Andrew Mitchell’s foolishness is only a small part of the Government’s bigger image problem

Giles Marshall 11.11am

Andrew Mitchell is an arrogant fool who should have kept his mouth shut, adopted a bit of humility and did what he was told when he left Downing Street on Wednesday night.

He might thus have saved himself and the Government a good deal of trouble, but the fuss over his alleged outburst  is indicative of much deeper and more serious problems.

First, there has been an extraordinary sea change – yet to be fully remarked on I think – between the Tories and the police force. From the time of the Bobbies’ formation by the Tory Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel, there has been an almost symbiotic relationship between the police and the Conservative party. It reached its apogee under Margaret Thatcher, but in the mere two years of the Coalition government it seems to have all but collapsed.

Theresa May was booed at the Police Federation conference, and the Met’s Police Federation Chairman, John Tully, has lately wasted no time in taking every media opportunity possible to condemn Mr Mitchell.

Now Mr Tully is an intensely political individual. The issue at stake is not so much to do with the way in which policing is conducted. It is far more to do with perceived threats to police pay and conditions. Yet whatever the cause, the Conservative party has opened up a front in their war on public servants that even their most pugilistic leader in days past never dared to.

And the police are only the start of the problem. All over the public sector, the Government is now regarded with little other than suspicion and even loathing.  Mr Cameron’s fine words about school sports during the Olympics were – for teachers – hollow sentiments expressed by a man who had presided over the denuding of school sport with such apparent complacency. Meanwhile, Mr Hunt is going to have to bind himself closer to health service professionals than he was even to the Murdochs if he is to have any chance of winning some of them over.

The “public school snob” is the unwelcome description being ascribed to Andrew Mitchell, and there is a real danger for the Government that this becomes more generally applied to them all.

Despite the fact that Michael Gove, for instance, was educated in the state comprehensive sector, or that Mr Cameron himself relied enormously on the NHS during the years of his first son’s health difficulties, the perception persists that this is a team of ministers that sees public services as being only for the poor and non-coping.

It is a disastrous perception. It widens the gap between the governors and the governed to an unacceptable level. Mr Mitchell’s outburst, meanwhile, suggests a sense of entitlement and superiority hardly merited by actions.

Mr Mitchell has made a further statement this morning, which has hardly closed the lid on the matter. Yet I believe that this furore will subside soon enough, with or without his resignation.

What is less likely to go away is the lack of empathy between Mr Cameron’s Government and the people. The recent reshuffle was more ‘lurching to the right’ than appealing to a centrist majority. If he wants to have any chance of recovering the political narrative and being re-elected in 2015, he should return to the modernising roots that served him so well in opposition, and hang the rightists.  Battles with his own right-wingers are infinitely preferable to battles with the wider British public.

Giles is a teacher and a former chairman of the TRG. Follow him on Twitter @gilesmarshall

Conservatives must convince people it is the disadvantaged in society they care about most

Dan Watkins 11.58am

With our history as a trading nation, Britain has long favoured open markets and economic liberalism. Even in the presently difficult economic times, a majority of voters still believe that capitalism is the best way forward.

But despite the Conservative party being the country’s foremost supporters of capitalism, over the past two decades it has consistently polled in the region of 30 to 40 per cent. So the party’s Achilles heel is not its economics, but its social policy - or at least the public’s perception of it.

Rightly or wrongly, the Conservative party is perceived as the ‘party of the rich’. Lower income groups are discouraged from becoming supporters, fearing the party is not interested in them. Furthermore, many better-off voters seek to allay their social consciences by shunning the Tories. The two diverse groups represent millions of voters but can both be addressed by focusing on the disadvantaged - and if done successfully could push the party above the critical 40 per cent level of support.

In fact, it is only the Conservative party that can truly transform opportunities for the disadvantaged - the people who most rely on the public services that are in urgent need of reform. The Labour party’s strong ties to the unions and the large swathes of leftist supporters within the Liberal Democrat party, prevent either from taking the radical steps needed to improve social mobility.

