Cllr Paul Mercer is a councillor on Charnwood Borough Council and is the Lead Member for Housing on the Cabinet.
The local elections last Thursday were always going to be a challenge. The Conservatives on Charnwood Borough Council, having enjoyed the luxury of holding 42 of the 52 seats, were faced with the possibility that they could lose control if Labour retook the four seats it inadvertently lost in 2015 – and then picked up some of the marginal Tory wards.
When the results were announced, Labour won these four seats, but failed in all its other target areas. The only other Conservative loss was to the Green Party in one of the villages after a hard-fought campaign dominated by local issues.
In my two-member ward, Southfields, Labour started campaigning in 2018. The ward had been under Labour control since 1995 when it took 53.2 per cent of the vote, with the Conservatives only winning 27.7 per cent. In 2011, my fellow Conservative councillor, Ted Parton, managed to win 39.0 per cent pushing Labour down to 46.8 per cent. In 2012, one of the existing Labour councillors resigned unexpectedly and Ted won the subsequent by-election. In a hard-fought campaign in 2015, both of us won and Ted’s support went up to 49.8 per cent with the defeated Labour councillor winning only 38.0 per cent.
In order to retain the ward, we realised it would be necessary to maintain a high presence throughout the four-year term and as well as running a website and maintaining a social media presence, we produced a regular newsletter, branded ‘MySouthfields’, which was circulated to residents every four months.
One of the challenges we faced was building up a distribution and support network and by approaching our 2015 pledges we managed to recruit enough new members to form a branch. It holds regular meetings and even organises dinners and other events. It has a close relationship with the Conservative students at Loughborough University and this provided us with the extra support that we needed.
Producing high-quality literature quickly, and at a reasonable price, also proved to be a challenge because local printers were often exorbitantly expensive. After checking the legalities, we set up our own printing company which could negotiate trade prices. Charnwood Design & Print Ltd was therefore created and as well as printing our leaflets has now started to produce literature for other Conservative candidates. It has even won contracts with local businesses. The company makes a small profit on any printing for political organisations – meaning that it is not subsidising the literature but merely getting a better rate.
Southfields Ward forms part of the Loughborough South division on Leicestershire County Council and in the wake of Ted’s success in 2015, he was nominated as the Conservative candidate to stand in 2017. By applying the same rigorous campaigning techniques which had achieved our success in 2015, Ted ousted the sitting councillor, the well-respected Robert Sharp, also the Labour leader on the county council. Robert subsequently resigned as a borough councillor and then left the Labour Party altogether citing extremism.
In their attempt to remove us in 2019, Labour then selected Arthur Gould, a retired ‘Swedish studies’ lecturer, to stand alongside the proprietor of a knitting shop in the ward.
We used the Conservative Party’s online software to record our pledges. The data for the day of the election was distilled to a list of electoral numbers and these pledges were crossed off as they voted. In 2015, we had successfully used iPhones to transmit the polling data to our committee room and this time incorporated this process into a WhatsApp group. Ted and I volunteered to man our two polling stations throughout the day and this enabled us not only to exchange intelligence about what was happening but also to see each other’s returns.
On the day of the election, both Labour and Conservative candidates had teams of door knockers. We were confident that most of our pledges had voted and that our postal vote exercise had been a success. Our campaign was clinically managed by Adam Stares, a mathematics graduate from Loughborough University, who kept a track of our support and directed us to where we needed to campaign.
Adam’s prediction of our victory was unnervingly accurate – he was only nine votes out for Ted’s vote. As expected, Ted topped the poll, increased his support and received the backing of more than half of those who voted. My vote also increased by 2.8 per cent to 46.4 per cent. In contrast, the Tory vote across Charnwood dropped by 8.5 per cent and despite all his effort, the local Labour candidate, Gould, was pushed into fourth place.
The bigger picture was the impact on the Parliamentary constituency. Charnwood borough comprises Loughborough, represented by Nicky Morgan, and Charnwood, held by Ed Argar. Nicky has 31 councillors in her constituency and for the Labour candidate, Stuart Brady, to win, Labour would realistically need to control more than half of the wards. Even after it had picked up the four seats that it had lost in 2015, Labour still had only 13 councillors. As well as our ward, Labour was hoping to take four Conservative-held wards in Shepshed, a town that borders Loughborough. Despite an intense campaign, all four Labour candidates lost and the Conservatives decisively regained control of the town council with 11 of 15 seats.
Taken as a whole, the Conservatives won eight per cent more votes than Labour in Loughborough constituency and, more worryingly for Labour, Greens and Liberal Democrats candidates came ahead of four losing Labour candidates but no Conservative. Parties usually hope to increase their local support when they are in opposition, yet the strength of Charnwood’s Labour Group has declined from 17 seats in 2011 to 13 in 2019; Conservative seats have gone from 30 to 36 today.
The Conservatives on Charnwood Borough Council can therefore justifiably claim that May 2019 was a successful election which saw every sitting councillor re-elected and their control of the council remaining intact.