Thursday, 9 November 2017

Free Speech and Political Correctness: Are they really mutually exclusive?

I was speaking with my brother last night on a topic that is being discussed at universities up and down the breadth of the UK: "Is Free Speech in danger of being eroded as a result of Political Correctness?" It's certainly not a new debate but it is one that seems to have lead to division and is at times quite embarrassing to witness. A Newsnight episode last month had a whole segment dedicated to this question, with a specific focus on the "worrying trend" where there is an increasing use of trigger warnings, safe spaces and no-platforming in an attempt to reduce freedom of speech on UK university campuses.Of course it's extremely difficult to cover such topics expansively within a 15 minute window but what was established was that there is a need to clarify for the public the reasons why trigger warnings are used and why safe spaces are established by students and academics and the fact that their existence is not going to completely undermine freedom of speech.

At the same time, the importance of university education needs to be reiterated; free exchange of ideas should be encouraged, texts should not be automatically removed from the degree syllabus just because they could be deemed potentially offensive (although it must be noted that some academics have been accused of designing courses of study which are not truly reflective of diversity and inclusivity which means for example that English Literature students miss out on covering texts which explore a particular social/moral topic). Very few students, graduates, academics and politicians would deny that intellectual rigour needs to be maintained so that students are equipped with the rhetorical tools and critical thinking skills required to express themselves orally and when writing essays/papers in a confident way which can then be transferred into communicating in their personal and professional lives after university. Equally, it's perfectly possible to be politically correct whilst encouraging freedom of expression (which includes free speech); we just have to remember we are all subject to the law and that some forms of expression are made illegal as a result of legislation that has been passed.

The Universities minister, Jo Johnson (brother of Bojo, whose political incorrectness is well, you know, well documented) revealed plans to give the new Office for Students powers to "crack down on safe spaces" and reduce instances of no-platforming. Universities may be "fined, suspended or blacklisted" if they fail to "protect freedom of speech on campuses"( https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/oct/19/ministers-plan-fines-for-universities-which-fail-to-uphold-free-speech). Johnson believes that there are groups of students and academics who are attempting to stifle free speech simply "because they do not agree with them". Johnson should remember that there is an existing legal duty to secure free speech in universities. The 1988 Education Reform Act empowers academic staff to put forward new ideas and controversial opinions, without losing their job. The recent Higher Education and Research Act restates this and as has been pointed out by many academics, defends academics from Brexiteer "McCarthyism" (it's funny how the Tories act as the defenders of free speech yet one of their number thought it was OK to demand the names of academics who teach about Brexit  and the syllabus they provide).

Encouraging debate is important and I certainly want to see people from a diverse range of backgrounds (and political/moral opinions) having the opportunity to thrive and engage in an open, frank and creative environment whilst attending university. When I was an English and Philosophy student at the University of York I was a member of the New Generation Society (from 2007 till 2010). The society had members  from across the political spectrum, debating openly and frankly in the hope of developing new solutions to current political, cultural, moral and societal issues. The hope was that NGS would help reconnect young people of my generation with politics, encouraging them to participate in elections (http://newgenerationsociety.com/news/). I remember there were a number of eye-brow raising, thought-provoking conversations surrounding the UK's relationship with the EU, Housing and State vs Private/Public School education (issues that now have come to the fore) and it's true to say that I found some of the NGS members' views backward and antiquated: there was one member who called himself a staunch Classic Tory and claimed that there were far too many state school students at university which made him feel "uncomfortable" about the future direction of the country (it was becoming "too socially liberal" for him to tolerate) but suffice to say I gave him short shrift after informing him of my academic credentials and where I gained them from...The Priory LSST (now part of the Priory Academies chain. I imagine there were probably more than a few NGS members and guests who felt unnerved at my presence and talking openly about my intersectional feminist values, equality and inclusivity (one was shocked when I declared that the voting age should be lowered to 16 and now all major parties except for the Conservatives (and UKIP but then they aren't anywhere near to achieving major status anymore) have signed up to lowering the voting age #LiberalProgress).  I even managed to deliver my own speech on 21st century Intersectional Feminism, with people coming in who were not even members of NGS to listen to me speak and to debate the importance of feminism in politics. It gave me a great sense of achievement and empowered me to become more vocal about issues that really mattered to me and still matter to me today. I would be very sad to see political debating societies becoming less prevalent on campuses, especially as I think there is a real need for more non-partisan political debating societies on campuses. Yet I remain convinced that free speech is not so "under-threat" as is being reported in right-wing mainstream media newspapers and on political debate shows such as Newsnight that non-partisan university societies would be censored or banned (entirely ludicrous to suggest that such a situation is anywhere near to becoming reality) and that  university societies across the UK continue to play a vital role in advancing and protecting free speech. 

That being said, there are those on the left as well as the right who state openly that they are genuinely concerned that free speech is being curtailed in favour of increasing political correctness. Spiked's "Free Speech University Rankings" reports have been published since 2015 and rate University administration teams and Student Unions based on a "traffic-light ranking system": Green means that freedom of expression isn't restricted unless it is "unlawful", Amber means that a university has issued guidance to ensure the tone of expression is "appropriate" (Spiked argues that the content of the expression itself isn't unlawful but would be deemed offensive) and Red means that a university is openly hostile to freedom of expression, "banning specific ideologies, political affiliations, beliefs, books or speakers" (http://www.spiked-online.com/free-speech-university-rankings/how-we-rank#.WejDqVRSxdg). The University of York has been given an Amber rating for 2017, with Spiked claiming that the University's policy on Sexual Harassment leads to a curtailing of freedom of expression; I'm sorry but I agreed with the University of York introducing consent classes in 2014 and believe that all students should attend; the Independent quite rightly pointed out that consent classes help to "debunk myths surrounding rape, deconstruct the impact of hyper-masculinity on all genders" and ensures students don't "shame peers for their sexual preferences or sexual activity" (http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/sexual-consent-classes-at-universities-are-not-patronising-a7341031.html). Shame that Spiked cannot see the value of such classes in reducing rates of discrimination and equipping them with the knowledge needed to feel empowered to say "No" and report sexual harassers. Mind you, the University of Lincoln got a Red rating because they have a "No-Platforming policy" and shock horror, an Equal Opportunities one too. You can tell from Spiked's analysis they are not happy about such policies being in place (http://www.spiked-online.com/free-speech-university-rankings/analysis#.WejHCVRSxdg) but if they help students, academics and others to know when to call out direct and indirect discrimination as and when it happens, then I'm "Sorry, Not Sorry" that the university has one.

No-Platforming and Trigger Warnings: 

Let's tackle the issue of no-platforming. How prevalent is it in 2017? No study has been conducted to tot up the total number of speakers no-platformed at British universities but the mainstream journos certainly want people to feel that it is widespread. What about support for no-platforming policies? Is that widespread? Well, a ComRes poll conducted by the BBC Victoria Derbyshire programme in April 2016 found that 63% of 1,001 respondents were in favour of the National Union of Students (NUS) putting a "no-platforming" policy in place to protect universities from having to host prescribed speakers. 54% of respondents to the survey also stated that the NUS were right to ban individual speakers who would threaten a safe space. Interestingly, 29% of Russell Group university students polled argued that the policy "had gone too far" (http://www.comresglobal.com/polls/bbc-victoria-derbyshire-no-platform-poll/). There are a few things to point out with regards to the NUS no-platforming policy. Firstly, the policy concept isn't new; a NUS no platform policy has been in place since 1974 and is designed to ensure that no prescribed organisations or individuals that are known to hold racist or fascist views can speak at universities. Secondly, the policy is voted on every year by legitimate delegates to the annual National Conference. Thirdly, there happens to be only 6 (yes 6) organisations that are banned nationally (Al-Muhajiroun; British National Party (BNP); English Defence League (EDL); Hizb-ut-Tahir; Muslim Public Affairs Committee; and National Action according to https://nusdigital.s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/document/documents/31475/NUS_No_Platform_Policy_information_.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAJKEA56ZWKFU6MHNQ&Expires=1508542364&Signature=oEuUkLrMVc%2FP%2BlwHBAKWfSP6Sl4%3D). Fourthly, individual university student unions have the right to create their own no-platforming policy but it must adhere to NUS guidelines (i.e. no university could ask a member of the BNP to speak without breaking the national policy). Fifthly, student union bodies are private bodies and thus can refuse to host a speaker if they deem that they are a threat to safety. Sixthly, the decision of a SU to no-platform does not contravene the Education Act 1986 (does not apply to SUs as autonomous bodies). Even if speakers are not happy about being no-platformed, the university administration cannot intervene because the SU is an autonomous body; the SU will have made a democratic decision to disinvite and even if some members disagreed with that decision, it is extremely unlikely such a decision will be overturned. Even if a speaker has been disinvited by the SU, they may still be invited to speak, either in the street or at a venue not used by the SU.

