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EDITIONS
Monday, 7 October, 2002, 21:30 GMT 22:30 UK
Conservative conference: Theresa May

  Click here to watch the forum.  


Theresa May is the first female chairman of the Conservative Party. On the day of her hard hitting speech to conference delegates, when she said the party must change or face electoral slaughter again, she answered your questions in an interactive forum.


Transcript

Newshost:
Hello and welcome to this BBC interactive live forum from the Tory Party Conference in Bournemouth. I'm Nick Assinder and with me today I have the party chairman, Theresa May. Welcome Theresa.

Theresa May:
Thank you Nick.

Newshost:
Now you took no prisoners in your opening speech today. According to you the Tories are seen as the nasty party, some of its politicians have behaved disgracefully in the past and tried to duck the consequences of their actions. Some demonised minorities sniped at their leader and so on - pretty strong stuff. You clearly think the party needs to have a long hard look in the mirror.

Theresa May:
I think that we need to make some reforms in the party. And from the reaction I've had from people as I've been going around the conference there are a lot of people here who are out there who are working hard for the party, who recognise that and they too are saying, yes we need to make some changes but we want to make those changes in order to be able to present a credible alternative government to people because we think this Labour government is failing to improve public services and that's what matters to most people in this country.

Newshost:
And one of the things you mentioned specifically was encouraging more minorities, including women, and our first question, in fact, comes on that subject from Ian T from the UK, who writes to you quite bluntly: "Do you believe you only got your position because you were a woman? Do you approve of all-women shortlists which discriminate against men?" I think you gave us a signal about that today in your speech didn't you?

Theresa May:
No I didn't get my present position because I'm just a woman, I got it because I think - I hope - because I have the skills that the leader thought were important and skills that were needed for the next stage of the party's development. And certainly as far as being selected as a candidate is concerned my constituency were very clear that they selected the person they thought was best going to suit the seat. An all women shortlist - no we're not a party which approves of all-women shortlists but there are other ways in which we can ensure that we get a broad selection of candidates.

Newshost:
And you are clearly going down a more positive discrimination route there, from what you were saying - how will that work?

Theresa May:
Well if you look at what's happened in the past I think we can see from the fact for example that at the last Election 38 new Tory MPs came into the House of Commons, only one of them was a woman yet women are actually half of the population. That suggests that actually that the women aren't perhaps getting a fair shout and a fair opportunity. We need to make a level playing field and ensure that women and people from ethnic minorities and people from unlikely backgrounds, different sorts of background, have the fair opportunity to put themselves forward and be selected.

Newshost:
Almost sounds like the old Labour party.

Theresa May:
Well no these are the issues that the Conservative party is addressing - making sure that in the 21st Century we're a party that represents Britain in the 21st Century I think is very important.

Newshost:
A new definition of one nation almost - it's the nation that's changed, you need to reflect that?

Theresa May:
Yes the nation has changed and we do need to reflect it.

Newshost:
And on that point of engagement with the electors, Rob Morris asks: "Why precisely do you think the Tories became so out of touch with voters in the first place?"

Theresa May:
I think when you've been in government for a very long time, for 18 years, as we were it is rather easy to get out of touch over that period of time. What I think you are seeing from the Labour government is that they have become out of touch with what's happening at the grass roots and out there in the country rather quicker because they're failing to see the problems that their policies are actually creating in our schools and hospitals. But I think it was easy to become complacent when you're in government for such a long period.

Newshost:
Not just a case of you ran out of steam - no more ideas, no freshness?

Theresa May:
Well I think that obviously it's difficult to keep the momentum going. When the Conservative party came into government in 1979 it was off the back of a sort of revolution in ideas and an awful lot of thinking had taken place. After 18 years in government obviously it's hard to keep that up. But we recognise now we need to reinvigorate that thinking within the party and that's what we've been doing over the past year, it's one of the key things that Iain Duncan Smith has done with the party.

