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?

The culture war will be fought in the streets

1900, peak year for Boer War street names. Photo by Gwydion M Williams

The news that Oliver Dowden wants to make it a bit harder for people to change street names got us thinking about how streets get their names and why they’re changed.

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.

The war in Ukraine is obviously going to mean good business for sign makers too. In Vilnius the Russian embassy now stands on Ukrainian Heroes Street. In Tirana it’s on Free Ukraine Street.

We change street names for all sorts of reasons.

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.

Oliver Dowden, quoted in the Daily Telegraph 9 April 2022

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:

A photograph of Conservative Minister Michael Gove with images of woke street signs behind him - Equality Road, Inspire Avenue, Destiny Road, Respect Way, Diversity Grove
From the Daily Mail

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.

Yes, Natwest is closing – but will you miss it?

Natwest Radlett Branch Closure Factsheet cover
RBS has confirmed that they’re closing 259 branches, 62 at the Bank of Scotland and 197 at Natwest. Radlett is on the list. The bank is doing a pretty thorough job of informing customers and local people about their plans. There’s a leaflet for each closing branch, with an explanation of why the branch has been chosen for closure and details of alternatives (although, amusingly, the Radlett leaflet suggests the soon-to-be-demolished petrol station as an alternative cash point location!).

Are you a Natwest customer? Will you miss the Radlett branch? Or have you already gone fully digital?
[polldaddy poll=9893162]

Five slightly mind-blowing things we learnt from our Amazon survey

Amazon is the beast that ate shopping. In the US, Amazon is responsible for 43% of all online sales and is worth more than all the big bricks-and-mortar retailers put together. About a quarter of the US population pays for Prime membership (more figures). There’s an extraordinary battle going on in the US right now – 238 towns and cities are bidding billions for the right to host Amazon’s ‘second HQ’ (In Seattle, home of the first one, 7.5% of the working-age population works for the firm).

Amazon came to the UK in 1999 – its first major market outside the US – so we’ve had plenty of time to get used to buying all our stuff from the Seattle monster. And, although they don’t publish the numbers, we’re probably just as addicted as the Americans.

Radlett’s in an Amazon sweet spot. We’re close enough to the big warehouses to have access to all of the company’s services – from the basic delivery service to groceries (including Whole Foods, the upmarket food retailer bought by Amazon earlier this year) and the Amazon Prime Now app, so you can order practically anything for delivery within an hour. Step outside your front door during daylight and there’s a reasonable chance you’ll see an Amazon delivery happening. Radlett is the kind of prosperous suburban community that forms the backbone of Amazon’s profitability everywhere. We’re a kind of case study for Amazon’s take-over of UK retail.

So, we wanted to know how Radlett relates to Amazon. The anonymous survey is still live so please take two minutes to complete it if you haven’t already. There are ten questions and a box for you to type what you think of the company. If you complete the survey you get to see the complete results at the end. Fascinating reading.

Here are five insights from the survey results:

We shop with Amazon all the time

Graph showing Radlett Amazon shopping
Over 85% of respondents shop at least once per month with Amazon. For almost a third of us it’s ‘several times per week’! This is the kind of loyalty that any retailer would kill for.

We spend a lot

Graph showing how much people in Radlett spend with Amazon
64.2% of us spend at least £50 per month with Amazon and nearly a fifth (17%) of respondents say they spend over £200 per month. That’s a lot of money: the average household grocery spend in the UK is £53 per week.

We love Amazon Prime

Graph showing the number of people in Radlett who pay for an Amazon Prime subscription
Nearly three-quarters (71.2%) of respondents pay for Amazon Prime – the service that provides free delivery and access to lots of other services, from free Kindle downloads to music streaming. This is really telling. Radlett has a major Amazon addiction.

We dig one-hour delivery

Graph showing how many people in Radlett use the Amazon Prime Now app
Prime Now represents the next stage of Amazon dependence. A mobile app that gives you free one-hour delivery on groceries – from Amazon, Morrisons and Whole Foods (plus loads of other products held in the Hemel Hempstead warehouse). 30.2% of respondents use it or have tried it. We’ve certainly used the app in our house and the delivery drivers I’ve spoken to confirm that we’re not untypical in using the app to get emergency booze supplies midway through dinner!

We’re Amazon nuts

Graph showing the attitude of Radlett residents to Amazon
Not to put too fine a point on it, respondents to our survey are hopelessly in love with Amazon. 84.9% are either positive or very positive about the company. 28.3% ticked the box labelled ‘Very positive – I’ve become completely dependent’. And only 3.8% of us have any negative feelings at all, ticking the box labelled ‘Quite negative – I’m not comfortable with their market power but will use them occasionally’.

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.

Are you ready for the General Election?

Here’s a timetable for the next few weeks.

Monday 22 May (11.59pm). Deadline for registering to vote. Do it online here. You’ll need your National Insurance number (but there’s also a way to register if you don’t have one) and it takes five minutes. If you haven’t done this yet, or if you haven’t helped the young people in your household to do so, you’re off our Christmas card list for good. Seriously.

Tuesday 23 May (5pm). Deadline for new new postal vote and postal proxy applications and for changes to existing postal or proxy votes. If you or your proxy can’t attend the polling station in person on the day.

Wednesday 31 May (5pm). Deadline for new applications to vote by proxy (not postal proxy or emergency proxies). If you can’t attend the polling station in person on the day you can appoint a proxy. You can apply for an emergency proxy vote up till 5pm on polling day itself.

Thursday 8 June, polling day (7am – 10pm). You know what to do. 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.

The 2017 County Council elections in Radlett

Hertfordshire County Council elections 2017, Watling division results

UPDATE: Saturday 6 May.