I think it is very important to state that nobody, not me, not Bojo, not Germaine Greer or even Queen Elizabeth II herself has an automatic right to a speech platform that hasn't been crafted or administered by ourselves. My blog is a speech platform (and one that I am very glad to have) but I can't go around demanding that I have access to other platforms that I haven't had any hand in creating or administering; I don't have an automatic right to write content for LabourList or Huffington Post, for example. To be invited to write a blog post for a popular opinion site or be invited to give a lecture or take part in a university society debate is an honour and a privilege but one is not entitled to demand such a platform regardless of how successful one is as a opinion ed writer, academic etc. There will undoubtedly be instances when a speaker is disinvited from participating in a debate or delivering a lecture because of comments/views they may hold or maybe even ones they have previously held. It may be upsetting for the person involved that a society or university department makes the decision that an event should not go ahead but free speech advocates  need to stop acting as if it's the end of the world. Even when there is a campaign against a speech going ahead, it may go ahead anyways. In Greer's case, the campaign led by Rachael Melhusiah didn't actually stop Greer from delivering her lecture at Cardiff University (and yes, as expected it was full of transphobia....https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/nov/18/transgender-activists-protest-germaine-greer-lecture-cardiff-university). I very much doubt that Ms Greer would have modified her transphobic views as a result of her not being allowed to openly speak anyways.

What I also believe is important to remember is that Universities do have a clear duty under the Equality Act 2010 (Public Sector Equality Duty) to encourage tolerance and respect towards people who possess one or more of the protected characteristics under the EA and that includes those who intend, are or have been through Gender Reassignment and those who are perceived as going through Gender Reassignment (see for example https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/hr/equality/equalityduty). Discrimination against trans (and non-binary, gender-fluid, genderqueer and agender) people in public spaces such as universities is unacceptable. Misgendering is a form of direct discrimination against trans people, no matter how some (trans-exclusionary) radical feminists may want to dress  their utterances up in the guise of "free speech"or claim that biology trumps everything else (psychology is an important science too, you know). Greer may be a celebrated second wave feminist but if trans activists and students felt that their university platform was being used to disseminate hate speech, then they were perfectly entitled to use their freedom of expression to protest against Greer's lecture. Jo Johnson, of course defended Greer, stating that it was "preposterous" for her to banned from speaking, yet would I suspect would react quite differently if a Neo-Nazi had been no-platformed by a university (at least he would agree allowing such a person to speak would not be legitimate and in fact the NUS agree on that point as pointed out earlier). It's alright to be a free speech advocate but let's not pretend that having unfettered free speech would be a good thing (or would be practical).

Often no-platforming has been intrinsically connected with the concept of "political correctness"(PC). Political correctness has been described as "language, policies or measures that are intended to avoid offense or disadvantage to members of particular groups in society" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_correctness). I've discussed political correctness in a number of my blog posts and what seems clear to me is that those who seem to be against PC altogether are seemingly annoyed that they are not allowed to be openly offensive in public on a regular basis anymore for fear of being rightly called out for it. Equally, conservatives can indulge in political correctness of their own. Alex Nowrasteh calls the right's version of PC in the US "patriotic correctness" and cites the example of reactions to Colin Kaepernick taking the knee instead of standing for the US National Anthem to illustrate this: (https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/12/07/the-right-has-its-own-version-of-political-correctness-its-just-as-stifling/?utm_term=.9314f67b0e68). Conservatives in the UK are not happy about the emergence of the White Poppy or people choosing not to wear a Red poppy for personal reasons (Jon Snow was pilloried for stating he wouldn't wear a Red poppy because he doesn't wear any symbol on his clothing) to remember the War dead. No-platforming may be done for supposedly PC reasons but as I've discussed above, are those PC reasons necessarily bad?

Students have been grappling with the dilemma of instituting no-platform policies for supposedly "PC reasons" for many years. The views of students in 2017 are just as diverse as the views that existed back in 2007. The Guardian asked a number of students to weigh in on the topic (https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/oct/26/do-no-platform-policies-threaten-free-speech-at-uni-students-share-their-views) and I have to say that I agree with Lucas North that there are trans students who do feel they can't speak out against transphobes like Greer because they fear being ridiculed and misgendered by radical feminists and social conservatives. I can understand David Troy's suggestion that students, including trans ones should be equipped with the intellectual rigour to challenge transphobes but that does not mean that LGBTQ+ societies should feel mandated to consider inviting transphobes into the safe space of an LGBTQ+ society to "build resilience". Guo Sheng Liu makes a good point when stating that "there is no need to "test ideas that encourage discrimination, nor "expose" transparent prejudices"-i.e. when the discriminatory language against trans people has been prevalent for decades, there's no need to give an extra platform to them. I equally agree with Josh Salisbury that the obsessive focus on students regarding no-platforming is unwarranted and points out that the Government's Prevent Agenda can be seen to undermine free speech (The Just Yorkshire report found that Muslim academics and students felt the Prevent scheme was "fostering a policing culture in higher education" and that Prevent Officers had "disrupted or closed down events about Islamophobia or terrorism that had been organised by academics and campaigners" https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/aug/29/prevent-scheme-fosters-fear-and-censorship-at-universities-just-yorkshire). Clare Patterson makes a very important point and I share her suspicion that "those in power feel uncomfortable seeing that students from marginalised backgrounds can actually have power". Students have the right to speak out against speakers who seek to engrain prejudice further, regardless of their social background and if a large number of students decide to come together to block a speaker from attending their university, then there is little can be done by the speaker.

Trigger Warnings:

Let's turn quickly to all the hoohah regarding Trigger warnings. Trigger warnings are appropriate sometimes. They are already commonly used by mainstream media outlets to tell viewers when distressing images or video may be shown or when potentially offensive language is being used. Such warnings are accepted without free speech advocates throwing their toys out the pram crying censorship. It's also important to recognise that trigger warnings do NOT censor speech; they merely "create an alert about content in the discussion that could prompt traumatic memories if a person happened to experience something related in the past" (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/university-of-chicago-trigger-warning_us_57bf16d9e4b085c1ff28176d). Erin Weinberg argues that those who assume trigger warnings are overprotective "invalidate the struggles of those who have survived some of the worst possible experiences (rape, child sexual exploitation), yet still have the resilience to pursue higher education" (https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/education/2017/10/why-it-s-right-titus-andronicus-come-trigger-warning).

When I studied Titus Andronicus on my English Literature course at York in the first term there were no trigger warnings offered and nobody in my seminar group were averse to discussing the play but I agree that triggers can be more serious than just "politely muted tears" and warning students in advance of covering a play such as Titus Andronicus is sensible and respectful as it allows students "time to prepare by experiencing (these) genuine responses...safe from inquiring looks and questions from peers" (https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/education/2017/10/why-it-s-right-titus-andronicus-come-trigger-warning). 

Freedom of speech has its limitations: 

Commentators who disagree with the enforcement of no-platforming policies may often make a veiled reference to the Human Rights Act (HRA) 1998 as a way of defending their right to freedom of expression. Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 (and further enshrined in law as Article 10 of the HRA 1998), people resident in the UK have the right to express themselves freely; this includes "the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without State interference" (https://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/human-rights/what-are-human-rights/human-rights-act/article-10-freedom-expression). Political, artistic and commercial expression are indeed included within this definition. However, Article 10 is a "qualified right"; what this means is that there is are limits placed on our  freedom of expression:
  • when such expression is prescribed by law
  • when it is necessary and proportionate
  • in the interests of "national security, territorial integrity or public safety"
  • to prevent crime
  • to protect the health or morals of the nation
  • to protect the reputation or rights of others
  • when information is classified as confidential (Data Protection Act 1998)
  • to protect and maintain "the authority and impartiality of the judiciary".
It is ludicrous for any person to declare therefore that we have (or should have) an absolute right to freedom of speech without consequences. You may think you have the right to make a statement declaring that x group of people are the "scum of the earth" but that does not mean you have the right to be protected from the consequences of making that comment, whether those consequences are that people are offended or that people get offended and the speech is considered illegal (speech is considered illegal in the UK if it incites hatred towards a group of people based on their skin colour, race, nationality or ethnic origins which leads to discrimination and violence as defined by the Public Order Act 1986, Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 and The Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008). Nobody is immune from critique and that includes critique of historical statements someone has made, whether they are made in an oral or written form.

Another element of the free speech debate concerns how legislation may affect the right to protest. Liberty, a pro civil liberties and pro human rights organisation in the UK is concerned about legislation that can lead to arrest for offensive speech. For example, they point out that Section 4A of the Public Order Act "makes it an offence for a person to use threatening or abusive words or behaviour that causes, or is likely, to cause another person harassment, alarm or distress" (https://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/human-rights/free-speech-and-protest/speech-offences) and that Section 4A can be used by organisations and groups against peaceful protesters to silence them or can lead to extremist organisations gaining more exposure for their views. Anyone convicted under Section 4A can be given a fine of up to £5,000 and be imprisoned for up to 6 months. I believe that Section 4A is important to apply in cases for example where a person has the intent to threaten, abuse or throw insults at the same person but peaceful protestors who refrain from using threatening and abusive language whilst they protest should be able to avoid the danger of facing the Section 4A charge. That isn't censorship; it's common decency.

Equally Liberty mention an issue with Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 which "makes it an offence to send a message by means of a public electronic communications network which is grossly offensive, or of an indecent, obscene or offensive nature", in which they say that what is considered "grossly offensive" can be interpreted broadly and tweets that are made "jovially" or satirically have been judged as constituting an offense under this Section. Now, it's important I think to ensure that any tweets that contain death threats, threats of violence or continual harassment are dealt with (by Twitter removing the content and by the person receiving such tweets on a regular basis reporting the tweets to the police). Satirical or "jovial" tweets can be difficult to judge, especially if there is an intent to offend (as is often the case). Yet Section 127 has even been used to convict a young man venting his frustration about not being able to meet with his girlfriend because of the airport being closed (the Judge had decided there may have been an intent to carry out the action described in the tweets) but this conviction was overturned on the basis that there had been a misjudgement about intent. This example demonstrates  that tweets can be misinterpreted and what one person might judge as being "funny" will not be funny to others. I do not think the example means that the Communications Act should be dispensed with, though.

