Forgive the personal anecdote, but I felt you should know that I grew up in Eccles, a less-than-salubrious suburb of not-salubrious-at-all Salford – nestled within the conurbation most of you will know as Manchester. I feel this is relevant to what follows; as the son of Indian immigrants, who grew up in Red-as-Red-can-be territory, I admit to feeling queasy about a coalition with the Conservative party – indeed I'm with Tim Farron when he says he joined the Lib Dems in the '80s for the same reason others joined the Tories – Margaret Thatcher. And yet pragmatic politics and the chance to implement so much of what our party believes in sees Lib Dem MPs sit around the Cabinet table and for the Coalition government – and so it was in the spirit of good faith and cross-party collaboration that a group of bloggers – the Millennium Elephant (accompanied by his loyal Daddy Richard Flowers), Alex Wilcock (better known online as author of Love and Liberty, a Lib Dem blog post of the year award nominee), Councillor Mary Reid and Helen Duffet interviewed Oliver Letwin MP, Minister of State at the Cabinet Office.
Immediately before our interview began Mary and I attended a fringe meeting with Oliver, Danny Alexander MP (Chief Secretary to the Treasury) and TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber discussing 'how the balance of public to private sector jobs is likely to change as the economic recovery progresses' – in other words, the path from economic failure to success. Mr Letwin's views were part classic Tory – the prioritisation of deficit reduction was prominent, although only marginally more so than in Mr. Alexander's eyes – and part 'soggy liberal' - Mr. Letwin's own words. Indeed, there were times in the fringe meeting when I couldn't nail down the real Oliver Letwin – the deficit hawk determined to rid the nation of its debts, or the thinking liberal, conscious of the effect that spending cuts may have on the poorest, not only domestically but throughout the world.
The interview itself that followed help clear a lot up – not least because Mr. Letwin was forthcoming and engaging. We began with a double-barrelled question that was a revised version of one that Alex asks Lib Dem interviewees - what does the Tory party stand for, and why should people vote for you? Mr Letwin rolled the answers to both into a package that wouldn't sound unfamiliar or uncomfortable to any Liberal Democrat - that the Conservatives stood for a shift of power from the centre down to individuals, and that a major reason to vote Tory is that they took the step towards Coalition, demonstrating that they could govern in the national interest as well as in their own. So far as intentions once in government go, then, not a millions miles away from the Lib Dem position on things - not too surprising given the praise Mr. Letwin heaped on his coalition partners, not least Danny Alexander, in the preceding fringe meeting, speaking of their 'intellectual prowess some of us [Tories] would be proud of.
A clever ruse to win favour or genuine admiration? Judge for yourself from what followed...
Richard Flowers followed with a question about timing - why, if the Big Society was to be the Tory manifesto's centrepiece, did we not hear about it a year, two years ago? Mr. Letwin contended that the media simply didn't bite - until a few weeks before the election, when they suddenly shone a light on what the Big Society would mean for public service delivery.
In addition, Mr. Letwin told us that despite Labour's talk of decentralisation, they retained a faith that central government was the key to reforming the nation; something that the Coalition parties hold to be untrue, and that, in Mr. Letwin's view, would be seen as a truism in five years time.
Speaking of the Big Society, Helen asked whether people really did want to take control of services for themselves; don't most folks just want the government to run schools/hospitals/parks and so on? Letwin's response was simple - services should be run by those who know how. Fine, said Mary (who retired in 2010 as a councillor in Kingston upon Thames); what about democratic accountability - what is the role of local government if the Big Society is rolled out? Mr. Letwin used the opportunity to wax lyrical about empowering local government by releasing them from central diktat; that accountability would increase once payment by results was introduced; that by increasing patient information, there would be 'no decision about me, without me' in the NHS; and that with local authorities acting as advocates for people in a competitive marketplace, it would be like having a lawyer represent your best interests in court.
This is where I feel Mr. Letwin's Conservative vision has a lot to answer for; it's all very well offering choice and competition in public services, as long as everyone - and that means everyone - has the capability to exercise said choice - because failing that there's the risk the vulnerable will be left behind. I noted an absence detail in how the poor, the marginalised, the vulnerable will fare in the Big Society - just as well we're in government with them then :-).
A question I raised gave rise to an interesting discourse; Mr. Letwin criticised Labour's 'faith' in centralised institutions - how do we know the Big Society isn't faith-based as well? Well, Mr. Letwin's answer was enough to keep me interested: this, Oliver said, is where evidence-based policy-making comes in; once the reforms we heard about came in, their effect must be reviewed - and only on the basis of efficacy should they be continued. This reliance on evidence and not dogma was repeated when Richard pushed the line of questioning to the fiscal tightening to come - yes said Mr. Letwin, we must make sure that cuts are monitored, so that we base policy decisions on what works, not what we think will work.
He then said that savings can come in the form of structural policy changes rather than just cutting services - what I found interesting was that the example he gave was that of drugs policy; that in shifting drugs policy to harm reduction, and introducing localised payment by result, we could save millions on prison bills, emergency hospitalisations and so on. Enlightened, evidence-based, liberal - you had to remind yourself you were hearing all this from a Tory...
The most interesting of all answers was to questions from Alex and Helen on the differences/commonalities between our two parties - Alex asked whether, having seen the democratic and deliberative way the Lib Dems make policy, will he recommend changing how the Conservatives work? He stopped short of saying yes but was full of praise again for Lib Dem procedures - comparing our democratic structure to the Tory 'authoritarianism tempered by regicide.' It was good to hear too that if Lib Dems passed into policy something that clashed with Conservative thinking - as in fact we had earlier in the day with the Motion calling for equal marriage for lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender people - that if Lib Dem Ministers pushed for it to become government policy then Tories would have to discuss it, in good faith, and find ways of implementing it. Heartening!
I end (if anyone's still reading...) with comments Mr. Letwin made when Helen asked him why, seeing as though he was a Young Liberal at university and he has so many views aligned with those of his coalition partners, how come he ended up a Conservative? Well, he said after a long thoughtful pause, I'll only be able to answer that once I write my memoires- until then, let's just say that I have enough in common with my fellow Conservatives to make it work. Suggests to me that the description of Mr. Letwin as a soggy liberal is taken as compliment!
I know that, had I met someone from the Tory far right it may have been a difference experience - but I have to say that if the cordial, enlightened and mature attitude of Mr. Letwin is anything to go by, the Coalition has a really healthy future ahead of it.