Singapore-on-Thames: why is this a bad idea?

GUEST POST: Tony Freeman is a Freelance Thought Leadership Consultant specialising in financial technology. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn 

Shortly after the 2016 EU referendum, I visited Singapore to meet-up with clients and colleagues in my role as Brexit policy manager for a large US-headquartered global financial services firm. I offered to deliver a briefing for the local team and was greeted with a response that was to become remarkably familiar as I visited other office locations in Indo-Pacific and the Americas. Incredulity is the best word to describe their viewpoint, which was driven by two factors: very slanted local media reporting and a lack of understanding about what the EU is (and wants to be).

I’m a typical Tory – meaning I’m a long-term Eurosceptic. We joined an economic community but were being increasingly drawn into a political superstate. I’m a free marketeer who wants global trade to flourish. A rising tide really does lift all boats! Where I’m less typical, I suppose, is that while I’m no fan of the Customs Union I am very much in favour of the Single Market.  

My experience of dealing with Brussels over many years of working on financial services regulation led me to believe the UK would be better off out the EU. When you see how the sausages are made you can’t help but think about becoming a vegetarian … Despite this, I was surprised by the result and very apprehensive about how the exit process would work. (It turned out to be worse than I thought, however that’s for another day.) 

Back to Singapore. Anticipating their puzzlement about why the UK had gone mad, I did some homework on the astonishing success of its economy. When Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965 it was a very undeveloped country. Its population was estimated to be 50% illiterate, malaria was rife and its GDP per capita was only US$516. It has almost no natural resources – it must import water and sand from its near neighbours. So, going it alone was a very brave move indeed.  

However, by 2018 Singapore’s GDP per capita had reached US$87k – higher than the US. For comparison, Ghana – another former British colony – took its GDP per-head from US$974 in 1970 to a meagre US$2,200 in 2018. This is despite being richly endowed in natural resources: its colonial name was The Gold Coast! The decision by the UK to leave the EU was, by comparison, a more modest change. 

So, why do many people seem to think that using Singapore as a model is a bad idea? The concept appears to be that Singapore is a low-regulation country. This is a misconception. My experience, based on dealing with financial regulators, is that Singaporean regulators and policy-makers do not fit any sort of stereotype. They do not have any hesitation to do what is appropriate for their market and they have a very business-orientated approach.

A key part of any policy is that it should enable growth. Conversations with regulators very often revolve around what you are not allowed to do. In Singapore, it’s all about encouraging you to do more – and to do it in Singapore. This isn’t de-regulation. Singapore now has many advantages: low taxes, stable politics, a robust legal system and zero tolerance of corruption. And alongside these: a strong regulatory system is also a cornerstone; it attracts business. 

The phrase ‘Singapore-on-Thames’ appears to have been coined by the media with its origins in the fears and prejudices of politicians in the EU. The UK won’t become another Singapore, however that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from its success. I hope we do. 

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

This piece was written for our website. 

2021 local elections – to be or not to be?

GUEST POST: Joshua Woolliscroft is an Account Manager at MPC. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

For amateur and professional psephologists alike, this year’s local elections – if they go ahead – look set to be more exciting than usual. Not only is this the first electoral clash between the Prime Minister and Sir Keir Starmer, it is also a double batch with the 2020 cancelled contests rolled into one.

The big question is has the Government’s handling of the pandemic had an impact on its overall popularity? And, perhaps more crucially, will the successful roll out of the vaccine and the signing of the Brexit trade deal give Boris Johnson a surprise bounce?

Looking back at 2016 and 2017 – when these elections last took place – you see two very different pictures. 2016 was the swan song of David Cameron’s premiership, his last tilt at the polls ahead of the EU referendum. The election saw a swing against the Conservatives, leading to the loss of 50 councillors and one council. Conversely, in 2017, Theresa May took 11 councils; skewering UKIP on the right and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour on the left.

Although a notoriously inaccurate indication of local voting intention, the polls are stubbornly tied with the Government and HM Opposition jockeying for a one-point lead. CCHQ may be hoping for a repeat of 2016, where Labour squeaked a narrow lead with very little to show for it. While the launch of the Reform Party could chip away at vulnerable authorities, no one – except for Nigel Farage – is expecting a serious challenge from them right now.