The Tories are unencumbered by those vested interests and care just as much about helping all members of society as any other politician. But crucially, it is the belief in policies that fit the grain of human nature that give the Tories a genuine chance of success. The use of the ‘carrot and stick’, or positive and negative incentive, is what needs shouting about.

For instance, with welfare we have long offered benefits to people when they fall on hard times. For some recipients the ‘carrot’ works and they soon return to work. But for many others, the money is taken with no serious intent of finding further employment. They will only respond to the ‘stick’ - such as the threat of enforced community work or reduced benefits.

Consider another area - education - where again we are putting sensible incentives into play. We provide positive incentives to children from poorer families by improving their quality of education received via free schools, academies and the pupil premium. Yet those pupils who do not respond, and who cause disruption, will now face newly-liberated heads who possess a greater range of sanctions for pupils and parents. Teachers will also face positive incentives in the form of differential pay, syllabus freedoms and greater powers in the running of schools - but also the threat of dismissal if they consistently fail to perform.

This can be applied to all public sector workers. The Conservatives sorely need to improve their support among this group at a time when necessary public spending cuts threaten to offer them only the ‘stick’, not the ‘carrot’ (such as decentralisation or mutualisation). Examples such as the Civil Service Pension mutualisation should act as blueprints for other state institutions.

Of course, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Gove have already begun implementing such policies in welfare and education. But we need to spell out to people time and time again how these measures shall directly help families on lower incomes. Likewise for reforms to the NHS, local government and social services. The Government’s programme is not all about deficit reduction in the slightest.

The next three years offer many opportunities to focus relentlessly on the disadvantaged in British society and demonstrate to voters that it is these people the Conservative party cares the most about.

TRG policy supper with Chris White MP

Chris White MP 7.16am

This evening I will be speaking at a Tory Reform Group policy supper in Westminster.

After seeing my Private Member’s Bill – the Public Services (Social Value) Act – pass into law earlier this year, I have been keen to make clear that this has to be part of a wider effort to promote civil society organisations and social enterprise.

If the Act is to be successfully implemented, then organisations on the ground need to feel empowered, to ensure it is used by local authorities and other public bodies.

In order to build a coalition behind the Act and behind using social value in general, we need to ensure that there is support in place and I believe that the Government has the opportunity to put that wider support within this Parliament.

I hope to discuss with TRG members about this, the role the Conservative party can play in articulating that vision and what role social enterprise and civil society has within that.

You can book tickets here http://www.trg.org.uk/events.html

Chris White was elected as the Member of Parliament for Warwick and Leamington at the 2010 General Election.

The Big Society has life in it still, but more must be done to avoid a repeat of Shaun Bailey’s My Generation

Samuel Kasumu 6.00am

The 'big society' was supposed to be the key Conservative policy that would tie the rest together. An underpinning philosophy that could rebuild communities, reshape public services and above all demonstrate that Conservatives could do compassion.

But this ‘big idea’ failed to capture the imagination of the public from the start. And the recent news that one of the first Big Society Ambassadors has has to close his charity can only pile further pain on the tarnished ‘big society’ brand.

Shaun Bailey is the talented community leader and former Conservative candidate. He represents a section of British society - black, urban, working class - that the Conservative party has struggled to engage with in the past. Having failed to win the Hammersmith constituency in 2010, Mr Bailey was signed up as one of the Prime Minister’s special advisers. Yet the excellent charity he founded, My Generation, has now closed.

My Generation’s mission was all about what the ‘big society’ stands for, and its closure is a sad loss for the communities of Hammersmith - but it may actually be the most important thing Mr Bailey does as a Big Society Ambassador. In having to close his own charity, he has demonstrated to the Government and to leaders of similar organisations that he understands and shares the same challenges faced by most voluntary groups today.

There is no doubt that funding has always been community groups’ biggest challenge. And today we are in the midst of an economic downturn, with funding ever harder to come by: there is less of it, and it is harder to access.

