Lee Rowley is MP for North East Derbyshire.
Quietly nestled at the top of the North East Derbyshire constituency, close to Sheffield, is Killamarsh. A fiercely independent former pit village of 10,000 people, it rightly takes pride in its industrial heritage. It was here that, half a century back, three pits gave work to thousands of miners every day – my granddad being one of them. The last mine closed but 25 years ago.
As far back as records go, Killamarsh has elected Labour Councillors to everything – county, district and parish councils. Before 2018, we can’t find the last time a red rosette didn’t win, usually by miles. Yet, on Thursday, a political earthquake happened.
Against a difficult national backdrop, the village decided it was time for a change. It didn’t, though, just elect one Conservative – the village went all in. All five district seats were gained from Labour. Eight Conservative Parish Councillors were elected, and with them, control of the Parish Council, too.
And elsewhere in North East Derbyshire, the same thing happened. Next door in Eckington, another parish which had elected Labour forever, three district seats and the Parish Council tumbled. Further west in Dronfield, the Labour Leader of the district council, first elected when I was just three years old, lost his seat. In the south of the district, on the outskirts of Clay Cross, the brother of Dennis Skinner was retired by his electors.
The final tally on the district council: 13 Conservative gains. And, for the first time since the Council was formed in 1973, the Conservatives will have the majority. As someone who grew up in North Derbyshire, the land of the Skinners and the Benns, this is incredible. I am hugely proud of my home area’s willingness to change and grateful for local residents’ trust at such a difficult time.
Since Thursday, I’ve been asked how the team managed to buck the trend in North East Derbyshire on such a terrible night nationally. I’m incredibly proud of them all – residents from across the district who came together, some having never been involved in politics before, to try to change things for the better.
Firstly, the team laid the foundations for this victory many months ago. We went out into local communities, listened and took on board their views. Our Group leader, Cllr Martin Thacker, and his team put together a coherent manifesto and demonstrated they were a real alternative leadership in waiting. We campaigned relentlessly.
Most importantly, we tried to have an honest conversation with our communities: that the issues which frustrated local residents on house building, infrastructure and the council’s failure to listen were ones that were years in the creation and would be years in the remediation. We were upfront that we wouldn’t get everything right if we won, but we would try our hardest. We tried to stay positive and focused, even in the midst of some pretty torrid Labour smears. And, most of all, we gave a vision of where we wanted to take North East Derbyshire and how we can use the next four years to prepare for the challenges and opportunities that we will face together. Residents wanted change. And, when the national wind blew colder in recent months, our long-term involvement with the local community meant our credibility held.
Out of last Thursday might just come the outline of a new opportunity for our party – the same opportunity which saw gains against the national trend in the seats of my great colleagues Eddie Hughes in Walsall and Ben Bradley in Mansfield, too. If the Conservatives are winning pit villages on the border of South Yorkshire on an otherwise terrible night, there might just be something here to consider; a new ‘Killamarsh Conservatism’, if you will. A combination of aspirant, pro-business and pro-change politics, coupled with a relentless focus on the day-to-day concerns of people who work hard, get on with life and don’t spend all their time on Twitter.
Enough of the split-the-difference, milquetoast, managerial mush which has bedevilled our national picture for too long. A Conservatism which places hard work, aspiration and ambition at the centre of everything, which seeks to protect and enhance quality of life and properly values a sense of community. One that doesn’t pretend there won’t be difficult decisions in the future but who recognises that people are grown-ups who want councils to do some things well, rather than lots of things badly. Most importantly, a new politics which is going to try to do things with people, rather than to them. Something that fuses together conservative principles with a recognition that change is necessary and desirable so long as there is a proper, respectful discussion where people are involved and participate. It’s not a perfect thesis but, we think, there might just be something to it.
There is a note of caution, too. Our beautiful part of the world might have bucked the trend on Thursday but we are under no illusions about the fact that residents lent, rather than gifted, their votes to us. We’ve got to fix some of the problems the last council has left us. We’ve got to do politics differently. And, most importantly, they warned us on the doorstep that they won’t always separate local from national politics.
North East Derbyshire, a 62 per cent Leave constituency, doesn’t suffer fools gladly and its patience is being sorely tested by the national picture at the moment on Brexit. It will not tolerate that abject failure for much longer.
So this week we celebrated. And, this weekend, we thank the local Labour Party for their service to the district as 30 new councillors are getting to work on their new task. It won’t be easy but we hope it will be worthwhile.
When I return to Westminster on Tuesday, I’m returning with a clear message: Killamarsh voted Conservative last week, and it wants to do so again in the future. Yet it is tired of the old politics which has shredded people’s trust in the last few months. Time to wise up in Westminster. Otherwise, next time, Killamarsh might look elsewhere.