Election Reflections – 4

After some reflections on the local position and the impact on the Conservative leadership and that of the other local parties, I present some advice here to David Cameron, Grant Shapps and Eric Pickles in the light of the local election results.

imageDavid Cameron: I hope we have known one another long enough to speak honestly and with respect.  I am very disappointed to see Oxfordshire County Council (your own backyard) move from a majority of 30 to a hung council due to the lack of one seat and in a single leap.  I have no doubt there is room for improvement locally and I have addressed some issues in earlier blogs and below with the Party Chairman and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.  However, there are some matters that I think can only be addressed at a national level.

The area I know best is North Oxfordshire.  In Banbury, we lost 4 out of 5 Divisions in Banbury to Labour.  There was only one reason for this: UKIP took 24% of the vote in these four Divisions and delivered these previously solid Conservative Divisions into the hands of Labour.  There is some irony that the voting pattern of local Conservatives, shifting to the right, delivered seats for Labour, a party of the left.

Having canvassed for the last four weeks, I have some perceptions from the doorstep:

  • How people feel:  at the real heart, it is a matter of how people feel. Frozen earnings; rising costs; reducing public services; higher levels of anti-social behaviour; growing fears for the NHS and their ability to access it.  
  • Changes in their community: In the towns, a perception of immigrants taking local jobs while indigenous people are left without the skills or motivation to compete.  In the larger villages, the imposition of relentless housing growth bringing urbanising housing estates to the edge of fine old Domesday villages.
  • Political system failure:  The swing to UKIP and the election of two Independents in Oxfordshire who were Labour Party defectors also points to the growing disaffection with what is seen as a failed political system.  In previous elections, unhappy Conservative or Labour voters would have switched to the Liberals to make a protest at  a safe distance before the General Election.  With the Liberals in government, it looks as if UKIP has taken their mantle but for how long and with what long-term significance?

I am afraid there is a real issue of perception here.  It extends in several directions and it is a perception of leadership:

  • I led a coalition in the county council for years.  Conservative Associations sent me to Coventry; members of my group constantly grumbled about the Liberals and the media waited impatiently for our coalition to collapse.  It lasted for four years and led to a Conservative majority in 2005 and a larger one in 2009.  I know how hard it is to manage this political process.  Voters are not all sophisticated and are unused to the shifting sands of coalition government.  I think you and your team need to be stronger and clearer about the limitations of coalition government as well as the benefits.  You need to spell out what the Liberals are preventing us from doing however much that may threaten the coalition.  
  • I am afraid the UKIP leader has a style and a manner of speaking that connects with ordinary mortals much better than professional politicians.  He is unafraid to be filmed with a pint of beer and a cigarette in his hand when all of our media training tells us to eschew either image.  He also uses soundbites that appeal to Conservatives.  I suspect many are unrehearsed – again something professionals are  trained never to do. You and George, in particular, have been portrayed as public school toffs.  You have to work out how to be one of us without affectation or silly gimmicks and to speak the language of Joe public.
  • Gay marriage, Europe, human rights never featured large on the doorstep but there is a perception of disconnection, of ministers being part of a metropolitan elite, far removed from day-to-day pressures.  Margaret Hilda used housewife terms to talk about complex financial and economic issues.  Above all, it is how people feel that is determining public opinion: call it the economy; call it public wellbeing; call it job opportunities.  Electors protested on Thursday about a perception of being “out of touch”.  

I understand how hard this is and the conflicting pressures on you but people want a clearer and stronger style of leadership that speaks the language of conviction and leadership. Churchill gave it in the war against Hitler.  Thatcher gave it when our country was again under threat.   Today, we face a crisis of belief in our institutions and our politics.   You have the capacity  to rise to this challenge but it will take the charisma of Churchill and the conviction of Thatcher to deliver. 

imageGrant Shapps:  As Party Chairman, you probably have a good idea of how it is on the ground.  I can only give you a perspective from Oxfordshire but, given this is the Prime Minister’s backyard, I think you ought to be worrying.  I also suspect it is a microcosm for the country.

