Virginia Crosbie: A Conservative victory depends on women voters

Virginia Crosbie is Director of Women2Win, Deputy Chair of Kensington, Chelsea and Fulham Conservatives and the Conservative Policy Forum’s Champion for Social Mobility.

Losing the women’s vote – a trend or a one off?

In 2017, for the first time ever, a smaller proportion of women voted Conservative than men. In the last six decades women have tended to support the Conservatives slightly more than men, and as a Party we have come to rely on the women’s vote.  Was 2017 a one off or is this the beginning of a very worrying trend?

This problem is getting more acute among younger female voters. In the 2015 and 2017 General Elections women, especially those under the age of 40, were more likely than men to vote Labour. In 2017, 73% of women aged 18-24 – nearly three times the figure in 2010 – voted Labour compared to 52% of men.

The trend does not seem to be improving; a poll recently by the think tank Onward found that only 8% of young women (compared to 20% of young men) say they will vote Conservative.

Losing the women’s vote made a significant difference to us in 2017; the Conservatives were only nine seats (excluding the Speaker) short of an outright majority, and a large number of seats were only narrowly lost. In 2017, 97 seats were won by a margin of 5% or less. A small improvement in women’s voting would have meant a lot more Conservative seats.

The women’s vote is becoming increasingly important due to demographics. Women currently make up 54% of the UK electorate reflecting the fact that women have a longer life expectancy than men, and turnout amongst older voters is higher. As the population ages and with women living on average 3.6 years longer than men – the women’s vote is becoming more and more important. Based on statistics from 2017, men and women are equally likely to vote, therefore with the proportion of female voters growing, we have a natural advantage if we can recover our appeal to women.

Winning back the women’s vote

It’s not clear why we are losing the women’s vote, and why we have failed to connect with younger women. Is it because women have been disproportionately affected by austerity? Is it because women are more worried than men about crime, the NHS and the future of the next generation? When I’m out campaigning I’m keen to ask people why they are not voting Conservative. Please can you share the feedback you have had on the doorsteps.

With over 15 million women now working, and with more than 500,000 women giving birth each year, we have an opportunity, an opportunity to ensure that we have the policies in place to support every woman and her family. As a party we have made great strides to improve the workplace for women with gender pay gap reporting, flexible working and greater maternity and redundancy protection. We need to shout about these successes so that young women know these are Conservative successes.

We also need to face up to some difficult questions. With more female MPs and more female MPs driving policy decisions, does this mean that Labour’s policies are more likely to appeal to women? Almost half of Labour MPs are women, whereas only one in five Conservative MPs are women. Labour has forced this figure through with ‘All Women Shortlists’ – something that is against our core Conservative values of hard work and merit. But does the number of women MPs matter? Has this given Labour an advantage? And if this has, what do we propose to do about it?

Increasing political engagement

Women are more likely to be politically engaged if they can vote for candidates they can relate to.  Has this been the key to Labour’s success? In the 2017 General Election the Conservatives fielded 184 women candidates (28.4% of their total) versus 256 for Labour (40.6%). Labour fielded a significantly higher number of women candidates than the Conservatives in seats that Labour already held. In safe seats where Labour had a majority of 20-30% the difference was even more marked with over 50% of candidates being women. Since 1979, an average of 86 seats in each election became available as MPs stood down. As 2017 was a snap election only 31 MPs announced they would not stand for re-election.

Women are significantly under-represented among Conservative candidates, MPs and also councillors. After the 2019 local elections just 30% of Conservative councillors are women. Since local government has a disproportionate impact on women’s lives it would make sense for women’s voices to be better reflected in decision-making.

A higher number of female councillors, candidates and MPs can be interpreted as a sign and driver of political engagement for women. The AskHerToStand cross-party initiative by 50:50 Parliament has been successful in increasing the number of women coming forward to get involved in local politics or Parliament. Has your local association thought of hosting an AskHerToStand event to motivate more women to get involved? If not, then they should do so urgently.

