The thankless work of a Party Chairman

An open letter to the Leader of the Opposition, from Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party Oliver Dowden.

Oliver Dowden, our MP, is Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party. It’s an unelected role that’s in the gift of the leader of the party (Boris Johnson), so it’s often used as a place to ‘park’ useful Ministers while they’re out of formal office (this also explains why there’s quite often more than one Chairman – it’s a kind of waiting area for soon-to-be-recycled ministers). While the party is in government the Chairman is also typically given a sinecure role such as Minister without Portfolio, which allows them to attend cabinet meetings.

In his role as Co-Chairman Oliver Dowden is required to do a fair amount of political spade work – defending the party leadership, keeping the latest policy wheezes in the news, rallying the troops at conferences, carrying the message to sympathetic foreigners, that kind of thing.

Today’s grunt work is a strongly-worded open letter to the leader of the opposition, part of a dizzying 36 hours in Westminster politics that seems worth a closer look. Let’s try to put Dowden’s letter into a sequence:

  1. Tuesday evening (19 April). Boris Johnson attends a meeting of Tory MPs, ostensibly to apologise for partygate and rally the troops. He takes the opportunity to criticise the Archbishop of Canterbury and the BBC. As expected, the content of his speech is quickly made public.
  2. Later Tuesday evening. Friendly media outlets are briefed about the speech – that the PM asserted that the Archbishop has been more critical of the Government’s plan to deport refugees to Rwanda than he has been of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, for instance. Also that the PM was unhappy about the criticism of the plan on the BBC.
  3. Wednesday morning. This is where it gets complicated. The press may also have been briefed that the PM was unhappy with the BBC’s coverage of Ukraine. On Wednesday’s Today on BBC Radio 4, Justin Webb picks up this line and grills Paul Scully, the unfortunate junior minister who happens to be on duty that morning, about the Prime Minister’s criticism of BBC journalism – “can you come up with an occasion when Boris Johnson has put his life on the line for the truth as Jeremy Bowen has, as Lyse Doucet has, as Clive Myrie has?” Webb’s line of questioning becomes part of the story, of course. There are complaints and a line is provided by the BBC press office (quoted in this Telegraph article).
  4. Wednesday lunchtime. Webb’s line of questioning obviously hits home, though, and when Keir Starmer accuses Johnson of slandering “decent people in a private room” and says “how can the Prime Minister claim to be a patriot when he deliberately attacks and degrades the institutions of our great country?” at Prime Minister’s Questions, The PM responds furiously – “…he must be out of his tiny mind…”
  5. Wednesday afternoon. So, by now the disagreement comes down to whether the PM criticised the BBC’s coverage of the Rwanda plan or its coverage of the Ukraine war (or both) in his speech to MPs.
  6. Thursday morning. Central Office concludes that this calumny – that the Prime Minister has criticised the BBC for its coverage of the Ukraine war – cannot stand and must be tackled head-on. One aspect of the response is Oliver Dowden’s letter to Keir Starmer, published on his Twitter account. It catalogues Boris Johnson’s various defences of press freedom (not a very long list, in truth) and finishes with a routine reminder that the Labour Party was once led by a Kremlin apologist. Ministers tour the breakfast studios to demand an apology from Starmer, newspapers pick up the letter and run it under headlines like Sir Keir Starmer told to retract claims Boris Johnson criticised BBC’s Ukraine coverage (The Telegraph) and Boris Johnson ally suggests he shouldn’t apologise to Commons – but Keir Starmer should (The Mirror).

And this is all in a day’s work for a hard-working Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party.

  • The Conservative Party has a useful page about the duties of the Party Chairman. Oliver Dowden’s letter is on Dowden’s own Twitter, not on the Party’s web site or even on an official Twitter account. Does anyone archive this stuff? Are Government librarians scouring MPs’ social media for material? Will historians be able to access statements like this in the distant future? Or does it actually serve politicians that official statements are now no more permanent than tweets?

Culture wars update

Woke police officer

One of the things we’ve done on this blog – with, let’s face it, limited consistency – is keep an eye on the public statements and Ministerial actions of our MP Oliver Dowden who, these days, is Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party and Minister without Portfolio (we started, in fact, under his predecessor, James Clappison, a long-serving MP who had represented Hertsmere since the creation of the constituency in 1992).

