Last night I attended an election event hosted by the Conservatives for its members in Birmingham Ladywood. Nusrat Ghani, the Parliamentary Candidate, had been rendered voiceless by tonsillitis and was under strict orders to stay away and recover*. I’m her Agent s0 was asked to stand-in and say a few words on her behalf. I’m a great believer in honesty, so decided to talk frankly about the challenges we face in the seat.
Ladywood is as tough a gig as it comes for a Conservative candidate. It is possibly the most diverse constituency in the UK – that’s both in terms of diversity of income and in terms of ethnic diversity. Yes, there is a slowly changing demographic – the glut of swanky new-build flats in the City Centre has attracted more professionals from a traditional Conservative background. However, you can’t escape the reality that much of the electorate live amongst some of the highest unemployment and poverty in the UK with all the associated social problems that go in tandem. Until recently the Conservative message has been hard to land in those wards. We’re setting about turning that around.
Ladywood is viewed by the anoraks as a rock solid Labour Seat. Clare Short became an ‘independent’ MP a couple of years ago but her retirement last week gifted the new Labour candidate the inheritance of her nominal support. The Conservative Party centrally takes a tactical look at its resources and makes pragmatic choices on where to deploy them. With the election predicted to be close it is only sensible that Birmingham’s share of national campaign spend is directed into ‘battleground’ seats such as Edgbaston rather than the likes of Ladywood- after all you don’t get in government for getting the most votes, you get in government for winning the most seats. I always fear this brutal pragmatism may leave locals to conclude the party is somehow neglecting them or doesn’t care. This could not be further from the truth. The Political reality simply means that the challenge is thrown directly to the local association – “it’s your job to get the Conservative message out there in your patch”. From everything I saw last night my sense is that the Ladywood Association understands and is rising to that challenge – by example:
- We mustn’t forget that May 6th is also local elections. The Tories are fielding locally well-known, hard-working, credible candidates for each of the four council wards in the constituency. These candidates have been laying the ground work for some months with their leaflet deliveries and their pounding of the doorsteps. A Conservative break-through in the council elections here is a real possibility.
- The appointment of Nusrat as the PPC has added extra energy to the campaign. She’s a cracking candidate. Nusrat’s enthusiasm and drive is infectious to everyone who meets her. Her family is well known and respected locally and she has been able to use this to open doors to people who had not previously given consideration to the Conservatives before. Historically, high flying candidates asked to stand in tough seats often become ‘paper candidates’ not really trying and just cynically getting the ‘I stood before’ line on their CV to help them in their hunt for an easier seat next time around. This is a charge nobody will ever be able to level at Nusrat Ghani. Her canditature in Ladywood is something she takes exceptionally seriously – her commitment would be obvious to you within moments of meeting her.
And here’s the thing: when the local community meet ‘real’ modern Conservatives like the candidates mentioned above the wall of prejudice about us being just a party of ‘rich toffs’ is torn down. Once that prejudice is removed people become far more open to listening to the Conservative message. With these prejudices dropped they then realise that we all have a lot in common – we all want to ‘get on’, we want better for our kids, we all want greater control of our own lives. When people accept these are shared goals you have to ask which party has the best approach to delivering them? – one party is asking you to trust it to solve your problems despite the evidence of the last thirteen years – one party is saying it trusts you and your community solve your problems and will empower you and your community to do so. It’s Cameron’s big idea: “Not a big state – a big society”.
It”s working. The message is spreading. The momentum is building. There were around 60 people joined us in Ladywood last night – I understand that only a couple of years ago the expected turnout at the annual constituency event may only be half-a-dozen. Yet last night we were joined by people who are new to the party, curious about how it is changing and keen to support and help us. Re-establishing then sustaining a Conservative ‘force’ in Ladywood (once seat to Conservative Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain) is going to be a long project, it’s not worth pretending otherwise. But that project is at least now under-way. The ‘Cameron’ vision of Conservatism brings a message which is compelling and needs to be heard by everyone including, or rather ‘especially’, by the poorest in our society – the greatest barrier to that message being heard remains the deep-seated prejudice about the ‘Tories’. If we can keep chipping away at the empty tory stereotype then we will make giant strides.
* I please to say that the antibiotics seem to be doing their magic and we expect to have Nusrat back on her metaphorical (or possibly literal) soapbox at the weekend…..