Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Should we scrap EDMs?

Just had this email through, from a campaign to scrap parliamentary Early Day Motions.

It's a point that has occurred to me in recent times, although some constituents and organisations place great importance on whether or not their MP signs up to an EDM, as a sort of public 'nailing your colours to the mast'. In the days when I could sign EDMs, constituents would be delighted that I'd signed up to something on, say, an animal welfare issue or something in support of one of the many health campaigns (Cardiac Risk in the Young, or Breakthrough Breastcancer, for example). It was also a useful way of demonstrating support for events such as Carers Week, and in doing so flagging it up a bit higher on the political agenda.

EDMs can also be influential in persuading MPs to vote one way or another when actual legislation comes forward, in that it makes it more difficult for an MP to backtrack on their position, hence the CWU's relentless drive to get as many as MPs as possible to sign up to the Royal Mail EDM. On the other hand, I suspect many MPs sign them just for a quiet life, just because someone has asked them to do so. And - as befits a mechanism often described as 'parliamentary grafitti' - they can sometimes stay around long after an MP has changed his or her mind on an issue, or the facts surrounding an issue have changed so as to make the original motion obsolete. MPs are then accused of back-tracking or U-turning, when it could be that they've just had more of an opportunity to look into the facts and have discovered it wasn't so simple as it first seemed.

Anyway, time to go and vote. Here's the text of the email:

"There is much talk about reforming democracy and making Parliament both more effective and more efficient. One area where reform could show a real cost saving without damaging the effectiveness of the role of an MP or the role of the House of Commons would be through abolishing Early Day Motions. It is estimated that the cost of an Early Day motion is £300 each. Indeed according to a
House of Commons factsheet, "The printing and publication costs associated with early day motions in financial year 2005/06 were approximately £627,000." In this day and age, there are easier and more cost effective ways for elected representatives to raise an issue of concern, or generate some local publicity for an issue they care about. We are contacting all Members of Parliament and asking them if they support a proposal to abolish Early Day Motions. We would be extremely grateful if you could let us know your thoughts on this matter.

Best wishes, Scrap EDM's"

Monday, 29 June 2009

Musings on Nick Clegg

Sometimes I almost feel sorry for Nick Clegg. Week after week in the Commons Chamber he has to pretend not to notice or care when MPs ostentatiously walk out as soon as he starts talking or jeer or heckle or yawn. Watching can sometimes be excruciating, like observing an amateur comic dying on stage. But then he spoils it by being pompous in a self-important sixth form way, and my sympathy evaporates. The pomposity is probably a necessary protective device, but it doesn't come across well, at least not to those of us in the same room as him.

Clegg doesn't seem to have done much to lift Lib Dem fortunes since the end of the Ming dynasty, if you look at overall levels of Lib Dem support in the opinion polls, but I wonder - has he actually won any new support for his party? Are there any people out there who weren't Lib Dem before, but have been won over by his leadership? Has he inspired younger people,* or attracted any new voters as he's steered his party on a rightwards course? Genuine question. After all, even if his party has remained roughly static in the polls, it could be that he's lost some (not very bright) people to Cameron's cuddly Conservatives, and some have come back to Labour in these almost post-Iraq days, but if this is the case (and logic would dictate that it is), has he compensated for that elsewhere?

*Out on the campaign trail on June 4th (polling day) I came across a couple of young canvassers who were lost in Lawrence Hill. Before telling them what road they were on, I asked what party they belonged to. Lib Dems, they said, 'so at least we're ideological allies'. No. We're not. Comes back to the old individualism -v- collectivism argument at a national level, but at a local level I've not come across a single Lib Dem with an ideological bone in their body. We won the ward over the Lib Dems by 9 votes. If we'd lost by 9 I'd have been kicking myself for telling them where they were!

For locals only

Lib Dems in Bristol are proposing to close the A4 Portway to motorists throughout the summer. (See my website, http://www.kerrymccarthymp.org.uk/, for my current poll on this issue). I'm not sure this is sensible. I'd rather see some of the small roads, particularly the cobbled streets, in the city centre closed off, making a pedestrian only space, for example around St Nicholas market, or in Broadmead, or in Clifton village. What do people think?

Also, while we're on local issues, what do people think about the proposal to increase fares from the Park and Ride on the A4 (other side of the city) into the centre? Keeping fares low means that Bristol council tax payers end up subsidising the service, but higher fares is inevitably going to mean an increase in the number of cars in Bristol city centre, and then we'll all pay the price of increased congestion and virtual gridlock at peak times.

Final point on transport issues. I'm hoping for a decision on electrification of the Great Western line before summer recess. Will be chasing after Chris Mole, the new Rail Minister, when I see him in the division lobby (but not in a John Gummer/ Douglas Hogg way).*

*Slightly obscure reference to their mole-killing proclivities.

Last of the Gang to Die

Lots of juicy stuff in today's Building Britain's Future statement by the Prime Minister, but just to flag up one. We're finally going to move towards an elected House of Lords, or a Senate as it might be called. The current life peers will be replaced in tranches, or so I understand it, by elected members. More details to follow.

This reform also entails getting rid of the remaining 92 hereditary peers, by scrapping the by-elections that are held when one of the current cohort dies. There's one such by-election going on at the moment, and I think there are something like 26 candidates (drawn from those who hold hereditary peerages but didn't succeed on the original ballot when we removed the right of the vast majority of hereditary peers to sit in the Lords). And I think I'm right in saying it's only those hereditaries who currently sit in the House who are allowed to vote.

