MP for Hornsey and Wood Green
It was off to 18 Doughty Street on Thursday night to do the two hour stint from 10 – midnight. Haven’t done this particular slot before. My co-panel comprise Steve Richards (The Independent), Julian Glover (Guardian leader writer) and Phil Hendren (Dizzy Thinks blog) and of course Iain Dale.
Really enjoyable session. Great to hear Steve graciously concede that this new media era is the way forward – him having previously been a doubter. What Steve said was right – the old, format-weary, predictable diet of mainstream politics programs is looking very tired by comparison.
We roamed over bullying Catholics to not vote for politicians who support abortion; the ethics of the media campaign around Madeleine McCann; the Tory grammar school debacle, and the size of men’s private parts – yes – blame Iain! Anyway – hugely enjoyable!
Had recorded on Friday for this morning’s GMTV program with Steve Richards. Having woken up early, I actually watched myself – which is something I do not usually do.
We ranged over local elections, the Liberal Democrats’ right to the environmental crown, Ming’s leadership and how to hold seats won against Labour at the same time as holding on and gaining when Tories are the opponents. All handled OK I thought – though why is it always after an interview that one thinks of the best things to say – the most succinct, the wittiest or whatever? In this case, I forgot to mention that in a seat like Hornsey & Wood Green, ex Labour voters who switched to me because of Iraq or PPP or tuition fees (the list is a long one!) would have no reason to suppose that Brown would be different to Blair. It was, after all, Brown who signed all the cheques and is the architect of PFI and PPP. Labour’s record over the last decade is his record too.
Home Affairs debate day on the Queen’s Speech! Nick Clegg (numero uno in the Home Affairs team) gave a bravura performance which clearly rattled John Reid as he stood up to intervene on Nick. He wished to make clear that the leadership question for the Labour Party had nothing, nothing whatsoever, to do with his statements on home affairs. He and Gordon Brown were not trying to out -tough each other and it was absolutely wrong of Nick to suggest any such thing. Of course, the plethora of stories to back this up in the previous week’s papers from ‘sources close to’ etc. were all mythological!
As for me – what I am needed for in reality on occasions like this is to cover the front bench for the hours of the debate when back bencher MPs speak. I quite enjoy listening to the debate – but it was very cold in the chamber. I get relieved for half an hour to go and do a pre-record for Beeb on the escalating cost of the Olympics. Knock around with Sadiq Khan – who gamely tried to defend the indefensible – and with Steve Richards as referee. I am no party pooper – having supported the Olympic bid and been over the moon when we won. But a blank cheque – I don’t think so.
The traditional media has decided that blogs are the big news and it would seem that these days bloggers lead the field and the media follow our agenda. Of course Alex and Iain both write really great blogs and their audiences are huge.
They are more overtly political and somewhat different to the blog I keep. They are really political commentators, and whilst national politics certainly features in my blog I also try to use it to communicate with my constituents. Having a distinctive geographically based constituency makes a difference – though I don’t worry too much about this. I much prefer writing what I want to say – and not thinking too closely about what different people might want to read. If they like what I write – good; if not – sorry, I’m going to write my own stuff anyway!
Although the hits I get are pretty huge these days – particularly when there is something going on that people want to come and have a look at – I’m sure Iain certainly is in a different league.
They both also allow comments on their blogs. I have always been sceptical about the benefits of allowing comments on this blog as people can engage with me in many other ways (such as by email), and for the comments to really work you need to take part and engage with each item and its comments. There is no way for me to do that with my work schedule – much as I would love to.
And as I write my blog myself (otherwise there would be no point) and I want to keep it personal, I don’t think comments are essential. Reading this blog gets you my direct, personal views. There are plenty of other places for political discussion, including some I occasionally take part in – such as Liberal Review who kicked off an interesting discussion around some thoughts of mine on knife crime.
I also notice that the Sunday Observer has a big article on blogging. I get a mention as having been a trail blazer for blogging politicians. Alex asked me if I would Chair an All-Party Group on this kind of stuff – but I just don’t think I can take on more commitments at the moment as I tend to be cursedly diligent!
Simon Hughes is indeed in the tabloids today – as being gay or bi-sexual. Now, it is hardly news to anyone I know – but Simon has always protected his right to keep his private life private – and I support him on that. But the attack is because a week ago to three newspapers he denied he was gay. I guess he was cornered and the question was never going to go away – and he just made an error of judgement. The media say he lied. I think he just defended himself badly. So another roller coaster for the party to bear as this latest news works its way through the rounds of the media.
