Oliver Dowden, MP for Hertsmere, Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party and unlikely attack dog in the Culture Wars, has a new, slightly demeaning job. He’s been tasked with adding names to the Conservative Party’s email marketing list. He’s doing this by attacking some Labour politicians for supporting the the RMT’s strike action. Nothing new about attacking organised labour, of course, but Dowden’s approach is unusual and quite possibly unprecedented – he’s started a petition which will apparently be delivered to the opposition Labour party.
The eccentricity of this approach: a governing party – and one with a 75-seat majority in the House of Commons – petitioning the party that is currently out of power for action in an industrial dispute – will not have escaped you. But the oddball logic will become clear if you actually try to complete the petition. It’s a fake petition. You’ll find that, although you’re offered two options (condemn the strikes, don’t condemn the strikes), whichever way you vote you’ll be required to provide an email address and agree to receive email ‘about the Party’s campaigns and opportunities to get involved’. Boom, you’re on the list.
This kind of data collection mechanic disguised as a campaign has, as you’d expect, been imported from US politics, where Donald Trump and others have been building huge email and telephone databases and surveilling voters via similar devices for years. In this country, political parties are governed by data protection regulations just like other organisations and this petition looks legit but you may want to take your usual precautions against the kind of epic quantities of spam that political parties routinely produce.
Top tip: if you have one, use a special email address when you’re obliged to sign up for junk mail in this way – we have one which deletes all email before we even see it.
Of course, whether it’s a dignified thing for a prominent politician – one who until not long ago was an actual Minister of the Crown (he was replaced by Nadine Dorries) – to be grubbing around for qualified leads for the party’s junk mail department is another matter – one we’ll leave to Mr Dowden’s conscience.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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…”
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.
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?
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.
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).
Street names are interesting aren’t they? A mix of impenetrable, often very ancient, labels for paths and byways that even precede the Roman names and much more modern, deliberately-applied names that often commemorate battles, statesmen, landowners and local dignitories. Sometimes it’s artists and writers. Round my way there’s a whole estate named after poets, which is lovely.
In British towns you might be forgiven for thinking it’s all about the Second Boer War – a particularly brutal war for land and resources fought in South Africa at the turn of the 20th Century that’s widely commemorated – especially in street names.
This particular war was an early ‘media war’ – covered in often uncompromising detail by star correspondents (including a young Winston Churchill) sent by the major newspapers – most of whom enthusiastically supported the British action against the two Boer republics on the other side. The new technology of the telegraph allowed vivid reports to be returned daily and the papers competed to carry the most gruesome descriptions of the fighting.
The names of battles won and lost, the soldiers who fought them and the places they fought over were all well known – much as we came to know the names of cities and battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan – Fallujah, Basra, Helmand, Kunduz… And because the end of the Victorian period was a time of much housebuilding in Britain’s towns and suburbs it’s no surprise that there are dozens of Ladysmith Streets, Mafeking Roads and Kitchener Terraces all around the UK.
During the First World War the issue was different. Going to war with Germany, a nation with which many – including the Royal family – had close connections, produced new tensions. In the cities, for instance, many were unhappy about British streets that had German names. Some were summarily changed by patriotic Mayors and councils.
In 1916 the London County Council changed the name of Bismarck Road in Blackheath to Edith Cavell Way (Cavell was a nurse, captured and shot by German forces in Belgium in 1915). There’s a street in Stoke Newington called Beatty Road that used to be called Wiesbaden Road. Petitions were raised, questions asked in Parliament. Changing names didn’t become national policy though. In the House of Commons in 1918, faced with a bill to rename all street names of German origin, Leader of the House, Andrew Bonar Law (who, three years later, would become Prime Minister amid a scandal over payment for honours) said: ‘We are engaged, I think, in matters more important’.
Even so, in Leeds:
There are numerous cases in the Metropolitan area of sturdy patriotic British citizens having to live under German direction, so to speak, and the residents of thoroughfares with such pronouncedly Teutonic names as Bismarck, Wiesbaden, Gothenburg, Berlin, Stuttgart, and so on, naturally resent the objectionable denominations.
