As a Labour activist, I came along to support our two excellent candidates, Councillor Liz Clements and Fred Grindrod, and to speak up for the socialist policies in Birmingham Labour’s manifesto, Building a better Birmingham. I did not, however, expect, to have to challenge the Conservative candidate, Councillor Peter Douglas Osborn, over his use of the offensive terms “tinker” and “coloured”, and to hear him framing the dramatic increase in demand for our local B30 Foodbank by quoting the Bible and describing ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ people in need.
Sadly, my first close-up encounter with Peter Douglas Obsborn brought home to be me the harsh reality that, despite their best efforts to soften their public image, the Conservatives are still the “Nasty Party” of British politics.
No shows from Tory Rob Sealey and the Greens
The hustings started off predictably enough, with each of the candidates introducing themselves and setting out their respective stalls. In addition to Labour candidates Councillor Liz Clements and Fred Grindrod and the Tory Peter Douglas Osborn, we also got to hear from the Lib Dem candidate David Radcliffe as well as Clive Walder, an affable person representing the left-wing Trade Union & Socialist Alliance. Sadly, the two Green candidates standing in Bournville & Cotteridge gave their apologies. A seat and a name sign were left for another Conservative candidate, Rob Sealey, but unfortunately he never turned up (we were told he was flying back to Brum that evening so he may well have been held up along the way).
Peter Douglas Osborn: back from the USSR
In retrospect, I should have picked up from Peter Douglas Osborn’s opening remarks that things were going to take a turn for the worse.
Whereas Liz presented a clear case for how the Tories’ politically motivated programme of austerity, driven by their ideological obsession with shrinking the state, was directly responsible for the social and economic problems facing Bournville & Cotteridge, Peter Douglas Osborne’s opening statement was somewhat more, well, ‘idiosyncratic’.
Peter Douglas Osborn started off by on a somewhat rambling account of a trip he’d made to the USSR 40 or so years ago. On this trip, we were told, Peter learned about how Soviet authorities took a dim view on religion and churches playing a role in political life. He then remarked on how great it was that we live in a country with religious and political freedoms that mean a church can host elections hustings.
As someone who specialised in Russian history at university, I actually quite enjoyed Peter Douglas Osborn’s story but I must confess I struggled to see how it was relevant to a local election campaign and the very severe challenges facing our community and city. In fact, the closest he got to even talking about Bournville & Cotteridge was when he recalled his days playing rugby in our local playing fields many years ago. And even this choice of anecdote was somewhat ill-advised, given the fact that we’ve only recently lost our park keeper thanks to the Tory austerity cuts our Labour-run city council has had to implement.
— Francis Clarke (@francisclarke) April 26, 2018
Our host, Reverend Mike Claridge, then proceeded to read out a series of questions members of the public had sent him on a range of topics, including the impact of spending cuts, how to improve congestion and parking in Cotteridge. For me, what was striking was the way that both the Lib Dem candidate, David Radcliffe, and the Tory Peter Douglas Osborn, both conveniently overlooked the direct role both their parties have played in creating the austerity agenda the Labour-led Birmingham City Council is being forced to implement. This reached its zenith when Peter spoke up in favour of more public transport for school children. Did he forget that under the Tories bus budgets have been slashed by 40% since 2010?
“The poor will always be with us”
So far, so relatively harmless. That was until Reverend Michael Claridge asked each candidate for their thoughts on what’s behind the dramatic increase in local people accessing the B30 Foodbank, which is based out of The Cotteridge Church (demand is estimated to have roughly doubled between 2016 and 2017).
Whereas Liz presented a convincing case for how the Tories’ politically motivated programme of austerity and dismantling the welfare state, combined with the rise of zero-hours contracts, has driven local people to crisis point, Peter Douglas Osborn took an altogether less analytical approach.
Rather than give a straight answer, he opted to quote the Bible: “for you have the poor always with you”, effectively dismissing the huge rise in demand as something beyond anyone’s control, let alone anything our politicians should seek to tackle. He also heavily implied people were motivated by the prospect of being able to obtain free food, rather than because they were experiencing genuine hardship.
Unconcerned with what he’d said about foodbank users, Peter Douglas Osborn then proceeded to spend the rest of his allotted time talking about his strong commitment to helping the people in our community who he felt deserved help, notably people with mental health difficulties, whose welfare he actually seemed quite concerned about.
Fortunately, the other candidates and members of The Cotteridge Church didn’t let Peter Douglas Osborn’s ignorant opinions go unchallenged. When Fred challenged Peter for essentially saying that the rise in foodbank usage was down to ‘scroungers’, Peter said in response that “people didn’t want to hear the truth”.
