Picking a winner? The Conservatives’ campaign for the City of Durham begins

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It’s Time For Change is the campaign slogan of Luke Allan Holmes, councillor for Spennymoor and Conservative general election candidate for the City of Durham constituency (including Durham University). The slogan is usually associated with the party not currently in government – indeed Labour’s 2019 manifesto was called It’s Time For Real Change – and its use by Cllr Holmes’ campaign may reflect an attempt to mirror the strategy pursued by the Conservatives to present Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as a ‘change’ candidate, a reset in leadership style after Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.

This strategy could face difficulty in persuading voters that the Conservatives represent a change, however. Although the incumbent City of Durham MP is Labour’s Mary Foy, the Conservatives have been in government for nearly 14 years. Here lies the greatest obstacle to the ‘change’ slogan: successfully winning over voters. If voters are unhappy with the current national or local situation, there is a strong possibility they may blame the party in government rather than their own local MP. The slogan’s reinforcement of the ‘change’ narrative in the election then has the potential to backfire on the Conservative campaign, rather than help it.

However, the Durham campaign seems equally inclined to focus on more local policies and isn’t necessarily following the party’s national campaign verbatim. Cllr Holmes’ campaign website highlights his desire to ensure a “secure and prosperous environment for all” and highlights his achievements in education as a councillor. Neither education nor the environment were one of the five promises Rishi Sunak made to the public one year ago, indicating that the Conservatives did not necessarily view them as integral to their election campaign and winning over voters. Cllr Holmes’sdecision to include them in his campaign then could suggest an appeal to the large minority of Durham University students and academics in the electorate. The education focus could also be influenced by general concerns over high countrywide school absence rates and the recent RAAC crisis.

A recent YouGov poll suggested the Conservatives face a landslide defeat at the next general election, with polls regularly giving the Labour Party a 20 point lead. Polls like this have the potential to seal the fate of already-downbeat Tory activists, who may feel little reason to campaign for a party whose national picture looks battered.

Luke Allan Holmes has a strong local background, having been born, raised and educated in County Durham, and this seems highly likely to strengthen his image with local voters as a candidate who holds a connection to the area. His campaign is also keen to emphasise his work as a councillor to improve the local Whitworth Park Academy from an Inadequate to Good Ofsted rating, something he has achieved, and his successful lobbying for £20mn in ‘levelling up’ funding for his area.

Non-incumbent candidates… often struggle

These achievements are likely to aid his campaign as non-incumbent candidates, and oppositions more generally, often struggle against incumbents who can use their record to argue for re-election. By already holding an elected office, Cllr Holmes can then use these past achievements in the role to give voters an impression of what he may focus on once in Parliament.

However, Cllr Holmes’ campaign faces major headwinds. From 1992-2019, Labour held every County Durham constituency until the Conservatives won four out of seven seats in their 2019 landslide, promising ‘Levelling Up’ and to ‘Get Brexit Done’. Even with a landslide, however, the Conservatives failed to win the City of Durham constituency, which has elected Labour MPs since 1935. Although Labour suffered a 13.4% swing away, the Liberal Democrats and Brexit Party instead gained most of this, indicating the Conservatives still struggle to gain widespread support in the constituency. With Reform UK promising to stand in every seat, it also seems possible that the lingering pro-Brexit vote will be split again, denying the Conservatives the ability to capitalise on it.

Cllr Holmes’ campaign may be strengthened by his council work, but still looks set to struggle. Given the City of Durham’s historic electoral support of Labour and the consistent struggles of the national Conservative Party, as shown in the polls, Cllr Holmes faces an uphill battle to become the first Conservative MP for the City of Durham in nearly 100 years, with Mary Foy looking secure in her position.

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