Time To Re-Start A Conversation: Combatting (Political) Violence, Policy and the ‘problem’ of Islam.

Over the last few weeks I have been at Georgetown University, Portsmouth Anglican Cathedral, a few local authorities, a Mosque, with parliamentarians and several Catholic gatherings to speak on, and discuss, the emerging policy response to British Muslims. With sadness I have come to the conclusion – post ISIS, post Charlie Hebdo – that we are rapidly reaching the point where reasoned policy conversation is almost impossible in some of these settings. And that there is possibly an  acute problem emerging in some British Catholic and Evangelical circles.

Policy-making usually goes tragically wrong when it ascribes profound ontological categories to its design, resource allocation and implementation. Policy, of course, is not the same as ‘politics’ or ‘law’ which is not a distinction that much faith based social comment and activism often recognises. Once the law is written, much faith based comment will suggest, the job is done. Which is why their analysis will often not notice variations of design and implementation or resource allocation by department, locality, race, ethnicity, region or nation: It is almost as if the theological victory for the religious group is secured in the normative legal ‘word’ or an equally normative reach for the words ‘spend’ (good) or ‘cut’ (bad).  But policy and its unintended and intended  consequences are more complex than that.

Consequently, it has been notable that over the last decade there has been no public Catholic nor, that I can find, formal Evangelical comment on the government’s ‘Prevent’ programme and associated ‘anti-radicalisation’ strategies. While these two communities stridently argued that the state absolutely lacked religious literacy to engage with their own religious communities they seemed not to find it remarkable that Hazel Blears had founded a well – staffed ‘theology team’ in government to modernise Islam, nor that the government were bank rolling a range of new Muslim representative bodies , or a ‘faith unit’ at the Charity Commission to focus on Muslim institutions.  DCLG is currently out to tender for a large contract to ‘build the capacity of religious bodies’ for which do not really think about Dioceses or Synagogues.

Under Labour the government funding criteria for Muslim ‘threat’ inside the UK was Muslim ‘headcount’. This is one of the last policy-making reference points for local authorities as they pick up new statutory duties to ‘combat violent extremism’ that have just made their way through parliament. The rhetoric of ‘Muslim risk’ is now stronger than ever at the Home Office and parts of the Department of Education. As local decision-makers seek to do their best how easy will it be to default to securitising whole populations and lifting the sense of fear that so many already feel? I was stunned to meet a young, talented, legally qualified Muslim woman recently and learn that for the first time she has now been made to feel like the ‘other’ within. Are we back to ‘no dogs, No Irish’ and something worse again?

But in the Catholic and Evangelical cases not only has there been no discussion of the blunt impact of blunt policy but the conversation has taken an intensely theological turn. It is almost as though some Catholics and Evangelicals are relishing all the accusations of ‘theological failure’ that are being thrown at Muslims because somehow, at last, this all makes religion relevant again.

Perhaps sensing opportunities to grow voluntary income there has been a real leap in Christian engagement in questions regarding violent Islamism since ISIS invaded Mosul. And for simplicity of comms some of the messages have been startlingly simplistic about the risk from ‘within’ our own country.  I have yet to attend a Christian discussion where those in the room have read the world class work on how to combat political violence from LSE, Oxford, St Andrews, SOAS or Harvard universities. Nor even one where anyone had worked their way through the superb work of Richard English on lessons from Ireland. Christian theological angst has focused on  ’Islamic theological failure’ not on policies which work to defeat political or other illegal violence

And so there is huge emphasis on historical theological analogy or claims that the present challenge is an ‘historical first’ in anti-terrorism or war.  Washed away from our analysis are the religious groups that stacked up on either side of the Cold War, that have been co-opted or otherwise by the Chinese state , that ran amok in Rwanda or went to fight on both sides of the Spanish civil War and all sides of the demise of Yugoslavia.  Most notably the inter-play of family-race-ethnicity-state-firms-clan, rurality and geography are absent as ‘theology’ and ‘religious ideology’ trumps all.  No matter how many centres of Islamic authority condemn violence the ‘theological problem’ with Islam is re-asserted and its leaders accused of lacking courage.