Obviously it will take a while for all 92 to - putting it delicately - 'leave' the House, although I'd imagine their average age makes it more a medium than a long-term proposition. The question is: who will make history by being the last ever hereditary peer to sit in the House of Lords? I don't know how young the candidates are in the current by-election, but if the peers wanted to be contrary, they might well decide to opt for a spring chicken!

Sunday, 28 June 2009

You might say that....

"I was writing something on Twitter the other night and my wife, ever the voice of caution (unless shopping), says to me, "you want to be careful..."The Gist, of what followed, was that I should be cautious not to risk offending any potential voters by saying what I actually thought. Because what I thought was phrased 'exuberantly' or might not meet with universal agreement.

The thing about blogs, facebook, Twitter and such things is that you don't know who might be listening. The thing about my approach is, I don't care.

The thing about being an elected representative is that people say this to you all the time. It's like a constitutional requirement that after you are elected you have to be slightly dishonest. You have to think about everything you say and decide if it is 'politically' correct to say it. I hate giving in to that. I believe that what people want in the new politics is open honest talk. I think people want to hear what we think and whether they always agree with us or not, they will know when they hear us, they are hearing us being honest.

It is no surprise that people are so cynical about politicians speaking when they hear a constant stream of the least controversial drivel from them.I think it is why we have so many of the new breed of politician who can't or daren't argue their case anymore. Because by shying away from saying something that other people might disagree with, they have lost the skill of debate. I understand that not everyone will agree with me, not everyone will vote for me, I'm not losing sleep over that.

I just want people to know that they can trust me and that they will know enough about the way I think to know what decisions I might make on their behalf. And in the world of open honest communication with them, they can tell me what they think too.

And I know that I'm not always right, pretending that I'm not normal is another insult to the voters. When we aren't prepared to make mistakes and admit them we are setting ourselves above the normal people we represent. I have a bit more respect for them.

I keep hearing that politicians need to be more transparent. I think the public can see straight through us already. Time to accept it. If I'm wrong it will cost me an election, but it will be the people who decide. As it should be. I'm not going to pretend to be someone else to steal their vote under false pretences. Those days are over. And good riddance to them."

As the sharper amongst you might have worked out from the reference to the wife, the above wasn't written by me, but by a guest blogger, the unfeasibly tall Cllr Tim from Barnsley. Although not strictly a guest blogger because I just lifted it from his site without asking him.

What they're saying about Michael Jackson in the Dog and Duck

Is this the most pretentious article ever published in the Guardian?

"Nor was his whiteness just a question of skin tone. Think of his eyes and nose. Then think of the very word "eye", as it's printed on this page in lower-case letters. If ever there existed a word that was an ideogrammatic, visually ­onomatopoeic mise en abyme, then that word is "eye". What does it resemble if not a pair of heavy-lidded eyes, ­forming a minute isosceles triangle with the dainty skewwhiff nose of the "y", a nose uncannily like Jackson's own? Again, I say (and despite the fact that it gave rise to as much mockery as Cyrano's ­tumescent ­schnozzle), I thought it as pretty a nose as a putto's in a Tiepolo altarpiece."

Saturday, 27 June 2009

The power of Twitter

A few weeks ago the Daily Mail ran a story about how it was being suggested that travellers should be treated quickly by local NHS services if they need it, because, being travellers, they would be moving on to somewhere else pretty soon and thus might not ever get the treatment they needed.

The Mail, obviously expecting an outbreak of indignation amongst its readers, then started an online poll: 'Should gypsies be allowed to queue-jump in the NHS?' or something along those not-at-all-loaded lines, But word got out on Twitter, and before you know it the poll was showing a magnificent 96% in favour of the proposition. Before it was pulled.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Credit where credit's due

Had a very enjoyable night out tonight with other Bristol Labour activists at the Tikka Flame. (Got back home to Bristol at 7.25pm and by 7.55pm had made it to the restaurant; not bad going). Was good to catch up with some of the councillors who lost their seats on June 4th, and even better to see their determination to carry on fighting the good fight. For those of you who might think that spending Friday in Westminster means I'm neglecting constituency work, here's a rundown of my schedule tomorrow.

  • First thing - head into office to look at casework, deal with correspondence, sign off on letters, etc
  • 11am -St George's Park for the official opening of the new kids play area
  • 12am - speech at the Bristol Darfur Community Association
  • afternoon- speech at Bristol Slavery seminar (an event with the Sikh community)
  • early evening - inauguration of the Black Boys Can programme
  • evening - saying a few words and watching performance by a Palestinian dance troupe at local school

I'm actually gatecrashing the St George's Park event, as I haven't been formally invited. One would think that I might have been, seeing as:

  • it's in my constituency (in fact it's directly opposite my constituency office)
  • the play area was funded by Government money, from the Play Pathfinder Project, i.e. it's something which a Labour Government, of which I am a member, made possible
  • it's being named the John Deasy play park as a tribute to a long-serving Labour councillor for the area who died last year; John loved the park and I could often see him from my office window, setting off on a walk across it.

What's really annoyed me though, far more than the lack of an invite for me, is that there's no recognition being given at all to the role played by the Labour councillor for the St George West ward, Ron Stone, who has represented the ward for 24 years, and was re-elected in June.

