Stuart Coster: Is Lib Dem election campaigning “essential activity”? A “reasonable excuse” for someone to leave home?

19 Jan

Stuart Coster is the Editor of LibDemWatch and previously co-founder of the People’s Pledge campaign for an EU referendum.

Reports have been rolling in over recent days of Liberal Democrat activists breaching coronavirus rules to make dangerously opportunistic leaflet deliveries during lockdown.

With a far keener eye on elections that are still said to be planned for May than, seemingly, public safety, Lib Dems have wasted no time in kicking off their New Year campaigns – despite much of the country being in Tier 4 and lockdown.

While supporters of other parties observe government guidance to stay at home unless for essential activity, Lib Dem activists have been spotted shamelessly putting their political leaflets through doors from Norwich to Eastleigh and Basingstoke to Derby.

Yet in every case, where the party has been challenged by the local media, even advised by the police that there are “no exceptions” to the restrictions for campaign leaflets, the clear chorus in defence has been that Lib Dem HQ has advised them that it’s fine to continue.

In Norwich, for example, local Lib Dem councillor, David Britcher, admitted to the Eastern Daily Press that deliveries of his party’s ‘Focus’ newsletter had continued for around 10 days while the area was under Tier 4 “Stay at Home” restrictions, though halted once the latest national lockdown was announced.

Norfolk moved into Tier 4 on Boxing Day, but Cllr Britcher confirmed that his volunteers continued delivering until the 4 January announcement of a full national lockdown.

But as local Conservative councillor for Hellesdon, David King, told EDP:

“As councillors, we are supposed to be leading by example and only making essential trips, so it doesn’t feel particularly right to me. I do not see delivering political leaflets as essential travel and I would not ask any volunteers to do it.”

Meanwhile down in Eastleigh, local Conservative MP, Paul Holmes, has branded Lib Dem activists “deeply irresponsible” over similar newsletter deliveries under their Tier 4 restrictions.

Speaking to the Southern Daily Echo, Holmes said:

“At a time when we know the virus is spreading rapidly, local Liberal Democrats are engaging in unsafe physical campaigning which poses a risk to residents. Surely when we are all making enormous sacrifices and grandparents are going without seeing grandchildren to stop the spread of Covid-19, Eastleigh Liberal Democrats can see that putting out party political leaflets is wrong?”

Other parties are equally dismayed. Eastleigh Labour campaigner, Sam Jordan, who said that members of his family who are shielding had received Lib Dem newsletters, told the Echo: “I’m very disappointed and very angry. We suspended all physical engagement once the pandemic really took off.”

Elsewhere in Hampshire, according to the Andover Advertiser local residents have received copies of the ‘Andover South Gazette’ from the Lib Dems – a publication that sounds rather like one of the Lib Dems’ misleading fake newspapers that we heard so much about during last year’s general election.

Test Valley Liberal Democrats defended the party’s actions, saying that they had been acting “in accordance with national legal guidance and advice received by our HQ”.

But also speaking to the Advertiser, Hampshire Constabulary contradicted that advice, saying: “We have been made aware of campaign leaflets being delivered in the Andover area, for which there is no exception for under the previous Tier Four regulations and now the national lockdown”, the police reportedly also writing to the local Liberal Democrats with “appropriate advice”.

It has been a similar story in Basingstoke, according to reports in the Basingstoke Gazette  that the Lib Dems’ lack of respect for coronavirus rules designed to keep people safe is far from a new development. The second national lockdown began on 5 November, but local Lib Dem campaigners had reportedly been out delivering their ‘Focus’ leaflets in Mickleover regardless. Criticising the party’s activities, a local Conservative group spokesperson told the Derby Telegraph:

“No right minded person would dream of campaigning at a time like this whilst everyone else is focused on supporting Derby’s efforts to keep Covid-19 infection rates down … That is why the behaviour of the Lib Dems is particularly disappointing. It’s shameful and demonstrates a staggering lack of judgement and, above all, is hugely disrespectful to the public.”

Councillors from other party groups, the Reform Derby group and Labour, both also confirmed they had halted local deliveries on November 4.

So what is this guidance from Lib Dem HQ that local Lib Dem activists are quoting as carte blanche to continue with their leaflet deliveries, regardless of the resurgent pandemic?

Advice evident from Lib Dem HQ, as updated on 8 January 2021, continues to encourage leafleting, playing down the idea of the virus spreading on surfaces like glossy paper, despite official advice confirming that it can indeed be spread by touching a contaminated surface and then touching the mouth, nose, or eyes.

Professor Peter Wahl, who is leading the UK Research and Innovation team on how coronavirus spreads on surfaces, has said:

“Apart from airborne direct transmission, indirect transmission via surfaces, in particular in public spaces, can play an important role in spreading the disease.” 

A study published in the respected New England Journal of Medicine has also revealed that the virus survives on cardboard for 24 hours. We all know this well enough by now and presumably Lib Dem activists, after coming in from delivering their leaflets into thousands of houses, like the rest of us take the time to clean the surfaces of items that come into their homes. Why? Because it’s a well-established risk of contagion, however much the party may wish to play with words and self-servingly slide out of it.

Slippery Lib Dem HQ advice to activists goes on to claim that “The current lockdown guidance and legislation expressly permit people to leave their home to provide voluntary services that cannot reasonably be undertaken from home”, offering a link to government guidance that purports to endorse this view. However, it is a typically stretched interpretation of those rules to imagine “voluntary services” extends, beyond helping those needing support during lockdown, to delivering self-promotional, political leaflets. Especially when the same rules are also peppered with references to only “essential activities” being permissible.

