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.

Just what is now ‘normal’?

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

One of the best managers I’ve worked for used to allocate an hour per day for informal thinking and reflection – sometimes he did it alone while other times he chewed the fat with his colleagues in a completely unstructured way. During my professional career, I’ve seen and heard many people confuse activity with productivity. Further, a friend who works in a managerial capacity in the education sector told me that, at the onset of the lockdown, his boss immediately organised seven hours of Zoom calls for his team. That’s not seven hours in total – that’s seven hours every, single, day. He didn’t allow any time for pre-meeting preparation or post-meeting execution – let alone time to think and reflect. The boss, who is the CEO, clearly doesn’t trust his team to do the right thing. Unsurprisingly, his team doesn’t feel comfortable and they are exhausted from being in an artificial meeting environment almost all day, every day.

It will take a while to paint an accurate picture – but, perhaps in a year’s time, we’ll be able to look back and say who had a good or a bad lockdown. The phrase “(s)he had a good war” is little heard nowadays, however, it was commonplace when I was growing up. The example I remember best is Denis Healey, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer and a potential prime minister during the tumultuous mid-seventies. At the beginning of the Second World War, he was a lowly gunner and five years later left the army as a major with an MBE. He was decorated for his bravery for being in charge of the Allied beach landing at Anzio, Italy. And he spoke fluent Italian due to a number of local girlfriends… By most interpretations, he had a good war!

I’ve been keeping a diary since the pandemic first emerged. The most often-cited issue is the NHS. Has it had a good war? My view is that it’s a nuanced answer. With 1.4 million staff and an annual budget of £130 billion it really can’t be looked at as a single cohesive entity. It consumes about 10% of our national GDP. No other entity, public or private sector, comes remotely close.

Some elements of the NHS are in the “could do better” category. NHS logistics failed in the early stages of the pandemic, the provision of PPE was chaotic and it certainly didn’t communicate effectively. At the 2019 General Election, Comrade Corbyn tried to scare us into thinking that the NHS would be sold to US firms. Thankfully, the public wasn’t fooled by this nonsense – but, it does raise the issue of whether it’s an unwelcome idea. Who would you prefer to run the NHS supply chain: NHS bureaucrats with limited international capability and no plan for a pandemic or global logistics wizards with state-of-the-art technology at Amazon? Don’t get me started about NHSX – did they really think they are better at developing apps than Apple or Google? The heroic efforts of our hospital doctors and nurses can’t be allowed to bury these issues.

We are closest to GP services. A recent claim by Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson – that GP surgeries may not re-open until March 2021 – prompted a flurry of responses from doctors who claim to be working just “normally”. NHS England medical director for primary care, Dr Nikki Kanani, said: “General practice is open and has been throughout the pandemic. Whilst consultations may have been offered remotely or virtually to keep patients and staff safe, our practices have been open and offering care.” This is not my experience.

I’m 58 and consider myself fairly digitally savvy. I’m completely OK with telephone and video consultations. For me, in most circumstances, they’re better than face-to-face meetings. I also have a number of close relatives in their eighties with chronic long-term conditions. Most of these people have trouble operating a TV remote control – let alone a WhatsApp video-call on a smartphone. Very few of them actually own or have access to a smartphone! Many have some level of hearing loss, which an aid doesn’t appear to compensate for on the telephone.

Not all old people are technophobes, however it is a prevalent issue. I know old folks who still think the phone is really only for emergencies. A story on the BBC PM show recently highlighted that some old people still prefer to make calls in the afternoon because it’s cheaper than in the morning. (Note for younger readers: this used to be true in the 1980’s). One elderly chap said he only switches on his mobile phone when he wants to make a call. 

GP surgeries closed their doors in mid-March and have only recently started a cautious re-opening programme. Before Covid-19 there were about 26 million GP appointments per month. If you’re elderly the only way you know how to communicate with a doctor is by meeting them in-person. When you meet a doctor, they will routinely assess your body language, your pallor and your general demeanour. How can they do this over the phone? Doctors are expert at listening to what you say and reading between the lines. Many of my elderly relatives will be more honest in the privacy of a doctor’s consultation room than in their own home. They are not accustomed to intimate, private conversations via telephone. The conversation is likely to be a lot more stilted and therefore less productive.

Speaking recently at a meeting of the Royal College of Physicians, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: ‘From now on, all consultations should be tele-consultations unless there’s a compelling clinical reason not to’. My local GP website says: “You cannot book a face to face GP appointment. Following telephone consultation you may be asked by the GP to attend.” Only 10% of consultations now physically take place. This is a radical change – and hasn’t been properly justified, as far as I can tell. Plus, how much consultation on the issue has been conducted?

