When the Prime Minister’s chief adviser, Steve Hilton, quits Downing Street in May, he’ll leave behind what he believes to be a mechanism to solve the Conservatives’ biggest electoral problem, which is their failure to win urban seats. On 3 May, ten of England’s largest cities will vote on whether to join London in having a directly elected mayor.
These mayoralties will, if the Conservatives play their cards right, provide a platform from which the party can rebuild its metropolitan appeal. Directly elected mayors could provide the accountability that local politics has so lacked in the postwar era. For the first time in generations, people might know who is running their city. There will be someone who has a mandate to get things done and the power to push reforms through the local bureaucracy.
As one urban Tory MP observes, ‘We have no chance of winning outright control of the council in my city. But we could — with the right candidate — win the mayoralty.’ As Boris Johnson has shown in London, charismatic Conservative mayoral candidates can appeal to parts of the electorate that the national party cannot reach.
Having elected mayors in cities will change the political landscape of Britain. Greg Clark, the cities minister and one of the main advocates of the policy, argues that ‘Britain will be governed completely differently by the end of 2012 than it was at the beginning of 2011.’ It would be easier to dismiss this as hyperbole had not the governing establishment resisted the policy so strongly. Civil servants, local government officers and councillors dislike the idea of mayors because it would disrupt the cosy relations between central government departments and their local government counterparts.
These new mayors will have the ability to wrest powers from Whitehall. They can take control of transport, social and housing policy if they want to. They offer the prospect of the urban renewal that England so desperately needs. They will move provincial cities away from simply blaming London for all their problems and on actually to dealing with them. A directly elected mayor is, for instance, our best chance of finding a 21st- century successor to Joseph Chamberlain in Britain’s sclerotic second city.
Alongside mayors, the coalition is planning another big change in the way Britain is governed: elected police and crime commissioners. In November, the public will be able to vote for who supervises their local police force. These commissioners will determine both how the force is run and what its priorities are. Nick Herbert, the policing minister who has pushed through this policy, would like to see them also given control of the criminal justice system in their region, but this is unlikely to happen straightaway.
Police and crime commissioners provide another electoral opportunity for the
Conservatives. As one strategist puts it, ‘it is a vote on the policy area where, despite Ken Clarke’s best efforts, our brand is still strongest.’ The hope is that voting for a Conservative police and crime commissioner could be the first step to voting for the party at a general election.
The early signs are that the Conservatives will field some impressive candidates. A former air chief marshal, Sir Clive Loader, will run for the Tory nomination in Leicestershire and the party is confident that several other military figures will come forward as candidates. The leadership expects Helen Newlove, the widow of Garry Newlove who was murdered by a group of drunken vandals in 2007, to be the party’s candidate in Cheshire.
But there is concern that the Conservatives have not yet unearthed the kind of candidates who could win in traditionally Labour areas. One person involved in the process complains that ‘Central Office just think it is another election. They don’t understand what these elections are going to be about.’
If party strategists believe that West Midland marginals will be crucial to the Conservatives winning a majority in 2015, then the best thing the party could do this year would be to ensure that it fields a compelling candidate in the West Midlands police commissioner election. But I understand that CCHQ is not paying much attention to this contest because it feels the party is unlikely to win it.
The need for strong Conservative candidates for city mayoralties is even more pronounced. The best way to win the May referenda is to show the public the type of people who would be interested in running for mayor: these votes will be lost if the electorate thinks that a mayor is just a council leader by another name with a bigger salary.
Hilton, Clark and the former deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine have been holding weekly meetings to work out how the referenda can be won. This trio, and Clark’s impressive parliamentary private secretary, Gavin Barwell, have concentrated on drumming up local support. They have been aided by various local chambers of commerce. In Birmingham, for example, the chamber has sent every household a leaflet urging a yes vote on 3 May.
Conservative MPs have also been asked to find candidates for the mayoral elections in their areas. But, as one MP points out to me, the best candidates for these jobs will not be politicians but businessmen or others with experience of turning round large organisations.
Later this month, the Prime Minister will hold a Downing Street reception to urge a yes vote in the ten cities on 3 May. The guest list is heavy on names from business, industry and sport and light on politicians. This gives us a sense of what kind of person No. 10 thinks would be an attractive mayoral candidate.
One of the things that made the 1997 defeat so devastating for the Conservative party was that they were wiped out from urban Britain. If the party takes elected mayors and police commissioners as seriously as it should, this won’t happen again. For even after a general election defeat, the Conservatives would still hold office in some of the great cities.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 17, 2012Tags: Politics