Digital campaigning has never been more important

Holly Whitbread is the Conservative Essex County Councillor for Epping & Theydon Bois and Epping Forest District Councillor for Epping Lindsey and Thornwood Common. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

In a Covid world, digital campaigning has never been more important, as was demonstrated in the recent local elections. Whilst social platforms did not paint the whole picture, they became an important arena in sharing key messages and promoting candidates.

Although digital campaigning plays a key role in the weeks and days leading up to the election, they play an even more crucial role over a longer period. Councillors and candidates should be present in the online space and engage with their communities. Building up a digital profile locally allows candidates to raise awareness of who they are, what they are doing and what they believe in. It also enables them to provide support and share information with the people they are seeking to represent. This was particularly important during the pandemic, where Facebook was integral in communicating with residents. The idea of a virtual neighbourhood grew exponentially during the months of lockdown.

I have been a District Councillor for the past five years, and I would say I distinguish myself from other local representatives through my accessibility and proactiveness online. I try and be as available as possible to residents in my area, providing support, sharing information and signposting. As well as running my own personal social channels, a few years ago I established a ‘Community Hub Group’ on Facebook which now has almost 2,000 members. This online community group is a forum for lively discussion, where residents can ask questions to their councillors and useful local information is shared. In addition to this group, I run a local Instagram page with well over a thousand followers, which also shares local information, as well as promoting local businesses.

Outside of social media, I write a weekly community newsletter covering my County Council division and the surrounding area, which is sent every Friday by email. I started this weekly mailer earlier this year and it now reaches around a thousand people. This provides me with the opportunity to collaborate and support local businesses, organisations, and charities.

Beyond community engagement, which is essential for any local activists, there is also a vital role for online ‘peacetime campaigning’. Local political parties and their representatives must keep in touch with residents all year round, for example by sharing good news stories and updates, as well as engaging with surveys to maintain a presence outside of election time. Outside of elections is the time to be increasing followership through sponsored posts and appealing content.

During an election campaign itself, social media is a great way to broadcast to the electorate. It also allows you to reach more people than you could purely through traditional methods of campaigning or where resources must be diverted elsewhere.

For myself, during my recent local election campaign, I tried to maintain a positive campaign online, sharing messages of what I had achieved and what I hope to deliver in the future, as well as using social media to stoke momentum in my local campaign. Though, on occasion, I found social media to be an essential tool for setting the record straight in response to misleading claims being made by my political opponents. While there are limitations (I don’t think Facebook will ever replace face-to-face canvassing), targeted posting enables you to reach some of your audience quickly and effectively.

Without a doubt, digital campaigning is here to stay! To be effective, modern councillors or candidates must be present and active in the online space. It enables representatives to serve their communities more effectively, while building up their own personal profile.

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This piece was written for Digital Tories.

Conservatives must never be complacent about Starmer

Robert Halfon

GUEST POST: Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Is Keir Starmer doing that badly? I don’t want to rain on the parade of opinion poll Tory leads of anything from four to 13 per cent. Of course, it is far better to be in this position than trailing behind and our standing will be especially important in the run-up to local elections.

However, it is worth noting that Labour is still 24 points above its position after the 2019 General Election. It is also hard enough for any opposition party to get a look in, let alone in a national pandemic.

I remember well the Cameron opposition years, particularly when Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair in 2007.

At the time, especially over the summer months, Labour rocketed ahead in public opinion. It looked like Labour’s fourth consecutive election victory was in the offing. Yet, by October of that year, thanks to an astonishing performance by George Osborne on slashing inheritance tax, David Cameron’s Conference speech, Brown’s poorly timed trip to see troops in Iraq and his botched scrapping of an early election, Conservatives level pegged and even leapfrogged Labour in the opinion polls.

I won’t ever forget going to the 2007 Conservative Party Conference as Harlow’s parliamentary candidate (by then, standing for a third time), thinking that it was all over – and I would not be elected to Westminster. A few days later, all had changed, and Brown put off the election until 2010. The rest is history. It was for me.

