Stuart Coster: There is anger from the editors of real local newspapers at the fake versions from the Lib Dems

16 Apr

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

As campaigning steps up ahead of May’s local elections, the Liberal Democrats have come under fresh fire from local newspapers and the Society of Editors over a new spate of the party’s fake newspaper leaflets.

Hot on the heels of the Lib Dems’ recent uncaring refusal to stop distributing political leaflets during lockdown, the party has once again been caught putting out propaganda mocked up to mislead voters into thinking they are reading independent local journalism.

Examples of phoney ‘newspapers’ distributed by the Lib Dems in recent weeks include the Welwyn Hatfield News, Wiltshire Post, South Oxfordshire Observer, Andover South Gazette, and Maidenhead News – all displaying fake names, using non-party colours, and any references to their political origin in tiny or peripheral text.

No doubt few would see much wrong with giving political leaflets a more reader-friendly, tabloid style. But to use bogus ‘local newspaper’ mastheads and write them in pseudo journalistic styles, with references to their true source tucked away in tiny print, as the Liberal Democrats are again doing, is clearly stepping far over that line into being deliberately misleading.

The response from genuine local newspapers and journalists to Lib Dem mimicry of their publications has been predictably explosive. First to take aim at the latest wave of deceptive Lib Dem leaflets was the Northampton Chronicle & Echo, which issued a warning to readers about its fake rival – the ‘Northants Citizen’.

In a hard-hitting editorial, the Chronicle cited how the local Lib Dem leaflet described itself misleadingly as a “Free local newspaper”, warning readers:

“Nowhere on the front page does it identify itself as a party-political freesheet produced by the Liberal Democrats. Only in tiny print on the back page …  There’s even a comment piece inside, mimicking the traditional leader column of quality newspapers.”

“Let’s be clear. It is nothing more than a political propaganda sheet masquerading as local news,” the Chronicle thundered.

Pete Gavan, the Editor of the Swindon Advertiser and Oxford Mail, also shared his dismay at the fake ‘Wiltshire Post’, saying:

“It’s very disappointing to see the Lib Dems trying to pass off this material as a ‘local newspaper’, which it most certainly is not. We work extremely hard in our communities to be the trusted impartial news source and actions like this only go to undermine that.”

The row has quickly escalated with the Society of Editors writing to Lib Dem leader, Sir Ed Davey, demanding an end to the misleading tactic “once and for all”.

The Society’s executive director, Ian Murray, commented:

“It seems that no matter how many times this issue is raised, the Lib Dems continue to pretend there is not a problem here. The simple fact is that if the party were serious about not attempting to mislead the public in this way then a plain – and large – Lib Dems logo on the front page of their local publications would do the trick.”

The editorial director of Newsquest local media group, Toby Granville, has also branded the Lib Dems a “disgrace” over the continuing ploy, after Darlington & Stockton Times editor, Hannah Chapman, posted a picture online of a Lib Dem leaflet calling itself the ‘Hambleton Herald’, which she received through her door.

In response, Granville blasted:

“Totally misleading the public by purporting to be a legitimate local newspaper and undermining our industry’s fight against fake news. Shame on you Lib Dems.”

The News Media Association, trade body for the regional and national press, has also now waded into the row, launching a campaign called ‘Don’t Be Duped’ urging the Lib Dems to end these misleading tactics.

Introducing the campaign, NMA chairman Henry Faure Walker wrote:

“Sadly, in recent months fake local newspapers published by the Lib Dems have started popping up again. Make no mistake, these publications are designed to fool you into thinking you are reading independent journalism. In fact, they are the exact opposite – party political propaganda sheets masquerading as real newspapers. It has been reported that some of the leaflets are not clearly marked as being produced by the Lib Dems. We think this cynical attempt to mislead you is wrong. It undermines trust in both politicians and independent local newspapers.”

The Lib Dems’ use of the ploy to mislead voters continues despite widespread criticism for the same low tricks at the 2019 general election – and the Electoral Commission subsequently warning that it shouldn’t continue.

In its report into the 2019 general election campaign, the Commission highlighted fake newspapers as one of the public’s key concerns about “misleading campaign techniques” during elections, singling out that “Some leaflets were designed to look like local newspapers. Others used colours normally associated with other parties”. Yet both such shameful ploys remain in evidence, for example, in Lib Dem MP, Layla Moran’s, latest ‘South Oxfordshire Observer’ leaflet.

