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One of the regular excuses politicians trot out after their party has taken a by-election kicking is that ‘there were some local issues in play’. It’s a way of avoiding having to acknowledge that it is the party that has lost as much as the candidate, and therefore might not have a national policy platform that the electorate supports. 

We saw a new variation on this at the recent Uxbridge and South Ruislip election. The Conservatives squeaked to an unexpected victory even while losing by considerable margins in two by-elections held elsewhere on the same day. Conservative spokespeople and cheerleaders  took to the airwaves to proclaim that it was a local issue – their opposition to the unpopular expansion of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) –  that won the day. They are probably right – although I’m less than convinced that turning a majority of over 11000 to one of 495 in a decade is quite the victory many are proclaiming. 

Nonetheless, what happened in Uxbridge did buck the national trend and it seems that lessons have been learnt from it that will shape the Conservative’s strategy at the coming general election. The obvious observation that many have made is that the result is causing  Rishi Sunak to go on the attack against policies aimed at protecting the environment. The subsequent rolling back of net-zero commitments proves that there is something to this, but it is only part of the story.

The real lesson of the (slim) victory for the Conservatives in Uxbridge, is that it is possible for them to win despite national opinion where they can force constituency-level elections to focus on local, relatable issues with very immediate and tangible implications. Even better if they can be framed as referendum-style binary votes over specific measures, rather than questions of support for political parties. 

The announcement that the Prime Minister (eventually) made about HS2 at the Conservative conference laid the groundwork for similar campaigns in constituencies up and down the country. By replacing a big piece of national infrastructure with smaller commitments scattered across England, Sunak has given Conservative candidates material to run their own ‘local issues’ campaigns. So the question many will be putting to the electorate will not be ‘do you want the Conservatives to stay in government?’ but ‘do you want Labour to stop our area getting X?’ Given that polls are consistently suggesting the answer to the first question is already set, this looks to be the only viable option of the Conservatives remaining in power. 

However, the effectiveness of this strategy rests on a couple of things, both of which already look to be working against the Conservatives. First, the promises of the shiny new baubles in each constituency need to stand up. This already seems questionable. Second, the Labour Party has to walk straight into the trap by coming out against the decision to scrap HS2. And it’s looking like Keir Starmer is not playing

Nonetheless, the ‘local issues’ election will no doubt be what the Conservatives continue to push for next year. So what does this mean for those of us seeking to engage in policy debates in election year? Well, when it comes to engaging with MPs – including Ministers and opposition frontbenchers – it will be important to draw out the implications of whatever you are talking about in terms that relate to their constituencies.  So, if for example you are an academic looking to highlight research on a particular social issue, see if you can draw out metrics or other evidence that directly correlates to the population of the MP’s own constituency. Likewise, if you are hoping to win support for a particular area of innovation or a tech development, think about what it will mean for jobs and the quality of life in the constituency. Most importantly, if you have policy recommendations you are hoping to win support for, think carefully about how MPs will explain that position to their own constituents. 

There is a growing consensus that the Labour Party already has the next election in the bag. I’m a little less certain. A lot can happen in the months to come and  – if effectively run – the local issues strategy could make the difference in lots of constituencies. What is certain though is that the election year will see all MPs prioritise the immediate sensibilities of their own constituents above all other concerns.