Cllr Ian Lewis is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Wirral Council.
For all political parties, you’re only as good as your next election. Currently, things look better than they have for a while.
As many of my colleagues and friends head to Manchester, for what is hopefully the last Conference before a General Election, many will be buoyed by the latest polls.
No doubt there will be much talk of the ‘bounce’ since the new Leader was elected, contrasting with the increasingly public rows among the Corbynistas.
As soon as one election is out of the way, we start again by focusing, understandably, on the next election. But, too often, as a Party, we look at our performance judged by the current cycle and the current alternative.
Yet, if you put our position into perspective or, as some of us call it, the real world, consider this: there won’t have been this many Conservatives in the City of Manchester since, well, the last Conference.
Others are more qualified than me to talk about the historical trends and the reasons why some areas of the country are now more, or less Conservative, than 20, 40, or 50 years ago.
40 years ago, at the council elections held on the same day as the General Election, we still came out with 33 seats on Manchester City Council. In Sheffield, we had 22 councillors. And in my nearest city, Liverpool, we had 21. Now, 40 years later, we have none. Not one. Zero. Nil. And any fair-minded assessment would say we’re nowhere near getting one.
How can a ‘One Nation’ Conservative Party, the most successful political Party in history, have ZERO councillors in so many of our largest cities?
The other day there was a council by-election in Liverpool, caused incidentally by a Labour councillor and the City’s Mayor being forced to resign after a racist video emerged. In that by-election, our Party stormed to last place with 96 votes, while Labour, despite all their woes, won 1,153. So what, you may say. But, as one of our Party’s greatest campaigners, Andrew Kennedy (him of leafy Kent), pointed out, when he was involved in Liverpool’s politics, we held that Ward. You could say things went downhill after he left. Look at the increasing demographic shifts in the cities – more students, growing ethnic diversity and LGBT communities – coupled with long-term residents who have often lived through industrial decline – and you can see why the traditional Tory message struggles to resonate.
The historic trend away from the Conservatives in our biggest Northern cities isn’t a problem that will be contained within those cities. Nowadays, people move home more often, as we see from the constant battle to maintain VI data on VoteSource every month. Sometimes people are leaving the cities because the services (in Labour councils), not least the schools in many cities, are simply not good enough.
The Right to Buy, arguably the most successful policy introduced after 1979, also enabled and encouraged more people to move. When people move, they take their voting intention with them. So that’s why the war for the ‘Metropolitan vote’, having been lost in the cities many years ago, is increasingly being fought in the places that could still elect Conservative MPs. Many of the people moving out of the Tory-free zones don’t move that far – sometimes to the neighbouring suburbs – such as Sefton and Wirral – which is still commutable to the city.
Until 1986, Conservatives ran both those Merseyside councils. We’ve never had a majority in either since then and we struggle to elect a single MP. As always, there are exceptions – such as Chris Green MP in Bolton West and Damian Moore MP in Southport – and the leadership of Robert Alden on Birmingham City Council – but we (the Party) need to address this and recognise that reversing our Metropolitan decline is a (very) long-term, but necessary, project.
One of the great reforms to the Party by Michael Howard was establishing the Conservative Foundation, to secure our long-term finances. For our metropolitan areas, it’s time we had a long-term political plan. We may not get a council seat soon in any of those cities, but could we win a polling district? Short-term sticking plasters like the ‘City Seats Initiative’ or the PR-driven efforts of David Cameron have zero lasting impact and won’t suffice.
Our message and our approach to the issues in the cities needs to be improved and yes, that will take cash. Money that would, no doubt generate an earlier, and bigger, win in the nearest ‘marginal’. But look back – and today’s ‘marginal’ may well have once been a ‘safe’ seat – Sheffield Hallam (in the news now for all the wrong reasons) had a Conservative MP in 1979 – with a 15,000 majority.
Enjoy your Conference in Manchester. But look beyond the Secure Zone and ask what we need to do to re-establish ourselves.