I was driving around one of Harlow’s many roundabouts when I first heard that Brown had cancelled the election. It was announced on the post-conference Saturday lunchtime news on Radio 4. I literally stopped my car, as I was utterly amazed. I thought to myself, “Well Rob, you might get elected after all”.

I mention these things – not to be, as the Prime Minister might say, a “gloomster” – but only to remind fellow Conservatives that politics changes, literally, overnight.

Yes, the Labour Leader is often “Captain Hindsight” and he doesn’t always see the wood from the trees because of his love for forensics. But, it is not easy for opposition leaders to cut through. To his credit, Starmer is reforming the Labour Party by stealth, slowly weeding out the far-left and trying to rid his party of antisemitism.

Of course, the crucial test will come in policy, and whether the Labour Party will be counter-intuitive on public spending. Of that, there is little sign. It appears that there is no lobby group or vested interest they will not try and court in order to score the political equivalent of a quick clickbait “high” in the media and the internet. At some point, Her Majesty’s Opposition will have to take tough decisions if they want to be respected by the public and be a party of Government.

Nevertheless, Conservatives must never be complacent. The public mood can change pretty quickly. Labour party grassroots and council strength remains high. They have a long time to reform themselves and undo the damage of the Corbyn years.

Explaining public spending decisions

It is not always easy to set out the tough decisions on public spending to constituents, especially when they regard emotive issues seen to address social injustice. But, once we have worked out what our political spending priorities are, this is something all Conservatives are going to have to do.

Due to the pandemic, Government finances and our general economic situation are pretty bleak. The Government is spending more than £400 billion just to keep people and businesses afloat. Our country faces a debt bill of over £2 trillion pounds. Laid out in cash, this is enough money to fill Wembley Stadium. The interest on the debt currently sits at £49 billion pounds a year (money which could otherwise be spent on public services or cutting the cost of living – like taxes – for small business and lower earners).

The hard truth of it is that every decision the Government takes on spending increases, whether it is wages or other spending (e.g. on welfare or public services), means that either we will either have to raise taxes – quite possibly income tax – or borrow more. If we keep borrowing, we will simply have more debt and interest to pay. Borrowing will also mean that we will not have any funds available if there is a further economic shock (as we saw in 2008), or even another pandemic.

The Government does not take these decisions to be unpopular and it may sometimes get things wrong. But choices are being made under the difficult economic and financial circumstances our country currently finds itself in.

The other issue is that millions of workers have lost their jobs or their incomes. The Government has to make certain that spending decisions do not increase the burden for workers through higher taxes. Whichever way we look, there are no simple answers.

It is easy for the political opposition parties to campaign for more funding and win themselves short-term popularity because they do not share any of the responsibility for the difficult spending decisions that the Government has to make.

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This piece was written for ConservativeHome.com.

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.

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This piece was written for our website. 

What’s in store for 2021?

We asked our team and industry patrons for their opinions.

Katie Perrior is Chair of iNHouse Communications

It’s wishful thinking to believe 2021 will see a return to normality. The fight against Covid-19 will continue as the No.1 priority, but the impact of Brexit – with or without a deal – will follow closely behind. As vaccines continue to roll out, there might be light at the end of the tunnel. In reality, once the Budget is out of the way, the Government faces challenging local elections with an impending political crisis unfolding in Scotland as the Nationalists push for a second referendum. All of this through a backdrop of rising unemployment. In short, no Prime Minister has faced so many challenges at once since the Second World War. A supportive team, with senior ministers, officials and advisers in control of their own briefs and who can command loyalty from others, partnered with clear and concise messaging from the PM himself will get them through it and it’s up to all of us to do what we can to help. This battle has only just begun.

