Cllr Ian Lewis is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Wirral Council.
Greetings from the not-so-Socialist Republic of Wirral! On a night of disappointment for many hard working and effective local councillors elsewhere in the country, Wirral was one of the few places where we made progress.
Not enough, yet, to reverse the decline of our local government base over the last 10 years, but the first signs of a reversal of that decline. Green shoots of recovery, if you like.
The Borough, for those who have yet to visit, includes Birkenhead, Wallasey (my patch), and Wirral South, as well as the ‘marginal’ Wirral West.
On April 3rd, Conservative Home kindly gave me the opportunity to outline what our local campaign in Wirral was about – principally stopping a Militant-style takeover of the council by an increasingly Militant-dominated Labour group.
The previous elections had seen the Labour-run council retain all the seats they were defending, with 45 per cent of the borough-wide vote – ten per cent more than us. With their ‘moderate’ leader jumping before he was pushed and their deputy leader deselected by Momentum, the risk of ending up with a hard left leader was all too real.
By focussing our resources on the wards we needed to hold, gain, and make progress in, we managed to reduce Labour’s borough-wide lead to less than four per cent.
More importantly, in the wards where we worked, we held all our seats, gained one from Labour, and reduced the majority in another – in what should be a safe Labour ward. More of this ward in a moment.
We would have been satisfied with this after nine years of a Conservative-led government. However, to help turn Wirral from Labour-controlled to No Overall Control while Brexit discontent was high among many core voters was even more welcome.
Discussions with voters, particularly those who remembered the damage done by Militant to our neighbouring authority in Liverpool, confirmed that our message was hitting home.
UKIP continued their decline – to just 2.5 per cent – as we squeezed their vote to make it a ‘risk and rewards’ choice (to use the CCHQ lingo).
Warning of a ‘Militant-style takeover’ wasn’t enough. We had to set out what that meant – less investment, higher taxes, and job losses. Things people could relate to, rather than historic political labels that meant little to many.
At the same time, we recognised in most of the wards, the Conservative ‘brand’ was either toxic or non-existent. We also knew that in some of those wards, while we were not on the radar, the Liberal Democrats, Greens, or Independents were.
We had benefited from good media coverage over the year, and augmented that with ‘wraps’ around the sole remaining weekly newspaper. I know many ‘professional’ campaigners decry such methods, but, if this is the only way of reaching into some communities (due to our weaknesses), then so be it.
In the event, the Greens (increasingly overtaking the Lib Dems for ‘pavement politics’) gained two from Labour, the Lib Dems made one gain (like us).
Had we not been compelled by CCHQ to field a candidate in every ward, it’s highly likely that Labour would also have lost the former ‘safe’ Rock Ferry ward to the ex-Labour Independent. While we gained 160 votes (six per cent), Labour scraped in by 185 votes (or seven per cent).
In urban areas, where we are often fighting to simply stop Labour, often with limited resources, we (as in the Party) needs to be more tactical.
Having said that, CCHQ did reinstate the ‘Local Conservatives’ option on the ballot paper – always a help in areas where we attract votes of non-Labour supporters due to local activity.
So, having contributed to Labour losing control of a metropolitan council on Merseyside, what’s changed?
For those who weren’t watching, or, let’s be honest, had better things to do, the council elections in Wirral have brought change to an organisation that, for too long, seemed immune to public opinion.
Firstly, and for the first time in many years, the election of the Council Leader was competitive – the Labour nominee beating me by 31 to 25 – even if neither he nor I secured the support of the nine Liberal Democrats and Greens, who abstained.
Labour did, however, lose eight of the ten committee chairs, ensuring that decisions made by the new Leader and his Cabinet can now be fully scrutinised, and challenged, in public.
The committees that scrutinise the Council’s finances and policies on the environment are now chaired by Conservatives. The Planning Committee is chaired by a Liberal Democrat, and the Adult Social care Committee (another ‘big’ issue that we face) is chaired by an independent councillor.
But it cannot be right that 97 per cent of decisions are still taken, often behind closed doors, by just ten Labour councillors, handpicked by the Leader of the day. This was the system designed by Tony Blair (who else!), and it’s a system that is not fit for purpose.
So, the new Leader’s first Cabinet will also be the Borough’s last. The new Council has already agreed to change, ensuring that by this time next year, the 66 councillors, of all parties, will make the decisions in public.
But rearranging the deckchairs in the Town Hall, as interesting as it is for those of us who are involved, must be the start, and not an end in itself.
Over the next 12 months, the Conservative councillors will seek support to deliver the changes people have told us they want and, in the new political circumstances, these are the things the Conservative Councillors will work with other parties to deliver.