Sarah Ingham: The Government’s Covid communications campaign made lab rats of us all

4 Feb

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

“Millions of people took seriously a communications campaign, apparently designed by behavioural psychologists, to bully, to shame and to terrify them into compliance with minute restrictions …”

In the Commons’ debate on the Sue Gray report, Steve Baker’s intervention was one of the few which did not prompt the Prime Minister to remind us that he is currently under investigation by the Metropolitan Police.

The MP for Wycombe took the PM to task over Government messaging in connection with Covid. Not only had people meticulously followed the rules (unlike a certain First Lord of the Treasury and his wife, perhaps?), but their mental health had suffered.

Baker’s question on Monday highlights the growing unease that the messaging was unethical and its results malign. It also called into the question the role of behaviour psychology, the science of what drives our decision-making. It seems the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee will be looking into the use of “nudge” tactics in connection with the Government’s response to the pandemic.

Recent reports on Covid’s collateral damage highlight an increased risk of measles because the take-up of MMR jabs is the lowest in a decade, as well as an £8.7 billion loss thanks to defective and unsuitable PPE. Such missteps in connection with public policy – inadvertent or not – are quantifiable. Assessments about burning through taxpayers’ hard-earned money in a pandemic-induced public-spending spree are far easier than judging the impact of Covid comms and the tactics to ensure the acceptance of public health measures.

It must be remembered that back in early 2020, the Government was flying blind, needing to do something, anything, to protect us from a possible plague. In addition, behavioural science – which informed some of the messaging – is meant to tap into our subconscious minds. But even raising the subject of possible subliminal coercion risks comparisons with incel-prone nutters, breathless with conspiracy theories about how the Pfizer/Moderna/AZ clot shot will turn us all into lizards.

The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), better known as the Nudge Unit, was set up by David Cameron in the early days of the Coalition to improve the workings of government by injecting an understanding of human behaviour into policy. Inside the Nudge Unit (2015) by its director David Halpern chronicles how small changes – such as reminders from HMRC that ‘most people pay their tax on time’ – can produce big results, at almost no financial cost.

Nudging has been used across government departments for the past decade. It has saved the taxpayer millions by, for example, reducing missed medical appointments. As Prof Halpern states, nudges work on an unconscious, automatic level: “Behaviourally-based interventions can operate below the conscious radar of busy citizens.”

According to Gray, “The UK Government put in place far-reaching restrictions on citizens that had direct and material impact on their lives, livelihood and liberties.” The overwhelming majority of us complied with the lockdowns. How far the Government and its agencies coerced us into this compliance, not least by deliberate fearmongering, is now coming onto the conscious radar of Britain’s busy citizens.

SPI-B, the behavioural science sub-group of SAGE, set out Options for Increasing Social Distancing Measures in a paper on March 22 2020. As it stated, “The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging.”

In 2020, the Government spent £184 million on Covid-related advertising, including on the message that if we went out, we could spread the virus and ‘People Will Die’. This is bullying, not bribing, taxpayers with their own money. Was the emetic ‘Don’t Kill Your Gran’ inspired by SPI-B’s recommendation that messaging needs to emphasise the duty to protect others?

With its calamitous forecasting record, if it were Paddy Power, SAGE would have gone bust long ago. Among members of SPI-B, three are from BIT, one is a communist and four declined to give their names. So much for transparency. Last month, Simon Ruda, a BIT co-founder, stated that fewer than one per cent of its staff supported Brexit. If behavioural science is meant to correct the biases that lead us into making poor decisions, surely diversity of opinion should be encouraged?

Spun off from the Cabinet Office in 2014, BIT is now a global consultancy with 250 staff. In December, the government announced it will sell its one-third stake to innovation agency Nesta, whose Chief Executive stated in the Financial Times that “tackling Covid has shown what, properly applied, behavioural insights can do.” Mask-wearing, apparently, shows compliance with social norms and is a wider signal for others to take precautions.

