Tories must be the Party of tech

GUEST POST: Anita Boateng is a Senior Director at FTI Consulting and a Councillor in Redbridge. Connect on LinkedIn. Follow on Twitter

The Conservative Party has never shied away for technological innovation. It was Benjamin Disraeli, the 19th century Tory Prime Minister and godfather of One Nation Conservatism, who embraced the first industrial revolution and remade conservatism in his time. It is no exaggeration to say the same forces remain alive today. 250 years after the invention of steam-powered machines, we are undergoing another technological revolution. 

From Zoom catch ups and WhatsApp group chats to accessing banking and the latest news on the go, our relationship with technology has already changed so much in the past two decades. In the midst of a global pandemic, thanks in large part to our mobile networks, we’ve been able to stay close to our loved ones, access important services and work more flexibly than we ever imagined we could. 

Digital connectivity is poised to make another monumental leap forward with the advent of 5G. 5G is not simply about speed. Imagine drones co-operating to carry out search and rescue missions, self-driving cars communicating seamlessly with one another and wearable fitness devices alerting doctors in real-time in a medical emergency. These innovations will transform our way of life.

The job of the Conservative Party and this government is to ensure that all parts of the country benefit from the new revolution that could bring about immense social and economic change. And while this pandemic has highlighted how much some of us benefit from mobile networks, the experience has also shown we have work to do in delivering the benefits of connectivity to everyone in the country. 

To achieve a connected future for everyone, our mobile infrastructure needs a reboot. We need to upgrade existing equipment and install new towers to extend coverage. But the legislation designed to make all this possible – the Electronic Communications Code – isn’t working. The Code was introduced in 2017 with the intention to make it easier and cheaper for providers to make the changes the UK needs to keep pace with the rest of the world. 

Unfortunately, that is not happening quickly enough. The relationship between industry and its landowner-hosts needs repairing. Disputes over rents are making agreements impossible. Infrastructure isn’t being upgraded or rolled out effectively, and consumers are not getting the coverage they want and need. There’s no doubt we need to get things moving if the Government is going to achieve its 5G ambitions. 

That is why the industry joined together to launch Speed Up Britain, a new cross-party campaign calling for action to give Britain the mobile network it deserves. The campaign provides an opportunity for industry, landowners, their representatives and government to come together to find a solution to this problem and make progress towards delivering 5G and other new technologies. Looking again at the law will be an important component of delivering real change.

But this is not just about central government. Poor connectivity doesn’t just hinder our ability to navigate the modern world; it can hold back local businesses and services in parts of the country that need it the most. Councillors, metro mayors and MPs will all have insight into the challenges of mobile connectivity in their area, and what they would like to see change.

We all have a part to play in fulfilling the promise of a truly connected nation. If we work together, we can ensure the Conservative Party is once again at the forefront of delivering a digital revolution for all.

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This piece was written for Digital Tories.

The elephant in the countryside

GUEST POST: Edward Rowlandson is Political Relations Manager at the Countryside Alliance. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

There is a stark contrast in fortunes between the Conservative Party and The Labour Party when it comes to the rural electorate. The Conservatives hold 177 of the 199 rural seats in England and Wales, Labour hold 17. The complete dominance of the Conservative Party has in turn awarded the Party the keys to No.10 in 2015, 2017 and 2019. The Conservatives know how to win in rural seats, whereas Labour has a problem.

The Countryside Alliance’s recent report explores Labour’s relationship with the countryside. The report focuses on Labour’s electoral fortunes in rural England and Wales over the past three general elections. As first recognised by Maria Eagle, Labour MP for Garston and Halewood, after the 2015 election, Labour had (and still has) a rural problem. However, it has been widely ignored by most in The Labour Party.

Labour did not always ignore the rural electorate. When it won the 1997 and 2001 general elections it boasted over 100 rural MPs reaching into the Conservative rural heartlands. At that time, Labour chose to engage with rural voters. However, over time the countryside and Labour have grown further and further apart. Constituency boundaries may have changed, but that cannot hide the situation Labour now finds itself in.

