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.

London – this is Basingstoke calling

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

What many people anticipated has happened. J.P. Morgan, an international bank with 16,000 employees based in the UK – spread across Edinburgh, Glasgow, London, Bournemouth and Basingstoke – has made a call on how it will be organised in the post Covid-19 world. Working from home, at least part of the time, is going to be a “more or less permanent” feature of their model. The “rotational model” will see JPM bankers working “one week a month from home, or two days a week from home, or two weeks a month”, depending on the type of business.

I’m a former employee, so perhaps I tend to place too much value on what the bank says. However, I don’t think anyone can deny the firm is a leader with serious heavyweight thinkers at the very top. Who would you prefer to be in The White House – Donald J. Trump or Jamie Dimon?

This news came out on the same day as a BBC report about 50 UK businesses. None – not even one – is planning a full-scale return to pre-pandemic office staffing levels. Simon Jack, BBC Business Editor, called city-centres an “ecosystem” like a coral reef. It’s a good analogy. And he called the situation a cardiac arrest rather than a process of evolution. It’s also being reported that London’s West End is still only operating at 13% of pre Covid-19 lockdown levels. The national level for other cities is 17%. This heart-breaking quote from The Times sums it up: Andrea Oriani wonders if the sandwich bar that he owns in Leadenhall Market will exist come next year. “The City has died,” he said. “We closed in March, thinking it would be a couple of weeks, and didn’t reopen until early July.” In the first week back he took £400. Compare that with a normal £10,000. Last Thursday he took £240 in a day.

I don’t know anyone who expects any sort of return to normality this year. A friend who lives in Kennington says the neighbourhood is busy with people working from home and, in the evening, pubs and restaurants are thriving. Moorgate, just five tube stops away, is empty. Inflexion-point is an over-used phrase, but this is surely where we’re at. Public transport and the catering/ hospitality segments that solely rely on office workers in the City and West End are in a death spiral. Tragically, I’m not sure there’s anything that can be done.

Are there any positives? Well, yes. Discussing the situation with friends who, like me, haven’t set foot in central London for six months we bemoaned the loss of many things. Office banter, gossip, meeting friends from overseas offices etc., we yearn for a sense of community. Working remotely may well be efficient, however, it can also be soulless at times.

I live in Church Crookham, Hampshire. It’s in the Hart district, which is regularly voted as the best place to live in the country. It didn’t earn its reputation because of its restaurant diversity. My neighbours seem to have an unquenchable appetite for either Italian or Indian food. America may run on Dunkin Donuts – around here it’s pizza and chicken tikka masala. The only standout is our excellent Nepalese restaurants – a legacy of the Gurkha Regiment formerly being based here. We don’t have any Japanese, Lebanese or even Mexican restaurants.

So, my passion for exploring new cuisines has in the past been partly sated by the London food-truck scene. At my old office near Liverpool Street station, we were quite spoilt for choice. Thursday night events at Spitalfields Market were enormous fun too. I’ve even watched open-air salsa dancing while eating spicy Argentinian Empanadas and drinking beer brewed in Rotherhithe. You can’t do that on a Zoom call…

I have a suggestion. Perhaps J.P. Morgan could organise a food-truck event in the car park at their office in Basingstoke? If we can’t or won’t go to London, then they must come to us. Family members tell me that Milton Keynes (where 30,000 people are estimated to be WFH instead of commuting) and mill houses in Sheffield would love some food diversity. Looking forward to it.

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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.

We’re optimistic about the future, but the MSM must up its game

PRESS RELEASE – IMMEDIATE DISTRIBUTION

A survey conducted by Conservatives in Communications (CiC), the independent and informal industry network for over 435 professionals, reveals that its supporters are optimistic about the future of the sector (7.24 out of 10), with 99% in employment. The positive findings come as the Government looks to ease lockdown measures in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. This in spite of 62% feeling that the mainstream media (MSM) is not providing balanced and unbiased reporting. Bloomberg and the BBC ranked as the most trustworthy news brands while Al Jazeera and Russia Today ranked as the least trustworthy.

The group, which is marking one year since it was relaunched by its chair Katie Perrior and principal director Adam Honeysett-Watts, has been encouraging supporters – including 23 parliamentary patrons – to take part in its inaugural Census 2020. In addition to its industry patrons, a new tier of Tory peers and MPs – who have previously worked or have an interest in communications (public affairs, PR, policy, digital, marketing, events, journalism or publishing) – have recently signed-up. The team has also been widened to build out its offering to young conservatives and to get more women involved.

Survey respondents were largely positive about the Government’s original ‘Stay home’ message (4.49 out of 5). They scored all nine aspects of the daily press briefings, such as stage management and inviting the public to submit their questions, as effective; with the Chancellor of the Exchequer recognised as the most impressive performer. That said, there is little appetite for the conferences to become a permanent fixture. Further, supporters were invited to submit ideas for a new slogan or comment on the ‘Stay alert’ message. Of those who did, 69% proposed an alternative, which may have contributed to a lower score of 3.18 out of 5 for the Government’s overall strategy.

Turning to other topics. While 73% of participants benefited from flexible working and / or working from home (WFH) before the pandemic began, 90% will be advocating for this post-lockdown. Perhaps unsurprisingly, supporters do not miss commuting to and from work (77%), and many used this available time to spend with the family and to ‘think’ more about their work. Professionals have adapted quite well to the changes with 44% saying they have been more productive, especially when it comes to producing written materials for both internal and external clients. 42% said they’re more active while 41% have reallocated earnings.

Katie Perrior, Chair of iNHouse Communications and a former Director of Communications at Number 10, said:

“Our supporters have risen to the challenges posed by the country’s response to the global pandemic. That aside, we’re a people industry – our successes are built on networking and relationships. Although the many technologies – for example, Microsoft Teams and Zoom – have worked much better than expected, they are no substitute for face-to-face. Survey respondents cited less time with colleagues (60%) and friends (45%) as reasons they like least about WFH. I too, look forward to seeing my colleagues and clients as well as family and friends, in-person, very soon.”

Adam Honeysett-Watts said:

“We spotted an opportunity to relaunch and grow CiC into a more dynamic, proactive, diverse and transparent resource, and the pandemic has shown how much one is needed. While industry networking is the main reason our supporters joined us and continue to be involved, there is appetite for us to offer more. That includes advertising job opportunities (63%), sharing industry news (61%), connecting with our parliamentary patrons (59%), widening blog content (55%) as well as offering careers advice and mentoring opportunities (50%). Many of these are already in the works, including the latter, where 72% of supporters cited interest in being mentors.”

Note to Editors

You can learn more about the survey and access all of the results here.

As covered by PRWeek.

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).