For this week's newsletter I traveled to Essex to talk to a local independent party challenging the Tories.
Hello local politics fans. For my #RightWingWatch columns this week, I looked at last weekend’s gathering of right wingers in central london at an event hosted by James Delingpole and Maajid Nawaz. I also wrote about the IEA’s opposition to windfall taxes on oil companies making record profits. On election day, I also drove to Essex for a special report on the challenge of local political parties to traditional Tory heartlands.
The only way to South Essex is the A13
Driving to Canvey Island, in the Castle Point constituency of South Essex, is supposed to take an hour and a half from where I live in London, but the traffic crawls out of the city and it takes me a little over two hours in the end.
I had decided to go to one of the safest Tory areas near London which was having council elections, to gauge the mood and to understand why other national parties do so poorly in this area that the main opposition comes in the form of two independent groups, the People’s Independent Party (PIP) and the Canvey Island Independent Party (CIIP).
I met Steven Cole and Russell Savage of the PIP by the Benfleet Social Club, just north of Canvey Island. Steven is a former black cabbie who was approached by both UKIP (who he didn’t want to have anything to do with) and the Tories when he started campaigning on local issues, but decided to start his own independent party instead. Savage tells me that “we are going to win this council, there’s no doubt about it.”
Savage was correct. The PIP gained six council seats, meaning they will have control of the council if they can form a coalition with the CIIP. The area is clearly very conservative, and yet people are dissatisfied with the way the council is run.
Discontent with a plan which could see construction on greenbelt land, and cosy relationships between developers and councillors which saw former Tory council leader Norman Smith suspended from his party in 2021 may have combined with national issues like Partygate to depress the Conservative vote.
“We are stuck in the middle of Southend and Basildon and Thurrock. We’re on the Thames corridor. 90% of the workforce commutes to London”, Steven Cole tells me. Savage tells me that the local trains are at capacity, as are many of the roads, and the local health centre.
Cuts to the council’s budget could explain the desire to build almost 100,000 new homes in the area, as the council aims to replace lost funding with section 106 money from granting developers permission to build.
Cole tells me that “Conservatives pride themselves on managing money. We’re in debt. For the last 10 years, every budget we know we’ve got a shortfall, but ‘things are in hand, we’re cutting back here and there’. Why do we need all these houses? Why do Conservatives choose to build so much on our greenbelt?”
“We’ve seen general apathy, moreso from the hardcore Conservative voters, they’re so despondent with their own party that it’s more of a case of ‘I’m not even gonna bother voting’, rather than voting for us necessarily. Labour would never get elected in this borough. You won’t see a Labour candidate outside any polling station”, Savage tells me.
Labour won the seat in 1997, and Cole tells me he voted Labour then even though his family was traditionally Conservative. However, the MP elected, Christine Butler, was from Lancashire, and didn’t impress locals with her knowledge of the area. Likewise, the current Tory MP, Rebecca Harris, is from Berkshire.
“Labour just walked away”, Cole says. I suggest that their lack of effort in places like this contributes to the sense that the party is an urban, metropolitan focused political movement. “Definitely”, both Savage and Cole agree.
I follow Steven to a local polling station, where a bored looking Tory teller is sitting outside. Local resident Tony and his wife stop to talk to Steven, who they are supporting. Tony says he is concerned by “more housing, which will impound the local area with traffic, more cars on the road, more fumes. We want houses built on brownbelt in this area and the greenbelt left as greenbelt because it’s important for the future.”
I ask Tony if he’s a traditional Tory voter: “When it comes to government, because we are house owners and we’ve worked for ourselves over the years, the Tories are basically for people who work hard for themselves. If it comes to government issues we will vote Conservative, but when it comes to local elections, we believe [PIP] are the party that will represent us and the issues that need to be addressed locally.”
Next I go to meet Andrew Sheldon, the leader of the Conservative group on the council. He is waiting for me in the carpark of a pub back in the centre of Benfleet. An affable young Tory who was elected in 2010 at the age of 22, Andrew seems reasonably confident in his party’s chances, and a number of passing motorists honk in support as I interview him.
“I’m feeling very positive, certainly for myself. I think there’s a lot of work to get our message out there, a lot of concerns about overdevelopment. There’s been a lot of cheeky tricks by the opposition, certainly. I was knocking on a door in my ward earlier and I got asked ‘I hear your son got taken out for dinner by developers on Saturday’, and I said I doubt it madam, he’s 5’.
“Social media’s had a big influence on this campaign, there’s been a lot of misinformation from the opposition”, Sheldon says. “These days a lot of people get their news from social media. I think it’s good because it gets people talking about it, but on the other hand, I think if people hear a statement 8 times, it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, people start to believe it, and we’ve struggled from that. There’s been a lot of allegations about me and how we voted on the Local Plan that simply aren’t true.”
I asked if the national picture had depressed the Tory vote. “I think on the whole people love Boris around here, this is proper blue collar Conservative country and the vast majority of doors I’ve knocked on people have been more interested in Keir Starmer and Beergate.”
When Johnson last visited in 2019, Sheldon says the area had “the highest percentage Conservative vote in the country”, but that this fell off in 2021 due to local issues. “We’re not going to lose heavily tonight, we’re going to win”, Sheldon said.
Sheldon was due for disappointment, however, as his council seat fell to the People’s Independent Party.
As I was leaving town, I stopped to take a photo of the big Conservative Club that sits at the entrance to Benfleet. James Cutler, another Conservative councillor invited me inside, and I had a lively debate with him and another colleague for about an hour. Despite our differences, there was something nice about having an actual in person discussion with Conservatives, rather than a point scoring match on social media.
On Friday I called Steven Cole to hear his reaction to the result. “We were looking at four but we gained six, and we lost one seat we were contesting by 40 votes, so we’ve shown what the party is for”, Cole told me.
“I’m ecstatic, we can really truly, now, at last, make change. We are gonna save the greenbelt and that’s the end of it. We have over 200 brownfield sites to work with and we are not going to sacrifice our greenbelt, one bit of it.”
“The whole reason why we called it the People’s Independent Party was so that we could unite all the independents throughout the country and become a major force in local politics, and get MPs to work for us rather than corporate giants who have bankrolled them.”
One of the first things on Cole’s list is to ask Castle Point MP Rebecca Harris, who has a government role as a whip in the Treasury, whether she was fined for attending any Downing Street parties. So far the MP has refused to comment.
John Lubbock leads on the Right-Watch project at Left Foot Forward
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