Robert Halfon: Without a strong local councillor base, we are nothing as a Party. We forget our councillors at our peril.

22 Feb

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Whatever has gone on in the past few months – and of course we all have our strong views – as Parliamentarians we must, must, must have a huge duty of care and support for our councillors and activists.

It really worries me when the so-called ‘Westminster Village’ discusses the future of the party leadership “depending on the extent of hundreds of councillor losses in the local elections”.

It is as if these councillors are pawns on a chess board, or a digital army in some kind of Westminster ‘Call of Duty’ computer game, rather than hard working local politicians doing the best for their district and our political party. These councillors and active members are the ones who often keep local constituency parties afloat. When they get elected, they usually bring their families and friends to help campaign. If they lose their seats, sometimes their support networks go. So like an unvirtuous circle, the local constituency association gets smaller and weaker too.

Why do I say this?

Because when I was first selected as Parliamentary Candidate in Harlow, it was our local councillors who kept the Harlow Conservative Party show on the road following the 1997 wipeout. They were the ones who worked hard in the darkest days of opposition to keep the Tory flame of freedom alive. These campaigners were there – not just when it was fashionable or easy to do so, but when it was hard. It is exciting to join a political movement when things are going well. Much tougher to become a member and help keeps things afloat when your party almost has pariah status – as it did in the early years of opposition.

One of those such councillors is my longstanding voluntary Agent, Councillor Simon Carter, who works day and night for his local community. After 1997, he moved the local Tory office into his house and just a few councillors kept the Association going. Such support from Conservative councillors has and continues to happen across the country.

Harlow Conservatives now have a proper office, many more members and only the second Tory council majority in Harlow in the Town’s political history. However, anyone with any sense knows that it can quickly disappear, if the public believe that Conservatives are arguing amongst themselves and not focusing on real priorities such as the cost of living, housing and education. My majority of 14,000 (after six elections) would be vaporised without the support and backing from all my councillors for over 20 years.

It is worth remembering that the 1997 general election defeat did not just come about because of the goings-on at Westminster but because in the run-up, we lost thousands of our councillor base from Tory bastions like Essex and Tunbridge Wells. This loss happened not due to the fault of these Tory councils, but because of the shenanigans and Tory civil war in Westminster that started pretty soon after the unexpected Conservative election victory in 1992.

Of course it is right to have debates and disagreements about policy. No one is seeking to close this down. Policy discussion is critical. As regular readers of ConservativeHome will know, I do this myself regularly on these pages. In my role as Chair of the Education Committee, it is also my job to scrutinise education policy and try and suggest ideas for improvement.

But, in the run-up to the local elections, if we continue to give the appearance that we are focused internally on ourselves and are negative about the party leadership publicly and politically, then all the leaflets and campaigning will not amount to a row of beans. The electorate will just give the Conservatives a big fat raspberry in May.

It won’t be us MPs losing their sense of purpose and seats but councillors who have mostly lost because of us, not because of them. Not only will we have helped destroy their political opportunities, but town halls will be overrun with Labour and Liberal Democrats, with the ensuing high tax, high-spend policies this will bring. Don’t be surprised in the marginal seats particularly, that bad election results mean less local Tory campaigners, but also many more Opposition activists as well.

All I care about over the next few weeks is that my remarkable team of councillors and council candidates do well at the May elections. They deserve it. They work hard week-in-week-out campaigning, delivering leaflets whether it is in the midst of Storm Eunice or a Tsunami. Westminster folk have a duty not to be self-indulgent. I owe it to my local constituency party campaigners just as colleagues will owe it to theirs. Let us put our big political disagreements in Westminster aside – at least for now – and just relentlessly focus on helping our councillors win in May.