Mother Knows Best - why David Cameron should listen to his grass roots

By Virginia Moffatt
February 9, 2016

Back in November, I was startled to discover that the Prime Minister had urged Oxfordshire County Council not to make cuts. As I wrote at the time, this action was both wilfully ignorant and staggeringly hypocritical.

Now the news has come that Mr Cameron's mother has recently signed a petition to stop the cuts  to Oxfordshire's Children's Centres. Once more, I'm struck by the irony of this. But I've also reflected that it might also give us a glimmer of hope.  Not because he is  likely to listen to his  mother, but because of what it suggests about the mood of his party as a whole.

Mrs Cameron strikes me as a Conservative of a particular kind. Well off, entitled, certainly, but one who believes in civic duty, as demonstrated by her years as a magistrate. Such Conservatives may tend to have 'Lady Bountiful' tendencies, but nevertheless still recognise that the state has responsibility to people in need. So when an individual like her signs an anti-cuts petition, it's a signal that other grass roots Conservatives may feel the same.

And that has got to be a good thing for the anti-austerity movement.  Whilst many on the left will demonise the right, and suggest there's no such thing as a good Conservative, I'd disagree with that. Years of working with local politicians in a number of different authorities have shown me that there are decent people on all sides of the political debate, even if their solutions are often very different.

When I was working in Oxfordshire, I regularly observed councillors visibly distressed by the impact of austerity, who worked as hard as they could to minimise it. I might have wanted them to shout louder, and do more, but nonetheless, I welcomed what little they did do.

Firstly since 2010, Oxfordshire councillors have gone to great lengths  to meet the public and consider their views when making cuts. I know this has had an impact.  At their first consultation, someone had the not so bright idea that perhaps home care could be delivered by volunteers. The message that came back very strongly was  people wanted paid professionals to deliver their support. This was no surprise to someone like me, but it was to the councillors and senior managers. They heard the message and that proposal was quietly abandoned. They were similarly taken aback by the passionate defence of libraries in Oxfordshire. As a result, some libraries survived, albeit run by volunteers, which showed that at least they were listening.

Secondly, there is an unwritten rule that Conservative Councils keep annual council tax raises to the minimum. A 'good' Conservative Council would be like Wandsworth or Westminster, who seem to vie with each other to get as close to zero per cent as they can.  Yet in 2014, Oxfordshire and several other Conservative Councils voted through an increase of 1.99 per cent (just below the two per cent threshold that triggers a referendum) in order to balance the books. Which suggests that they cared more about meeting the needs of their citizens than about party directives.

Thirdly, in November, when Oxfordshire's leader, Ian Hudspeth, responded to Cameron's anti-cuts letter he was clearly putting his career in the party on the line.  It just isn't the done thing to write to your Leader and tell him it is impossible to deliver savings without making front line cuts. Though it hasn't stopped Oxfordshire passing the most severe round of cuts yet,  Mr Hudspeth has my immense respect for at least taking a stance on the issue.

Furthermore, there are signs that many  others in the Conservative party are uneasy with the direction David Cameron is taking us in. The Conservative run Local Government Association has called for an end to cuts in local government.  One back bench MP, Sarah Wollaston, has raised concerns about the government's approach to social care and her tweets often suggest an understanding that things are difficult for people. Three more, Heidi Allen, Jo Churchill and Caroline Ansell, have recently visited Lesbos, and are now calling for the government to provide more resources for refugees.  Whilst a leaked letter shows the Party is fearful the controversial Trade Union Bill has not got enough support from Conservatives in the House of Lords.

Meanwhile, opposition from that most revolutionary group – lawyers – has forced the government to back down on a two tier contract system for legal aid. Whilst those other unlikely rebels, junior doctors, have huge public support for their fight with Jeremy Hunt.  All of which demonstrates to me, that with a growing anti-austerity movement outside government, and increasing pressures within David Cameron's own party, the political consensus is shifting. 

So, if David Cameron was a wise man, he'd pay attention the voices of dissent within his own party, and be part of building this new consensus. Otherwise he risks going down in history as the Prime Minister who wrecked Britain.

Failing that, he really should listen to his mother on this one. In this, as in most things, she clearly knows best.

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© Virginia Moffatt. Virginia Moffatt is the Chief Operating Officer of Ekklesia.

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