Olivia Lyons: Labour was punished for their neglect of Cannock Chase

17 Aug

Cllr Olivia Lyons is the Leader of Cannock Chase District Council.

Our local election campaign was demanding, and the campaign period short, but as we stood on each damp, cold, doorstep, the message was the same. Labour had lost touch with what was, for years, their core vote. Nationally, they no longer represented the working class and, locally, the years of sheer neglect in our once vibrant market towns was both stark and noticeable.

The position of no overall control had taken its toll. In the months prior to the local elections, the local Labour Party were in disarray. The longer-standing members, true to the more traditional ‘New Labour’ ideology had capitulated to the growing number representing Corbyn’s hard left, the divide was growing by the day. Quickly and visibly, they were losing touch, losing control, and losing all credibility. It was a minority administration growing enraged and thrashing around clutching to their evaporating dream of their future.

In the space of a few months, the Leader of the Labour Group moved from an informal ‘Supply and Demand’ arrangement to form a formal Coalition with what was, at the time, the local Green Party. Relationships quickly broke down and the manifestation of hostility was undisguised.

A breakaway Party was collectively formed by the former Labour parliamentary candidate and the former Green parliamentary candidate; they formally registered as a political party and, ironically, called themselves ‘Chase Independents’. Their aim was to be a knight in shining armour sweeping in to oust a disorderly administration on a fabricated platform of distortions. Fielding a group of supposedly apolitical, community minded candidates – they were undoubtedly the most political of all, and their masterplan was to campaign dirty. That included conning their way into the new Designer Outlet Village by pretending to be workmen in a desperate attempt to seek publicity but instead culminated in a visit from the Police. The Chase Indies Leader publicly asserted that his only ambition was to be a local voice, whilst he stood against a backdrop of failed attempts to become Police and Crime Commissioner, a Member of Parliament, and even a Member of the European Parliament.

Two years prior, when forming a new Shadow Cabinet, we promised to be a credible and strong opposition, a promise we must keep. As a small group of 14, we refused to be distracted by the internal happenings and the ever-evolving dynamics of the other parties. We were clear that the middle of a global pandemic was not the time to ‘play politics’. Our continued focus remained very clearly with the residents that we were elected to represent. They had put their trust in us and our duty to serve was now more important than ever.

Fast forward a few months and we received confirmation that the public would be going to the polls. Restrictions were slowly easing and the vaccination programme was well underway. Initially, we decided not to knock on doors but instead develop and grow our online presence, acutely aware that residents may feel uncomfortable being approached after such a long period of isolation. Alongside this, we continued working within each of our local communities, at the time supporting the ongoing response to the pandemic and also re-established our InTouch literature.

As time went on, the campaign intensified with leaflets increasing in frequency and, eventually, with yet further easing of restrictions, we took to the doorstep. That was when we really began to gauge the shift of public opinion. We were a group of locals, campaigning and caring for our local community, no doubt helped along by an increasingly positive national picture – personal freedoms were gradually returning, Covid case numbers in a slow decline and there was hope that we were slowly and cautiously returning to a life that somewhat resembled normality.

The focus of our campaign remained on what mattered – it was a local election and we focused solely on local issues. Labour literature evaded the local issues that had fallen within the remit of their administration for many years – declining town centres, decaying parks, and detrimentally high taxes, the list simply goes on. Instead, they adopted a negative campaign, slating every Conservative proposal or decision whether by Government, the County Council, or us as an Opposition – noticeably without offering any alternatives and, more so, without offering up any credible policy suggestions at all.

Come May 6th, we entered the counting hall with an optimistic mindset, carrying with us the enthusiasm from the doorstep. The national picture was better than expected, the red wall was crumbling. Not taking anything for granted, we were both fearful of becoming carried away yet quietly hoping to be the next blue brick in the wall. The results came in thick and fast, without the need for many recounts.

The electorate had unequivocally placed their trust in us. The real hard work was about to begin. We instantly promised to work tirelessly to repay that trust, a promise made by all 24 of us.