Newshost:
And particularly you need to re-engage and reinvigorate for young voters, if I may say so, that shows by looking around your audience still to this day. Gary Spence from Hartlepool and Michael Pead from Canterbury ask virtually the same question about younger voters, clearly one of your target areas: "You seem incredibly out of touch with the younger voters, how will you help the party appeal specifically to the 18-24 age group?"

Theresa May:
Well the first thing that we're doing as a party is actually listening rather more closely to what that sort of age group is telling us and Charles Hendry, who's a member of Parliament who has responsibility in the party for youth affairs, is actually now - has just got into place an interactive e-mail system with a large number of youth organisations up and down the country and he's going around to universities and various initiatives just to listen to young people so that we can understand what the issues are that they want us to be addressing.

Newshost:
Indeed. I mean do you specify any particular issue, do you see an issue that particularly grabs young people?

Theresa May:
Well I think young people - and this is what obviously we want to find out from talking to them - many young people, a lot of the issues they're interested in are the issues that are actually of interest to other people as well. I mean there will be many 18 year olds who've been going through the debacle at the end of their school careers with the A-levels that have taken place that are very concerned about what happens in public services and in education for example. I mean it was interesting we got some films which we are showing at conference, we'd been out and about with cameras across the country just asking people what they would say to a politician if they had a minute ...

Newshost:
That's asking for trouble isn't it?

Theresa May:
Well we have to take these things on the chin, we have to actually listen to what people are saying and the number of young people who have been saying that one of their concerns is what they see around them in the education system.

Newshost:
An issue that I think young people, particularly from the e-mails, appear to be quite concerned about and may be seen as a defining issue, if you like, about your inclusive new image is section 28. Andrew Mitchell from London, specifically on that point, wants to know: "How can the party claim to be compassionate without unequivocally supporting the repeal of section 28?"

Theresa May:
Well we recognise that section 28 has caused offence to some people. What we're looking for fundamentally is protection of children and certainly obviously we're reviewing all our policies and we will look at the issue of section 28. And what we'll be looking to ensure is that if repeal were proposed what would be put in its place because what we want to ensure at all times is protection of children. But of course there are issues that people have rightly raised about the fact that section 28 concentrates on education and local authorities, there are - literally being produced by health authorities for example.

Newshost:
You obviously wouldn't do it again, if you were in the same position you wouldn't introduce it now. It was a mistake?

Theresa May:
Well I think at the time it was necessary in order to address a particular problem that had arisen. Now some years on there is a question as to whether it's the right way to ensure the protection of children. We'll be looking at that but what is fundamental to what we want to do is that issue of the protection of children.

Newshost:
Okay, on the same theme of compassionate conservatism, this is from James Hammond. He says he simply doesn't believe the term, he thinks, I think from this, thinks it's a contradiction in terms and he says look at George Bush, he used the same term in his election campaign and he wouldn't describe George Bush as being compassionate. How can we really believe that of Iain Duncan Smith?

Theresa May:
Well I think they will have to look at, James and the others, will have to look at what we're actually proposing to do in our policies and we have had a clear focus on public services first and some of the issues that we're addressing in our policy statements that are coming out this week - the policy announcements that we're making here at conference - actually do address this very issue of trying to help those who are the most vulnerable in our society. On education, for example, a policy that's been announced to help parents whose children are failing in inner city schools and the particular problem in inner city schools, helping those parents to be able to take the money that's being spent on their child and spend it elsewhere to ensure their child's getting a good education.

Newshost:
You've no worries there that that might create some sort of two-tier system in the inner systems particularly where the parents who can afford it, with a bit of help, can do that and you get even a more disadvantaged under-class?

Theresa May:
No what we're talking about is enabling the parents in the inner city who have no other option but whose child is in a failing school - and sadly one in six in the inner city schools come out of school without any GCSEs, not even one or two, just without any GCSEs - and what we're saying to the parent of the child in a failing school in the inner city is that we will enable them to make a choice that isn't available to them at the moment by making the money that's being spent on their child available to them to spend elsewhere.