Freedom of speech, Political Correctness and Public Figures: 

We usually require high standards of moral behaviour from public figures and that includes potential, current and ex political figures. When considering making a statement on a particular social or moral/cultural issue, politicians need to navigate the rhetorical waters so they conduct themselves in a way that respects their political office and does not bring politics as a whole into disrepute. Personally, I would say that means that MPs need to abide by the principles enshrined in the Equality Act and do not make inflammatory and discriminatory comments that are aimed to increase prejudice against minority groups or groups that share a protected characteristic. David Davies, MP for Monmouth for example, wrote a newspaper article back in August in the South Wales Angus to misgender trans women in particular; refusing to use the correct pronouns for trans women may seem trivial to people like Mr Davies but to trans people, such deliberate misgendering is an attempt to delegitimise their gender. It's rather interesting that Mr Davies stated in the article that he knew that he'd be seen to be "on the wrong side of history" and "bigoted" (yes, he got that right) but in terms of the supposed free speech vs political correctness debate, I'd say that he was guilty of  refusing to adhere to the Equality Act and as someone who believes that the Equality Act needs to be respected to foster an environment of inclusion, his comments fell short of what I'd expect from a politician. For others (radical feminists and social conservatives), Davies' comments will be seen as "perfectly legitimate" and a demonstration of free speech in action, something to be celebrated because being "non PC" seems to mean it's ok to be discriminatory towards trans, non-binary, genderfluid, genderqueer and agender constituents. Hateful comments towards LGBTQ+ people have been made by those on the right of British politics for eons; the DUP's Ian Paisley Jnr being "repulsed by gay and lesbianism" (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jul/27/lgbtq-partial-decriminalisation-homosexuality-gay-trans) one of the most quoted examples. That being said, there are instances where derogatory comments against LGBTQIA+ people by politicians can lead to them being forced to reconsider their political careers. Andrew Turner, the former Tory MP for the Isle of Wight was forced to end his re-election bid in April when he brazenly told school students that "homosexuality is dangerous to society". Jared O' Mara has been suspended from the Labour party for allegedly making misogynistic and transphobic comments towards Sophie Evans, at his nightclub in Sheffield. He had previously resigned from the Women and Equalities Committee for making a series of misogynistic and homophobic comments from 2002 onwards (I don't feel the need to repeat them in this blogpost but some examples can be found here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/10/24/jared-omara-refuses-resign-sexist-comments-suggests-conservatives/ and here http://uk.businessinsider.com/jared-omara-list-of-labour-mp-lewd-online-comments-2017-10).Good that both of them were forced to face the consequences of their utterances. There should be no room in progressive politics for homophobic, biphobic and transphobic comments and such comments should be rightly condemned. Sending a clear message that there are some comments that should not be uttered in day-to-day common parlance should not be seen as "PC gone mad" but rather demonstrating that we are striving for a more equal, inclusive and compassionate society.

People considering running for public office or even to be a campaigner or activist for their local area should aim to treat people with respect and dignity, regardless of their own cultural, social, moral/ethical and political views and adhere to the principles of the Equality Act. Never be afraid to be forthright but do so intelligently, thoughtfully and respectfully, face-to-face and online. And if the person has been disparaging online or in person in the past, admit your mistakes and present a plan as to how to stop others from making them A sense of political correctness that grounds itself in respect and compassion should not be one that is disparaged and should not be seen as mutually exclusive of free speech; in fact it should be praised and encouraged. Perhaps we need to get back to saying we "agree to disagree" a bit more but as stated above, I believe as a society we must be prepared to take action when free speech crosses the line. That includes misogynistic, homophobic, biphobic, ableist and yes, transphobic comments too.

Another aspect of the conversation is to accept that people from marginalised backgrounds can make comments that offend others on a grand scale but often face a vile response that attacks them on the basis of their protected characteristic. When Munroe Bergdorf made her controversial comments in a Facebook post about white people, stating that the power they hold was inherited and that racism was not learned , this led to her being dropped from L'Oreal and a huge backlash by white people, including Bergdorf's own mother. Now it's OK for people to be vocal about their disagreement with Berdorf on her views about racism, it certainly was NOT acceptable for trolls on social media to send Bergdorf death threats, threats of rape or assault.  It's also important to note that whilst Bergdorf's comments were classified by Facebook as "hate speech" and was deleted but the racist, homophobic and transphobic comments were left on (https://www.theguardian.com/global/2017/sep/04/munroe-bergdorf-on-the-loreal-racism-row-it-puzzles-me-that-my-views-are-considered-extreme). This is quite clearly indefensible on Facebook's part because there is no way that racist, homophobic and transphobic comments can not be considered hate speech. Policies and procedures that have been put in place by social media organisations to tackle hate speech  should be applied consistently across the board, otherwise what is the point in actually having them? There is a question as to whether those who are making the decisions regarding social media posts can ever be truly independent and free from bias but the same could be said for anyone; we all have our biases that will impact on the statements that we utter/write but it's OK to have those biases challenged in a respectful manner. Activists like Bergdorf know when they write a post, they may be challenged on it: "being an activist means calling people out, not just saying what everyone else is saying and what everyone else wants to think and upholding the common consensus". They share the desire to be free to say what they think and are aware of the potential consequences but with the hope that life will be better in the future for themselves and more crucially, for others. Freedom of speech can be used to foster a more inclusive and "woke" society and sometimes this may mean not being "politically correct".

Conclusion:

It's impossible to encompass a discussion of the relationship between the concepts of free speech and political correctness in just one blogpost. What is clear is that there are many different facets to the debate to consider. Whilst it is right that our universities should be a haven of expressing ideas and that the ability to debate should remain an integral part of the structure of arts and science degree courses, we also should accept that outside of the lecture hall and seminar room, in Student Unions across the country, students have the right to invite and disinvite speakers in accordance with the wishes of Student Union members and the policies and procedures devised both at a national level by the NUS and by each individual Student Union. It should be recognised that the limits to free speech defined within the HRA are designed to protect residents of the UK from hearing hate discourse that may incite violence towards them in their public spaces and that the HRA does not provide speakers with the automatic right to a platform. That means that whilst speakers can express their disappointment at being disinvited from giving a speech at at university by faculty members or by the Students Union (depending on who organised the event) it still does not mean that they have curtailed free speech; after all the speaker could also try and organise the event in a different location. The example of Mr Turner also demonstrates that political correctness, when it relates to helping to protect UK residents (not just British citizens) from discrimination and prejudice and encouraging others to treat people different from themselves with compassion, respect and dignity by calling out deviant free speech acts is vital for combating discriminatory hate speech and reminds us that there is no such idea as there being complete freedom of speech in our democracy without consequences. Free speech is an act and it is one that must be performed with the knowledge that performing that act may lead to negative consequences. Nobody regardless of their position in society should be free not to think of such considerations. The fact we are continuing to have conversations and negotiate our way through balancing free speech considerations with minimising harm is a positive step forward. As Alison Scott-Baumann pointed out in her excellent opinion-ed for The Guardian: "we cannot switch freedom of speech on and off as if it were an app, but we can learn to balance individuals' rights to freedom of expression and freedom of harm in an ongoing conversation" (https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2017/oct/25/no-platform-and-safe-spaces-arent-the-real-dangers-to-freedom-of-speech). We need to continue those conversations, with people of different political persuasions and beliefs but let's be realistic about the restrictions that are placed on free speech in the UK and the positive reasons for those restrictions within public spaces. 

Thursday, 12 October 2017

My Thoughts on the Conservative Party Autumn Conference 2017 Policy Announcements: Policy Mediocrity Klaxon

I have to start this blogpost on a positive note, by focussing on PM May's keynote speech first. Because yes, for me, it was possibly the only speech at the Tory Conference that filled me with any kind of optimism.....for a future (a "British Dream") that centers itself on being modern and compassionate....a future that I believe does NOT have the current crop of senior Tory MPs at its helm. I would say I would have been surprised by all the Corbyn bashing, Momentum bashing, youth bashing (because according to the Tories, a young person is now anyone under the age of 45....super LOL), working class centre left wing bashing, working class centre bashing and the distinct lack of any rad policies with clout that will truly transform the lives of working class disabled young people like me (well the fact that the Tories don't even want to discuss the 60 recommendations made by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Report is a big giveaway that Tories don't really care much about disabled people who unfortunately find themselves unable to get a job or unable to work because of their condition) but to be perfectly honest, I wasn't.

 Unlike Labour's conference, where activists from across the party (Labour First, Progress, Momentum) genuinely waited with interest to hear Corbyn speak (regardless of their views as to Corbyn's future electability and/or policies RE renationalisation and Brexit),  the anticipation for PM May's speech was rather muted in comparison to the "buzz" that surrounded Bojo with the Barbarian Hair's speech in the conference venue in Manchester only the day before. PM May knew that a confident delivery of her keynote speech would be the best way of convincing the party faithful to remain loyal to her vision for Britain's future and to try and convince sceptical swing voters to listen to her vision and pay attention to the policy platform she offers. What transpired was a speech with a series of unfortunate events and blunders that even a political satirist  like Armando Iannucci or Aaron Sorkin couldn't have dreamt up. Yes, it really was that bad.