Although Mr Dowden is currently without formal Ministerial responsibilities (his role does allow him to attend Cabinet meetings, although without a portfolio to represent he’ll probably just do a crossword or something) you might be forgiven for thinking that he ought to adopt the title Minister for the Culture Wars. He’s all over it. The Google alert that keeps us up to date with Oliver Dowden’s business is essentially all culture wars, all the time these days.

So you won’t be surprised to learn that the Co-Chairman’s message to electors ahead of the 5 May local elections, which you can read on Conservative Home, is heavy on the culture wars and includes two uses of the word ‘woke’ (‘woke warriors’ and ‘woke vanity projects’).

We’re not 100% sure we want to reduce this blog to a chronological account of Mr Dowden’s statements about statues, unisex toilets, woke street names and so on. But it does seem worthwhile to record the fact that a prominent MP, once confidant to a Prime Minister and until recently a full Minister of the Crown, can be so diminished in office as to be obliged to churn out talking points for Facebook (Mr Dowden is so far silent on David Attenborough’s woke dinosaur, though).

So, let’s get it over with. Oliver Dowden’s latest Culture Wars sortie relates to guidance apparently given to police forces to use gender-neutral language when addressing the public (we can’t find this guidance online, although the Mail’s claim is that it was obtained by a FOI request to Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire constabularies). The Minister for Woke’s statement on the matter says that the police should be arresting crims and

…not wasting time trying to condition officers who extend a basic courtesy to the people they serve.

Oliver Dowden MP, quoted in The Mail, 16 April 2022

It’s not clear what Dowden means by ‘condition’ but the quote has surfaced in multiple outlets, from GB News to The Sun, to The Daily Star to Kremlin-funded RT (recently banned from UK TV by Ofcom, as you’ll remember, but obviously still on the mailing list for these press lines). We’re curious as to how this happens. How is a line like this distributed? It’s not contained in an official press release that we’ve been able to find. Is there an email d-list? We’re naive about the ways of Government press offices. Can you enlighten us?

Anyway, our bet is that Mr Dowden’s interest in the Culture Wars will sharply decline immediately the council elections are out of the way in a few weeks (no elections in Hertsmere this year, though, remember, so don’t get excited).

Oliver Dowden on partygate

A photograph taken from a window at Number 10 Downing Street in May 2020, showing Prime Minister Boris Johnson, his wife Carrie Johnson (with her newborn baby Wilfred) and two aides thought to be Dominic Cummings and Martin Reynolds. Part of a larger image that shows other staff on the lawn neyond the terrace.
The Prime Minister and Number 10 staff during the first national lockdown

UPDATE 13 April 2022. As expected, the Prime Minister’s fixed penalty notice has arrived (two in the letterbox in fact). Our MP was not the only loyalist to be dropped in it by the news, of course, although Oliver Dowden’s “…he is not going to be subject to a fixed-penalty notice because he is confident that he has not broken the law” from three weeks ago was more fulsome than most. Along with dozens of other Tory MPs, Dowden has now shared the official line:

Fixed penalties are starting to land on the doormats of Conservative Party staff, civil servants and, quite possibly, MPs and ministers. We don’t know how many have been issued but the BBC says it’ll be at least 15 but more likely 20 and there may be a second and subsequent batches. The investigation takes in 12 events, though, so it seems unlikely it’ll stop at 20.

From the Telegraph we get this complicated construction: “Downing Street said Boris Johnson has not been told by the Metropolitan Police that he is being fined over the ‘partygate’ scandal.” The Met won’t be providing a list of those fined (they don’t normally publish the names of people issued with fixed penalties) but we’re willing to bet you a tenner right now that there’ll soon be a list in the public domain. Still no word on the Prime Minister, although his promise to tell us if he is fined presumably still stands.

So, although as Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party and Minister without Portfolio his loyalty is obviously guaranteed, it’s possible that Oliver Dowden was going out on a limb a bit last week when he told James O’Brien on LBC:

The prime minister is actually absolutely resolutely clear that he is not going to be subject to a fixed-penalty notice because he is confident that he has not broken the law.

Oliver Dowden, LBC, 21 March 2022

The mood music this week suggests Johnson’s innocence is not quite such a sure thing, though. You’ll find a dozen news and opinion pieces since we learnt that fines were imminent, even in the Tory press, that suggest Johnson’s partygate woes are not over, even that his leadership may still be in peril. The Evening Standard, for instance, owned by the Prime Minister’s friend Evgeny Lebedev, is pretty sure that ‘a day of reckoning’ is coming, although the loyalists questioned are pretty sure that it won’t be till after the Ukraine crisis.