Ron put a huge amount of effort into making sure his local ward got this play area. He lobbied hard for some of the funding, which was £2.6 million across the city, to come to St George. He instigated a massive consultation exercise with local schoolchildren to see what they actually wanted from the project, going round the local schools and getting something like 350 children to take part. Quite simply, it wouldn't have happened without him. And it was also Ron who proposed to the local neighbourhood partnership that the play park should be named after John Deasy.

Wouldn't it have been a great gesture to have given Ron the honour of officially opening the play park and dedicating it to his colleague of 18 years? And yet tomorrow - if the press release is to be believed - we will be treated to the spectacle of the Liberal Democrat executive member, Cllr Gary Hopkins, turning up and attempting to steal all the glory. (As they always do. It's a well-known Lib Dem tactic, for example, to find out at the council which road is about to have a pothole repaired, or a defective street light replaced, and immediately whack out a leaflet calling for said work to be done - so they can then take the credit. I actually once saw a copy of a Lib Dem campaign manual, telling activists to do this).

Let's be clear. The Lib Dems - who only took control of the council earlier this year - had nothing to do with making this happen. Cllr Hopkins is quoted in the Council press release as saying 'We worked with local residents to design and create an imaginative and challenging space for children and young people to discover the joys and freedom of play.' If by we he means the Lib Dems, no, they didn't. It was a Labour government, a Labour-controlled council and above all a Labour councillor who made this happen. I hope Gary Hopkins has the generosity of spirit tomorrow to at least acknowledge the role played by Ron, and to pay a fitting tribute to Deasy tomorrow, but I won't be holding my breath.

More on what whips do

Yesterday I had to do proper Whips procedural business in the Commons. I think I may have put on Twitter something like 'Had my first proper whipping session in the Chamber and found it rather traumatic'. Probably not the best choice of phraseology.

We had a series of votes yesterday afternoon. It was House business, not Government business, and therefore it was a one line whip. No attendance necessary, and free votes. The votes were about the setting up of Regional Grand Committees. The Tories in their wisdom decided that rather than take all the regions as a group, they wanted a vote on each of the seven in turn, which equates to about an hour and 45 minutes worth of Commons time.

As this part of the day started I was on bench duty in the Chamber. That meant that when the Deputy Speaker said 'Motion Number 7' I had to stand up and say 'I beg to move'. He would then say, 'Moved formally - all those in favour say Aye' and I would, along with any other colleague who cared to join in, shout Aye. Then 'All those against say No', and if anyone shouts No, there's a division and we vote.

Then for some reason, after the division bell has gone and people start to pile into the division lobbies, the bench duty whip has to stay on the bench and gets asked the same question again by the Speaker, i.e. 'All those in favour...' and has to say 'Aye' again. Then we can go and vote. So far, so simple.

Later on I came off the bench and became a teller, which means you have to count members coming out of the division lobby. This is fine if there's a steady stream of them, but when it slows down to a trickle at the end, with the MPs who've managed to collar Ministers in the lobby to talk about urgent constituency matters, or people who have locked themselves in the toilets, then it is very important not to let your mind wander and to remember what number you have got to. There is another whip standing there, keeping an eye on your counting, who is sometimes from your own side and sometimes from the other side, for reasons too complicated to explain here. (Thinks it depends whether it's whipped business or not, but still sussing that one out). Obviously if it's someone from your own side they'll be helpful and remind you if you forget what comes after 79, but if it's the Opposition they would probably love nothing more than a bit of confusion and chaos over how many have voted.

After eight minutes the entrance doors to the division lobbies are locked, and a bit later than that one of the more senior whips will check the toilets, check under the tables and behind the curtains, and come through the doors shouting 'All out!' The tellers can then go into the Chamber and report their numbers to the Clerk of the House, who sits at the table in front of the Speaker. Again, not as simple as it sounds, as there is apparently a rule that you must go to one particular side of the table, near the Opposition benches, to hand in your piece of paper. It must not be handed in from the other side. I say that having approached the wrong side twice on my first outing. Unwritten rules, dontcha just love 'em?

You then have to go and stand in front of that desk with the other three tellers and when the Speaker says 'Order Order' you bow, take a step forward, bow again - and you have to be very quick off the mark as the bowing and stepping and bowing happens very quickly. As the (very nice) Deputy Speaker Sir Alan Haselhurst reminded me after my second attempt: 'it is meant to be synchronised bowing, Kerry'. He should have seen me at the first and only aerobics class I ever attended. It's very difficult keeping up!

After this, one of the tellers for the winning side reads out the result: 'The Ayes to the Right, 320. The Noes to the Left, 206' or whatever it is. The tellers for the winning side always stand on the Speaker's Left. I used to get rather confused by this, wondering why they were sometimes saying the Ayes to the Right when the Noes were standing there. In fact 'the Ayes to the Right' is a reference to the fact that the Aye division lobby is on the Speaker's Right, i.e. behind the Government benches.

Anyway, I find all this sort of stuff rather traumatic. I was absolutely fine, right from the start, when it came to speaking in the Chamber. Didn't even have first night nerves on my maiden speech. (It's de rigeur to say you were really nervous, and couldn't stop your knees from knocking and your hands from shaking, but I was fairly blase about it). But having to remember when to bow and when to say 'I beg to move' and when you 'Beg to Move that the House do now Adjourn' and when it's 'Beg to Move that the Sitting do now Adjourn' (the answer being that it's the latter when it's in Westminster Hall)... all this is very taxing. It's a bit like voting in Bill Committees - we vote alphabetically, with the clerk calling out our names and each person saying 'Aye' or 'No' or 'No Vote'. Even though I know which way I'm voting, and even though, being a reasonable way through the alphabet, at least some of my colleagues get to go first, I still find myself having to write down Aye or No on a piece of paper and mentally rehearse it over and over again, and I still always heave a huge sigh of relief once I've actually got the word out.