To PM May's credit, she had the courage and strength of her convictions to battle through the speech despite being plagued by a rather persistent cough, a ridiculously timed stunt by a comedian who, let's face it, is famous for dead-panned comedic timing (at least he didn't send a P45 addressed to her from THE Lord Buckethead demanding her Maidenhead seat to begin their maniacal conquest I suppose) and a hostile audience at home and in the conference hall who remain unconvinced that PM May's the person to lead the Tory party and the country going forward following the Brexit negotiations. Almost everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. PM May's new signage containing the predictable new slogan "Building a country that works for everyone"disintegrated whilst at the same time her vision was failing to cut through to swing voters such as myself.  Even the quip about  Chancellor Hammond handing out "something for free for once" after he gave her a cough sweet fell flat. But whatever you may think of PM May's policies (and I certainly have been extremely critical of the majority of them in the past and remain so), you cannot dehumanise her by  blaming her for elements of the speech that were beyond her control. There's no way she could have known for sure that her cough would be so persistent it would affect the tone and pitch of her voice. Yes there could have been actions PM May could have taken to try and relieve her symptoms but perhaps beforehand she had felt the cough wouldn't be such a disruptive factor. PM May could not have stopped the "comedian" getting through the extremely stringent security checks system and handing her the fake P45. PM May equally could not have stopped the signage falling apart. PM May battled on and managed to complete her speech despite all of these external factors and she should quite rightly be given credit for that. The "Keep Calm and Carry On" approach is one that I would have taken. It's what many of us who call ourselves determined people who are passionate about our own ideas and beliefs would have done. That's why I believe that critique of the speech should really focus on the policy announcements made, rather than focussing on signage malfunctions and Bojo P45 craziness. If Jeremy Corbyn had been the victim of such a disastrous set of events, I have no doubt that Fartage, Bojo et al would have immediately seized upon the incident as an opportunity to discredit him, calling him "incompetent" or "incapable" or mocking Labour security officials for failing to keep Corbyn safe. I wonder whether Corbyn would have been critiqued as much as PM May for wearing a Winston Churchill brooch on his lapel (would it have been an indication of him betraying his socialist values?) There was so much critique of PM May wearing a Frida Kahlo bracelet, not least from left-leaning commentators who accused May of lacking awareness of Kahlo's own political beliefs. Yes Kahlo was a staunch Communist who had an affair with Leon Trotsky and then decided to disown his political ideas because they were not radical enough and then went on to endorse Joseph Stalin's views towards the end of her life. Was PM May aware of such facts when she decided to wear the bracelet? Or did she wear the bracelet because she admired Kahlo's self-portraits and identified with her determination to fight passionately for a vision that she believed in?

I suppose Kahlo would have been horrified that a Conservative would have dared to use her image in such a public way. Yet the image and work of artists such as Kahlo have been through what Deborah Shaw calls "a process of cultural transformation and commodification" (http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/theresa-may-frida-kahlo-bracelet-communism-trotsky-stalin-commodification-a7988146.html) to the extent that Kahlo has now become iconic for reasons beyond her political views. Shaw contends that "Kahlo has been transformed to make her less threatening to Western capitalist belief systems", so that art collectors and producers and buyers of merchandise such as the bracelet feel they can identify personally with their understanding of Kahlo's life story. Kahlo certainly did experience pain in her life as Shaw points out and perhaps that's the main reason why PM May identifies with Kahlo's oeuvre. Still, regardless of all that, PM May would still be allowed to wear the bracelet because we have the right to freedom of expression with certain limitations (e.g. it prescribed by law) as detailed in Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998 (if only PM May would now stand up strongly for the HRA rather than try to undermine it I'd be a happy politico!) Equally, I expect that most of us are guilty of consuming some form of cultural commodification. I'm also pretty sure there is at least one artist, musician, poet or playwright who may have had different political views from ourselves; Aphra Behn for example, was a staunch Tory who supported King James II and disapproved of the Glorious Revolution and the Whigs who helped instigate it. That doesn't stop me from admiring her plays or praising her for being a sassy person who fought against convention to carve a reputation out for herself (ironically by erasing large elements of her past). There are Morrissey lovers who are Labour and Green supporters who abhore his UKIP sympathies and xenophobic views. If we attack someone for a bracelet they choose to wear because it's "unexpected", we may be conveniently forgetting our own hypocrisy. Do we always know absolutely everything we need to know about our hero/heroes' political views? Without having done massive research into their lives (e.g. close reading of their autobiography or biographies) we often only have a vague awareness of their political views and that's even if they choose to speak out or have spoken out on a topic/topics in the past. The personal may indeed be political these days but do we really advance political debate by minute analysis of perceived political symbols and slogans rather than analysing and debating in a political speech what really will have an impact on our lives and the lives of our family, friends, neighbours and colleagues- the policy platform? 

PM May's speech (and the conference as a whole) wasn't devoid of policy announcements but in my opinion they were sparse and I must say, a bit tame:
  • We now know that the Government intends to "build a country that works for everyone", including investing £2bn to build 25,000 new affordable council houses and affordable homes for rent by 2022 (5,000 a year) as a starting point for a new housing revolution. The typical subsidy has been determined at £80,000 to reach the figure of 25,000. Suffice to say that the plan won't do much to help; 1.2m families are waiting to be housed by councils. The National Housing Federation tried to put a positive spin on the announcement, saying that the investment announcement may unlock an extra £3bn in public and private investment  which may increase the number of homes built to between 50,000 and 60,000 but only if more public land is opened up for development. I agree with Labour; the Tories are offering to build a paltry amount of social housing (Labour pledged to build 100,000 new homes that were "genuinely affordable" in their first term in office) and it won't help many families in areas where rent prices are high. Lord Porter, Conservative chair of the Local Government Association has argued that current restrictions on council borrowing for council housing projects needs to be lifted in addition to keeping "100% of right-to-buy receipts to replace sold homes, certainty over future rents, powers to make sure developers build approved homes in a timely fashion, and adequately funded planning departments so that they can cover the cost of processing applications" (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/blog/live/2017/oct/04/conservative-conference-2017-theresa-may-to-announce-council-house-building-programme-politics-live?page=with:block-59d4de9de4b00dc5a61c2652#liveblog-navigation). 
  • PM May announced an independent review into the Mental Health Act 1983 which will be chaired by Professor Simon Wessely (former President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists). This review will examine how current use of the legislation (the document supplied the Department of Health accepts that there are concerns about "rising rates of detention", the fact that "detention may be used to detain rather than treat", "the disproportionate number of people from black and minority ethnicities being detained" and "questions about the effectiveness of community treatment orders and difficulties in getting discharged" (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/mental-health-act-independent-review/terms-of-reference-independent-review-of-the-mental-health-act-1983). An interim report is expected to by delivered in early 2018 and the final report, with recommendations being released by autumn 2018). Centre for Mental Health has welcomed the announcement, but want the review to be extensive and "look at every aspect of the Act and explore not just the legislation but the context in which it is used" (https://www.centreformentalhealth.org.uk/news/centre-for-mental-health-welcomes-independent-review-of-mental-health-act-announced-by-the-prime-minister-today). It's rather interesting to note that the Conservative manifesto pledged to scrap and replace the Mental Health Act 1983: "the party will reform laws to ensure those with mental illness are treated fairly and employers fulfil their responsibilities effectively and will introduce a new Mental Health Bill putting parity of esteem at the heart of treatment" (p57) so I wonder if the review is the first step in this process or designed to pacify those in the party who want more information before scrapping the Mental Health Act. Mind had asked for a review of the Act before the manifesto commitment was made because they said that a rise in detentions "could be a sign of growing pressure on mental health services" (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-39832997). 
  • PM May, channeling Corbyn's policy (or perhaps in response to the excellent Daily Mirror campaign) on organ donations, announced that everyone will automatically become an organ donor unless they join the opt-out register in order to help the more than 5,000 people on the organ transplant waiting list (this is known as a presumed consent system). As I mentioned in a previous blogpost, as a Christian I believe that organ donation is one way of performing a selfless act of compassion and I haven't heard from many people who would want to sign the opt-out register. It's good to see at least a level of consensus on such an important issue and demonstrates that PM May's speech did have a good policy announcement in it, even if it wasn't an original one. 
  • PM May declared that free schools will continue to be built under her Government, repeating her election promise to built 100 new free schools a year. PM May said that this wasn't an "ideological decision" but the National Education Union disagreed, saying that the free schools policy "is highly centralised, unaccountable, bureaucratic and ultimately ineffective" (https://www.fenews.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=14802:national-education-union-comment-on-increase-in-new-free-schools&catid=14:sector-news&Itemid=880). The Free Schools policy has not delivered the number of secondary school places needed (125,000 children face missing out on a place by 2022/23) and 19 free schools have closed since the programme began. Equally the proportion of free schools rated as Good or Outstanding by Ofsted is lower than in state schools (85% versus 89%) and the rate of schools that have been deemed "Inadequate" by Ofsted is at 4%, double the state school rate (https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/governments-manipulation-data-free-schools-shameless). 
Some words and phrases in the speech were surprising coming from a Conservative; for example, PM May called the NHS "the very essence of our solidarity in the United Kingdom". Solidarity isn't a word that you often hear a Tory minister, let alone the PM, say. It sounds too "comradey" or "leftie" for some. It rather adds to the irony that PM May claimed it was the Tories who have invested the most in the NHS and upheld its principles "through more years in government than any other". Yet it was the Tories who helped pushed through the ill thought out Health and Social Care Act 2012, it's the Tories who are starving NHS trusts of funding which is leading to some of them ending up in special financial measures (such as my local United Lincolnshire Hospitals Trust) and Clinical Commissioning Groups closing down successful Walk-In-Centres such as the one in Lincoln under the guise of "efficiency savings" and "fairness". It is the Tories who scrapped the nursing bursaries, imposed an unwanted change in Junior Doctors' contracts and imposed the freeze and then the 1% pay cap on health professionals believing that they were necessary to reduce and then eliminate the deficit; latest figures suggest the deficit is at £5.7bn in August, down 18% on August 2016 (https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/sep/21/uk-budget-deficit-philip-hammond-gdp-august but we are nowhere near getting the defecit down to 0). PM May may thank NHS professionals for their dedication but she has done very little to improve the lives of nurses in my local area; so much so one of them decided to run for parliamentary office and eventually became our constituency MP, Karen Lee.

