This week we are looking at the prospects for building a Blue Wall in those constituencies where the Red Wall was broken in the General Election last month. The way we are pursuing this is to consider some of the pioneers – the Conservative MPs who gained traditional Labour seats at the 2017 General Election. Of particular interest is whether Conservative support in their areas has been consolidated by gaining more local councillors. Yesterday we started with Walsall North, won by Eddie Hughes in 2017. Today it is the turn of North East Derbyshire, a seat gained by Lee Rowley on the same day.
Rowley’s majority in 2017 was 2,861. Last month it had increased to 12,876. This means that on a uniform swing it would be Labour’s 151st target seat for next time. In other words, unlikely to be a target at all, given that Labour needs to gain 124 seats for an overall majority of one. “Targeting” too many more than that number would risk the concept losing its meaning. This does create a problem of success for Rowley. Holding a marginal seat does make it easier to gain the attention of Ministers when special pleading is concerned. Or of CCHQ, when it comes to funding and other campaigning back up. Rowley will continue to have the mentality that he represents a marginal seat. That is prudent in these volatile times – even though the simple mathematics shows that his seat is now rather on the safe side.
Last year’s council election saw heavy Conservative losses in England overall. But in North East Derbyshire it was all smiling faces, whooping and cheers. The Conservatives gained control of the Council from Labour, picking up 13 seats. This was the first time the Conservatives have been in power there since the local authority was formed in 1973. The campaigning message was robust and unapologetic. “Killamarsh Conservatism”. Rowley wrote about it for us at the time:
“Enough of the split-the-difference, milquetoast, managerial mush which has bedevilled our national picture for too long. A Conservatism which places hard work, aspiration and ambition at the centre of everything, which seeks to protect and enhance quality of life and properly values a sense of community.”
The Labour councillors had become complacent and out of touch. Many had been there for years and did not bother to campaign. They just collected their allowances with a sense of entitlement and agreed to whatever the officials wanted. This resulted in housing developments being pushed through without genuine consultation. Labour had failed to adjust to how politics has become more transactional, less deferential.
By contrast, the Conservatives were actively looking for opportunities to campaign – for instance in parish council by-elections which might have been ignored in the past. There would be a psychological, cultural change as Conservatives posters appeared in places that had never seen them before.
North East Derbyshire Conservative Association membership is up from 44 before the 2017 General Election to 250 now. Rowley holds village meetings. He would “top and tail” the letters asking people along while watching TV in the background. Despite these personalised invitations, the number that would turn up would be small. However, people appreciated being asked. Some of those who missed the meeting might still contact him with casework – which Rowley actively procures.
Social media is used a lot but there is discipline in sticking to local issues. Effort and money is spent on reaching constituents on Facebook (via which he reaches 3,500 of them) tracking and promoting messages so that they reach locals rather than those elsewhere.
I can see that having cheerful community news items provided by MPs makes sense. The decline in local newspapers leaves a gap. Politically combative messages might be regarded as offputting. The only problem is that it leaves Conservatives avoiding the broader ideological arguments. Socialist fallacies are left unchallenged. If Conservative MPs are constantly demanding increased public spending in their constituencies where does that broader Conservative message in favour of free enterprise, individual liberty, and lower taxation?
Winning the Council does present its own challenges. Can the Council engage with people in a way that would make new housing popular? What if the Council does something that Rowley disagrees with?
The next push will be the Police and Crime Commissioner elections. The Conservatives are hoping to gain this position from Labour. Angelique Foster, the Conservative candidate, is from North East Derbyshire.
The initial goodwill for the Conservatives has come about through Labour neglect. That has given the Conservatives an opportunity to prove themselves as vigorous local champions . Thus far they would seem to be doing so.