Thinking For The Individual

Formerly known as 'Thinking For The People', this site offers some reflections on the state of British society and her people from the perspective of a libertarian Conservative with a passionate belief in the pillars of freedom and responsibility.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

One Saturday In Beeston, Leeds

It was a bright and clear Saturday morning. The golden sun looked down on two local Conservatives – one a seasoned campaigner in the area, the other most certainly not – as they posted leaflets through letter-boxes across the streets of the Cardinal estate in Beeston, an inner-city working-class area in the south of Leeds, typical of the old industrial heartlands of the northern cities.

The two activists, the elder having spent years working at the heart of the community and now standing for this very council seat, the younger out on this kind of campaigning for the first time, carried sacks of literature, designed to be on coffee tables in living rooms across the ward by the end of the day. Each house – by and large, small semi-detached council housing built after the war; ‘homes fit for heroes’, they called them before they’d been built – received a copy of ‘LS Life’, a glossy little brochure showing off what achievements the Conservatives had made in Leeds since joining forces with the Liberal Democrats and an offering of Green councillors in a coalition at the Town Hall to finally kick Labour out of power in the city, after God only knows how many years of the socialist red rose flying high in this county of the white rose. The slim pamphlet had been published in the city on the very day when David Cameron was elected leader of the party, whilst all the pomp and pageantry of the victory was enjoyed down in London, but fortunately it was not particularly dated (begging the question, perhaps, of what exactly the coalition has been doing in Leeds for the past four months). This was made even more fortunate by the rumour that this particular issue of the pamphlet – with ‘Issue 1’ ambitiously written at the very top of the front cover – was to be the last.

Alongside ‘LS Life’, a newsletter on Labour’s failure in the ward and throughout the city, setting out the Tory alternative, would await residents whenever they took their post from beside the front door that morning.

The year’s local election campaign was a week away from its official kick-off, but council politics was – as ever – far from the minds of the locals. And why should it matter? After all, politicians left the people of Beeston behind long ago. The political consensus in Westminster for generations by now has taken away the freedoms and the individual responsibility of everyone in areas like these. It’s now up to politicos and bureaucrats to make judgements for people, for families and for communities about their local school, about St. James’s Hospital (known as Jimmy’s) nearby, about how their streets are policed – about their whole lives.

This has given the people of Beeston a community where, according to the statisticians, only 58% of people of working age are actually in work, where almost half of citizens have no academic qualifications, and where – for those of us who prefer to look beyond the glib, black-and-white facts and figures – the misery and depression in the air says more than enough about how politics has failed the people.

In order to engage the people of communities just like Beeston in the council elections we face this year, and in the political challenges we face at the polls in every year ahead, we first have to acknowledge and act upon the moral imperative to strive for a better way of life in the broken estates of our country, regardless of the political merits or drawbacks. Educational standards are lower in these places. There is more crime. There is more unemployment. Drug addiction and dealing is rife. More broadly, we can see that there is no freedom in these areas for individuals and families to be responsible for their lot. There is more council housing, therefore fewer people have a stake in the place they live. And as the socialist politicians in these parts remain perpetually unchallenged, there is no real local leadership.

None of these are dogmatic, unsupported statements of my own belief. Everything I say is backed by the facts, but surely the facts are secondary to everything we see and hear from the real people who trudge on in a quiet despair through their existence (‘life’ is not the suitable word) in places like these.

The most important challenge for any party which seeks government is to present a programme for government. This doesn’t have to be a step-by-step plan for radical reform of the foundations of our society, as supporters of Cameron who look back on how Margaret Thatcher never did anything like this before the 1979 general election, yet still managed to oversee the boldest change in the political climate in this country since the Attlee government. But it most certainly should not be a series of empty catch-phrases, the odd promise we know we can’t keep, blended with the happy consequences of opposing an evermore discredited government. To be able to succeed in the inner cities of the north, we have to be able to say something to the people here that matters. We have to have an education policy that will give parents and teachers here freedom and responsibility, and that will raise the next generation of adults out of the poverty of aspiration, ambition and virtue that has ruined places like these. This means there must be no more politicking over great questions such as these. Up here, for example, people know from the national media that the Tories have been making a fuss about backing Labour’s school reforms, but we don’t actually know what Tory education policy is or is likely to be. We can’t be elected on the strength of how we behaved in opposition, but on how we pledge to behave in government. Candidates and activists must be able to state and explain what the Conservatives will do to make education better, not simply be able to describe (and sometimes defend) what we’ve done whenever Labour has put forward its bland legislation, dressed up as radical, but in truth as arrogant and futile as anything else they try to do. We have to have a policy for a reformed NHS which will give the British people world-class healthcare. We have to have something to say which matters, and ideas to offer which will work. We may all have ideas as to what will make our society better, whether it involves more government investment or more private enterprise, more trust in the individual or more power to local councils. But what matters is that we work out straight away what it is that we stand for, and how we can make life better for the working man in parts of the country like these.