Policies announced at the Tory Autumn Conference:

The problems of relatability and of a bold (dare I say radical) policy platform dogged this Tory Conference. It seemed as if the speeches were geared more towards trying to placate the party faithful rather than to appeal to the additional voters the Tories desperately need to get on board if they are to have any chance of regaining marginal seats such as Lincoln at the next general election.
Here's some of the key policies that I took notice of:

Education:
A review has been announced into "university funding and student financing" but in the meantime plans to raise student fees have been scrapped and instead the maximum amount chargeable has been  frozen for the 2018/19 academic year. The income threshold for student loan repayments will be raised from £21,000 to £25,000, which will apparently save some students on average £360 a year. The student loan reimbursement pilot scheme for science and modern foreign language teachers in the early years of their career in areas of the country where there is a chronic shortage (such as the North East) could provide some incentive for MFL graduates in particular to consider a career in teaching and it's estimated that a teacher in the 5th year of the scheme would save £540 (http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/here-policies-announced-conservative-conference-13702320) but the Government really needs to start promoting the value of students learning a MFL in a post-Brexit world. The Government also wants to increase the recruitment of maths teachers and have announced that they would pay maths graduates a £20,000 lump-sum when they become a teacher and a £5,000 retention payment in the 3rd and 5th year of teaching. Finally, schools who find it difficult to recruit and retain teachers would be able to access a £30m fund focussed on providing the money needed for Continuing Professional Development training.

I'd have much rather have seen a commitment to freezing or reducing interest rates on student loan debt for ALL students or have seen a crystal clear commitment to reintroducing university maintenance grants for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to help them with the cost of books, equipment, clothing and rent but perhaps this will be announced in next month's Budget (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/maintenance-grants-government-uturn-bring-back-poorer-students-education-justine-greening-university-a7981976.html) Time will tell.

Housing:
£10bn will be invested in the Help to Buy Scheme (where you only need a 5% deposit to access a mortgage for a newly built home because the Government provides a low-interest equity loan which is 40% of the value of the home in London and 20% elsewhere) which will help an estimated 135,000 people to get on the property ladder. Liam Halligan in The Sun has already attacked this policy, stating that Help to Buy helps "stoke up demand" without addressing supply issues, only really benefits unscrupulous housing developers and is also "very difficult to access", meaning that young people are forced to pay a higher rent in high-demand areas. Halligan rightly argues that more social housing needs to be built to meet the growing demand: "If the UK is to build the 250,000 new homes needed each year, that needs to include 50,000 to 100,000 units of social housing, required each year".

With regards to tenants, the Tories will require every landlord to be part of an ombudsman redress scheme, designed to give tenants access to an effective conflict-resolution mechanism. As programmes such as "The Week The Landlords Moved In" and Nightmare Tenants, Slum Landlords" have demonstrated, landlords do need to make sure they are fulfilling their legal obligations so that the housing stock they provide is fit for human habitation and allow tenants to challenge fees. A mechanism may make it easier for tenants to complain but what would actually happen if landlords failed to fulfill their duty? What types of penalties would be provided? I think a Tenant's Charter would bring in additional legal protection that is necessary to protect tenants from having to put up with slum conditions.  The incentives for landlords to offer longer tenancies (Javid says that they will be at least 12 months) to me seems a bit of a bribe. I'd rather see 5 year tenancies introduced as standard, as has been suggested by Labour.

Letting agents should have been regulated years ago so it's good to see the Tories commit to requiring agencies to have appropriately qualified and experienced staff and ensuring there is some form of professional oversight, as there is in professions such as Accountancy and the Law.

Health:
It's positive to see that more than 5,000 new training places on nurses training courses each year will be created and allowing health service assistants to train as nurses through a 4 year apprenticeship scheme also sounds like a good idea in theory but will sadly not address current shortages (there are 40,000 vacant nursing positions already according to the Royal College of Nursing). I'd have liked to have seen nursing training bursaries reinstated for those enrolling on undergraduate courses.  Introducing flexible working arrangements is a no-brainer in 2017 and allowing existing nurses the opportunity to pick up extra shifts will help reduce some agency costs in the short-term. Allowing staff first-refusal on homes built in affordable housing schemes located near the hospital which are built on NHS land which is sold for development also sounds sensible. However, NHS professionals who are living in expensive private rental accommodation and who rely on foodbanks to get the food to give them the energy to carry out their duties competently desperately need a substantial increase in basic pay now so I believe it isn't good enough that the Tories are not prepared to scrap the cap now, provide a small increase as a gesture of goodwill and then implement fully the recommendations of the independent pay review bodies.

The Armed Forces:
Sir Michael Fallon has suggested that Britain should increase the amount of GDP spent on defence beyond the 2% NATO target in order to address "growing threats from terrorism and states such as North Korea and Russia" (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/10/03/britain-should-raise-nato-2-defence-spending-target-says-michael/). The Tories have already committed to increasing the budget ahead of inflation on an annual basis and I could see an argument for increasing spending if it went towards cyber security but personally speaking I do not believe we should waste money on a ballistic missile system (I remain highly sceptical that we would face attack ourselves from North Korea and we should be focussing on strengthening the diplomatic response anyways) or be wasting money on replacing all 4 Trident submarines (I would like to see the nuclear submarine fleet cut by 50% down to 2). In terms of actual funding policy announcements, Fallon told the Conservative conference that £1bn will be pumped into the Royal Navy to invest in maintenance contracts for vessels including the new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers are fit for purpose so they spend more at sea post-Brexit. Well the Tories have always seen themselves as "global leaders in defence" and the policy goes down well with the base and if it helps to safeguard jobs, then it's a policy that will be beneficial regardless of whether Brexit actually ends up happening or not.

I have no issue with the expansion of cadet units in state schools.  I can understand the desire to give more state school students the chance to participate in activities that will help build their confidence and allow them to develop vital interpersonal skills (Fallon says the Government aims to establish 500 cadet units by 2020...http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/michael-fallon-cadet-unit-expansion-state-schools-uk-defence-secretary-social-mobility-conservative-a7980046.html). It's also good that the £50m of funding is coming from the Libor fine.

Making all positions available in the Armed Forces to women is a long-overdue decision but a welcome one; demonstrating a commitment to true equality of opportunity that we should all get behind regardless of political affiliation.

The Environment: 
Michael Gove announced that the maximum sentence for the most vile acts of animal cruelty will be increased from six months to five years; charities such as the RSPCA have been calling for tougher sentences for years and it is good to see the Government finally listen to them.
The Government are also looking to bring in a reward deposit return scheme for drinks bottles, with the working group charged with examining the proposal expected to report back early next year. I agree that such a policy would encourage people to recycle and reduce the amount of plastic in our seas and oceans.

Further Thoughts: 
I would be wary of dismissing the Tory conference in Manchester as an unmitigated PR disaster. Among some elements of the party, there is a defiant, forward-looking attitude persisting with a desire for a "successful Brexit" determining their optimism.  There are some Tory members who are not fussed by the idea of leaving the EU without a deal; for them Britain would thrive and weather any economic storm immediately following such an exit. Many of those members are turning towards fringe Brexiteer figures for answers; Jacob Rees-Mogg, MP for North East Somerset may have some reprehensible (at best old-fashioned) views on abortion and equal marriage (he doesn't speak for all Catholics or indeed all Christians in Britain btw) but to his "Moggmentum" fan club, he's seen as a credible leadership candidate. 600 people queued up on Monday 2nd October to hear him speak about the future of the UK post-Brexit. Not only did Mogg not disappoint the attendees with regards to bigging up the Brexit process (he compared the significance of Brexit with Magna Carta, the Burgesses entering Parliament, the Great Reform Act 1832, the Bill of Rights 1689 and the battles of Agincourt, Waterloo and Crecy and repeated his "we should give no more money to the EU" line), Mogg also decided to openly praise the activists for coming up with credible ideas and bemoaned the current party, structure, stating that MPs treat party activists "appallingly" (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/oct/04/moggmentum-behind-jacob-rees-mogg-stirs-activists-tory-conservative-party-conference). By identifying so markedly with the base, Mogg is suring up his support should an opportunity arise for a ministerial position. Mogg's current and potential influence should not be underestimated by activists on the left or indeed, in the centre; he offers his sycophants a vision steeped in hope, one which they feel they desperately need to sustain their passion for social as well as fiscal "Classic" Conservative values. That includes the values that I'd rather see consigned to the dustbin of history such as telling women they can't have free access to abortions without abortion being seen as a crime. I completely agree the British Medical Association that all criminal sanctions related with the procedure should be abolished; abortion is a medical issue, not a criminal one (https://www.bma.org.uk/news/2017/june/doctors-back-decriminalisation-of-abortion). I suspect the Moggster and his fan club disagree with moi on that one.