During the Labour party’s time in office we saw large amounts of money distributed through local and national government schemes. Grants were more readily available.

But in recent times, funding for services for the likes of children and young people has dried up because local authorities have no statutory obligation to deliver those services. Other lifelines such as the Future Jobs Fund have gone, meaning that many voluntary sector organisations no longer benefit from extra staff funded by the government.

So the voluntary sector faces many challenges and the long-term survival of many of these organisations cannot be guaranteed. Some might see this situation as tragic but I see it as more of an opportunity to create newer, better solutions. Like a game of chess, with an opponent thinking the game to be over, the ‘big society’ may yet have one more move to play.

The Government must look at new ways of reshaping the voluntary sector. I suggest setting up Big Society Academies to train community leaders and give them the skills to identify funding sources that still exist, as well as other key skills (former Labour and Lib Dem MP Paul Marsden wrote of similar things on these pages last summer).

This training could be delivered by companies on a pro bono basis (or even a form of payment by results). The passion of community leaders must be harnessed and supported by training from experts in various fields.

Some major corporations are already donating their time for free to train larger groups of voluntary sector staff and volunteers - but on a smaller scale. This must increase. There’s no doubting the CSR benefits in doing so.

There is a variety of different activities still funded by national and local government but to be able to receive any money many organisations have to be a bit more entrepreneurial. Something like the National Citizen Service offers funding of more than £1,000 for every young person that is attracted to it. This is a lot of money but currently only very big organisations such as the Prince’s Trust and vInspired seem to be winning the contracts.

So how can smaller voluntary groups participate in the delivery of such schemes? Some do, but not nearly enough to fulfil the aspirations of the ‘big society’.

Smaller voluntary groups will need to team up with bigger organisations if they are struggling to survive on their own. Some will seriously need to consider merging. The Government must play its part in revolutionising the voluntary sector, but without taking it over. Make funding available for community groups with fewer strings attached and less bureaucracy in the application stage.

The Prime Minister must also find a way to get those involved in the voluntary sector into paid employment. It should be said that Mr Bailey’s role as a Big Society Ambassador has been unpaid, and he therefore represented those many community leaders who do the work most people claim to be too busy to do, and sacrificing his own time without being fairly recompensed.

There must also be targeted funding available for communities to create solutions where there are gaps in public services.

The ‘big society’ still has the potential to empower us all to engage more with others in our own communities. But this will only happen when the Government supports the people that were involved in the ‘big society’ before it became the Conservative party’s ‘big idea’. More support is needed, more engagement is essential, and a more collective strategy is crucial if we are to avoid a repeat of Shaun Bailey’s My Generation.

Follow Samuel on Twitter @samuelkasumu

Why the Conservatives could lose in 2015 unless we value the public sector

Paul Abbott 6.03am

A defining moment of the 2010 general election was when George Osborne, at a private meeting of candidates and volunteers, said: "We didn’t lose in 1997, 2001 and 2005 because a few thousand people went to fringe parties. No. We lost because millions of people went to Labour."

This is the most basic and fundamental political insight for the Conservative party. It should be writ large on the wall of every Minister, Member, think-tanker and researcher. It should scroll across our PC screensavers, and be inscribed on our mobile phones.

Why? Because as soon as we forget it, we will all be back in Opposition again for another thirteen years.

There is a strain of language out there today that confuses a desire to cut the deficit with a dislike of the pubic sector. Thus we hear constant attacks on Civil Service salaries, or libertarian fantasies about a no-holds-barred economy. We hear endless calls for tax cuts for millionaires, but not enough about tax cuts for the millions of people on ordinary wages.

This has to stop. Many low-paid workers voted Conservative in 2010. 
In fact, in June 2009, of the public sector workers questioned who were “certain to vote”, Ipsos MORI reported that 32 per cent would vote Conservative, 29 per cent for Labour and 19 per cent for the Lib Dems.