Project Fear 2.0 included the daily Terror at Tea-Time press conferences, with their update on the Covid death toll. Even today, the tally is a context-free zone. We are still told nothing about, for example, how many people have recovered from the virus and been discharged from hospital. Why not? We need some positive news, not more doom porn.

Who doesn’t know people who are still reluctant to leave their homes? After almost two years of relentless bombardment about disease and death, caution is understandable. Fearing contamination – especially during the Hands, Face, Space phase of messaging – householders disinfected their deliveries or left them outside their front doors for days.

Given we still have a state broadcaster and the millions shovelled their way, it is unsurprising that much of the media have become outposts of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. In the context of the Government’s Covid response, we heard too few voices of dissent and too much cheer-leading for the dystopia it was creating.

The messaging and manipulation is beginning to look counter-productive. Children have foregone their MMR jabs not least because parents heeded warnings about avoiding GP surgeries and hospitals. On Wednesday, a study by John Hopkins University found that lockdowns had little impact, perhaps reducing the death rate by 0.2 per cent.

Last July, Laura Dodsworth published A State of Fear – How the Government Weaponised Fear During the Covid-19 Pandemic. Endorsed by Lord Sumption, it was dismissed by The Times’ David Aaronovitch as ‘an outrageously dumb book selling conspiracy hooey’. Thankfully, some MPs are finally starting to do their job of holding the Executive to account and we might get to see whose call is correct.

Public policy often tries to change our behaviour. Being encouraged to eat five a day is, however, completely different from being coerced into ceding our freedoms, human rights and liberty. Ethics vanished.

As Prof Halpern noted, “Many experiments are run which depend on the subject not knowing they are part of the experiment.”

We, the lab rats, eh?

Profile: Steve Baker, Christian Conservative, ERG organiser, small stater – and thorn in Johnson’s side

22 Dec

“The more Steve Baker is in the papers, the worse the Conservative Party is doing,” a senior Tory remarked this week.

Baker is in the papers quite a bit. Sam Coates of Sky News reported a few days ago that Baker had sacked Nadine Dorries from the “Clean Global Brexit” WhatsApp group of Tory MPs, after she had the temerity to defend Boris Johnson as “the hero who delivered Brexit”.

“Enough is enough,” Baker declared on removing her, and posted a thumbs-up emoji of himself, before suggesting that the Conservatives’ victory at the last general election was by no means entirely thanks to Johnson:

“Someone (ahem) but not him persuaded Farage not to run against incumbents.”

George Parker of The Financial Times cites another striking comment by Baker, made during last week’s rebellion by 99 Conservative backbenchers:

“There is now a party within a party,” winced one Tory official after the Commons vote. Steve Baker, a former minister, quoted Romans to fellow rebels in a WhatsApp message, urging them to show magnanimity as they inflicted humiliation on the prime minister: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Baker’s Christian faith is more important to him than his politics, though for most purposes the two are indistinguishable. He was baptised in the sea off his native Cornwall as a teenager, and told Sebastian Whale, who wrote a long piece about him for PoliticsHome at the start of 2020:

“‘It is absolutely fundamental to who I am that I am a Christian. I don’t think of myself as a religious person, I just am a Christian.’… When asked if there is space for religion and politics to co-exist, Baker replies: ‘What happens I’m afraid with my Christian brothers and sisters, as so often in politics, is they allow themselves to be shown the landmine and then they jump on the landmine with both feet.’ His political mantra is: ‘Do not give into evil, but proceed ever more boldly against it.'”

His determination to combine confrontation of evil with practical politics is seen in his role as the principal organiser of the European Research Group of Eurosceptic Conservatives.

“He is one of the most organised and effective people you could work with,” a senior ERG person told ConHome. “He understands technology – he knows how to make systems work.”

But Baker is no dry-as-dust technocrat, Two days before the third Meaningful Vote, held on 29th March 2019, the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, told Conservative MPs at a meeting of the 1922 Committee that if they voted for the Withdrawal Agreement, she would in due course stand down as Prime Minister and as their leader.

