Greg Clark is Minister for Cities and MP for Tunbridge Wells.
I wrote recently on this site about the outstanding record of Conservatives in Trafford, Greater Manchester. It was great to see that work rewarded in the local elections, with Sean Anstee’s administration keeping its majority and Labour’s hopes for control dashed. But Trafford was by no means the only place where Conservatives did well in this year’s elections. Take Swindon, for one.
Ed Miliband told BBC Radio Wiltshire last month that the Leader of Swindon Borough Council is doing a very good job. He was absolutely right.
But this was not, alas, an outbreak of bipartisanship, giving praise where it is due. Miliband was not aware that the leader in question is Conservative, and runs a council that has been Conservative for 11 years. And it’s not as if Ed’s address book is crammed so full of Labour council leaders in the South of England that he should forget them.
Swindon was the scene of a big Conservative success in those elections. It is exactly the sort of council that Labour needed to win to have any confidence that they could go on to win next year’s general election: a big and important council, run by Labour during the early Blair years, in a town represented by two Labour MPs until 2010.
Yet Swindon Conservatives not only retained control of the Council, but increased the majority from one to three at the expense of Labour. Conservative councils increased their majorities in previously marginal wards to record levels. And this was achieved while also successfully repulsing a UKIP challenge.
What were the ingredients of this success? I would say: a positive message; a record of pragmatic effectiveness and real political teamwork.
Swindon is a town with a lot going for it. It has modernity in its bloodstream – from its prosperity as a centre for railway engineering as the railway boom took off, to its current association with high technology, leading edge manufacturing – including Honda and BMW MINI, as well as insurance and financial services. Swindon is second only to Cambridge in the number of patents registered each year per head of population, and has its University Technology College opening in September. The borough is one of the fastest growing towns in Britain – over the last decade its population grew by 16 per cent, the third highest in the country. Most of these people are employed by private businesses. With four people in private sector employment for every one person employed by the public sector, Swindon is the third in the league table of towns and cities in Britain for the ratio of private sector jobs to public sector jobs.
The Conservative council, led for seven years until 2013 by the capable and widely respected Rod Bluh, has always viewed itself unambiguously as a booster of Swindon’s prospects and prosperity. This approach has been continued by David Renard – the leader Ed Miliband should have known – who is Bluh’s former deputy, and who took up the reins as leader last year.
My experience of working with successful council leaders across the country is that a certain can-do and personal pragmatism is required that must cut through a local government culture that can otherwise tend to bureaucracy and mere administration.
David Renard says that his Conservative Group’s policy is clear, it is “yes to investment; let’s negotiate; let’s get the best for Swindon. Others may recommend a different approach. Some would like to see more consultation on every decision. However, the downside of this is that the only answer the town would give investors is “please wait.” How many of us have been stuck on hold with a company’s telephone answering service, only to take our business elsewhere out of frustration? If the council and its members are never ready to say yes, new jobs may go elsewhere.”
This really makes a difference. Nationally, we are rebuilding Britain’s reputation for being a good place in which to do business and to invest. And just as a nation can be seen as good or bad for business, each city, town, county and district can establish its own reputation as being good for growth, or as one that puts obstacles in the way.
Political teamwork is a hallmark of Swindon’s success. The Council has had a smooth transition from the leadership of Rod Bluh to David Renard, with its successful policies continuing. The Conservative Group is a united and effective campaigning force on the ground. And the Council works hand-in-glove with two of our most positive, personable and energetic MPs, Robert Buckland and Justin Tomlinson. They work more closely together than any neighbouring MPs I have ever met. They share an office, a website, a letterhead, campaigns – everything they do emphasises that they are jointly Swindon’s champions. That they do so in complete harmony while each coming from different traditions within our party –centre-right and centre-left – embodies the power and capability of our party when we are united in driving forward the public interest.
In my work with city leaders and councils I find Conservatives who may not enjoy the renown that national leaders attract, but whose local methods and achievements offer profound lessons – and encouragement – for our party as a whole . Ed Miliband is not the only one who should learn about successful Conservative Swindon.