I blame it on the fact I'm used to having my mind on twenty things at once. Now it's a case of sitting there trying to think of nothing else but the next few words. 'I beg to move', 'I beg to move', 'I beg to move'.... And of course you manage to do that right up until about five seconds before you're actually supposed to say 'I beg to move' and then your mind starts wandering onto just why Simon Hughes is wearing such a bright green tie, and before you know it the Deputy Speaker is looking at you and obviously expecting you to say something.

Mind you, earlier today he was giving me one of those looks while the Minister was talking, and then looking very meaningfully down at my sandals in the way Miranda looks at Andrea's hideous shoes when she first turns up for work in The Devil Wears Prada. It turned out to be his way of telling me I'd dropped my pen on the floor.

I've never been a supporter of the idea of electronic voting, as it would remove from MPs the opportunity to lobby Ministers while a division is taking place, but I think I might soon become a convert. And how about just flashing the results up on a big screen like they do at football matches?


I'm in Parliament today, covering Private Members' Bills. There are few aspects of Westminster which are quite so confusing as the way Friday business is conducted, but it basically goes like this...

There are meant to be 40 members present for a quorum. Often, because most members are in their constituencies on a Friday, this number isn't reached. The way of testing this - i.e. seeing how many members have turned up - is to call for a vote on the motion that 'This House do now sit in private'. Everyone votes No, although today a Tory MP voted that it should sit in private, for reasons best known to himself. The key thing is how many vote. If fewer than 35 members (plus the tellers and the Deputy Speaker in the Chair) go through the division lobbies, then the House is inquorate and the Private Members' business is lost.

This means that progress on a Bill could at any point be sabotaged by someone calling for a vote if they think the House is inquorate. However.... as ever, there is a mechanism for avoiding this.

The MP promoting the first Private Members Bill on the agenda can move 'That this House do now sit in private' before official business starts. It doesn't matter if that vote reveals that the House is inquorate, because business hasn't started. So today, Andrew Dismore, who was first on the agenda with a Bill about the restitution of cultural items misappropriated during the Holocaust, moved the motion at 9.33am after Prayers, and the vote was something like 24-1 to the Noes.

If the motion has been moved once, it can't be moved again - so although the House is technically inquorate, there's no danger of that issue cropping up again during the course of today's Business, and because it was moved before Business officially started, it doesn't matter that the quorum wasn't reached. Confused yet?

The next factor is how many Bills are dealt with before the 2.30pm end of play, which depends entirely on how long MPs and Ministers talk for. Some MPs - including Andrew Dismore on the Labour side and Christopher Chope on the Tory side - have built their reputation on their ability to talk for hours if needed. Phillip Davies is another, newer Tory who seems to have become an afficianado of the Friday art of filibustering. They do this because they don't like the Bill or because they don't want to reach something further down the agenda. Sometimes Ministers talk for rather a long time too, but that's because they have lots of interesting things to say about the subject in question and want to get it on the record.

The only way this filibustering can be stopped is if someone moves a closure motion. However.... for a closure motion to be successful, 100 MPs must vote for it. Which obviously can't happen unless there are more than 100 MPs there.

This is why when things like the Temporary Agency Workers Bill come up on a Friday, or, say, Bills which are dear to the hearts of the environmental lobby, strenuous efforts will be made to rally the troops, not just by the MP proposing the Bill but also by interested third parties such as the trade unions, green campaigners and the like. Sometimes constituents write into MPs, usually at the behest of a group they support, urging them to attend on the Friday. And if they win the vote, then the Bill goes to Committee stage, etc, etc.

Is there a better way of doing things? Probably.

P.S. I'm just getting a strange sense of deja vu. A feeling I've explained all this on here before...

Thursday, 25 June 2009

David Cameron - time to leave his schooldays behind?

Apparently David Cameron, speaking today at Imperial College, London, has called the BNP 'retarded racists'. I thought it had more or less become accepted these days that we don't use the r-word? Not racist, obviously, he can call them racist all he likes, but isn't retarded/retard the language of the playground?

Cameron has shown similarly poor judgment on a number of occasions recently. Not only did he get pulled up for impersonating a Nazi, but - more seriously - he also told a rather crass joke about Beachy Head, which went something along the lines of, if you were on the top of Beachy Head with a Labour activist and a Liberal Democrat, who would you throw off first? The answer being Labour, 'business before pleasure'. The problem being not that we've heard it, or a variation on it, many times before, but that the joke was delivered within days of a young couple throwing themselves off Beachy Head with the body of their severely disabled child, who had just died of meningitis. I would have thought Cameron, of all people, might have realised how crass and insensitive it was to be making jocular references to Beachy Head at such a time.

If he wants people to take him seriously as a possible future Prime Minister, he needs to grow up a bit.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

In praise of David Mitchell

One final post before bedtime. A politician might be crucified in a frenzy of faux outrage for saying what David Mitchell says in his latest column for the Observer, which can be crudely summarised as saying it's not actually a big deal if people have to move their wheelie bins occasionally. (Obviously only people who are physically capable of doing do, the politician in me hastily adds). He broadens this out into a wider discussion of individual 'rights' versus the greater good, and puts it incredibly well.