It should be self-evident why this is so important. Candidates in local elections, just as much as David Cameron, George Osborne, David Davis and the rest of the Shadow Cabinet down in Westminster, need something to say. We need to be able to offer something to people, and to make promises that we will see through. In the northern cities especially, we can’t win just by knifing Labour and making plain its failures, which are manifold and clear to see to those of us who live here. All that will do is serve to remind us here that politicians are useless, have nothing good to offer, and even less to say. We must stand for something, and then activists and candidates up here can get out on the streets.

Now that we have something to say and something to offer, we can get on with real, energetic campaigning. Local politicians up here, as well as national politicians, need to come and speak to people, and remind these communities that they are concerned with them. The Conservative Party has to be an institution brimming with confident, upbeat and optimistic activists putting out this message, day in, day out. And if politicians here are worried about meeting people and speaking to the man on the street – as I sometimes fear may be the truth – the answer is clear: change your politicians!

Local issues must never be forgotten either. It seems odd that in a local election I am writing to remind activists and candidates about local issues, but too often they go forgotten. Or at the very least, they are treated with workaday disregard. Tories around the country need to be passionate about what they can do for their communities, especially in these poorest areas where there is little left to be passionate about. Politicians should not just be political leaders, but social leaders too, and this means standing up for what matters to local people. This does not mean that we have to promise that the local council will do more than small-government conservatives who believe in individual freedom and individual responsibility would like. It means, rather, that local leaders promise to be active in bringing their community together, being a force for good in whatever way they can. We didn’t get through the Blitz by making more and more laws, but by living and working together in strong communities, and that took a different kind of leadership to the typical statutory leadership that councils work by today. It is that kind of special leadership, hard to describe but easy to see, that is needed in the depressed communities of the cities and towns of the north, still in a state of decline, to bring them back up and let them thrive in this twenty-first century.

All of this requires a national commitment to poorer areas. The clear moral imperative to act is something that, thankfully, more and more Conservatives understand. It’s something Iain Duncan Smith understood when he went to Easterhouse. It’s something the Bow Group understood when they wrote ‘Go Zones’, a volume of ‘policies for the places politics forgot’. It’s something that is easy to talk about, but much harder to do, because it remains so tempting to focus all our efforts on those marginal seats which we need politically (admittedly more urgently than we need the inner cities). This is another, little-discussed problem with any A-List of the best and brightest candidates for election to Westminster: it gives the impression that only around a hundred marginal seats count, when we must fight with every fibre of our being in every corner of our whole country. The mind-set that we can’t win in Leeds Central, in Liverpool Riverside, in Newcastle East and Wallsend, or in Manchester Central is depressing and wrong. We can win wherever we put our minds to it, wherever we engage and excite the local people with promises to do great things for them which will make their lives so much greater, and make their societies so much stronger.

These are the lessons I have taken, and offer to you, from one Saturday morning in Beeston.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

How The Little Men In Government Must Grow

As the issue of peerages ‘sold’ to Labour donors in return for pre-election loans has been splashed all over the news for the past two weeks, and now that it is starting to muddy the waters across the whole political spectrum, I am tempted to ponder the histories of our great statesmen of yesteryear, for whom scandal and sleaze came as second nature, but who are still endowed with a golden reputation in the common consciousness of our society.

David Lloyd George was a man who, when he wasn’t cheating on his wife, used his prime ministerial patronage to sell honours, and in far more explicit a fashion than this government is accused of. Winston Churchill was a drinker and almost went bankrupt by being incompetent with his own finances. Lord Salisbury was unapologetic when it came to his blatant nepotism. Gladstone, meanwhile, regularly took prostitutes home to Downing Street.

The fact that statesmen such as these are admired today, whilst their modern-day alternatives are reviled for even the slightest association with that kind of sleaze and scandal, is enough to annoy any politician today. Whilst vice in politics back in the days of the great statesmen is today looked upon with nothing more than a wry smile, today it incurs the wrath of all, with no exceptions.

But most of today’s politicians will just leave it at annoyance. They will still go on making money wherever they can, forgetting their marriage vows with anyone who comes along, and getting involved in all kinds of repulsive behaviour most of us wouldn’t even know how to get into.

That politicians today are held to the highest of standards by the press and the public, no matter how hypocritical some of these standards are, should be enough to compel them to rise up to those standards and be truly good, decent and virtuous people in conducting the nation’s affairs.

The lesson to be taken from the way a Cabinet minister is castigated today for any whiff of corruption, whereas in the past he would have been left to enjoy all the sex, cash and bad behaviour he could ever want, is reason, if reason were needed, for the politicians of today to rise above the way politics in Britain have turned today, and stand up as bastions of integrity and respectability in a society which has lost its way.

That’s why the real reaction to the latest honours scandal should not be to tighten up the System to make wrong-doing impossible, but for our statesmen to tighten up their own hearts and minds so that they themselves would never do wrong. Integrity is something that those in a position of power must come to possess themselves. That is a far more profitable approach to the prevention of scandal than simply putting in place safeguards against those who clearly do not possess the slightest integrity.

So perhaps the best way for politicians today to rise into the realms of statesmanship is perhaps to take on a very difficult, but very worthwhile challenge: to be virtuous, to be upright, to be great men!

That’s how the little men at the top of our nation’s public life today will become great.