It is the first question Steve Richards asks myself, Ed Davey and Phil WIllis who are having a pre-recorded panel session which will go out Saturday at 11am – the Week in Westminster. This is a panel of the key supporters for the leadership – me for Chris Huhne, Phil Willis for Simon Hughes and Ed Davey for Menzies Campbell. So – whilst none of us would go on any media to discuss Simon – once they’ve got you there anyway, there’s no stopping the question. We all basically defended Simon’s right to privacy and right to be whatever sexual orientation he wanted. Then, thank goodness, we get on to policy areas and have a right good ding dong. Great fun!
I get a call last thing because we (Lib Dems) need to put out a statement on Sir Ian Blair’s attack on the media for being biased towards coverage of white murders. For bizarre reasons he chooses Soham as an example of their bias. I remember the coverage at the time – because first the poor girls were missing and we all went on that journey of anxiety as we moved toward the eventual horrific reality. It would have been the same what ever colour the girls were. It was a huge story and the press were bound to follow that one.
However, Ian Blair is right to highlight the issue of bias in coverage. But when I think back I can remember examples both ways – when two murders occur when sometimes the black murder will be covered and sometimes the white. So methinks we need proper examination of this issue – as it is a very important one. We need to look at the way information about a murder gets to the press. Which stories originate from the police forces themselves. What are their policies in terms of media liaison over murders. Let’s have an analysis of all murders and their coverage over the last few years and see what led to what. I am not happy about statements that are not backed up by factual analysis on this. So I welcome the opening up of this as an area for concern – but let’s get it right and based on factual information.
Get home late – just in time for Question Time and Simon Hughes is on tonight. I don’t know if it’s good or bad to have such a media opportunity at this point when there is a feeding frenzy around him. It did give Simon the chance to put his case – which he did as well as he could under the circumstances.
My bags are packed and I hi-tailed it out of town on Saturday morning from Euston. On the train, I sit down and the woman across the aisle from me immediately asks me if I am Lynne Featherstone. I cannot tell a lie! Actually, she turned out to be a constituent living in Creighton Avenue on her way to Glasgow to visit her Mum and we had a few enjoyable hours putting the world to rights; if only we were in charge!
Blackpool may well be a wonderful place for stag nights and hen parties for the young, drunk and noisy, but – sober and middle-aged, truly sorry and no offence meant, it would not be my first choice. Every time I enter the Winter Gardens – which is the conference centre – I try and imagine what nightmares were haunting the author of the design brief. Must have been truly evil!
The Conference Hotel is adequate – but is nowhere near the Winter Gardens and so the delegates are consigned to spending a good part of each day travelling between the two from main hall debates at the Winter Garden to all the fringe meetings at the main hotel and others. In fact, the local authority provided a free shuttle bus – but hardly anyone was told.
But to the business. My guess is – as always – that the media will focus on whether Lib Dems are going to the right or the left and whether Charlie boy’s leadership will be challenged. I turn out to be right on both counts. I do one fringe meeting on the right/left kafuffle. The title of the event is ‘Can the Liberal Democrats be part of a Progressive Consensus’? This is hosted by the Independent Newspaper and chaired by Steve Richards who does the early Sunday morning politics show on GMTV. (You can read my speech on my website).
I have a go a Gordon Brown – basically. Don’t believe he is capable of a consensus – progressive or otherwise. Or more accurately, Brown’s progressive consensus is just that – OK so long as you agree with him. Anyway – as everyone knows – I think Brown is a coward who keeps his head down below the parapet when the going gets tough, votes a straight New Labour ticket, is the author of the astronomically expensive and appalling part-privatisation of the tube and who broods in the shadows whilst waiting for Tony’s tide to go out.
But what the media really, really want – is for the Liberal Democrats to tear themselves apart on the basis that those of us who fight or represent old Tory seats will want to shift to the right and those of us who fight or represent old Labour seats (like me) will want to be on the centre-left of the political spectrum.
Clearly a disappointing night then as all four of us speakers – Simon Hughes, David Laws, Vince Cable and myself – in one way or another all argue that it isn’t a matter of right left – it’s about Liberal values. Especially when the Labour government is knee-jerking poorly thought out legislation into being and striking at the principles of justice and freedom that make our country what it is.