"Our fear of being encroached upon has made us forget that there are few freedoms that can be fully exercised without impinging on someone else's. The freedom to stab has long since been subordinated to the freedom not to be stabbed. But we still have the freedom not to recycle and to borrow or lend money recklessly, regardless of others' freedom to live on a habitable planet and in a functional economy. We've hugely prioritised our rights over our duties because it's only the former that tyrants try to take away. But it can make us ridiculous."

Vegetarians - they're everywhere and must be stopped!

Speaking of Tory Boys (see below) one of the highlights of tweeting through the Speaker contest was the apoplectic response of one Tory Bear. I suspect he calls himself Tory Bear because his real name is Rupert but I may be wrong. Not a happy bear at all. His blog is worth checking out, if only to remind yourself that such people exist (and also just in case he becomes Speaker in 30 years time).

Today his guest contributor, Working Class Tory, poses the question... Do Labour hate meat? (Which sounds grammatically incorrect... ?) Here's an extract:

"The Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is Hilary Benn - is a hardline vegetarian, who seems to be able to convert those around him to his anti-meat cause. In the reshuffle earlier this month, the new Minister for Food and Farming was Jim Fitzpatrick - another vegetarian. Understandably, the farmers of this country, already put under ridiculous financial strains by the recession, are fearful their concerns will fall on deaf ears."

Some questions... What exactly is a 'hardline' vegetarian? Does he mean the type who doesn't say 'I'm a vegetarian but I eat fish and sometimes chicken?', i.e. someone who isn't a vegetarian at all? And what evidence does he have that Hilary has converted anyone at all to his 'anti-meat cause?' Is the public gallery in the Commons now swamped at Defra question time by adoring disciples in "Meat is Murder" T-shirts? Are farmers up and down the country putting down their pitchforks and adopting their pigs as pets? I think the public should be told.

(Jim, I assume, being a grown man, has been a vegetarian for some years and hasn't been brainwashed into it by the mung bean munching Benn. But who knows? It's a shame he wasn't in post when I did my recent debate on livestock's contribution to climate change, rather than Jane Kennedy who seemed rather underwhelmed by the case I was making).

Anyway, Working Class Tory and his friend have missed the real scoop. 10 Downing Street is, I understand, also introducing a meat-free day once a week in its canteen. Tom Watson obviously got out just in time! (Actually just clarified this with someone - it's not compulsory, but there's a meat-free promotion each Wednesday).

This week "self-confessed" vegetarians the McCartney family launched their Meat-Free Monday campaign - http://www.supportmfm.org/ which is linked to this http://meatfreemondays.co.uk/ I'm tempted to start lobbying for a Meat Free Monday in the Commons dining rooms. If there's one thing guaranteed to get Tory blood boiling - even more than a Bercow Speakership - it would surely be that.*

*As with backing JB for Speaker, this would not be the primary motive, but an added bonus!

Update on Speaker election

Hadn't realised it had been a whole week since I blogged. The advantage of Twitter is that you can do it on the move, or in those brief moments while you're on hold waiting to be put through to someone's office, or while you're waiting for the start of a whips meeting. Blogging requires rather more effort. Being in the whips office also involves fairly early starts (not particularly early compared to 'normal' jobs, but early when you don't get in from work till 11pm the night before), so I'm trying to be disciplined and not stay up late at night blogging as is my usual wont.

Anyway, have obviously missed a fair bit during the past week, although I did tweet my way through the Speaker contest on Monday, which seemed the best way of covering it. Despite ludicrous press reports of a whipping operation in favour of Margaret Beckett, which seem to have been triggered by the simple fact that one whip happened to express a preference for her candidature, I ended the contest as I began it, by backing John Bercow, as did some other colleagues in the whips office. Apart from anything else, you can't whip a secret ballot. How could you?

Although convention dictated that we shouldn't really elect another Labour Speaker, that wasn't much of a factor in my decision to vote for a Tory. (Definitely the first and almost definitely the last time in my life I will do so!)

If there had been a Labour candidate who I thought fitted the bill, with the right mix of experience and commitment to reform, I would have backed them, probably over and above a similar Tory. But I thought it would be wrong to back Margaret Beckett, who had for so long, and until so recently, been a member of the executive branch of Government, and who didn't seem to me to be particularly enthused by the cause of parliamentary reform. And Parmjit simply hasn't been in Parliament long enough.

One of the parliamentary sketch writers - probably Quentin Letts who seems to loathe Bercow with a vengeance - said that Labour MPs voted for Bercow 'to spite the Tories'. Again, not true. OK, I knew they weren't enthusiastic supporters of his, but even so I was surprised by how truly ungracious they were after his victory, which was met by rather unparliamentary applause from the Labour and Lib Dem benches (and the Nats and Independents), but sullen silence from the Tories. In the end Cameron had to force them to their feet for the standing ovation, and many of them still sat stubbornly in their seats. Since Monday I've overheard several conversations between Tories who are absolutely seething.

