The Conservative Party is facing a major challenge as it struggles to attract enough candidates for the upcoming local elections in May, reports the i newspaper (£). The challenge comes as Labour holds a consistent 23-point lead in the polls and members are reportedly expressing their concern about a potential “hammering”.
With nominations closing in early April, the recruitment process has been difficult, according to senior figures within the party. There is a possibility that “not even a full slate of candidates” will be fielded.
Last year, the Conservatives contested fewer seats in England and Wales compared to Labour, marking the first time in years that this has happened. The fear of a poor outcome in the election is deterring potential candidates from among the party faithful. The situation is dire in some regions, with local associations struggling to find “even paper candidates”.
Candidate shortage in Conservative heartlands
The shortage of candidates is not only a problem in Labour-dominated areas like Liverpool and Manchester, but also in traditional “Tory shires” such as in East Anglia. Former chair of the Hitchin and Harpenden local Conservative association, Matt Stephens, believes the “Tory brand” is coming to an end. “Do you want to be involved with the party now, or bide your time and see what emerges in two or three years’ time?”
The last time the Conservatives faced this issue was in the waning days of the John Major government, leading up to Tony Blair’s 1997 victory. The scandal-ridden party was thrashed in the local elections in 1995, losing over 2,000 councillors, mostly to Labour. The Conservatives lost yet more in 1996, leaving the party with an historically low 4,276 councillors across the country – putting them third behind the Liberal Democrats.
The Conservatives face a long-term demographic challenge. Their members are much older than the rest of the population. In the latest YouGov poll, the only age group where the Conservatives have a net lead is among those over 65, where Conservative voters outnumber Labour voters by 11%. But among the 18–24 year olds the gap is minus 49%.
According to Max Anderson of the centre-right Bright Blue think-tank, the next generation of politicians will come from the millennial generation. But if the Conservative Party does not offer substantial policies on housing or childcare, it is unlikely to attract young, talented candidates to its cause.
Public want a general election now
It comes as a Sunday Mirror poll revealed that nearly half of those who voted Conservative in 2019 now want a general election this year, which would sweep Rishi Sunak and the Conservatives from power. The survey also shows that four in ten voters would prefer to see Keir Starmer as PM with fewer than a third opting for Sunak.
The internal state of the party is concerning to some within its ranks, with one veteran MP stating that both the recent departure of Nadhim Zahawi and the sacking of chief executive Darren Mott have left the party in a mess. But perhaps a greater issue for voters is the conduct of the last two prime ministers. In a Sunday Times opinion piece, former Tory leader William Hague described Boris Johnson and Liz Truss as having been “overthrown amid chaos” (£) and accused them of “completely screwing things up”.
As the Conservative Party faces significant challenges in the lead up to the local elections, there is little chance they will have time to address their issues and stave off a drubbing in May. The only question is just how big it is going to be.