Emily Barley is the political vice-president of the Rotherham Conservative Federation and was the Conservative Party’s candidate for Wentworth and Dearne in the 2019 general election.
On Thursday next week, voters will go to the polls across England in a series of local elections. While important everywhere, the Conservative Party will no doubt have its sights set on the areas that make up the crumbling red wall, closely monitoring whether the new Conservative voters who changed in 2019 have stayed with us.
Rotherham, where I am one of three Conservative candidates in Hoober Ward, is one of those places. After decades of Labor rule, and the area becoming world famous for all the wrong reasons, the Conservatives are seriously challenging this time. Our team of candidates is strong, local to their departments, and since the restrictions were removed to allow campaign work, it has been away from home knocking on doors and talking to residents.
Thousands of talks in recent weeks have shown that the Conservative vote has held up well since the general election, where we won a constituency, Rother Valley, and reduced Labor majorities in the other two that make up the district. Even more positively, we’ve been finding new switches – people whose allegiance to Labor was seriously tested during the Corbyn years and then completely broken with Starmer’s out-of-contact choice as leader.
We are told that the party they supported for decades lost them and that while the Conservative party has not yet won their loyalty, they feel closer to us than anyone and will vote Conservative in May.
So far, so good.
But I’m afraid we have a developing problem: what I’m hearing at the door about what people want from their government doesn’t seem to match what the government thinks they want.
In many ways, the easiest part was Brexit. 67.9% of the population living in the Rotherham area voted to leave the EU, giving clear instruction to Westminster. But even though Brexit has taken place, the story is not over yet, and this is because the message of “regaining control” meant more to the people here than just leaving the EU.
For them, the vote to leave the EU was an expression of confidence in the UK’s ability to succeed in the world as an independent nation, and it was a vote for another type of government, more in touch and with smarter political decisions. Great Britain. Most importantly, the way they feel about Britain’s right and ability to be independent is also how they feel about themselves.
This is a resounding way of saying that people here just don’t like being told what to do, how to think, and how to enjoy their lives.
One area where the government is totally disconnected from what its new voters want is the nanny state. I live and campaign in a part of the world where people value their right, as adults, to choose for themselves when they eat junk food, smoke and drink.
So I am concerned that we are willing to repeat the mistakes of the Labor Party – who thought that voters in these areas were easy to understand, easy to win and not smart enough to decide for themselves.
The Covid-19 has changed a lot and you can be forgiven for thinking that the way the people of Rotherham have accepted authoritarian intrusion into their lives means that they are now more open to being told what to do, but that this is not the case. As reasonable and balanced Yorkshire men and women, they understand what a crisis is and have made an exception that will soon end.
As the crisis fades, there is an opportunity to move forward in a different way, demonstrating that conservatives understand and respect people’s desire to regain control. A change of approach is needed, far from telling people what to do and giving them lectures on the consequences of their actions in the way Boris and his government have felt too comfortable. Instead, we should provide information to people, show them alternatives and their benefits, make healthier decisions easier, and leave decisions in their hands.
This means putting aside any suggestions for bullying tactics, such as junk food taxes or minimum prices per unit of alcohol, and it means taking advantage of the encouraging and useful tone of the NHS Better Health program.
There is also the opportunity to move away from the EU’s outdated approach to e-cigarettes, reforming volumes and strengths and looking at the best way to embrace new technologies.
Breaking the EU in this regard would be one more advantage of Brexit and would go down especially well in Rotherham, where smoking rates are higher than the national average and people are fed up with talking about their habit.
As things stand at the moment, the Conservative Party’s relationship with the new Conservative voters is more precarious than it seems. The polls look good as we enjoy the protection of the goodwill of the people, but if we repeat the Labor Party’s disrespect by telling them how they should live their lives and not recognizing the full implications of their desire to recover control, we run the risk of driving them away. A new approach to public health is required, based on treating people as adults they are.