James Heale James Heale

The problem with the Tories’ ‘local heroes’

James Heale has narrated this article for you to listen to.

You know the Conservative party is in trouble when it does not dare use its name on leaflets. Instead, it took a two-pronged approach in the last two general elections: a presidential campaign for the national media and local politics for the doorstep. With the Tories now 20 points behind Labour, it seems the strategy for next year’s general election is to once again go easy on the Conservative brand and emphasise the local-hero credentials of the candidates. All they need is to find some local heroes.

It’s not just that local candidates are seen as more attractive, the barriers to outsiders have been fortified

‘Voters want someone who is going to fight for them and that’s an easier conversation to have if they are a local resident,’ says one newly picked Tory candidate. It’s a calculation that associations are making across the country. The journalist Michael Crick has been monitoring selections as part of his Tomorrow’s MPs project; he calculates that nearly two-thirds of Tory nominees are current or former councillors. All politics is local in 2023. MPs are expected not just to live in their constituency but spend their week on its casework. ‘We’ve gone from legislators to super-councillors,’ says one senior Tory.

Whereas David Cameron’s team spent years finding and pairing ‘A-list’ candidates with winnable seats for the 2010 and 2015 elections, the snap elections of 2017 and 2019 meant Tory HQ had to rush to find people and often parachuted in outsiders. Recent SW1 psychodramas, the defenestration of Boris Johnson and the swift replacement of Liz Truss by the man she defeated a month earlier in a grassroots vote have left Tory members wary of the ‘creatures of Westminster’.

‘I failed! Does that mean I get a peerage in the Liz Truss honours?’

Members’ enthusiasm for non-Westminster candidates can partly be explained by the main threat in many formerly safe seats: the Liberal Democrats, masters of local politics.

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