Same Old Tories

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06.02.2012

Joe Cox - Reporting from our Citizens’ Assembly

When complex events occur the framing of the issue often determines which lessons we learn. When the News of the World phone hacking scandal erupted we wanted to help ensure that the UK learnt the right lessons in the right way.

We, amongst others, argued that the scandal was not an isolated event. It was the third crisis in quick succession. First, the bankers and their bonuses; then some politicians and their expenses; and then the press, profiting from peoples’ pain, grief and private lives. We launched the public interest campaign calling for the Government to hold a new Public Jury that would explore possible reforms to banking, politics, media and the police, to enable us to put the public interest back into the heart of the system.

The backdrop to the campaign was a concern that despite the cataclysmic implosion of global capitalism and the morbid symptoms that flow from this crisis there does not seem to be any genuine, radical and sustained citizen-led discussions about the necessary and feasible alternatives to what can be crudely called ‘neoliberalism’. Don’t get me wrong, there are brave and inspiring signs of life.

First, we had UK Uncut; secondly, the student uprisings; thirdly, and perhaps most radically, has been the Occupy movement. Primarily a response to an out of control class of financiers and their political representatives, Occupy aims to be a prefigurative ‘good society’. Based on consensus and democratic allocation of labour, Occupy is creating spaces where alternatives can be re-imagined. Yet despite all these innovative movements, the dominant mood in the UK seems still to be one of cynicism and helplessness.

That is why Compass has continued to try to have this conversation and earlier this week organised a citizens’ assembly with nef at the South Bank Centre (London) called In The Public Interest. Set in the Clore Ballroom, a fantastic open space where hundreds assembled, we debated some of the ideas that could restore the notion of the public interest to the UK.

There were scores of inputs from the floor as well as short interventions from the panel of speakers: Alan Rusbridger, Editor of the Guardian, Jude Kelly of the Southbank Centre, Danni Paffard of moveyourmoney.org.uk and sociologist Richard Sennett. Despite the very fluid nature of the discussion there were a few themes that emerged.

Firstly, space. Unsurprisingly with the rise of the Occupy movement the notion that appropriation of physical space was important to restore civic life was reaffirmed time and again. Debating arenas that were free from media or political party filters as well as commercial pressures were deemed as important. Jude Kelly called on public spaces to become open arenas for conversation.

Richard Sennett argued that it was important not merely to use designated existing civic spaces but to appropriate new private spaces and turn them into open spaces. He noted that that was why Zuccotti Park was chosen as a target for the original New York occupation.
One of the most impassioned interventions came from a man who announced that ‘my pet hate is big city atriums’ to the laughter of many. I think it took a few seconds for most of us to realise he might have had a point.  

Secondly, public services. There were passionate defences of the public services with one woman imploring us all to do what we can to stop the Health and Social Care Bill. The creeping privatisation and marketisation of public services was a particular concern as this was seen as the appropriation of public resources by groups of individuals for private gain (the example cited most was education).

Whilst there was overwhelming support for public services there was an acknowledgement that existing public spaces could be used more imaginatively to foster civic debate. One obvious suggestion being that public libraries should be used for more evening social and educational activities.

Thirdly, the media. Alan Rusbridger made the observation that certain sections of the media have used the public interest defence for their intrusive reporting yet they have been defining the public interest on our behalf. Absurdly, he added, the public hasn't yet been allowed to contribute to the Leveson enquiry as it attempts to define what is in the public interest.

Rusbridger also raised the dilemma of the financial pressures that are currently faced by media outlets. One can only see this pressure growing as the number of those that seek out ‘unfiltered news’ through social media grows. It is for that reason that one of the timeliest interventions from the floor was a plea for a more deliberative citizen led decisions on how the BBC spends its money.

As with all articles based on event write-ups I’m sure people will have different interpretations of what was most important or prescient about the debate and I would urge as many comments as possible from those that were present (and of course from those that were not present). There were numerous useful suggestions such as from Danni Paffard’s new campaign encouraging people to move their bank accounts to ‘better banks’, for a bolder defence of trade unions, a role for randomocracy but the overwhelming feeling I got from this discussion was that this was about defending the public and celebrating the intrinsic good that came from civic debate.

If there was one thing that almost everyone agreed on it was that this conversation needs to be repeated up and down the country and even perhaps in spaces where we don’t have permission to.

Joe Cox is Campaigns Organiser for Compass.

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05.05.2010

No morals or principles

Next Left is reporting that Baroness Warsi, the Shadow Cabinet member for community cohesion, made disparaging remarks about Muslim parliamentary candidates at a dinner in Yorkshire.

