Cllr Gareth Lyon is Deputy-Chairman, Policy and Campaigning, for Hampshire and Isle of Wight Conservatives – and Cabinet Member for Planning and Economic Growth at Rushmoor Borough Council.
Smooth seas never made a skilled sailor according to the quote from President Franklin Roosevelt. If that is so, then the current generation of Conservative councillors are well on their way to being the successors of Sir Francis Drake and Lord Nelson.
The last few years have seen challenge after challenge for Conservative councillors seeking to win and retain seats amidst national political turbulence, increasingly negative media commentary, and a growing sense of frustration and disillusionment amongst many of our core supporters. There have been many notable successes against the odds – in most cases this is down to experienced campaigners reading the winds, trimming their sails accordingly, and tacking skilfully onwards – certainly with no help or direction from on high.
The weather now is as bad as most of us can remember, with even our most experienced hands now conceding the parallels to the mid-90s. Yet with the seamanship built up over recent years, there are still many good examples of how this can be done both here in Rushmoor and throughout Hampshire.
From working closely with many incredibly impressive councillors, it becoming increasingly obvious to me that the key to their success lies in finding those local issues which they care about passionately and which really matter to their residents – and finding ways to demonstrate how they are prepared to stand up for their residents even when it costs them.
In essence, this means building their own brand – recognising that the standard issue Conservative candidate with the standard issue Conservative policies is at the moment not going to cut through to the electorate.
In our area, a great example of this is Cllr Diane Bedford who has, for over a year, been prepared to stand up for local traders suffering as a consequence of a long-running road project closing off access to many of their customers. A stalwart party loyalist, she is nevertheless unwilling to bow to pressure from higher tiers of Government to fall into line. Instead, she is demanding that support be made available to help these otherwise successful local businesses not fail through no fault of their own. The businesses have noticed this and Diane’s undeniable status as their champion will be no bad thing for her when she looks to defend her seat.
Similarly, Cllr Marina Munro representing Farnborough town centre has become, through sheer persistence and dedication, the de facto leader of local residents looking to ensure that while major investments are being made in our town centre, that local heritage and identity is enhanced rather than lost. It is often hard to miss just how frustrating developers and officers find these challenges – and I’ve often heard her being asked to let things go – but crucially residents are able to see her there, asking the questions they want asked, pushing for the improvements they believe are important, in the process building her own brand, status, and identity, beyond that of the party.
Wherever you look this is happening. In my ward, Cllr Michael Hope has turned himself into the constant scrutiniser of the progress Esso are making on a major pipeline project – weekly reporting progress to residents and holding Esso to account. Cllr Nem Thapa in a traditional Labour-voting ward is excelling as a champion of our substantial armed-forces community – both Gurkha and native British – and achieving national impact with his campaigns for their rights. Others such as our candidate Steve Harden are constantly in the ear of councillors and officers demanding better street maintenance and local environmental improvements for his residents, whilst my colleague Cllr Sue Carter is doing similar pushing for services and opportunities for young people.
We often talk in our literature of “campaigning” for our areas when we might actually mean representing them, speaking to them, and doing the daily work of a councillor. All of these things continue to be extremely important – but, now more than ever, campaigning must really mean just that. Each of us must find a way to be there, constantly ,energetically, and visibly, standing up for our residents and local businesses against those making their lives harder – even if it does mean having some tough conversations with fellow Conservatives.
If we do that right, hold our nerves, and hold our course, then we will make it through the storm to the calmer happier waters which do lie somewhere out there ahead.