Nicholas Bryars is Chairman of City of Leicester Conservative Association (COLCA).
I now understand how Sir John Major must have felt on 2nd May 1997 when he went to watch a cricket match at the Oval having led the Conservative Party to its greatest defeat since the Great Reform Act. I had what feels like a comparable experience having led the Conservative Party in Leicester to a catastrophic defeat in the recent elections.
We lost the Leicester South by-election, the Mayoral election and we went from having had eight councillors elected in 2007 to just one now. Indeed, Labour now has 52 councillors out of 54 with just one Liberal Democrat. The question arises as to whether there are any lessons to be learned from this defeat about the Conservative Party’s continuing woeful performance in many cities outside of London.
My old friend and mentor the late Professor John Ramsden (the Party’s one-time official historian and author of An Appetite for Power and Man of the Century: Winston Churchill and his Legend since 1945) said to me after the 1997 defeat what political parties have to do in this situation is to look at themselves really deeply by way of an examination of their attitudes, principles and then policies. In the local context of a Conservative Association such as COLCA this might be adapted as attitudes; principles, policies and organisation.
In my view there are certain key themes that emerge from the party’s defeat in Leicester. These are: its inability to appeal to voters from ethnic minorities; the need to target specific groups of voters much more effectively; the inadequacy of its branch and association network and the apparent lack of interest from the party nationally about cities. All these issues have to be addressed in the years to come. For it might prove to be the case that the victory in the AV referendum is a Pyrrhic one. Even with the reduction in the number of seats in the House of Commons and the possible independence of Scotland, if the Conservative Party wishes ever to form again the government of England and Wales, never mind of the whole United Kingdom as it currently stands, it must win some seats in cities.
In dealing with voters from ethnic minorities it is the case that we can only make progress by forming long-term relationships. It will surprise readers to learn that we have had some success in this area in Leicester, particularly with the Somali community, not least with the assistance of my good friend from Birmingham Edgbaston Conservatives, Abdiaziz Osman.
It is simply not the case that the Conservative Party no longer reflects the ethnic diversity of a city like Leicester (as the picture above demonstrates), but that message is very difficult to get across when the perception is that we are pale, male and stale. It is also very difficult to get across when our message literally cannot be understood or when certain voters can’t be addressed. Only when women in Burkhas wearing blue rosettes are knocking on doors in Leicester will we be certain of victory here. We must adapt our campaigning techniques, for example by producing leaflets in languages other than English. Labour does this very successfully.
It is also the case that we must target our campaigns much more effectively. There are misconceptions in a party so dominated by the South of England about how we might win back council and parliamentary seats in the big Northern and Midland cities. Firstly, we have to realise that the experience in London often does not apply north of the Wash. While some experience from there does apply (particularly the work of Shaun Bailey in Hammersmith) we must remember that it is inherently more difficult for us to persuade people from ethnic minorities to vote Conservative in the Midlands and the North for the same reason it is more difficult to persuade white people to vote Conservative. They tend to be poorer. Also, London (70% white) is actually less ethnically diverse than Birmingham or Leicester where the Caucasian population is, or is about to be, no longer in the majority.
Secondly, the Conservative Party centrally simply has to spend some money and make some effort in the long-term in order to build up and preserve the branch network at ward level in big cities. While in Leicester we are blessed with an extraordinary group of young, tough, battle-hardened activists prepared to put up with political intimidation from other parties and dog bites (affectionately known as “the Rottweiler vote”) it cannot be the case that the voluntary party can do this on its own. CCHQ must help us. It must also listen to us in order to adapt campaigning to local circumstances.
Thirdly, the Conservative Party has to recognise that it has lost the argument in big cities. People are frightened. They are worried about their jobs; about losing their homes and about the future. The Conservative Party must offer city dwellers a better alternative to mass welfare dependency. One of the things that struck me as I campaigned all over Leicester in areas I had either never visited or not visited since I was a child was the sheer squalor everywhere. Thirteen years of Labour government nationally and almost thirty years of Labour locally has left people tired, bereft and anxious.
Finally, directly elected mayors are not the answer. Personality politics coupled with political patronage (councillor allowances in Leicester start at c. £10,000 per annum) have created a monster political machine for Labour in Leicester which it will take many years to break down.