Just as warnings of health risks to the public of continuing to leaflet during lockdown went unheeded, the concerns of the official body responsible for supervising our elections about the party’s deliberately misleading leaflets also appear to have fallen on deaf ears at Lib Dem HQ.

Such matters do not appear to concern the Liberal Democrats it seems, if it furthers their own narrow political interests.

The base idea of fake newspapers is clearly to fool people into thinking they are reading dispassionate journalistic reports and analysis on local politics – perhaps, even, a local newspaper endorsement – when in reality the content is of course only a highly sensationalised version of one party’s view.

As the Northampton Chronicle summed up perfectly:

“When political movements try to impersonate us, we are undermined. When members of the public realise they have been fooled by a medium that looks like ours, the next time they read journalism produced by us, they may trust it that bit less. This all leads to those in power becoming more powerful, more protected from scrutiny and less accountable to the public.”

An approach to politics that, if actions speak louder than words, seems sadly to have become a characteristic of the Liberal Democrats.

Have you seen any Lib Dem fake newspapers being distributed in your area? Please add a comment below with details or drop LibDemWatch a line direct through our website. We’ll be drawing up a full report of all misleading examples we’ve seen for submission to the relevant electoral authorities.

 

Some key contests will show if the “red wall” has been truly demolished

26 Mar

Those who have been carefully studying the earlier instalments of local election analysis, will have noted that Labour will find it easier to make gains on seats last contested in 2017 (when they did very badly) than those where the previous elections were in 2016 (when Labour and the Conservatives were broadly neck and neck.) The county council elections come under the first category. The Police and Crime Commissioner elections, and those for district councils, come under the second. That leaves us with the single tier councils, unitary authorities, and the metropolitan boroughs – these are the councils destined to be the dominant model for local government in the coming years.

Here it is difficult to give a sweeping prediction. First of all, because in some of them only a third of seats are up for elections. Secondly, because while most were last contested in 2016 – and thus will be challenging for Labour to improve upon – some are from 2017, so it would be hard for Labour to do any worse.

Demographic change adds to the uncertainty. Trafford is traditionally regarded as an important battleground between Labour and the Conservatives. Yet there is quite a substantial Labour lead there at present – 36 Labour councillors to 20 for the Conservatives. With only third of councillors up for election, the scope for dramatic change is limited. As the seats were last contested in 2016 there should be scope for Conservative gains. Trafford has become more middle class but not small business owners and the sort of middle class voter inclined to back the Tories. Instead, they are the secretariat middle class – university researchers, public sector administrators, and so forth – a category more likely to have socialist allegiances.

Brighter prospects for the Conservatives may be found in Dudley. Labour and the Conservatives have 36 seats each. Only a third of seats are being contested – and there are a couple of independents. But given this was last contested in 2016 it would be disappointing if the Conservatives did not gain overall control. Walsall Council is already narrowly in Conservative hands – the expectation will be to see the majority increased.

Plymouth may be tricky for the Conservatives due to local splits. The dispute, which has resulted in some councillors elected as Conservatives now sitting as independents, seems to concern speed limits. Labour hold a narrow lead on the Council at present and a third of the seats are up for election. They were last contested in 2016 – which should have given the Conservatives an opportunity. The close of nominations on April 8th may give a sense of the consequences of the infighting in terms of independent candidates standing.

Due to the extraordinary General Elections results in December 2019, we have some local authorities with Conservative MPs but no Conservative councillors. How effective have these new Conservative MPs been at building up a campaigning machine and talent spotting good council candidates? The “red wall” has already been breached. Will it now be demolished? Lord Hayward, the Conservative peer and elections expert, says:

“The 2017 local elections saw the Labour bastion Northumberland fall. Labour also lost a large number of seats in Durham – mostly to independents. Both those councils have all their councillors up for election again. So the test for Labour will be whether they can recover or whether the trend from the General election is confirmed. 

“Sheffield may be difficult for Labour. In some places, they will be worried about the Green Party and the Lib Dems. But we also have wards in Sheffield, on the north western fringe, with a Conservative MP – Miriam Cates the MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge. So could we see the first Conservative councillors in Sheffield for a long time?

“Sandwell has Conservative MPs but no Conservative councillors. Rotherham has no Conservative councillors but part of it is represented by Alexander Stafford the MP for Rother Valley. Doncaster does already have a small number of Conservative councillors. Will they have more given that there is now Nick Fletcher as the Conservative MP for Don Valley?”