Also, the ‘Make It Your Business’ initiative encourages and supports women entrepreneurs. I’ve hosted four ‘Make It Your Business’ events, and found it a great way to recruit women who do not appreciate that their entrepreneurial values are aligned to Conservative values. Get in touch if you would like to arrange one.

I’m keen to hear your thoughts and what has worked for you. I would especially like to listen to our younger members as to how we can broaden our Conservative base and deliver our message.

Encouraging more female members – a good place to start

I’m keen to help and I am regularly asked by Conservative Associations how they can attract more young members and particularly more women members. Seven out of 10 of our Conservative Party members are male, and we have a long way to go to achieve the parity that Labour, the Lib Dem’s, Greens and the SNP achieve. A good place to start is by supporting women to become association officers. The Party already has so many great initiatives and groups to attract new voters – the Conservative Policy Forum (CPF), the Conservative Women’s Organisation (CWO), CWO Diversity, Conservative Young Women (CYW) and the Young Conservatives (YCs).

Another initiative is for associations to build stronger relationships with universities, and encourage more students to join through student campaigns. I saw first hand how the students from Winchester University Conservative Society worked exceptionally hard to deliver leaflets in the recent local election.

If we are to win a majority in Parliament at the next General Election it is critical that we win the women’s vote. It’s going to take soul- searching and hard work, not just words. I hope this paper opens up the debate and helps us focus on how we can do this. We are missing out on a huge pool of voters and talent for our party. This is not political correctness this is political common sense. By working together to address the gender disparity of voting intentions I hope that it will help us succeed as a party.

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Rob Lee: A business-friendly Council would let Hastings meet its potential

Cllr Rob Lee is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Hastings Borough Council.

Nestled on the south-east coast, Hastings makes up about four-fifths of the marginal Hastings and Rye constituency. Hastings Borough Council (HBC) has been under Labour control since 2010 when they narrowly won control. Hoping to win back control in 2012, the Conservatives slipped further behind in what was a disappointing set of local election results for many people around the country, in the wake of the ‘omnishambles‘ budget.

There the Conservatives have stayed. Currently, the makeup of the council is eight Conservative seats to Labour’s 23. There are no Lib Dems or Greens but there is a single independent – who I will get to later. The council is split into 16 two-member wards and, slightly unusually, we go up for election in halves. Only a handful of councils still go up in halves and it is an example of Labour not wishing to save money by going for four-yearly elections.

There have been some good signs in recent years that electorally things might be changing. We held on to the parliamentary constituency with an increased majority in 2015 and narrowly held on in 2017 when similar seats were lost elsewhere. In the county elections, just before that General Election, we made big gains in the borough divisions, gaining three seats off Labour, leaving the split at county level for the Hastings seats being four all. Last year we held our own at Borough and swapped a seat with Labour, only losing in St Helens Ward by nine votes, but winning convincingly in the traditionally marginal West St Leonards Ward by 56.

The Council’s performance is less than impressive however and the last few years have been marred by poor leadership and bad decisions. The Harold Place toilets in the town centre were earmarked for destruction and plans (but no secured funding) were in place to turn the site into a restaurant. With public outcry locally, and a campaign led by the Conservatives to save them, the Labour administration panicked and accelerated the time table for demolition. The grant they had applied for to build a restaurant was not given and the high street chain they had lined up to install into the site didn’t return their calls. Over a year later and there is just a big ugly hole in the middle of the town centre surrounded by hoarding. The public loses again. They have lost the use of a central public amenity and have paid over £100,000 to have it taken away from them.

After many years and several false starts, work has begun on the new visitors centre in Hastings country park. A modest size building that will be partly constructed using straw. An EU grant was available for the project. Despite that, spiralling costs and delays have meant that the council has put £367,000 of money into the project that it first approved in 2014. With the EU grant this brings the total build costs to over £770,000. This equates to over £3,400 per square metre (£318 per square foot) to construct (out of straw) making it one of (if not the) most expensive buildings in the Borough.

