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Lessons for Sunak on how to win

It is difficult to overstate the extent of last week’s local election disaster for the Conservatives.

But amid the deep Tory gloom there were two bright blue spots on the map.

Conservative councillors in Torbay, and in the Wyre Forest, were the only ones in England who managed to win control of councils from other parties last week.

That was an exceedingly rare achievement for a party that lost power in 48 authorities across the country.

So what lessons do these victorious Tories have for their embattled national leader Rishi Sunak as the countdown to the next general election begins?

(Photo: Maciej Olszewski/Getty)

The Conservatives took control of Torbay Council on Devon’s English Riveria, which had been run by a coalition of Liberal Democrats and Independents, gaining four seats in the process.

The authority’s new Conservative leader Dave Thomas believes the chief reason for their success is that they went “back to basics.”

He said: “In the summer of last year we hand delivered over 80,000 surveys that had a really local feel, asking our residents where they think the council is, what are the main issues for you, and what do you feel you’re getting and not getting from the council? And we had thousands and thousands of responses.”

On the back of this councillors put together a local manifesto. “I think residents felt they’d become a hindrance to the council and we just wanted to tip the whole thing upside down and put residents back at the heart of everything we do,” said Cllr Thomas.

“We had lots of doorstep conversations and the interesting thing is without fail about 95 per cent of people we spoke to wanted to talk ‘local’. We managed to set a local agenda that people on the doorstep wanted to talk about.”

He said it meant they did not have to the same number of conversations “about the cost of living crisis, the energy crisis and inflation” that were happening elsewhere.

Cllr Thomas said focusing on a manifesto driven by local residents struck a chord with voters. “We had people saying to us, ‘we’re not Conservative voters. However, we really do like what you’re offering so we’re going to lend you our support.’”

Dave Thomas Conservative leader of Torbay Council Picture -
Dave Thomas Conservative leader of Torbay Council (Photo: Supplied)

It’s one thing winning a local election on specific issues, but are there any lessons the prime minister can glean from Torbay’s success? “In 2019, Torbay Conservatives lost control of the council. People were talking about national issues and they wanted to give us a bloody nose. However, six months later in the general election it was a very different situation,” said Cllr Thomas.

“Rishi has come out with his five point plan and providing he can deliver on that then I think we’ll see a very different result across the whole of the country – everything to play for.”

If Torbay was a welcome win for the Tories, their victory in Wyre Forest, a rural heartland in Worcestershire, came with an even bigger margin.

The Conservatives took full control of Wyre Forest District Council, gaining six new councillors and taking 20 seats of the 33 available. Here, the Independents were the biggest losers, though Wyre Forest’s Tory group leader, councillor Marcus Hart, believes the fact they produced a manifesto pledging to tackle key local issues was crucial to their success.

Marcus Hart conservative leader of Wyre Forest District Council Picture from Wyre Forest District Council
Marcus Hart Conservative leader of Wyre Forest District Council (Photo: Supplied)

“Frankly, the trick was sheer hard work, running a positive campaign and running the right message and being able to buck a national trend in what was in reality not a very good day for the Conservatives,” he said.

“We campaigned that we were going to restore pride in the district and we were going to prioritise the things that are important to residents, because let’s face it district councils – they empty the bins, they sweep the streets, they pick up the litter, they cut the grass – and now we also focus on economic regeneration and the vibrancy of our town centres.”

So why did this tactic work in Wyre Forest and not elsewhere? “I’m sure there are many other associations and district council areas that do campaign hard, but I also know of councils, of which I won’t name, where they don’t campaign as hard as Wyre Forest.”

If there are any positives party leaders can take from the elections it is the popularity of the prime minister himself, says Cllr Hart. “The one thing Rishi has done, and I spoke to hundreds of voters on the doorsteps, is that over the last 18 months with all of ‘Borisgate’, the purported lockdown parties at Downing Street, and then Liz Truss coming in quickly and then going, he has restored an element of stability.”

Cllr Hart said the challenge now for the prime minister was to ensure he gets the economy back on track and drives down inflation, “because clearly, even though it was a local election, there were plenty of people who were prepared to say, ‘we just can’t support the Conservatives because of some of the national issues’”.

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