And so social disaffection, post – modern individualism, media portrayals, misplaced heroism, insults, romanticism, idealism, housing, personal crises, sloppy policing, frustrating parents, sexual drive, romantic failure, perceived senses of political grievance , lack of respect for the ability of democratic politicians to deliver responses to any grievance, are discounted as complicated multiple pathways to adopting political violence in favour of a single linear path of ‘faith’. A single linear path that mirrors the analytical categories of the security forces who are also strongly of the view that the problem in all of this is Islam in and of itself.

And this is the conundrum: Talk about British Muslims and one will be bowled a googly about Pakistani militants. Look at the statistics that show a real crisis among all of our young British men – from rape figures of 26 thousand per annum (over 10% at knife point) to domestic violence stats– and ISIS is held up as the counter-point. Suggest that the number one British Muslim ‘problem’ is how to bring your kids up safely, get them through school and help them to a good job and – literally – someone in the room will react with apoplexy and the words ‘but that’s a normal problem’.

Which means that the conversations between Catholics, Evangelicals, British Muslims and others need to start again in the UK. Yes, they should have a theological aspect to them but they should also take in social sciences, medicine, travel, family, sport and some kind of conversation about intense feelings of grievance. But above all those conversations need to take on board the nature, form and impact of the policies that the state has made and will be making. Because to express reservations as to whether any of them is actually working or of any help seems not to be possible at this time. Unless, that is, we all think that Muslims – of their very nature – are the enemy within.

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Why Labour Could Lose Now Even If It Wins

The MP for Rochdale Simon Danzcuk has launched in to the newspapers today roundly condemning Ed Milliband for being unable to talk about immigration. It’s a strident piece that neatly ducks the long running (some would say ‘vicious’ ) tension between Rochdale’s ‘Danzcuk’-ites’ and the allies of the late Jim Dobbin MP next door. The article says many things but the one thing a Labour Lancastrian MP perhaps can’t say is that when you are fighting a by-election in the heartlands between Manchester and Liverpool, around Preston and across the Ribble Valley, the last thing you need is the South London drawl of Rachel Reeves, or Harriet Harman or that (fake) Yorkshire MP Ed Balls dropping in for tea and sympathy.

Soon after the 2010 election I was invited to a round table conversation on ‘Englishness’ in the Labour leader’s private conference rooms. It was an interesting discussion gathering Labour’s intellectual glitterati and Mr Milliband himself. I’ll never forget how the room looked perplexed when I made the suggestion that the problem for any political party was not now just ‘England’ but ‘London’ too. Not London simply as an electoral arena, or the place where Mr Milliband grew up,  but London as perceived as the metaphorical gathering point of atomising liberalism, economic decadence, over-funded footie clubs, hard – nosed city dealers, expensive tickets for musicals;   and socialists, Clegg-ites and Tories who have never had a ‘real job’.  A London from where Unite the trade union is run making it more interested in bank rolling its own people than normal people not least by badly rigging selection processes in far – away Scotland. More painfully still London as the place where your kids go to get a ‘good job’ and come back seemingly embarrassed to spend time over a sausage lunch with gathered family on a Sunday, or with  grandparents at the local club.

As I made the comment I was thinking of long conversations with proud skilled working class friends in the printing industry now making an income as taxi drivers and in retail. I was thinking of a single man I’d seen furious on a doorstep because he worked 100 hours a week as a security guard while his next door neighbour got more holidays on benefit with her kids. I was thinking about former Irish miners emerging from the coal pits in Kent to hand part of their salary to their Priest and part to the NUM.  I was thinking of fishermen on the coasts stretching westwards from Lyme Regis. And above all else I was thinking of Heywood, Littleton and Warrington, Bolton and Ellesmere Port, Hyndburn, Bacup and the Ribble Valley. So, while Simon Danzcuk puts Gordon Brown’s condemnation of a ‘bigoted woman’ in his seat in 2010 down to Labour’s failure to talk about immigration many of us encountered that terrible error as symptomatic of a metropolitan snobbery of the Left as paternalistic and patronising as anything that might have once dropped from the mouth of an aristocratic Tory backwoodsman.