So what has he done to upset his colleagues? Was he really a socialist Trojan horse in the Tory ranks? No, I don't think he was. Have a look at what Steve Richards in the Independent is saying. I think he's got it spot on. The Tories almost universal dislike of John Bercow is not a reflection of how far to the left he's moved since his (awful) Tory Boy days. It's a sign of how far to the right the Tories under Cameron still are.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Goodbye to the Speaker

I was in the Chamber today for the Speaker's statement, and the tributes to him on his retirement. I thought Gordon's speech was very moving. The less said about Nick Clegg's the better. Obviously it would have been insincere of him to have paid a glowing tribute, seeing as he'd called for Michael Martin to go, and he acknowledged that, but I would have thought he could have managed more than two minutes (most of which was a party political broadcast for the Liberal Democrats). Cameron was smooth and shallow, and managed to fill the time without really saying anything. But Gordon was very good, talking with genuine feeling about how Michael Martin had risen from humble origins and, against the odds, achieved high office. (Clegg tried to suggest the Speaker and Ming Campbell came from almost the same place; geographically maybe, but not in any other sense).

I was sitting very near the Speaker, and he was obviously deeply moved by what Gordon said, to the extent that it was a relief when Gordon made a joke about other MPs being asked to roadtest the Speaker's branded whiskey (he's teetotal). He looked considerably steelier during Cameron and Clegg's 'tributes'. I think I'm right in saying that - by sheer coincidence I'm sure! - not a single Tory backbencher who was not on the order paper was called at PMQs today. Only Cameron, Lee Scott (who Cameron allegedly refers to as his 'bit of rough') and John Randall - aka the only Tory with a bushy beard - got to speak. And the Speaker may have allowed himself a little flicker of schadenfreude when Cameron not only gave us an open goal but virtually ran out of the goalmouth shouting 'here it is, shoot!' (That is, his admission it's a Europe-wide recession, although actually it's global).

Speaking of football, I was at the Labour gala dinner at Chelsea FC on Thursday night. Apart from stalking Jimmy Choo (very small and wearing rather disappointingly ordinary black brogues although I'm not sure quite what I expected) and chatting to Hattie, aka Holly from Red Dwarf (very nice, rather shy), I also got into conversation with someone called Scott Minto who I now know is quite a famous ex-footballer. Eddie Izzard gave an entertaining after-dinner speech, during which he announced his intention to run for King of China in fifteen years time.

During pre-dinner drinks someone had thoughtfully laid on a few footballs so that we could have a kick around on the pitch. I managed one goal, but that was before the goalie arrived. Still, in 4" heels, it was quite an achievement; unfortunately Mr Choo missed it. Then the lads arrived: Douglas, Hilary and Andy taking shots and David Miliband performing surprisingly well in goal. Eventually I had to march onto the pitch and threaten to take their ball away unless they came in for dinner. And they obeyed! Oh, the power of being a whip.

Roma community in Bristol

Another mini-blog. I've been following what's happened in Northern Ireland with the attacks on Roma families. Easton, one of the wards in my constituency, has a small Roma community which has just started registering on the radar of local agencies and has come up in a number of conversations I've had recently. Not a group I've had any contact with, so would be interested to know if anyone else has.

Stalinists and socialists in the Tory ranks!

"We all know that the expenses crisis is a massive problem, but it has brought out clear evidence of what all of us had sensed and feared, namely that the party in parliament has ceased to be a team effort and is now just run and dictated to for the personal advantage of David Cameron and George Osborne. We are concerned that the parliamentary party is just being used and abused by the leader and his inner circle. They are treating the party as if it is their private property. Action is being taken to respond to the expenses scandal but its main purpose actually seems to be to build up a position for themselves of permanent power. Colleagues are threatened with expulsion, older members are being forced out, untested candidates are being invited to apply from nowhere, and all of it is designed to assert a Stalinist hold over the party. The importance of parliament is being sacrificed to help them." So say some anonymous Tory MPs...

Meanwhile, Nadine Dorries is up in arms at the prospect of John Bercow becoming Speaker because his wife is, whisper it.. a socialist! In fact she seems to be suggesting that he is on his third. "John Bercow’s wife is reported to be a socialist. Does this matter? I think it does, a great deal. The position has been held by socialists twice already."


Mini-blogs today. Interesting piece in yesterday's Guardian re #charitytuesday on Twitter (and #woofwednesday!) I think Twitter is, in a small way, proving to be a good forum for bringing together the politically active and the politically interested... and who knows, some of the latter might eventually be persuaded to get out of their armchairs too!

Reason to believe

Interesting post over on LabourList from someone who has just joined the party. He or she, after giving the reasons behind their decision, concludes thus:
But most of all because last week, in the midst of its internal disorder, and while the Conservative Party’s plans for public spending cuts became clearer, this Labour government announced new efforts to tackle child poverty. I can’t envision any other party doing something like that at a time like this.That, then, is what it means to be Labour. That is why I have joined. And that is why there is still a place in British politics for the Labour party."

Monday, 15 June 2009


Rather a bizarre piece by Michael Gove in today's Times, telling readers how frequently he needs to use the toilet (about four times an hour at social gatherings, apparently). I can appreciate people's desire for more openness and transparency from their political representatives, but surely this is taking things just a little too far? Will Cameron now be forcing other members of his shadow Cabinet to follow suit?

Banksy exhibition in Bristol

You will no doubt have seen media reports about the new Banksy exhibition at Bristol city museum, which opened on Friday. There were huge queues over the weekend.

I was actually invited to the grand opening, but sent my apologies because (a) I had another event on already and thought it was more important to do 'proper' MPs work, and (b) to be honest, the invite (which obviously didn't mention Banksy as it was all very much kept top secret) didn't sound that exciting. If I'd known it was going to be pop culture rather than high culture, I'd have been there like a shot. As it is, I will now be joining the queues along with everyone else this summer.