As the information at the given link makes crystal clear, “You must not leave or be outside of your home except where you have a ‘reasonable excuse’. This is the law.” Does leafleting to promote a political party sound like a “reasonable excuse” or an “essential activity”? Hardly.

What’s more, Hampshire police, at least, seem to agree, having told the Andover Advertiser that they saw “no exception” to Tier 4 or lockdown rules for the delivery of campaign leaflets.

The only reasonable conclusion is that Lib Dem HQ is giving defective advice to party to activists, which has the potential to put the public in greater danger of the virus spreading. Yes, other items continue to be delivered through letterboxes. But that should not be taken by Lib Dems as licence to put out all items that can or should be delivered. Lockdown rules are often contradictory but are designed as far as possible to limit activities that risk spreading the virus.

And, yes, it appears there may still be elections in May and it is important that democratic debate continues. But this is January. The pivotal point, as corona cases again rise, is what constitutes an “essential activity” and “reasonable excuse” for someone to leave home. Yet revealingly, rather than deploy their own common sense in the public interest, the party’s local activists are happily quoting their HQ’s contemptibly self-serving guidance. Guidance which has now been contradicted by at least one police force.

Are the Liberal Democrats more interested in promoting themselves and trying to improve their political standing, than respecting coronavirus rules and keeping people safe during this currently resurgent pandemic?

On the basis of this evidence, that sadly does look to be the case. If you have seen Lib Dem leaflets being distributed during Tier 4 or lockdown restrictions in your area, please post the details and links to any local media coverage in the comments below – or email direct to LibDemWatch.

Gareth Lyon: We need a Public Sector Neutrality Act to rein in politicisation

8 Jan

Gareth Lyon is a former councillor in Rushmoor and the Chairman of the Aldershot and North Hants Conservative Association.

The institutions which we fund through our taxes, and the people who work in them, should be politically neutral. No one should be required to provide financial support to political causes with which they disagree. No one employed in a public body should be able to use that body or their position to advance their own political agenda. Taxpayer funded bodies should use their funds to carry out the work they were commissioned to do – not to lobby for further taxpayer funding.

Four statements which should be utterly uncontroversial, and to which the vast majority of the population would be likely to agree, and yet which are roundly ignored at all tiers of Government in the UK.

From the BBC to the police, from the NHS to teachers, from local government to quangos, and throughout central government and those charities which are largely dependent on taxpayer funding, there is not just an acceptance that certain political agendas can and should be pursued both by individuals and by the institutions themselves – but also a blindness that there could possibly be anything wrong with such behaviour.

As well as wasting time and money, and putting many capable people off working in the public sector, there is also a deep and worrying injustice in our own institutions being politicised in such a way to advance causes which often do not command the democratic support of the majority in this country. This is damaging to trust and the integrity of our state as a whole and undermines the fundamental belief in institutional impartiality without which no modern democracy can function.

That is why we need a Public Sector Neutrality Act to reign in the politicisation we are seeing and to help restore trust in our Government. Some of this Act would codify the requirements for neutrality which do already exist in a piecemeal fashion around our institutions or which have remained unwritten until now; in the way that much of our constitution was before the actions of misguided reformers made this necessary. Other provisions will deal with fresh challenges which emerged in recent years and which have not yet received sufficient attention.

As a starting point I would suggest that four elements would be:

  • A ban on the use of positions within publicly funded organisations to promote political viewpoints. This is something which the new BBC regime has started to indicate an understanding of. There is a particularly nauseating form of caveating which goes on in Twitter biographies and elsewhere, where a person states their employer and their position in a respected publicly funded organisation then seeks to weasel out of professional accountability by stating “all views my own” or something similar. These transparent attempts to borrow the credibility of their employer and the position they are entrusted with is a very visible form of politicisation and is particularly dangerous because it chips at the margins of professional neutrality. It is, however, the margins which are best served by clear lines. Such behaviour needs to be banned.
  • A ban on taxpayer funded lobbying. The TaxPayers’ Alliance estimates that between 2017 and 2019 the UK Government funded lobbying organisations opposed to Government policy to the tune of nearly £40 million. This is however the tip of the iceberg. We also need to take into account the funding provided by organisations which themselves are largely government funded to lobbying organisations, think tanks or campaign groups and to funding provided by local government. We then need to look at the funding which these bodies spend on professional lobbyists – either directly employed under a variety of titles, or through public affairs agencies and the amount of senior leadership time which is spent in such lobbying. It is fundamentally wrong for the taxpayer to bankroll one body they are forced to fund, to lobby another body they are forced to fund, in favour of its own institutional agenda. This has a distorting effect on Government policy, is incredibly wasteful of taxpayer funding, and has a significant drag effect on Government energy and decision-making as it is forced to in effect, spend precious time and energy talking to itself.
  • A ban on publicly funded organisations supporting political organisations or campaigns. A tighter definition of political organisations and campaigns is needed to ensure that publicly funded organisations do not contribute funding, or signal their support for organisations which have political aims. Recent examples of where public sector organisations have clearly overstepped the line include police forces becoming supporters of Stonewall, and local authorities and numerous senior officials in central Government signalling their support for Black Lives Matter. These are both clearly organisations with political aims and positions and should be regarded as just as much of an issue as one of these organisations or figures declaring their support for a political party would be – with obvious implications for the level of trust people with different political views can have in such bodies.
  • A more extensive set of restrictions on public sector employees holding positions in political parties. This may be the most contentious of these proposals but is surely a logical extension of restrictions which are already widely accepted. There are whole arms of the British state – such as the Armed Forces, where those employed are barred from holding political office or office in political parties. There are others, such as local Government and the civil service, where employees below a certain level of seniority are permitted to do so. The logic seems to be that such people are not in senior enough positions for any political bias to be either visible or concerning. If this has ever been the case it is surely not now.