Assuming the roll out of the vaccine remains on track throughout Winter and into Spring, the electorate may, just might, vote Conservative. Equally, delays or a perception of mismanagement could lead to a vengeful public seeing Labour as a slightly safer choice.

It is often said that the electorate is capable of anger, but rarely gratitude. A good day for the Prime Minister should be one the pundits barely notice, shaving a few councils and retaining most mayoralties. There has been a lot of talk about momentum in British politics. An average to fair result for the Tories in May (or later) could sap some much needed energy from Labour.

Hard as it is to believe, the first rays of a post Covid-19 morning could be on the horizon. If the Government wants to be re-elected in 2024, they need to seize the initiative of that new dawn. Avoiding a disaster this year should be the first step in the right direction.

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

This piece was written for our website. 

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

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Principal Director at 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

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

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

The craft of communications and the coming culture war

GUEST POST: Jason MacKenzie is Managing Partner of Corporate Communications at Nudge Factory and Past-President of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

We’re neck deep in that Orwellian future. Fake news is the new norm, and effective communicators will win the coming clash between the ‘based’ and the ‘woke’.

If you’re not entirely sure what those two sentences mean, but you’ve got a good idea that this is an important debate, you’re in the majority. We’re familiar with the language of Brexit, and the emotive political discourse leading up to the EU referendum. It’s rooted in an older, simpler paradigm. But we now need greater nuance to navigate the rhetorical battlefields of the future.

The US culture wars started in the 1920s, with the clash between rural and urban American values. The term was rebooted in the 1960s, placed centre stage by disagreements between conservatives and progressives over moral issues, including marriage and abortion.

‘Pro-life’ verses ‘pro-choice’ is a classic example of the framing of an issue. On the face of it, both seem positive and widely acceptable positions to adopt. In reality, they are diametrically opposite. One emphasises the sanctity of life, based on the conviction that human rights begin in the womb, the other prioritises the well-being of a mother over her unborn infant. No one ever describes themselves as ‘anti-choice’ or ‘pro-death’.

American pollster Frank Luntz demonstrates the importance of persuasive language in Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, by asking why people dislike big oil.

America’s energy producers have been their own worst enemies…“drilling for oil”…reminds people of Jed Clampett shooting at the ground, conjuring images of liquid black goo gushing into the sky…

The antidote is simple: they replaced ‘drilling for oil’ with ‘energy exploration’ – far more acceptable, at least semantically.

Language matters. Phrasing matters. Framing matters.

Vote Leave won because 17.4 million people understood and embraced ‘Vote leave, take back control’ – most importantly because it encapsulated the underlying message. You could argue that ‘Make America Great Again’ worked for the Republicans in 2016 in the same way, and that ‘Get Brexit done’ delivered an 80-seat majority for the Conservatives six months ago.

But not all air wars are fought by giant industries to reposition themselves, or by political parties to win elections. The coming culture war will be fought on multiple fronts, across social, digital and traditional media, and with myriad voices and factions. While many combatants will simply shout into echo chambers that reinforce their own worldviews, deepening tribalism – others will cut through, and change the way we think, feel and act.

Over the past few weeks we’ve witnessed two major flashpoints. The diehard remain coalition piled pressure on Boris Johnson to sack Dominic Cummings, for actions that Durham Police said “might have been a minor breach of the regulations.” But the Prime Minister’s adviser neither resigned nor was forced out.

The old rules no longer apply. Cummings would not have survived in the pre-Trump era. The US President’s relentless refusal to adhere to convention has crossed the Atlantic. There’s a willingness to stand up to received wisdom, herd mentality and the prevailing media narrative. Whether you believe that this shows craven weakness or bold leadership depends on your worldview and where your loyalties lie.

The second major incident sparked riots, looting, and a torrent of hatred and outrage. The universally-condemned and unjust killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis after being pinned to the floor by police officer Derek Chauvin took place on 25th May. Conservatives, liberals and almost everyone across (and beyond) the political spectrum condemned this instance of police brutality. But from there, narratives and courses of action diverged.

On the one hand, there are calls for law and order to prevail, for justice to be done, and for peace – whether peaceful protesting or other meaningful action. At the other end of the spectrum, anarchic looting and violent protests carried out by the likes of Antifa, the militant left-wing movement. Meanwhile, the middle ground is flooded by virtue-signalling.

