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Friday, 27th April 2018

Character Matters

Character Matters

The painful suffering of Amber Rudd reminds me that we must, at whatever level we are in politics, retain a moral lodestone, which we fail to follow at our peril.

Poor Ms Rudd is suffering from her predecessor’s performance at the Home Office. Theresa May allowed the dog whistles of the far right to influence her direction, and the direction of her policy, when she was considering immigration. Neither, I am sure, is a racist, but racist policies were allowed to take hold in respect of immigration, as a result of pressure from UKIP and some corners of the press. The rhetoric of race slipped into the common parlance too often, usually under cover of something else, like pressure on housing and public services, and resulted not only in the notorious van advertisements, urging illegal immigrants to go home, but also in a blurred line between those who could be considered legal and those who weren’t. Blind eyes were turned in private to illegal nannies of the well-to-do, including some politicians, while in public the clarion calls about not hearing English spoken on a train, led by Farage and his supporters in the press, made no coherent sense as they were really a suspicion, if not a hatred, of foreigners. As the Tory Party sought to colonise the policy ground of UKIP, so as to neutralise its threat, it took a toned down but still recognisable line which civil servants at the Home Office adopted, being given personal targets for “sending them home” by their managers, in the hope that Ministers would be pleased with them.

So, the moral morass in which the Home Office was functioning has started to smell, and poor Ms Rudd finds it under her nose.

Some of this scandal is a result of Ministers not paying enough attention to the detail of a complex office, but mostly it is as a result of morally ambiguous leadership, in which a tone is set which is not clear enough, not sharp enough, such that it allows morally dubious, and ultimately embarrassing, policy to take hold.

In 2013 I had an argument with Nick Clegg. I have never liked him, and like many regard his error of judgement over tuition fees and the Coalition Agreement as fatal flaws. On this occasion we were at a conference in London for Council Group Leaders to consider a number of policy issues, including housing, and I was there with other councillors to contribute to the debates.

Mr Clegg was bluff as ever, and a small number of us met him as he came in- he had, I think, paused outside for a fag. The issue of the day for me was the Bedroom Tax- the measure the coalition government had introduced to remove housing benefit from those who were thought to have too many rooms. It caused massive distress to the disabled, the recently bereaved and families, and I wanted to know why Clegg had led his MPs through the “No” lobby when the Labour opposition had brought a motion the previous evening condemning the tax and its impact on the vulnerable.

He betrayed no sign of moral conflict and declared, as if it was obvious, that as his party were in a coalition with the Tories he could not support a Labour motion- whether it was right or not.

I was ballistic. I had nearly left the party over the coalition and was considering my position again, staring at an opportunist leader whose conscience had been disengaged for short term political convenience.

I mention this because last week, at TDC’s Council meeting, I asked for the referral back of the Caterham Masterplan as I had received so many concerned comments from residents and I believed the consultants drawing up the Plan had simply got it wrong- on parking, on the balance of business/retail and residential, and I thought it needed another look. It had been approved at Planning Policy Committee, against my and Cllr Jones’s advice, and this was, under our procedures, the only chance to get it looked at again.

My request was declined. The Conservatives were whipped, and so we lost it on the numbers- 30-12, as we were supported by the Independents.

One, very decent, Conservative came up to me afterwards and apologised.

I have never done that. I have never, in 22 years in elected public life, voted against my conscience. My group has a conscience clause, namely that if a proposal the group supports contradicts a firmly held belief of a member of the group, they can vote as they see fit. I hate that side of politics- I hate the sense that party politics is more important either than rational debate or conscience. When that happens- and it still happens from time to time at TDC, though much less often of late, I feel as if I am swimming through sewage and I want to stand under a shower and cleanse myself of the foul process.

This dilemma must have faced many MPs in the House of Commons when they were tacit on the various immigration Bills and measures, and so now we can hear nothing but the sound of chickens coming home to roost.

While there are hardened politicos who would argue that my position is too idealistic, I have to reply that at the heart of the decisions I make are my conscience and the residents I represent.

In 1996, when I first stood for TDC, I was asked by two ladies to visit them so that they could determine whether they could support me. The party label was irrelevant- it was my character and beliefs they were interested in.

I visited with some trepidation. They asked me about my background, education, beliefs and outlook. After half an hour I was allowed to leave the interview, and I have to say I was exhausted. They said they would vote for me.

This is not a usual sort of event. But I have always remembered it, as if I were asking myself if they would approve of what I have said or done.

That’s what I mean by a moral lodestone. I have long since lost touch with them, but in my head, there was a moral contract, such that if I acted outside the range of the moral compass, my ship would founder.

Racism is something we cannot be tacit about. Scratch the surface of Britain and there it is. Antisemitism is a reality in our country and brings shame upon us. When I was a child racism was everywhere, in casual language among friends and family, and in the windows of Bed and Breakfasts.

Now it is illegal, so it lurks in shadows. My visits to Auschwitz and Yad Veshem brought home the ultimate impact of racism left unchallenged. But the Labour Party is struggling to deal with it, and I simply can’t see why it’s difficult. Moral leadership is the duty of political office, and of being a human being.

The Caterham Children’s’ Centre

I have to praise the efforts of the staff, and of their colleagues across Tandridge.

Our local staff performed miracles in transforming the Pavilion on the Village Green into a fully functioning centre to welcome families and to make them welcome. I know there were tears and how hard it was for them to deal with this change at such a stressful time, but they managed the transfer and they managed to present the County Council a proposal which secures, hopefully, the quality and depth of what the centres offer across Tandridge. By looking at their costs they have submitted a proposal which manages within the reduced budget and secures their service. I cannot praise Linda Smith and her team enough.

There may be cuts across Surrey however as historically a number of areas received a higher level of historic funding. Accordingly, the cuts for them will be even deeper and therefore harder to manage.

Which reminds us that cuts in the public sector frequently fall upon those with least, and with least capacity to find alternatives.
That’s where we need our lodestone.

And we will need it too on Thursday 3rd May in the local elections. Look to the character of those you support, to their moral compass. Say no to opportunism, look for the capacity for moral leadership. Only thus will the fleet steer safely home.