The last Labour government spent a good deal of time telling communities in the English North West, South West and Kent that they were ‘hard to reach’.  Some Local Economic Partnerships and Vince Cable’s BIS still call them ‘far from the market’. And yet residents in those neighbourhoods get the bus there most days. And Wonga and Provident Financial – not to mention Primark – all seem to think these voters very close to the market indeed. Labour voters, Conservative voters and those so revolted that they could not bring themselves to vote all knew by instinct that codified in 1200 targets from Whitehall was a deep conviction of moral and technocratic superiority run by a system that had no real interest in their aspirations.

No wonder then that UKIP’s Paul Nutall MEP has made the capture by UKIP of the English North West his lifetime priority. No wonder then that a small business owning, father of two, could walk in to last week’s by-election and nearly walk away with victory. And no wonder that in Clacton the socially conservative Douglas Carswell connects with the rising anger of those that Labour especially failed.

The Conservatives have much more work to do if they too want to reverse their fortunes: Energetic calls to ‘aspiration’ sound shrill when not accompanied by an equal expectation of respect, duty, and responsibility to parents, grandparents, school friends and siblings who do not make the same journey. All-out war on benefit cheats provokes cross class fury when it ends up settling its attention on the enduringly ill, and especially on those with lifetime injuries after a fishing accident or mental ill health brought home from Afghanistan or other trauma.

David Cameron in full flow can appeal to English idealism. Nick Clegg can pull it off too not least by his passionate advocacy of parity of mental ill health in the NHS at the recent Glasgow Conference. But Ed Milliband, more than any other leader, only makes sense if he asks the big questions that his father would have done, takes responsibility for how Gordon Brown let so many of his own down, and breaks free of London to celebrate the country in all its hopeful diversity – even to including those that his frontbench, with notable exceptions, would never dare join for tea in a Weatherspoon’s.

For until all of our established political leaders find a refreshed language of vision with renewal, aspiration with social concern, internationalism with equity we will remain in crisis somehow leaving Nigel Farage and Paul Nutall as the standard bearers of hope in our time. For the question, Mr Danczuk, is not just immigration but the system.

And for Labour more than any other this is perhaps the deepest crisis for its front bench have, for swathes of England,  become a ‘hard to reach’ community far away from the real market places of ordinary lives with not even an Eric Pickles , Patrick Mcloughlin or a Sajid David  to hold up as a counter-point to the rule. Embodying ‘London’ rather than the country the party of the people is at risk of losing now even if it wins.

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Life Giving Legislators

Last night I attended a gathering of legislators– UK parliamentarians – and the eminent speaker at the event expressed his ‘esteem’ for those present. Today I saw an old and dear friend far from Westminster.  We swapped notes.

And as I came home I reflected that if ever there were reasons to hold policy makers in ‘esteem’ it is not because of anything we see on mainstream television or in think tank seminars:  Rather, I thought of Section 117 of the Mental Health Act and the difference it can make to individual lives.  Of NHS Continuing Care and how it can enable a parent to stay longer in the community to see more of a child.  And of the 1977 Housing (Homeless Persons ) Act which first introduced a modicum of protection for a key segment of the vulnerable.

Life changing stuff. Life giving legislation. Stuff that our country should be proud of even in these days of scarcity. And concrete reasons to admire what our legislators of all parties can do given the chance.

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On Coming Under Fire: D Day, Cambrai, the Holocaust, the Falklands And Srebrenica.

Generation and geography is everything when it comes to war: Were you old enough to know a grandparent or family member who you could think of who had been in service and whose contribution Princess Anne was in Portsmouth to mark the other day?  My grandfather taught gunnery with the Marines in Eastney.

Or as the centenary of the First World War approaches might your mind turn to others sent forth at the hands of sloppy leadership to risk everything in sticky, muddy, rat infested trenches? My other grandfather was wounded near Cambrai with the Lancashire Regiment.  I am just old enough to have known both men and also just young enough to have seen the parents of school friends leave Britain to fight in the Falklands War. So war for me is a serious thing because I have heard about it and turned to see friends directly impacted by it. But it is a serious thing too because I once came under fire.

It was the wars of independence in the former Yugoslavia. We were working for aid agencies , most especially Caritas but also in mobilising resources for Islamic Relief ,  and on a previous visit had seen Muslim grave after Muslim grave marked out in what had previously been town parks. I still have the photos. In refugee camps created out of old schools and sports centres and makeshift huts we had huddled with gritty coffee and rough cigarettes and listened to tales of violent rape in the battle zones. Later we met young women so distraught that interpreters could not sustain conversation. The war mutilated the honour of many communities – and I mean here the perpetrators and not the victims – and left thousands of families scarred.