In the few months that followed, we have uncovered more that a few Labour skeletons buried in the Council’s closets but we will govern with the same positive mindset that we campaigned with.

Post pandemic we have a challenging, yet exciting opportunity to repave the path ahead – focusing on economic recovery, rejuvenating our town centres, and improving the overall wellbeing of the residents we serve.

As a very wise lady once said “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony”, a very fitting quote to encapsulate the past year in Cannock Chase.

Amanda Milling: The Boundary Review will strengthen our democracy by ensuring that every vote counts the same

8 Jun

Amanda Milling is the Member of Parliament for Cannock Chase and co-Chairman of the Conservative Party.

Our democracy allows eligible voters up and down the country the chance to have their voice heard by voting for a representative they believe will best make decisions on their behalf.

But crucially it gives everyone eligible to vote, 18 and over, an equal vote and an equal say. Or, at least, it should do.

However, the constituency boundaries as they presently stand fail to ensure that a vote counts the same in one area as it does in another, even just a few miles away.

This is because the present constituency boundaries are based on data that is already 20 years old. Without the changes to the boundaries, by the time of the next election this data would be a quarter of a century out of date and by the time the next government conducted a review and implementing boundary change, the information will be more than three decades out of date.

At the moment some constituencies have twice as many electors as others. Bristol, having over 100,000, whist the smallest, Stoke-on-Trent Central – has a little over 55,000. It is also true that after the 2017 election, our party would have won a significantly greater number of seats if constituency sizes were equalised and updated, removing the unfair bias in the outdated system.

There is almost unanimous acknowledgement that the status quo is neither fair, nor sustainable.

The Boundary Review that is being undertaken by the independent and judge-led Boundary Commissions, with extensive public consultation, is looking to reset all of this.

This review isn’t about the party building a power base in any part of the country, nor to make it harder for opposition parties to make gains, but about ensuring that Parliamentary boundaries are equally sized and based on up to date figures.

By making sure we have Parliamentary boundaries which finally take account of the huge population change which has taken place in parts of the country, we are ensuring that each constituent will know that their vote counts the same as their neighbour’s. It also delivers on our promise at the 2019 General Election to strengthen our democracy by ensuring every vote counts the same.

I know that for some this review could bring unexpected change. Representing a seat is a unique privilege, and often a very personal one. I have represented Cannock Chase for six years and still feel pride in the community each time my train from London pulls into the station.

Each of us who are MPs will know like the back of our hands every community hall and summer fête. We will see families in the supermarket who we have supported and we will have listened to campaign groups on whose behalf we have spoken out in the House of Commons.

No one wants to lose any constituent who they have been privileged to represent and who has been part of their community.

MPs are rightly proud, and fiercely defensive of their own patch where they have canvassed doors and worked hard for years, so the thought of change at a local level will raise concerns, even if we can all broadly agree to the concept of the changes.

Equally, for long-standing Conservative associations built on boundaries that have been in place for decades it will require some adjustment. Associations take pride in their area, in their membership, and many still operate active ward associations.

But I am confident that our hardworking and committed association officers have what it takes to adapt — and we are committed to supporting them along the way.

Over the course of this pandemic, I have seen fantastic examples of associations being at the forefront of adapting and improving, working together on events and fundraising. I have joined scores of Zoom quizzes, welcomed colleagues as guest speakers and met hundreds of members and activists at Q&As. And we will continue to adapt.

For some these proposed changes will be challenging and that’s why we will be listening and working with colleagues in Parliament and across the party to hear any of the concerns people may have.

As the consultation period begins on these initial proposals we need to come together to collectively work out how we can make the proposals work.  We will make formal submissions in response to the Boundary Commissions initial proposals. MPs, associations, organisations and individuals will also all be able to make representations during the consultation phases. I have no doubt there will be changes from the initial proposals as additional local concerns and counter proposals are taken into account.