The pressure on members of the ERG to support the deal was intense, with other Conservatives shouting at them to do so. But immediately afterwards, the ERG held a meeting of its own, which was addressed by Baker, who said:

“I am consumed by a ferocious rage…after that pantomime of sycophancy and bullying next door.

“It is a rage I have not felt since the time of the Lisbon Treaty, when I realised that those who govern us care not how we vote.

“For what did our forebears fight and die? It was for our liberty. And what is our liberty, if not our right to govern ourselves, peacefully at the ballot box?

“Like all of you, I have wrestled with my conscience, with the evidence before me, with the text of the Treaty, and I resolved that I would vote against this deal however often it was presented, come what may, if it meant the fall of the Government and the destruction of the Conservative Party.

“By God, right now, if I think of the worthless, ignorant cowards and knaves in the House today, voting for things they do not understand, which would surrender our right to govern ourselves, I would tear this building down and bulldoze the rubble into the river. God help me, I would.”

The speech is printed in Spartan Victory, by Mark Francois, which will be reviewed on ConHome in January. And one can perhaps see from it why someone like Andrew Mitchell, in whose recent book, reviewed here in October, Baker is not mentioned once, nevertheless told ConHome:

“Steve Baker is as straight as a die. He is unusual in politics in that he says what he thinks and means what he says. His instincts on liberty and the rights of the citizen are thoroughly admirable.”

But some Tories do find Baker, with his willingness to contemplate the fall of the Government, destruction of the Conservative Party and demolition of Parliament, a bit much to take.

In his Diaries, reviewed here in May, Sir Alan Duncan, admittedly a man ready to be annoyed, variously describes Baker as “the most useless minister”, “the little wanker”, “the vacuous little upstart”, “the turd” and “the nutjob” who “should be taken away by the men in white coats and certified as clinically insane”.

One cannot help feeling astonished that Conservative Party has remained, roughly speaking, intact.

Baker was born in Cornwall in 1971. His father was a carpenter and his mother an accounting clerk. He was educated at Poltair School in St Austell, studied Aerospace Engineering at Southampton University, and served in the RAF until 1999, after which he took an MSc in Computation at St Cross College, Oxford and held a variety of senior positions as a software engineer and consultant. His wife, Beth, served as a senior officer in the RAF medical branch until 2010.

His enthusiasms include skydiving, motorcycling, and Austrian economics, about which he discoursed with evangelical fervour when interviewed by ConHome in 2014.

The economics, and his conviction that a small state is better for the poor, came before the politics. Daniel Hannan has said of him:

“He is one of the few people who I have seen physically flinch at the thought of the Government spending more money. Really, his issue was not initially the EU except insofar as he was generally sceptical of big government and saw the EU as part of that. The Euroscepticism developed out of that.”

Wycombe was the first seat Baker put in for, and with his innocent boyish sincerity, and a twinkle in his eye, he carried all before him, and defeated Kwasi Kwarteng in the final of the selection process.

He was elected in 2010 with a majority of 9,560, which shrank in 2019 to 4,214. In Parliament, he has distinguished himself as an organiser of rebellions.

After the 2017 general election, Theresa May made him a junior minister in the Brexit department, but after she had tried to sell her version of Brexit to the Cabinet at Chequers in the summer of 2018, and his departmental minister, David Davis, had resigned, Baker too resigned, and resumed the life of a rebel organiser, for which, perhaps, he is better suited.

And yet most insurgents dream of taking over one day. That, along with the moral unacceptability of the present regime, is why they rebelled in the first place.

One may surmise that Baker is not spared such visions. He sees with brilliant clarity how he would reform the banking system, so at last it accords with the principles set down by Cobden and von Mises.

Baker is only 50. He is said to want, like most of his colleagues, to succeed Boris Johnson as leader. In August of this year, he got 4.69 per cent in the first ConHome Next Tory Leader survey for two years. He can build on that.

