Lord Hamilton of Dalzell is a hereditary peer, a chartered accountant, and the President of the Ludlow Conservative Association.
The recent Worfield by-election in Shropshire serves as a sobering wake-up call for Conservative councils and formerly safe Shire seats. This division, previously a Conservative stronghold returning 75 per cent and 77 per cent of the votes for the Conservatives in the previous two elections, was lost to the Liberal Democrats by eight votes, a swing of 30 per cent against the party. This was despite a well-run campaign with an excellent candidate, no scandals with the previous councillor, and few issues with Shropshire Council. To avoid catastrophic defeats in future Council and General Elections, it is crucial to understand the malaise affecting the party and its supporters – and the dearth of Conservative principles at national level which caused this unexpected result. The omens for the future of the Conservative Party are depressing.
The Worfield by-election was triggered by the sudden resignation of the previous councillor due to personal reasons. We were able to field an exceptional local candidate, the former highly respected councillor for the division with deep connections and knowledge of the community and excellent local recognition. However, even he was not able to galvanise local Conservative supporters to turn out in sufficient numbers.
Both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat campaigns were well run, with extensive door-to-door canvassing and distribution of numerous leaflets and support from the well-respected MP and the PPC for the next election. It is worth noting that opposition parties had not previously seriously fought this division. Nevertheless, there was little lacking in the Conservative effort to meet and communicate with electors and get our vote out.
Moreover, Shropshire Council, under Conservative control, has generally been satisfactory, with minimal significant problems in local services. Progress has been made in addressing road maintenance which has long been a source of frustration for residents. The Council was not the target of the voters’ ire and was hardly ever mentioned on the doorstep.
However, the defining factor in the Worfield by-election was the pervasive dissatisfaction with the current Conservative government and the perception that ordinary people and rural issues are not considered in Westminster. Specific issues influencing voters are high interest rates, high fuel and heating oil prices, failure to tackle illegal immigration, poor NHS performance, and unreliable rail services. However, the underlying feeling was a sense that ‘others’ in urban areas or different communities were listened to over them. A general sense of inertia and lack of leadership and progress was palpable during door-to-door canvassing. In simple terms, approximately 350 traditional Conservative supporters stayed at home or voted Liberal Democrat – their vote declining from 754 to 392. Opposition votes increased by 188. This highlights the need to motivate and engage our core supporters, ensuring they turn out to vote in traditionally secure seats.
The key takeaway from the Worfield by-election is that the Party needs to tune into its grassroots and natural support base across Britain. Focus on policies which enable economic growth and reduce costs for ordinary people and businesses. Our party’s foundation has been built on the values of a liberal free market and a growth-oriented approach with responsibility given to individuals, less regulation, less government, freedom of choice, freedom of speech, rule of law. It is our duty to ensure that our policies and actions align with these principles to regain the trust of our supporters and ensure that our traditional strongholds remain loyal to the Conservative cause.
The outcome of the Worfield by-election carries significant implications for the Conservative Party. It was one of the safest divisions in South Shropshire (formerly Ludlow). Losing there, with such a strong swing against and no impediments to the campaign goes further than the lessons from North Shropshire that there are no safe seats for the Conservatives in rural Britain.