Anyway, one day we got stuck on the way out and some lively – conceivably, from what we had seen, Slivovic sodden – Serbian soldiers decided to fire shots after us as we crossed a flooded river at dusk. It lasted a short while and it by every means focused the mind.  I could not imagine what it would have been like to have endured it for months on end.

If the anniversaries of D-day and the Second World War are to have the richest possible meaning it will be by measuring them against the peace that has endured since and by the horrors that even the sacrifices they represent could not stop: Which is why we should never forget men like my grandfathers, women too, but never, either, what was come since. And why, also, we need to look out for the emergence of the psychological stress that can sit nestled among the minds of combatants for years. Notable research from the University of Southampton has tracked this right across British generations but also into Finland, veterans of the apartheid struggle , and in to central and SE Europe. War is no game and comprises very little romance – especially when it comes back to steal sleep in old age.

We need a bank Holiday to mark the Holocaust. And as the First World War anniversary approaches in July we ought equally to mark Srebrenica day in all our communities.  For in some generations and geographies war has never been talked of, nor remembered or experienced, and that only poses a risk to us all . A risk to us all and a risk to a  deep appreciation of what those that we knew, or met, or remember went through.

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On This One Gove Is Wrong: And Hazel Blears Even more So

I used to work as a ministerial advisor at DCLG. I met the department’s ‘theology section’ whose only job was to throw the weight of government against (all) Muslim thought. Or fund invented government backed ‘representative’ groups with links to nowhere. Working with John Denham we tried to moderate a programme that could provide no evidence for its strategies. After the election I watched Eric Pickles back really creative new schemes to build bridges in fresh ways. And so I’ve been really bothered by Hazel Blears, the Manchester MP, is doing the media rounds today backing Michael Gove against Theresa May and calling for a return of the policies that she tried out when the was Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. While I respect the intensity of Hazel’s integrity let’s get this straight – she is wrong. I say this on policy grounds partly because I was involved in sorting out aspects of the policy she left behind while I was working directly for her successors, and partly because of an enduring interest and involvement in bringing people together from communities who do not often meet.

The Prevent programme under Hazel Blears did not work: Not long after her departure the evaluation of the funding she provided to the Charity Commission to work ‘ in communities..against extremism’ came across our desks. It was a monumental failure of engagement more often than not creating resentment rather than goodwill. Not surprising really as the formula for the allocation of resources across the programme as a were not well evidenced threats from researched localities but a blanket ‘Muslim head count’. That is it if you were a Muslim you were judged by Hazel’s programme to be a security threat.  Pity the Gujarati entrepreneur in Chichester and the Bangladeshi curry house owner in Frodsham. No wonder under Hazel Blears Muslim staff at DCLG wrote asking for more taps for their prayer room and got a letter back from the Preventing Violent Extremism division because it was’ a Muslim issue’ : No doubt they all looked the same.  No wonder some Muslims told me they found the very existence of the programme politicising because of its demonization of a whole community. That is not surprising because most of the work that was unleashed by the otherwise admirable Ruth Kelly and Hazel Blears were often invented in the brainstorming sessions of expensive consultants and revenue hungry religious studies departments anxious to maximise their income. If anyone wants an explanation of the origins of the self- appointed, unrooted, unrepresentative Muslim ‘leader’ and ‘commentator’ it is in this trough of rent seeking opportunities that it was born.

As Secretary of State John Denham’s response was to seek to broaden the DCLG’s work so that it was focused on connecting all communities. He worked hard to moderate the tone of Prevent making it clear that it should never be harnessed by the local state as a simple mode of surveillance nor be grounded on a working assumption that a whole community was a threat. Most Muslim parents, after all, are as focused on looking after their kids and paying the bills as any of us. And many Muslim kids may not share my views on the right of Israel to exist but carrying intense solidarity with your fellow co-religionists in your heart and expressing grave concerns about Israel’s behaviour are not yet crimes in our country.

