The battle for Derbyshire
It was my
proudest political achievement to date to lead the Conservative Group to
victory at the County Council elections in 2009 after becoming its
Group Leader in 2007. It was a result of national
significance. Of course, the commentariat are writing us off this time, just as they said we had little to no chance four years ago.
No Conservative standing in Derbyshire is under any illusion about the scale of the challenge before us with a very different national backdrop to that we had last time and with the added complication of a large slate of UKIP candidates.
On the other hand we always used to face the taunt that Conservatives could never win in Derbyshire, which we proved wrong, and we are also reflecting upon the fact that our 2009 win paved the way for a General Election result seeing us go from one Conservative MP out of eight right up to six out of nine in the County and that on a day when we did not as a party win an overall majority nationwide. So, in a few days we will have a good clue as to whether Derbyshire has changed politically beyond simple national swings.
This week we have welcomed George Osborne and Theresa May to the County and last week we had a visit from David Cameron for whom I chaired a lively and positive Q&A session with many of the Party's 64 Conservative candidates for Derbyshire. As an introduction I was asked to paint a picture for the Prime Minister of what we have achieved at the County Council and what we hope to achieve if re-elected.
'"I have just two areas to lightly touch upon. The first is what we have achieved since 2009. We took on a Council that had been Labour run - and hard-left Labour run at that - for nearly 30 years.
We have been moderate and taken people with us such that we have not had any industrial action even though we have had to identify a reduction in staff numbers of approaching 2,000 and reduced the annual revenue budget of the Council by £100m.
We have delivered virtually all our manifesto. We are creating 1000 apprentices, we have introduced nationally recognised innovations in Adult Care, brought in a county-wide snow warden scheme, we have kept all our Children’s Centres and libraries open (and indeed built new ones) and become a beacon of cultural and tourism activity.
We have withstood the sneers and deliberate misunderstanding of Big Society by our opponents to support the voluntary sector - not seeing giving them money as handing out sweetners and creating photo-ops but as a core part of our work to change Derbyshire. All of this was achieved along with three years in a row of zero percent Council Tax increases. In the teeth of ferocious opposition we have not lost a single vote in Council or Committee in the whole four years on majorities of between 2 and zero.
And what can we achieve in the future? Well again we are told that it cannot be done but we have heard that before and we are pulling out all the stops to hold on to control. We know it is vital for the County – our opponents regard Kinnock, not Blair, as the man who sold out their socialist values, I kid you not!! – but we also know that good county results helped deliver a Conservative led Government, whereas... well, the rest of that sentence writes itself.
“Quality Services – Low Taxes” is the theme of our manifesto and unlike our opponents’ efforts it is full of real ideas and is straight with people about the challenges ahead. Another year of freezing Council Tax, keeping all libraries open, creating another 1,000 apprentices and working with the NHS locally to integrate health and social care and give people the choice and flexibility we know they want.
A great partnership with schools (both Academies and Authority), protection for the voluntary sector, a new railway station very near here in Ilkeston and looking after our roads in this very rural county of ours. All very tough to do with the hangover from getting the deficit down to cope with, but we approach the task with optimism and I hope you can see that we represent Conservative values in action at its very best.'
Colleagues from all over the country have been in touch to wish us all the best at the elections this week, for which I and my Group are grateful. Council elections should never be regarded as merely a barometer of public opinion, as some sort of mass polling exercise before 2015, but as important in their own right. That has never been more true than in Derbyshire, where the thought of a return to the Age of the Dinosaurs is truly frightening.