Cannot believe that the @Conservatives @Bournvilleward candidate has just stated that people who use the @FoodbankB30 are scroungers – disgraceful way of viewing those that are really suffering in our society
— Fred Grindrod (@fredgrindrod) April 26, 2018
I’m pleased to say Reverend Roger Collins, who runs the B30 Foodbank, was also on hand to calmly present the candidates and members of the public with the statistics they collect on their service users. These clearly showed how changes to benefits, including the recent roll-out of Universal Credit, together with precarious work, was driving demand.
Well done Roger @CotteridgeChurc @FoodbankB30 for providing facts about Foodbank which challenge harmful myths peddled by #NastyParty candidate Osborn #LE2018 #VoteLabourMay3rd pic.twitter.com/CosEdogg3v
— Bournville & Cotteridge Labour (@LabBournville) April 26, 2018
Things take a turn for the offensive
After thinking things couldn’t get any worse, Peter Douglas Osborn somehow managed to plumb new depths. In response to a simple question about the recycling service in Birmingham (something the Labour, Lib Dems and Trade Union & Socialist Alliance all agreed we as a city need to get better at), he again chose to take us on a trip down memory lane, this time talking about how, in years gone by, the “tinkers” would pick up items people had left out for them.
As an Irish person, I take issue with the ethnic slur”tinker”, although I appreciate some people use it without realising its true meaning. Here’s the Wikipedia definition for the avoidance of doubt:
As a former local government equality officer, I am well aware of the sensitivities which exist around language. I am also conscious of the fact that people can often unknowingly use offensive language and so I feel it’s important to give people a second chance when they do. This is what really troubles me about what happened next.
A case of ‘political correctness gone mad’ or simply treating everyone with respect?
After each of the candidates had finished making their statements, I expressed my concern over the language Peter Douglas Osborn had just used, explaining that I felt it was completely unacceptable for anyone, let alone a public servant, to be using such offensive language in Birmingham in 2018. Peter seemed surprised and annoyed that I had challenged him but not apologetic.
In order to test his true intent, I followed up with a question, “would you use the term ‘coloured’?”. Shockingly, he said yes he would and proceeded to say the words “tinker” and “coloured” back to me and the room. Seeing the expressions of disbelief in my face and the faces of the other candidates, he continued to talk. Instead of apologising, he criticised me for caring so much, saying words to the effect of “you can get upset as much as you like”. He then followed this up by dismissing wider social concerns over offensive language and political correctness as being a “manufactured” upset, echoing the ‘political correctness gone mad’ attitude which is sometimes expressed. 25 years after the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence and with the Windrush scandal showing no signs of easing, I was disturbed by Peter Douglas Obsborn’s comments, especially given that he currently sits on the West Midlands Police and Crime Panel, and so exercises influence over policing in our region.
Holding Peter Douglas Osborn and the Conservatives to account
After my encounter with Peter Douglas Osborn, I concentrated on simply getting through the remainder of the hustings without further incident. It was only afterwards, as I made my way home and told my wife about the evening, that I began to truly comprehend how unpleasantly the Conservative candidate for Bournville & Cotteridge had behaved.
If anything good has come out of my encounter with Peter Douglas Osborn, it’s that it has made more people realise what’s at stake when Birmingham goes to the polls this Thursday. The election here in Bournville & Cotteridge is not only a choice between Labour candidates who will do everything they can to protect the most vulnerable in our community versus Conservative candiates who will happily go along with the austerity programme being orchestrated by the Tories in Westminster.
At a more basic level, it’s a choice between decent human beings (everyone on the panel bar PDO, it would seem) who believe we should look out for each other and someone who casually dismisses concerns over racial slurs and the very real hardship an ever increasing number of people in our local community are experiencing.
I’m pleased to report that the Labour candidates Councillor Liz Clements and candidate Fred Grindrod have written to the Conservative West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street and the leader of the Conservative Group on Birmingham City Council, Robert Alden, asking them to condemn the remarks made by Peter Douglas Osborn. I’m also heartened by the amount of support both Bournville & Cotteridge and I have received online and offline from people throughout Birmingham and beyond.
I hope the Conservatives will condemn and distance themselves from Peter Douglas Osborn’s unpleasant attitudes, otherwise I believe this incident will only serve to conjure up memories of the Conservatives as the ‘Nasty Party’ of British politics.
I’ll aim to write an update post after the local elections are over. In the meantime, you can keep up-to-date with the latest developments by following me on Twitter @francisclarke. You also follow Bournville & Cotteridge Labour @LabBournville if you’d like to find out more about our campaign.