And this perhaps is where the most sensitive question nestling at the heart of the present debate rests:  The Jewish community in the UK have watched in horror as so many friends and allies in the Middle East have been devastated by political violence on the part of some Muslim activists. When the UK Jewish Community  senses a threat at home many of their number naturally cross reference back to Israel and want intense responses here too. That is why at times they have heavily funded the Quilliam Foundation which had an outing on Newsnight last night to back Michael Gove/Hazel Blears. Lord Carlisle, who followed up on the Today programme this morning,  is well networked in that community while Michael Gove too has strong family reasons for wanting to make sure that all those he loves are safe. But internationalising local matters makes for great love, real passion and huge integrity – but rotten policy.

In the face of the threat of political violence the apartheid state, the Northern Ireland Office, the Peruvian state and many others have tried ‘all out ideological war’ against their enemies. In place after place these ‘catch them young schemes’ more often than not had the impact of expanding the base of political sympathy among the non – violent for the cause that the violent were seeking to address. In some cases intervention to insert more ‘moderate theologies’ by the state so offended that young activists were radicalised on the spot. The government schemes did more damage than it helped. And an intense focus on ‘ideology’ at the expense of all else had policy makers skipping other factors such as idealism, boredom, romanticism, exploitation , and poverty as bigger drivers of behaviour than religious ideas (the religious of any kind, of course, find it hard to believe hat sometime religious ideas aren’t the shapers of a human’s behaviours all the time) . No wonder Eric Pickles wisely called Prevent a ‘disaster’ when he arrived at DCLG. And Lambeth Palace agreed with him.

The only way forward here is for policy to return to research and evidence rather than intense rhetoric and point scoring between communities. New work that cuts across disciplines now emerging from various schools of government – rather than only religious studies – could help. But Hazel Blears defending that which failed and backing Michael Gove for him this is understandably a personal rather than a policy question will not help us find paths forward with real traction in the future.

Gove Vs may is not the issue. Evidenced versus emotional policy making is.

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A Dad Who Had Lost a Lad: What I Saw At The PM’s Easter Reception

Before I head off to the Vigil I wanted to say that over the last fortnight I have read voluminous comment from Christians and others who were not present at the Prime Minister’s Easter reception as to its ‘significance’: From think tanks to editors they have said the PM was sailing ‘close to the wind’ and even ‘that he was seeking rapprochement with Cardinal Nichols’ and Anglican Bishops.   No matter how much I google though I have been unable to find a comment from someone who was actually there. Now,  aside from proving that good manners and the discretion of guests still holds in some quarters, this has left me with a practical conundrum namely how best to explain how I – as one of only three Catholics I could count in the room – might defend our host. Cameron was genuine and deserves a defender.

You see, as he arrived the PM looked knackered just as Gordon Brown used to look knackered when he arrived during long days to his Christian, Jewish and Muslim receptions,  all clustered in the run up to December 25th. While Brown would look in agony (’hello, how are yooo’?)  Cameron was greeting old friends,  so someone has had him connecting with at least some in the Christian community.

Before the PM spoke a young operatic singer sang, exquisitely, an intensely contemplative piece as the PM leant against a pillar, his eyes closed, seemingly allowing the music to wash over him. He then spoke with a certain energy and a real and genuine spontaneity: The day before had been the anniversary of his late lad’s birhday and the day on which we were gathered was the day when he’d finally had to sort out the Maria Miller mess. In between, no doubt, he’d had the usual pace filled hours that private offices spend hours squeezing and re-squeezing  together. His parish priest was in the room and I’d just finished a beautiful conversation with him both about how he’d come to know the Camerons and how the orginal Heythrop College – founded by the Jesuits from whose womb Pope Francis emerges – nestles in the heart of the PM’s seat.  The PM knows that of course because he opened the Crowne Plaza hotel that is built into the back of what is now Heythrop Park; Ive seen the plaque that proves it.

Unlike Brown Cameron set out to connect with his audience who were mostly – but not solely –  evangelicals. This year the civil servants and SPADS who build – and compete over – these invite lists must have turned in that direction because in previous years the PM’s guests have been more diverse. So Cameron spoke of what Jesus meant to him, and what social action meant to him, and what popping into Church meant to him. And I was left with a lasting and overwhelming impression that a Dad who would have felt his lad’s death keenly the day before – I don’t believe that any parent who has lost a child does not –  and then had to go to work to sort out an organisational mess (Maria Miller) the next day,  was communicating with folk he took to be friendly. And certainly to be communicating with an audience who would understand that if your boy has died, or been really ill, it never really leaves you but lollops around always within sight of what sits at the core of your humanity.  To be honest I was horrified that Downing Street eventually released a transcript because the moment did not merit it.