The County Council results are all in. The details shows a strong swing towards the Conservatives. They’ve gained five seats. Labour has lost six, including their leader on the Council, Leon Reefe. The Liberals gained two. Turnout was 34.1%, substantially up from 28.9% in 2013 (turnout here in Watling Division was also up substantially, from 25.8% to 33%).

UPDATE: 8:40am Friday 5 May.

About a third of Hertfordshire’s County Council electoral divisions will be counting today, but the results so far are clear: a big win for the Conservatives, with an increased majority. The Watford Observer has the live story and the BBC’s results pages will have the national numbers.

Results here in the Watling division also show a big increase in the Conservative share of the vote. Caroline Clapper has taken votes from Labour and from UKIP (who helped out by not standing at all). It’s also likely that an increase in turnout has helped the Tories. An interesting local detail is that the Liberals have almost doubled their 2013 vote.

3,726 votes in total (2013 votes in brackets)
Saif Al-Saadoon, Liberal Democrats 318 votes, 8.5% (176, 6%)
Caroline Clapper, Conservative 2,889 votes, 77.5% (1,874, 63.7%)
Peter Halsey, Labour 344 votes, 9.25% (392, 13.3%)
Jessica Wand, Green Party 175 votes, 4.75% (did not stand)

Wednesday 3 May

Elections. Oh God. Will they never end? Here’s another one to worry about. If you’re resident here and you’ve registered to vote (you have registered to vote, haven’t you?) you’ll be able to vote in the Hertfordshire County Council elections on 4 May – like a kind of warm-up for the big one in June. This is just for the County, though – not District (Hertsmere) or Parish (Aldenham).

If you live in Radlett, your County Councillor is Caroline Clapper (Conservative) and she’s standing for re-election. She represents an electoral district (to avoid confusion, they’re actually called ‘divisions’ at County level) called Watling, which also takes in Aldenham, Letchmore Heath, Elstree and a bit of Borehamwood. Watling Street cuts right through the division, from the Northern end of Radlett to the Southern end of Elstree, where it meets the London Borough of Barnet. 15,000 people live in the Watling division and we’re quite an elderly lot: 54% are over 40 and the largest segment in the age distribution is 50-54 (8.5%). More about the Watling electoral division on the Hertfordshire web site.

Clapper (who is also a Hertsmere Borough Councillor), as well as being a member of the full County Council is also on the Enterprise, Education & Skills cabinet panel and the Overview & Scrutiny Committee.

In Radlett, she recently consulted local people about the redevelopment of Newberries car park via the Radlett Facebook group and the overwhelmingly negative response must have informed her decision to step down from the Hertsmere committee responsible for the planning decision. She’s cannily expressed no personal opinion about the development but she says “I strongly believe that Radlett residents and businesses should have a big say in any major development proposed for our village.”

Clapper won her seat in the 2013 election with a 63.7% share of the vote so she’s unlikely to be packing her desk at County Hall any time soon. The other candidates for this election are: Saif Al-Saadoon for the Liberal Democrats, Peter Halsey for Labour and Jessica Wand for the Greens. Although they came second in 2013, with a 16.5% share, UKIP are not standing this time. Here are the 2013 County Council election results (scroll down for the Watling division results).

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.

Radlett’s EU referendum vote in context

Hertsmere EU Referendum 2016 results comparison

It was, let’s face it, a surprise. As late as the close of polling on Thursday bookmakers were still offering 7/1 on Brexit (that’s a 12.5% probability). The opinion polls weren’t too far off for this vote but still gave Remain a small lead.

Our polling district, Hertsmere, voted Leave by a margin of 1.6% (50.8 – 49.2%), putting the district 262nd of the 382 polling districts – meaning that 261 districts, or 68% of the total, had larger majorities for Leave.

The table, which uses data from the BBC web site, puts Hertsmere in the context of its immediate neighbours and confirms what we essentially already know about the vote in England. London, and a handful of other urban districts, voted Remain, while prosperous suburbs, rural areas and struggling towns voted Leave. The three London boroughs to Radlett’s South voted Remain and all of our other neighbours outside London (except St Albans) voted Leave.

For comparison, I’ve included London itself and the constituency with the largest Leave vote – Boston in Lincolnshire – and the one with the largest Remain vote – Lambeth (I’ve excluded the obvious outlier, Gibraltar, where all but 823 people voted to remain).

It’s difficult to know how Radlett itself voted. The referendum poll – unlike general elections – is not broken down by ward and, of course, there’s no such thing as a ‘safe seat’ in a referendum. Every vote counts. Thanks to Martin Rosenbaum at the BBC, though, we do know how the good people of Shenley voted. He used FOI requests to get referendum voting data at the ward level from all the UK local authorities that collected it. So, although it’s not clear why Hertsmere reported voting for Shenley and not the other wards, we are fairly sure that Shenley voted Remain. Our own opinion poll of local voters gave a small win to Remain.

And incidentally, the Radlett margin predicted by our poll (which closed on the morning of the referendum) was exactly the same as the actual margin achieved by Remain in critical North East district Newcastle upon Tyne – the first mainland seat declared and the one that got Remainers sweating because it came in below the number suggested by the BBC model.

Radlett Wire EU referendum poll results graphic

Some local people are clearly in shock – especially those whose jobs depend on the financial sector. Others are celebrating. Were you surprised by the result? Do you think we’ve made a terrible mistake? Or is this, as Nigel Farage puts it, a ‘new dawn’ for Britain? Leave a comment below (anonymously if you like) and we’ll share your reactions here, on Facebook and on Twitter.

The Guardian and the BBC both have excellent detailed analysis of the national results.

Lord Ashcroft’s detailed polling, published the day after the referendum, is essential reading.