Despite the faltering performance of the retail sector nationally, the Labour administration has decided to borrow heavily so that they can buy up retail units within the town. The units are, at best, second rate cast-offs from larger portfolio holders who are quite wisely discarding the riskier end of their property collections to naïve local councils – and Hastings, it appears, is one of those naïve councils. Quite a large collection of units has now been bought with borrowed money, tiny margins are forecast, and no preparations have been made for contingencies such as void periods. The tens of millions borrowed are on terms of up to fifty years, long after the nature of retail shopping may have changed and the future of the units have become unsure, leaving us with a debt time bomb for further generations.

One of the most troubling things about the modern Labour Party is the racism – and Hastings Labour is complicit in it. The independent Councillor I mentioned at the beginning of this article was elected as Labour in 2018 and is Jewish. She has left the party due to the racism she has encountered within the local party. The situation is heightened by the joint chair of the JVL (Jewish Voice for Labour) being a Labour councillor in Hastings.

Despite the gloom over its failing council, Hastings is an exciting and beautiful town with much to offer young families (including my own) and it remains a popular tourist destination for day-trippers and weekend visitors. There has been some good economic improvement since 2010 but it still has some distance left to travel. There is great potential in Hastings which needs to be unlocked and it needs a business-friendly Conservative Council to do that. This is part of the offer that we will put forward next year to residents, along with more focus on homelessness and rough sleeping, and ensuring that Hastings becomes a cleaner and greener town.

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Abi Brown and Dan Jellyman: We are witnessing the Conservative urban revival in Stoke

Cllr Abi Brown is the Leader of Stoke-on-Trent City Council. Cllr Dan Jellyman is the Cabinet Member for Regeneration, Infrastructure & Heritage on Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

Not so many years ago, Labour held all 60 council seats, alongside three rock-solid parliamentary constituencies. Today, Stoke-on-Trent has a Conservative council leader, a Conservative-Independent coalition starting its second term, a Conservative MP, and a threatened insurgency into a second parliamentary seat, where the sitting Labour MP defends a majority of just over 2,000.

This isn’t so much a story of the 2019 local elections, but as a lesson in how to win long-term, in Labour’s urban heartlands. Abi has blogged before on the Conservative successes in Stoke-on-Trent, and since 2015, our presence has been boosted by taking the Stoke South seat in the snap general election. However, our performance in May, underscores what has been a ten-year plan to turn this Labour ‘people’s republic’ into one of the hotbeds of Conservative urban revival.

Long term plan

The number of Conservative councillors in Stoke-on-Trent have fluctuated over the years, but remained focused in particular areas. The city moved to all-out elections in 2011, ending the tiring practice of elections by thirds, although disappointingly, we only returned two councillors to a newly-reduced 44 seat council. However, these were the early years of our Conservative Federation – one of the first in the country – and gave us the opportunity to really consider how we grew, and where to target. The 2015 local elections coincided with a general election, and our parliamentary candidates immediately bought into our long term vision, and shared our success when we increased councillor numbers and ate into Labour’s parliamentary majorities.

Labour’s local complacency allowed us to form a coalition with the independents to run the council from 2015, enabling us to both campaign and deliver. For four years, we spent significant amounts of time honing what we do and applying those lessons across other wards. With more councillors, came more activists and more activity.

And of course, 2019 we more than doubled our number, just two seats from being bigger than the Labour group. We have resumed our successful partnership with the independents and now have the leader of the council in Abi.

Federation, without doubt, saved Stoke-on-Trent Conservatives, bringing us together as one unit with one plan. Our ten year plan started in 2008, with a focus on strengthening our city base and growing representation and membership. Like many urban areas, our officer team has often overlapped with our councillors, but with a shared focus on outcomes, we ensured strength in our achievements.

