Emily Barley is the Deputy Chairman Political of Rotherham Conservative Federation and was the Conservative Party candidate for Wentworth and Dearne at the 2019 General Election.
On Thursday next week, voters go to the polls across England in a series of local elections. Though important everywhere, the Conservative Party will undoubtedly have its eye on the areas that make up the crumbling red wall, watching carefully to see if the new Conservative voters who switched in 2019 have stuck with us.
Rotherham, where I am one of three Conservative candidates in Hoober Ward, is one such place. After decades of Labour rule, and the area becoming world-famous for all the wrong reasons, Conservatives are seriously challenging this time. Our team of candidates is strong, local to their wards, and, since restrictions were lifted to allow canvassing, has been out and about knocking on doors and talking to residents.
Thousands of conversations in the last few weeks have shown that the Conservative vote is holding up well since the General Election, where we won one constituency, Rother Valley, and slashed the Labour majorities in the other two that make up the borough. Even more positively, we have been finding brand new switchers – people whose loyalty to Labour was seriously tested during the Corbyn years and then broken completely by the election of out-of-touch Starmer as the Leader.
They tell us that the party they supported for decades is lost to them and that while the Conservative Party has not yet won their loyalty, they feel closer to us than anyone else and will be voting Conservative in May.
So far, so good.
But I fear we have a developing problem: what I’m hearing on the doorstep about what people want from their Government does not appear to match what the Government believes they want.
In many ways, the easy part was Brexit. 67.9 per cent of people living in the Rotherham area voted to leave the EU, giving a clear instruction to Westminster. But though Brexit has been delivered, the story has not yet concluded, and that’s because the ‘take back control’ message meant more to people here than simply getting out of the EU.
For them, the vote to leave the EU was an expression of confidence in the UK’s ability to succeed in the world as an independent nation, and it was a vote for a different kind of government, more in touch and with smarter policy decisions to fit Britain. Most importantly, the way they feel about Britain’s right and ability to be independent is also how they feel about themselves.
That’s a roundabout way of saying that folks up here simply don’t like being told what to do, how to think, and how to enjoy their lives.
One area where the government is totally disconnected from what their new voters want is the nanny state. I live and campaign in a part of the world where people value their right, as adults, to choose for themselves on junk food, smoking, and drinking.
And so I’m worried that we’re set to repeat the mistakes of the Labour Party: who thought voters in these areas were simple to understand, easy to win over, and not smart enough to decide for themselves.
Covid-19 has changed a lot of things, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the way people in Rotherham have accepted the at-times authoritarian intrusion in their lives means that they are now more open to being told what to do, but that is not the case. As reasonable, level-headed Yorkshire-men and -women, they understand what a crisis is, and they have made an exception that will shortly run out.
As the crisis fades, there is an opportunity to move forward in a different way, showing that Conservatives understand and respect people’s desire to take back control. A shift in focus is needed – far far away from telling people what to do and lecturing them on the consequences of their actions in the way Boris and his government have grown all too comfortable with. Instead, we should be giving people information, showing them alternatives and their benefits, making it easier to make healthier choices, and leaving the decisions to them.
This means dropping any suggestion of bullying tactics like junk food taxes or minimum unit pricing for alcohol, and it means building on the helpful encouraging tone of the NHS Better Health programme.
There’s an opportunity too, to move away from the EU’s outdated approach to e-cigarettes, reforming volumes and strengths, and looking at how best to embrace new technologies.
Breaking from the EU on this would be yet another benefit of Brexit, and would go down particularly well in Rotherham, where smoking rates are higher than the national average and people are heartily fed up with being told off about their habit.
As things stand right now, the Conservative Party’s relationship with new Conservative voters is more precarious than it seems. The polls look good as we enjoy the protection of people’s goodwill, but if we repeat the disrespect of the Labour Party by telling them how they should live their lives and failing to recognise the full implications of their wish to take back control, we run the risk of pushing them away. A new approach to public health, rooted in treating people as the adults they are, is required.