Firstly, the collapse of the Merlin system left many canvassers having to work from the printed registers.  This may not be too much of a problem in urban areas but, in villages where many roads and houses are not named, a proper register, sorted into walk order makes canvassing and leafleting so much easier and quicker.   However, the real problem is in the follow-up to get out the vote.  Without Merlin or some other system for mailing and knocking-up there has to be a system.  Where local campaigners created their own system, this took away from the time they could be out campaigning.  I speak from personal experience as a candidate’s campaign manager.

Secondly, the instruction to respect Baroness Thatcher by not campaigning for several days was crass and the last thing she would have wanted.  Too many supporters need very little excuse to avoid canvassing; the failure of Merlin and the Thatcher canvassing prohibition gave them just the excuse they needed.

Third, we come to the state of the Party and its campaigning capacity.  I supported two county council candidates, each with a bit over 9,000 electors spread over North Oxfordshire.  We have never been rich in activists who will go out and campaign but we are increasingly bereft.  For these two candidates, their campaign team consisted of the candidate and me on a regular basis with occasional back-up from some of the district councillors but almost nothing else.  The Party base has shrunk hugely and the thin band of those willing to leaflet and canvass is now close to extinction.  We had no chance of telling over a huge number of polling stations and, therefore, no prospect of getting out the vote on a scientific basis.  Despite this, we won both seats and perhaps we should have abandoned any campaigning in these two safe seats and worked harder in the more challenged divisions.

Fourth, when we have a central data base for the Party that works again, we need to get a lot cleverer at recognising the trend towards single issue politics.  UKIP are showing us that life is changing.   Issues like immigration, jobs and the general feel of prosperity are increasingly what drives people.  I don’t believe “Europe” itself is an issue that worries people.  It is when they bump up against something local that affects them and can be tracked back to the EU that people relate the local to the European.  We need to train councillors and the dwindling band of local activists to understand the imperative of building a database of supporters and sympathisers (whether subscribing Party members or not) that is based on e-mailing, Twitter and Facebook  as the normal communication channel.  As a Party at the grass roots, we are a long way from this blessed state and we need to make significant progress speedily.

Fifth, there is a real disconnect between the constituency associations and the local council Conservative groups. Associations jealously guard their right to select candidates. When a county councillor died during the last council, the first I knew about selection of his successor was when I was advised of her name.  As it happens she was a hugely talented individual but not to involve the council leader at any stage in the selection just seems wrong to me.  Looking at these recent elections, I understand there are at least two Divisions where the ability of the selected candidate to win a safe seat was at doubt from the start.  Hindsight is always wonderful but a council leader would probably have formed this view if they had any involvement in the selection process.  While not suggesting we should remove the Association’s autonomy in candidate selection, I do believe there should be a specified role for the relevant council leader in the processes of selection of council candidates.

Finally, I hope you will see what I say to DC and Eric because they are significant for the Party as a whole.  This is the only Party I have ever supported and I hope I have achieved some successes for this Party during my quarter century as a councillor. The cynic in me assumes local government will always be taken for granted and treated as the fourth or fifth estate of the Party – if it even gains that level of recognition – I think you need to realise that local councillors are your storm troopers and your first line of support for your Members of Parliament.  You hack us off regularly and may continue to do so but, one day, the worm will turn.

 imageEric Pickles:  You have always been proud of your local government career in Bradford before you entered Parliament as I have been equally proud of my time in Oxfordshire.  You served 12 years in Bradford, 2 as Leader;  I served 25 years as a councillor and the best part of 11 as Leader of Oxfordshire.

I have two tests of the integrity and credibility of a Member of Parliament:

  • Have they served in local government as a preparation for national politics?
  • If so, do they continue to acknowledge their local government background as Members of Parliament?

You pass both of my tests but a surprising number of MPs fail one or both of them!  

A lot of good Conservative councillors have taken a real battering this week through little fault of their own.  This is not new and most of us who have put up for local elections knew that we would be judged at the ballot box on issues over which we had no control.

