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Cllr Ian Lewis is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Wirral Council.
Often we hear that it’s grim up north. Well, actually, it isn’t.
Yes, the weather can be a bit rubbish. Yes, the Labour Party can be a bit off the scale nowadays. But, on the whole, politics is not as bad as the London bubble or some of the Brexit commentariat would have us believe. Even when I was contacted by Conservative Home, I think my optimism came as a bit of a shock. Let me explain why the optimism is not delirium.
Let’s start with the difficult stuff – the facts that do, indeed, confirm the Party has declined in parts of the North, not least in the urban and metropolitan areas, places like Wirral.
For those that are unsure of the landscape beyond Watford, we’re that funny bit on the map that sticks out between Wales and Liverpool. To misquote Sarah Palin, I can see Liverpool from my office window.
When I first joined the Party in 1987, three of the four MPs in Wirral were Conservative – Lynda Chalker, David Hunt and the late Barry Porter. At the 2017 election, all four returned Labour candidates, as they did at the 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2015 elections. The Conservatives last ran Wirral Council with an absolute majority in 1986 and elections since then have seen the Council in No Overall Control (during the Blair years) or outright Labour control (since 2012). A brief 18 months in between saw a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition.
Anyway, that’s the history out of the way. Hopefully, it gives some context as well. So what are we doing?
The demographic changes in the metropolitan areas are fast moving and, for too long, we were too slow to keep up. In 2017, after THAT election, the Conservative Group (21 out of a council of 66), decided to change. It wasn’t much of a choice to be fair. If we didn’t change, we would have gone the same way as Conservative Groups in Liverpool, Knowsley and Manchester.
One of the changes was that we became more aggressive in our Opposition – not the kind of aggression as we see in today’s local Constituency Labour Parties, but aggressive in using every opportunity to campaign and challenge the ruling Labour Group. We also had to recognise that, on some issues, if we didn’t mention them, we allowed the Labour Party to define us – so we have talked and reported more about things like the extra cash into local NHS. Not only because most people use the NHS but, in Wirral, plenty of people work there (and across the public sector).
According to the House of Commons Library, Wirral West (with one of the smallest electorates) has the second highest number of people working in the public sector of any constituency in the UK. The other one is in Scotland and that’s even further north… Nor do I spend my time poring over every Cabinet minute or agenda, or having overly frequent meetings with our well paid senior directors and their even more well paid consultants.
My job, as Leader of the Opposition, is to get us out of Opposition. That means doing more stuff beyond the Town Hall because if cleverly worded council motions were enough to win control, we’d pretty much run every Council in the country. So, we overhauled the way we communicate – most of the wards where we campaign now make use of this – whether its newspapers written and designed locally, Borough-wide social media or more use of a shrinking but still important traditional media. We even set up one of those new fangled websites. We introduced an approvals process for council candidates that three of the four Associations bought into and we are selecting candidates earlier (most of the time).
The benefits of VoteSource (yes, I am even optimistic about that), mean that we can see which candidates are actually canvassing, the kind of results they’re getting, and the candidates that need some ‘encouragement’. CCHQ has also helped by reintroducing the option to use ‘Local Conservatives’ on the ballot paper because, as many of us Up North know, there are people who will vote for Conservative councillors, but who wouldn’t, in a million years, vote Conservative nationally. Their votes are just as important in helping us to win.
To be fair to the ruling Labour Group, they’ve also been quite helpful to our chances in May. Policy wise, they are ploughing on with plans to build luxury homes (for the few, not the many) on our Green Belt; spending £2.2 million last year on consultants and spending even more money this year (£152,000) on their failing Council newspaper. Austerity is something they preach about but don’t practise.
Politically, the Labour Group are also doing their bit to lose control in May – their Leader is stepping down altogether; their Deputy Leader has been deselected along with two others; four Labour Councillors have quit to sit as Independents, like the respected MP for Birkenhead, Frank Field. On May 2nd, the voters of Wirral have a clear choice and, for the first time in years, a choice that could make a difference locally. Every vote for the local Conservatives in Wirral is a vote to stop a Militant-style takeover of Wirral Council.
That’s the message we are repeating between now and 2nd May and, if any Conservative Home readers would like to chip in a tenner to our Crowdfunding appeal, click here.