” on ballot papers. We are proud members of the Conservative Party here and know we have a great record in Government, but to ask our candidates to go out to bat on European issues would have been both cruel and stupid.
- Countering opposition lies. This is one we developed in the course of the campaign and are still learning to do better. At least two parties running against us this year made entirely false and deceptive claims about our town centres and local services. It took us a while to wake up to the fact that some residents were actually believing such nonsense but when we did so we started to allow activists far more time on the doorstep to set people straight. We didn’t get round to everyone who was deceived but those we did will never vote for the deceivers again. We will keep upping our game in this area and more importantly will prove them wrong as we continue to deliver for our residents in future.
Our campaign faced the same issues as all Conservatives around the country, and it is frustrating to think that we could very well have made some very significant gains if we hadn’t been up against such a self-inflicted malaise.