And then there’s the Sue Gray report (bet you’d forgotten about that), the final, unexpurgated, version of which is due after the Met’s investigation is finished.

Oliver Dowden – horticulture warrior

A hedge, left, and Oliver Dowden MP

Our MP, Oliver Dowden, former Minister who is now co-chairman of the Conservative Party and Minister without Portfolio, has been walking the leafy streets of his constituency and has hit on a striking metaphor for the values he and his party stand for:

For me, the privet hedges of suburbia are the privet hedges of a free people.

Oliver Dowden’s speech to the Conservative Party 2022 Spring conference.

Dowden is serious about this. He considers it his mission as co-chairman “to defend those values and those freedoms.” The minister’s expanded role as Minister for Suburban Boundary Planting is real and rooted (sorry) in an idea of freedom that goes back some decades – at least as far as Margaret Thatcher’s adoption of a more individualistic model of Conservatism in the early 80s, pushing aside the ‘one-nation’ version that had prevailed for almost a century before it.

In 1982, to drive home the message, the Conservative party adopted an olympic torch of freedom as party emblem (replaced with an oak tree during David Cameron’s modernising spell as leader). Dowden uses the words ‘free’ and ‘freedom’ seven times in all in his conference speech and it’s not just hedges; it’s Europe under threat from Russia too.

The EU Parliamentary election results are in

A dramatic result in Radlett’s EU constituency – East of England. A wipe-out for Labour and a big loss for the Tories. An amazing result for the Brexit Party, the Greens and the Lib Dems (oh, and UKIP essentially disappeared).

The Conservatives lost two of their three MEPs in our EU Parliamentary constituency, leaving them with one. The Liberal Democrats gained two seats – from zero last time around, Labour’s only MEP in the region has gone and the Greens have their first seat. The extraordinary factor here, as in so many other constituencies, is the performance of the Brexit Party – the largest party by a mile. The detail shows the scale of their win. Their vote in East of England is almost four times bigger than the Tories’.

Looking more locally, at the voting percentages for our council district – Hertsmere – there’s some fascinating detail. Turnout was 36.39% (compared with 36.4% for the East of England and 37% nationally. Across Europe, the figure exceeded 50% for the first time).

You can see that UKIP’s share of the vote has fallen by 26.3% to 2.7%. Lord Ashcroft’s fascinating post-election polling (an essential read after every important election these days) suggests that 68% of UKIP voters, at the national level, switched directly to Farage’s party, with most Brexit Party votes overall coming from 2017 Conservative voters. The Hertsmere numbers suggest slightly more of the UKIP voters switched and slightly fewer of the Tories. Instructive, though, to remember that UKIP’s vote in Hertsmere in the 2017 General Election was 3% (our full 2017 results post is here).

The Conservatives’ collapse in Hertsmere is dramatic but they’ve lost a substantially smaller share then at the National or East of England level, falling only 20 percentage points to 17.7%. Ashcroft’s numbers also suggest that almost 40% of the Lib Dem vote nationally came from 2017 Labour voters and a quarter from 2017 Tories.

In some ways the Green Party’s performance, both in Hertsmere and at the East of England level, is most interesting – their increase in vote share has been enough to get them just above the threshold for a single seat and they’ve essentially swapped places with Labour, whose share has fallen to just below the threshold, but the whole picture is so complex – somebody really did shake the kaleidoscope.

Nationally, it’s not so different. According to Laura Kuenssberg on the BBC election results programme, if the Conservatives had done this badly in a UK general election they’d have won no seats at all.

At the wider European level it’s been a good night for the far right – the largest parties in the Parliament from both France and Italy are now from what we would once have called the nationalist fringe – and for the Greens. The largest groups in the new Parliament are still from the socialist and centre right blocs but they no longer have a majority – this is going to be interesting.

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Most of the data in this post is from the BBC’s excellent and very comprehensive election results site, some from the EU’s and the Hertsmere turnout figure is from Hertsmere’s own elections web site.

Brexit – how would you vote now?

In the 2016 EU referendum Hertsmere, which is Radlett’s electoral district, voted Leave by a small margin. In an opinion poll we took just before the referendum, you voted Remain, by an equally small margin.

In our opinion poll we asked exactly the question that we knew we’d all be answering in the referendum itself (and we added a ‘don’t know’ option because you don’t get one of those in the polling booth).

