Battered Conservatives hold inquest into local election losses
Oliver Cooper set to run for leadership as party loses Town Hall seats to Labour and the Lib Dems
10 May, 2018 — By Richard Osley
Don Williams lost his seat at last week’s elections
CONSERVATIVES have been urged to “rebuild” their party at a local level in the wake of election losses in Camden.
The surrender of five seats has cut the party back to their smallest group of councillors at the Town Hall since 1994. It comes less than a year after the Tories were thrashed in the previously marginal Hampstead and Kilburn parliamentary ward at Theresa May’s snap general election, where Labour claimed a majority of more than 15,000.
While the party held on to its fortress wards of Hampstead Town, and Frognal and Fitzjohns, it shipped all three seats in Swiss Cottage and lost two to the Liberal Democrats in Belsize. This was despite selecting its candidates months before any of the other parties and producing the longest manifesto.
Don Williams, the party’s finance spokesman who was among the losers in Swiss Cottage, said in the early hours of Friday: “I am disappointed, but I feel we have to rebuild the party locally.”
Some insiders complained of a campaign which became disjointed as a series of candidates pulled out before polling day, leaving a search for replacements. Differences between councillors and candidates, meanwhile, have bubbled under the surface about what the party’s strategy should be against the Labour council and that familiarly divisive issue: Brexit.
While some candidates threw themselves whole-heartedly into the task, meanwhile, sources inside the party say that others did not have the appetite for the draining, long hours required in the final run-in of a campaign. In contrast, Labour were able to swamp key wards with more manpower.
At the same time, the Conservatives double-backed on Hampstead Town ward, where seats have been lost to the Lib Dems in the past, to make sure there were no surprise losses there.
An internal inquest into what went wrong will continue at the party’s annual general meeting on Monday when councillor Oliver Cooper is expected to be named as the party’s new leader.
Oliver Cooper was re-elected in Hampstead
He has expressed an interest in the role and the arithmetic within the Conservative ranks suggests he would beat current leader, Councillor Gio Spinella in a head to head.
Historically, the Tories have tried to keep these machinations within their group as private and bloodless as possible with local organisers keen to “avoid a fight” over the top job.
Cllr Spinella, who took over when Claire-Louise Leyland announced she was quitting the Town Hall ahead of the elections, said: “The role of leader is not a God-given right, and members have every right to choose who they want.”
Cllr Cooper did not respond to requests for comment.
Cllr Spinella’s supporters, some of whom did not win seats at the election, say that he is being made a “scapegoat” for last week’s results and that the narrative that he was only ever meant to be a “caretaker leader” until the outcome of the elections was known is unfair.
The party’s performance at the ballot box is in sharp contrast to the confidence buzzing around the local party when Jeremy Corbyn was first elected as leader of the Labour Party – a development which led Cllr Spinella to write an open letter thanking Labour for handing his party victory in the next election.
Last March, Jacob Rees-Mogg told the party at a key Hampstead fund-raiser that it was “a remarkable time to be a Conservative” due to the “pygmy nature of our opponents”. Three months later, his party lost its parliamentary majority.
Asked to explain the results of the polls in Camden, Cllr Spinella said: “The truth is, there has been something of an organisational failure of the party which has caught up on us because of the number of elections we’ve had to fight. There’s been one every year, and the fact is we don’t have the strong reserve of manpower that the Labour Party can call on to replenish itself after each one.”
He said there had been an internal investigation into the poor performance at last year’s general election in London where local campaign teams in places like Camden felt they were undermined by central office, but he added: “It’s only been 10 months, so not enough time to rebuild and replenish.”
Cllr Spinella said the party did not regret fielding Leave-voting candidates such as Cllr Cooper and Henry Newman, who were elected, and Calvin Robinson.
“Henry’s views are well known and he outpolled me by 40 or so votes,” he said. “That said, the Labour Party did make it personal with Calvin and made direct attacks on where he stood on Brexit.” He added: “We’ve been this low before, in 1994, and the very next election we came right back.”