Cllr Abi Brown is the Leader of Stoke-on-Trent City Council. Cllr Dan Jellyman is the Cabinet Member for Regeneration, Infrastructure & Heritage on Stoke-on-Trent City Council.
Not so many years ago, Labour held all 60 council seats, alongside three rock-solid parliamentary constituencies. Today, Stoke-on-Trent has a Conservative council leader, a Conservative-Independent coalition starting its second term, a Conservative MP, and a threatened insurgency into a second parliamentary seat, where the sitting Labour MP defends a majority of just over 2,000.
This isn’t so much a story of the 2019 local elections, but as a lesson in how to win long-term, in Labour’s urban heartlands. Abi has blogged before on the Conservative successes in Stoke-on-Trent, and since 2015, our presence has been boosted by taking the Stoke South seat in the snap general election. However, our performance in May, underscores what has been a ten-year plan to turn this Labour ‘people’s republic’ into one of the hotbeds of Conservative urban revival.
Long term plan
The number of Conservative councillors in Stoke-on-Trent have fluctuated over the years, but remained focused in particular areas. The city moved to all-out elections in 2011, ending the tiring practice of elections by thirds, although disappointingly, we only returned two councillors to a newly-reduced 44 seat council. However, these were the early years of our Conservative Federation – one of the first in the country – and gave us the opportunity to really consider how we grew, and where to target. The 2015 local elections coincided with a general election, and our parliamentary candidates immediately bought into our long term vision, and shared our success when we increased councillor numbers and ate into Labour’s parliamentary majorities.
Labour’s local complacency allowed us to form a coalition with the independents to run the council from 2015, enabling us to both campaign and deliver. For four years, we spent significant amounts of time honing what we do and applying those lessons across other wards. With more councillors, came more activists and more activity.
And of course, 2019 we more than doubled our number, just two seats from being bigger than the Labour group. We have resumed our successful partnership with the independents and now have the leader of the council in Abi.
Federation, without doubt, saved Stoke-on-Trent Conservatives, bringing us together as one unit with one plan. Our ten year plan started in 2008, with a focus on strengthening our city base and growing representation and membership. Like many urban areas, our officer team has often overlapped with our councillors, but with a shared focus on outcomes, we ensured strength in our achievements.
Every election needs a good campaign plan, but ensuring your campaign is responsive to your local environment is key. Like most cities, Stoke-on-Trent has a range of different wards and communities, which respond in different ways to different approaches. In 2011, our resources were minimum and our expertise only developing – a thinly spread resource in a one-size-fits-all campaign, focusing more on seats we wanted to take rather than hold wasn’t the right mix.
Experience has helped us evolve – no one knows their patch better than hardworking local councillors, and long term campaigning stability allows you to try new campaigning techniques. Every ward is different, but you can often apply the same methods in similar areas. We have used this to give us a head start in new target wards, alongside an open and constructive dialogue with residents. People love to be asked their opinion – but you also need to use your data and common sense.
Social media is now a part of our plan too. It complements our doorstep activity and we recognise it’s a growing part of engaging with people, but has a long way to go to replace traditional methods.
Grow your own people
So you have got a plan and you spend time focusing on how to deliver it – but you need more people. Activity attracts activity, and the more you do, the greater your chances of finding people, but in cities you need to plan to promote. One of our local strap-lines is “working for residents all year round not just at election time”, and we live by that. For residents to trust you, they need to see you – and that is the first step you need to secure before they’ll ever think of standing for us as a candidate.
Most of our candidates have started out as people who were friends of friends, who came along just to help out. So you need regular campaigning sessions that you promote, and you also need a sense of fun. We also make sure we take up all offers of help – when your numbers are small, you can’t afford to let enthusiastic people walk away.
Today, we are back on the campaign trail in Stoke-on-Trent. There are no local elections now until 2023, but there is a general election coming – however, one thing we know in Stoke-on-Trent is that winning is about campaigning all year round, regardless.