You might think there is no tougher ground for a Conservative candidate than the former Durham pit villages but, as my shoes are cooling from the campaign trail, I could not be happier with the result in the recent local elections.
Way back in January 2020, I received an email calling for County Council candidates for the 2021 local elections. I have been a member of the Conservative Party since the age of 16 but have never been actively involved. I like to take hold of interesting opportunities when they come along (and look for them when they don’t) so standing for election did not faze me; I immediately responded, saying I would be interested in standing.
My parents had met at a Conservative Association meeting, which resulted in my mother being a candidate in the 1994 local elections, while my father – who had previously worked at CCHQ – was her electoral agent, so I felt I had the support and advice to hand, should I need it. With this background, I had a good idea of what was involved!
I had just met with the chair of City of Durham and Easington Conservative Association to discuss fighting a seat when the pandemic struck. With the whole world on hold, things went quiet on the election front, but as the country crept towards normality by midsummer, we learned to adapt to the unusual circumstances and began to pull things together. After an online interview, I was delighted to be able to stand in the ward I’ve lived in since I was four years old.
I had imagined campaigning to involve months of door knocking, canvassing and meeting people around my ward. Due to the pandemic, however, there were restrictions on certain aspects of campaigning. In particular, as an unknown, I had to reimagine traditional ways of making my candidacy known, establishing my name and interacting with the electorate. In an effort to maintain momentum throughout, I had to diversify and use restriction-appropriate techniques. This meant that during the depths of lockdown and furlough, I spent much of my time connect calling and using local Facebook groups to engage with constituents’ issues.
During the times when restrictions were eased, my running mates and I were quick to get out and onto doorsteps to introduce ourselves to the community. After the latest easing of restrictions, we had a few weeks to speed up canvassing before postal votes went out, knowing this was a unique election and that the number of postal votes returned would be much higher than usual. It was great to be out in the community and talking to people face-to-face for the first time since deciding to stand as a candidate.
This was the first local election I was able to vote in, and it was a novel experience to be putting an X next to my own name. Being only 21 never dissuaded me from standing; as my driving instructor told me, we are the future, so why not start now? Quite a few members of City of Durham and Easington Young Conservatives also stood as candidates, and it was definitely encouraging to have peers who were going through the same experience. The Young Conservative Network was also a great support and helped in getting my name out.
Many of the people I spoke to while canvassing expressed how glad they were to see young people standing for election, and I never had a negative comment regarding my age; I was delighted to be the first runner-up in my ward, considering I was the youngest on the ballot paper.
People want to be listened to and their opinions taken into account. The message we took on board was that Durham’s Labour council had consistently failed to listen to residents and had invested inappropriately and spent wastefully. This Conservative government has successfully delivered Brexit, given much needed support via the furlough scheme and helped facilitate a quick and successful vaccine roll-out. Seeing the things that mattered to them being taken seriously, people felt like their needs were finally being met and their voices heard. This has had an impact at a local level; lifelong Labour voters are tired of Labour politicians who look down on them and the opinions they hold. They want change and want councillors who will listen to them, respect their opinions and act on issues accordingly.
Last week, for the first time in over a century, Labour lost its stranglehold on Durham County Council. This is significant. Durham is home to the Durham Miners’ Gala – the ‘Big Meeting’, if you’re local – which has been host to many a Labour leader. In my ward, we increased the Conservative vote by about 60%: this halved the Labour majority. We also were 60% ahead of the next opposition party.
After the count I went with my running mates to a local pub to celebrate the inroads we had made. Spotting our blue rosettes, one of the regulars shouted across to us, with his companions nodding in agreement, “I voted for yous like, you’re the new party of the working man!” I think he might have summed it up for us. Following on from the 2019 General Election, these local elections have shown us how the electoral map of the country may be changing for good, and I am proud to have had the opportunity to play my part.