Everyone wants the public sector to be good value for money. Of course this means thinning out the quangos and endless back office administration. But surely we are happy to pay for positive outcomes? What is wrong with higher salaries for nurses, teachers, university lecturers, immigration personnel and police officers, if they are doing a good job? If we do not pay good wages, how else can we persuade bright young graduates to become public servants, rather than City solicitors?

There will inevitably be some hardliners who say that this argument is soft, liberal sogginess. To them, I say this: remember 1997. And 2001. And 2005.

There is nothing socialist about standing up for the admirable parts of the public sector. One of Tony Blair’s great domestic triumphs was to rebuild the public realm, which had been neglected in the 1990s. This was a large part of his electoral appeal.

The first political office that Margaret Thatcher held was in the Conservative Trade Unionists. One of her first acts as Prime Minister was to increase the wages of rank-and-file police officers.

Too many dodgy PFI deals were struck and billions of pounds were wasted, but there was a genuine public appetite for things like better motorways and more police officers. Such public policies should not solely be championed by the Left.

This is so often merely a matter of emphasis. Many Conservative Ministers are already quietly finding ways to reward deserving public sector workers. Academies and Free Schools can pay good teachers more than the national union rate. Nurses can set up co-operatives and have a stake in the success of their clinic. George Osborne has protected the pensions of the lowest paid civil servants, and boosted their income by £250, despite a general pay-freeze. There are lots of other examples. But we need to make more of them. Champion them.

I accept that Britain is still too dominated by the public sector, and that we need to rebalance our economy. I accept that Labour wasted our money, and hopelessly ran up debts. I accept that Ed Balls in particular seems to have an almost criminal disregard for our financial stability.

But we are in Government now. It is our public sector. We should look after it.

Follow Paul on Twitter @Paul_t_abbott

Sir John Major is the real inspiration behind Open Public Services White Paper

David Cowan 6.03am

The Open Public Services White Paper promises a new approach to public service reform that builds on the work begun by Tony Blair. Onlookers have painted many of the coalition’s reforms as quintessentially Blairite - particularly the extension to the Academies programme. However, when you read the new White Paper, you can see that the true inspiration behind the allegedly Blairite coalition reforms is actually Sir John Major.

The former Prime Minister’s now long forgotten Citizen’s Charter set out the principle of ‘government by contract’. It was an opportunity to give Thatcherism a ‘human face’, as Ken Clarke memorably put it, but also to tie in free market reforms with his brand of One Nation Conservatism.

Major envisaged public services that are accountable, transparent and efficient. Taxpayers should have more choice, a greater stake in their local services, and greater power over the services available to them. The key to achieving these aims was to break the state’s monopoly over provision.

It is a programme for a decade. The charter programme will find better ways of converting money into better services. I want the people of the country to have services in which they can be confident, and in which public servants can take pride.

This Major quotation from 1991 could have been lifted from a recent Cameron speech. Policies in the Citizen’s Charter - such as more competition between service providers, payments by results and the publication of date - also predate the coalition or Tony Blair.

Meanwhile, Major’s government continued the implementation of the Baker Act 1988 and NHS & Community Care Act 1990, which introduced Grant Maintained schools (the original academy programme) and GP commissioning. To build on this, the provision of services was put out to competitive tender. However, despite the higher standards and reduced costs that this engendered, many of Major’s public services reforms were reversed by the first Blair administration. The irony being that Blair tried (and failed) to reintroduce these reforms when it was too late and he had squandered a clear electoral mandate early on; not to mention the longest sustained period of growth the UK has seen in recent decades.

It is now the coalition’s mission to complete the revival of Sir John Major’s public services reform legacy. The coalition is even extending those ambitions by introducing personal budgets, pupil and health premiums, and the employee ownership of public services.

There remains a consensus around the funding of most public services (excluding universities), in that this funding should come out of general taxation. However, Major helped to break the assumption that the state should always provide those services. He believed in the principle of ‘government by contract’, which dictates that the provision of public services should be outsourced to non-state providers that can deliver those services cheaper and at a higher quality than the state.

