Sunday 2 May 2010

Was "no comment" really the best response for Philippa Stroud?

The Observer has a front-page story on Philippa Stroud, who is the Conservative candidate in Sutton and Cheam, a marginal seat the party hopes to take from the Liberal Democrats on Thursday.

According to The Observer report, Stroud "credited with shaping many of the party's social policies, founded a church that tried to "cure" homosexuals by driving out their "demons" through prayer".

I don't know anything more than what is reported in the newspaper. But that is part of what strikes me as curious about this: the response of the candidate is essentially 'no comment', with no comment from The Conservative Party either.

As Stroud "declined to talk to The Observer", so the only direct quotes in the story are those taken from her 1999 book 'God's Heart for the Poor', with the candidate doing nothing to offer any context for this.

Perhaps this reflects a fear that the liberal broadsheet would not report her Christian faith fairly in the context of the report. The paper also has a report on Christian Fellowship under the somewhat fruity headlne Secret Christian donors bankroll Tories. But, if the reported facts are correct, I think that few would deny that it is a legitimate piece of reporting about a parliamentary candidate, particularly one who has shaped one of the most significant plank of the party manifesto around "broken Britain".

Several questions arising from the report are ones which only the candidate could answer. If the facts were incorrect or out of context, then one might reasonably expect the candidate to set that out - for example, had the newspaper overstated her role as founder, the extent to which banishing demons was the focus of the Church's activity, or misrepresented the view she took of homosexuality at that time?

Of course, people do change their minds or evolve their views: are Stroud's views now significantly different than they were in the early 1990s? Might she hold personal faith-based views which she tries to keep separate from research and politics? Can she demonstrate more recent positions establishing a commitment to gay rights and gay equality?

I don't know - largely because neither the candidate nor the party were willing to offer any response before publication. Any further response is now likely to have much less reach in the Sutton and Cheam constituency itself.

For me, that contains an echo of the failed Tory strategy of having no frontbencher comment at all on the Chris Grayling comments over B&Bs which broke over the Easter weekend. The idea was that the issue would go away over the Easter holiday and the campaign began. That was a mistake: it simply made that a much more prominent story, as social networking and media pressure grew. The same seems likely to happen again.

There is a broader nervousness and defensiveness within the Conservative party about public discussion of the influence of Christian thinking on the party, particularly in shaping its social agenda. This was well captured in Christopher Cook's FT magazine feature Christian Tories rewrite party doctrine, which offered a lengthy, nuanced and non-sensationalised feature which offers the fullest account to date of this important topic. But it has not been much scrutinised or discussed elsewhere.

It also reflects a discomfort in addressing challenges to the party ove gay equality. Personally, I take that shift to be a significant and important one and think it is very good news that the Conservative Party has substantively shifted its position towards support for gay rights and gay equality.

However, it has also consistently been excessively defensive about any scrutiny of these issues, often seeming to regard this as illegitimate. It may sometimes feel some challenges are unfair. Perhaps some do go too far. For example, it seems clear to me that its unfortunate EU alliances with result primarily from a daft Eurosceptic allergy to the mainstream EU centre-right, rather than motivated by any hidden agenda against gay rights. Nevertheless, the party's response was weak - decrying any challenge to its allies' equality commitments as vicious propaganda, before later announcing it would dispatch Nick Herbert to help its Polish allies go on a liberalising journey. (This is a welcome step - Next Left suggested last Autumn that this sort of approach could help create some common ground between the Tory party and its critics. But it is one which rather contradicted its earlier claim that there could be no issue of concern at all about Law and Justice's position on gay rights).

* Disclosure: The Centre for Social Justice has been the most influential of the right-of-centre think-tanks, and the Fabian Society has worked with it on several joint events to debate poverty and inequality. Both left and right think it valuable for different approaches to social justice to challenge and interrogate each other, both to establish key differences in political and policy debate, and to find areas of common ground as reflected in our own recent hardest to reach publication.


Red Rag said...

An to think Cameron nearly got away with telling the gay community that everyone was acceptable in Camerons new Conservatives.

Alex said...

I don't know why everyone is so shocked at the Centre for Social Justice being explicitly Christian, its pretty obvious if you read all their publications historically - just read IDS' publication 'Britain's Conservative Majority' from 2004 to see that he is anti-secular and he praises the American Christian right for their form, if not for their content.

DespairingLiberal said...

A typically thoughtful piece Sunder.

I don't doubt that it's possible that Stroud has modified her views over time, but this does seem to be evidence that the Conservative Party is moving further and further towards an eccentric Rump Tendancy. That tendancy is heavily under the influence of the US Christian Fundamentalists and reaches deeply into even the apparently "moderate" or "liberal" elements of the Tory Party, people like IDS and Iain Dale, who one might normally think stand apart from the far-right.

It's all of a piece with the increasing move to the troglodyte-right in the US - look at John McCain for example, who has lurched away from his fairly centrist positions of the election campaign and now takes an immigrant-bashing, anti-climate-change-agenda, bible-thumping position.

Stroud's views remind us why the prospect of a Tory government based on this agenda is a dismal one. I am sure Nick Clegg feels the same way.

Beatrice said...

I wish more attention were paid to some other minority groups. I come from the mental health world. We have scarcely had a mention during the election campaign. We are facing cuts in funding. Our difficulties are much more severe than the lack of bed and breakfast accommodation for the night. I say this not to denigrate the gay movement. I admire their campaigning skill. I just wish people like me could be respected and valued and given due attention by the media and by politicians.

Nick said...

A broader question: has the relative silence of the battier Tories and radical Hannanites during the campaign been a triumph of Central Office message control, or because the nutty brigade are holding their tongues (as opposed to speaking in them) and waiting for their chance?

(Word verification "dedulab". Oh, the black irony.)

DespairingLiberal said...

I suspect Hannan in particular has taken himself off-air during the campaign, presumably under pressure from Dave's people - he is too much the poster-boy for the Barmy Right for them to want him in the public eye too much. Ditto John Redwood who has vanished without trace.

Perhaps less predictable is the hush surrounding Boris - is he (largely) off-air because Dave doesn't want the competition, or because Dave's team don't like Boris's strong lean towards centrism or because he is simply too much a reminder of Eton days?