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?
- 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).
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:
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.
£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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.