Of course the earlier reception for Godly folk at the Cabinet Office the same day, about which I have found a bit more twitter comment, may have been different.

Now,   I know that in politics someone said ‘everything is about something else’ .  And I don’t make these comments without knowing that UKIP are busting a gut to get their hands on religious voters.

But I also think we need to cut our politicians some human slack: When Cameron touched base with deep questions the other day it was real just as, actually, I can’t imagine – having met him and read some of his dad’s work- how Ed Milliband could not have walked through Yad Vashem the other week  and not felt the memory of his father and the suffering of his forefathers weighing upon his spirit. Secular Jews,  and members of the New Left  like Ralph Milliband,  knew very concretely what the Shoah meant just as they knew the risks that Stalin posed to liberty too.

But I think it goes deeper than that : In our rush to express criticism of our decision makers it is too easy to steal from them all hope and humanity and fulfilment and kindness: In previous roles I have seen passionate Cabinet Ministers  exhorting more focus and drive because they want to change the world and are being blocked by a  slower moving Number 10 or bureaucracy, I have had another Cabinet minister worry about ‘being mum’  to me as a nose bleed never ceased to stop on a long early morning train ride to Liverpool . I have also encountered personal kindnesses at the most senior and the most local political levels from those of all parties when personal tragedy hit my own life – the early loss of a cherished cousin and the all too early passing of my oldest school friend. That’s without even mentioning  civil servants I’ve met who have delivered phenomenal workloads even while their own wives, children and parents are struggling with a bereavement or illness.

So at Easter I want to add to keeping some hope alive by saying that the media commentary has got that Easter reception and the PM’s comments totally wrong. And I want to push hope forward by suggesting that, deep down, every journalist knows that across the ministerial ranks, throughout the civil service and into local government are some great people. People who work hard. Are human. And deserve from time to time to simply be themselves.

Happy Easter Mr Cameron. Mr Milliband too. And Happy Easter all who graft to make our society a safer, more economically secure and fulfilled place.

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Competing Wonga Out of Existence? (University of Bristol)

In recent years I have been increasingly impressed by Vienna’s Erste Foundation. Aside from their cultural awards, backing for social innovations they have two major initiatives of note: The first is the Erste Foundation Prize for Social Integration and the second is the creation of a bank for the unbanked – Die Zweite Sparkasse. In the article here , from Bristol University’s Public Spirit initiative I take some of my learning from Erste and other innovators in this space to reflect on financial access at the bottom of the economic pyramid.



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Carers And Lost Tradition of The MP Reformer?: Malcolm Wicks MP and Sir David Price MP

Watch the debates about welfare reform , the appropriate balance of support between state , family and community and the future direction of social security and one can only become concerned about some emerging trends: First, if unlocking the potential of the poorest in our society had really become core Conservative business the country would be able to turn to more than only one think tank within the centre-right pantheon – the Centre For Social Justice – with anything new to say. There would be an internal market and competition for policy perspective on social policy within mainstream Conservative networks because it really mattered.  Second, that many of the critics of the government’s reform programme are caught between a hyper-traditionalist defence of traditional ‘rights’ based social democracy on the one hand and a technocratic centralism on the other. In the process this leads even passionate defenders of the voluntary sector to confuse a reduction in voluntary sector advocacy posts with reductions in the income of  poorer households themselves. Working out where the poor are at becomes easier around housing associations then than in the offices of some historically edgy voices for the voiceless.  Finally , that across the House of Commons a consequence of shifts in generation, profession and the background of MPs means that we have something akin to a collapse going on in the presence of the connected, thoughtful social policy focused and reforming MPs .

In the Conservative case there has not been a social worker or member of the caring professions on the front benches since Jeremy Hunt MP’s cousin, Virginia Bottomley, stepped down from the ministerial ranks. 17 years without such insights in play is as concerning as the absence of one of our national parties from the North or ethnic minority communities – or the South in another case.

It is perhaps of note then that the new autobiography of Malcolm Wicks was published almost at the same time in the last few weeks that Sir David Price MP passed away.

