Frances Lasok: This pandemic has shown the Conservatives need a local community focus

24 Sep

Frances Lasok is a political campaign manager for local elections.

What are the challenges for the first post-COVID elections, what will we stand for, and what should our strategy be?

The beginning of the pandemic was defined by civic unity. Roadside banners went up to the NHS, and we suddenly became a society that asked after our neighbours. But then came the after-effects. An end to the political ceasefire, plummeting GDP, a doubling of reported symptoms of depression, the beginnings of the long-term effects of economic decline, increased isolation and post-furlough job losses. People will rally round in a crisis; it’s as we move out of it that the uncertainty hits.

As the governing party, it leaves us in a difficult place: elected on a manifesto less than a year old where the biggest challenge was Brexit. And as Theresa May proved, it isn’t enough to just promise competent government or more-of-the-same small-c conservativism. Boris rallied the country on “Get Brexit Done” but since then the world turned upside down, leaving the levelling up agenda as the philosophical drive behind the Conservative Party.

It’s relevant. But for it to be more than words, it needs local engagement and local co-operation: a united drive between Government and the bodies at the coal face rather than, as is often the case, good ideas from the centre killed by falling into a gap between multiple overlapping authorities with different agendas, motives or political stripes. The potential gap between idea and implementation is huge. Which brings us on to the first post-COVID elections, in 2021.

The stakes are high, higher than just political capital, because the seats up are the major players: the County, unitary, and combined authorities that will hold the purse strings and implementation responsibilities for huge swathes of the Government’s post-COVID agenda: schools, social care, economic development and transport. Many of these seats were last up in May 2017, the record high for Theresa May’s Conservatives. In a good year, simply holding what we’ve got would be a high bar to clear.

So, what do we say in the first post COVID elections? Looking back to the Queen’s Speech in October 2019, what’s striking is how many themes of the pre-COVID agenda – community, social care, small business, towns – have been driven to the forefront thanks to the pandemic. And many of these ideas knit together: one of the biggest barriers to levelling up is dying town centres. Off the back of the Taylor Review, the proposed Employment Bill was highlighting flexible working and use of technology to increase productivity. Whilst Eat Out to Help Out gave the “use it or lose it” message about local businesses, flexible working means there are people who now have the time and money to get lunch at a local café or stop for essentials in a local shop, rather than a 5am rise for a £30 train then home for 8pm and order online. These points on the national agenda have knock-on effects to the local: small business, levelling up towns, greener transport.

There’s been a surprising return of an old friend in the last few months: the Big Society. Isolation and loneliness, and the knock-on effects to social care and mental health, have been on the backburner for years. The COVID mutual aid groups that sprung up across the country were an organic network of community minded people who wanted to help others, had the ability, and saw the need. They were often made up of the demographic of 30s-50s or younger, professionals, working parents that local initiatives often struggle to engage. When it comes to community, logistics matter. Influenced by Roger Scruton’s Building Better Building Beautiful initiative, in refreshingly plain English the Planning Reform White Paper said this:

“Planning matters. Where we live has a measurable effect on our physical and mental health: on how much we walk, on how many neighbours we know or how tense we feel on the daily journey to work or school.”

Policy and technology affect community. Someone commuting 6am-8pm is not likely to get involved with local initiatives. Technology is a friend that could change the face of the voluntary sector and local government entirely, making it possible for someone to fit in Council around the school run or a 4pm meeting. The Conservative Party should seize on this – and if we don’t, the Greens and the Lib Dems will – because these are the people we need running councils.

It’s helpful because another challenge will be socially distanced recruitment. Campaigners across the country will have breathed a quiet sigh of relief at the prospect of no more rubber chicken dinners. But humans are social creatures and whilst the opportunity for members to have Zoom calls with the Chancellor is fantastic, the remote nature means that the local MP doesn’t meet the new joiners.