An IT technician, a media officer, a lawyer or even a policy officer will potentially find themselves in positions where they have access to politically sensitive materials. As people can hold these roles at relatively junior levels it is only right that the restrictions should apply. At a time when it is becoming easier than ever to leak politically sensitive matters, and when the political leanings of staff may be more apparent than ever through social media, such a move would certainly increase confidence amongst the elected politicians they work with and for.

This is not an exhaustive list – clearly many others will have ideas for areas where the causes of trust, transparency, and fairness in public life need urgent protection.

Kabir Singh Bawa: Rory walks – so now I’m going to back Bailey for Mayor

23 Dec

Kabir Singh Bawa was formerly west London campaign coordinator for Rory Stewart’s Mayoral Campaign. Whilst studying at university, he is now starting work at the Office of Ranil Jayawardena MP, and is backing Shaun Bailey’s campaign for London Mayor.

On the morning of the 6th of May this year – on the day of what was meant to be the 2020 Mayoral Election, Rory Stewart’s bid to become Mayor of London came to an end.

Working on Stewart’s core campaign team – first coordinating the campaign in west London, and then working on community engagement – I witnessed our immense reliance upon incredibly dedicated volunteers and small donations, alongside a unique and creative attitude to campaigning, which set a truly positive example in today’s modern day politics. But the campaign simply didn’t have the stamina to persist for another year.

Shaun Bailey, the Conservative candidate, is now the right – and the only – person for the job, ready to renew our capital’s spirit and to revive its soul.

As part of Stewart’s campaign, I had the privilege of meeting with some of London’s most exemplary community groups – every single one of these pointed out our capital’s sharp rise in violent crime, all brought upon by a lack of community policing, poor opportunities for young people, and unaffordable housing. Hearing first-hand the experiences of unions, charities, business leaders or faith communities on the state of London has been truly insightful, and depressingly harrowing. Whilst these communities look for support in fighting against crime, all that Sadiq Khan can offer is to plan to defund London’s police by £110 million. Whilst key workers look for help during this difficult time – they are hit by a congestion charge hike, and the closure of major transport links such as Hammersmith Bridge. Whilst commuters and small businesses look for Crossrail to be up and running – it’s completion has been delayed yet again, until 2022. This is not good enough.

Coronavirus has hit London hard; our hospitality industry has been severely affected, countless jobs have been lost, and Transport for London’s finances are cataclysmically plunging further into the red. This pandemic has brought into sharp focus the Mayor’s inability to protect Londoners’ livelihoods, as a result of the underlying structural deficiencies caused by his past mishandling of our capital’s public services.

Khan’s mismanagement of TfL finances, inaction on crime, and lack of dedication to the issues that matter to Londoners is inexcusable. Glitzy slogans, hashtags, and press officers have been prioritised over sensible leadership, pragmatism, and targeted action.

Bailey understands the severity of London’s problems and has a plan to solve them. Stewart promised to quit as Mayor if he did not cut violent crime within two years. Bailey – much like Stewart – understands the principle of accountability – and has provided cast-iron assurances to cut crime, restore TfL’s finances to sustainable levels, and to build more houses. By backing Bailey, you’ll be electing a Mayor who understands that actions matter much more than words – taking responsibility, working constructively with the government, and being accountable to all Londoners, rather than shifting blame and pointing fingers.

During Stewart’s campaign, he was truly in his element when delving into ordinary Londoners’ real-life experiences, and dealing with the cold hard issues at hand. Bailey is a particularly good candidate for the very same reasons, as well as his unrivalled authenticity and real-life experience in championing social mobility, with a positive track record in holding the Mayor to account. Regardless of politics – these candidates instilled purpose and optimism in their campaigns from the start. On the contrary, Khan’s sense of purpose stems from his willingness to protect his career, rather than the communities he ought to represent.

Bailey’s commitment to make London safer, more secure and more affordable is refreshing – not just through resuscitating our capital’s failing public services, but through an ambitious plan to harness young talent, to work with business stakeholders and launch trade missions, all whilst reinvesting £83 million of wasted spending at City Hall into policing. As we fully leave the European Union, Bailey’s vision for London will provide the perfect mix of optimism, pragmatism and innovative spirit to propel our capital city to new heights.

London truly is the greatest place in the world – its prowess is down to its people. But we urgently need to get this great city back on its feet, back to work and back to life.

That’s why I am now backing Bailey on his campaign to become Mayor of London, and it’s why you should too.

Debbie Flint: Winning the social media war in Devon

17 Dec

Debbie Flint is Conservative Women’s Chair and Deputy Chair, Fundraising & Membership, for Torridge and West Devon.

The left-wing Twitter bubble may have got it very wrong at the last election, but we still face an uphill struggle against them online, as Conservatives fight to cut through on social media. No point responding directly to try to put right their ceaseless mantra of uncaring Conservatives. No point reacting to name-calling. Instead, we must be cleverer.

In our history, I don’t think we’ve ever faced such vitriol due to relentless Tory-bashing. Many of us don’t even confess our political leanings amongst our peers. Especially if you work in certain industries where it’s totally out of favour to praise Boris Johnson. So it’s time for a newer approach. By and large, doorstep campaigning is out. So in Devon we are starting to play social media on our own terms.

In Torridge and West Devon, Geoffrey Cox’s constituency, we have been identifying heart-warming human interest stories to report on in our Association posts, but leading with the human angle, in the style of an anecdote told by a neighbour or a friend. That way, more likes, more shares, more “traction.” Our councillors’ name recognition should be greater in the May 2021 county council elections as a result. .