Plan well

Every election needs a good campaign plan, but ensuring your campaign is responsive to your local environment is key. Like most cities, Stoke-on-Trent has a range of different wards and communities, which respond in different ways to different approaches. In 2011, our resources were minimum and our expertise only developing – a thinly spread resource in a one-size-fits-all campaign, focusing more on seats we wanted to take rather than hold wasn’t the right mix.

Experience has helped us evolve – no one knows their patch better than hardworking local councillors, and long term campaigning stability allows you to try new campaigning techniques. Every ward is different, but you can often apply the same methods in similar areas. We have used this to give us a head start in new target wards, alongside an open and constructive dialogue with residents. People love to be asked their opinion – but you also need to use your data and common sense.

Social media is now a part of our plan too. It complements our doorstep activity and we recognise it’s a growing part of engaging with people, but has a long way to go to replace traditional methods.

Grow your own people

So you have got a plan and you spend time focusing on how to deliver it – but you need more people. Activity attracts activity, and the more you do, the greater your chances of finding people, but in cities you need to plan to promote. One of our local strap-lines is “working for residents all year round not just at election time”, and we live by that. For residents to trust you, they need to see you – and that is the first step you need to secure before they’ll ever think of standing for us as a candidate.

Most of our candidates have started out as people who were friends of friends, who came along just to help out. So you need regular campaigning sessions that you promote, and you also need a sense of fun. We also make sure we take up all offers of help – when your numbers are small, you can’t afford to let enthusiastic people walk away.

Today, we are back on the campaign trail in Stoke-on-Trent. There are no local elections now until 2023, but there is a general election coming – however, one thing we know in Stoke-on-Trent is that winning is about campaigning all year round, regardless.

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Sean Woodward: How Spitfires are helping the Council Taxpayers of Fareham

Cllr Sean Woodward is the Leader of Fareham Borough Council.

Spitfires have come to the rescue of Fareham Borough Council. Five of the iconic World War Two fighters fly from Solent Airport in Fareham and fuel sales for pleasure flights are reaping thousands of pounds in revenue for the benefit of Fareham council taxpayers. And wise business investment by the Conservatives is sparing Fareham households massive annual council tax rises.

Out of an annual Borough Council spend of £47 million, less than £7 million comes from council tax. So 85 per cent of what we spend includes our trading activities, among them a portfolio of mainly local commercial property that brings in millions of pounds in rent.  For example buildings housing B&Q, Dunelm, Halfords, PC World, etc belong to the Council. Without this income, our council tax, currently almost the lowest in the country, would need to be far higher.

At Solent Airport £30 million has been spent so far on infrastructure and new commercial buildings such as the newly-extended Fareham Innovation Centre, which is already 70 per cent full. Airport operations provide a financial return to the Council, flight movements have increased to 30,000 annually and hundreds of new jobs have been created at what is the Solent Enterprise Zone with many more to come.

I have been Leader of Fareham Borough Council now for 20 years. We have a good record of being a prudent, low taxing Council with excellent services. For the future, we promise more of the same.

Challenges facing the Council include top-down housing figures demanding at least 520 houses per year. I never thought we would see the John Prescott form of meting out housing numbers from a Conservative government.  Something I very much hope the new Johnson team will reverse.  We have never seen much more than half those numbers built in the Borough and they are well above our objectively assessed need.

Ironically while our housing numbers are high our ability to issues planning consents from new homes has been halted by an EU court judgement on nitrates which has stopped any councils in South Hampshire from issuing planning permissions. This is due to the effects of excessive nitrates on the Solent.  Even though some 80 per cent of the issue is run-off from agriculture. Our huge challenge is to develop a mitigation scheme that developers can pay for to reduce the level of nitrates getting into the Solent special protection area. This will require the cooperation of DEFRA (Natural England), the Environment Agency and the water companies. As Fareham is part of the eleven councils forming the Partnership for South Hampshire we are working together to find a solution.