On train from Bristol to London, after a meeting with the local PCT, and for once technology is proving co-operative - very impressed with new battery on laptop, and what seems to be an improved signal. (About time too, FGW!)

Sometimes wish I could tape meetings with local NHS bodies and then podcast so that people - people who haven't directly used the NHS themselves, who already know this - would actually believe there is good news out there. We haven't just got waiting times down to 18 weeks; we've got them down to 13 weeks. Moving ahead on stroke services, maternity services... and we now have primary mental health care across the city, which is entirely down to additional Government funding. That means people can get easier access to counselling and other treatment before things get really bad. And Bristol PCT has come out top of every NHS body in the country for staff satisfaction. Of course Roger and Doug (fellow local MPs) and I had some issues to raise, as we always do at such meetings, but generally we came away happy.

Today's business in Westminster starts with the usual whips run-through - basically just telling us when we can expect votes and how many, so that we can pass on this info to those who ask us - and then Children Schools and Families questions at 2.30, and then the Prime Minister's statement on an inquiry into Iraq. I've always thought there should be an inquiry, but not while the conflict was ongoing, so now's the time. Wonder who is going to chair it?

There are also hustings for the Speaker contest this afternoon, which will also be televised (or, at least, the television cameras will be there). I'm still sticking with Bercow, the moderniser's candidate. BTW, in response to someone who said, on Twitter I think, that the whips should stay out of this... They are. It's a secret ballot, a free vote and the only efforts being made to persuade people to vote one way or another are coming from the candidates themselves. Don't think I'll be at the hustings today, but going to make one of the other sessions this week. Actual ballot is on Monday.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Last word on whipping for tonight

I haven't ever seen or read House of Cards, but it's now on my 'must do' list so I can learn just when it's appropriate to push fellow politicians off the top of tall buildings and when I should resort to other, less draconian methods.

I've also been advised to get hold of a copy of Gyles Brandeth's book on his time as an MP and whip. Apparently it was common practice in the Tory Whips' office to start the morning meeting with a glass of champagne! I can categorically confirm that it doesn't happen in the Labour ranks.

More on whipping

The key misconception about the role of the Whips office is that it's all about forcing people to do what they don't want to do (i.e. to vote with the party, not against it). OK, so the job of the whips is to get Government business through the House. but more often than not this is about the simple task of making sure enough MPs are present to vote. Each whip has particular responsibilities. I'm the South West whip, which means I look after backbenchers in the South West region (all seven of them, so I get off lightly!) I also have departmental responsibilities, for No. 10, DFID and the Northern Ireland office.

If those backbenchers or Ministers in those departments want to miss a vote, they have to ask me if they can be 'slipped'. For example, if Shaun Woodward or Paul Goggins want to be in Stormont, they have to clear this with the whip. The final say goes to the all-powerful pairing whip. Until recently the post was occupied by the formidable Tommy McAvoy, but he's now been promoted to Deputy Chief Whip, and now it's Tony Cunningham's job. He has to make sure we have the numbers to get legislation through, whilst taking into account MPs' other commitments. What's more important, for example - a Minister wanting to travel to Brussels for a meeting of his/ her EU counterparts, or a backbench MP wanting to attend the funeral of a long-serving councillor back in the constituency? Someone wanting to attend the opening of a local Children's Centre, or someone wanting to go on an overseas Select Committee visit? And then there's the issue of whether to call in those who are sick, or on maternity leave or compassionate leave, depending on how tight the vote is likely to be. Then there's a judgment call to be made as to whether certain MPs (former Cabinet ministers in particular, and some of the old-stagers) are likely to hang around for the 10pm votes - and not much can be done to stop them if they don't want to.

Finally, there's the issue of rebellions. How many Labour MPs are likely to vote against the Government? How many are likely to abstain? This is where what some would refer to as the whips' "dark arts" come into play. A whip needs to know what backbenchers are thinking and feeling and planning on doing. But this is as much about having a good relationship with those MPs, and having a two-way conversation. If an MP has concerns about a particular piece of legislation it's far better to arrange for them to talk to a Minister, and see if consensus can be reached before the issue comes to a vote. Either the backbencher's concerns will be allayed, or the Minister will concede a point. And on some occasions appeals to the backbencher's loyalty might be made, of course, which is what people commonly perceive to be the Whips' role, the so-called arm-twisting.

As for the little black book rumoured to exist somewhere in the Whips' office, containing everyone's darkest secrets... it doesn't exist. It is actually quite important for a whip to know something of what is going on in the lives of 'their MPs', but not for blackmail purposes! If an MP has a health problem, or a parent or partner who is seriously ill, or problems with their local party, or whatever, it's useful to know so that MPs can be supported, and allowances made, for example in not putting them on big Bill committees or 'slipping' them from late votes. So actually we're quite cuddly really. Our job is to look after MPs. To befriend them. Honestly!

Whip it!

As Devo once said. Whip it, whip it good. OK, so I'm now a Government whip and yes, I am already fed up with the jokes. Contrary to mischevious rumour and speculation, that does not mean I'm not allowed to blog or Twitter or otherwise cease to be a normally-functioning human being (if a politician could ever be described thus, which I doubt). The Chief Whip did actually give me permission to blog about what goes on at whips meetings 'so long as you make it all up'. So that's alright then.

