How can Conservative Council candidates defeat "Independents"?
When I first stood for election in 1999 I was told not to expect to win. I was a Conservative – in fact, I still am. I stood in a ward that had never had an ‘Official’ Conservative councillor before, and which was just outside the boundary of the ward in which I lived. It was neither a Labour nor a Liberal Democrat stronghold. Like most of rural Fylde (where our MP Michael Jack had a 10,000 majority), it was an Independent bastion.
The advice I got was “George Bamber has the Catholic vote, he’s been there for 20 years and before that his father was there for 20 years. Just put out a leaflet and smile sweetly on election day. You’ll have more chance in 4 years time.” Thankfully I ignored that advice and persevered during the hard winter months of 1998. In that time, I discovered three key truths about Independents.
Firstly, they can, and do, become out of touch. Their self belief in their independent status makes them complacent. They believe that the national picture does not affect them and that it’s local and that’s it.
Secondly, they forget that an electoral ward is made up of lots of people – not all of whom are in their own social circle. They forget that their mates at the local church or down the pub are only a small number of people – and that these people’s views and opinions are skewed by bonds of friendship. They are told what they want to hear.
There is danger here for Independents and opportunity for established parties. There is an untapped reservoir of voters who feel they have been ignored. They may not have heard from their Independent councillor – so if they hear from you, then that is something new to them. But it is hard work.
I know many people say to me that they wish local government wasn’t run on party political lines. They think that if only we could all get along, and forget about our disagreements, and then the world would be a happier place. Only Independents are rarely independent. As Conservatives, we have a duty to put up a candidate for our supporters to vote for, and a duty to campaign as hard against an Independent as we would against Labour or the LibDems. We believe that elected Conservatives are a good thing and the more of them the better. To think that an Independent is just a “Conservative in disguise” is to overlook the fact that many of them stand as Independents because they know it is the only way they will ever get elected against a Conservative Party they hate.
Because no one actually believes in the Independent brand – even those who stand under that banner. There is no conviction, no brand loyalty, no core principle and no rallying cry. It is all personal ego, all personality, all “me me me” and all over the place.
The mantra of “People before Politics” that Independents like to put forward is misleading in the extreme. The sly wink on the door step that says ‘don’t worry, I’m really a *’ (*Insert voters preferred party here) is a lie. Saying I don’t have a whip or take instructions from London is a lie. Saying I’m independent and I can do what’s good for you is a lie.
Three elections later I’ve had every one of these lies and a whole lot more thrown at me, but the Independent force in my ward of Medlar-with-Wesham is on the way out. They don’t top the poll any more - I do. They don’t set the agenda anymore and they don’t tell the lies they used to.
So how have I begun to get the upper hand? Hard work – no different from any other successful politician at any level. You have to see them as extreme Liberal Democrats but without the Focus leaflets. They have a powerful message: “We’ll do what’s right for you”. You just have to ensure your message is even more powerful. Leaflets, websites and action. Prove to local people that Conservatives can and will stick up for local people, and can achieve results that marginalised Independents cannot.
Up and down the country, there are small pockets of Independents. Many creep in, under the radar, in wards where we under-perform. You might think it doesn’t really matter – but each ward we fail to win which we should is one less on the final total of net gains by which the national media judge us. Our responsibility to do our bit for the Party is both local and national. Independents can easily become a natural protest vote in council elections where we are seen to have become out of touch, campaign inadequately or pick the wrong message. Once established, they take hold, but they can be beaten. You just have to work harder.
In June next year I am taking on one of these Independents in the elections to Lancashire County Council. The message is already going out that I’ll be taking Instructions from London, following a whip and am unsuitable. But the counter message has to be “Vote Conservative to end Labour’s control of Lancashire. I am as independent-minded as the next man, just in a structured and political way, and that I can get things done”.
Returning an Independent will not get rid of Labour, Returning an Independent will not make the division any less controlled by a established party and returning an Independent will still see huge areas of the division disenfranchised as Independent Councillor X does not go to your church, drink in your pub or shop in your shops.
A Conservative Councillor is a good thing. We need as many of them as possible. An Independent Councillor is not a good thing, and we need fewer of them.