“The greatest interest will be in Black Country and South Yorkshire. These are places that would have be ignored in previous local elections due to being so monolithically Labour.”

Milton Keynes will be worth looking out for, as it is pretty evenly divided between the Conservatives, Labour, and the Lib Dems. Elsewhere the Lib Dems start from a generally weak position. They will be making an effort in Wokingham where they have made some quiet progress in the past.

One caveat to all the elections covered this week. I have tried to look at the state of the parties in current opinion polls as a clue to how they might perform, relative to the actual votes cast in the local elections of four and five years ago. But in local elections older people are more likely to vote. The Conservatives already had a big lead among older voters in 2016 and 2017. But there has been some polling suggesting that the Conservatives relative advantage in that group compared to the population generally has increased. That may be part of a continuing trend. Or it may be that the “vaccination bounce” has a greater impact among the old. It might give the Conservatives a bit of an extra edge – especially in places like Cornwall with a significant number of retired people.

Next week I will consider some of high profile contests for directly elected Mayors.

Tom Davies and Geoff Fazackarley: Why the Conservative Councillors Association needs new leadership

9 Feb

Cllr Tom Davies and Cllr Geoff Fazackarley are councillors in Fareham

Councillors are the backbone of the Conservative Party, yet our views aren’t always well represented by the party. We need to change that. That’s why we are standing for the Conservative Councillors Association on a joint ticket – Tom for Chairman, Geoff for Deputy Chairman.

Many of you probably haven’t even heard of the CCA, and that’s essentially the problem. It’s a little known association with a low level of influence given the size of its membership.

We think it’s really important that a new CCA Chairman & Deputy come in to ensure the views of our councillors are properly voiced and heard. At the moment so many councillors either don’t think the CCA helps them or don’t know what it does at all.

The fact is, the party with the most councillors at a General Election almost always wins. Yet despite having some of the best experience and knowledge, our members don’t always feel like we’re listened to. Because of our importance to the Party I think it’s right that we request further resourcing to help us achieve more.

Tom won his seat off the Liberal Democrats (who had held it for 18 years), with a 13.2 per cent swing. That was after spending many days reading campaigning books, marketing books, and finding out what works. We want to use this knowledge to further complement the CCA guides, grants, and schemes.

Expanding the various schemes the CCA offers so that all councillors and candidates feel like they can win or retain their seat is vital. For you, for us as an association, and for the Party as a whole. Everyone associated with the Party benefits.

We will be pushing hard for additional funding from Central Office to ensure that our candidates do receive the funding required to run a strong campaign and to make certain that Labour never have more councillors than we do ever again. This then safeguards the Party position nationally as the natural party of government.

Tom was lucky enough to benefit from a CCA grant when campaigning. They can be immensely useful to any candidate in a target seat and I will prioritise more support and assistance for existing councillors and new candidates. We wrote to Party Chairmen, Amanda Milling and Ben Elliot, and we’re delighted that CCA and CCHQ have announced a lockdown campaign scheme, just as we asked for.

We are extremely pleased that we managed to make this happen. Since our campaign started there’s been a big increase in CCA activity, so we strongly feel like we’re pushing the CCA hard to do more and be better for our members.

Our entire platform is based on giving councillors a voice, and we promise to canvass them all on every key issue and make sure that their consensus is heard. We will be running monthly surveys on key local issues and we’ll be writing to the Local Government Minister and Party Chairmen to let them know what we think.

We ran a two week long survey, because in order to run a councillor driven campaign we had to know what councillors thought, and we needed enough responses to make it truly representative. The survey response we’ve had has been stunning. We both thought the CCA had problems – that’s why we wanted to stand in the first place – but the level to which there’s a problem both within the CCA, and on wider level about how our councillors feel, is beyond what we imagined.

We want to make it clear that we believe the CCA has amazing potential to be exactly what our members want it to be; an association that listens, that handles our concerns, provides support and that ultimately helps us to hold on to our seats and win new ones.

Of over three hundred councillors polled; this is what they told us:

  • 54.7 per cent do not feel supported by the CCA
  • 58.5 per cent do not feel they have enough mental health support
  • 78.4 per cent do not feel like their voice is heard within the party when they have a grievance
  • 21.6 per cent feel the CCA is useful at election time
  • 22.8 per cent feel the CCA is value for money
  • 70.1 per cent have no idea who their CCA Chairman is
  • 83.0 per cent want the CCA to be more active and supportive at election time
  • 12.2 per cent feel like the CCA is achieving its most important functions.