Sir David was the MP for Eastleigh long before UKIP tried to bring that seat in to disrepute. In her twenties his wife had a major fall , losing both her mobility and the child the couple were expecting. For the rest of his life Sir David was a ‘ carer ‘ , a champion of carers  and developed a special interest in disability. It is easy to forget that it is not so long ago that he had arrived at a gallery to be told that he could not enter because he was with his wife who was in a wheelchair and she would clutter up the place.

Malcolm Wicks, by contrast, made his enduring contribution first as the Director of the Family Policy Studies Centre and later as a Minister in the Labour government. In between though, in a notable Private Members Bill, he secured the first ever legislation intended to require an assessment of carers needs alongside the needs of the cared for. His autobiography, completed just before his passing, is well worth a read.

The question is then where among those selected and about to be selected for winnable seats in 2015 are the new Malcolm Wicks and David Price’s? The new Virginia Bottomleys and Archy Kirkwoods? The next generation of Frank Fields and Chris Pond?  In reaction against many in recent parliamentary intakes some parties are reaching for soldiers to re-root their campaigns in localities. This is laudable but a few more nurses, CAB activists, and social policy specialists really would help too.

Unless, that is, the poor have lost their battle already to the single answer of ‘universal credit’ on the one hand and ‘treasury targets’ on the other?





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A Jewel for the North West? : The Potential Of Ellesmere Port

Ellesmere Port is a place that does not receive much national media attention: Frank Field MP represents Birkenhead a little further to the West , the Wirral has an Enterprise Zone to its North  and Chester to the East pulls in the tourists. Liverpool is nearby across the river. But while Ellesmere Port has retail and history, museums and water many of its local inhabitants find access to work hard going, and the opportunity to contribute a challenge. They also have powerful local traditions of politics and culture which reflect the people and their hopes. But things are looking up for Ellesmere Port.

First, in 2012 the area kept Vauxhall’s investment in the local economy. That was crucial not only to West Cheshire but also to UK Plc.

Second, the education sector has been making striking new investments which will open up opportunities around training, skills and ‘the supply side’. This is complemented by a new investment board and plans for a ‘Cheshire Embassy’ to drive the search for new investors too.

It helps that Ellesmere Port’s councillors are passionate about its potential as is the local council more generally.

And now a new consortium of forces are reviewing what leverage there can be even in a time of austerity: There is a new national pilot project in collaboration with Whitehall’s property experts: What methods might be used to pool and unlock public sector assets scattered in ownership across several departments of state and the quangocracy? How might the learning from Cheshire West and Chester’s successful ‘community budget’ be tailor-made to support families in Ellesmere Port who need a single pathway of access to services? And what fresh approaches to civic participation might be trialled where traditional community development approaches have neither inspired nor delivered outcomes.

Over the coming months we’ll be watching progress because the potential lessons are by no means simply local.  Ellesmere Port has the potential to become a jewel of the North West but also to help refresh debates about regeneration more broadly.

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The Conservatives, Ed Milliband, Tony Blair And the New Cardinal Vincent Nichols

As I write Vincent Nichols is in Rome fresh from his attacks on the government’s welfare reforms:  Those onslaughts have earned the direct response of the Prime Minister and the frustration of Conservative MPs: One Tory MP said the Churches ought instead to be focused on growing their numbers. John Redwood wondered if they should be paying more taxes seeing as they seemed to like them so much. Bournemouth’s Conor Burns found it perplexing that Archbishop Nichols had not established a personal relationship with Iain Duncan Smith – a Catholic – so as to be able to really dialogue with him on the detail of the reforms. Meanwhile, the Guardian leader, Steve Richards and Andrew Brown have been saying it’s all predictable because David Cameron is more right wing than you think and it is ‘the conservative’ Church that is taking on ’the Conservatives’.  But Im interested in how tonight the Catholic Church will for the first time embrace part of the rhetoric of Ed Milliband’s Labour,  and how the current spat unravels the simplicity and complexity  of some anti-poverty advocacy no matter how well meant.

