On Monday it was Walsall North. Yesterday it was North East Derbyshire. Today we turn to Mansfield in our series on some of the early success stories of constituencies where the Red Wall has been demolished. This was another of the small number of seats the Conservatives gained in England in 2017. In 2015 there had been a Labour majority of over 5,000. But two years later this had been overturned. Ben Bradley gained the seat for the Conservatives with a majority of 1,057. Then last month his majority increased to 16,306. That means nobody can claim it is still a marginal seat. It is now Labour’s 200th target seat. Yet this was a seat that Labour had held since 1922. It was a coal mining constituency – although being in Nottinghamshire these were working miners during the 1984 strike led by Arthur Scargill. All that took place well before Bradley was born. The decline in trade union membership is linked to the erosion in support for the Labour Party.
So coming in as a young MP in 2017, representing such unfamiliar Conservative territory, must have been daunting for Bradley. Many of his new colleagues will now have the equivalent experience. The traditional technique used by the Lib Dems to build up their strength was to start with gaining council seats – using “pavement politics” with lots of hyper local campaigns. That would then provide a solid basis to win a Parliamentary seat. The challenge for many of the new Tory MPs is to do this in reverse. They have been elected with perhaps only a small number of plucky volunteers to assist them. Shaun Bailey, the newly returned Conservative MP for West Bromwich West, does not have a single Conservative councillor in his constituency. I suppose there are advantages about a clean slate. He can talent spot among energetic and capable people, with a Conservative allegiance, who would like to take on the role. But it is certainly a challenge.
Progress in council elections in Mansfield has been complicated by splits in the anti-Labour vote. There is a group of independents on the Council – in the past an independent has been returned as the directly elected Mayor. UKIP has also polled well here – including in the 2015 General Election when they got 25 per cent of the vote. In the 2015 local elections, there were two UKIP councillors elected in Mansfield, 16 Mansfield independents. None for the Conservatives. Full Council elections were held again last May, which was bad timing. But the Conservatives did pick up a couple of seats. They hope for a more dramatic breakthrough next year when it comes to county council seats. Conservative Party membership in the constituency has increased from only a dozen before 2017 to around 250 now.
“We’ve got lots of MPs now who don’t have a foundation in their local councils, but it’s possible to work backwards and use your national platform to win locally. Many issues cross over both roles and you can campaign very effectively, or at least show what could be done if only there were Conservative Councillors to help you. One of the big challenges, where Conservatives haven’t been visible for a long time, is building your “brand” and explaining what your local Party is about. That’s a brand that can carry your local candidates a long way too, if you’re campaigning with one voice.”
When it comes to social media, Bradley feels it is important not just to transmit but also to respond – sometimes robustly when he is attacked by his opponents.
Despite representing many former Labour voters, Bradley does not favour a half-hearted Conservative message designed to placate those with residual socialist sympathies. On issues like crime and welfare reform, most working class voters want tougher action. Some aspects of the “culture wars” have traction – there is indignation at the way that freedom of speech is threatened and that baffling jargon is demanded rather than plain speaking. The cost of living is particularly important for families on tight budgets – so lower Council Tax, Income Tax, and National Insurance would be important. Bradley hopes that free trade deals after Brexit will result in lower grocery and clothing bills. Transport is important – his constituents tend to be more concerned about buses than trains.
The popularity of Boris Johnson, the unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn, and the impatience to deliver a proper Brexit, were all significant electoral factors in Mansfield as elsewhere. But there has been something deeper happening for many years before that. Labour has been alienating the voters for a long time. More recently the Conservatives have been winning their trust.