Lee Rowley is MP for North East Derbyshire.
Sharley Park Leisure Centre in Clay Cross is a rather unlikely place to regularly meet your fate. Yet, three times in the last four years, that’s exactly where I have nervously awaited the verdict of North East Derbyshire on General Election night.
The first time I stood in this historically Labour seat, I lost – just like every other Conservative candidate over the previous eight decades. The second time, things went better. On an otherwise difficult night, I was privileged to become the first Conservative MP for 82 years. The most recent time, last Thursday, it got even better: the first to be re-elected with both an increased majority and increased vote share. It’s incredible – and I’m hugely grateful for the voter’s trust.
Yet North East Derbyshire is not now some safe seat – nor should we ever take it to be. My constituency is the land of socialist rent rebels, the birthplace of (the now retired) Dennis Skinner. As recently as 1997, it had a Labour majority of over 18,000. Just next door was the famous 1984 Chesterfield by-election which returned Tony Benn back to Parliament – in which some of my family canvassed (for him, not us). When I was growing up in Chesterfield, we were red. Red when we were born. Red throughout our lives. Red till the end.
So when North East Derbyshire turned a page two years ago, it did so cautiously. It wanted a new type of politics – one that wanted to get stuck in, that wanted to be heard rather than ignored, that wanted to honour a proud past but also look to the future. Most of all it had tired of the politics of know-your-place grievance. It had new ambitions and a new course to chart.
And that is what the voters of another 30 seats did last week too. And with it comes a real opportunity to demonstrate a new alternative to the past. To replace the politics of envy with that of aspiration. To bring politeness and civility to a discourse which previously cared more about the rosette you wore rather than the changes you wanted to make. To be sensible and careful rather than promise the earth. And to demonstrate how Government should do some things well but not lots of things badly.
There is no secret magic formula for holding a seat like this; no grand ‘House of Cards’ plan which makes Labour seats blue. But there is a certain place where you can start. Turn up. Get involved. Be interested. Properly support your community. And most of all roll your sleeves up. That red wall has tumbled because people want to get things done. So, get going.
And with that comes a new opportunity for politics. Cut the spin. Don’t over-promise. Accept that sometimes things will work and sometimes they won’t. Acknowledge mistakes. People are cynical about politics. Yet they aren’t cynical about change. And, if you convince them you want to work with them to achieve it, they’ll listen.
Firstly, residents want MPs to earn their crust – to lead from the front and to try to move things along, even when the causes look difficult. When I was first elected, I promised I would focus on three big things; over-development, to see off the threat of fracking and to try to solve an apparently intractable congestion issue. Wizened heads cautioned me against getting involved in problems that didn’t have easy solutions. Yet, two years on, there’s a big tick against one of these and progress made on the other two.
Secondly, people want to be heard. In the past two years, I’ve held over 50 meetings across the constituency – not necessarily because there were burning local issues but often just to give people the opportunity to chat. And, when they do come to speak, they want politeness. Labour have just spent the last two and a half years ‘othering’ us; that we don’t care, that we aren’t in it for good reason and that only they, the chosen ones, have a monopoly on virtuousness and compassion. We can do better than that – and we should.
Moreover, they want MPs that stay in touch. Get on social media and ignore the trolls. Tell people about community events. Highlight when you’ve been doing things. Don’t take credit where it isn’t due. Have a constant conversation with people about how things are going, seek their feedback and try to involve them in how politics works. Expenses, Brexit and Parliament has made politics remote from them. Show them how the work we do still intricately intertwines with their lives – for the better.
Finally, see the big picture. Pick your issues and run with them. Listen to the broad majority, not the ones who shout loudest. And ignore the noise from Labour. Our opponents are wounded and grieving. Our job is to be polite but clear: the people gave us a mandate and we need to deliver it.
Last Thursday, Boris Johnson gave us the most incredible opportunity we’ve had in a generation. Not just to break free from the national shackles in which we’ve been bound for too long but also, vitally, to build a new, enduring centre-right majority for the 2020s.
For some of us in places like North East Derbyshire, Mansfield, Walsall and Stoke, this journey started in 2017. Along the way we haven’t always succeeded and there is still much to learn. Yet, we’ve also made progress. And that, above all, is what people want to see. For those of my colleagues who have just smashed through the red wall: pick those bricks up and start building something new, something different and something that endures for the benefit of everyone. The chances are that your new constituents will thank you for doing so.