We also exploit the many behind-the-scenes tools Facebook offers, thereby maximising these new contacts. For instance, using the one-click ‘invite’ button to anyone who likes a post to invite them to like the page; following up a comment with a reply if needed, and being sure to ‘like’ all positive comments; crucially using other tools which deter too much trolling. And training our candidates and current councillors to use all these tools and to pepper their pages with more touchy-feely pictures and stories, getting their personality across and avoiding a timeline jammed full of dry statistics and graphics.

Linda Hellyer leads the way. County councillor for Bideford East, she spearheads our “close the digital divide – donate a laptop” scheme. She has already been pictured on posts with grateful recipients – deserving local students who couldn’t otherwise learn online and don’t mind being featured. (Please note that yet more students have received theirs away from cameras – it’s not just done for the PR.) We’re collecting laptops aged up to five-years-old to be refurbished – voluntarily – by Holsworthy Computers, any replacement small parts being covered by our fundraising. Laptops are delivered personally by our councillors once they identify a keen student, or their parent. Linda said several people came up to her in the street, saying they didn’t even realise she was a councillor. The word-of-mouth follow-on about these real-life case stories is priceless, and more valuable and far-reaching within a community than any online criticism. Her laptops post gained a reach of 2,255 and 120 engagements – all positive – far exceeding her more standard posts.

It got further coverage when Radio Devon and local papers got in touch, taking her exposure even further.  They were then perfectly placed to cover Linda’s next initiative – a compassionate treatment of the challenge faced by the blind during COVID. How? She put on a blindfold and had three of the locals guide her around the town so she experienced exactly what they face on a daily basis. She pounded their uneven pavements, and encountered their unexpected obstacles – sometimes literally – made worse by Covid restrictions – guide dogs don’t do social distancing. The payoff-ending to this social media tale is that she took massive action, got ‘tactile pavement slabs’ installed eg next to the quay, with more tweaks planned. Original, human, #conservativesCaringintheCommunity.

Holsworthy district councillor David Jones‘s run of the mill tale of a Tory installing a bin, was told from the angle of the local resident in her 80s who explained in enthusiastic detail how it impacted her life and daily journeys. As a side benefit, she immediately joined the Conservative Party – she was so impressed with David and his hard work.

Chris Edmonds, County councillor for Tamarside in West Devon, helped provide a post on our Facebook page about the local businesses he’s helped, with form filling for COVID grants, but from the human angle and with more examples and fewer generalisations. We boosted the post but targeted his local area only, with the hope that it caught voters’ eyes more than any colourful graphic about policy could do for him.

The ‘over the backyard fence’ approach we use in my day job, in television sales, translates well for getting cut-through amongst Facebookers who are only too used to three second attention grabbers. And we are aiming to use much more video, because the algorithms of Facebook automatically give them more exposure.

In the December 2019 election campaign, I helped provide a constant video presence for our MP – the first election where social media has been as important as leaflets. Geoffrey became adept at being filmed – short pieces to camera with action, interesting local backgrounds, and always making a pithy point.  Some posts did well and got boosted – ads and the ‘boost post’ button can help us reach new constituents. They’d rarely sit down and read a detailed A5 leaflet but respond well as they scroll through their daily updates on Facebook, to the human side of their MP, and sometimes his dog.

For the brave, doing live Facebook posts could garner even more attention.

We will be able to provide a bit of training for this as well. Debo Sellis, County councillor for Tavistock, a self-confessed technophobe, is game, having embraced the need to do this with gusto. “It’s just got to be done,” she says, “even though I would have run a mile from all this a couple of years ago.” Her posts are gaining good reactions and her consistency is key.

Specific help from an outside paid expert can also be fundamental – Alfie Carlisle was used by our chairman, John Gray, when he stood in Exeter during the election. Alfie also guides us through the maze of how to place ads and surveys on Facebook – and we’re all learning something new every day. Like the fact that Facebook ads must now display who paid for them, making careful identity clearance essential. Confusing for some, but Alfie has a map.

We post regularly, not just sharing the important updates from CCHQ, but many local stories like these and even a ‘Friday funny.’

It’s not natural territory for many Tories – this social media lions’ den. So last month we hosted a Zoom ‘how-to’ on Conquering Facebook and Winning Elections. Organiser, Julian Ellacott, leads us volunteers as Chair of the South West region and is planning a second session in the New Year. We recorded the training for those who missed it, and can provide a PDF of the bullet points. By spring, most of our councillors will hopefully have their own pages and be following the above recommendations…

Creating solid back-up is the flip side, for when the anti-Tory gang pile in, with newly formed support groups on Whats App, or ‘closed’ (private) groups on Facebook, will not only share links to each other’s pages and increase a councillor’s following. They will also help alert each other to swiftly post positive comments to provide balance, should somebody get trolled. Julian’s so-called ‘Jedi’ groups will come into their own by Spring.

Shaun Bailey’s team in London have a ‘Shaun’s sharers’ What’s App group too, and more. We’ll have some ‘momentum’ of our own.

Hopefully our leaflets will follow suit and be more chatty too – Julian is keen on more white space and more pictures – for the three second brigade.

Other recommendations for priming connections on social media include this from a very forward thinking, Sarah Codling, a councillor in Weston, who presented the Zoom session with me. She took the initiative early on and set up a local community group for Weston that now has 2,000 members. Getting involved in a non-political way on your local groups helps people know who you are. We get more likes with this approach – our equivalent of puppies and kittens – showing with undeniable examples, our compassionate conservatism.

In a year where there seems to have been a never-ending blitz against the very ethos of being a Conservative, and the lack of communication at the top has been in the spotlight, it’s up to us to spread the word. And don’t get me started on Instagram – our future is doomed if we can’t get through to the youngsters, and that may be the next port of call. No idea about Tik Tok – maybe I’ll ask Jacob Rees-Mogg about that.

