Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Tories make some classy moves

OK - I'm worried again. The Tories are making some pretty sharp moves, ones that can play well with both the old school and the new funky Cameroons.

First of all Jonathan Aitken. No, no hear me out. Whilst there has been gloating from some Labour quarters about Aitken's appointment by an "independent" (ie Tory) think tank to chair a commission on crime I think that this is extra-ordinarily miss placed. As Kerron Cross says "Frankly I can't think of many people better to advise on prison reform than an ex-convict who has seen the system from the inside."

In fact it demonstrates a willingness to listen to those on the receiving end of the criminal justice system as well as the "hang 'em and flog them" brigade. I won't hold my breath that this means the Tories will be listening to a range of voices from those who have served and are serving sentences in jail, or even prison officers, but at least it shows that the spirit is willing even if the policy is weak.

Far from making the Tories appear to be the "nasty party" by reminding us of their dodgy past it makes them look more open minded and nuanced on crime than the current party of government. I'd also like to add any moral high ground new Labour would like to seek on the issue of behind the scenes deals involving Saudi Arabian arms deals may remind us of things they'd prefer remained in the past.

Labour has signally failed to listen to those on the sharp end of the prison system, which has culminated in historic illegal walk outs by prison staff earlier this year. Dave Osler is right to point out that "Who knows? A spell in the remand wing of a PFI jail might even give some Labour MPs grounds to reconsider their support for prison privatisation." If this makes the Tories look more progressive on prison reform then Labour only has itself to blame.

This appointment (usefully distanced from the party itself by the way) can play well with the old crowd who like Aitken and think important people like him should never be sent to jail no matter what they do and those who have more progressive instincts about treating prisoners in such a way that they do not come out of prison more dangerous than when they went in.

I'm not saying the Tories are consistently playing a sharp game, you'd have to turn a blind eye to some of the weird shit they come out with like Tory co-ops, Cameron's national service wheeze, and very strange, evidently stupid, ideas about council tax to believe that - but they are scoring hits and that's important too.

Cameron's speech on rape convictions was genuinely interesting. Whilst my first instinct was to accuse the Conservatives of going in with hobnail tough populism (as Lenin has said) unfortunately (well, actually, fortunately) that doesn't fit the facts - only knee jerk anti-Toryism. In fact Cameron said some very progressive things - quite at odds with previous conservative thinking on these issues.

For instance he says "we need our schools to talk about consent to sex when they teach sex education... I believe that sex education, when taught properly, is extremely important. It should not be values-free. That must mean teaching young people about consent: that 'no' means 'no'. At the moment, this is not even compulsory in the sex education curriculum." Personally I think that's a damn good point - no matter who said it. This isn't the old fashioned back to basics Tory attitude to sex.

His speech was not simply "let's raise the penalty for rape" which some have argued but focused on three things. "First, convictions and sentencing. Second, victim support, and third, cultural change in attitudes towards women and sexual violence. Let me take each in turn." He explicitly talks about the funding of rape crisis centers and other resources - which are currently feeling the pinch from the current administration. Which means here in Cambridge the rape crisis center has had to close down. Politicians should be raising this scandal.

Those who focus on Cameron's pledge to look at sentencing policy miss the point - he's said we have to do more than look at sentencing, including addressing society's attitude towards domestic violence among other things. This is a million miles from what the Tory thinking of twenty years ago and beyond. Whether it reflects a more general shift inside the party seems unlikely but it is important and positive that at least one party leader thinks these issues are worth discussing.

Ministry of Truth does a good job of taking the speech apart piece by piece - but I fear it misses the point, too concerned to attack a Tory rather than address the more important political point being made. Channel Four News' fact checker is also worth reading if you're interested in the minutiae of the speech. But the feeling you get reading these is the focus on the party politics of the speech, not the meat of what was actually said.

On this Cameron is not just right he's able to play to both those who lean to the right and the left - and that makes him dangerous. He's saying the right thing and there's little Labour can do to counter act him. There lies the crunch. All of this is just a few progressive sounding speeches, really coming to absolutely nothing because the Tories are committed to cutting welfare spending not strengthening important project like rape crisis centers - but we get so little from the government, the *Labour* government, that these crumbs can seems like a feast indeed.

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