We must deliver a new community called Welborne of 6,000 new homes in North Fareham. As this requires a new motorway junction it is held up by Highways England. We hope to see a planning committee consideration in the autumn.  We have around 3,000 families in need of affordable housing and Welborne will go a significant way over the next 25 years to provide new homes for Fareham people.

As a Council, we will be free of single-use plastics by next year. This is something of great concern to our residents and rightly so having seen the damage caused to our oceans by the fallout from these products.

Town centres are suffering in the light of the switch from conventional retail to online. While Fareham has suffered less than most it is still suffering. We have developed a vision for our town centre to revitalise it with the addition of leisure and housing.  That means us working with the private owners of the shop units to encourage re-use or perhaps conversion to housing.

We have for many years run one of the country’s largest community gardening competitions – Fareham In Bloom. We are successful in repeatedly winning South and South-East England In Bloom with gold for the best large town/small city. We aim to continue to fill Fareham with flowers and enjoy huge community and business support in this work.

We are providing a £10 million+  refurbishment of Ferneham Hall, our entertainment complex which has served our residents well for over 30 years. This will provide an 800 seat auditorium and community facilities. This comes after the recent completion of a second £9 million leisure centre in the west of our Borough. We are all about providing our people with the highest quality services at the lowest possible cost.

Earlier this year we saw some 1,400 good Conservative Councillors lose their seats through no fault of their own. They were swept away by our government’s failure to deliver an exit from the EU.

We distinguish ourselves from such failure by working locally, delivering InTouch newsletters to all of our residents at least quarterly on local successes and issues and working within our wards helping our constituents.  It is by keeping in touch all year round at not just at election time that we hope we can continue to weather national storms.  But we never take anything for granted especially the electors. We do of course live in hope that our new Prime Minister will help with bringing about national enthusiasm for the Conservative cause again.

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Kris Wilson: Labour is seeking to thwart democracy and debate in Nuneaton and Bedworth

Cllr Kris Wilson is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council

Since taking Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council to no overall control in May 2018, local Conservatives have been taking the fight to Labour and promoting the policies that our successful manifesto put forward at the last election.

Unfortunately, Labour can force their will through on the basis of the Mayor’s casting vote, but this hasn’t stopped us. Indeed, we have kept Labour debating for over five and a half hours on one night,

Issues we have championed include:

  • A Local Authority Mortgage Scheme to help young first-time buyers in our area get on the housing ladder
  • A fair and transparent process for developing our local plan, which has been formed in secret and taken an unfair proportion of development from our neighbouring authorities
  • Calling for a Borough-wide injunction against illegal traveller incursions
  • Regenerating our town centres with support for a Business Improvement District for Nuneaton and pledging to fund high street regeneration
  • Challenging a £2 million overspend on a new council depot

Needless to say, local Labour has not taken kindly to being challenged at every available opportunity. When local residents have voiced legitimate concerns over illegal traveller incursions the responsible portfolio holder called then “brain dead”, showing the contempt that they have for hard-working people in Nuneaton and Bedworth.

Their former leader had been in power for over 30 years, almost as long as Mugabe, and now they have resorted to forcing changes to the rules that would not be out of place in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Just because they cannot debate they are amending the rules of debate to suit them.

Changes include:

  • No supplementary questions to portfolio holders
  • No motions following questions to the portfolio holder
  • No recorded votes on attempts to shut down debate
  • Any member who challenges the Mayor’s ruling on points of debate can be barred from speaking or removed

Interpreting rules of debate has never been Labour’s strong point, but a number of mayors we have had would make Speaker Bercow look impartial.

The Town Hall at Nuneaton and Bedworth desperately needs change. We need a new administration with fresh ideas to take our towns forward. We came tantalisingly close last year.

We are already planning our campaign for May 2020 and with one more push, the residents of Nuneaton and Bedworth can finally get the ambitious Conservative council that we so desperately need to take us forward.


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