Please contact me on Fundraising@torridgeandwestdevonconservatives.org or fundraising@debbieflint.com and check out the many CCHQ PDFs on the various social media topics.

Selina Seesunkur: Conservatives need to show more enthusiasm for online campaigning

19 Nov

Cllr Selina Seesunkur represents Larkswood Ward on Waltham Forest Council and is a Conservative list candidate for the London Assembly.

I have been a Conservative all my politically conscience life. Both my parents are Conservatives and yet I got into this political arena quite late; or should I say, had an activist knocked on my door sooner, I would have joined the Party sooner. But no-one did and, quite frankly, growing up in a traditional household where your parents hound you to become a Lawyer, Doctor, or Accountant, joining a Political Party or becoming an MP or Councillor was never discussed.

I was elected as a local councillor in 2018 and have not looked back. My story above, shows how important door knocking can be. It allows us to find and adopt new members, making our Conservative family bigger. The number of people I have been door knocking with who forget about membership astounds me. Door knocking allows us to ascertain issues within a community as well as providing us with the opportunity to tell residents about the things we have done locally, but above all, it allows us to connect with people on a truly personal level.

So what now? Has Covid taken our ability to campaign away from us? Of course not.

Being part of the Conservative Women’s Organisation (CWO) has introduced me to a whole of host of zoom meetings which have replaced meetings and traditional development sessions; I even got to run my own sessions. I realised through speaking to women in my capacity as the CWO Lea Valley Area Chairman, there was a gap between people wanting to get selected and an understanding of the way in which the Party operated. I designed and delivered “The Voluntary Party, Associations and Me” which was attended by over 100 CWO members. Marjorie Baylis, Anne Steward, and the CWO Chairman, Fleur Butler, were on the panel and attendees gave really positive feedback. We ran the course again at Party Conference.

Taking your time to upskill or refresh yourself is always a good thing as it is an investment in yourself, whether you are looking to become an Association Chairman, councillor, or MP. The CWO offer so many classes that they have been able to build their membership as their events are members only.

As someone on the London Assembly list, Connect Calling sessions have been a fab way to connect with my London Assembly candidate colleagues on Zoom before engaging in a session of ringing around. If you were ever down about being stuck at home, or not able to see all your family at the same time, under one roof, make a few phone calls, the positive vibes associated with Shaun Bailey, our London Mayoral Candidate, will tickle you pink. As a teenage girl, I was on the phone a lot, typical, yes I know, but my mum would go ape, she gave me phone phobia for years, so if I can pick up the phone, so can you.

Ok, so you are a pro and you are savvy with Zoom and you are making phone calls, what else? I have What’s App fatigue, so I created a private group for London local councillors on Facebook to keep everyone connected. It is in its early phase but in the absence of London Council meetings it’s shaping up to be a good forum for sharing best practice. I felt it important as the CCA Rep for London to do something that brought councillors together at this difficult time. Yes there are so many Facebook groups out there, so I believe it is now best to be selective; this group is open to Conservative Councillors and Assembly Members only.

But the most active group I create, which runs itself now, was created at the beginning of lockdown, and it remains a non-political group. I noticed everyone was talking about getting meals to the vulnerable, but very few were dealing with the mental health risks associated with lockdown, so I started a Self-Isolation Help Group (now called the Friendship Network). I knew this could be an unmanageable task so I asked a team of Conservative Activists to help me administer the page. The page started out as an advice page but it took on a life of its own as people joined it, jokes, cool things to do at home, exercise, fun things for children, a couple of members used it as a platform to share their Covid art and more.

It was a little hairy at the start but with the help of David, Andrea, Mara, and Rathi, it’s the only group (that I am aware of), where people from all political persuasions co-exist and we can share a post from the Prime Minister, the Party, and from MPs, like Dr Luke Evans and Alicia Kearns and no-one gets sworn at. We have had such great feedback, but this group member (Phil) says it all “It’s the most positive group on Facebook”. The group has plateaued since the lockdown eased but it is still very much there, and people join us regularly. I have not used the group as a campaign group, but the thing about politics: it’s about making connections and you never know where new connections may take you. So my advice to you is “think outside of the box”.

Selina Seesunkur: Conservatives need to show more enthusiasm for online campaigning

19 Nov

Cllr Selina Seesunkur represents Larkswood Ward on Waltham Forest Council and is a Conservative list candidate for the London Assembly.

I have been a Conservative all my politically conscience life. Both my parents are Conservatives and yet I got into this political arena quite late; or should I say, had an activist knocked on my door sooner, I would have joined the Party sooner. But no-one did and, quite frankly, growing up in a traditional household where your parents hound you to become a Lawyer, Doctor, or Accountant, joining a Political Party or becoming an MP or Councillor was never discussed.

I was elected as a local councillor in 2018 and have not looked back. My story above, shows how important door knocking can be. It allows us to find and adopt new members, making our Conservative family bigger. The number of people I have been door knocking with who forget about membership astounds me. Door knocking allows us to ascertain issues within a community as well as providing us with the opportunity to tell residents about the things we have done locally, but above all, it allows us to connect with people on a truly personal level.

So what now? Has Covid taken our ability to campaign away from us? Of course not.

Being part of the Conservative Women’s Organisation (CWO) has introduced me to a whole of host of zoom meetings which have replaced meetings and traditional development sessions; I even got to run my own sessions. I realised through speaking to women in my capacity as the CWO Lea Valley Area Chairman, there was a gap between people wanting to get selected and an understanding of the way in which the Party operated. I designed and delivered “The Voluntary Party, Associations and Me” which was attended by over 100 CWO members. Marjorie Baylis, Anne Steward, and the CWO Chairman, Fleur Butler, were on the panel and attendees gave really positive feedback. We ran the course again at Party Conference.