Although, like all web site polls, it wasn’t at all scientific, we did get a reasonably good sample: 361 people (or about 5% of the Radlett electorate) participated. The end result was a small majority for Remain. Dividing ‘don’t knows’ equally across the two referendum responses gives us a result of 50.7% Remain to 49.3% Leave. Given the profile of the area, that doesn’t seem implausible.

Radlett Wire EU referendum poll results graphic
Results of our pre-referendum opinion poll.

The wider polling district, Hertsmere, voted Leave by 50.8% to 49.2%. We also subsequently learnt that neighbouring Shenley had actually voted Remain – by a margin of 51.78% to 48.22% so that might also serve to confirm the validity of our poll.

So, two months before Britain legally leaves the European Union (whatever the deal), how would you vote now? Click the survey button and answer our two referendum questions (it’s entirely anonymous). We’ll share the results here and on our social media accounts.

What were the big issues for General Election voters in Radlett?

About a week ago, just before the 2017 General Election, we asked you which local issues would motivate you to vote. We did this for the last election too, back in 2015.

So, in order of importance to you, here are the issues that got the Radlett electorate voting, with the 2015 position in italics and the number of votes for each issue (in brackets).

1. The NHS (140) – up from 3rd position
2. Local amenities (134) – up from 8
3. The freight terminal and the green belt (133) – down from number 1
4. Caring for the elderly (130) – up from 11
5. Crime and policing (130) – down from 4
6. Transport and commuting (129) – non-mover
7. Young people (129) – up from 9
8. Development in Radlett (121) – down from 2
9. The Newberries car park development (121) – new entry
10. Housing (120) – up from 12
9. Local business (117) – down from 7
10. Environment (114) – non-mover
11. Or is it really all about Brexit? (112) – new entry
12. Schools (105) – down from 8

The NHS has displaced the freight terminal as your number one concern since 2015, the Newberries car park redevelopment is a new entry at number nine and, although we were really expecting you to tell us that Brexit trumps everything else, it was the second-least important issue in the survey. Does this reflect a national loss of interest in the mechanics of Brexit, now that it’s a done deal? And will the biggest electoral surprise in decades throw the whole Brexit calculation in the air again anyway?

It’s also fascinating that schools have dropped from number eight to last place. The huge cuts coming down the pipe for all state schools are clearly not freaking out the population of Radlett.

Our 2017 election survey results are here. And you can read the 2015 results here.

And on the national scale, Tory donor (and noted tax avoider) Lord Ashcroft runs a large and detailed survey of UK voters after every major vote. His most recent data is absolutely fascinating. He shows, for instance, that the only age group that voted majority Conservative in last week’s election was the over-55s.

Elections in Hertsmere since 1983

A line chart showing Hertsmere Parliamentary election voting data, from 1983-2017That’s 34 years of Hertsmere General Election voting data, from the Thatcher high water mark of 1983 (the biggest landslide since Labour’s 1945 win, you’ll remember) to 2017’s most surprising result, via that other high water mark – Blair’s even bigger 1997 landslide.

The Hertsmere Parliamentary constituency has only existed since 1983. Before it there was a constituency called South Hertfordshire that itself only lasted for three general elections. Cecil Parkinson, a close ally of Margaret Thatcher, held the seat from 1983, when he also ran the extraordinarily successful Conservative national campaign. He was replaced, after a particularly egregious scandal, for the 1992 election, by James Clappison, who went on to be a popular and hard-working constituency representative for five Parliamentary terms.

Clappison was summarily dumped by his party for the 2015 election, though, to make room for David Cameron adviser Oliver Dowden. Dowden himself has spent the last two years building a reputation for hard work and commitment to the constituency and he has, of course, now been re-elected with a higher share of the vote, although a slightly smaller majority.

What all the results in the chart have in common, of course, is the winner. Hertsmere has been a comfortably Conservative seat throughout. Even the Blair revolution, in which Labour took 418 Parliamentary seats, the largest number ever held by a UK party, couldn’t (quite) touch that and, although Fiona Smith has lifted the party further from that dreadful 2010 result, the Corbyn uprising has done essentially nothing to close the gap.

In some ways, the Liberals’ trajectory in the constituency since 1983 is the grimmest of all – steadily falling from a quarter of the vote and second place ahead of Labour – to little more than 5% this year. That’s a snapshot of the national challenge for Farron and his party.

