The politics column - Martin Bright finds a surprise in Hackney
A former teacher from east London has convinced top Tories he has the key to the party's renewal. Hi
During conference, a new Conservative hero emerged. Before the seaside jamboree, few had heard of him outside Tory circles and, even inside the party, there were those who had their doubts; unconvinced that his limited record justified the faith people were putting in him. But by the end this pretender had persuaded a small group around him that he had the key to the renewal of a once great force in British politics. That man's name is Eric Ollerenshaw.
Unlike that other new star, David Cameron, Ollerenshaw did not go to Eton and would struggle to deliver a platform speech without notes. Yet this grammar school-educated former history teacher and local councillor from east London was appointed by Michael Howard to one of the most important jobs in the party. As co-coordinator of Conservative strategy on cities and diversity, it is his role to win back ground in urban Britain, a prerequisite if the Tories are to have any hope of forming the next government.
It may seem pure arrogance to appoint a middle-aged white man to the post. Certainly, the task is immense. The Tories have been wiped out in England's inner cities, as well as in Wales and Scotland, while the Liberal Democrats have become the main alternative to Labour in many urban areas. So is Ollerenshaw equal to the task? A failed parliamentary candidate who has also lost his seat on the London Assembly, he may prove another disastrous Tory appointment. His long-time opponent, Hackney's first elected (Labour) mayor, Jules Pipe, says: "I find it astonishing that the Tories are so bereft of political talent that they are looking to Eric to provide them with answers. Developing a national strategy on the basis of one freak council by-election result would be ludicrous."
Ollerenshaw's strength is not blue-skies thinking or big ideas. His solution is to target those who feel let down by the government with a grindingly simple message: the new Labour dream has turned to dust and in its place stands a monument to waste, spin and broken promises. This message should be delivered not just to the Tory heartlands, but also to working-class voters in the inner cities. "We are dealing with people on council estates who have been promised the earth," he tells me. "Yet all they have seen are glossy leaflets and consultants. The London glitterati haven't worked out that things are happening on the ground." Ollerenshaw cites Coventry, Walsall and Dudley, where the Tories have taken control of councils, as examples of the start of a revival.
The real prize for him, however, was not whole councils in the former industrial towns of the West Midlands, but a small council ward in London. Earlier this year, the Conservatives won Queensbridge ward on Hackney Council in a by-election. It gained no coverage in the national press, but the symbolism of the victory could not have been more powerful. It was here that Tony Blair began his political career, when he was elected Queensbridge Labour ward secretary in 1981. His house at 59 Mapledene Road, a fine three-storey Victorian villa, backed on to the garden owned by another figure in the birth of new Labour, Charles Clarke.
Queensbridge is a classic London ward, where houses of the affluent middle class adjoin council estates containing pockets of serious poverty and deprivation. The Holly Street estate, close to Blair's old house, influenced the future Labour leader's thinking. During a return visit in 1998 he said that he remembered residents were so embattled that canvassers had to speak to them through their letter boxes.
Now Holly Street is in Tory hands and is represented by Andrew Boff, a 41-year-old IT consultant, who once stood against Steven Norris to be Tory candidate for London mayor. His campaign concentrated on a multimillion-pound plan to rebuild the borough's town hall. The Tories seized the ward, not with the affluent Mapledene Road vote, but by concentrating on Holly Street and other municipal housing. "Our vote is in the council estates," says Boff. "In Queensbridge ward we didn't target the moneyed middle classes at all. My core vote was the working-class people who are badly served by Labour."
Boff and Ollerenshaw's political rivals in Hackney dismiss the Queensbridge by-election as a blip, where an energetic candidate was able to take advantage of exceptional local circumstances. The seat brings the total of Tory seats on the council to ten, respectable for a poor inner-London borough, but a long way from gaining overall control of the council from Labour, which still has a majority of 31.
The real test will be next year's local council elections, when the Tories will target further city seats across the country. Labour may regret dismissing men such as Ollerenshaw if their opponents make further inroads. Some Labour figures have already suggested abandoning "urban intellectuals" in the battle for the votes of Middle England. But it would be political suicide to abandon the urban working classes to the Tories.