Cllr Paul Mercer is a councillor on Charnwood Borough Council and is the Lead Member for Housing in the Cabinet. He is writing in a personal capacity.
One of the joys of being a Conservative councillor in a ward which has traditionally been held by Labour is that every election is a battle. One therefore gets to know the electorate well. Rigorous canvassing in the May local elections, with a slightly more selective follow-up in December, hinted that a gradual shift in electors’ voting behaviour was taking place. In the wake of the election, detailed opinion polls have confirmed these trends and largely matched what we found on the ground.
Perhaps it was once true that those who lived in big houses were professionals and tended to vote Conservative; and those who lived in terraces voted Labour. Although the change has not been completely diametric, this relationship now no longer exists. Instead, we often found Labour supporters in private new estates and a far higher proportion of Tories on council estates.
One of the starkest examples that we came across occurred when we knocked on a council house door and a large man, bedecked with scary tattoos, wearing a vest, and holding back his Staffy, opened it, looked at us and shouted:
“It’s the Tories, luv!”
We politely enquired whether he would be voting for us. He looked up his stairs and again shouted:
“We’re Tories, aren’t we luv!”
After the election, the marked register showed that they had indeed both voted.
Campaigning in the ward was underpinned by meticulous statistical analysis carried out by Adam Stares, a graduate mathematician from the University, who very accurately predicted the number of votes in both elections. His analysis ensured that our May campaigning was precisely targeted on the areas most likely to produce pledges. As a consequence, the ward not only saw the highest turnout in the town, but a swing in our favour, against the national trend.
In May, we had noticed that the idea that Jeremy Corbyn might become Prime Minister frightened many traditional Labour voters. On numerous occasions, we were told that we were speaking to a long-time Labour voter – but not this time. Corbyn’s willingness to associate with terrorists seemed to be the main reason.
Brexit was, of course, a major factor. We found quite a few traditional Conservative voters who were reluctant to offer their support because they were Remainers. However, this was offset by the number of Labour voters who were passionate Leave supporters. This shift was very apparent when the boxes were opened during the count. In some strong Conservative wards there was a noticeably higher Lib Dem and Labour vote; and in traditional Labour wards there were far more Conservative votes than usual.
Labour had been hoping that they could defeat Nicky Morgan as MP by winning a majority of Borough Council wards in the May election. Our ward was listed as one of their ‘targets’. Two years earlier, they had replaced the local leader of the Labour group, who had stood in 2017, with an affable barrister from outside Leicestershire who, in 2019, moved into the constituency. Labour’s calculation was presumably that he would appeal more to the key village vote and this would be enough to remove Nicky. Although her last-minute decision to stand down caused a number of logistical issues for the Conservatives, it also meant that Labour’s whole campaign – which had been aimed squarely at her – was also thrown into disarray.
The Conservatives received an unexpected boost when, on two occasions, the former candidate complained publicly that his successor had been unfairly “parachuted” into the constituency. Although the Conservatives ran a positive non-personal campaign it was clear that some voters were suspicious about the local credentials of the Labour candidate. In the final week of the campaign, Labour distributed two leaflets which personally attacked the Conservative candidate. These leaflets had her name prominently displayed and although it may have cost us a few votes they helpfully went a long way towards letting the electorate know who to vote for.
Following the election, Labour held a private members’ meeting which was addressed by their candidate. In a speech, he emphasised that it was important to “understand how bad this is”. He suggested that blaming the media “was like a sailor blaming the weather”. Labour was in a “really bad place”. The allegations of anti-Semitism were genuine and “this is not OK” – it was “stain on our party”. Unless Labour “fought back against that completely unacceptable position we are going nowhere; we are morally spent”, he suggested. Corbyn and McDonnell had “taken us a long way” with the 2017 manifesto but then things went wrong in 2019 as it adopted “ideas which were just chucked out like confetti”. Many of these new policies “completely alienated communities and alienated people we need to win over.” Free movement and the abolition of private schools were two he cited.
He was concerned that prominent party figures described themselves as “socialists” which was further alienating the electorate:
“I don’t mind if people describe themselves as ‘socialists’ behind closed doors. But we can’t take the electorate for granted. Every time someone says ‘I am a Socialist’ knocks about 10,000 votes of us”.
“What did the working class say to us? They said they are not interested. Because we did not speak for them. Because we were not listening to them.”
He argued that unless Labour understood these problems, unless it “got real”, then it faced “14 more years in the wilderness”. It was important to go into communities “and to say why Labour gives a shit about people”.
It is not often our views coincide with those of the local Labour candidate but on this occasion, his analysis is largely accurate. So long as Labour is perceived to be extreme and out of touch, it will remain unelectable. Labour’s challenge is winning back many of these core voters. However, it may be that, having voted Tory once, they will be unwilling to return to the fold.