Cllr Gary Ridley is Leader of the Conservative Group on Coventry City Council. He contested Coventry North West in 2010 and Coventry South in 2015. He works in communications and public affairs for a leading UK transport charity.
From an early age, children in Coventry learn about Lady Godiva. Almost a thousand years ago, she rode naked through the city in protest at unfair taxes. Her husband, Earl Leofric reversed the tax hike and the protest was victorious.
The story is often recited as an example of personal sacrifice in pursuit of a worthy aim. It also shows that successful leaders can’t ignore the will of the people forever.
Back here in the 21st Century, Jeremy Corbyn could play the part of Earl Leofric. He took Labour’s heartlands for granted and ignored their “unfashionable” views on Brexit. He paid a heavy price for this, as Labour’s ‘red wall’ collapsed across the country. Here, it came within a few hundred votes of crumbling, as thousands voted Conservative for the first time.
I took two big lessons from this experience. Firstly, we can win in areas we least expect with the right message. Secondly, we must never take our voters for granted in our own heartlands. The experience has made us determined to translate this near miss into success in May. We must secure the re-election of Andy Street as Mayor of the West Midlands and make gains on the council.
In Coventry, Labour has been in power for a decade. It’s a decade which has brought higher taxes and profligate spending. They’ve even ‘nationalised’ a local hotel at a cost of £9 million. Throughout, the Conservatives have been a convenient scapegoat for tough decisions. It’s true that Gordon Brown’s recession meant less funding from central government. Yet, Labour failed to safeguard local services over vested interests during this period. For instance, why do they continue to fund a Trades Union Facility Time agreement? It costs the taxpayer £1 millon a year. Why did they pay for a delegation of councillors to attend a “peace conference” in Russia? And why did they spend almost half a million pounds on gagging orders in three years?
Their mismanagement of a local music festival in 2018 was astounding. On a budget of £150,000 they managed to run up an overspend of £450,000. On other bread and butter issues they’ve been found wanting. The RAC slammed them for the state of the roads and they have presided over a 44 per cent rise in fly-tipping.
In light of this, it’s not surprising that people are wondering whether we would do a better job. And there’s evidence that the electorate realise Labour would rather blame the Tories than tackle vested interest. For instance, we bucked the trend in last year’s local elections by holding our position. Despite enormous losses nationally, not seen since 1995, we denied Labour a single gain. That’s despite their boast that they would win every seat!
This time around we are defending four of the 18 seats available under the election by thirds system. In two other wards we already hold representation and missed out on another by just 57 votes last year. So we are confident we can make gains.
Dramatic increases in employment, and tax cuts for many, will have contributed to our performance. So will the record levels of investment by the Government and Andy Street as Mayor. Next year we will play host as the City of Culture 2021 with the transformative benefits that it can bring. Already, it has brought massive investment from the West Midlands Combined Authority and could bring millions of people to the city.
Thanks to this investment by the Conservatives our city is on the rise. It’s enabled us to rejuvenate tired public spaces with the chance to regenerate our city centre. Soon we’ll have a new railway station with the possibility of two new local stations. We’re also planning for the jobs of tomorrow with significant investment into electric car battery technology and autonomous vehicles.
We know that people are sick and tired of political point scoring, so we have always tried to be a responsible opposition. Our mantra is not to criticise unless we have a viable alternative. So we have set out a detailed five-year plan for the city which has been popular on the doorstep.
It identifies extra resources for services by tackling waste and vested interest. Interests such as the unions and unjustified rises in members’ allowances. More still could be saved by reducing council debts which cost the city £11m a year in interest payments.
Our vision for the city prioritises the creation of jobs and the regeneration of the city centre. On housing, we have a bold new plan to deliver thousands of new homes on brownfield sites. We’ll also take steps to prevent existing properties being converted into student accommodation.
As the sun sets on Labour’s decade of failure, our plan shows that a better way is possible – and within our grasp. And our team stand ready, united, and determined to bring the fight to Labour.
We’re aware of how tough this fight will be, but we’ll face it together with determination. In this ‘Labour heartland’ Godiva’s spirit is stirring. There’s never been a better time to be a Conservative.