David Cameron with potential Tory candidates, Kelly Tolhurst (left) and Anna Firth (right). Photo: Getty
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Rochester and Strood: what is the Tories’ postal primary, and who’s running?

By-election hopefuls.

The Tories are preparing to fight the Rochester and Strood by-election with all their might on 20 November. They are up against Mark Reckless, one of their backbenchers who recently defected to Ukip. They’ve already lost Clacton to former Conservative Douglas Carswell, giving Ukip its first elected MP, and want to hold Rochester and Strood to quell the encroachment of Nigel Farage and his merry men on parliament.

It’s clear the Tories are in overdrive, amid reports that Reckless fears being “smeared” by CCHQ, and considering the distaste felt for their ex-MP (one cabinet minister told me at party conference that, “he’s a complete dick”).

One of their strategies is a postal primary, allowing constituents – whether party members or not – to select their candidate for the seat. This is a sign of a party desperate for new ideas, and democratic cut-through, as one party insider informs me it’s an “incredibly expensive” process. It requires the initial letter to be sent, then a freepost reply to state whether or not a ballot is desired, and then a ballot paper being sent.

Constituents are able to meet the candidates and ask them questions in meetings held around the area. There was controversy yesterday, as reporters from national papers complained that they were excluded from one of these meetings, advertised as “public”:

The two candidates contesting this postal primary, one of whom will be selected on 23 October, are Kelly Tolhurst and Anna Firth.

Who are they?

 

Kelly Tolhurst

The Tories are keen to point out that Kelly Tolhurst has “lived and worked here all her life”, in their postal primary letter to constituents. She is the daughter of a boat builder, runs her own small business in marine surveying, and has been a councillor on Medway Council for over three years. She represents Rochester West ward, and is the cabinet member for school improvement.

On her website, she cites her top priority for the area: “Pressing the government and the council to get immigration properly under control – to ease pressure on services and make sure social housing is made available to local people first.”

 

Anna Firth

The Telegraph has repeatedly defined Anna Firth first and foremost as a “stay-at-home mother”. On her Twitter bio, her own description reads: “Councillor, Barrister, Mother of Three”. She left her job as a medical negligence barrister to bring up her children, and now serves as a councillor on Sevenoaks District Council – also in Kent, but perhaps not quite as local as her rival. She grew up in nearby Essex to an engineer and a schoolteacher.

Unlike Tolhurst, she doesn’t mention immigration as one of her priorities on her website, but has made headlines by voicing her support for a points-based system barring unskilled workers like “a fruit-picker in Romania”. She said in a recent meeting:

I think we need the same immigration system that we have, the five points system, which currently applies to people coming to this country from outside the EU. We need the same system to apply to those who come to this country from inside the EU.

Once we have that system in place then I think we will have a sensible immigration policy. One that says if you come to this country with skills we really need – say you’re a brain surgeon or something in Australia as opposed to someone who has no skills, a fruit picker in Romania – then we say yes.

If you come into this country with a job, we say yes. If you come into this country because you’ve got the money to support you and contribute to this country, we say yes. But otherwise need to say we can’t support you. That would be my policy.

This supports Ukip’s proposed Australian-style system for immigration. It diverges embarrassingly from David Cameron’s stance. Though the Prime Minister has suggested he’s working on a “game-changing” policy regarding EU migrants, he does not currently hold Firth’s view to call for an end to “uncontrolled” migration from the EU. She said, “we have had uncontrolled immigration. We are a small island. We must have controlled immigration.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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