In March, David Lyons became the Green Party’s first councillor in Tory-dominated Aylesbury Vale.
The local by-election was called on 7 March after long-serving councillor for the Haddenham and Stone ward, Michael Edmonds, passed away. Lyons, who spent six years as a parish councillor in Haddenham and set up the Haddenham in Transition group to promote positive local action on climate change, came close to winning a seat on the district council back in 2015.
Of the 59 councillors on Aylesbury Vale District Council, 38 are Conservative, 12 are Liberal Democrats and two are Labour, while three represent the Buckinghamshire Residents Association, two are Independent Conservative and one is Independent. There are two MPs serving the region: Speaker John Bercow in Buckingham and Conservative David Lidington in Aylesbury – head of the Cabinet Office and Theresa May’s right-hand man.
Lyons joins two existing Conservative councillors in Haddenham and Stone, which has three district council seats in total. He won the seat with a strong majority – 1,210 votes to the second place Mark Bale’s 781.
We spoke to David about his steps to becoming a councillor and his tips for prospective Green candidates and campaigners.
What has your journey to becoming a Green councillor looked like? What is the picture for Greens in Aylesbury Vale?
I started out as an armchair member when people in the area were allocated to the Milton Keynes Green Party. I got in touch with some local members and we set up the local party and split off from MK, though we still work closely with them and are grateful for their support, especially Michael Sheppard. We stood our first candidates about five years ago and have gradually built up our support during elections with some trials and a few errors. We have been delivering a ward newsletter in the area for around two years and I have been a parish councillor in Haddenham for about six years.
What were the key issues you campaigned on?
Housing development, traffic and local services were topics we are campaigning on but our key messages were that I work all year round for the community, not just at elections, I am local and I can win.
Image: Aylesbury Vale Green Party
You achieved a large majority – what do you think was the key to a Green success in such a Tory-dominated area?
In such areas the Tories are often complacent. In a parished area it is often quite easy to get elected (we not had an election in my village to my knowledge!) so you can get engaged in local politics and issues, make connections and learn about how councils operate – all without the party politics.
You soon learn who your opponents are in other parties. Building up contacts and being able to demonstrate you have delivered projects besides just campaigning on issues is important. Also, being in local government tests your capacity to deal with the day-to-day issues ('dog mess and street lamps' is often cited!) and your ability to work with people of other views and still retain a focus on Green issues.
I would urge any Green activists who feel they could contribute by being elected, to get onto their parish council. Don't worry that you don't have the skills/knowledge/confidence; you can pick them up, and don't put it off – we don't have much time left! It has also been a personal development journey for me – with free training! Of course I have had the backing of an excellent campaign team both locally and from the national party.
Why might Greens have a better chance of winning in a Tory seat than Labour would?
Few people in country areas realise that the Greens are to the left of Labour – they have little idea of our policies. Labour would never get elected where I live. You need to identify which Green policy areas appeal to locals and use them, while keeping quiet about others – we tried to avoid talking about Brexit on the doorstep!
How did you go about building grassroots support in the area?
I used my connections and made sure I wrote to new members who lived locally. It is important to engage people to do things for you. Delivering your leaflets not only gets the job done but also makes people part of the team: we are looking to build on this with people who displayed Vote Green posters.
How has your experience on the council been so far? What support is available to you as a new councillor, especially as one who is the sole representative of their party on the council?
So far I have been to only a scrutiny committee at the district council but have now visited the other three parish councils in the ward – I have been well received. I am very grateful for the support of the Association of Green Councillors (AGC) and would recommend anyone who would consider getting elected to join this excellent organisation. I have good relations with the few Lib Dem and Labour councillors and had a long telephone chat with one recently where I picked up some good tips. Outside elections, the minority parties seem to work together.
Image: Aylesbury Vale Green Party
Do you have any advice for other candidates that are gearing up for the local elections?
Look through your local contacts – people you may have met years ago – and get in touch with them again! Ask anyone and everyone if they would be willing to put up a Vote Green poster.
Be visible: wear your rosette every day when in the community (or anywhere else there is a Green candidate).
Get someone practical and who is good at talking to people to coordinate putting up poster boards.
Run good campaign days that people will enjoy coming to: ask people who don't want to do door knocking if they could make some food for those that do and have a base they can come back to.
If you are a local candidate who does things in the community (ideally a parish councillor!), don't worry too much about complex campaign issues. Keep it simple – the three basic messages I had drummed into me suffice for most people!