The blog claims that it has seen a report that was filed, but not published, by the Times newspaper in which Baroness Warsi, named Britain’s most powerful Muslim woman last year, is quoted as saying:

"[He] says we need more Muslim MPs, more Muslims in the House of Lords. I would actually disagree with that because one of the lessons we have learnt in the last five years in politics is that Muslims that go to Parliament don't have any morals or principles"

You would expect such a damning and controversial statement by one of David Cameron's frontbench team to be big news. Apparently the Tory-supporting, Murdoch-owned Times doesn't think so, at least not on the eve of the election.

Although David Cameron has made big strides in increasing the number of black and ethnic minority candidates standing for Parliament, these comments by his spokesperson on community cohesion will throw further doubt on how committed the Tory party is to increasing ethnic minority representation in Westminster.

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04.05.2010

Tories way behind on Gay rights

My Gay Vote, a site that records how parties have voted on Gay rights issues shows that a huge gulf exists between the Tories and the two other main parties. Only 14% of Conservative MPs voted to equalise the age of consent, compared to 91% of Liberal Democrats and 95% of Labour MPs. The change that received the most support from Conservative MPs was civil partnerships, and even then a third of Tory MPs voted against the bill.

See the Tories’ shocking record here.

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03.05.2010

Tory PPC ran church group that tried to “cure” gay people through prayer

This weekend brought new revelations about the Tories’ lack of commitment to equality as an influential Tory parliamentary candidate was revealed to have set up an organisation that tried to “cure” gay people through prayer.

Philippa Stroud, the PPC for Sutton and Cheam and head of the Centre for Social Justice, founded a church and night shelter in Bedford, the King's Arms Project, that counselled gay, lesbian and transsexual people.

The Observer spoke to Abi, a teenage girl with transsexual issues. She said:

“Convinced I was demonically possessed, my parents made the decision to move to Bedford, because of this woman [Stroud] who had come back from Hong Kong and had the power to set me free,"

"She wanted me to know all my thinking was wrong, I was wrong and the so-called demons inside me were wrong. The session ended with her and others praying over me, calling out the demons. She really believed things like homosexuality, transsexualism and addiction could be fixed just by prayer, all in the name of Jesus."

Mrs Stroud, whose husband David is a minister in the New Frontiers Church, is considered by many to be a rising star within the party. The Centre of Social Justice which she heads has been heavily influential in shaping Tory party policy in the run up to the election.

This is another blow to David Cameron’s attempt to rebrand the Tory party after Chris Grayling’s claim that bed and breakfasts should have the right to refuse gay couples and Julian Lewis’ rejection of lowering the age of consent for gay couples to 16. Behind the talk of “compassionate conservatism” and “the big society” lies an undercurrent of homophobia that runs right through the grass roots of the party.

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30.04.2010

Alex Story, cheapskate Tory

Another slip of the Compassionate Conservative mask occurred yesterday as The Mirror revealed that Alex Story, former Olympic rower and Tory PPC for Wakefield, paid a nanny only £2.50 an hour to look after his children. After the nanny, Maham Hashmi, informed the family that she could not work for less than minimum wage, she was told that she would be given more hours, but that her wage would not be increased to meet the legal minimum.

The wage paid to Hashmi, who had answered an advert for a babysitter online, made her feel like “a slave.”

Quite apart from the great personal injustice done to Hashmi – who had taken the job to fund her studies – the incident raises further questions about the Tories’ commitment to helping the lowest paid in society.

Although David Cameron has stated his commitment to the minimum wage – and has wrongfully boasted that Boris Johnson was the one who introduced the living wage to London – there must now be sincere doubt as to whether the Conservative Party would not renege on this promise if they were elected.

Cameron’s declarations of support for the minimum wage must mean nothing to Story, who clearly sees himself as above the law on this issue. The Conservative Party will try to hide the fact that Story, who is to be investigated by pay watchdogs, is running for elected office in Britain without obeying its democratically agreed laws.

Yet this will not be easy. Story – who seems to rely on his past fame as an Olympian rather than the merits of Conservative Party policies in his canvassing – has offered flimsy defence for his actions, simply asking “Have you tried to hire a nanny in London?”

In addition to his flagrant violation of the law, Story is one of only five Tory candidates deemed Eurosceptic enough to receive UKIP endorsement in their tactical voting drive. It seems that he is a classic example of a Conservative Party which refuses to change.

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30.04.2010

The immigration dog whistle

In last night’s debate David Cameron blew the immigration dog whistle, claiming that 1.2 million “illegal immigrants” would flood the country demanding “access to welfare and access to council housing”. He appeared to reject out of hand any attempt to encourage immigrants who have been here for a number of years to come forward, rubbishing it as an “amnesty”. But which major politician was the first to propose such a policy? It was Boris Johnson, the Conservative Mayor of London. In 2008 he said that deporting the thousands of people working illegally in the UK was "just not going to happen". He suggested that it would be better to ‘regularise’ the ones who showed a willingness to cooperate, bringing them into the legal economy where they would pay taxes. Johnson’s proposals were actually more radical than those put forward by the Liberal Democrats, who want immigrants to have been here for ten years before they can start the process to try and gain legal status, as opposed to the five years he suggested.