Taking your time to upskill or refresh yourself is always a good thing as it is an investment in yourself, whether you are looking to become an Association Chairman, councillor, or MP. The CWO offer so many classes that they have been able to build their membership as their events are members only.

As someone on the London Assembly list, Connect Calling sessions have been a fab way to connect with my London Assembly candidate colleagues on Zoom before engaging in a session of ringing around. If you were ever down about being stuck at home, or not able to see all your family at the same time, under one roof, make a few phone calls, the positive vibes associated with Shaun Bailey, our London Mayoral Candidate, will tickle you pink. As a teenage girl, I was on the phone a lot, typical, yes I know, but my mum would go ape, she gave me phone phobia for years, so if I can pick up the phone, so can you.

Ok, so you are a pro and you are savvy with Zoom and you are making phone calls, what else? I have What’s App fatigue, so I created a private group for London local councillors on Facebook to keep everyone connected. It is in its early phase but in the absence of London Council meetings it’s shaping up to be a good forum for sharing best practice. I felt it important as the CCA Rep for London to do something that brought councillors together at this difficult time. Yes there are so many Facebook groups out there, so I believe it is now best to be selective; this group is open to Conservative Councillors and Assembly Members only.

But the most active group I create, which runs itself now, was created at the beginning of lockdown, and it remains a non-political group. I noticed everyone was talking about getting meals to the vulnerable, but very few were dealing with the mental health risks associated with lockdown, so I started a Self-Isolation Help Group (now called the Friendship Network). I knew this could be an unmanageable task so I asked a team of Conservative Activists to help me administer the page. The page started out as an advice page but it took on a life of its own as people joined it, jokes, cool things to do at home, exercise, fun things for children, a couple of members used it as a platform to share their Covid art and more.

It was a little hairy at the start but with the help of David, Andrea, Mara, and Rathi, it’s the only group (that I am aware of), where people from all political persuasions co-exist and we can share a post from the Prime Minister, the Party, and from MPs, like Dr Luke Evans and Alicia Kearns and no-one gets sworn at. We have had such great feedback, but this group member (Phil) says it all “It’s the most positive group on Facebook”. The group has plateaued since the lockdown eased but it is still very much there, and people join us regularly. I have not used the group as a campaign group, but the thing about politics: it’s about making connections and you never know where new connections may take you. So my advice to you is “think outside of the box”.

Matthew Elliott: Please apply to invest in Britain’s future and win £10,000

19 Oct

Matthew Elliott was Editor-at-Large of BrexitCentral

Coming from the world of think-tanks and campaign groups, I have a strong interest in the policy ecosystem that surrounds political parties.

Ahead of Tony Blair’s victory in 1997, think-tanks such as Demos and the Institute for Public Policy Research were established. And in the 2000s,a plethora of think-tanks (Centre for Social Justice/Policy Exchange), campaign groups (Business for Sterling/Countryside Alliance) and websites (ConservativeHome/Guido Fawkes) were launched and play an influential role in political discourse.

As well as playing a role in two successful referendum campaigns (NOtoAV and Vote Leave), I helped set up the TaxPayers’ Alliance (2004), Big Brother Watch (2009), Million Jobs (2012), Business for Britain (2013) and BrexitCentral (2016), so policy entrepreneurship is one of my passions. And even though my focus is now more in the private sector, I still enjoy helping and mentoring new policy entrepreneurs who are setting up the next generation of campaign groups and think-tanks.

At the beginning of my career, I was helped by the entrepreneur and philanthropist Stuart Wheeler, who sadly passed away at the end of July. I was 25 when we launched the TaxPayers’Alliance. I didn’t know any potential financial supporters, so I wrote to the signatories of a Business for Sterling advertisement with my ‘Strategy Plan’.

I thought, if they like BfS, there’s a good chance they’ll like the TPA. Stuart was one of the people who very generously sent a contribution which, along with some other donations, gave us the resources to cover my salary for three months, giving me the confidence to leave my position as a researcher to the Conservative MEP (now Lord) Timothy Kirkhope, and go full-time with the TPA.

Seventeen years later, I now find myself in a different position. My most recent project – the news website BrexitCentral – sent out its 1,085th and final daily email bulletin to the tens of thousands of subscribers we had accrued on February 1, the day after the UK formally left the European Union.

Alongside those essential morning emails put together by the indefatigable Jonathan Isaby and his team, we had published more than 2000 articles by over 500 authors, including the current Prime Minister and many of his Cabinet, not to mention Erin O’Toole, the man who was elected leader of the Canadian Conservative Party over the summer.

We are now in the final stages of winding up the company – a task which has been somewhat delayed by babies and Covid-19 – so, along with Georgiana Bristol, who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to keep the show on the road, we are left with the issue of what to do with the last remaining funds.

When we were discussing the matter, I thought about the support that Stuart Wheeler and other donors had given me as we launched the TPA, and we decided that it would be very fitting to use those remaining funds to support the young policy and campaigning entrepreneurs of today – people with the ideas that will tackle the policy challenges of the coming years.

We have two cheques for £10,000, and we would like to hear from people under the age of 35 with an exciting idea or contribution to policy debate. It could be:

  • A campaign group or think-tank you have set up, or are hoping to set up;
  • A book proposal that you want to take a sabbatical from your current job to research and draft;
  • A think-tank report you want to take time off from your current position to write;
  • A website or podcast you want to establish, or a short film you wish to make.