The other great debate going on is about multiculturalism and what it means to be British, particularly after 7/7.
Trevor Phillips, Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, has thrown down the gauntlet with a nifty little sound bite: ‘we are sleepwalking our way into segregation’. His thesis being that we live in our cultural enclaves and mix less and less. Statement of the bleeding obvious I should say – although it strikes me lots of politicos are fundamentally in denial whilst a Sky TV poll clearly puts over 80% + of real people in line with that thesis.
I get two bites at this issue. I speak at a fringe meeting and then there is also a debate in the main hall.
For the debate, conference has introduced a new format where representatives send in their preferred topic for a discussion on an urgent issue. There is no motion or vote – but people’s views are taken back and with further work and consultation a motion will then be brought back to the next conference for decision. It’s my job to summate the debate.
I have my own views too- and whilst I do think we are becoming a segregated society, I don’t think the 7/7 bombers were making a statement about poverty or alienation when they blew us up or that solving the issues of poverty and alienation in our ethnic communities will have anything but a tiny effect on terrorism in ours or any Western country. Terrorists don’t generally come from the poorest or most alienated.
However, history has given us a bit of a lesson about where extremists go to find fodder for their causes. So whilst tackling poverty and alienation won’t directly stop terrorism, it will help make it harder for terrorists to recruit support in future.
I also chair two of the keynote speeches in the main hall. The second one is for my Home Affairs team leader – Mark Oaten – our Shadow Home Secretary. So with only a sentence or two to say I introduce him as the ‘toughest Liberal I know’ – a phrase picked up by the media sketch writers for the Telegraph and the Guardian! Mark had said a couple of days earlier that he would kill me if I introduced him thus – but I did it purposefully as I believe that ‘tough liberalism’ is the way forward – particularly in terms of law and order.
Mark gave a bravura speech.
I (and you will thank me for this) am not going to go through every fringe I spoke at – but I was allowed to pontificate on a much wider range of subjects than ever before. In my previous incarnation I was kept pretty much to my policing and transport portfolios. This time – outside of my usual training sessions for the party on ‘How we Won Hornsey & Wood Green’ and ‘Grow your Own Target Seat’, I covered Lords – the Last Bastion of Freedom?, What Difference would Electoral Reform make to Women? (not a great deal in my view); The Future of our Towns; Making the Breakthrough (or how to get our arses into gear in the 100+ seats we are second to Labour in for next time); Blogging and so on.
New experience for me (it is always great to do something you have never done before) was something called GNS. I had to go and do the radio responses on what Mark Oaten had said about breaking the consensus around Labour’s proposed new terrorist legislation. Whilst we support three of the proposals – an offence of training for terrorism, incitement to terrorism and acts preparatory to terrorism – we can’t support an offence ‘glorification of terrorism’ or the ‘three months detention without trial’. Briefly – the ‘glorification’ one is just too wide a definition. It would turn into a feast for lawyers all interpreting (as is their job) but with such a wide spectrum that it would be very hard for such legislation to be effective – and you don’t want the real terrorist dodging around the new legislation because it is poor and they have a good lawyer.
The other – three months detention – strikes at the very heart of our principles of justice – and is another form of internment. Moreover, having seen how stop and search works in practice when I was on the Metropolitan Police Authority – it would be just too easy for profiling to lead to automatic three month detention on suspicion – and suspicion as we tragically know from the Met shooting an innocent Br
azilian isn’t enough. And if after 14 days they need more evidence and more time, there are other ways. They currently put people under surveillance and the numbers are not such that that would be too difficult or expensive. In fact it might very well concentrate the police mind on intelligence-based evidence rather than suspicion. Three months internment would make them casual in their rigour.
Anyway – none of this was the point of my tale. The tale was about the GNS process. I was to speak for eight minutes to each BBC radio station around the country – live! So with headphones on in a tiny studio and with an electronics box – one after another station around the country dialled me up and did the interview. It was pretty tough going. I was just brilliant by about the fifth one – when I had got all my best lines in place – but definitely going off the boil with over-confidence by the ninth! But – as I say – had never even heard of this type of interview before.
And so – the rest was a late dinner with friends and pretty early to bed – and yes – it really was all work!