It's perfectly acceptable (in fact it's preferable) to be optimistic and to hope for a better future for ourselves, our families, our communities and our nation. But the Tories cannot ignore the true extent of the massive structural issues that exist in the UK that have gotten worse under their watch, based on the dubious premise that Brexit will somehow help reduce or even resolve the majority of those issues within a few years following the conclusion of the process. Take for example the UK's productivity issue. Productivity levels have fallen for the second quarter in a row; the Office for National Statistics recorded a 0.1%  fall in the output per hour per worker between April and June which comes directly after a 0.5% decrease between January and March. We still produce as much per person as we did in the last quarter of 2007. According to the Financial Times, "UK workers produced 15.1% less per hour than workers in other G7 countries" in 2016 (https://www.ft.com/content/1c57dcb0-aa89-11e7-ab55-27219df83c97). This is extremely disappointing and indicates that Tory economic policy and the Industrial Strategy has failed to have the desired effect. Equally the UK has a huge productivity gap between the service and manufacturing sectors; service output per hour grew by 2.2% but manufacturing output per hour fell by 1.3% despite an increase in overall hours worked. Whilst the economy has grown (thanks to workers deciding that any job is worse than no job and being prepared to work long hours for minimal pay increases), the productivity issue needs to be addressed so that economic performance can improve further and the wages of young people, struggling to afford their rent, food and other life essentials can be raised without causing a huge inflation rise. Will the targeted £23bn worth of investment in infrastructure, research and housing already announced make a difference? Is it enough? More crucially: what effect will leaving the EU Single Market and Customs Union have on productivity growth levels?

The key issue that I feel has to be addressed urgently is housing. The Tory policies implemented between 2010 and 2017 have done little to help abate the crisis. Housing associations and private developers are only building 40,000 homes currently; that's less than the more than 50,000 homes built in 2011 and 2012 during the Coalition years (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/oct/04/how-did-the-crisis-in-uk-social-housing-happen). According to Saville Research, in Lincoln, the average annual income needed to buy a 1,000 square foot home is £30,000; in London it's 68,000. Young people between the ages of 18 and 34 are spending more than 1/3 of their income after tax on rent or mortgage payments. It was only 5-10% back when my Dad was growing up in the 1960's. That's before you even talk about home ownership. The problem is that I don't aspire necessarily to owning my own home, I want a home in the future (when I eventually have to move out of my parents which is probably not going to happen till I hit the big 40 at this point) that is secure, fit for human habitation and has an affordable monthly rent. The Tories still seem to be obsessed with home ownership at the expense of private renters because of their focus on the Help to Buy scheme. Equally social rented housing  construction numbers have reduced from 36,000 in 2010/11 to 3,000 in 2011/12 (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/rob-warm/theresa-may-housing_b_18190624.html?utm_hp_ref=uk-politics&ir=UK+Politics) which a pitiful amount really. That being said, there have been changes made to the rent that can be set by housing associations from 2020 (a new rent formula) which apparently will increase the number of social homes built. These are small baby steps policy wise when what's needed for Generation Renters is a bolder, more radical policy platform with strong protections built in for tenants, such as rent controls and end to social cleansing in the name of gentrification. You know where those policy announcements have been made? That's right....by Jeremy Corbyn in his speech in Brighton.

Even if you're no fan of Corbyn's policies, take the advice of Larry Elliott. Elliot has suggested that a housing market crash may be on the way due to the severe mismatch between supply and demand and those households who have gained a mortgage through the Help-To-Buy scheme may find it difficult to make the monthly loan interest repayments if the Bank of England interest rate increases because their disposable income has already been squeezed as a result of stagnant wage growth. The median house price in England in 2016 was "7.72 times average earnings", with the figure being 12.88 times average earnings in London. Those whose incomes fall in the bottom 25% in London now expect to pay "13.52 times their average earnings for a property in the cheapest 25% bracket"(https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/oct/08/the-uk-housing-markets-perfect-storm-and-five-steps-to-avoid-it). These figures are truly shocking and bold policy decisions need to be taken to prevent this Elliot argues that the Help-To-Buy should be scrapped, changes made to the council tax system and to land banking regulations and increasing supply  e.g. "identifying large sites abutting urban areas and acquiring them at a modest premium to the value of their existing use". Elliot also believes that the Bank of England should raise interest rates using a "kid glove approach" designed to help to "engineer a gradual fall in real (inflation adjusted) house prices".

Then there is the undeniable feeling that people who find themselves in strained circumstances through no fault of their own are not being supported adequately by this Government.; PM May's reluctance to order a review into the Universal Credit rollout to address the 6 week waiting period demonstrates her continued adherence to an austerity agenda that is hurting the most vulnerable in society. A Guardian reader, Mhari talked about how her first payment amount was incorrect and overdue and even when £250 was issued to her, it turns out that it was issued in error and she has to pay that back. Mhari is now at a point where she feels she is "existing" and wrote that if she "had two doors in front of her marked life and death", she'd "walk through the death door in a heartbeat". The UC changes are literally damaging people's mental health to the point where they are deciding they'd rather be dead than alive (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/oct/08/i-cant-even-charge-my-wheelchair-the-impact-of-universal-credit-delays). UC is meant to "make work pay" whilst at the same time safeguarding disabled people from poverty and despair. 2.5m families will be on average £2,100 worse off as a result of the UC changes. Shame on the Government for pushing on with this ill-thought out UC rollout.

Conclusion:
Home truths time. The fact is, PM May and Tory frontbenchers, voters need real Jam today, not Jam tomorrow (i.e. significant investment which may require an increase in Government borrowing for a short period). We're not going to tackle structural issues such as the productivity puzzle or the Housing Crisis unless we have a party of Government that is prepared to deliver a radical, progressive vision for our country which is backed up by bold but clear and deliverable policies that can work regardless of whether Brexit actually happens in the form being moulded by Double D and his motley Brexiteer crew. I am not exactly Corbyn's biggest fan when it seems he is advocating for a Brexit which involves leaving the Single Market and Customs Union post the transitional deal or renationalisation max but I appreciate his progressive views on domestic policy. I'm much closer to the Lib Dems with their proposals for a referendum on the terms of the deal along with calls for mandatory sprinkler systems, annual checks by fire service personnel on buildings above 4 storeys and making fire evacuation drills mandatory in all buildings over 10 storeys "at times of peak occupancy by the end of June 2018". PM May never once mentioned such measures in her speech and yet tenants have been asking for such measures in the hope of improving fire safety following the Grenfell Tower fire and such requests have been made by people across the country, across racial, gender, age and yes, even Brexit outlook/voter divides. You see a desire for demonstrable progress is one which transcends such barriers. Yet the vision that has been outlined by PM May and her ministers is one of continuity, one of "Keep Calm and Carry On", a rose-tinted vision that is ultimately unsustainable.

If PM May and her cabinet do not devise more radical policies to address the housing crisis, to help the  most vulnerable in our society whilst at the same time enabling social mobility and a spirit of aspiration, I have no doubt that some independently minded swing voters will have no choice to vote for a party that offers at least an exciting, radical vision and a set of bold domestic policies....a party like the Lib Dems, the Greens or Labour.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

My thoughts on the Labour Autumn Conference 2017: Jeremy Corbyn's Keynote Speech

Success in politics in my opinion should boil down to three key elements. Firstly, a successful politician has a genuine, passionate desire to change society for the better, whether that be at a local level as a ward councillor or at a national level as an MP and whether that be as a member of a political party or as an independent. Secondly, a successful politician has at least a handful of ideas that they have analysed meticulously to determine that there is a reasonable of implementing those ideas should they find themselves elected into office (or they can at least advocate for when in opposition). Finally and most significantly in my view, a successful politician manages to engage with a diverse section of the electorate and imbue them with a sense of confidence and hope. I don't think it can be said of Jeremy Corbyn that he lacks any of these three elements (he has the third one in abundance). Listening to Corbyn's keynote speech on BBC Parliament I couldn't help but notice the strength of passion that he inspires in the majority of Labour party delegates; they genuinely believe that Labour, under Corbyn's leadership, can deliver the policies that will lift the spirit and improve the living and working conditions of the majority of UK residents. The slogan "For The Many, Not The Few" is far from meaningless for the Corbyn Crowd. I'm not someone who could be deemed a socialist and I certainly do not fashion myself out to be a socialist but even I cannot deny that the confident and positive spirit of the Labour party currently didn't have at least some impact on my voting decision back in the general election of June 2017 (although I must confess that I voted Labour to oust the Tory Super Brexicheerleader Karl McCartney and take the smug grin off his expenses guzzling face). So I listened to Corbyn's speech with much interest, so I could see what extra policies Labour will offer to voters should an snap general election be called before the Spring 2018 Conference (highly unlikely but you know the old adage, "fail to prepare, prepare to fail" still rings true regardless of the political party).