That is not an exhaustive list – we are interested in all ideas, the more innovative and entrepreneurial the better. And because Brexit was supported by people from across the political spectrum, we are open to proposals from all policy positions.

To stress, we are not looking for proposals relating to Brexit or Britain’s future relationship with the European Union – we are looking for submissions on any issue, policy or subject that you feel passionate about.

Entries should be emailed to policyentrepreneurs@brexitcentral.com by midnight on Sunday 8th November 2020 and should cover (on no more than two sides of A4) an outline of your plan an dhow you hope to execute it. All submissions will then be sifted and judged by a panel comprising Jonathan and I, plus Kate Andrews, Peter Cruddas, Helena Morrissey, Jon Moynihan and Mark Wallace. And the two winners will be announced by the end of November.

Since I became active in politics, the barriers to entry for policy entrepreneurship have been massively reduced thanks to the Internet. When I interned at the European Foundation whilst at university, it had an office in Pall Mall, it had copies of its European Journal and European Digest professionally printed, which were then posted to subscribers and the opinion formers in Westminster, Whitehall and Fleet Street that it was trying to influence. It sent press releases out by fax, business was conducted on the telephone or by post, and all these costs were before the general overheads and payroll costs that also needed to be covered.

Fast forward twenty years, and the cost of campaigning has fallen significantly. From setting up a website to using social media, broadcasting ideas and opinions to the world is so much cheaper. But there are still financial barriers, so I hope that this small project will help two policy entrepreneurs of the future, just as Stuart Wheeler helped me with the creation of the TaxPayers’ Alliance all those years ago.

I look forward to reading your entries and announcing the recipients later this year.

This article was originally published on ConservativeHome on Monday October 19, and we are re-publishing it during each weekday this week in order to advertise this project.

Kate Dommett and Sam Power: We must act now to protect our elections from foreign interference

25 Sep

Dr Kate Dommett (University of Sheffield), and Dr Sam Power (University of Sussex) are the authors of Democracy in the Dark: Digital Campaigning in the 2019 General Election and Beyond.

Only now are we beginning to get the real picture of what campaign spending looked like in the 2019 election. Our new analysis shows that the £19.5 million the Conservatives raised in this period is greater than the sum total of reported donations to all political parties in 2017 during the same pre-poll period (that stood at nearly £18.7 million).

Where did it go? The official spending returns aren’t yet out. But we can catch glimpses through social media giants’ ad archives.

Digital campaigning is a big business. We estimate that spending on social media platforms increased by over 50 per cent in 2019 compared to 2017. Of this, the three main UK-wide parties spent around £6 million on Facebook and just under £3 million on Google.

While Facebook was used by all three national parties to a relatively equal extent, the Conservatives invested dramatically more in Google (which includes YouTube). The advertising archives suggest the party spent £1,765,500, dwarfing the combined spend of £873,300 made by Labour and the Liberal Democrat accounts on this platform.

Yet despite these large numbers, online spend by parties made up only a fraction of the total political ad spend overall. Why? Because we are seeing the rise of the ‘outrider’. These so-called ‘non-party campaigns’ often spring up in and around elections – with the public in the dark about how they are funded, and by who. In 2010 there were 18 of these bodies registered with the Electoral Commission; by 2015 that number had nearly doubled to 30, and last year the figure had doubled again to 64.

While digital campaigning has huge, positive potential to reach out to voters, there is much we don’t know about who is behind online content. This has led to urgent calls for change.

Many of you will be familiar with the practice of putting ‘imprints’ on printed campaign materials. Bizarrely, 15 years after the launch of Facebook in the UK, there’s still no such rule for online material meaning the provenance of these ‘outriders’ is often not widely known.

In this transparency vacuum, social media giants’ have set up their own online ad archives, allowing us a glimpse of the scale of campaigning. But anyone who has used them will know they are insufficient, error-riddled, and often too vague to be useful. Often, we just don’t know who’s targeting us online.

Analysis presented in the report coded data from Facebook to identify 88 UK organisations as non-party campaign groups active during the 2019 election. These groups placed 13,197 adverts at a calculated cost of £2,711,452. Facebook knows who they targeted and why, but they provide only limited information about this in the archive. This makes it impossible to know what exactly is happening, and suggests a need for more transparency.

Whilst the government has rightly pledged to implement online imprints, this remains out for consultation. Whatever the result, it only scratches the surface. We have revisited the many inquiries that have been explored the issue of digital campaigning to highlight a number of simple and proportionate recommendations to protect a free and transparent debate, around which there is broad and cross-party consensus.

The need for online imprints – and soon – is clear. However, currently donations under £500 are not classed as such, meaning foreign actors could split up donations into smaller amounts to shift our political debate. Companies funding political interventions only have to generate a nominal amount of income in the UK. A simple change in law could clarify that campaigning by non-UK actors is not allowed. Given concerns about Russian interference, this kind of enshrined principle is vital.

Many of the recommendations in this report echo existing calls to modernise electoral law to help rebuild trust in our democratic system. It’s why the report has been backed by Cheryl Gillan. As she notes, we need honest conversations about the need for “more transparency in the money spent on campaigning in the electoral process, particularly in the light of the rapidly developing digital world”. Despite the huge growth of online ads, what was spent on digital campaigning is far from clear.

“We must continue to examine how we can ensure we have free and fair elections and what changes are necessary to our laws as technology continues to advance,” Dame Cheryl writes.

We cannot leave our electoral integrity in the hands of Mark Zuckerberg and Silicon Valley giants. Unfortunately, recent years have seen parties and campaigners become even more cautious about disclosing information about their campaign activities online.

