There were not many Conservatives in the South Yorkshire ex-mining town where Emily Barley grew up, with the legacy of Margaret Thatcher on northern industries still fresh in the minds of many communities.
But the self-described “politics geek”, who lives in Tory grandee William Hague’s childhood home village of Wentworth, near Rotherham, says she is part of a “new generation of Conservatives” which has left the 1980s behind.
And fresh from a spectacular result in this month’s local elections, an indication of the dramatically changed political landscape, she now hopes to end the decades-long stranglehold Labour has held over local politics.
The 32-year-old, a self-employed communications consultant, was one of 20 new Conservatives councillors elected to Rotherham Council after the ‘Super Thursday’ elections on May 6.
The leap from having zero councillors to forming the largest opposition party meant Labour only just held on to their majority with 32 seats, two more than the 30 needed to stay in control of the council.
Coun Barley herself won her seat in the Hoober ward with 873 votes, one more than her nearest Labour rival, in a process that required two recounts.
“We counted for five or six hours in the end, I sort of lost track,” she says. “So you’re stuck in this hall that has no windows and is very brightly lit. And of course, everyone’s social distancing at the moment.
“And then we counted everything. And it was very close. So Labour, of course, asked for a recount. And it was very close again. So they asked for another one. And it was very close again, and they finally accepted on the third count, so with two recounts that I had one by one vote.”
Within days she had been chosen by her fellow Conservatives as leader of their newly-powerful group.
And she reflects on the “different political world” in Rotherham since the last local elections were held in 2016, with two General Elections, a referendum and untold upheaval caused by Brexit and the pandemic.
At the most recent General Election, the Conservative gains in northern ‘red wall’ seats were echoed in Rotherham as Boris Johnson’s party won Rother Valley from Labour and slashed the red majority in the other two local seats.
“So (the local election result) is not so much of a surprise to us, it’s something that we’ve seen coming,” she says. “And I think it’s fair to say that before 2016 Labour had been losing support.
“And in that 2016 election, Ukip did very well in Rotherham, and since then, that move away from Labour has accelerated, and people have come more to the Conservatives than to anybody else.”
She concedes that the legacy of Mrs Thatcher and the closure of mines has held the Conservatives back in Rotherham, adding: “We can’t ignore that or pretend it didn’t happen. But we are a new generation of Conservatives. And with time and distance, we’re a different organisation to what we were in the 80s.”
Now the official opposition on Rotherham Council, the Tories plan to hold the ruling Labour administration to account over its management of the authority’s finances.
Coun Barley says: “We’re going to be fighting to get local people proper value for money with the council tax that they pay.”
And seven years on from the landmark Jay Report into child sexual exploitation in the borough that saw commissioners brought in to help run the council, she says there remain “leftover issues” from the scandal.
“We hear from local people, and from charities and non-governmental organisations that work in Rotherham, that there are still instances of it carrying on,” she says.
“And so we’re really keen to get to the bottom of that and make sure that what the council is doing about it, and with the police as well, is not just paying lip service to the issue and acting like it’s all over.
“We know, probably in a much smaller way, that it’s continuing. But we’re going to be pushing hard to make sure that it is fully resolved.”
Earlier this month Rother Valley’s new Tory MP Alexander Stafford attacked the council, using a Commons debate to accuse leaders of concentrating on Rotherham town rather than the villages that make up his constituency.
In response, Labour council leader Chris Read criticised the Government approach of offering one-off pots of money like the controversial Towns Fund “after 11 years of Tory austerity”.
He claimed communities need “sustainable funding streams” to ensure councils can “make the right decisions for our own places”.
Coun Barley describes this stance as “abdicating responsibility”, adding: “I think it’s fair to say that other councils around the country don’t have the same problem or the same scale of problems that we do in Rotherham.
“I think it’s a thing that politicians do. And I know people on my side do it too. But I really hate it when anyone does it, where it’s passing the buck. You’re responsible for something, and that’s on you.
“So I think it’s fair to say that the Government maybe hasn’t got everything right.
“There are certain areas where maybe funding priorities haven’t been right. But overall, Labour has been in charge of Rotherham Council since it existed. And so the failings are on them.”
Coun Barley admits the Conservative mantra of ‘levelling up’, used by countless politicians since the 2019 General Election, does not cut through on the doorstep in Rotherham.
“I think the feeling behind it is a thing,” she says. “It does come up on the doorstep of people feeling like maybe they haven’t got quite a fair deal where they live.
“And here in Rotherham that has taken the form that we often hear about how money and investment is put into Rotherham town centre.
“But across the border, we have all of these small high streets in the small towns and villages, and they don’t seem to really get anything. So the feeling behind it is there, but the slogan itself? No, absolutely not.”