Before the General Election, there was much focus on the “red wall.” These were the seats in Labour’s heartlands. Traditionally working class constituencies in the North and the Midlands; many had returned Labour MPs since their inception. Even during the Macmillan and Thatcher landslides, they proved out of reach for the Conservatives. Yet despite their deep Labour culture, these are patriotic communities – most of them voted to leave the EU. Jeremy Corbyn’s support for terrorism left them dismayed. Labour’s preoccupation with identity politics left many voters bewildered. As a result, their loyalty to Labour was strained. Thus there was hope that even if the Conservatives failed in some of the usual marginals in London, even if they lost ground in Scotland, victory could still be secured in this unlikely territory. Of course, the General Election result offered dramatic confirmation of that.
The question now is whether these places will “revert to type” after Brexit is done and Corbyn has gone. Will the election of a Tory MP prove an aberration? Or will it be the start of building a blue wall? One means of ensuring it is the latter, is for Conservatives to become entrenched in these areas with more local councillors, not only an MP. This week we will be looking at what we can learn from some of the blue wall pioneers. While the overall result of the General Election in 2017 was very disappointing for the Conservatives in England, there were a few impressive gains. We will look at some of them and consider what happened next. We will start with Walsall North.
Eddie Hughes won Walsall North for the Conservatives in 2017 with a majority of 2,601. Last month he was returned with his majority up to 11,965. In other words, it is not even a marginal any more. It is now Labour’s 194th target seat for the 2024 General Election. (Labour needs to gain 124 seats for an overall majority of one.) David Winnick was the Labour MP for the seat from 1979 through to 2017. The Conservatives had won the seat before that but in the special circumstances of a by-election. Earlier it had been held by John Stonehouse, a Labour MP who spied for the Communists and faked his own death.
This is just about the poorest constituency in the country with a Conservative MP. That makes fundraising a challenge.
In the local elections last year, the Conservatives gained two seats on Walsall Council, enough to give them overall control. This was bucking the trend of heavy losses elsewhere. In 2018, the Conservatives gained five seats in Walsall. Cllr Mike Bird, the Conservative council leader, wrote an account for us last year. He said that Hughes “was by our side throughout” the campaign. Bird says:
“So how did we do it?
“In short, hard work and dedication from a committed team of loyal group members with a very able deputy, Cllr Adrian Andrew, who ran an exceptional campaign of targeted issues in all 20 of the wards in the election, and concentrating on the issues that people on the doorstep were raising during the campaign.
“Our focus was on ten pledges across the Borough that we knew from previous surveys were the very things people wanted to see delivered with the return of a Conservative administration.”
Hughes, seconding the Loyal Address in Parliament, says that a visiit by Boris Johnson, then a backbench MP, helped:
“The blond bombshell was unleashed on the unsuspecting people of Bloxwich, and the result was truly magnificent to behold. Everybody who asked for a selfie was greeted with a beaming smile and an occasional tussle of those famous blond locks. When our tour reached its inevitable destination, the Bloxwich showman—the future Prime Minister—obviously pulled a pint of Thatchers Gold. I know what you are thinking, Mr Speaker: you are thinking, “So what? What was the consequence of this great visit?” The consequence for me was that, in those local elections a few days later, we won two more council wards against the national trend and, for the first time in 20 years, the Conservatives took outright control of Walsall Council. Perhaps that should not have been a surprise because, over the past three years, we have had a blue-collar revolution.”
In the Walsall North constituency, the number of Conservative councillors has risen from five in 2017 to ten now. Conservative Party membership in Walsall North is up from 15 to over 100. Hughes is actively involved in recruiting members and encouraging community activists to become council candidates. He emails a news bulletin to thousands of constituents.
Working hard at campaigning, results in further hard work getting through the resulting casework. That is due to it being proactive: constituents are invited to email back with problems they wish to highlight. Hughes does not feel MPs should complain about this. They are provided with over £150,000 a year in staffing costs. That means they should provide a good service. As well as it being accessible that also means pursuing matters that sit with the Council. Those who have found themselves caught up in a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare and eventually resort to asking their MP for help will be disappointed if the response is: “That’s nothing to do with me. You need to speak to Walsall Council.” The public does not delineate in that way.
Of course, there needs to be substance to the message, no matter how well oiled the campaign machine might be. That does rely on the Conservative Government bringing in changes that have local relevance. Stronger powers to deal with travellers, and greater availability to see a GP in the evenings and weekends, were examples that had traction in Walsall.
MPs are often offered fees by opinion pollsters to take part in surveys. Some MPs accept and take the money. Some refuse. But there is also the option of taking the survey and then for the fee to be paid direct to a charity. That is what Hughes does. £100 from ComRes for this, £90 from YouGov for that, £200 from Ipsos MORI for the other. He usually takes the call while sitting on a train. In his constituency he invites groups to ask for this money. Then he will use social media to publicise the work they do, and that he has handed them a cheque: – the local football club, angling club, brownies, whatever it might be.
That example strikes me as instructive in terms of being a effective constituency MP in the modern era. The punters don’t want their MP to be too grand (Hughes will join in groups picking up litter.) But nor can the MP be shy.
The Conservatives believe, as Margaret Thatcher put it, that “the state should be the servant, not the master of the people.” Newly returned Tory MPs who conduct their constituency duties with that maxim in mind should find they are well-positioned to face the electorate again next time round.