Minister for junk mail

Careful, your MP wants your email address

Spam

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.

And don’t forget that the Conservatives have form when it comes to dodgy online marketing. There was that time they broke Twitter’s rules by pretending to be a ‘fact checking’ organisation and that other time when they were fined £10,000 for breaking data protection law.

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.

If you’d like to sign it, the ‘Stop the Strikes’ petition is on the Conservative Party web site. The Information Commissioner has detailed guidance for the use of personal data by political parties.

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 who routinely wore a slightly communist hat. 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).

Here’s how Oliver Dowden voted in the free vote on access to home abortions

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.

Quoted by BBC News.

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.

Graphic showing House of Commons voting in the Health and Care Bill - Permitted Locations for Abortion Treatment on 30 March 2022 - Aye 212, No 184.
Voting details from They Work for You

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.

Oliver Dowden’s Parliamentary voting record on issues of interest to anti-abortion group Right to Life.

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.

Quoted by the Catholic News Agency.

It’s interesting to note that both sides of the argument depend on appeals to the vulnerability of women in coercive or abusive relationships to defend their positions. Can they both be right?

The BBC has a detailed article about the law and the debate in Parliament. They Work for You has the voting details. More about Early Medical Abortion on the BPAS web site.

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.

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)

What we know about your candidates for the 2017 General Election

There are five candidates for the 2017 election in Hertsmere. That’s one more than in 2015 – the Greens have returned to the fray.

Here’s what we know so far. I’ll add more here as we get it.

In alphabetical order:

Oliver Dowden, Conservative. The incumbent. A local man and a former Cameron adviser, helicoptered in by CCHQ for the 2015 election, he’s managed to retain his relevance in the May era, principally by the simple expedient of absolute loyalty. You won’t find a single vote in defiance of the whip in his Parliamentary record and he’s been heard saying “strong, stable leadership” on a number of occasions, including on this episode of Radio 4’s Westminster Hour in April.

David Hoy, UKIP. Chairman of Hertsmere UKIP. Hoy stood in the 2014 and 2016 local elections. He’s on Twitter, where his bio reads: “Don’t care I will do it anyway”, although he hasn’t tweeted since Donald Trump’s inauguration in January.

Joe Jordan, Liberal Democrats. Jordan’s a software engineer and a scientist (with a doctorate). He’s a Liberal activist from Huntingdonshire, where he’s been looking after social media and the web for his local party. He stood in Royston at the 2015 General Election. He’s set up a web site for his Hertsmere campaign and he’s on Twitter (and he’s definitely the only candidate to have his own comic book-style custom Twitter avatar).

Fiona Smith, Labour. Interestingly, Smith has served in both the military and the police force. She’s on Twitter and recently found herself explaining a tweet critical of Israel sent in 2014 (although it looks like it was a tweet sent automatically when she signed an Amnesty online petition). She supported Liz Kendall in the 2015 Labour leadership election so is unlikely to be a Corbyn loyalist.

Sophie Summerhayes, Green Party. Summerhayes joined the Green Party “just before the green surge in 2015” and she’s co-founder of Watford Young Greens. She’s also on Twitter.

Jewish News has some more detail on the candidates. I’ve made a Twitter list for the Hertsmere candidates – follow it to keep up with their tweets during the campaign (Oliver Dowden doesn’t seem to be using Twitter at the moment).

Here’s what we know so far about the 2017 General Election in Hertsmere

Prime Minister Theresa May announcing her decision to go for a snap general election in Downing Street on 18 May 2017There will be a General Election. The House of Commons has voted 522 to 13 to approve the Government’s motion for an early General Election and it will take place on 8 June.

It was a complete surprise – and not just for electors. When I called the office of our MP Oliver Dowden after Theresa May’s Downing Street announcement yesterday, the staffer I spoke to said “when I came to work this morning, I was not expecting a General Election”.

I’m waiting to hear whether Dowden will be seek selection again. I’ve also asked 2015 Labour candidate Richard Butler if he’ll be running and Hertsmere UKIP if they will put forward a candidate. The Greens put up no candidate in 2015 and if I can reach them I’ll ask if they plan to this time.

Hertsmere is, of course, a very safe Conservative seat, so expect no fireworks on June 8th. All the interest will be in the detail. The 2015 result was all about the collapse of the Liberals and the rise of UKIP – almost the whole of the 11.8% swing away from the Liberal Democrats went to UKIP’s Frank Ward and UKIP wound up with more than twice the Liberal vote. Here’s my analysis from May 2015, with detailed results. Turnout was 67.9%.

Brexit, of course, looms large in this vote. Hertsmere voted Leave, by a slightly smaller margin than the country as a whole. Turnout was 76.6%. It’s not possible to break out the Radlett vote for the referendum but our own opinion poll produced a small lead for Remain which, given the profile of the community and its dependence on jobs in the City, doesn’t seem implausible. Read my detailed analysis, putting the Hertsmere vote in the local and national context, here.

We’ll try to post some interesting and helpful stuff here during the run-up to this most interesting election – and will come up with a way to poll Radlett voters too, as we did for the referendum. Do please get in touch if you have any ideas about how we should cover the election from a Radlett perspective. We’re on Twitter (at @RadlettWire) and on Facebook, of course.