Chris Grayling is Leader of the House of Commons, and MP for Epsom and Ewell.
Talk about Conservative politics these days and it’s hard to escape a discussion about the EU debate and the need to reunite afterwards. But in the midst of the referendum arguments the lie of the political land for the next four years has also started to take shape, with lessons for every Conservative.
This year’s local elections have given us some particularly strong signposts as to where we are right now and what we will need to do to keep winning. If political history was functioning according to the textbooks of recent years, by virtue of being the governing Party we would have taken a fair beating. Labour would have taken hundreds of seats from us in our marginal areas and the Liberal Democrats would have had us on the retreat in the South. In London we would have fallen back sharply and we would still be on the fringes in Scotland. In the end it wasn’t like that at all.
These elections were Labour’s to lose, and they did. Although we had some disappointing battles in places we hoped to squeak a handful of seats to take control – like Plymouth – we held our ground almost everywhere. Even in London where Zac Goldsmith fought a hard battle the result reflected very closely that at the General Election. And of course in Scotland Ruth Davidson performed wonders, taking us into a comfortable second place in the Edinburgh parliament, leaving Labour languishing in third.
We are now pressing ahead with the programme the British people elected us on a year ago. Twenty-three pieces of legislation received their Royal Assent in the first session, becoming law. We have outlined in the Queen’s Speech plans for a further 21 Bills in the coming twelve months. In this we have met our commitments in education (bringing in powers to intervene in failing schools), in planning and housing (where we have paved the way for a big increase in the number of starter homes), we have introduced measures to tighten the immigration system and we have introduced the National Living wage.
In my role as Leader of the House I will soon begin work with departments on shaping the programme that we will deliver in our third session, keeping up the priorities that we were elected on a year ago.
This is important because delivering on our promises and making a positive difference in the lives of people in this country is ultimately what the British people elected us to do. And it is this record that we will stand against Labour on at the next election.
The local elections reinforced to me that we cannot be complacent about the Lib Dems or UKIP. And even with Jeremy Corbyn at the helm, we should not underestimate Labour. Similarly to Bernie Sanders in the United States, amongst younger voters he has tapped into something of the anti-politics mood amongst some of the new generation who have no direct experience of left-wing government and its failings. And the core Labour vote remains remarkably tribal. So we have to remain focused on the threat and not take anything for granted.
I think we have three big priorities.
The first is to focus relentlessly on the idea and language of One Nation and to continue to explain why our mainstream, centre-ground solutions deliver better lives for everyone than left-wing ones. I remain immensely proud as the Employment Minister in 2010 who had to deal with the immediate aftermath of Labour’s recession that today, six years later, we have the lowest claimant count unemployment since 1974 and that there has been a massive drop in the number of children growing up in workless households.
The second is to redouble our efforts to reach out to minority groups. This was undoubtedly a reason why there was a swing to Labour last year. Some really good work has been done in recent years, but even within those ethnic groups where Conservative values are obviously strong we have still got a lot of ground to catch up. These are people who believe in the importance of family, hard work and enterprise and are proud of the nation they have made their own. We need to explain clearly why the opportunity, freedom and empowerment central to a Conservative approach to governing will most benefit their communities as opposed to the centralised, bureaucratic Labour model.
Thirdly we must keep the pressure up on Labour. Their distress at the performance of their leader in the Commons is palpable. Most Labour MPs are in despair but the path to removing Corbyn would not be straightforward. Most voters see none of this and will pay little attention until much nearer 2020. We must keep up relentless pressure on Labour exposing just how damaging their policies would be for Britain.
When the referendum ends we must return to politics as normal. The shape of the task ahead of us is already becoming clear.