Cllr Rebecca Paul is the Deputy Cabinet Member for Levelling Up on Surrey County Council and the Divisional Member for Tadworth, Walton & Kingswood.
It was only a few weeks ago that Liz Truss, the newly elected leader of the Conservative Party, said:
“I campaigned as a Conservative and I will govern as a Conservative.”
What on the face of it is a simple statement, actually indicates a sizeable shift in approach to that seen in recent years. A shift which is long overdue.
It comes at a critically important time for the Conservative Party after 12 years in power. The recent loss of ‘safe’ Conservative seats, Chesham & Amersham and Tiverton & Honiton indicate a worrying shift in our core voter base. These were some of the safest seats in the country. Dominic Raab’s recent comment that he has a “50/50 chance” of losing his Surrey seat of Esher & Walton at the next election suggests that traditional conservative voters no longer want to vote Conservative. If the Blue Wall is crumbling, then a return to traditional conservatism may be just what’s needed.
In Truss’s first PMQs, she did indeed live up to her promise to ‘govern as a Conservative’ with an unequivocal response to the Leader of the Opposition that she is against an energy windfall tax and that as a country we can’t tax our way to growth. And Kwasi Kwarteng’s first fiscal event, announcing significant tax cuts, is certainly walking the walk. Although reassuring on the face of it, in recent years ‘Conservative’ talk has not always translated into ‘Conservative’ action. The recent pandemic saw the most ‘un-Conservative’ approach taken by any Conservative government with vast amounts of untargeted government support and restrictions on basic freedoms. This has (in part) led us to where we are today; big government and ever decreasing personal responsibility. Both these things eat away at the social fabric of our communities; stifling enterprise, altruism, and aspiration.
The last few years have indeed been challenging and we are all well aware of the specific events in Westminster that have shaken the public’s faith in our party. But now, with a strongly Conservative leader (who ironically once was a Liberal Democrat), we have the opportunity to rebuild our party on traditional Conservative values, and most importantly, to be proud of those values.
We should not shy away from our belief in the importance of strong families, not be embarrassed about our commitment to free markets, and most importantly, be willing to stand up and make the tough decisions that are in the national interest. We can no longer be held to ransom by the media and the twitterati who do not represent the views of the large majority of British people.
In Surrey, a historic safehold, we are seeing a worrying trend in voter behaviour. Numerous local by-elections over the last year haven’t gone our way, and the recent District and Borough election results in May were disappointing. Out of 11 District and Borough councils, only four are now under Conservative control, with ever decreasing majorities.
In July this year, there was a by-election in Charlwood. Charlwood is a charming village nestled in the Surrey countryside near the southern border of Mole Valley. It is the type of place that is (or should be) quintessentially Conservative. Yet, even with an experienced credible candidate, we lost it to the Green Party. This type of unexpected loss is not unique, it has happened multiple times in Surrey over recent years.
Some would say it’s down to the migration of Londoners bringing their more liberal voting habits with them, but in reality, most of it is down to the loss of stalwart Conservative voters in our blue heartlands.
In spite of the hammering being taken at local government level, all 11 Surrey constituencies are currently Conservative at a parliamentary level, and have broadly been so since 1885. But this could change quickly. Whilst knocking on doors over the last 6 months, we have heard time and time again from residents that they will no longer be voting Conservative even though they have previously been a “lifer”. If we are losing natural Conservative voters in Surrey, something is very awry.
Surrey is a powerhouse of the United Kingdom, delivering over £40 billion of GVA annually and a net fiscal surplus. Like a critical engine room, it must be invested in and maintained for the benefit of the whole country. Yet it is often the victim of its own success and deprioritised by Government for investment and funding. Denying the South East what it needs to grow and prosper with the misguided intention of being ‘fair’ to the rest of the country is detrimental to all in the end.
The levelling up agenda has been criticised for exactly this in recent years. There is indeed a gap between the South East and the rest of the country that we should do our best to close. But it’s imperative that the South East is not forgotten in the process. In Surrey there are many ‘pockets’ of deprivation tucked away amongst areas of relative affluence. With an up to 10-year difference in life expectancy from one ward to the next, levelling up isn’t just for ‘up north’.
Surrey residents are very clear about their expectations from Government. They want their roads fixed, they want new homes in sensible locations, they want decent train and bus services to get to work, they want to see their GP face-to-face, and they want local school places for their children. These are basic needs, and perfectly reasonable ones too, and we as a party need to deliver on these if we want to start repairing the damage. Fundamentally we need to give residents a reason to vote for us.
With the increasing realisation that ‘safe’ Surrey is no longer so, comes the need for urgent change and rebuilding of our party. Truss’s new premiership creates just the opportunity for this, and we must embrace it. It’s time for us to do what we do best and get back to good old-fashioned Conservatism, and that starts with campaigning and governing as a Conservative.