“If you’re not a liberal at twenty you have no heart; if you’re not a conservative at forty you have no brain.”

Our series of interviews with policy makers, movers, shakers and promise breakers in our government continues with Oliver Dowden, domestic policy aide to David Cameron, the PM’s former Deputy Chief of Staff, and current PPC for Hertsmere.

The Interviews
By Jacob Whitehead (@jwhitey98)
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Watch this space: Oliver Dowden, aide to David Cameron and PPC for Hertsmere will
be on the front bench soon. (Photo: Oliver Dowden Campaign)

On the face of it, Hertsmere, the leafy commuter constituency north of London in which I live, would seem like the perfect place for an ambitious MP to whet his political appetite. There are no pressing social issues, with Hertsmere being ranked as one of the least deprived constituencies in the UK, and the seat has always returned a safe Conservative majority – currently around 18,000. In short, this would seem like the perfect place for the Conservatives to parachute in a rising star of the party, someone bound to make a big impact in Westminster, who can afford to prioritise national issues over local matters. The highly-rated Oliver Dowden, the eventual PPC, fitted this bill, as David Cameron’s former Deputy Chief of Staff and a domestic policy expert. There were also rumours that Boris Johnson could be a candidate for the seat, with Hertsmere being close to London, unproblematic and a sterling base for Boris to launch an audacious leadership coup from. But when Johnson was selected for the seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, an opportunity for Dowden arose…

However, Oliver Dowden is extremely keen to point out that ignoring his constituency in favour of national airtime isn’t his intention, saying ‘the first thing you have to do is represent local issues’ and I for one believe him. The sceptical youth of today may argue that all we see is a façade, belying the true intentions of politicians, but Dowden’s refreshing authenticity convinced me this wasn’t the case. To the mind of many of us, life as an aide for the PM would be infinitely more interesting than the local politics Dowden has subjected himself to. However, there is a special differentiator about Dowden, in that he was born and raised in the constituency, and so sets great store in representing it, summarising that “advisors advise and ministers decide” thereby confessing a fulfilment in being the voice of the people. His motivation is clear and justifiable to all; his local constituency had become available for the first time in 23 years, and the experience he has gained in national politics is exceedingly useful in local politics. 

I put it to him that a big issue for the Conservative party, which has been apparent for numerous generations, is the alienation of the youth. A recent YouGov poll, of 17-24 year olds, has put Labour 19 points ahead of the Tories, which is a vast inflation of the national average. This offers two possible explanations, either that the youth are inherently drawn to the left, or that there has been a failure to support and ignite the youth. Dowden emphatically ruled out the latter, saying that their record on policies such as education proved there hadn’t been a failing of the youth, despite Michael Gove, described as ‘politically toxic’ by many, being attacked by teachers and pupils alike. Instead Dowden conceded the young may be inherently left-wing, delving back into party history by quoting Churchill: 

“If you’re not a liberal at twenty you have no heart; if you’re not a conservative at forty you have no brain.”

By admitting this, does it suggest that the ideology of the Conservatives isn’t as compatible with young people as that of Labour, or to a lesser extent the extremes of UKIP and the Greens? He justifies the gap by remarking that ‘as we get older we value more a strong economy, low interest rates and lower taxes, which get you thinking of more conservative things.’ Whilst it indicates the Tories are a party of the aged, or socially mature, as they’d probably prefer to be called, (hence why being a member of the Young Conservatives makes you a social pariah to some raging socialists), it still doesn’t explain why the youth are left-wing. To his credit, Dowden is seeking to address this, by naming education as one of his three key priorities alongside the sanctity of the Green Belt and transport. 

To summarise, allegedly us youth don’t take into account our long-term future when deciding what party to pick, which, whilst it may be true for some, can it be true this applies to all? This seems to be a sweeping generalisation of the political system, which both ignores the peaks and troughs of public opinion and the reasoning and forethought of young people. 

When we moved onto domestic policy it became clear that Dowden perceived the Conservatives’ unpopularity as being down to an information gap; the Tories’ biggest challenge being to alert the public to how good a job they’ve actually done over the last five years. This attitude was particularly prevalent when queried about immigration, a specialty of Dowden’s, having been an aide to David Cameron on domestic policy in recent years. Dowden claims the reason why voters have leached to Ukip is that the Conservatives haven’t shown how well they’ve actually done, in that the job is ‘only half-finished’, with non-EU migrants down, but EU migrants up. In hindsight I still feel this fails to address two points: first that Ukip’s qualms are about EU migrants specifically, hence why they wish to leave the EU, and secondly, that a much simpler explanation for why voters are defecting is that they’re unhappy with current policies, not merely under-exposed to them. 

There were also interesting discussions to have over his two other priorities, the aforementioned Green Belt and transport. I queried if the state of the Govia run Thameslink line, which Dowden has been thus far tirelessly campaigning to improve, reflected a need to renationalise the railways. This is a move which would be backed by the public, with 66% saying they’d support government intervention in a recent YouGov poll. Dowden acknowledged that railways are ‘a more mixed issue’ than telephones or airlines, which he considers successes of privatisation. The central issue is that there are now ‘more people travelling on our railways than at any point since the 1930s and this will inevitably lead to problems. He says this administration has taken steps to address this, with trains more punctual than ever, but claims the job is ‘half-finished’ again implying that the voters need to be alerted to the improvements that have been made.
Click for larger version.

 

 

When confronted with housing statistics for Hertsmere, that the council had only delivered 27% of the housing that had been promised by 2010, Dowden placated by pointing out the pitfalls of more homes. His concern was that green belt land would become ruined by newly-constructed housing estates, and the villages in Hertfordshire would form a large, characterless conurbation. We clashed over whether London should grow upwards or outwards, effectively a battle between stretched inner-city resources and the sanctity of the local environment. Dowden was very adept at pointing out how development was being encouraged in the right places, former brownfield sites, such as at the abandoned Harperbury Hospital, which will give assurances to the local community that affordable housing in Hertsmere should improve.

This case summarised our discussion; regardless of our ideological differences on national issues, local constituents can rest assured that he will continue the work of James Clappison, the local MP since 1992. Their similarities are striking; both are firm supporters of ‘Friends of Israel’ which is mightily significant to the constituency with the second highest Jewish population in the UK; both are former lawyers, although there may be some friendly competition due to the Cambridge-Oxford rivalry. This is in no way a bad thing, Clappison having gained a deserved reputation as an excellent constituency MP, whilst Dowden’s motivation is to do right by his constituency.However, don’t let this make you think Dowden will stay quiet on the national stage. He’s been asked to contest this safe seat for a reason, and I would not be surprised if relatively soon we see this highly rated PPC in and around the front-benches, particularly if his former boss, David Cameron, remains in charge after the election, a topic he refused to be drawn into, saying he was a ‘participant, not a commentator.’


In short, I feel Dowden emanates a certain pride, both for the honour of representing his local community, and the work he feels the Conservatives have done over the last five years.I feel there is a failure to identify policy problems, instead blaming the miseducation of the electorate, but I believe that this pervades through the whole party. Throughout this election campaign so far, there have been no exciting policies to get behind, only half-hearted declarations that Labour can’t be trusted; this attitude is a detriment to the Tories as a whole rather than Dowden personally. Regardless of political opinion, his insight on the domestic issues he specialises in, such as transport and immigration, are a valuable look into the mind of an archetypal Conservative, educating us about the Tories intentions for the contesting of this election and their plans beyond.
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