The picture that Corbyn paints of "Broken Britain" is a dispiriting one but sadly it is the reality for millions of people. The Conservative government who seem to have dedicated themselves to achieving Brexit "at any cost" and the in-fighting that has ensued following the weakening of PM May's position as a result of the General Election has meant that there have been few bold policy announcements. We need to address structural concerns, especially those relating to Housing and the delivery of sustainable and exceptional public services. The fact that PM May remains so stubbornly opposed to lifting of the 1% public sector pay cap, deciding to only do so for Prison and Police Officers has made her and the Tories deeply unpopular amongst entry level public service workers, many of whom are young or who have returned to work following a career break, injury or having overcome/learned to cope with mental health issues.  As Corbyn noted in his speech: "20,000 police officers......and 11,000 firefighters" have lost their jobs since 2010, NHS waiting lists have been lengthened and homelessness has doubled, all under the Tories watch and all resulting from an ill-thought out anti-austerity agenda that penalises those who are the most vulnerable in our society whilst at the same time providing tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires who neither needed them or really asked for them. Whilst political parties do need to craft business-friendly policies (and I think that Labour needs to promote their business policies such as creating Regional Development and National Investment Banks to help encourage a spirit of entrepreneurship based on sustainability) there has to be sufficient balance; I still remain unconvinced that the Tory decision to slash Corporation Tax down to 17% by 2020 was the right decision to make back in 2016. Yes Britain must appear "competitive" so that business owners feel satisfied enough to want to expand their business and then offer jobs and apprenticeships but will the Corporation Tax cut really encourage more businesses to trade or invest in the UK, even post-Brexit?
Perhaps a Labour take on the Industrial Strategy where an Industrial Strategy will be created for each region as well as the establishment of Regional Development Banks will help to rebalance the economy; as Rebecca Long-Bailey pointed out in her speech, "40% of our economic output comes from London and the South East" currently and that means "we are the most regionally imbalanced economy in Europe". This has happened under the Tories' watch and yet they are deemed the party of economic competence. #SuperLOL.

Corbyn is right to ask for closer examination of automation to make sure that benefits of automation are "publicly managed- to share the benefits" so they can be "the gateway for a settlement between work and leisure". Corbyn also mentioned in his speech the need for investment in retraining and foster a sense of pride in lifelong learning so that we can respond to the challenges that we will face as a result of increased automation. Finally, Corbyn highlighted the 2017 manifesto commitment that Labour would establish a £250bn National Transformation Fund which will allow homes to be built as well as improving transport, energy and digital infrastructure. If only the mainstream media wanted to spend more time speaking to Ms Long-Bailey about such policies rather than bashing Corbyn based on antiquated stereotypes about socialism and denigrating all Momentum members?

Speaking of the mainstream media (MSM) outlets...Corbyn's criticism was rather scathing.
Yes Corbyn's statements reminded me a bit of Trump's speeches in the sense that like Trump, Corbyn has detected a genuine level of distrust in certain sections of the electorate of the MSM because they feel that they have been reporting in a biased manner. Research released back in January 2017 (The Edelman Trust Barometer) found that 53% of respondents did not trust the Government or Media and 59% "trusted search engines as an information tool rather than traditional news editors" (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/distrust-government-business-media-ngos-lack-of-trust-report-2017-trust-barometer-edelman-a7529261.html). I tend to use Google to research and follow-up on news stories I've heard via social media or on BBC News but there are many who believe that the BBC has rescinded its objectivity and become a "Tory mouthpiece". You only have to follow the Newsnight and BBC Question Time Twitter handles to see such expressions of distrust (from the right as well as the left I might add) on a daily/weekly basis.  Corbyn said that the MSM including The Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Express and The Daily Telegraph ran a smear campaign against him and Labour which was orchestrated in order to please "their tax exile owners". Referring to The Daily Fail, Corbyn declared that "never had so many trees died in vain" as a result of the paper dedicating 11 pages to trash his campaign. Perhaps the era of the newspaper's opinion reporting dominating political thought is coming to an end; social media has democratized politicking to a large extent and I can't help but contend that having a plethora of tweeters and bloggers to refer to on political issues is a good development because it allows people from a range of social backgrounds and with a wide range of life experiences to have their say. However, I'm not entirely sure that waging battle against media bias on the right would win Corbyn many extra voters (who may usually vote Conservative but like bold policy platforms) and it certainly won't get the likes of Daily Fail or Breitbart Brainfart to change their minds about him. The only way Corbyn will do that is to continue developing his policy platform, including talking about the need for and benefits of a plurality of media whilst defending freedom of the press.

A key theme in the speech concerned the need for Labour to help "protect democracy". Corbyn identified two threats: "the emergence of an authoritarian nationalism that is intolerant and belligerent" and allowing "big decisions to be left to the elite". Corbyn understands that politicians can't expect to win voters to their cause just by lavishing 15 seconds of attention on them come election time. Instead, there has to be more of a conscious effort to listen to those who are trying to use their voice to fight social injustices and raise awareness of difficult issues. This includes social workers, sexual health workers and young people "especially working class young women" who were not believed when they disclosed to local police officers that they had been sexually and/or physically and/or emotionally abused. Increasing public accountability and encouraging further transparency from our public services is important but equally "making sure that everybody's voice is heard no matter who they are or what their background". If you are a young working class disabled person who has faced cuts to your disability benefits which has meant you can no longer afford to enjoy a decent standard of living because you have to make a choice between putting money in the electricity meter for two days or buying two days worth of food, you should be listened to by those who lead extremely comfortable lives. Then perhaps they may understand why Tory policy has been so incredibly damaging and why the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) needs to be incorporated into law and the 60 recommendations of the Report produced by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (including ensuring that mainstream schools provide "real inclusion" for disabled children which is required by Article 24 of the CRPD rather than increasing the number of segregated special schools and ensuring that disabled people have the funds and resources they need to live independently at home) and the Lords Select Committee report enacted as soon as possible. It's not right that disabled people are being "totally neglected" by this Government. And I want the next Government to do something concrete and radical about this neglect.

I was really impressed that Corbyn demonstrated true compassion and respect towards Grenfell Tower fire survivors in the speech, including praising the Grenfell Action Group who tried to warn their former landlords, Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation that a "catastrophic event" may occur because of their "ineptitude and incompetence" and mentioning the poem by Ben Okri, written just after the Grenfell Tower fire. Corbyn is right when he says that "a decent home is a right for everyone whatever their income or background". 120,000 children are homeless. Almost one million people who are renting their home "are in immediate danger of being made homeless as a result of the housing benefit cap" according to data recently released from Shelter (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/oct/07/hammond-benefit-cap-homelessness-budget-housing). Action needs to be taken to prevent those renters from being evicted through no fault of their own. That means scrapping the housing benefit cap and reducing the time taken to receive housing benefit payments when claimants go onto Universal Credit (UC). A 6 week wait for benefits is too long. An advance payment may not be enough to cover the rent. Processing time needs to be reduced by half. To do that, the administrative system needs to be reviewed for effectiveness. The UC rollout should be halted whilst that review is undertaken. Yet PM May doesn't seem to care. There's no indication that UC will be reviewed let alone halted. Shame on her and shame on her Government.

Homes need to be safe, secure and fit for human habitation. I welcome the fact that Labour will be undertaking a review into its social housing policy: "We will listen to tenants across the country and propose a radical programme of action to next year's conference". Corbyn recognised the need to bring in housing regulation that will protect tenants in the future by bringing in rent controls and ensure that all tenants will be rehoused locally during the estate regeneration process. Tenants will also get a say on whether a regeneration project will go ahead (through a ballot) and must be given a home on the same site. Now of course some housing developers would be angry at such a policy (especially the ones who hope to be an exorbitant profit from the regeneration scheme) but we need to ensure that the number of affordable housing within an area does not drop further. Rent controls may sound draconian to some but have been successfully used in a number of cities, including Dublin, which introduced a 4% limit on the annual increase in rent in October 2016. I could see an issue of confidence occurring amongst developers and landlords if the rent control allowed for a freeze on prices across the board but a rent cap on increases is sensible and an example of a bold policy that puts the basic need for tenants to have a safe, secure, habitable home over the need for housing developers and landlords to make a profit. There should also continue to be a commitment to providing tenants in the private rental sector and social housing sector with access to longer, more secure tenancies.

I thought Corbyn recommiting Labour to a policy to tax undeveloped land held by developers for too long (landbanking) and to give councils the power to compulsorily purchase that land back was an interesting one, provided that the money raised from such tax would be put back directly into local council amenity services such as rubbish collections or the running of swimming pools, that the price paid for the land was fair to the taxpayer and that housing developments would commence within 6 months of the land having been repurchased.

Another great policy announced by Corbyn (that's now been adopted by Theresa May and the Tory Government) is to change the organ donation law in England (it was already changed in Wales in 2015) so that people are presumed to consent to having their organs donated after death unless they sign an opt-out register. For me as a Lutheran Christian, I believe that organ donation is one of the most selfless act of compassion a person can perform which follows in Jesus' vein. As Matthew 7:12 states: "So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law". The Lutheran Church passed a resolution in 1984 which stated that "donation contributes to the well-being of humanity and can be an expression of sacrificial love for a neighbour in need" (http://www.donorrecovery.org/learn/religion-and-organ-donation/). There will be some of course who are afraid to donate because it may affect their own health or because they think they can be cryogenically frozen and then come back when death has been eradicated but I feel that the opt-out rate will be extremely low and that means there will be a greater number of organs made available on the transplant list.

I also believe that our foreign policy must be one with human rights and compassion at its heart. Corbyn was quite right to call out Aung San Sui Kyi for not taking action to help aid the violence against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State and completely agree with his plea for her to "allow the UN and international aid agencies" entry into the state to help alleviate their suffering. We need to stop the flow of arms to Saudi Arabia so they cannot use weapons made in this country in Yemen and the UK does need to support the establishment of a new state of Palestine as a way of trying to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, with a condemnation of illegal settlements and discrimination against Palestinians as well as maintaining a friendly relationship with Israel and fighting against the rise of Anti-Semitism in the UK and abroad. There are those who wish Corbyn had been clearer about the need to fight Anti-Semitism in his speech but it was good that Corbyn did state there needed to be a zero-tolerance approach to abuse in the Labour Party: "Yes we will disagree, but there can never be any excuse for any abuse of anybody".

