Why didn’t Cambridge Conservatives produce a manifesto for the local elections 2021?

Given that over 8,000 people voted for the party in the 2019 General Election, even their core voters deserve to know the basic thinking from the once mighty and all-conquering Cambridge Conservative Association.

In the years that followed WWII, the Cambridge Conservative Association continued its control of Cambridge Borough Council, as the chart by Keith Edkins and the late Colin Rosenstiel shows. And locally the names that they had were very well known. Harold and Cyril Ridgeon, Charles Kelsey Kerridge, Howard Mallett, Herbert Finbow – as far as their opponents were concerned, they may have been scoundrels but at least they’d heard of them! Well of course the locals had heard of them – a number of them ran well-known local businesses. Yes, *That* Ridgeons firm. (I’ll pull out the local radio advert from the early 1990s from some old tapes when I get round to it). Some were also past presidents of the Cambridge Rotary Club. The likes of Baroness Trumpington (as Cllr Mrs Jean Barker), Charles Kerridge, and Howard Mallett were well known fund-raisers for community and civic causes. That’s why the latter two had things named after them.

“Didn’t they set out their election pitches?”

Only through articles in the local press:

Whether you think that’s enough or not when compared to their opposing political parties, that’s your call. You can find details of the opposing candidates via https://whocanivotefor.co.uk/. For these elections I’m not making recommendations who to vote for. Rather, I’m encouraging people to think for themselves, come up with their own criteria on what they think is important, and judge the candidates against that list.

For some, the headlines on sleaze and corruption (See the News items by Transparency UK) within Boris Johnson’s administration might be a big deal. For others, this may simply be about local issues. But then Farmgate has been an ongoing issue which still has not been resolved. Does propriety matter in public office? See what the Committee for Standards in Public Life, created by former Huntingdon MP John Major when he was Prime Minister, has to say.

The Police and Crime Commissioner elections are also not without controversy – not least because the last Conservative PCC resigned following newspaper allegationsas did his deputy a year or so before. Their current candidate is the only one I can see who has put out a manifesto – you can read it here. Whether that accounts for the past few years of Conservative PCCs (all of the PCCs for Cambs & P’boro have been Conservative candidates). you’ll have to decide for yourselves. (I had a look at the past reports here).

“Is there nothing for the city?”

Not that I can find.

I had a look at their website

…and their top three policies are all outside the direct competency of Cambridge City Council. The Highways Authority is Cambridgeshire County Council, which was also responsible for the Cambridge Guided Busway, brought in under Conservative control of the County Council. While I would have preferred a Heavy Rail (as proposed originally by Cast.Iron) or Light Rail (such as the Cambridge Connect proposals), once it got going it worked reasonably well. Obviously there are a host of outstanding long term issues such as the wear and tear rates & deterioration of the concrete tracks happening much faster than the consultants had predicted. This is something that’s still subject to legal proceedings, along with the massive cost overruns.

As for identity politics…their most recent posts on Twitter date from 09 April (a month ago at the time of posting) and are not on local political issues.

“So what appears to be their biggest challenge?”

Lack of willing volunteers – an issue not unique to the Cambridge Conservatives. You only have to look to the north of the county to see Labour and the Liberal Democrats struggling to find activists and candidates in Fenland – even though this was a council that Labour held in the early 1990s. Furthermore, keep an eye on the Hartlepool by-election result. That constituency has only had four MPs since the 1960s, all Labour. The by-election was called after the last MP resigned in the face of allegations in the media. With Labour being seen to be the *local* political establishment, will dissatisfaction in the town lead to a change – irrespective of what the Conservatives have done nationally?

The CCA Annual Report – which they published online.

Click here and you can read it for yourself.

Enormously brave and transparent for them. to do this – I hope it hasn’t been posted in error because some of the stats would be interesting to compare with the other political parties – including number of members. Don’t worry, there isn’t anything in there that would have newspaper editors screaming ***Hold the front page***. Or anything that would be particularly useful to any of their opponents. It’s interesting to me as a local historian because it provides a snapshot of the state of the contemporary party in comparison to the decades & centuries gone by.

Today’s party has around 300 members, but no active branches according to their 2019/20 report. Compare that to this gathering from 1938 from the Cambridgeshire Collection.

The annual summer gatherings held by the borough & county (then covering only South Cambs) Conservatives would regularly draw in over 10,000 people, and have as their guest speaker a current or former senior Cabinet Minister – or even Prime Minister when Stanley Baldwin attended.

Fast forward to the present and they were only one candidate short of a full slate for this year’s Cambridge City Council elections. (You can see the names by party on Phil Rodgers’ spreadsheet of candidates). Again, struggling to find candidates to fill candidate vacancies is not an easy thing to do – especially in this abusive (online) atmosphere. Sadly abuse and even violence at election time is not new. The Victorian era was full of it. And Cambridge was one of the places where it happened regularly, though fortunately one of the last mobs that went around trashing the homes and businesses of their opponents was in 1885. And that was a Tory mob that carried out the violence – even though they won that year!

So…other than the furore over Mill Road Bridge which has gained them some votes and active supporters in Romsey Town – historically one of the most left-wing parts of Cambridge (hence the depressing yet utterly predictable outcome of graffitied election posters – it happened before with a different party back in 2014), as a constituency party I’ve not seen anything specific to Cambridge City Council.

Which is a shame because the drop down menu from Cambridge City Council’s homepage comes up with ***all of these responsibilities*** below:

And in the grand scheme of things, there are more than a few things they – or any opposition political party could say about much of the above.

The Cambridge Conservatives as an under-performing political party

Despite pulling in over 8,000 votes, the campaign by Harlow Councillor Russell Perrin in 2019 was the worst ever by the party in terms of percentage of the vote. That they were unable to select a local candidate also did not reflect well. Again, it’s not something unique to the Conservatives – you just have to look northwards in the county to find their opponents selecting candidates residing in/around Cambridge standing as party candidates in the constituencies in the north of the county.

Ironically, proportional representation or the additional member system that they have for the London Assembly (Where voters get two ballot papers – one to select a constituency member, and one to select a London-wide member, the latter selected as proportions of the total votes) would enable the Conservatives to be represented on Cambridge City Council. Such a system would also mean greater representation for their opposing parties in the district councils in the north of the county.

Despite all of the above, I concur with the analysis by Phil Rodgers on how Cambridge will vote. The built-in structural advantages that the Conservatives have enjoyed historically mean that the county-level elections are theirs to lose. The current system of local government was put in by Edward Health’s Government in the early 1970s, and successive governments have only tinkered at the edges. Gordon Brown’s Labour Government only realised far too late in the day that a restructure might be useful, and the restructures of Norfolk and Devon were swiftly reversed by the Coalition.

It may well be that the post-CV19 economic pressures force the hand of ministers as the post-1991 temporary system of council tax and business rates finally crumbles under the collapsing high street retail-based economies as firms find they can no longer compete with internet-based companies working out of out-of-town warehouses with much cheaper rents.

For me, it’s when those local government structures change that Cambridge’s Conservatives might see a reversal in their fortunes. But so long as central government gives local government more of the same, it’s likely that the Labour/Liberal dominance of Cambridge, and the Conservative dominance of Cambridgeshire will continue.

For those. of you interested in an intro to local government structures, Jessica Studdert (whom some of you will know locally) has written this guide.

Above – by Jessica Studdert.

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