Maintaining transparency needs an independent regulator, which is why we are concerned by threats to abolish the Electoral Commission if it cannot be ‘radically overhauled’. The ICO has major clout to investigate alleged wrongdoing when it comes to our data. We must give the same – if not more – gravity to our free elections.

With elections due to take place across the UK in May 2021, we cannot let the urgent task of ensuring our electoral integrity be kicked into the long grass once more, or set-backwards through the rash dismantling of our watchdog.

At present, it is exceedingly difficult if not impossible to uphold the fundamental principles of our democracy: of openness, transparency, and public trust. Digital campaigning has the potential to be hugely positive – provided we don’t let secrecy rule the day.

Frances Lasok: This pandemic has shown the Conservatives need a local community focus

24 Sep

Frances Lasok is a political campaign manager for local elections.

What are the challenges for the first post-COVID elections, what will we stand for, and what should our strategy be?

The beginning of the pandemic was defined by civic unity. Roadside banners went up to the NHS, and we suddenly became a society that asked after our neighbours. But then came the after-effects. An end to the political ceasefire, plummeting GDP, a doubling of reported symptoms of depression, the beginnings of the long-term effects of economic decline, increased isolation and post-furlough job losses. People will rally round in a crisis; it’s as we move out of it that the uncertainty hits.

As the governing party, it leaves us in a difficult place: elected on a manifesto less than a year old where the biggest challenge was Brexit. And as Theresa May proved, it isn’t enough to just promise competent government or more-of-the-same small-c conservativism. Boris rallied the country on “Get Brexit Done” but since then the world turned upside down, leaving the levelling up agenda as the philosophical drive behind the Conservative Party.

It’s relevant. But for it to be more than words, it needs local engagement and local co-operation: a united drive between Government and the bodies at the coal face rather than, as is often the case, good ideas from the centre killed by falling into a gap between multiple overlapping authorities with different agendas, motives or political stripes. The potential gap between idea and implementation is huge. Which brings us on to the first post-COVID elections, in 2021.

The stakes are high, higher than just political capital, because the seats up are the major players: the County, unitary, and combined authorities that will hold the purse strings and implementation responsibilities for huge swathes of the Government’s post-COVID agenda: schools, social care, economic development and transport. Many of these seats were last up in May 2017, the record high for Theresa May’s Conservatives. In a good year, simply holding what we’ve got would be a high bar to clear.

So, what do we say in the first post COVID elections? Looking back to the Queen’s Speech in October 2019, what’s striking is how many themes of the pre-COVID agenda – community, social care, small business, towns – have been driven to the forefront thanks to the pandemic. And many of these ideas knit together: one of the biggest barriers to levelling up is dying town centres. Off the back of the Taylor Review, the proposed Employment Bill was highlighting flexible working and use of technology to increase productivity. Whilst Eat Out to Help Out gave the “use it or lose it” message about local businesses, flexible working means there are people who now have the time and money to get lunch at a local café or stop for essentials in a local shop, rather than a 5am rise for a £30 train then home for 8pm and order online. These points on the national agenda have knock-on effects to the local: small business, levelling up towns, greener transport.

There’s been a surprising return of an old friend in the last few months: the Big Society. Isolation and loneliness, and the knock-on effects to social care and mental health, have been on the backburner for years. The COVID mutual aid groups that sprung up across the country were an organic network of community minded people who wanted to help others, had the ability, and saw the need. They were often made up of the demographic of 30s-50s or younger, professionals, working parents that local initiatives often struggle to engage. When it comes to community, logistics matter. Influenced by Roger Scruton’s Building Better Building Beautiful initiative, in refreshingly plain English the Planning Reform White Paper said this:

“Planning matters. Where we live has a measurable effect on our physical and mental health: on how much we walk, on how many neighbours we know or how tense we feel on the daily journey to work or school.”

Policy and technology affect community. Someone commuting 6am-8pm is not likely to get involved with local initiatives. Technology is a friend that could change the face of the voluntary sector and local government entirely, making it possible for someone to fit in Council around the school run or a 4pm meeting. The Conservative Party should seize on this – and if we don’t, the Greens and the Lib Dems will – because these are the people we need running councils.

It’s helpful because another challenge will be socially distanced recruitment. Campaigners across the country will have breathed a quiet sigh of relief at the prospect of no more rubber chicken dinners. But humans are social creatures and whilst the opportunity for members to have Zoom calls with the Chancellor is fantastic, the remote nature means that the local MP doesn’t meet the new joiners.

The same will be true of campaigning, with social distancing currently means no canvassing. The alternatives to knock-every-door data collection are post (expensive and only a proportion will answer) or demographic targeting. Targeting is not yet perfect and carries risks. But it’s ideally suited for the local elections where only an engaged minority are going to vote. And long-term, the next battle around the corner is for Generation Z. Already, they are the hardest to reach using traditional methods: more likely to live in HMOs or difficult-to-access flats, less likely to read snail mail, more likely to move frequently which affects the data we can manually gather, less likely to engage locally, more likely to engage online. The challenge isn’t just their hearts and minds, but reaching their ears and eyes. If we’re forced away from traditional methods of engagement in 2021, it’s a learning curve for what “normal” will be in twenty years.

After a crisis, any incumbent party is dealt a difficult hand. The temptation is to fight a rear-guard action piecemeal, but we don’t need to do that. Capitalism adapts and we are the party of innovation and opportunity. The solutions we need across the board – on communities, planning, transport, localism, mental health – link together into an achievable local manifesto with the levelling up agenda and compassionate Conservativism at its heart, deliverable in a way that has local communities at the centre. And these are questions that we have to ask and answer now because when we face a shaken and worried electorate in nine months’ time, we need to know what we will say; how we will say it; and what, as Conservatives, we stand for.