Brexit:

There remains (unfortunately) one policy area where it seems I may disagree with Corbyn to an extent; that is (quite predictably) Brexit. Let's start with the positives. I agree with Corbyn's critique of the Tory negotiating team (I too have started to see them as "hopelessly inept" and "posturing for personal advantage" rather than acting in the national interest). I am grateful for a change in direction regarding the nature of the transitional deal; it makes perfect sense to remain in the Single Market and Customs Union whilst British businesses and organisations prepare for trading outside the Single Market and Customs Union as that's what PM May and her Brexshiteers want to happen but it seems PM May is now willing to accept a "status quo" transitional deal to avoid a cliffedge situation economically which she suggests should be for 2 years whereas Corbyn doesn't specify the length of time necessary. I am pleased that Corbyn has reiterated his plea for PM May to guarantee the rights of ALL 3.2 million EU citizens living in the UK including the right to stay and work here. I agree with Corbyn that the UK should not become a bargain basement "low wage", deregulated tax haven for millionaires and billionaires.

That being said, I remain unconvinced by the suggestion being put forward by Lexiteers that Britain's future remains brighter without membership of the EU- that a progressive Brexit is needed to implement a new Industrial Strategy. I've seen no comprehensive evidence provided by the Leave side to back up such a claim. I can sympathise with the need for a bold Industrial Strategy and yes, I can understand the desire to ensure that if Brexit happens, any funds that are saved as a result of no longer being a member of the EU should be spent on improving the lives of ordinary people- it's akin to all other Corbynite promises. I am sure that there would be an attempt by Labour to ensure that employers respected the rights of migrant workers post-Brexit and take action to stop undercutting of pay and any pandering to racism or xenophobia. Yet I really am not convinced by the arguments that have been advanced by Lexiteers that leaving the EU can be a progressive dream. The comment Corbyn made that Labour is "the only party that brings together Leave and Remain voters" is an extremely bold one to make. Whilst it is true that Labour did manage to secure votes from both Leave and Remain voters back in June, I can say from my own experience that my final decision to vote for Labour was predominantly because of anti-austerity policies and a fear of an implementation of a
Tory Hard Brexit and the hope that there may have been a more significant change in direction regarding Brexit rather than voting for a "progressive Brexit". I'd personally love to see Labour throw its weight behind a referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal as is currently being offered by the Lib Dems and the Greens, with 16 and 17 year olds, EU citizens resident in the UK and British citizens resident overseas all getting a chance to have their very important say. As I have previously pointed out, a recent Survation poll found that 52% of respondents now favour the possibility of participating in such a referendum, which is up from 50% two months beforehand. Labour should certainly be monitoring such polls to see whether support increases beyond the 55-60% mark and then consider making an adjustment to their Brexit policy as a result of a demonstrable change in opinion.

It appears that Labour will not back a referendum under any circumstances and instead will rely on Sir Keir Starmer's tests for the Brexit deal to decide whether to accept or reject it. As of yet I am still unsure of what Labour would do in the event of MPs rejecting the Brexit deal; this may be because Labour MPs may be so afraid of the UK leaving without any deal that they will accept the Tory one being offered on the table. I certainly don't agree with PM May's assertion that "no deal is better than a bad deal" but I am equally uncomfortable with Labour MPs potentially waving a deal through and then hoping they get a chance to try and amend the deal prior to the end of the transitional deal by winning a snap election in early 2019. For me, when it comes down to a choice of whether to deliver a deal based on some vague Brexit notion of  "true Parliamentary sovereignty to control immigration" or safeguarding import and export opportunities within the Single Market by remaining permanently in the Single Market, the choice is very clear. I'd love to see Corbyn in the future actively on a policy to remain and reform the Single Market and Customs Union or perhaps, even more controversially, recommending to the British people that we remain in the EU following a positive result from a referendum on the terms of the deal.

It's certainly true that Remain voters such as myself have to be prepared for the possibility of the Tories implementing an Extreme Brexit (with trade based on World Trade Organisation rules) as a result of failing to secure a satisfactory deal from the EU. Should such an event occur, it's probable to assume that I'll be voting based on which party can prevent the country's structural problems from becoming any worse rather than voting on a "progressive Brexit vision".

Conclusion: 

One of the most controversial comments made by Corbyn in the speech was that he believed that mainstream political opinion was shifting away from the centre ground  towards an acceptance of a Labour form of socialism rather than Labour having moved towards the centre ground. I ran a Twitter poll on this (not that scientific I know) but the results demonstrated how stark the divide is: when asked "Do you agree with Corbyn that Labour is now the mainstream in British politics?" 46% agreed, 45% disagreed and 4% were not sure. 46% is not really a decisive figure by any means and I think indicates to me that Corbyn still has work to do to convince voters that Labour's bold policy platform will be truly "for the many and not the few". I myself, as of yet, remain undecided as to how I would vote if a snap general election were called in the next few months. I may have voted Labour back in June but I can't say that I agree with the entirety of Labour's policy platform and I still wonder whether some of the policies are truly deliverable. I can understand a move towards renationalisation of the railways but I don't think all political energy and public money should be expended on chasing total renationalisation of all public utilities. The Government certainly won't be able to renationalise the majority of utilities services within a 5 year period, let alone renationalise the majority of railway networks. I completely agree with the reinstatement of university maintenance grants, training bursaries for nurses and the Educational Maintenance Allowance for sixth form and further education college students. It'd be amazing to abolish tuition fees in their entirety and make college courses free to all students regardless of their age or the type of course being studied but is such a policy truly deliverable over one 5 year term? Many voters want to see an end to PFI contracts but is it truly possible to pay off the existing debt within one 5 year term without borrowing vast sums of money to do it? I think Labour needs to prioritise and make clear which policies can be delivered within the first 5 year term of a Labour Government, drawing upon existing policy to do it. This could include banning fracking, reinstating EMA, university maintenance grants and nursing bursaries, lifting the 1% public pay cap, beginning the renationalisation process for the railways, introducing a Child Health Strategy and increasing the number of rural bus services. In terms of Labour's Brexit approach, if Labour moved towards permanent membership of the Single Market and Customs Union (perhaps as members of the European Economic Area and signatories of the European Free Trade Agreement) I may be more swayed to vote Labour. But then again, surely the best option for us would be to be able to help reform the Single Market and Customs Union and in order to do that, we would need a seat at the EU table, which means retaining membership of the EU. Corbyn has demonstrated no desire for that to happen and continues to use language akin to PM May about "unimpeded access" to the Single Market and Customs Union.

Whatever you may think of Jezza Corbyn, as a person, as a political figure and as a leader of a movement (well some believe he's only the leader of Momentum Labour Party members but actually Momentum members are individuals who decided to support Corbyn during and as a result of following his leadership campaign and not all of them have yet joined the Labour party and Momentum is not yet affiliated), Corbyn has injected a sense of energy into the Labour Party. He's imbued most Labour Party members with a sense of hope for a brighter future. There's an argument still to be had as to whether the future should be one completely outside the EU and there's still a level of disagreement over how deliverable some of the key policies on the platform would be, not least concerning renationalisation of public utilities and taking back ownership of Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contracts and staff by bringing them back "in-house", with "shareholders compensated in the form of government bonds, exchanged for shares" (https://www.ft.com/content/0161cc52-a1e9-11e7-9e4f-7f5e6a7c98a2). I think Corbyn is sensible to state that Labour wouldn't sign any more PFI contracts but the cost of the compensation offered remains unclear (although the Nuffield Trust estimates it could be as high as £50bn).

Corbyn has the vision and a snazzy set of policies that will help address some of the UK's key issues. Now he has to continue to demonstrate economic competence by ensuring he keeps highlighting why borrowing to invest and slightly higher taxes on businesses is needed to help all regions of the UK and how Labour's existing policy platform will benefit rural voters. Labour only managed to win 30 out of 199 rural constituencies in the 2017 General Election. Whilst speaking out against foxhunting, promising to ban fracking and giving more powers and resources to local planning authorities are all good policies, Labour has to talk more about tackling rural crime, encouraging local authorities to keep streetlights on in villages and hamlets and about their radical policy to change funding formulas and business rate schemes to ensure rural local authorities get the help they need to maintain efficient public services. Labour mentioned in their manifesto that they will be "rural proofing" their laws, policies and programmes when they get into power yet this was not mentioned once by Corbyn in any of the national election debates. Labour mentioned in their manifesto they would require utility companies to "return roads to a condition no worse than when they started digging". Such a policy would be broadly popular with Lincolnshire constituents who want to see further investment in transport infrastructure which will ensure that pot holes etc are fixed long-term rather than just for a few months. If Labour shadow ministers and MPs can gear their conversations towards rural issues when interviewed, they will be able to promote such policies and may start convincing rural voters that Corbyn and Labour want to live up to their slogan. If Labour is going to be the "party of the many, not the few" and build on their electoral success, it's time to take account of rural voters with Corbyn visiting rural constituencies, taking an interest in rural tourism and farming and uniting the whole of the country through the ambitious policy platform. Then perhaps, Corbyn can say that his party is truly the political mainstream in the UK.