David Cameron has shown a firm unwillingness to really engage with new ideas on immigration; the centrepiece of the immigration policy in the Conservative manifesto is a blanket limit on the number of new immigrants from non-EU countries. Other than this rather blunt instrument there’s mention of ‘transitional controls’ to limit immigration from new members of the EU, but how these would work is unclear. Despite mentioning them three times during last night’s debate David Cameron did not expand on the details. What is clear is that any such controls would need some delicate negotiations with other EU member states, something that will not be helped by Cameron’s decision to isolate the Conservatives in Europe by splitting from the centre-right mainstream in the European Parliament to shack up with the likes of Michal Kaminski and Valdemar Tomasevski.

The Conservatives also stand in the way of real action to tackle people smuggling, they promise to ‘crack down on the trafficking of people’ in their manifesto. When it comes to cross border cooperation the Conservatives have opposed the European Single Arrest warrant, which allows concerted action across Europe to tackle traffickers, terrorists and paedophile rings.

It is clear that when it comes to immigration, Cameron puts tough posturing ahead of smart policy.

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27.04.2010

More homophobia from a Tory PPC

A Tory PPC has been suspended after airing his extreme anti-gay views on his website. Philip Lardner, Conservative PPC for North Ayrshire and Arran, wrote that homosexuality is "not normal" and that Clause 28 was right. The remarks echo those of Valdemar Tomasevski, a Lithuanian MEP who is allied with the Conservatives in the European Parliament, who last year also said that homosexuality is not "normal". Lardner has been suspended before, after calling Ian Smith his "hero".

This raises two questions: why was he selected again to fight in the general election; and why was he suspended when Julian Lewis, who said that being gay was as risky as joining the army, and Chris Grayling, who said that B&B owners should be allowed to turn away gay couples, have not been?

Read the full story at Left Foot Forward.

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27.04.2010

Tories threaten free nursery places

It wasn’t in their manifesto, but the Tories will let private nurseries charge top-up fees. In a letter, seen by the Observer, shadow ministers have promised private nursery providers that they will be allowed to charge ‘supplementary fees’ on what should be free places. The move is supposed to help struggling private nurseries, but implementing it will mean lifting the 2006 code of practice that prevents additional fees. Alison Garnham, the chief executive of the Daycare Trust, was quoted by the Observer as saying that:

 

“If the code is removed, providers will be given carte blanche to charge extra, and the value of these free places will be lost."


The chief executive of another childcare charity, Anne Longfield of 4Children, said that this “hugely retrograde step” would create a “two-tier system”, where nursery care is restricted to those who can afford it.

 

Despite proposing a change which would drastically affect opportunities for hundreds of thousands of children the Tories have said little definite about the policy. Despite being pressed by journalists Michael Gove, the Shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, would not confirm that nurseries will not be allowed to charge top-up fees, but nor has he, or anyone else from the Conservatives, publicly backed the policy.

 

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23.04.2010

Leading by example

In last night’s Prime Ministerial debate David Cameron urged Labour to stop scaremongering about Tory policies.

Yet in this evening’s interview with Jeremy Paxman, the Tory leader failed to heed his own advice.

He said,

"My fear is that in a hung parliament, a sort of Lib-Lab parliament, instead of sorting out immigration, we would have a worse policy because of the Liberal policy for an amnesty on illegal immigration.

"Instead of sorting out crime, we would be actually emptying the prisons."

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23.04.2010

Do the right thing: get married, be wealthy

David Cameron kept urging us to 'do the right thing' last night, and no, he wasn't encouraging us to watch the seminal Spike Lee film. Despite saying repeatedly over the last five years that the Conservatives are no longer the judgemental party of old, Cameron still thinks it's his place to tell people what sort of family they should live in. He made clear that he thinks 'the right thing' is getting married, it is this kind of closed mindedness and stigmatisation that led J. K. Rowling to speak out against the Tories marriage tax allowance, writing in The Times: 'He has repackaged a policy that made desperate lives worse when his party was last in power, and is trying to sell it as something new.' David Cameron is so sure that he knows what's right for you that he keeps pushing his marriage tax allowance, despite it being debunked by the Nuffield Foundation. Can there be any other reason to give people £3 a week for being married other than a distinctly narrow view of what a family should be?

If that wasn't enough, David Cameron told us something else that he considers to be 'the right thing'. Being able to afford to pay an £8000 insurance premium to protect your home from being sold off to pay for care costs. David Cameron can expect to have that kind of money lying around in his old age (maybe because of his married tax allowance), those who can't clearly aren't doing the right thing.

 

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