It’s too soon to judge how the boundary review will impact the next election – but it’s fun to try

8 Jun

There was some excitement in this morning’s papers about the impact of the proposed reforms to constituency boundaries. Suggestions that Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, might lose his seat have made headlines.

Expert psephologists are being rather more cautious about projecting any partisan impact of the changes. These are, after all, only initial proposals. Whilst MPs won’t get an opportunity to vote the Boundary Commission’s eventual map down, the parties do now have an opportunity to feed back.

Historically, the Conservatives have not always handled this process well. Anthony Seldon, in his book Major: A Political Life, noted how in the 1990s: “weak local organisation and coordination led to the fumbling of the opportunity presented by the Boundary Commission review.”

With discipline breaking down as the post-Thatcher era began, apparently there was at least one instance of two associations turning up to a boundary meeting with separate barristers. As a result, an anticipated 40-seat gain for the Tories ended up being a mere five.

There may be a lesson there for today. Not because of a similar risk of association infighting – the process is, like everything else, much more centrally organised these days, and is in the hands of the veteran Roger Pratt at CCHQ. But because there’s also another reason not to jump to conclusions about “the biggest shake-up of boundaries in decades”, which is that the old logic of the reforms has been rather overtaken by the 2019 election.

When the plans were first mooted under David Cameron (alongside the unsaleable intention to cut the number of seats), equalising constituency sizes hurt Labour, which won large numbers of disproportionately small seats, and thus boosted the Conservatives. But with the Tories having broken through in a lot of those seats at the last election, that happy outcome is now much less certain.

And when we examined this question as part of our ‘Securing the Majority’ series last summer, some MPs also warned that a serious boundary shake-up could wipe out the first-term dividend newly-elected parliamentarians often enjoy.

So a full picture of the partisan impact of the changes will have to wait. But it nonetheless interesting to take two snapshots of the battlefield – one in the ‘Red Wall’, and one in the ‘Blue Wall’ – and prognosticate a little. Follow along at home with this very handy interactive map, courtesy of Election Maps UK.

Blue Wall

For the latter, let’s look at true-blue Buckinghamshire. All seven seats here returned Conservative MPs at the last election, and most by comfortable margins. What impact are the proposed changes likely to have?

Overall the county gains a seat, rising to eight. This has been done by carving the new seat of Princes Risborough out of the southern parts of the Aylesbury and Buckingham constituencies.

Despite this Milton Keynes notionally loses one, with Ben Everitt’s seat of Milton Keynes North, already a county constituency, shedding its remaining territory in the town and becomes Newport Pagnell, likely to be rock solid. Meanwhile Buckingham would absorb parts of the old Milton Keynes South to become Buckingham and Bletchley. Given that Greg Smith enjoys a majority of over 20,000, this is unlikely to cost him much sleep.

Milton Keynes South, what’s left of it, becomes just Milton Keynes. As a more urban seat it is likely to be closer to Labour than it was, although Iain Stewart’s comfortable majority of 6,944 ought to see him through.

Aylesbury changes shape quite dramatically, shedding a swath of southern territory. The new seat is much more concentrated on the town itself, and may also therefore be more competitive for Labour.

Both Chesham and Amersham and Wycombe remain roughly the same, although the latter becomes ‘High Wycombe’ – a rare example of the Boundary Commission’s enthusiasm for longer names being a force for good. It is the county’s most marginal seat and will probably continue trending away from the Party. On the other hand, Beaconsfield becomes Marlow and South Buckinghamshire for no obvious reason.

Overall then, little for CCHQ to complain out. These changes might put one or two seats slightly closer to the opposition, but this is probably offset by creating a new, quite safe Tory seat.

Red Wall

Now let’s look at an offensive battlefield: South Yorkshire. The Conservatives made a handful of gains here in 2019, but there is plenty of scope for growth – especially in the wake of the dramatic results at the locals, which saw the Party go from zero seats to 20 on Rotherham Council.