As councillors we have a duty to serve, and we do so with great humility – for many of us becoming a councillor has been one of the greatest accomplishments of our lives. While the majority of residents reciprocate the kindness we show them, it’s sad that more and more people do not treat others in a respectable manner. Such is the social media age that sadly many of us now have had to deal with harassment and aggression from a minority of residents, especially online.

This has been a tough year for everyone and the demands of residents have increased for many councillors. So, as well as dealing with a less than pleasant atmosphere at times, our councillors have to contend with increased stress levels.

The Party needs to investigate, and councillors need more support and better, more timely, responses from the CCHQ Complaints Department when issues are raised.

We set out on this campaign with the key pledge to turn the CCA into an election winning machine. We didn’t think the CCA was getting its message through or being effective enough. It’s clear our members feel strongly the same way.

The problem the CCA has, we feel, and from what the survey says, is twofold. Firstly, the CCA is under-resourced, meaning that while it has some fantastic staff and good intentions, it’s simply unable to fulfil its potential at this time.

The second is that members felt what support was there was poorly targeted and difficult to access, or was not convenient to them. We need to tell councillors why it’s important they have a Facebook page, why it’s important to collect voter data, why it’s important to sign people up for postal votes – it’s not enough to say here’s a webinar that tells you how; the CCA needs to take members with it and help them through the process from start to finish.

Please find out more here.

Plea for phone canvassing for local elections – before a “short, sharp and cheerful” doorstep campaign

2 Feb

There has been widespread concern that the bumper crop of local elections due to take place on May 6th might be postponed due to the pandemic. Just over a week ago, a survey, by the Local Government Information Unit, was released. Of more than 350 chief executives and other council officials surveyed, only 11 per cent favoured proceeding as planned. 69 per cent backed postponement to the autumn; 14 per cent backed a shorter delay to the summer; and six per cent backed delaying until beyond the autumn. Boris Johnson has stated he wishes to go ahead “if we possibly can” – which still left some room for uncertainty.

But now a more encouraging signal has emerged. Amanda Milling, the Conservative Party Chairman, has written to Conservative councillors, Police and Crime Commissioners, MPs, and association chairmen, setting out practical arrangements to proceed with the campaign. It covers what campaigning is already allowed. But it also looks forward to more being possible, as lockdown rules are eased. Milling says:

“The Party anticipates that permitted activity will open-up as we get closer to the election period, reflecting the broader expected changes to Covid restrictions as vaccines are rolled out.”

At present, the Government’s guidance is that “door to door canvassing or leafleting by individual political party activists” would not be in line with the current restrictions. The Lib Dems have been criticised for a rather different interpretation.

Phone canvassing is being encouraged, with prizes offered – “to encourage members and activists to call thousands of voters across the country from the comfort of their sittings rooms.” All you need to “access Connect Calling” is a “VoteSource account.” There are great advantages to canvassing in this way even under normal circumstances. It is much quicker than knocking on doors. The problem is that not all phone numbers are available – especially with the decline in landlines. But then we should get cracking with those during February and March, with the hope and anticipation of being able to get hold of the rest of the electorate via their doorsteps in April.

Milling’s letter also notes that “social media advertising, email campaigns and single-issue online campaigns are all effective tools to reach voters remotely.” Email bulletins are a very efficient way to communicate – not just for the candidate but also for the voter wishing to reply. The problem is that the EU’s cumbersome General Data Protection Regulation requires the candidate to show the voter has specifically asked to be communicated with. With knocking on the door, phoning them, or posting a letter, the presumption is that this is permitted unless the elector has specified otherwise. But with email it is not enough to let them “opt out”. A huge fine is threatened unless they can be proven to have “opted in”. It would help the cause of local democracy if the GDPR rules were eased. This is not something that Milling covers in her missive.

Postal voting will be particularly important. Milling says:

“We expect more people to be voting by post this year, using Royal Mail for a postal vote drive is possible well ahead of time.”

The letter refers to “discussions with other political parties” on “how the nominations process could be improved.” Lord Hayward, a Conservative peer, Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town, a Labour peeress and Lord Rennard, a Lib Dem, have called for an exemption for candidates from registered political parties from the requirement to collect ten signatures from their nomination papers. It sounds as though they may get their way.

Milling concludes with the upbeat message that the outdoor campaigning, when it gets under way, can be made “all the better for being short, sharp and cheerful.”

The letter is reproduced below:

 

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.

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”.

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.