The municipal year 2017/18 was not a good one to be a Conservative on Basildon Borough Council.
After maintaining administration in Basildon since 2002, local Tories watched with dismay when our majority disappeared in a UKIP deluge in 2014. We carried on in minority administration for a further three years, but last year a remarkable alliance between UKIP and Labour saw us enter opposition for the first time in 15 years.
Our refusal to join the new alliance, which was propped up by former UKIP councillors posing as independents, was met with derision at the time. We were criticised by all sides for being ‘anti-democratic’, laughed at during council meetings and forced to watch as councillors from other parties took credit for all our previous hard work. Suffice to say, I’ve had happier years in local government.
We were left the largest group, with 18 out of 42 seats, but still four seats short of a majority. When planning how to win back control of the Council, we had to take account of a number of factors. Firstly, Basildon Borough is broadly split into five different towns. The largest, Basildon New Town, has mostly been Labour territory until UKIP split the vote. Billericay has been staunch Tory ground for many years, whilst Wickford went UKIP in 2014 but has come back to the Tory fold in more recent elections. The final two towns, Laindon and Pitsea, truly are marginals, with them having returned councillors from all three parties in recent years.
When looking at our strategy, we needed to reclaim the two UKIP seats in Wickford, and then win at least two of the seats in other areas, all whilst ensuring our base in Billericay remained onside.
This was made much easier for us by the UKIP/Labour Coalition’s decision to pursue a Local Plan which was wildly unpopular in Tory-leaning areas. Rarely can such a nakedly political plan have been passed to Government. Instead of trying to distribute development throughout the Borough, they dumped it all into areas they knew would be unlikely to support them in elections, leaving more marginal areas alone.
This allowed us to concentrate our efforts in Laindon and Pitsea. There were three seats up for grabs, and winning them would be enough for us to take control. We were aided greatly in this by the naïve decision of the 28-year-old Labour leader, Gavin Callaghan, to hand control of the Local Plan to his UKIP colleagues.
UKIP dumped a large development into Pitsea. Whilst this aided their election hopes (indeed, one of their former councillors, standing as an Independent, was able to win a landslide in the previously safe Conservative seat of Langdon Hills, solely on their ability to prevent development in that particular area), it badly damaged Labour’s brand in Pitsea and we exploited this on the doorstep and in literature. On the night, when the ballot boxes opened, it was obvious that those polling stations around development areas had come out strongly for us. We took both available seats, a result which cost Callaghan both his control of the Council and the leadership of his group.
In Laindon, we had a well-known local candidate, Jeff Henry, who was already the incumbent County Councillor. Labour made the bizarre decision to field on unknown against him, with no connection to the local area as far as we could see. Jeff won comfortably to give us 23 seats overall and a majority of 2.
There is now much work to do. The Coalition did a remarkable amount of damage in 12 months and there is much to try and unwind, starting with the deeply unfair Local Plan. Indeed, the workload is such that our previous leader, Phil Turner, stepped down to make way for Andrew Baggott, because Phil felt that the Leader of the Council would need to be able to work the post full-time to get everything done.
In summary, I believe our campaign succeeded because we campaigned on local issues, whilst Labour tried to put out a national message. We had better candidates with a higher local profile. We also benefited from poor decision making from the previous administration, which horrified our base and spooked many in the marginals.
Cllr Andy Barnes
Councillor for Laindon Park