According to local sources, “winning all three Rotherham seats on these boundaries is a decent prospect.” Minor changes to Alexander Stafford’s seat of Rother Valley are unlikely to make much of an impact, Rotherham itself becomes “slightly more winnable”, and Wentworth and Dearne loses the Dearnes (the area with the weakest Tory vote) and is reborn as Rawmarsh and Conisbrough.

Doncaster Central (Labour majority: 2,278) becomes Doncaster Town by taking part of Don Valley that is “very good for us” – in fact local Tories suggest that “on these boundaries we should be looking to win it.” The consequence is that Don Valley itself may be harder to hold, although Nick Fletcher should probably be OK. Likewise, minor changes to Penistone and Stocksbridge are apparently unlikely to cause Miriam Cates much difficulty.

Elsewhere there is churn but less change: the rejigged boundaries in Barnsley will apparently produce broadly similar results to the status quo, as will alterations to Ed Miliband’s seat in Doncaster North (although this remains winnable). Likewise, nobody seems to expect any exciting results from a relatively conservative reshuffling of Sheffield.

On the face of it, a rosy outlook for the Party. But of course, South Yorkshire is an area where the old electoral map survived the last election. There are others, such as South Wales. But the impact of the reforms could be quite different elsewhere.

Peter Oborne & Jan-Peter Westad: Conservative MPs with Muslim constituents are starting to speak up about Kashmir

26 Oct

Peter Oborne is a columnist for Middle East Eye. His books include Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran and Wounded Tiger: A History of Cricket in Pakistan. Jan-Peter Westad is a freelance journalist.

This week marks the 73rd anniversary of Jammu and Kashmir joining India. The region has been a source of bitter dispute between India and Pakistan ever since.

In India, October 27 will be celebrated as “Accession Day”. But in Pakistan, and for many Kashmiris, it is known as Black Day.

With Narendra Modi’s treatment of Kashmir becoming steadily more brutal, commemorations this year will be sombre.

Kashmiris have been under heavy restrictions since India revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir on 5 August last year.

This status had given special privileges to permanent residents of Kashmir, including state government jobs and the exclusive right to own property.

It was designed to protect the state’s distinct character as the only Muslim-majority state in India.

Many of these rights have since been undermined by further legal changes. Government jobs that were previously reserved for Kashmiris have now been opened up to Indian citizens. It has also been made easier to revoke residency rights.

With the outbreak of coronavirus, heavily armed police line the streets in ever greater number. Following a communications blackout at the time of the revocation last year, internet access and other means of communication remain limited.

With the outbreak of coronavirus, heavily armed police line the streets in ever greater number. Following a communications blackout at the time of the revocation last year, internet access and other means of communication remain limited.

Journalists, too, face harassment and imprisonment. Nearly 400 journalists & civil society members have called for the release of Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan who has been in jail for more than two years.

Only last week, the office of the Kashmir Times, an English-language daily newspaper, was sealed off by Indian officials.

Properties have been destroyed and innocent people are losing their lives. According to human rights organisations, between 1 January and 20 June, there were 229 killings, of which 32 were civilians, 54 were government forces and 143 were militants.

One would have thought this would be a matter of grave concern for the British government, which has gone to great lengths to announce itself as a defender of human rights in recent months.

Earlier this year, Dominic Raab announced new sanctions on human rights abusers. A move he said was “a demonstration of Global Britain’s commitment to acting as a force for good in the world.”

The Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office embarked on a highly publicised campaign to protect worldwide media freedoms last year. It constantly uses social media to warn, for example, that “journalists are under attack across the world, threatening basic human rights such as freedom of expression.”

But Raab and the government’s words on Kashmir have been conspicuously sotto voce.

At the time of the revocation in August last year, Raab “expressed concern” to India about their actions, but no action was taken.

Britain’s then high commissioner to India, Sir Dominic Asquith, was similarly limp.

