Lee Pettman is the Chairman of Slough Conservatives.
I think it is fair to say we live in a time when it is not considered fashionable to be a Conservative Party member – and here in Slough, I would say even less so.
Just over 18 months ago, I got involved in active Conservative Party politics in Slough, first as a co-opted member of the Executive of the Association. My first meeting was an eye opener, watching a group of dedicated local volunteers desperate for change and being wholly unsupported. Local party issues aside, it put real context to my point about fashionability.
I could not sit by and watch the only real opposition to Labour in my town not able to fulfil its potential properly, so – for my sins – I put myself up as Chairman at the beginning of the year. Since then our team have been working determinedly to put us on a different trajectory.
With the local council holding elections in thirds, 2019 was yet another election year for us. Straight in at the deep end. However, for the first time in many years, the local party was able to start campaigning four months prior to the election, having selected a slate of candidates in December.
What followed over the campaign was nothing short of an amazing experience for a core group of 30 or so activists and candidates.
We took out a simple message – campaigning for a Cleaner, Brighter, Safer town. We focused on the waste and debt the Labour council had been accumulating over 10 years of control as well as their poor handling of the regeneration of the High Street.
Doorstep engagement was our focus. We reached nearly 15,000 residents – to listen to them and becoming one of the most active associations in the country as a result, despite our size. In the process we have gathered new members and activists.
We delivered an online campaign, reaching over 35,000 residents a week, encouraging transparency and engagement through our campaigns such as #BrokenSlough, highlighting issues such as potholes, poor state of roads, and fly-tipping.
We ended up outperforming the national picture with a six per cent swing to us, and the regional picture by 12 per cent. On polling day, itself we were outnumbered by the Labour machine ten-fold. Even then, they acknowledged that we had won the vote on the day itself in five wards, showing what we are up against when it comes to block voting and postal voting in a town like Slough.
Despite our efforts and results, we didn’t have the power to overcome the real issue that ‘got us’ on the day – the national picture. Slough in many ways is a bellwether for national politics. Despite being a solid Labour constituency, it voted Leave in the 2016 referendum. The problem wasn’t just Brexit – it was faith in politics, politicians, and the party.
There is nothing more important than the residents we represent. I think our party has largely forgotten how important it is to simply listen to people. It has, like many associations themselves, become inward-looking. What is the point in talking to yourself?
The sad situation many associations find themselves in is now being reflected nationally. The problems for the party are top-down, starting not just with leadership through Theresa May, but also the way the party is set up from CCHQ down.
It has allowed itself to become a media agency, with only the ability to broadcast rather than listen back from the public through its members. It pumps out endless ‘stuff’ about how brilliant the government is, when the public largely now recognise we have a government in name only, that is delivering very little.
Putting this aside, I am immensely proud of our small but growing band of youthful and intelligent activists. They have contributed so much during this campaign, and like me, have grown up through it too, gaining precious experience to take into the year ahead and beyond. Through this team, we will continue our own path of reform – doing things differently, they are the future of our great Party, and a reminder of the need for new blood throughout it.
We have amazing plans for the year ahead, including rotating street surgeries and engaging online campaigns.
Let’s hope the party wakes up and realises it needs to do the same if it is to survive in the long run. The future of the party – nationally as well as locally – relies on us getting our people enthused, empowering them to take part freely and make the most of their interests. We need to listen to residents and act to address the injustices for working people, such as in Slough, which are being entrenched by a local Labour council.
What we need to get back to, as Conservatives, above all, is simple politics for a complex age.