Saturday, 28 May 2011

Messed-up morality: Conservatives fall "Back to Basics"

It must be dreadfully frustrating for David Cameron. He spent years (and a fair proportion of Lord Ashcroft's tax-free millions) trying desperately to detoxify the Tory brand and make their policies seem more palatable and human. However, now his colleagues are back in power, an unattractive tone of moral judgement and reactionary social engineering has crept back into public discourse around women and sexuality. Even if we were able to set aside Cameron's own recent patronising display of contempt to Angela Eagle when he told her to "calm down, dear" at Prime Ministers Questions, there are many other signs that there are unmistakable signs of a regressive social agenda bubbling under the surface of many of the Coalition's policies which infantilizes women and wants to draw a firm line under the successful gay legislative programme of the Labour Government.

Ken Clarke's comments about some rapes being less serious than others was a clumsy slip under fire whilst defending a wider cost-cutting approach to justice - but it still betrayed an unbelievably dismissive attitude towards the victims of sexual violence by the Justice Secretary.

Backbencher Nadine Dorries' 10 minute bill pushing for young girls to be taught abstinence (you read correctly -girls, not boys), leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth as it puts female sexuality in the dock as the cause of all lapses in sexual morality. This is at a time of diminishing budgets for HIV prevention and the tightening of health spending around sexual health. Nonetheless, this week it was announced that the well-respected British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) has been removed from the government advisory group on sexual health and replaced by Life, a conservative organisation that takes a hard-line stance against abortion and is strenuously pushing for abstinence programmes, even though they are known to be counter-productive in fighting sexually-transmitted diseases.

You would think on the positive side, that this is the sort of issue where having a coalition Government would put the brakes on these excesses. Right now (the argument goes), keeping the Liberal Democrats onside has meant that the Conservatives are working hard to ensure this remains a series of isolated incidents and does not become a larger narrative behind Government policy. Memories on the front bench are also short enough to remember John Major's ill-fated Back to Basics campaign, which crystallized the public's views of his party's hypocrisy around morality and sex.

Within the Home Office, Liberal Democrat Lynne Featherstone MP represents a trusted pair of hands as the current Equalities Minister. She is interviewed in this month's issue of Total Politics and hints that she clashes at times with her Secretary of State, Theresa May, over this agenda. That said, the article gives her a fairly gentle ride as she talks about ensuring the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is supported to deliver on equalities protection. The truth however, is that the remit for the EHRC has been severely restricted so that it works on the barest minimum needed to deliver it's core aims. Unsurprisingly, this has been accompanied with a significant funding cut.

You may also remember that I posted about the Government's Red Tape Challenge, which is currently consulting on whether we should scrap every law and regulation on the statute books. The presumption is that everything is marked for abolition to "reduce bureaucracy" unless a strong enough argument is given to retain them (or sufficient people can marshall a public stink enough to stop them). After years of campaigning by minority communities, the ink was not yet dry on the Equality Act before it fell into the firing line.

Until this attack, these policies and the funding that underpinned them were in the front line of ensuring that in a country where inequality has steadily increased over the last thirty years, we had an independent voice arguing for concrete changes to close this gap. They ensured that people were able to make adult choices around their health and were treated with dignity in their dealings with the state.

Gender and sexual equality is under more sustained attack than ever before. Cameron's rebranding campaign is over. The Conservatives have learnt a lesson - they are moving back to basics, but aside from the odd slip, this time they aren't making the mistake of telling us.

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