Streets with German Names, Leeds Mercury, November 11 1915
The Second World War seems to have produced fewer street renamings, perhaps because the German names had been removed 25 years earlier, but in Essex there’s an estate with roads named after Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. The Falklands War is reflected in a scattering of street names as you’d imagine – there’s a Port Stanley Close on a new-build estate in Taunton. The 40th anniversary of the invasion might produce some new ones.
Some Nelson Mandela Streets, Squares (and Houses) arrived in the early 90s – mostly in communities where the campaign against apartheid had been at its most vigorous, where Mandela’s freedom meant most. That Mandela now sits alongside Kitchener on British street signs is appropriate – not least because in marking the final removal of the racist regime inserted under colonialism it brings the story of Britain’s involvement in South Africa full-circle.
And in Britain, street names are a battlefield again. Our MP, Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party and Minister without Portfolio Oliver Dowden, who has taken on the role of Kitchener in his Government’s Culture War, is back in the trenches.
In time for the May local elections (in which we will not participate, by the way – no elections in Hertsmere till next year) Dowden thinks there’s electoral mileage in taking on lefty councils. The main target is name changes proposed by Black Lives Matter groups and by those who think it’s incongruous that so many of our streets honour men who prospered from imperialism and slavery. There is a plan:
These proposals will give local residents a democratic check against the lefty municipal militants trying to cancel war heroes like Churchill and Nelson.
Under changes floated by Michael Gove’s Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government, local authorities would be required to hold a ‘mini-referendum’ amongst residents when a name change is proposed. This doesn’t seem to be a new proposal, though – and there’s no detail on the Ministry’s web site – so it’s likely that Dowden is re-upping November’s proposal to give neighbourhoods a say in planning changes.
But since Michael Gove himself has recently said that the Government has abandoned plans to bring forward the Planning Bill this provision was contained in, it’s most likely that Oliver Dowden’s referendum idea is electioneering, but it’s certainly fascinating to hear the language of ‘loony lefties’ and ‘municipal militants’ back in the public discourse, over thirty years on. The Mail has gone to the effort of creating an illustration to bring it all up to date:
So, if you’ve decided it would be noble to change the name of your street to Kyiv Crescent, you’ll need to make sure you’ve got the whole neigbourhood with you.
An important change to the law during lockdown made it possible for women to get abortion pills (early medical abortion) prescribed over the phone (the legislation calls this ‘telemedicine’) and then to have the pills, which are taken in two doses, 48 hours apart, sent to a home address (this is for abortions earlier than 10 weeks).
The government proposed removing this pandemic provision and returning to in-person appointments from 29 August this year. Women’s groups, medical charities and professional bodies, like the Pregnancy Advisory Service and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, lobbied to keep the at-home provision, because women like the convenience and choice it provides but also because it’s been shown to help vulnerable women – who might, for instance, be unable to get to a clinic – to get safe abortions. BPAS Chief executive Clare Murphy said, in a press release:
We’ve long known there are women who really struggle to access clinic services. They are sometimes women in very complex situations, very vulnerable women. Women in coercive relationships, for example, found it difficult to access clinics without their partner knowing. These women either turn to illegal methods or they present to us very late.
Earlier this month Conservative peer Baroness Liz Sugg tabled an amendment to the Health and Care Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, seeking to make the at-home service permanent (incidentally Liz Sugg was Head of Operations in David Cameron’s Number 10 PR team while Oliver Dowden was Deputy Chief of Staff – they share an organogram here. Cameron moved Sugg upstairs on his resignation in 2016). Because abortion is considered to be a matter of conscience, Government whips permitted a free vote on Sugg’s amendment in the Commons, which took place yesterday, 30 March 2022. MPs voted in favour of the amendment 212 to 184, so the provision will continue and women won’t have to go to a surgery to get the first dose.
MP for Hertsmere Oliver Dowden is one of the 184 MPs – almost all them Conservatives – who voted against retaining the service.
This vote can’t tell us much about Dowden’s attitude to abortion – he has a mixed record. Anti-abortion lobby group Right To Life maintains a web site that tracks votes for every UK legislator (this approach to holding legislators to account seems to be becoming more popular – it’s an import from US special-interest politics where it is widespread). Oliver Dowden’s page shows six abstentions and a total of three votes for or against on ‘right to life’ issues (votes are labelled green if they’re in agreement with Right to Life policy and red if not).
