Frances Lasok is a Westminster aide and is a former campaign manager for national and local elections.
What are the challenges for the first post-COVID elections, what will we stand for, and what should our strategy be?
The beginning of the pandemic was defined by civic unity. Roadside banners went up to the NHS, and we suddenly became a society that asked after our neighbours. But then came the after-effects. An end to the political ceasefire, plummeting GDP, a doubling of reported symptoms of depression, the beginnings of the long-term effects of economic decline, increased isolation and post-furlough job losses. People will rally round in a crisis; it’s as we move out of it that the uncertainty hits.
As the governing party, it leaves us in a difficult place: elected on a manifesto less than a year old where the biggest challenge was Brexit. And as Theresa May proved, it isn’t enough to just promise competent government or more-of-the-same small-c conservativism. Boris rallied the country on “Get Brexit Done” but since then the world turned upside down, leaving the levelling up agenda as the philosophical drive behind the Conservative Party.
It’s relevant. But for it to be more than words, it needs local engagement and local co-operation: a united drive between Government and the bodies at the coal face rather than, as is often the case, good ideas from the centre killed by falling into a gap between multiple overlapping authorities with different agendas, motives or political stripes. The potential gap between idea and implementation is huge. Which brings us on to the first post-COVID elections, in 2021.
The stakes are high, higher than just political capital, because the seats up are the major players: the County, unitary, and combined authorities that will hold the purse strings and implementation responsibilities for huge swathes of the Government’s post-COVID agenda: schools, social care, economic development and transport. Many of these seats were last up in May 2017, the record high for Theresa May’s Conservatives. In a good year, simply holding what we’ve got would be a high bar to clear.
So, what do we say in the first post COVID elections? Looking back to the Queen’s Speech in October 2019, what’s striking is how many themes of the pre-COVID agenda – community, social care, small business, towns – have been driven to the forefront thanks to the pandemic. And many of these ideas knit together: one of the biggest barriers to levelling up is dying town centres. Off the back of the Taylor Review, the proposed Employment Bill was highlighting flexible working and use of technology to increase productivity. Whilst Eat Out to Help Out gave the “use it or lose it” message about local businesses, flexible working means there are people who now have the time and money to get lunch at a local café or stop for essentials in a local shop, rather than a 5am rise for a £30 train then home for 8pm and order online. These points on the national agenda have knock-on effects to the local: small business, levelling up towns, greener transport.
There’s been a surprising return of an old friend in the last few months: the Big Society. Isolation and loneliness, and the knock-on effects to social care and mental health, have been on the backburner for years. The COVID mutual aid groups that sprung up across the country were an organic network of community minded people who wanted to help others, had the ability, and saw the need. They were often made up of the demographic of 30s-50s or younger, professionals, working parents that local initiatives often struggle to engage. When it comes to community, logistics matter. Influenced by Roger Scruton’s Building Better Building Beautiful initiative, in refreshingly plain English the Planning Reform White Paper said this:
“Planning matters. Where we live has a measurable effect on our physical and mental health: on how much we walk, on how many neighbours we know or how tense we feel on the daily journey to work or school.”
Policy and technology affect community. Someone commuting 6am-8pm is not likely to get involved with local initiatives. Technology is a friend that could change the face of the voluntary sector and local government entirely, making it possible for someone to fit in Council around the school run or a 4pm meeting. The Conservative Party should seize on this – and if we don’t, the Greens and the Lib Dems will – because these are the people we need running councils.
It’s helpful because another challenge will be socially distanced recruitment. Campaigners across the country will have breathed a quiet sigh of relief at the prospect of no more rubber chicken dinners. But humans are social creatures and whilst the opportunity for members to have Zoom calls with the Chancellor is fantastic, the remote nature means that the local MP doesn’t meet the new joiners.
The same will be true of campaigning, with social distancing currently means no canvassing. The alternatives to knock-every-door data collection are post (expensive and only a proportion will answer) or demographic targeting. Targeting is not yet perfect and carries risks. But it’s ideally suited for the local elections where only an engaged minority are going to vote. And long-term, the next battle around the corner is for Generation Z. Already, they are the hardest to reach using traditional methods: more likely to live in HMOs or difficult-to-access flats, less likely to read snail mail, more likely to move frequently which affects the data we can manually gather, less likely to engage locally, more likely to engage online. The challenge isn’t just their hearts and minds, but reaching their ears and eyes. If we’re forced away from traditional methods of engagement in 2021, it’s a learning curve for what “normal” will be in twenty years.
After a crisis, any incumbent party is dealt a difficult hand. The temptation is to fight a rear-guard action piecemeal, but we don’t need to do that. Capitalism adapts and we are the party of innovation and opportunity. The solutions we need across the board – on communities, planning, transport, localism, mental health – link together into an achievable local manifesto with the levelling up agenda and compassionate Conservativism at its heart, deliverable in a way that has local communities at the centre. And these are questions that we have to ask and answer now because when we face a shaken and worried electorate in nine months’ time, we need to know what we will say; how we will say it; and what, as Conservatives, we stand for.