Our 52/48 nation will continue to be divided, and social media will play an increasing role as a catalyst, stoking the fires of anger and hatred, and deepening our societal fractures. Even something as innocuous as a blog about whether we need ‘Pride Month’ by young, gay Conservative activist Darren Grimes provoked a furore. “I find it utterly depressing that the pride flag now takes pride of place in our national life over our own national flag” he wrote for Conservative Home. Rather than welcoming debate and the free exchange of ideas, he was pilloried on Twitter, rebutted by PinkNews, and the post was ‘cancelled’ by Facebook.

Free speech is vital for democracy. When social media platforms behave more like publishers, exercising censorship and editorial control, they need to be treated as such. Digital acts of ‘no platforming’ such as ‘temporarily restricting’ Twitter parody account @TitaniaMcGrath, smack of censorship and conscious mass manipulation. This is what the founding father of public relations, Edward Bernays might have called “the engineering of consent”.

Identity politics is here to stay. Tribalism is getting deeper. Truth (and underlying trust in our institutions) is more evasive than ever. That’s why professional communications, precise language and persuasive discourse are needed now more than ever. In the court of public opinion, the most powerful arguments will win. Let’s hope that democracy, decency and common sense prevail.

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

This piece was written for our website.

Red wall, blue sea

Lionel Zetter is Patron of Conservatives in Communications

In the end, it wasn’t even close. The polls had showed Labour closing the gap in the final few days of the campaign, but there was no surge. Soufflés really don’t rise twice, and the ‘magic grandpa’ had lost his sparkle.

The CCHQ team had always wanted this to be an election focused on Brexit, and they largely got their way. But it was not just about the principle of Brexit itself. Most people wanted Brexit out of the headlines and off of the front pages, but they also wanted the normal functioning of government to resume. 

But perhaps even more important was the issue of trust. If you promise not to raise tuition fees and then treble them, as the Liberal Democrats did in 2010, then you get hammered. If you stand on a manifesto to respect the result of the EU referendum, as both Labour and the Lib Dems did in 2017, and then you constantly seek to block Brexit, then you get hammered.

The fact that much of the discontent with the non-delivery of Brexit was concentrated in the neglected Labour heartlands of the Midlands and the North acted as a double whammy. People in those regions wanted Brexit delivered, but they had originally voted for Brexit because they felt neglected by Westminster, and ignored by the Labour Party. So like Trump supporters in the ’fly over’ states of the US they refused to change their minds, and they demanded to be heard.

There was also poor targeting on the part of Labour. Both the party machine and the parallel Momentum organisation concentrated their resources on Corbynista candidates, rather than on those who most needed support. This cost them unity, and it cost them votes, and it cost them seats. The fall-out from this will rumble on for months, if not years.

By contrast CCHQ did a great job. When it came to strategy Isaac Levido provided calm, whilst Dominic Cummings – as ever – provided inspiration. The cyber war was master-minded by two young kiwis, Sean Topham and Ben Guerin. Meantime the mainstream media was effectively marshalled by Lee Cain and Rob Oxley and a team of experienced press officers, many of whom had worked for Boris on and off over the years since his first mayoral bid.

But the main reason Labour lost and we won was because of the respective leaders. Boris came across as a dynamic leader with a strong focus and clear priorities – including, of course, getting Brexit done. Of course there were mis-steps, including pocketing a journalists phone and escaping in to a walk-in fridge. But generally Boris came across well, with his trademark good humour and with his bright young politically-engaged partner by his side. Parading Dilyn the rescue dog also worked well – an estimated 9.9 million households in the UK own a dog.

By contrast Jeremy Corbyn came across as old, tired, testy, petulant – and (more importantly) nasty. He may not be an anti-semite himself, but he certainly seems to enjoy the company of people who are. This cost him votes not just in the handful of seats with large Jewish populations, but also amongst the wider electorate, who hate discrimination and loathe bullies.

So, the fabled ‘red wall’ has crumbled, and it has been replaced by a ‘blue sea’. And let’s face it, seas are stronger and more durable than walls. Now the task – fully recognised by CCHQ and Number Ten – is to justify the faith placed in us by all those former Labour supporters who loaned us their votes in order to ‘get Brexit done’, and to keep Corbyn out of Number Ten.

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

This piece was written for our website.