Local councillors are the local shock troops available to campaign in the General Election as well as in their own elections and, increasingly, the only Conservatives willing and able to get out to canvass and to turn out the vote on polling day.  On this basis, I beg you to:

  • consult Conservative leading members when you propose changes that will impact on local government;
  • remember that local government is the most efficient bit of government. Don’t take my word for it; ask the Audit Commission.
  • remind your Cabinet colleagues of their dependence on local councillors at election time and between elections;
  • ask all Conservative MPs to respect their local councillors; to listen to their advice; to consult them on issues of mutual interest and to avoid attacking Conservative-controlled councils before they have spoken with them.

MPs need local government more than they know and it is staggering how often many of them forget this.  It is time they reflected on this before the next General Election.

About Keith R Mitchell CBE

Qualified as a Chartered Accountant in 1967. Pursued a successful career in financial training and publishing until selling his interests in 1990. Elected a County Councillor for the Bloxham Division in 1989. Leader of Oxfordshire County Council 5 November 2001 to 15 May 2012. Chairman of the South East England Regional Planning Committee July 2002 to July 2005. Chairman of the South East England Regional Assembly July 2005 to July 2008. In HM the Queen’s 2007 Birthday Honours, appointed a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in recognition of services to local government.
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11 Responses to Election Reflections – 4

  1. Phil Taylor says:

    Keith,

    The phrase which leapt out at me was “Having canvassed for the last four weeks”. Why not four months? Two years? Four years? It sounds like you left the door open.

    • I worked my patch damned hard for 24 years and left a strong legacy for other Conservatives to take on. In the last four weeks before the county council elections, I canvassed hard for my successors to win that seat, which they did. You can’t canvass for a candidate until that candidate has put up. Don’t rely on me, ask my electors about my record over 24 years. KRM

  2. Caroline Foley-Whitbread says:

    Do you not think that if Mr Cameron were to suddenly morph into someone with an entirely different demeanour people wouldn’t find this a tad suspicious? It is 3 years too late for him to pretend to be Joe Bloggs from Brentwood High Street or somewhere. I know you are probably not suggesting that poor Dave takes to charging about with a fag in one hand, a pint of bitter in the other and an inane grin on his face a la Farage, but any attempt to shin a few rungs down the social ladder at this stage would be seen through in an instant by the electorate. Just look at the roasting Osborne got when he pitched up at that Morrison’s depot with his glottal stops and ‘gonna’s’ and ‘wanna’s’
    .

    That stuff fools no one.

    • I don’t think I suggested a total makeover; Churchill, Tebbitt, Thatcher and Blair had a way with words that got over complex ideas in a simple form. All Leaders grow and develop during their leaderships. I think Cameron could develop greater ability to resonate with Joe Public.

  3. stevenvc35 says:

    The problem with making elections local is that you have to perform locally. In strong Conserv councils like Oxfordshire, this might not be a problem, but I would imagine that Scottisch or northeastern Conservative council groups have a hard time in delivering locally.
    You have highlighted the problem of decreasing numbers of activists. Yes, but this is one of the problems why giving more power (read responsability) to local associations might backfire as well.
    Without a strong national brand and a clear image, a lot of local groups would be left to fend for themselves with virtually no people or resources. In such cases the party has no choice but to think national instead of local. Because thinking locally and campaigning locally is not an option with associations of 10 members or less.

  4. Keith : I accept that you have served your community for decades, but you have done so on behalf of a party who worship at the altar of a system which has brought the economy to ruin. They present policies and rhetoric that victimise and impoverish vulnerable people as if they are “fair” and “necessary”.

    Your chief treasurer was caught on film soliciting brb…er… “donations” of £100k to 250k to writ…er…”feed in” to policy. He stepped down because it was awkward. What else happened? Nothing. People were barely even surprised. Yes, we know Labour are probably as bad.

    Your Chancellor flipped his 2nd home claim and claimed for a horse paddock, made £100,000s on the sale after sponging off the taxpayer to cover his mortgage.

    The Works and Pensions secretary had his multi millionaire wife paid by us as a “diary secretary” and invoiced us £39 for a breakfast. Then they preach about a “Culture Of Entitlement”. Make no mistake, your “leaders” are shining beacons of that culture and everyone knows it.

