Cllr Emily Barley is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Rotherham Council. She is a councillor for Hoober Ward.
In the latest round of local elections here in Rotherham, we made the leap from zero to 20 seats, massively out-performing the national trend, dramatically slashing Labour’s majority, and becoming the official opposition at Rotherham Council.
In my second election in as many weeks, I am honoured that my colleagues put their trust in me and elected me Leader of the new Conservative Group as we get settled in and begin serving our communities as Councillors.
Our success in Rotherham was a surprise – or even a shock – to many, and I’ve spent lots of time fielding almost daily questions from journalists for whom the election of any Conservative Councillors, never mind 20, was outside of all expectations.
But the truth is that it is what we had been hoping and working for. As Deputy Chairman Political and de-facto campaign manager, 18 months ago I sat down and made a list of areas I judged we were strong in and had potential to win – and that list is satisfyingly similar the list of wards Conservatives were elected in this time around.
In our campaign we went back to basics, with only a tiny bit of social media and a sprinkling of leaflets in some areas; the bulk of our efforts focused on good old-fashioned door-knocking. When Covid restrictions were eased to allow door to door campaigning, our team stepped up beautifully and knocked on around 15,000 doors in target wards in just eight weeks.
This approach drew on tried and tested campaigning methods – identifying Conservatives and then getting them out to vote – but had extra value here in Rotherham. Because while, yes, we were talking to people and spreading our message, much more importantly we were listening to what they had to say.
I’m a real believer that this is something we all must do at every election and between elections, in every part of the country. But it’s doubly important here where people have felt ignored and taken for granted by Labour for so many years, and there’s more than a sneaking suspicion that politicians may not be all that interested in them, their lives, and their problems.
What we learned on the rainy, sunny, and sometimes snowy doorsteps across Rotherham busts the narrative that what people in these former Labour heartlands want from local and national government is some kind of Labour-lite programme that spends lots of money, no matter the consequences for taxes and the national debt.
Instead, people were telling us their belief in the need for proper financial management and good value for money, and their frustration with being forced to hand over more of their hard-earned cash every year as Council Tax is put up.
Running through the hearts of these proud working class communities is a sense of self-reliance, independence of thought, and confidence in themselves and the country they love. There’s a belief that work should pay, people and governments shouldn’t spend more money than they have, and no one should tell adults how to live their lives.
Individual choice and responsibility, good financial management, and unembarrassed patriotism, were the things that drew me to the Conservative Party 15 years ago as a teenager in an ex-mining town, and those same values are appealing to new streams of Conservative voters in similar places today.
I fear that the importance and power of these Conservative values may have gotten lost in the scramble to get Brexit done, the crisis around coronavirus, and the desire to show people that voting blue pays. It is now critical that Conservatives get out there and listen to what people have to say, rather than relying on the interpretation of the media and focus groups, or else we risk moving away from people just as they come towards us.
For our part, the new Conservative Group on Rotherham Council will be continuing with the theme of getting back to basics – just like on the campaign trail, no tricks and no short cuts; just a solid commitment to working hard, listening, and advancing our shared values.
We’ll be putting in the effort to go through Council spending and contracts, line by line, to find waste and get the best possible value for money, figuring out why services fail so often – leading to dirt, disrepair, and people feeling let down – and setting about fixing them – and always, always, ensuring we listen and act on the things people tell us they want to see change.