After the 2019 general election much has been made of Labour losing its ‘red wall’, but not much analysis or thought has been given to the complete collapse of Labour’s rural vote – losing 15 seats and going backwards in every rural seat it held. Yet, despite Labour’s worst result in the countryside (and country) since 1935 Labour continued, under Jeremy Corbyn, to prioritise the activities taken in the countryside rather than on the priorities of the countryside. During the Agriculture Bill Committee stages Labour attempted to stop anyone who had used a dog to hunt (including rats) from receiving future agriculture subsidies. Even when drafting problems were highlighted with the junior Shadow Defra Minister, she pressed the amendment to a vote. If it were not for Conservative colleagues in the committee, every farmer would not be entitled to any agricultural subsidy. This was a party that clearly did not understand the countryside nor was it willing to listen to those rural colleagues to the impact that their proposed amendments would cause. Defra Secretary of State, George Eustice, is right when he said: “Nationally, the Conservative Party has always had a much stronger affinity and understanding with rural communities, whether that is agricultural communities, but many others besides who have been farmers themselves and so understand that particular area.” In this instance, Labour’s actions proved the Secretary of State completely right.

However, under Sir Keir Starmer, The Labour Party has been more open to engagement with rural voters, and Luke Pollard, Shadow Defra Minister, wants to make Labour “the party of the countryside” and has even acknowledged Labour’s rural problem: “I think what we need to understand is that the route back to power, the way of winning back many of those communities is to recognise that we need to be there.”

It remains to be seen whether Labour will be able to fulfil their ambitions, however their admission of its rural problem is one that the Conservatives should note. If Labour start to challenge in the countryside Conservatives will have to match that challenge. Ironically the Labour 2019 general election strategy of targeting only urban seats worked – it now holds most of them. Therefore, the sooner it closes the gap in the countryside the closer it gets to No.10. The task for the Conservative Party is to maintain its dominance – currently at 89%. To do that the Conservatives have to show the rural electorate why they were right to put their trust in them. Polling from ORB International found that issues most important to the rural electorate are housing, healthcare and transport. These issues are the ones that need to be addressed; and will ultimately secure the Conservative Party continued success both in the countryside and in the country.  

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This piece was written for our website.

Has BoJo lost his mojo? No, and he’s shovel-ready

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Principal Director of Conservatives in Communications

It’s been almost a year since members elected Boris Johnson as Leader of the Conservative Party and British Prime Minister, and six months since he won a personal mandate from the country – and a stonking majority at that! How is he performing? This piece looks at some of the highs and lows, as well as the future ahead.

The highs

I deal in facts not fiction, so let’s start with the polls. Last December, the UK returned a Tory-led government for the fourth time in a decade: a 44% share of the vote (14m ballots) won him 365 seats* – a Conservative MP for each day of the Gregorian calendar. Today, according to Politico’s Poll of Polls, public support for the ‘People’s Government’ is holding firm.

What’s he achieved vs what did he guarantee? A week after that seismic result in 2019, the Government published its Queen’s Speech, outlining the ‘People’s Priorities.’ Chief among them was Mr Johnson’s pledge to “get Brexit done in January” [2020], which he quickly did. Michael Gove recently confirmed that the UK will “neither accept nor seek any extension to the Transition Period.”

“Extra funding for the NHS” has been enshrined in law and the number of new nurses has increased compared to last year.

Over 3,000 of his “20,000 more police” have been recruited and Robert Buckland has brought about “tougher sentences for criminals”, including the most serious terrorist offenders. “An Australian-style points-based system to control immigration”, as part of a much broader Bill, is due to have its report stage and third reading.

It’s true that millions more have been “invested…in science, schools, apprenticeships and infrastructure,” and that good progress – new consultations and plans to increase investment – has been made towards “Reaching Net Zero by 2050.” All this while not raising “the rate of income tax, VAT or National Insurance.”

The lows

Britain has been transformed by the coronavirus crisis. The number of GP surgery appointments per annum is likely to be down, not up. 310,000 people, including the Prime Minister and Matt Hancock, have tested positive for the disease. Of those, sadly, 43,500 have died – one of the highest figures in the world. It’s inevitable that there will be, and it’s right that – in time – there is, an inquiry. Lessons must be learned.

