The 2014 Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham was brimming with fringe events. One attendee remarked that think tanks and advocacy groups are more inclined to organise activities at conferences of the parties in government, adding that, “The Conference is more fun when we’re governing”. In the midst of the activity, and through the handy help of Twitter as a communication tool, I met James Heappey, the Conservative candidate for Wells, a seat the party needs to win to secure an overall majority in the next Parliament.
James described the liveliness of the Conference as “invigorating”. Not only did the assembly of the party provide an opportunity to learn about new policies to pitch on doorsteps in Wells, but also a chance “to grab government ministers, to grab those who advise government ministers, and to talk to them specifically about the issues which are affecting the patch.”
Infrastructure is one of those issues James cites as particularly pressing in the constituency, describing the area’s infrastructure as “someway short of that enjoyed by other parts of the country.” On the issues of broadband, road access, mobile phone signal, and rail connections, the Conservative candidate stressed his desire to push for further developments, informing me of the advocacy he had already undertaken at the Conference: “This morning I had a chat with BT, talking about broadband issues. There’s a real opportunity here at the Conference to tackle issues which would normally take a lot of letters and phone calls if you were doing them remotely.”
Infrastructure is important for James because the “infrastructure is the skeleton around which the economy fleshes out. The real challenge for Wells, which is just over the hills from the Bristol and Bath commuter belt, is that we have an economy of our own.”
Standing as the Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Wells in the 2015 General Election is the first time James has stood to be a MP. Having served in the army and grown up in the area, James spoke of his reasons for wanting to be a MP, “I think it’s that combination of a desire to serve, a sense that you have some kind of experience that, and a real desire to do something for the community.”
Although critical of the scandals which have brought elements of British politics and members of the British political class into disrepute during the last five to ten years, James was quick to defend the primary ambitions of candidates and politicians. “For all of the political differences, most people who seek to go into politics are actually doing it for the right reasons. They’re guided by a sense that they can help their communities.”
But to counteract any lingering doubt among voters that aspiring politicians are only self-interested, James spoke of the need of candidates to speak their minds. “I think that the way to fight a campaign, as far as I can tell, is to get out there and tell people what you believe in, give people a positive vision for what you as the MP are going to do. Don’t fall into the traps of professional politicians by framing your answers in the context of what the other side would do and speak up for yourself.”
Such a strategy has had a positive effect on his campaign’s organisation and infrastructure. James cites his straight-talking attitude for the building up of a team of 550 active participants, with “many more besides who are willing to put up posters.” He argues that talking directly with voters is the way to win them over, even without having to agree on every issue. He remarked, “It’s amazing the number of people who at the end of the conversation will say ,‘Do you know what? I’ve never had a politician knock on my door, I’ve certainly never had someone knock on the door and answer a question that I asked them without first wanting to know what I think so that the candidate will try and agree with me. I am going to vote for you.’”
Speaking of the rise of UKIP’s popularity in the country, James explained that, “I think that UKIP’s success has been due to that sort of professional politician spin and a belief that no one really answers the question.” He also argued that “there is a tendency of politicians to say things like ‘If you don’t vote for me, you’ll end up with this politician with this party’. So the arguments that politicians make is that we’re the least bad. And I think what we should be saying is ‘this is our vision, this is positive about what we believe.’” This remark is poignant given Cameron’s “Go to bed with Miliband, wake up with Farage” one-liner during the Prime Minister’s Conference address the day after my interview with James.
The dilemma posed by UKIP for the Conservatives is particularly pertinent in Wells. UKIP won 3.1% of the constituency’s vote in 2010, a much higher proportion than in other areas of the country at that period. Indeed, with winning Liberal Democrat candidate, and now MP Tessa Munt only 800 votes in front of second place anti-EU Conservative candidate David Heathcote-Amory, who had been MP since 1983, UKIP’s tally of 1,771 votes could feasibly have disrupted the outcome.
James certainly did not admit to worrying about UKIP: “I don’t lose any sleep over it… Locally UKIP have not been very active at all. But I appreciate that there isn’t a correlation between how many leaflets the UKIP candidate will put out there and how well the party will do.” Adding that he tells those considering voting UKIP that “here are my ideas for the area and they are better than UKIP’s. I have found that we have been able to suppress UKIP support in the area as a result of that. It comes down to having a vision for that part of Somerset, and for the county as a whole.”
Whether James gets a chance to implement that vision as an MP in the House of Commons from May, we will have to wait and see.