Dowden’s background as a hard-working member of David Cameron’s broadly socially-liberal administration might suggest support for a woman’s right not to be pregnant but his more recent enthusiastic involvement in the culture wars (statues, hedges, Maoism and so on) suggests otherwise. So it’s inconclusive.
Right to Life themselves are, as you’d expect, unhappy with the outcome of the vote. A spokesperson said, in a press release:
The group of MPs who have voted for this amendment have voted to remove vital safeguards including an in-person appointment with a medical professional. This will put thousands more women at risk from ‘DIY’ home abortion services, by removing a routine in-person consultation that allows medical practitioners to certify gestation and recognise potential coercion or abuse, ‘at-home’ abortion has presented serious risks to women and girls in abusive situations.
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.
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.
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.
No, not an oyster bar. But Oyster contactless is – possibly – coming to Radlett station this Summer
In November last year Oliver Dowden, our MP, announced the extension of the Oyster scheme to Radlett (in fact the extension is taking Oyster all the way out to Luton Airport Parkway but he’s taking credit anyway). A few weeks later various media outlets, including the Watford Observer, confirmed the news. Early this year we got right on it and began a (slightly tiring) countdown on our Twitter account. Actually, we were counting days since the announcement, so it was more of a count-up. Then, a couple of months ago we caught sight of newly printed TfL maps (thanks to Marc Edney in the Radlett Village Facebook group), apparently showing Radlett within the Oyster zone. We got excited and stopped our count-up, expecting Oyster to arrive any day.
Obviously we should have been a bit more circumspect. Months later Oyster is still not here. So, we pulled on our gumshoe hats and got in touch with the TfL press office. They passed us onto the Govia Thameslink press office and they have provided us with a statement, which reads:
“We’re working with Transport for London and the Department for Transport to have Oyster and contactless card payment facilities available at Radlett this summer.”
So that does at least seem to confirm that this should be happening this Summer. I asked if they could give us any sense of the likelihood of this actually happening or any kind of timing and the spokesperson added:
“Transport for London are continuing to install and test the equipment and software systems at Radlett, and we expect them to confirm a completion date shortly.”
I think we’ll start our count-up again. It’s now been 208 days since Oliver Dowden and the Department for Transport told us Oyster was coming. By the end of the Summer it’ll be another 60 days or so. Do you think they’ll make it?
(incidentally, I also asked Govia Thameslink about the tube map showing Radlett inside the Oyster zone but that, apparently, is a question for TfL. I’ll ask them).
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.
Radlett is in the East of England constituency for the EU Parliamentary elections. We’ll send seven MEPs back to Brussels (and, for half the time, Strasbourg, of course). In 2014 the East of England elected these MEPs from three parties (full election results are on the BBC web site).
Our representation in the EU is already pretty patchy. Of the three UKIP MEPs on the list, only Stuart Agnew still represents the party. The others have defected to other parties. Vicky Ford no longer represents the Conservatives either: she is now a UK MP. And Richard Howitt retired in 2016. The European Parliament web site has the current line-up of MEPs. Whatever the outcome of today’s elections, the list of MEPs is going to look very different.
Candidates for today’s election are listed on the BBC web site. There are a lot of them – 54 individuals, representing nine political parties (one of these is an independent). The big parties all put forward seven candidates but you don’t vote for an individual, you vote for a party group. The voting system then takes over and assigns seats to parties according to their vote share.
MEPs are returned to the EU Parliament using a system chosen by each of the 28 member states. In Britain we use a proportional representation voting system (except in Northern Ireland) that’s called the D’Hondt system. The i Newspaper has an explainer. The count takes place on Sunday (most other member states are voting on Sunday) so we’ll have a result early on Monday.
Who to vote for, of course, is up to you. The polls put the Brexit Party out in front by a wide margin, wider even than UKIP’s big win in 2014. The two main parties are likely to take a beating, the Tories especially. What will be most interesting – given the odd, presumably short-term nature of this Parliament – is whether the anti-Brexit parties can put on as many votes as the pro-Brexit ones. If the outcome is an approximate balance of pro- and anti- votes – we’ll essentially be back where we were in June 2016. So much for resolving the Brexit conundrum!