OK, fair cop, guv.

My response to what I heard from the Tory Party Conference has evoked strong responses from those who think I should keep my mouth shut on anything but ‘religion’ and from those who agree with me. Why did I respond the way I did? Simple answer: I thought questions should be asked and they should be asked as clearly as possible. But, did I get it right?

I have read the extraordinary responses from a number of websites (and object to anonymous writers hiding while writing) but find it most astonishing that a bishop is deemed to be ‘political’ when expressing views the reader/audience doesn’t like, but speaking sense when expressing views the reader/audience does agree with.

However, I think I could have expressed myself differently and put my points in the form of questions rather than statements.

For the record let me say this: the reason I didn’t comment on the other party conferences is simply that I wasn’t here to witness them. However, it is ridiculous to assume that to question one party’s statements implies uncritical support of another party. The next election is going to be a tough one for many people like me who do not find themselves fitting into any party ‘slot’.

Although I agree I could have written the earlier observations differently, I don’t retract the questions that evoked them.

1. (Unless I am mistaken) why was there no mention in Cameron’s speech of the banking crisis, its causes, the question of regulation or of the need to address the anomalies that now appear? The fact that the current government is also ducking some of these questions is not reason enough for others to duck them. The taxpayer bailed out the banks and will pay for the privilege of having done so – yet it appears that little has changed in how the banks benefit from the current system.

2. Cameron gave a good speech, well crafted and full of vision. But he begged a lot of questions about how that vision might be realised.

  • Was the financial crisis caused by ‘big government’? If so, how and by whom?
  • If the State is to be reduced, which bits and to what effect?
  • Did ‘more government’ really ‘get us into this mess’ – or was there a different cause? (I don’t follow the logic here at all.)
  • Which bits of Britain are ‘broken’? How are they to be mended and by whom?
  • What is the ‘British sense of community’?

Is there not a problem when politicians speak of conditions of human society of which they have no experience? I would listen and learn from the Camerons on the effects of child bereavement. But I am less sure that the top Tories know what they are talking about when they speak so easily of ‘poverty’. Therefore, my suspicion of what really lies ahead of us if they get into government does not go away. I am not at all sure that the Tory front bench understands (other than intellectually) anything about the ordinary lives of much of the population who have been to ordinary schools and live in ordinary places.

It is fair enough to criticise my extrapolation from my experience in Liverpool under Thatcher (and, as I wrote earlier, Derek Hatton) to today. But, my question might then be: how can today’s Conservatives convince me that they are different (other than in terms of language and rhetoric) and that the poorer people in our society (and I don’t mean the ‘spongers’) will be safe under a Tory Government? Sure Start has been a great success under Labour and the Tories have promised to protect it – but they don’t say how they will do this while combatting debt and reducing ‘government’. I remain unconvinced that there is a connection between vision and strategy here.

I applaud many of the sentiments (it is hard not to applaud ‘family life’, etc.) of Cameron’s speech – but I am not sure what all the rhetoric means. And the fact that I ask this of the Tories does not mean that the same doesn’t apply to the other parties. What reality is likely to lie behind the words? That is where we need more detail and trust has to be grown – partly though having the words challenged.

The local newspaper in Croydon has tried to drive a wedge between me and a local Tory MP. He issued a reasoned response to me and we have discussed it on the phone. He was perhaps more generous and patient than he might have been – or felt. I would expect him to regard my views as misguided – indeed, it would be odd if he didn’t. But he also recognises that voices need to be raised on behalf of the powerless (or less empowered) – and a reasonable debate be allowed to ensue.

The election campaign will be interesting.