    The establishment parties are now so out of touch that a bunch of shallow reactionaries can command a surge in popularity on the pretence that they are anti establishment, even if they are anything but.

    It’s very sad. Sound-bite culture, corruption and bending over for bankers have made the genuine commitment and sacrifice of people like you seem trivial.

    You may well be a noble person but your party, frankly, sucks. That’s why so few will volunteer for you, even in strongholds. Labour and the LDs are the same.

    I hope you feel ok about posting this up. I mean not to offend you, you can tell my persuasion is different, but I share a passionate disdain at the political “disconnect”. Good luck in whatever is next for you.

    • You talk a counsel of despair with no suggestions to take forward; you confuse a venality that proved to be rife in all parties but has never been so in local politics; and you clearly believe capitalism has failed but, again, offer no alternative. You seem to be of the far left, hankering after a benevolent but despotic socialism but remember Animal Farm, Stalin and Chairman Mao. All political systems present opportunities for the venal and corrupt to thrive and it is the indolence of the many that allows them to get away with it.

      • Robert Irving says:

        I cannot see why you, Keith, think it is for others to suggest ways to take your own party forward. If you want anyone to vote for the Conservatives, then it is up to you and any others in your party who feel the same way to clean out the venality, which, despite your assertions, I believe also exists in local government. However, it has been found in other places that open-ness, transparency and democracy can fight corruption. Perhaps you could take that as a suggestion as a way forward. Ask yourself why local government meetings are held during the day, how often “commercial confidentiality” is cited as a reason for not revealing details of contracts, how often your fellow councillors jib at putting their commercial interests in the public domain…. then think why that might have produced indifference and even hostility from the many.

      • Sorry Keith, there is no counsel of despair. I have plenty of ideas for reducing corruption for example. one would be the compulsory register of lobbyists that got dropped from the Queens Speech. I have ideas on a mixed economy and proper regulation that lessen the influence of endemio fraud of the finance markets. Not that you asked. You didn’t ask me for an alternative. That was not the point of my post.

        I am surprised that decades of politics and service have resulted you thinking in such binary terms as to suppose that anyone opposed to the current mode of capitalism is some kind of Maoist.
        As for people getting away with venal corruption, start with your own chief treasurer soliciting £250k er…donations to “feed in to” policy. Take it from there. Put another way, take the mote from your eye. Then you may have a clearer understanding of why trust in the establishment is down the drain.

        Note I have not inferred you are some kind of madcap extremist. Please try not to suggest I am on the basis of no more than lazy supposition. Happy Monday.

  5. I struggle to see evidence in WatermelonBloke’s posting that he is ‘of the far left’. He does point out some major issues with the current crop of politicians, the capture of politics by big business and a rich elite, and the hopeless nature of the ordinary voter seeking to cast a vote which makes a change. As for the charge that ‘capitalism has failed’, this is pretty strong, but in many ways it did fail in 2008 when only the taxpayers could save the capitalist banks from bringing down the entire social structure around our ears. So the ‘benevolent socialism'; you describe above has already happened, it happened when billions of tax payer assets were transferred to the private sector to prop up banks which had behaved irresponsibly. This transfer of public assets into private hands continues with QE (public printing of money to bolster bank balance sheets), and a massive land grab of state assets as the NHS is privatised. The Conservative party, as the party in power after the 2008 implosion, could have brought forward legislation to improve the banking system. Simple measures such as the separation of retail and investment banking. But your party has done nothing other than pander to the ongoing needs of the bankers. Left unchecked, capitalism will destroy itself, believing that the state needs to take action to stop his happening hardly qualifies somebody as an admirer of Stalin.

    • stevenvc35 says:

      The Conservative Party (in fact the coalition parties) have taken action to prevent calamities like the financial crisis of 08. There have been reductions in pay to chief executives and the rules for retail banks have been tightened in the Basel III accords. Off course, this has had an effect on the bank criteria to write out loans to businesses which are having a hard time finding any investment capital. This is also a direct consequence of tighter control and regulation.
      You know, it cuts both ways

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