The same will be true of campaigning, with social distancing currently means no canvassing. The alternatives to knock-every-door data collection are post (expensive and only a proportion will answer) or demographic targeting. Targeting is not yet perfect and carries risks. But it’s ideally suited for the local elections where only an engaged minority are going to vote. And long-term, the next battle around the corner is for Generation Z. Already, they are the hardest to reach using traditional methods: more likely to live in HMOs or difficult-to-access flats, less likely to read snail mail, more likely to move frequently which affects the data we can manually gather, less likely to engage locally, more likely to engage online. The challenge isn’t just their hearts and minds, but reaching their ears and eyes. If we’re forced away from traditional methods of engagement in 2021, it’s a learning curve for what “normal” will be in twenty years.

After a crisis, any incumbent party is dealt a difficult hand. The temptation is to fight a rear-guard action piecemeal, but we don’t need to do that. Capitalism adapts and we are the party of innovation and opportunity. The solutions we need across the board – on communities, planning, transport, localism, mental health – link together into an achievable local manifesto with the levelling up agenda and compassionate Conservativism at its heart, deliverable in a way that has local communities at the centre. And these are questions that we have to ask and answer now because when we face a shaken and worried electorate in nine months’ time, we need to know what we will say; how we will say it; and what, as Conservatives, we stand for.

Dinah Glover: Why I’m standing for Vice President of the National Convention – and why it matters.

17 Aug

Dinah Glover is Chairman of London East Area Conservatives and of Bethnal Green and Bow Conservative Association.

Listening to a dedicated and well tuned-in Party activist the other day, I was struck by something he said. Despite his activity, he had barely heard of the National Convention and its officers, let alone what they did. It is highly probable that many of you reading this now would be in the same position. That, to me, signals a problem.

So what is happening? The National Convention is made up of all the association chairmen and other area, regional and CWO officers across the country. Every year they get to elect a chairman, president and three vice presidents. These people sit on the Party board and can have a significant impact on the Party. But still barely half of the electorate participates in the election. This is local association chairmen remember, not disinterested voters. So why is this?

In my view this is down to a fundamental disconnect between the officers and the voluntary Party. Tom Spiller (former president) provided a very powerful insight recently when he said that it did not really know what it is for. We need to be clear about what the National Convention represents and that is why I am standing.

Politics for me has always been about democracy from the grassroots up. It is so important we empower our members so they are enthused to help us build a better future for our local communities. It was, after all, the idea behind David Cameron’s Big Society.

I am standing on a platform calling for empowerment, transparency, accountability and democracy. Not for its own sake, but because this allows greater engagement by all and will deliver a political offering that is even more attractive to the public. Look at what was delivered last December when we were in tune with people. The breakthrough in the Red Wall seats was because we were in touch with what voters wanted. We connected.

The Party needs to provide more engagement for its members. When it does it succeeds. We saw this in action last year when we had an unusual opportunity for the members to choose the next Prime Minister of the UK. The Party managed a fantastic nationwide leadership contest with packed out hustings held around the country. That was a credit to Andrew Sharpe and CCHQ. It was thanks to the two excellent candidates that we had an intelligent and respectful debate that really engaged the members and opened up genuine discussion. This demonstrates what can be achieved when the members are involved. I wonder why we can’t do similar for the National Convention? With this in mind I will host a zoom Q&A for those interested.

I want to serve on the board of the National Convention because I believe in this Party; it runs through my very veins. We have so many talented activists and I am not sure we always use them to their best advantage. I believe every process should be measured in terms of whether it is empowering, accountable, democratic and transparent for members and associations.

Certain processes do need to change and be improved. We should have consultation periods from the ground up through associations to seek their ideas. Ultimately the board has to decide – we can’t function by committee, but we need to be open to ideas.

There are several CCHQ committees that need to be opened up to have a two-way conversation. I would like to see members of these committees reporting to the regions. Why not have the regions voting for their own representatives on these committees, which would mean there is a ready made communication channel?

I do not want to fix what is not broken and I know the team under Sharpe’s leadership have been making improvements where they can but much more needs to be done. If we fail to make this change then that disconnect will impact on our ability to deliver for our new and old voters. That is why I want to play my part to ensure that does not happen. So if you have a vote, please use it and please vote for me.