Medical professionals need to be protected – but, at what cost? My local authority has an infection rate (in the week to August 21) of 2.1 per 100,000 people. That equated to two people … The physical closure of GP surgeries may have been sensible at the peak of the pandemic, however things have moved on, surely? The medical establishment is very good at pumping out statistics about the number of virtual consultations it’s done. But, have they measured the effectiveness and patient satisfaction recently? It would be good to know. Perhaps it’s time they both thought and reflected.

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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.

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This piece was written for our website.

Beyond Brexit: unleashing Britain’s potential

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

‘Get Brexit Done’ is a reasonable enough slogan with which to start this election campaign. But we need to know why the Conservatives want to get Brexit done; how they want to use our new-found freedom; and what it can do to promote democratic and economic repair. The Tories have a good case. Now they need to make it.

Not my words but those of The Spectator’s editor a month after party conference in Manchester.

Despite it taking longer than anticipated, Parliament was eventually dissolved, the Prime Minister met with the Queen and the Conservatives launched their election campaign in Birmingham. The rationale for this was clear: we need to break the impasse so that the government of the day can deliver on the will of the British people. Failure to do so will result in understandable outrage and irreparable damage to trust in politics.

While some people will vote on Brexit alone (Vote for the Tories to get Brexit done; Vote for the Liberal Democrats to stop Brexit one way or another – how democratic!; or Vote for Labour to negotiate yet another deal, hold yet another vote and yet campaign against said deal?), others are looking beyond our relationship with the EU. They are looking for policies which will benefit them and their families as well as businesses, with those priorities based on what matters most to them. 

As demonstrated in their party political broadcast aired last night, the Conservatives understand those priorities to be: strengthening the economy in order to invest in better hospitals, safer streets and improved schools. They have put their weight behind this ambition and in doing so built upon the slogan, packaging it as ‘unleashing Britain’s potential’.

The question becomes – how do you achieve this? I believe the answer lies in a stronger national identity and a common purpose, and that Blue Collar Conservatism offers us a way forward. It is a cause supported by current and former MPs, councillors and activists, the length and breadth of the UK – including poster boys Johnny Mercer (South West), Lee Rowley (Midlands) and Ross Thomson (Scotland). If you missed it on TV, you can – and should – read Lee’s witty yet serious response to the Queen’s Speech on Hansard. Also, if you haven’t seen Simon Jones’ Hansard at the National Theatre starring Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan – do; it’s both genius and devastating.

Blue Collar Conservatism is about championing working people and developing an aspirational agenda to benefit the communities that really feel left behind. Working people stand to benefit most from Conservative policies designed to maximise opportunity and empower them to live their lives; better, together. So much is at stake in this election: don’t be tribal – examine the manifestos when published. 

If – OK, when – the Tories win a majority, now that The Brexit Party isn’t challenging the seats they won back in 2017, I expect we’ll hear much more from Mercer et al. Before then, candidates – including no less than 12 supporters of Conservatives in Communications – should be selling this bold plan on doorsteps while warning voters about the alternative: chaos with Jeremy Corbyn and Sadiq Khan pushing for a repeat of two referenda on leaving the EU and breaking up the United Kingdom. No thanks!

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This piece was written for our website and has been republished by Politicalite (‘Beyond Brexit: Unleashing Britain’s Potential – November 14, 2019).

Language matters – get Brexit done and dusted

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

For some sections of society, politicians and journalists are among the least trusted professions. While my experiences are largely positive, I understand that frustration. I believe that the UK’s decision to leave the EU presents both with the ideal opportunity to repair that trust by delivering and reporting on the popular point of view.

There are exceptions to every rule and US president Donald J. Trump, UK prime minister Boris Johnson and Italian hopeful Matteo Salvini are them. They understand that the populist and what they see as patriotic PoV demands that politicians place stronger emphasis on national security as well as unique culture and identity, including their respective countries’ Christian heritage. By putting America first, returning sovereignty – by delivering on Brexit, and having sought to control immigration from the Mediterranean Sea – Trump, Johnson and Salvini are, and were, seeking to deliver on the ‘will of the people’. 

I highlight Salvini here (despite his very recent and perhaps temporary exit from Government) as I learned more about him while touring Tuscany and Umbria earlier this year. Yes, to want to move forward – beyond our relationship with the EU – doesn’t equate to being anti-European. I am in no doubt that Brits will continue to holiday, live and work in Europe long after October 31st.

These politicians are increasingly leveraging rallies, social media and alternative channels to push out messages and communicate with their electorates. They’re not doing this to simply keep-up with the changing times but because people are losing faith in the mainstream media.