At a service this evening in Rome Cardinal Murphy O Connor is preaching a sermon which notes that this is the first time that England has had two Cardinals since John Henry Newman graced Oxford and Birmingham and Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, the son of a former Governor of the Bank of England and friend of Gladstone, wandered the streets of the East End as ‘the dockers champion’.   O’ Connor’s sermon  is a classic overture of ecclesial symbolism and metaphor: Manning was an intense critic of trickle down economics. As a member of the Royal Commission on Housing he was among the first UK voices to advocate state provision of social housing and he once also riffed that ‘ a man commits no theft if he steals to feed his family’. He founded schools and childrens’ organisations, worked closely with the trade unions in the US and on the Irish question and provided the cash and the nursing sisters that made it possible for Florence Nightingale to make her way to the Crimea and make her name as a nurse of distinction. As Archbishop of Westminster from 1865-92 Manning lived a simple teetotal life,  and during the dockers strike of 1892 famously brokered a deal. So grateful were the trade unions that when Manning passed away they lined the streets in their thousands.

Now ,if O Connor is placing the mantle of Manning upon Nichols’ ministry the Coalition ought to prepare for more withering attacks and Ed Milliband will be downloading Pope Francis’ speeches all the more quickly.  Jon Cruddas, the Head of the Labour Party Policy Review, has been talking Catholic Social Teaching and the importance of a tradition in the East End that embraces faith based social action and, in South America, faith based human rights advocacy. He wants such efforts to form part of  a ‘plural’  narrative of  Labour’s traditions . Cruddas’s Lansbury lecture describes a strand of radical tradition that certainly inspire younger Labour rising stars such as Rowenna Davis.   Lord Glasman, about whom Davis has written a book,  has taken that angle of radicalism further suggesting that Manning is the epitome of ‘the Church’s historic alliance with labour’. Glasman specifically praises Manning as a man of the moment rather than history. And so Glasman too has been on the lecture trail to Rome. One wonders then  if the last ten days tell us that Labour’s overtures have won out and  the leadership of the Catholic Church has embraced predistribution, the living wage, and the Milliband front bench’s direction of travel? With Cormac Murphy O Connor’s former public affairs advisor working as Milliband’s Chief of Staff it wouldn’t be surprising even if many of these strands could also be said to have travelled from the Church to Labour also. The crucial role of  Citizens UK here is already the subject of a few Phds.

But this raises a number of questions:

First- and lightheartedly  – Manning was an English Cardinal who had once been married. He said it was the only reason that he may have been ‘of any use’.  Perhaps every Cardinal needs to have been married?

Second, while Labour may see this shift in episcopal advocacy of ‘pro-poor’ positions as good news does it translate into real votes in any of those crucial few marginals round the country? Ed West , in today’s Times, reckons no one is listening.  Others have noted that most Churchgoers think Iain Duncan-Smith is on to something. Whether one likes it or not nearly half of all Catholics support gay marriage just as more than half of them support the welfare reforms. So who is speaking for whom?

But, thirdly, what is Cardinal Nichols’ alternative? Is it radical, participative and communitarian social action? Is social justice defined as the re-funding by the state of Catholic charities? Or in the end is it a support for a traditional social democracy of the Ed Balls-ite variety?

If it is the latter there are furious debates to come. I say this not just because one needs to give at least credit to the fact that no self-respecting Conservative thinks that IDS has not got  a moral case to make (and despite the fact that I simply cannot understand, nor complete,  any of the blinking forms that his department sends those I care for)  I say this because Tony Blair’s guru Lord Giddens long ago predicted this moment: The ‘new conservatives’, he said, would be those who would rise up in defence of a traditional welfarism that no other generation, sector, or movement thought was any longer  sustainable, fundable nor legitimate.

And this begs the question:   If Cardinal Nichols and many Anglican Bishops believe the welfare safety net is gone what is their message of encouragement to all those who graft away in psychiatric units, social work teams, schools, the police and everywhere else to make those gaps go away?  Are dedicated staff failing?

And if they are not content what does their future account of public services look like? Is it a turn back to statism, social democratic paternalism and the dear old Church?  Or is there something truly fresh, innovative and forward thinking  in their vision to be brought to a conversation from which all parties could benefit? Across the country Im meeting folk – including Bishops – who are grappling with that revisioning process in inspiring ways and perhaps we need to hear more from them more?

For capturing the Churches’ discourse is one thing and inspiring them to become truly innovative and forward thinking is something entirely different altogether.



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