Blears joins the Tories

Surprise in Birmingham as government minister Hazel Blears turns up at the Tory conference only to s

I turned a few heads this week by appearing at a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham. Several Tory ‘representatives’ did double takes. Some were mildly rude; some were perfectly friendly. There were also plenty of Labour people who stopped to say hello, including, improbably, Sunder Katwala from the Fabian Society who looked like a fish out of water.

I had two distinct impressions of seeing the Tories up close. The first was that they were bursting with excitement at the prospect of getting back into Government. They’ve been told to hold the champagne, and tone down the triumphalism. But they can’t quite help themselves. Hubris hung in the air like incense. And as a Labour candidate in 1992 who lost by 500 votes, I know all about hubris. They seem convinced that they are on the way to Downing Street, but I am not so sure their confidence is shared by the electorate, especially in the current economic turbulence.

The second impression was that the Conservatives remain unreconstructed. Once you get past Cameron, Osborne, Gove, Lansley and few others, you can see the Hiltonisation of the party is skin-deep. The same nasty party lurks underneath, with its 80s attitudes, instincts and fashion sense. This is the Tories’ fatal misreading of New Labour. It was never a make-over job. It was a pretty tough and fundamental repositioning of policy, based on a rediscovery of our core values, and a reconnection to the ambitions of the majority of voters. If it was just about slick campaigning, Labour would have won in 1987, never mind 1992. Yet the Tories think it’s about backdrops, logos and taking your tie off. They think they can win with superficial spin, rather than substantive change.

In the fringe meeting, on ‘mending broken Britain’ the biggest support was for tearing up the Human Rights Act and for harsher prison regimes. If a vote was taken, I would have guessed that a sizeable chunk would have been in favour of hanging, or at the very least flogging. The guts of my remarks to the meeting was that we need fast, effective justice, with penalties that serve as both punishment and deterrent. We need better support for victims and witnesses. But we also need to tackle the social conditions and factors which create anti-social behaviour and crime. You can’t absolve people from the responsibility for their actions; everyone has a choice. But you can’t pretend that people’s circumstances don’t play a role.

The Tory grassroots instinctively want tougher penalties (although their MPs don’t vote for tough measures in the Commons). But they have nothing to say about early intervention into problem families, tackling gang culture, building more youth centres, doing more to support boxing, cadets and other distractions for urban young people, or creating more opportunities for volunteering. Indeed, if Osborne ever gets the chance for a first budget, the Tory cuts would fall hardest on the very programmes and schemes which help young people realise a better future for themselves. You don’t need a masters in sociology to understand that Tory cuts would lead to social chaos, just like last time.

Hazel Blears is MP for Salford, and Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. She has served as Chair of the Labour Party, as Home Office Minister, and as Public Health Minister.
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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.