Newshost:
Have to move on to the subject that certainly dominated the conference on the opening two couple of days really which is Iain Duncan Smith's leadership. He has been sniped at, to use your word in your speech, from various angles. Martin Green from London highlights what many see as the problem with Iain Duncan Smith's leadership by asking: "After all that Labour has done wrong over the last few years why has the party not capitalised on Labour's shortcomings more effectively?"

Theresa May:
Well I think there a number of things that the party does when it's in opposition and one of those yes is to point out where the government is getting things wrong and we have been pointing that out. And I mentioned in my speech today a number of areas where we've actually been successful in that. On the care homes issue, for example, we've seen 64,000 care home beds lost through closure of care homes largely because of the extra regulations the government was imposing. We kept up the pressure on the government, we kept pointing out the real problems that elderly people were facing and as a result they've had to think again about those regulations, so that's effective opposition.

Newshost:
Indeed but I noticed in your speech you used the issue of the snooper's charter and claimed credit for that but I think a lot of Labour backbenchers would claim credit for it themselves.

Theresa May:
No what I said in my speech is we helped to stop that, I didn't say that we were the only people who stopped it. But as an opposition it was right for us to point out where we thought government had got it wrong and that's what opposition is for, it's not about just shouting loudly in a ya boo sort of sense, it is about actually looking at the issues and where government's getting it wrong trying to force the government to think again.

Newshost:
Now I couldn't let you go without asking the question that comes up time and again and again has cast a bit of a shadow over your conference - John Major and Edwina Currie, why have we had no response, Simon Grayson in London wants to know, from the party about that affair? I use the word advisedly.

Theresa May:
Because we think it's a personal matter frankly. It's something that finished 14 years ago, it's a personal matter ...

Newshost:
You don't think it says something about the party?

Theresa May:
It doesn't say anything about the party today Nick, this actually ended 14 years ago. It's a personal matter for those involved and what we're here doing at Bournemouth is actually showing the party of today and tomorrow, how the party's looking forward, developing policies that we will take forward to the next General Election.

Newshost:
Well more bluntly on that exact point is the suggestion that John Major, at the time, was saying one thing while doing another and Phil from Birmingham says why should he vote for a party that has contained, in the past, so many hypocrites? And why should he believe it's changed, I guess.

Theresa May:
Well one of the things we're trying to do by not just what we say but what we do, the way we approach our politics, the way we're approaching being in opposition is showing that the party has changed, that there is a different approach here in the Conservative party today. And all we can do is obviously try to persuade people of that, to show them what we're doing in the way we talk, in the way we approach our politics so they make their own judgements obviously.

Newshost:
Indeed. And in this sort of recasting of the party in, as I say, what was clearly a very powerful speech from you today, do you expect Iain Duncan Smith to take up that message, in a sense you've taken on those critics, do you expect him to do the same thing - close the book on the past?

Theresa May:
Well I think we've already seen Iain doing that in fact in some interviews that he did over the weekend in newspaper interviews. And it is right that the past is the past and we must look at today's problems and look ahead for the future. What our conference is doing this week is setting out the policies that we've been developing over time, talking to people here in the UK, learning from experience abroad, policies that will address the issues that are of most concern to most people in this country and that is the failure in public services.

Newshost:
OK, so no chance of a name change - New Conservatives leaps to mind?

Theresa May:
No, I'm not in the business of that sort of name change but I hope people will see from what we're saying and indeed how we're approaching our politics that it is a party that is changing.

Newshost:
And how do you reconcile the faces in that audience today who were sitting stoney-faced - do you have to basically put up with the fact that they'll always be there and ignore them and move on?

Theresa May:
Change is always difficult for any organisation and there are always people in any organisation who resist change or who feel uncomfortable with change. What I was pleased about today was actually the large number of people in the hall who responded very positively to the message I was giving of change and who have been responding positively as I've been walking around the conference centre after my speech. I think people in the party at grass roots actually do recognise rather more than many outsiders give them credit for, the need to reform inside the party.

Newshost:
Many thanks for that Theresa May, I'm sorry I'm afraid that's all the time we have for questions today. Thank you for joining us at the Tory party conference in Bournemouth and thank you for your e-mails. Goodbye.


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