These equal and updated boundaries are sensible and necessary. They are the consequence of a manifesto which was written with fairness and uniting the whole country written into every pledge. They make sure everyone’s vote from Cumbria to Canterbury, Dover to Darlington carries equal weight at a General Election.

The Conservative Party will now collectively engage with the independent Boundary Commissions’ extensive consultation process, to ensure all parts of the United Kingdom are fairly represented in the UK Parliament.

Lib Dems local election effort will focus on the districts

23 Mar

Among the abundance of elections taking place in May are those in 59 district councils. There would have been a few more. But no council elections are taking place in Cumbria, Somerset, or North Yorkshire, due to plans to establish unitary authorities in those areas. Those proposals reflect a trend elsewhere. It is a quiet but fundamental change that has had little attention – due to it having taken place over several decades. This year we see the emergence of North Northamptonshire Council and and West Northamptonshire Council with unitary arrangements for that county. Last year it happened to Buckinghamshire. The year before that it was Dorset. In 2009 we saw it take place in Wiltshire, Shropshire, Cornwall, and Cheshire. It has resulted not only in fewer councils, but also in fewer councillors. In 2005 there were over 22,000 of them in the UK. By 2019 it was down to 19,647. If only MPs at Westminster had made equivalent progress in reducing their own number.

Anyway, there are still enough district councils still in existence to keep the psephologists busy – though the electoral drama is constrained by most of them only contesting a third of their seats and thus limiting the potential for the number of councils that can see a change in political control.  The last time these seats were contested was in 2016. As I noted yesterday, that year saw Labour doing relatively well – compared to what the current opinion polling suggests of their present standing.

Burnley in the red wall (or “blue wall” as it should now be regarded) will be one to watch. Labour had already started to lose some seats to independents. But the Conservatives start from a low base with four councillors (of which, I gather, only one seat is up to be defended this time.) Labour have 22, of which they are defending nine.

By contrast, if Labour are picking up more support from a certain type of middle class voter, might they see gains in Worthing? It is not far from Brighton and Hove…

Other Labour/Conservative battles are in Amber Valley and Cannock Chase (where the Conservative Party Chairman Amanda Milling will take a particular interest). In both places, Labour start with a narrow lead. There is also Pendle – which has all the seats up for election – where there is a Labour/Lib Dem coalition. Yet the Pendle constituency has a Conservative MP.

But in more of these councils, the real contest is between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. Will the best indication be the local election results of 2019 – where the Lib Dems did so well? Or the General Election, a few months later that year, where they got so resoundingly trounced? The opinion polls currently have the Lib Dems on around seven per cent. About the same as they were doing in the opinion polls in 2016. When it comes to real votes, in these local elections they will probably do much better. But then they did in 2016 when they won 15 per cent of the projected national vote share.

Lord Hayward, the Conservative peer and elections expert, says:

“If the Lib Dems don’t make progress on 2016 it will be a disappointment to them. In those places where they got new councillors elected in 2019 they will have tried to get dug in. So they will be looking for further gains. St Albans is somewhere they will be looking to gain where it is currently under no overall control.”

Cheltenham has half the seats up for election. The Lib Dems are already in control of the Council. Yet the Parliamentary constituency has a Conservative MP.

Perhaps too much focus on the established parties is the “old politics.” The last time we had local elections – in 2019 – the Conservatives did very badly. But independents and assorted residents associations gained almost as many seats as the Lib Dems. Usually, the catalyst turned out to be planning developments. Objections would be made to the high-handed manner in which such schemes would be put forward – arrogant bureaucrats engaging in purely sham “consultation” and “engagement”. However, the real problem was that the new homes proposed were ugly. Given that cutting off the supply of new housing would also prevent difficulty, the Government has proposed that councils should go ahead with housing development – but that it should be beautiful. Those new rules have yet to come in. Some councils have already got the message. Others have not. That is quite likely to result in some uneven electoral consequences which will only make sense once the local circumstances are investigated.