Because of Covid-19 – and the measures this government has introduced to combat it – UK public debt has “exceeded 100% of GDP for the first time since 1963.”

The death of George Floyd sparked many protests abroad and at home. A minority of people, on both ends of the spectrum, including Antifa, exploited Black Lives Matter, to behave quite irresponsibly. Our politicians have a vital role to play in healing divisions and addressing issues, which is why I – and others – were surprised it took Mr Johnson – the author of a book about his hero – time to speak out.

Number 10’s handling of these events has created a perception – among backbenchers and commentators – that the Prime Minister has misplaced his mojo.

An analysis

So, some clear wins (promises made, promises kept) and some evident challenges, but challenges that can be overcome with a bold and ambitious plan. We’ve done it before and we can do it again.

And yet, if you spend your time talking to Londoners, following the mainstream media and scrolling through Twitter, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Government was about to collapse at any given moment – that Sir Keir Starmer, by asking a couple of questions each Wednesday and by sacking Rebecca Wrong-Daily, is about to gain 120 seats for Labour. The mountain’s too high to climb.

These are the same people who: predicted Remain would win the Brexit referendum by a landslide, never imagined Donald J. Trump would become US President and thought Jeremy Corbyn might actually win in 2017 (and two years later). The same people who were confident Priti Patel would resign and Dominic Cummings would be fired, and tweet #WhereisBoris on a nearly daily basis.

That said, 44% can be improved upon and regardless of whether there’s any truth in it – perceptions are hard to shake-off. And so, the Government must listen. In particular, No10 must listen to its backbenchers. They are ideally placed to feedback on any disillusionment across the country, before decisions are made. A new liaison between No10 and the Parliamentary Party should be hired.

In my opinion, the appointment would help the Government make sound policy decisions from the get-go and reduce the number of U-turns in the long-run. However, U-turns aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Like subpoenas (writs “commanding a person designated in it to appear in court under a penalty for failure”), they needn’t be seen as negative – rather a means of making right.

This government should also listen to experienced conservatives in communications. We recently polled our supporters and they rated its coronavirus communications strategy 3.18 out of 5. While positive, it’s clear improvements can be made. First-up, was phasing out daily press briefings, which I’m glad it has done. I’d also like to see more women MPs around the Cabinet table at the next reshuffle.

What we need to hear from Mr Johnson tomorrow, in Dudley, is how he’s going to help Britain rebuild itself and win again after the lockdown. I hope he makes us feel proud about our identity and culture and that his vision is aspirational and opportunistic. The British people have put their faith in him before – a few for the first time – and I’m sure they’ll continue to keep it, if he listens and acts accordingly.

*Election data

 2010201520172019
Votes (000s)10,70411,30013,63713,966
% of UK vote36.136.842.343.6
Seats won 306 330 317 365
% of seats won47.150.848.856.2

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This piece was written for our website and has been republished by Politicalite (June 29, 2020).

On getting more women involved

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Principal Director of Conservatives in Communications

I’m biased towards women. There, I said it.

Some of the best people I’ve worked with are women. Some of the best people I’ve hired are women. Some of the best people who’ve managed me are women. Some of the best people I’ve campaigned for are women and, some of my best moments include developing networks* for women.

You’ll find great women throughout the history books. Take The Dream of Rome by Boris Johnson for instance. Here, he discusses how the Roman Empire achieved political and cultural unity in Europe, and compares it to the failure of the European Union to do the same. We’re introduced to one of the most prominent women in Rome’s history : Octavia the Younger (69–11 BC) was the sister of the first Roman Emperor, Augustus, and the fourth wife of Mark Antony – who had an affair with Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt. She became a political adviser and negotiator between her husband and brother, and was respected and admired by contemporaries for her loyalty to Rome.

Fast forward two millennia and travel two thousand kilometres to when and where another woman had risen to the top. The Leader of the Conservative Party, Margaret Thatcher, was the first woman to be elected Prime Minister in the UK. During the 1975 Tory leadership election, she famously said this:

If you want anything done, ask a woman.

Now, I’m not going to argue with the Iron Lady! Last year, when I spotted an opportunity I worked with two women to get it done: Carol Freeman and I persuaded a former director of communications at No.10, Katie Perrior, to chair the network we wanted to relaunch – whose mission includes being more diverse. And, when Carol moved her family to the West Coast, I asked Aisha Vance-Cuthbert to step up.

