David Cameron is trying to pitch the Conservative Party as more socially aware and caring. But, as Maria Ahmed reports, two faces of the Tories were on show at their annual jamboree
There is such a thing as society, Tory leader David Cameron assured the nation last week at the party’s annual conference.
Whether this is really a departure from the Thatcherite world of self reliance remains to be seen but this year’s speeches broke new ground covering social responsibility, social enterprise, social services, carers and even social workers.
So far, there are only words to pick over; evidence of what the UK might look like if it was run by Cameron is thin on the ground.
But behind the rhetoric, the messages emerging from the Tory conference were decidedly mixed.
On social justice
Social justice was a strong theme running through the conference.
“Compassion isn’t soft and easy and left wing. Compassion is in your DNA,” Iain Duncan Smith, chairman of the Conservative social justice policy group (and once the quiet man of politics) told the delegates with a rallying cry. He called on members to “make social justice fit every sentence” when they spoke about their party.
Speaking of social justice, Philip Hammond, shadow for work and pensions, warned Labour: “The Tories have got their tanks on your lawn.”
The verdict: Social care campaigner Bob Holman, who contributed to a fringe meeting at the conference, describes the social justice agenda as skin deep among some party members.
He says: “It is supported by a minority of the party, those around Iain Duncan Smith and his Centre for Social Justice.
Duncan Smith is heading a review of social justice and Cameron is on board for that but Duncan Smith has been saying some quite radical things on relative poverty and Cameron has said some radical things on the minimum wage and that is going to get some opposition in the party.”
On social care
Cameron gave social services a plug in his keynote speech, asking why it was a “Cinderella service”. But he put the onus on big brother health, with the words: “Tony Blair explained his priorities in three words: education,education, education. I can do it in three letters: NHS.”
There was more detail in Cameron’s ideas for tackling climate change (“low-energy light-bulbs, hybrid cars – even a windmill on your roof ”) than on how to improve care for vulnerable people.
Meanwhile, his party couldn’t decide whether social workers were friends or foes.
Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley presented social workers in a less-than-flattering light. “Mr Blair appears to believe that snatch squads of social workers, taking children into care, is preferable to putting every effort into supporting children to stay with their family,” he said.
By contrast, Tim Loughton, shadow for children, told a fringe meeting that he was a “big fan” of social workers and promised them equal status with teachers and doctors under plans being prepared by his party.
At another fringe meeting, Stephen O’Brien, shadow minister for health, listened sympathetically to Sir Derek Wanless’ concerns on the future cost of older people’s care but failed to produce any solutions.
The verdict: Ray Jones, chair of the British Association of Social Workers, says: “The Conservatives want to present themselves as more caring, more concerned and more inclusive, and are recognising that social work and social care have a major role to play. But the headlines only have meaning if they are supported by relevant policies and resources. What I am not hearing from anybody – Labour or Conservative – is that there will be a massive injection of cash to support the ambitions.”
This was the issue that barely dared to speak its name after former Tory leader Michael Howard’s election campaign pledge last year to restrict the number of asylum seekers and migrants coming to Britain attracted widespread criticism.
Accusations of racism damaged the Tories as they tried to shake off their image as the “nasty party”.
While immigration was loudly at the heart of Howard’s campaign only a year ago, Cameron himself gave it barely a whisper.
Damien Green, the shadow immigration minister, hosted the only – and very uncontroversial – fringe meeting on the subject.
However, in his main speech, Philip Hammond, shadow minister for work and pensions, said: “We welcome the contribution generations of immigrants have made to our country and economy. But isn’t a continued dependence on uncontrolled migration a betrayal of the five million workless adults in Britain today?”
David Davis, shadow home secretary, also hit out at Labour’s “failure” at letting in “hundreds of thousands of illegal
migrants” and pledged to bring immigration “back under control”.
The conference was also treated to a supportive video message from Nicolas Sarkozy, the French interior minister, much loathed by the left for his hard-line views on immigration.
The verdict: A spokesperson from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants says: “The strongest thing that comes through in the Conservative critique of immigration policy is that they say immigration is a drain on public resources.
Irregular (illegal) migration as a major cause of problems [related to a shortage of public services] is not giving the public the whole picture. Irregular migration may be one of the drivers but in relation to other drivers it’s not very big.”
Cameron reiterated Tony Blair’s old slogan of being “tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime”. So how tough would the Tories be?
Prison can work, shadow home secretary David Davis told the conference, following Cameron’s pledge to build more prisons and reform existing ones.
Davis also hinted he would be tougher than his leader, who has called for society to show “hoodies” more love: “The
papers claim David Cameron wants us to hug a hoodie. The only difference between David and me is that I might just hug a
little harder and longer.” But Edward Garnier, shadow home affairs minister, suggested that the Tories were ditching hard-line attitudes.
He told a fringe meeting that Labour’s get tough approach was not working with young people.
“Increasing sentences for these young people is non-effective in reducing crime,” he said. “Yes, it makes the public feel protected, but it is a waste of taxpayers’ money.” Elsewhere, some party members had other ideas entirely, texting “bring back the birch” to the conference big screen.
The verdict: Paul Cavadino, head of crime reduction charity Nacro, is unconvinced: “They are saying some positive things about social crime prevention and rehabilitation of offenders but they are also looking at the scrapping of early release schemes. There’s an internal contradiction in the policy [as prison overcrowding does not aid rehabilitation].
“I would support the positive comments but I don’t believe they can be achieved with the emphasis on building prisons and early releases being cancelled.”
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