Cllr Richard Cook is the Leader of Gloucester City Council.
The last time a local election for Gloucester City Council was fought was in 2016. The result then was a Conservative overall majority, with Conservatives holding 22 seats, Labour holding 10, and Liberal Democrats holding 7.
The four years which led into the pandemic saw two deaths, two resignations, and two changing to independent – five of these involved the Conservative members, and the resulting by-elections left the Conservative Group at 18, Labour at eight, Liberal Democrats at nine, with two Independents and two vacant seats. A technical position of No Overall Control, albeit one Independent consistently voted with the Conservatives. At the same time Gloucestershire County Council was also fighting all out elections and many of the candidates were fighting for positions on both Councils.
The pandemic meant that there would inevitably be some concerns about safe delivery of the elections so a campaign of encouraging residents to switch to postal voting was launched. This gained in excess of 2000 postal voters.
The 2020 City election had been postponed to 2021 and as restrictions were gradually eased the Conservative councillors, candidates, and other supporters gradually mobilized. This year the strategy was different. Previously City elections would not have taken place at the same time as County elections and activists would have mobilized as a City, moving around the City to provide support all around the City. This year the focus was local. Virtually all activists stayed in their own or neighbouring ward or division. Much less travel time moving around the city and much more focus on your own patch meant much more impetus in getting out there and engaging with your own voters.
The message was about delivery. Everything that Conservatives had been doing in the City to make improvements for residents. There was much to write about – a huge regeneration programme, major changes to the waste, recycling and streetscene contract delivering improved service, fantastic delivery of help for residents affected by the pandemic organized by members of the Conservative administration, and many other great achievements. The focus of the campaign was to tell residents about those achievements via newsletter, other leaflets, and especially by Facebook.
A telephone calling campaign started the ball rolling, followed by delivery of a newsletter, followed by knocking on the doors of everyone whether or not we felt they were our supporters, definitely winning round some formerly opposition voters. And because all was done very locally, those who did the work were going to be the beneficiaries of that work. In a normal local election, the activists would knock on 6,000 doors. In a general election we would normally get voting intentions from 9,000 homes. This year, the superb effort saw activists knock on over 11,000 doors and make contact.
There is no doubt there were favourable political winds blowing for the Conservatives – the vaccine rollout, Brexit and general pro Government sentiment, meant we were on the ascendant. Labour, of course, were struggling, and fell to trying to defend what they had and putting in no effort to make any gains. Liberal Democrats resorted to literature delivering a campaign of mistruths about the Conservative administration. Feedback from voters showed this approach to be counterproductive as many were annoyed at the negativity this showed. In the last weeks of the campaign, we spotted the trouble for Labour and moved additional resources in campaigning where we thought Labour was vulnerable. This led us to take five Labour seats, some for the first time ever.
So our positivity, Liberal Democrat’s negativity, and Labour’s apathy, led us to a rather extraordinary result. Conservatives took 26 seats, Liberal Democrats took 10, and Labour were left with three. We had moved from a position of No Overall Control to a majority of 13.
In the County Council elections, Conservatives took eight of the 10 available seats in Gloucester – one for the first time ever.
There was also a Police and Crime Commissioner election where our Conservative candidate won for the first time ever on the back of huge support in Gloucester.
Message successfully delivered, the challenge has changed from ensuring that all Conservative Group councillors attend each meeting so that our policies are voted through, to one of how can we keep each of our councillors engaged and busy, which is difficult to deliver because not everyone’s expectations and desires will be met. A majority of 13 shifts the dynamic.
It would be easy to say I don’t need to engage with opposition groups any more. In truth I don’t, but in my view that would be both parochial and conceited. I believe we are better for being inclusive and listening for ideas from others. My intention in taking Gloucester City Council forward to the next elections in three years time is to engage and ask others to participate. I won’t necessarily act on others ideas, but I will always allow them to speak so I can listen. The population is a broad church and we have to accept and respond to different views.