Over 12 months, we’ve rebuilt Conservatives in Communications to almost 400 professionals, including 19 parliamentary patrons like Joy Morrissey, Nickie Aiken, Siobhan Baillie and Theo Clarke. We’ve hosted three events, including one with the Home Secretary Priti Patel. And, we’ve tasked individuals with establishing effective ways to improve diversity among our ranks.

That said, as of writing this, I guestimate only a quarter of our supporters are women. It’s clear to me and the whole team that we could and should be doing more – as a sector and a network – to encourage greater participation.

Next week, we will launch our inaugural survey – Conservatives in Communications (CiC) Census 2020 – an opportunity for supporters to give constructive feedback and make suggestions anonymously. I hope supporters take advantage of this, because, together, we can and will make a difference.

I look forward to seeing the final results and reading your comments, and to implementing the proposed recommendations. As a former board member, and adviser to the president, of UN Women UK, I’m going to practice what I preached then about equality and continue to encourage all genders to partake as agents of change.

* UN Women UK, DTCC Women’s Network in London and Conservatives in Communications

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This piece was written for our website. I’ve opened up the comments section.

Let’s be optimistic

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Principal Director of Conservatives in Communications

I’m not an overly religious person, however I respect our Christian heritage and identity. While we pause to think about the 250 people killed and hundreds more wounded by suicide bombers in Sri Lanka last Easter, this weekend is generally considered a happy time for Christians – as they believe that Jesus rose from the dead and that his resurrection symbolises that death is not the end. On this Maundy Thursday / National Winston Churchill Day / my birthday – during what is an unusual period in our nation’s history – I urge everyone reading this blog, whether you’re a believer or not, to reflect on this holy message of hope and to inject a bit of optimism into your outlook. As I’ve written countless times before: although optimism isn’t everything – it can make one hell of a difference.

Last summer – or BC (before Coronavirus), more than half of all Tory MPs and two-thirds of Conservative Party members voted for Boris Johnson during the leadership contest. In December, the electorate voted in one Conservative MP for each day of the calendar year. People roundly rejected ‘Project Fear’ and bought into Mr Johnson’s optimistic vision – to ‘get Brexit done’ and focus on the people’s priorities. He’s already delivered on the former and is working on the rest, such as controlling immigration, which is why – four months on – polling finds ratings that have not been seen for a British prime minister since the early days of Blair’s premiership.

Now that he is feeling under the weather – but improving, I reckon we owe it to ourselves to reject ‘Virus Fear’ and to cheer him on. While everyone can do their bit, some have additional responsibilities.

In my opinion, publishers, editors and journalists have a responsibility to educate and entertain. Now, every time someone tunes into the news, logs onto Twitter or picks up a newspaper, all they see is ongoing news about the number of deaths as well as who and how many people have been tested, and whether the heir to the throne is a priority (the answer is: yes); comparisons with other countries; talk about designated survivors; lessons about the UK constitution or lack thereof; speculation about caretaker leaders; and yes, plenty of codswallop from Piers Morgan. I understand that news channels have airtime and newspapers have column inches to fill but there must be a limit.

Further, for many people (politicians, their aides and PRs included), working from home during the lockdown presents an opportunity to spend more time talking to loved ones, friends and family, albeit by Zoom, Houseparty or whatever is the tool the whiz-kids have concocted. I say: embrace it!

Go for a walk and discover something new about your local area. Plan that big vacation to Greece and get into shape for it. I, for one, long for downing a pint of pale ale outside a traditional pub on a hot August day and sipping white wine by the swimming pool in Tuscany. Follow what’s going on with other populist campaigns around the globe, including President Trump vs the former VP Joe Biden – now that Bernie Sanders has finally dropped out – as well as growing support for both Matteo Salvini and the Brothers of Italy as more and more Italians become disillusioned with the EU’s response to managing Covid-19.

