Henry Nelless on how Conservatives must win councils on the road to national victories
On 8 May 2015 we will all be hoping that the shoe leather and hours invested in the General Election campaign will have paid off and that, once more, we will see David Cameron addressing the nation outside 10 Downing Street, this time as leader of a majority Conservative government. However, the success of that day will be tinged with a sense of trepidation for the thousands of Conservative councillors spread across the nation who, over the course of the subsequent four years, will face their own election or re-election.
Defending a council seat when our Party is also in national government presents its own challenges, especially for those with marginal council seats. Winning seats which we do not currently hold also becomes a far more daunting prospect for local associations which are already stretched with the task of campaigning, recruiting and engaging members and fundraising. Since May 2010, the number of Conservative councillors across the UK has fallen from around 9,500 to just over 8,200 in May 2014. A further five years in government will, if we follow the accepted political wisdom, surely only result in a further reduction in the number of local councillors.
It need not, however, be this way.
I was brought up in the north east, went to university in Scotland and have lived in a London borough which has been led by Labour for over 20 of the last 24 years (eight of which I was a councillor). I am therefore well used to being presented with challenging election prospects for the Conservative Party. There is no simple formula to fixing the conundrum of national versus local success, but there are some basic rules which experience, both good and bad, suggests we should follow.
Develop a vision.
Conservatives in government, through the Localism Act and the General Power of Competence, have loosened the leash on councils. The opportunity to innovate is now very real: not just to reduce the costs of back office work, but to deliver exciting new front office services across education, regeneration and community involvement, to name but a few. What is critical, however, is that Conservatives, whether in control or in opposition, develop a clear and coherent vision of what they believe their area can become and how it can be delivered. Tools such as neighbourhood planning and community assets of value will only flourish under a local leadership which encourages them. Without that leadership, they will become yet another good intention that did not get a great deal beyond the statute book.
Engage our members and the community.
The formulation of the plan for how you, as a councillor or candidate, and regardless of whether you are in office or opposition, will seek to make your local community the very best it can be, cannot be successfully developed in the silo of the council committee rooms or the association offices. Most ideas can be enhanced through the input of others. This is where, locally, we have a real opportunity to re-engage both our members and the wider public. Not only the number of local Conservative councillors has fallen in recent years: Party membership has similarly reduced. Voter turnout was at 65.1% in the 2010 General Election (albeit up from a record low of 59.1% in 2001), the third lowest participation rate in a General Election since the introduction of universal suffrage. Whilst this disengagement from the political process is worrying, it need not be a permanent feature of Twenty-First Century democracy. The prospect for the involvement of both Party members and the public in the development of a blueprint for our communities and neighbourhoods provides an exciting means by which we can involve others in shaping policy and plans, which really do impact the day-to-day lives of voters, their family and their friends.
Policy-making stretches far beyond the national manifesto. If ‘all politics is local’ , what better way to enthuse and rebuild local memberships by giving those members a real say over how their community should be developed and managed in the future?
Advocate it on the streets.
Once the vision is starting to form and our members’ have been involved, local councillors and candidates should be its biggest advocates. Advocacy, however, is too late if it is close to an election. It needs a structured campaign which communicates the key messages through vivid and clear literature, door knocking and public meetings over a long period of time, allowing the policies to take shape in the minds of the voters. In my own election, we developed a fully-costed and exciting manifesto which could have transformed the lives of our residents and the prospects for our local businesses and voluntary organisations. Unfortunately, we were perhaps too fearful that our opponents would steal our good ideas and implement them before us. We tried to keep them close to our chests until the election was upon us. The difficulty then, however, was that we had not left sufficient time for our message to be absorbed by our residents. Voters will not hear of your vision - and, more crucially, support it - through some process of osmosis or accidental dissemination. It requires a full throttled buy-in by councillors, candidates and members to get out there and sell it.
If we are to break the inverse relationship between electoral success and representation in national and local government, we need to foster both a local vision and teamwork. None of this is easy and, in many areas of the country, it will just represent the start of a lengthy process of returning Conservatives in local government elections where, for many years, there have been none. If each of us is interested in politics because we want to make a difference, then time and effort spent now will pay dividends long into the future.
Henry Nelless was a councillor for the London Borough of Merton, 2006 to 2014