Monday, 10 October 2016

From Chocolate Makers to LGBT+ Tories...What I've Learnt

Recently I went along to a Stonewall/ LGBT+ Conservative event and been to various events and demonstrations protesting against the Tories whilst their conference was in Birmingham. I’ve also listened to Vince Cable give the Lunar Society Adrian Cadbury Lecture and read a really interesting book by Deborah Cadbury called Chocolate Wars. All of these things have had the impact of both challenging and encouraging me.

I’ll start with my visit to the Stonewall/ LGBT +Conservative event, which has raised more than a few eyebrows amongst many of my friends. I went along because this event also involved the Diversity Network of Lloyds Banking Group, and as part of the day job I am looking at how we join up chaplaincy in HE with encouraging students to take a holistic approach when thinking about employability. How do we encourage people to see the transferrable skills gained in areas of their lives which are often privatised? The exploration of personal values also comes into this.

As I listened to the panel discussion which included Maria Miller amongst others I was surprised by how comfortable I felt amongst this group who were in many ways so different to myself. It reminded me that whilst ideologically I hold opposite views to them on many issues particularly around social policy there is much that can be worked on across political lines and there are things which we do hold in common with people if we move beyond the headlines. They were talking about the need to reform the Gender Recognition Act in line with the recommendations of the Transgender equality inquiry report from the Women and Equalities Committee. They also picked up on the need for people to recognise the differences in experience of LGBT+ people in this country. The experiences of those living in rural areas as well as the increasing levels of hate crime throughout the country and specific issues relating to sport are examples of issues we all need to address.

The other thing which made me feel more comfortable was the general dress code. It was standard professional dress. As I looked around I pondered how different it had been to the left wing events I had been to over the event. Karl and I had dressed casually on Saturday evening as we went to the pub to listen to a great evenings entertainment by Bethany Black and Grace Petrie, at the Eagle and Tun, yet had still felt overdressed. On Sunday I had gone straight from preaching to protesting and was clearly over dressed for that, but…I realised that the extent I was overdressed depended upon who I was with. Amongst the TUC socialist demonstration, I was ridiculously different, however amongst the pro-EU protestors with whom I paused for a short while I was less over-dressed. The Refugees Welcome walk of witness (which didn’t even manage to be a demonstration due to the invisibility involved and which I left to go on the TUC one) was somewhere in between.

Dress was an interesting aspect of the historical material in Chocolate Wars. The move from embracing plain Quaker dress to a more relaxed approach which fitted with the world was part of a wider movement away from strict values based on the faith. Yet, as the very interesting and informative book shows dressing well didn’t mean the values were completely abandoned, it was a series of various individual decisions which saw the values of business becoming so divorced from those which were at the core of many of the chocolate businesses originally.

The question of what happened to these Quaker values and how we might be able to recover some of these values was essentially at the heart of what Vince Cable was talking about in his public lecture on “The Governance of Business and Their Relationships to Society Locally and Nationally”.

There were three areas which this lecture sought to address remuneration, ownership and social enterprises. As he spoke much of the lecture related to the frustrations Cable had felt as Business Secretary he looked at the problems with possible solutions to the issues he and his colleagues recognise exist within a world where free market capitalism has caused great inequality. For example when looking at the huge differences in remuneration he spoke of the problems caused by publishing pay ratios because many of the lower paid workers were sub-contracted in some companies.

He was scathing of the pension companies and the way in which institutional investors don’t hold them to account because they are focused on short term profit rather than long term social benefits.

With regard to having workers on the board, an idea which works elsewhere and reflects some of the practices which were part of the Chocolate companies and which our current PM is advocating he gave a warning. Beyond the multi-national nature of many companies now many firms are not unionised and so workers can become tokens working on behalf of the interests of the owners rather than representing the rights of those employed. Implicitly within this part of his lecture what he was saying was that we need to give a voice back to the unions rather than continuing to restrict them.

He was clear that we need to think about diverse forms of ownership if we are really serious about social responsibility. Within this he highlighted some of the problems which come out so strongly in the Chocolate Wars book of how ownership dilutes as the need to raise capital in order to expand increases and how do you lock capital in for future generations. He spoke about the role of private equity. Within this area the current story of the Eagle and Tun is interesting. The owner, a very nice Sikh gentleman, was explaining to us at the Anti-Austerity event with Petrie and Black,  how HS2 is threatening his business, this iconic pub. He doesn't want to take the short term approach and just make money from selling the land. He wants to have a business which will be able to take advantage of the development of the area and wants to be given a 25 year lease once the redevelopment has taken place in exchange for the building but has been told that is not possible. If we are serious about taking our country forward in a more socially responsible way we need to support businessmen like this who want to protect their businesses and the future of their families.

One thing which connected the Adrian Cadbury lecture to the LGBT+ Conservative event was the theme that we need to ensure that the discussion around Brexit does not mean the areas where we are making progress become lost or side-lined. This is something I think many of us believe. If we are truly going to move forward at this time of uncertainty I think that we need to identify, as these events did, the things that truly represent the shared centre ground.

On a final note in terms of recognising where my politics stand in this shifting area where I feel somewhat alienated by left and right these events gave me confidence that they stand where they always have. I am a socialist who stands in the tradition of people like Roy Hattersley and Barbara Castle. I am not part of the “far left” whilst I sympathise with much of what they stand for but neither am I part of New Labour. What I want is a modern politics based on values which are inter-generational and which can take in the shared concerns of people from left and right.