And finally, (start or) keep reading. For books, try ‘The Churchill Factor’ by you know who or ‘The Gatekeeper’ by Baroness Fall. For newspapers, it must be The Daily Telegraph and The Yorkshire Post (by the way, do continue to buy them and support the industry). For magazines, try The Spectator and British GQ. And online, try alternative media such as Spiked and Politicalite. Before you know it, we will be back to normal and you’ll be complaining about not making the most of this time and weather.

Every death is tragic, and everything must be done to prevent more, flatten the curve and move forward. It’s why everyone must adhere to the government’s advice: to ‘Stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives’, because, together, we can get through this – and, this summer, we’ll raise a glass to those loved ones we lost before their time and say Cheers! to our future.

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This piece was written for our website and has been republished by The Commentator (‘Let’s be optimistic!’ – April 8, 2020) and Politicalite (‘Despite Coronavirus, let’s be optimistic this Easter’ – April 9, 2020).

Different journeys, same end destination

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Director of Conservatives in Communications and works in the financial technology sector.

I have written before about my early-life journey from picturesque Beverley – one of the North’s best-kept secrets (and where 59% of voters opted to leave the European Union) – to East Anglia (some 69% voted the same way) where, aged 18 I moved to study politics, including European culture and identity. It is a period of my story which made me develop an understanding for my fellow countrymen’s Euroscepticism.

Yet, sometime during the ensuing decade, I developed a healthy respect for the EU. I attribute this to working in the City and city breaks in European capitals. And so, in 2016, I joined the 79% of South Londoners in Lambeth by voting to remain in the EU. I understand, therefore, why some people, including fellow Tory Reform Group members, questioned my early support and subsequent enthusiasm for Boris Johnson – for he, perhaps more than anyone else involved, advocated for Vote Leave.

Let me set out why I believe our end destination, under Johnson’s leadership, is more important than the journeys we are on – and how I eventually arrived there.

Our relationship with the EU is quite complex. I believed, rightly so, that it is a relationship of such complexity that it cannot be boiled down into one question in a ballot. I also believed – and feared – that a vote on this issue had the potential to split the Conservative Party and the country. Like George Osborne, this was one of those rare occasions when I disagreed with David Cameron because I couldn’t support the call for a referendum on the EU. However, when, in 2015, the Tories unexpectedly achieved a majority, and with no coalition partners to block one, a referendum became inevitable and the campaigns to leave and remain began in earnest.

At that point, I decided to campaign for Conservatives IN. However, the campaign to remain lost and the campaign to leave won. The EU referendum question, while simplistic, was clear. We have since discovered that though leave means quite different things to different people, the decision to leave was made. As such, the discussion moved to how we would build national consensus to deliver on the result of the referendum and help move our country forward.

Except, that didn’t happen. Theresa May made virtually no effort to engage the 48%. This time, as a means of finding consensus, I subscribed to The New European and found myself agreeing with Conservatives for a People’s Vote albeit I prefer the slightly more accurate term ‘confirmatory ballot’. However, Parliament has voted against one and polling indicates that the people do not want one.

One constant throughout these past four years has been the failure of the remain and remoan camp to run an effective operation and win enough support.

There comes a time when we need to accept where we are and recognise the need to move forward and give businesses the certainty they are asking for. Brexit is an important issue, but it should not be an all-consuming and indefinite issue at the expense of other priorities which shape people’s lives. Driven by this pragmatism, it didn’t take much to throw my support behind Johnson – a two-term mayoral winner in Labour London – as the man to take responsibility, own this and make a go of it in the national interest. It is a pragmatism which TRG and other membership organisations should applaud. We need to leverage Johnson’s qualities to win for the nation and shape a better future for all – leavers and remainers alike. After we have reached destination Brexit, we need Johnson’s Conservatives to take on Jeremy Corbyn, Sadiq Khan and the remaining loony left. Our society should be about freedom, individual responsibility and community. It’s time to move on and move forward.

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This piece was written for our website and has been republished by ConservativeHome.com (‘I voted Remain and backed a second referendum. But here’s why I now back Johnson’ – September 10, 2019), The Commentator (‘Brexit: Different journeys, same end destination’ – August 27, 2019) and The Yorkshire Post (‘I voted Remain but now back Boris Johnson over Brexit’ – September 16, 2019). It was syndicated on BrexitCentral (September 10, 2019).