He said the “UK’s position has not changed one degree….We are no different today than we were a year ago, which is, the question of Kashmir has to be sorted out bilaterally between Indian government and Pakistani government, taking into account the wishes of Kashmiri people.”

The government’s position appears to be unchanged, as Nigel Adams, the Asia Minister, made clear. Responding to a written question in July saying it was for India and Pakistan “to find a lasting political resolution on Kashmir”.

To sum up: the official policy of Boris Johnson’s government has been to ignore the Kashmir issue. And pretend that it does not exist.

Hence the importance of the resuscitation of “The Conservative Friends of Kashmir” group in September.

This comprises a group of nine Tory MPs. They tend to have one thing in common: a significant number of Muslim voters in their constituencies.

Many are in areas of Yorkshire or the North West with high Muslim and Pakistani populations, including Mark Eastwood, MP for Dewsbury.

The so-called ‘Red Wall’ seats in the north of England do not just contain a large number of white working class voters. Large numbers of Muslim voters live in them too.

Marco Longhi is MP for the red wall seat of Dudley North in the West Midlands, another region with a large Muslim and Pakistani population. He’s part of the group.

Another member, Steve Baker, is MP for Wycombe where, according to the last census, 13.4% of the constituency are Muslim and 11.8 per cent are Pakistani.

There are more than a million British Pakistanis. Many of whom hail from Kashmir. As many as 70 per cent have been estimated to originate from the Mirpur district of Azad Kashmir, which is administered by Pakistan.

Many British Pakistanis maintain close ties to family in Kashmir. They view the situation in India-administered Kashmir as a great injustice and a burning issue.

And it’s now becoming an issue for certain Conservative MPs keen to hold onto their seats. These MPs are not helped by a foreign policy which gives the appearance of kowtowing to Narendra Modi’s BJP government.

The chairman of Conservative Friends of Kashmir is Peterborough MP, Paul Bristow – another area where the Muslim population of 9.4 per cent is above the national average.

When we rang him last week, he told us that “we’ve left the Kashmir issue to the Labour party and that can’t happen anymore.”

“The fact that a much more aggressive India has abandoned any attempt to be a secular government, combined with basic issues of human rights, means that Kashmir is now an issue for us,” he said.

He stressed how he felt when talking to his constituents who can’t talk to family and friends back in Kashmir.

He told us that his organisation was there to encourage more people from the Kashmiri diaspora into his party’s fold, rather than take a stance on the politics of the region. “We are making it clear that the Conservative Party is for them too.”

But talking about his own views on the UK Government’s foreign policy, he outlined three main objectives. “We need to shine a spotlight on human rights issues in Kashmir.

“We also need to raise the issue of self-determination. Britain doesn’t just say that sovereignty over the Falkland Islands is a matter between Britain and Argentina. We say it’s an international matter. The same should apply in Kashmir.”

“Thirdly, we need to take account of the views of people in Kashmir itself. Not to do so, is morally indefensible.”

These sentiments are bold. They put Bristow and some of those in his band of Tory MPs at odds with government policy. It’s no coincidence that they’ve already come under fierce attack from Bob Blackman, the MP for Harrow East.

Mr Blackman was awarded the Padma Shri award (perhaps the nearest thing India has to a British knighthood) from the Indian government earlier this year, and is a strong supporter of the Modi government.

He is on record defending Modi’s decision to revoke the special status of Kashmir and has previously encouraged voters to support Modi’s BJP party in elections in India.

Until now, Blackman has been far more reflective of Tory opinion than Bristow and his colleagues in the Kashmir group.

There are many reasons for this, including the need of post-Brexit Britain to maintain trading links with Modi’s India, to which must be added Islamophobic opinions among Tory members, with one recent poll finding nearly half of Conservative members believe Islam to be “a threat to the British way of life.”

But when I put these statistics to Paul Bristow, he pointed to the example of Peterborough, which has two Muslim Conservative councillors and a Muslim Conservative mayor. He is battling to build relations with British Muslims. Lets see how he gets on.