There have been several occasions where the accuracy and impartiality of some reporting has been called into question such as the coverage of the recent Tory leadership contest and this week’s debate in the House of Commons chamber. I very much support press freedom but would encourage journalists to be extra prudent. As Alastair Stewart tweeted: ‘It becomes increasingly difficult for the public to get their heads around what is happening in our politics if supposedly independent TV reporters keep giving us their views rather than the facts.’ Andrew Marr responded with: ‘Analysis fine, hard questions essential, but our views? Not wanted on voyage.’ I agree with both. In short, the momentum wasn’t behind Rory Stewart, and the loony left, including Labour’s John McDonnell, have said much worse.

Looking ahead, perhaps a general election will present another opportunity for both journalists and politicians alike to fix this disconnect and yes, move forward. Let’s get Brexit done and dusted – instead of further debate and delay – and take the fight to Jeremy Corbyn and Sadiq Khan.

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This piece was written for Politicalite (September 29, 2019). It was syndicated on BrexitCentral (September 29, 2019).

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).

What’s next – an early general election perhaps?

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

I recently blogged that Boris Johnson must articulate a detailed vision and appoint a sound team to execute on it. He is doing that – and in the process annoying the loony left and some in the mainstream media.

Like Johnson, Michael Gove studied at Oxford and graduated with an upper-second degree, has written for The Spectator and The Times, lists education among his political interests, co-spearheaded the Vote Leave campaign and ran for Tory leader,twice. While Gove served as education secretary under David Cameron, it is Johnson – as prime minister – who has put improving life chances at the heart of his political agenda. While Johnson is determined to deliver Brexit by Halloween, it is Gove who has been put in charge of overseeing preparations across Whitehall for a no-deal scenario. There are many overlaps between the two gentlemen, not least their overall abilities and most especially their ability to express themselves both orally and via the medium of the pen (or keyboard).

Over the weekend, Johnson revealed (in an op-ed for The Times) that – in addition to previous announcements on education, technology and towns – there will be further investment in the NHS. Plus, he confirmed new upgrades for hospitals and recommitted to improving social care. Gove, meanwhile, defined the purpose of this one nation government in a tweet: “Our most important priority [is] rejuvenating our democracy, strengthening our union and embracing new opportunities”. In other words, the referendum question was clear, as were the pledges made at subsequent European, general and local elections, and therefore the mandate to move forward is without doubt.

During his first days in office – rather than setting off for Brussels – Johnson explored the ‘awesome foursome’ that make-up the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK); taking pit stops in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if, as the Policy Exchange demands, patriots could “display their area’s symbol or county coat of arms, or similar, on their number plate as is the case in many other European countries like Germany and Switzerland”? Simultaneously, our freedom-loving international trade secretary focused her efforts on life outside of the EU, including free ports and new free trade agreements with the US, Australia and New Zealand, among others.

At the time of writing this, Ipsos MORI and YouGov have the Tories on double-digit leads over Labour. In Brecon and Radnorshire, we saw Labour’s parliamentary candidate drop to fourth place and almost lose his deposit. All this indicates a clear Boris bounce and an electorate totally fed-up with Jeremy Corbyn’s ambiguity on the main issue of the day. Therefore, it’s perfectly understandable that two-thirds of voters now want to get rid of Corbyn before the UK goes to the polls again.

What else has Johnson been doing? In terms of protecting our nation and streets, we’ve seen him board HMS Victorious and appoint Johnny Mercer to head the new Office of Veterans’ Affairs as well as a plan to put 20,000 more bobbies on the beat over the next three years. This, combined with the home secretary’s vision to restore public confidence in law and order, should go some way to addressing the surge in gang violence, knife crime and moped theives affecting the capital’s residents, visitors and tourists.

Perhaps Sadiq Khan should’ve spent less time arguing for a second referendum and attacking the president of our closest ally, and more on the issues that impact Londoners. Is it any wonder that his approval ratings have tanked? Cameron and Johnson defeated Red Ken in 2008 and 2012; let’s ensure Johnson and Shaun Bailey – who has put addressing crime at the centre of his mayoral campaign – defeat Corbyn and Khan next year.

In 2018, almost a quarter of a million new homes were built in England – up from 225,000 12-months earlier and more than double the number when Labour was last in power. There have also been significant environmental milestones reached in England with a 90% drop in plastic bag purchases from the big supermarkets compared with just five years ago. As the environment secretary said recently, “We’re calling time on being a throwaway society”. We are investing for the future.

Borrowing from President Bartlett in The West Wing, I’ve asked myself this: ‘What’s next?’ Johnson’s current administration should build on these accomplishments and aspire to go even further in investing for a better future. I say current as, whichever way you look at it, it appears we are headed for an election this autumn.

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This piece was written for The Commentator (August 18, 2019).