Students have expressed outrage at the Oxford University Conservative Association’s affiliation with a senior figure in a controversial anti-abortion group running in the upcoming elections to Oxford City Council.
Mark Bhagwandin, who is running as the Conservative candidate for Headington Hill and Northway this May, is a senior officer in the Thames Valley branch of the controversial pro-life campaign group LIFE.
LIFE has been accused of providing misleading advice to pregnant women. Sexual health charity Brook condemned LIFE after counsellors allegedly told an undercover reporter that abortions increased the risk of breast cancer. Last term, LIFE made Oxford news when Andrew Smith, MP for Oxford East, reported their adverts on Oxford busses to the Advertising Standards Agency for “giving the unrealistic impression that LIFE is offering impartial counselling.”
OUCA members have campaigned alongside Bhagwandin on several occasions over the past year. Most recently, OUCA tweeted a photo of students, including four committee members, canvassing with Bhagwandin in Headington this March, along with the caption, “We were out spreading the Conservative message in Oxford this morning.”
Alice Nutting, a contributor to the Oxford feminist magazine Cuntry Living, told Cherwell, “It is unfortunate, although hardly surprising, that OUCA is openly endorsing an outspoken anti-choice campaigner. LIFE has a track record of providing dangerously misleading information, such as leaflets claiming that 85 per cent of abortions are carried out using vacuum aspiration and that the woman has to dispose of the foetus herself.”
Oxford University Labour Club have strongly condemned OUCA’s association with Bhagwandin. OULC Women’s Officer Rebecca Grant told Cherwell, “It is deeply worrying that someone so involved in fighting against women’s basic reproductive rights is even permitted to stand for election on behalf of the Conservative Party. I am shocked that OUCA is campaigning for a candidate who is associated with LIFE, especially given the very serious allegations about the organisation’s deceitful imposition of their agenda on the most vulnerable women.”
Helena Dollimore, former Co-Chair of OULC, observed, “It’s worrying that OUCA are choosing to spend their time campaigning for a pro-life candidate who works for a highly controversial pro-life charity. Women who find themselves pregnant unexpectedly need impartial help and support, not politicians who oppose their right to choose. When the majority of students are pro-choice but OUCA are heavily supporting a pro-life candidate, it’s no wonder the Conservatives have a problem with women.”
Responding on behalf of LIFE, Bhagwandin, who is also chairman of the Oxford East Conservative Association, told Cherwell, “My role in LIFE and in the Conservative Party, are separate and distinct. It is absolutely presumptuous for Labour students to try to dictate to political candidates what groups they should or shouldn’t be associated with. LIFE has already responded extensively to the criticisms by Education for Choice, of its service. It has a proud history of providing professional counselling and practical support and housing to pregnant homeless women.”
He continued, “Maybe while the Labour activists are it, they can criticise their own Labour MP Andrew Smith who visited the LIFE house in Oxford only a few weeks ago and was very positive about it, even promising to help. They can also point a finger at Labour MP Jim Dobbin who spoke at a LIFE conference about the wonderful work being done by LIFE.”
OUCA President James Heywood commented, “OUCA is a branch of the Conservative Party. As such we campaign for the Party, not individual candidates. We don’t have our own separate policy agenda, and frankly any society which is part of a political party but has such a separate platform cannot view itself as a serious branch of that party. OUCA is not in the business of pointless grandstanding; our focus is always winning votes for the Party, wherever we can. I would also point out that the Party does not take a specific stance on abortion anyway. It is a ‘free vote’ issue.”