This chart shows the Conservatives’ winning majority in Hertsmere, over the 34-year period. You can see just how close things got in 1997. It’s fascinating to note how long it’s taken the party to recover from that enormous electoral shock.

Chart showing winning majority in Hertsmere Parliamentary constituency from 1983 - 2017

And this chart shows turnout over the same period.
Hertsmere General Election turnout data, 1983-2017

To keep the top chart simple, I’ve left out the minor parties – the levitating transcendentalists from the Natural Law Party (please watch their 1994 European Parliamentary election broadcast); James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party, whose programme looked pretty kooky at the time but now looks like a model of sanity; the Independent Communist candidate whose vote exceeded 2% back in 1983; Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party and the BNP, whose Daniel Seabrook ran once in 2010 before being rendered entirely irrelevant by UKIP. The smaller-party numbers are all included in the raw data, though, in case you’re interested.
(sources: Wikipedia and BBC)

Hertsmere – the results are in

Oliver Dowden acceptance speech 2017Blimey, what a night. British politics has been turned on its head. Young voters have challenged the electoral status quo as never before. A Prime Minister brought low by hubris. But you don’t want to know about all that. You want to know what happened here in Hertsmere, right?
Screenshot of 2017 election results from Hertsmere Parliamentary constituency

As expected, it was not an exciting night in Hertsmere. The photograph (from Hertsmere Borough Council on Twitter), taken during Oliver Dowden’s acceptance speech, properly expresses the frenzy at the count in Borehamwood. It was a good night for Dowden, though. He was re-elected with more votes and an increased share.

He’s won a smaller majority though, and that’s all about a substantially better performance from Labour and the collapse in UKIP’s vote. Fiona Smith, a first time candidate for Labour, built on Richard Butler’s work in 2015, taking Labour’s vote to 14,977, over 6% more than in 2015 and a 28.7% share, the party’s highest since 2001. I predict a solid political future for Fiona Smith.

UKIP’s loss mirrored the national numbers. David Hoy polled only 1,564 votes, 75% fewer than in 2015.

The Liberal Democrats polled almost exactly the same as in 2015, which itself was a thirty-year low point, and the Greens’ return to Hertsmere politics made essentially no difference. Return to two-party politics, anyone?

Turnout was 71%, the best since the high water mark of 1997, when it was 74%.

Your Radlett General Election guide

Let’s start with the 2015 results for the Hertsmere constituency. Here’s our analysis of the voting two years ago.
Screenshot of Hertsmere general election result from BBC web site, 8 May 2015
Four parties stood last time (no Greens) and the Tory share was a substantial 59.3%. According to the excellent Electoral Calculus, Hertsmere is the Conservatives’ 103rd safest seat and Oliver Dowden has a 97% chance of retaining the seat so all the action this year will be at the margins. Will the Liberals lose share, as some predict? Will Labour do better than expected?

Your candidates. There are five this time around:
Oliver Dowden, Conservative.
David Hoy, UKIP.
Joe Jordan, Liberal Democrats.
Fiona Smith, Labour.
Sophie Summerhayes, Green Party.
Here’s what we know about them so far.

And what about that other big vote?. Our polling district voted Leave by a margin of 1.6% (50.8 – 49.2%), putting the district 262nd of the 382 UK polling districts – meaning that 261 districts, or 68% of the total, had larger majorities for Leave. We put together a quite detailed analysis of the Brexit vote in Hertsmere – putting the local vote in the regional and national context. Referendum vote counting was done differently from election counting, so we don’t have ward-by-ward voting data, except for neighbouring Shenley, which, thanks the BBC’s Martin Rosenbaum, we know voted Remain.

Before the 2015 election we ran a survey. We wanted to know what were the Radlett issues that got you all voting. The big issue last time around was the railfreight terminal- a story that has moved on since then but is still not in any way resolved. Do please take two minutes to fill in this year’s survey! It’ll take two minutes and we’ll share the results here and on Facebook and Twitter.

What to do on the big day. There are usually four polling stations in Radlett – the United Synagogue and the Radlett Centre, Newberries Primary School and the Phillimore Community Centre, and if you don’t know which one is yours, there’s a handy web site where you can find out.

Local and Parliamentary elections in Radlett are run by a team at Hertsmere Borough Council. They have a useful web site where you can find out about candidates, counts, previous results and so on. On the My Society web site, there’s a very useful, plain English guide to voting in UK elections.