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Conservative surprises

The primary purpose of party conferences, even more important than catching newspaper headlines, is to motivate rank and file members to continue working for the party in their constituencies. That usually means celebrating any successes and restating party values and propaganda. For non-members and neutrals, conferences can be less than scintillating, and it is the exceptions that stick in the memory

There were three exceptions at this year’s Conservative conference. The first concerned a significant transfer of powers from Whitehall to Town Halls. George Osborne announced in his speech that he will abolish the Uniform Business Tax local authorities collect and pay to the Treasury. Instead Councils will levy their own business tax and keep the yield instead of receiving an annual grant from central government. Greg Clark, the Communities and Local Government Secretary, followed up this announcement in his speech and was joined on stage by Councillors from a number of authorities who are planning to have directly elected Mayors and engage positively with these powers. Their income will all be raised locally from this business tax and the Council tax. If this arouses more interest in local government and triggers a revival of more participatory democracy that would be welcome.

We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally

The second surprise came from Justice Secretary Michael Gove. He only made a short speech but it was preceded by contributions from outsiders. The first was an ex-convict who described how he quit crime, studied for a degree in prison and got a job working with a charity to keep youngsters out of crime. He was followed by the CEO of Timpsons, the shoe repairers, 10% of whose employees are ex-convicts. Timpsons run a training course in Liverpool prison preparing suitable candidates for jobs in their shops. Some are now managers. Their example has now been copied by two other shop chains. Gove concluded crime must be punished, but re-offending rates are too high and these initiatives are good for the individuals involved and for the taxpayer as it costs more than £60,000 a year to keep someone in prison.

David Cameron delivered the third surprise. Much of his speech was predictable – national security and defence, Europe, the economy and home ownership – subjects his party faithful expected to hear about. Towards the end of the speech he turned to the social reforms he wanted to achieve before he quits in 2020. He talked about one young black girl who had to change her name to Elizabeth before she got any calls for job interviews. ‘That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally’. He went on to reject ‘passive toleration’ and plans to prosecute people who organise forced marriages, arrest parents who take their children for FMG, and shut down institutions that teach children intolerance.

Cynics will dismiss these measures as a calculated move to occupy the political centre ground, but Christians might welcome them as expressions of humane values that reflect the belief that we are all equally made in the image of God and policies that help people to reflect that are worthwhile. As Michael Gove said, ‘every life is precious and we should never define individuals by their worst moments’.

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