Iain Anderson is Executive Chairman at Cicero/AMO 

With a new president in the US the idea of ‘build back better‘ is going to be the mantra of many governments across the globe. In the UK, it is already the mantra of the current administration. Turning up with ideas to help that effort will be the starting point for 2021. Covid-19 has also exposed a four-speed UK. Navigating another constitutional debate in Scotland will be of key importance when the starting gun gets fired on the Holyrood poll in the new year. 

Lionel Zetter is Patron of Conservatives in Communications 

Problems always bring opportunities, and public affairs professionals are the ultimate problem solvers.  

The big challenge on the political horizon was supposed to have been Brexit. But even this historic issue has been eclipsed by the devastating effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Even as the UK leaves the EU there will be British firms who need help to do business on the continent and EU firms who need help to do business over here. As for the pandemic, it has fundamentally reshaped British government and the British economy, and businesses will need help in seizing the opportunities and avoiding any fall-out. 

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Founder & Director at do Different.

Adam wrote a longer piece here.

Aisha Cuthbert is Head of Communications at a large housing association

Aisha wrote a longer piece here.

Laura Dunn is a Digital, Social and Creative Communications Consultant to MPs 

Many MPs have utilised the benefit of digital during the pandemic and over the two lockdowns. From hosting Facebook Live Q&A sessions with constituents to spotlighting local businesses who continued to safely trade and diversified their services to help their communities, MPs’ social media channels have taken on a new meaning and purpose to provide coronavirus updates, and keep constituents informed of their work and ways they can help during these times.  

It’s been interesting to see the individual brands of different MPs emerge on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and the different types of content that are being produced. One series to highlight is Andrea Leadsom’s ‘ParliFacts’ videos.  

There has been much debate about the use of digital in Parliament and the ‘hybrid’ model that was introduced by the House to enable participation in-person and remotely by Members. Expect this debate to continue into the new year. 

Finley Morris is a Parliamentary Researcher 

Covid-19 has reshaped ways of working for most people and the offices of Members of Parliament are no exemption. Teams are now working remotely – or at least semi-remotely – and are likely to continue doing so throughout 2021, meaning direct contacts will always be far more efficient. In short, brush-up on who you know. Brexit, Covid-19 and the economy are all issues that swamp Members’ inboxes daily and they’re not going away any time soon; to communicate with MPs in 2021 must be to practice the art of brevity

Gavin Ellwood is Founder & Director at Ellwood Atfield (EA)

Although the UK recruitment market has experienced a 50% drop since the start of the pandemic, there continues to be a demand for communications and advocacy skill sets. As organisations navigate Covid-19 and the economic turmoil, C-suite leaders increasingly rely on their communicators for wise counsel and action – as Churchill once said, “the difference between management and leadership is communication.” A national vaccination programme will be a boost for the market, giving the confidence for leaders and managers to re-invest in new talent for the recovery. Some of the temporary shifts in how the office-based work is delivered will become permanent, a new ‘hybrid’ model of home and office working will doubtless emerge, though it can only be long-term if it is sustainable. As responsibility for regulation moves from the EU to the UK, we are experiencing an increased demand for policy and regulatory expertise. Whether actively looking or open to opportunities, I encourage you to put your best digital foot forward and brush-up your LinkedIn profiles in readiness for what’s ahead.

Alec Zetter is Policy and Public Affairs Headhunter at Ellwood Atfield (EA)

It has been a tough eight months in the recruitment market. What was supposed to be an exciting year of new growth hires to prepare business for Brexit has, instead, seen thousands of redundancies – remember “full employment”? – and share prices plummet (unless you work in food delivery or online shopping). The number of opportunities out there have fluctuated since March 23, from complete shutdown to small merry-go-rounds in certain sectors. 

However, there is certainly reason to be positive. The message from our clients and others is clear: communications, advocacy and public affairs are as important as they’ve ever been, and the value placed on them will only increase as we look to recover from the pandemic, re-write our legislative and regulatory frameworks and repair the economy. Associations, businesses and NFPs need to have their voices heard, and who better to deliver that for them than, well, Tories (and others) in Comms. 

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

This piece was written for our website.