Next Year's Locals will be very Different

In an alternate universe, at the beginning of May, we would have had local elections. Boris' first electoral test after the momentous general election victory in December.

I would have been up for re-election for my District Council seat in Epping Forest and I was feeling cautiously optimistic. Before lockdown, my campaign was already in full swing and I had been out supporting colleagues across the district. I felt that our local message was cutting through and the national picture was helping in galvanising our support.

Local electioneering in 2020 was in stark contrast with the awful experience during the local elections last year, which fell at the height of Brexit paralysis. With Brexit now done and the government working to deliver upon it's 'levelling-up' agenda, there was a real sense of positivity and optimism on the ground - the Boris bounce in action! Our local team of activists were raring to go and looking forward to the final weeks of the campaign. Alas, the 2020 local elections were not to be and six weeks into lockdown they seem like a distant memory.

When we emerge from lockdown, we will come out to a different world. The Coronavirus pandemic will have a profound effect on every aspect of our lives. The reality is that next year's local elections will be fought in a different way and along different battle lines.

On a practical level, social distancing is likely to prevail for months to come. Therefore, we will have to alter the way we campaign. Whilst I am a big believer in the traditional methods of campaigning and personally can't wait to get back out canvassing, for the foreseeable future associations will have no choice but to adopt a more modern approach. Less door knocking, more online posts and digital activity. Leaflets will be vital, but due to decreased fundraising activity, some associations may be limited as to how much material they can put out.

During this time, we mustn't lose the personal touch. Activists, candidates and councillors must be more interactive and ensure they are listening. In recent weeks I have trialled online surgeries - to ensure as a local representative I am still speaking with residents. Also, I have increased the level of information shared across social media channels, to ensure local people are kept informed.

This era of COVID campaigning should be looked at as an opportunity for associations to adapt and ensure they are equipped for the 21st century by learning new methods of reaching voters.

The biggest challenge campaigners will face, is somewhat unknown at present. Whilst it is inevitable that COVID will have a profound effect on our national and local politics, it is currently difficult to predict how this will materialise. Therefore, politicians across the board will have to be reactive to the new challenges and issues faced.

Strong foundations have been laid by this Conservative Government, who have dealt with this crisis competently, with a proactive economic response and preventing the NHS from being overwhelmed. It is my view, the public appreciates that the government is battling the unknown and has done well in difficult circumstances. In the coming weeks, they will set the route to recovery.

Locally, at the height of the crisis, politics has put to one side, with whole communities coming together to coordinate the response on the ground and share information with residents. One positive is that this health crisis has unearthed a sense of community spirit.

However, inevitably as time passes and we move out of the stringent lockdown phase, opposition parties will become increasingly partisan. Political campaigners must ensure they effectively communicate the work being done and set out a positive, inclusive and realistic path for COVID recovery.

As we look forward to the Local Elections in 2021, to be successful, the Conservatives must run a modern campaign, utilising digital tools to reach out to the electorate in new and different ways. Continuing the tone of neighbourliness in our communications in the months to come. Local Conservatives Teams must set a new narrative and a positive vision for how local communities can survive and thrive post-COVID and deliver on it.

Holly Whitbread, South of England Coordinator for Conservative Progress and Councillor, Epping Forest

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