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Conservatives Spring Forum needs to sell a positive vision for the future

Nik Darlington 4.59pm

Some years ago, I went on a cricket tour to Grenada. There are few prettier spots in the Caribbean - it is lush and green, there is a faint whiff of nutmeg on the breeze, and the Grenadans are some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. Their cricketers are useful too, as we discovered the hard way. One side bundled us out for 58. In 36 overs. I remember holding up an end as wickets tumbled. My stoic resistance was brought to an end by a leg-break that turned and bounced, took the glove, and was snaffled by silly point. Even so, a thirty-nine ball duck is at least rarer than a ton (incidentally, that must be some sort of record?).

I suppose it could have been worse. The West Indies bowled out Bangladesh this morning for the same score, 58, prompting Bangladeshi fans to throw stones at the West Indies bus, wrongly thinking it was their own players.

Another thing Grenada produces very well is rum. One evening we celebrated a rare win (it might have been against the local girls convent, I can’t recall) by drinking kegs of the stuff and entertaining ourselves with a spontaneous, completely unexpected session of karaoke (I might have sung Journey, I can’t recall). What a night - although the next morning’s tour of a rum distillery (you couldn’t make this up) could have been timed better. A couple of evenings later we tried to do it all again and it was, well, just a bit flat. Same bar, same people, same karaoke kit, even some of the same songs. Same rum. It had everything the main event had but it wasn’t nearly as exciting.

It’s quite like how I feel about party spring conferences. Really. Like spending your summer in St David’s instead of St Tropez. You might have fun in St David’s (cracking cathedral), of course, but, you know.

This weekend I’m at the Conservatives’ Spring Forum, held at Cardiff’s cricket ground (scene of Jimmy Anderson and Monty Panesar’s glorious last stand). An odd venue but perhaps there is a twist in this tale - game of politicians versus press, or the PM’s speech out in the middle of the square?

It’s a very different atmosphere to last October in Birmingham, when Tories were celebrating being back in Government after thirteen years on the wrong benches. Barnsley’s by-election casts a cloud. It was always going to be bad, but that awful? Beaten by UKIP?

Tory members are restless, dispirited and in need of a Prime Ministerial pep talk. There are local elections and an AV referendum to be fought.

Spring conferences may not set the pulse racing but they can set - or reclaim - the political agenda. So in many ways it is perfect timing. Public service reform in healthcare, education, police, local government and elsewhere needs to be sold and defended. It is worth thinking back to a spring conference speech in 2002 by Michael Howard, then Shadow Chancellor:

“We shall do all we can to provide this country with the world class healthcare, world class transport, world class education, and world class standards of law and order. Nothing else will do.

First, we must be prepared to reform. We shall deliver public services both through more local management, through more choice, through greater diversity of provision.

Secondly, even more important: for Conservatives, reforming and improving our public services must be our priority. Now, I know that many people in this country have struggle to pay the extra taxes which Labour have imposed since 1997. And I have always believed that low tax economies are more successful economies. But there are times when priorities must lie elsewhere.

Our public services have now reached the point of crisis. At a time when the Government has failed patients, passengers and parents alike, reforming and improving these services must be our overriding priority.

Of course, we are not pretending that it is going to be easy. We must examine our priorities. We must change the way we go about things. We must challenge our thinking. But if we have the courage to propose real, practical ways to make our public services better, the prizes will be great.

We must show how we will make people’s lives better. On that we should be judged. And on that we must and we shall deliver.”

The ‘big society’ ideal of more localised services, greater choice, and making people’s lives better, predates David Cameron’s modernisation of the party. Tories have always believed in these ideals, however you package them.

And above all, sell the message of how people’s lives can be bettered through these reforms to public services. The cuts narrative portrays too much of the Government’s agenda in a negative light, when there is so much that is positive.

Use this spring forum as an opportunity for the Conservatives to move on from the gloomy deficit reduction, “Labour’s debt” storyline and strive to spell out for people a better, more optimistic destination than merely balancing the books.

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