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.
David 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.
Grant 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.
Eric 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.