I got the call from Nick Brown on Tuesday morning as I was heading for the Immigration Bill Committee. Hadn't actually given much thought to the prospects of being 'shuffled' till then; too much else on my plate, and the phone wasn't working so couldn't sit there gazing at it longingly hoping it would ring, as we lowly backbenchers are meant to do at reshuffle time. But I said yes, and then had to sit in Bill Committee for two-and-a-half hours wondering what it would all mean.

The starting point is that as a whip, you're officially part of the Government. As a PPS you're kind of halfway - you are part of your particular ministerial team, and therefore not allowed to ask Qs or speak in debates on matters relevant to that department, and you're not supposed to sign Early Day Motions calling on the Government to do something or other, but otherwise you are able to act like an ordinary backbencher. Once you become a whip, all that goes out of the window. You can't speak in any debates, ask written or oral questions, sign EDMs, sit on a Select Committee or be an officer of an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG). Which basically rules out rather a lot of what I would normally do.

Usually I'd be looking through the Order of Business, seeing whether there are any questions I'd want to come in on, or any debates I'd want to intervene in. I'd be thinking what questions to table, and whether to ask for an adjournment debate on an issue. And I'd also spend a fair amount of time involved in my APPGs, as Chair of the Credit Union APPG, Secretary of the Somaliland APPG and Vice-Chair of the Wholesale Financial Markets Group. (An eclectic mix of topics!)

I'd also recently been appointed to the South West Regional Select Committe, and we'd had our first 'offsite' meeting on Monday, in Swindon at the Steam Railway Museum. (I had to do a radio interview while I was there, and ended up hiding in a broom cupboard as that was the only place you couldn't hear the sound of a steam train whistle every few minutes. But that's another story). I've now got to come off the Committee, but will still be taking an interest in the APPGs, just not as an officer.

Of course, as I always tell people, much of an MP's influence isn't exercised in public ways. It's as much about writing to Ministers, or having meetings with them, or collaring them in the division lobby as it is about asking questions or getting into debates in the House. Questions are actually a rather crude, though important, device in getting an item onto the political agenda. They usually have to be followed up in some other way. The challenge now will not so much be about how I get across constituents' views or raise issues with the powers-that-be, as there are still plenty of ways to do that, but more how I demonstrate to constituents that my silence in the Chamber doesn't mean I'm not speaking up for them. Glad I managed to get in the debate on livestock's impact on the environment before my promotion, and a prisoners' families debate, as those were the two issues I felt no-one else was prepared to raise. Bit disappointed I won't be able to speak in the Child Poverty Bill Second Reading, which is coming up very soon, or serve on the Committee, but will definitely still be taking an interest.

So - that's what a whip can't do. Next post will be about what a whip does do.

A look-back at the local elections

That last post was the equivalent of the 30 minute part-walking, part-running you do on the treadmill when you haven't been working out for a while. And now I'm into my flow, in the zone, so to speak.

So... what's been happening while I've been away? (That's a rhetorical question. I'm about to tell you.) The Lib Dems took overall control of Bristol City Council, which at least means that when (not if) they make a shambles of it, everyone will know it's them. And they might have to make some decisions for a change. Apart from that I'm still trying to come to terms with the fact that the people of Easton have in their wisdom re-elected John Kiely. John Kiely! Have they never met the man? I've not done any number-crunching since June 4th, but it's fairly clear that in the main the Labour vote stayed at home rather than switching to other parties. Sad loss of some of our long-serving councillors across the city although to be honest, we were always going to find it tough, given that we were defending seats won on General Election day 2005, when there was a much higher turnout. Add to that the MPs' expenses stories and a certain person 'rocking the boat' on the eve of poll...

It was also good to see no increase in support for the BNP in Bristol. They polled more or less the same in wards like St George East and Hillfields as they did last time round. In 2008 I was very much of the view that we shouldn't overtly campaign against them, so as not to give them any additional publicity. They weren't doing much more than running paper candidates anyway. This time there was some high-profile anti-BNP campaigning from Unite Against Facism, Hope Not Hate and the Labour Party. So did that manage to dampen down BNP support, and/or rally the voters to go out and vote against them? Or wasn't the support for them there in the first place? They certainly put out more literature this time, and had a car bedecked with Union Jacks and St George flags being driven round St George on polling day, so I think it was probably right to rise to the increased threat and step up campaigning. Just in case. There was, however, anecdotal evidence that some voters were sufficiently incensed at being told not to vote for the BNP, that they decided to do just that. But in the main, common sense prevailed.

Technological update

The latest news is: the laptop has a new screen, which works. It also has a new battery, which works. Although it did take me 48 hours to log on because they'd changed all the security settings. The mobile phone (i.e. the on loan phone, while the other one is in for surgery) does not work. The two varieties of cordless phones which could be used for the Bristol landline are both refusing to charge up, and can only be used if left on the base and put on speaker phone. And I can't get the plug out of the sink in the bathroom, which is one of those annoying push-down, pop-up ones. So all in all a fairly typical day.

Had an interesting chat last week with someone who will, to preserve his anonymity, henceforth be known as Stalker Boy, in view of his entirely normal and not at all weird or unnerving ability to recite vast chunks of my past blog posts on any subject you care to name. Stalker Boy was telling me what bloggers do to nudge traffic towards their sites, and to come high up on Google search engines, and the like. Something to do with people linking to you, and what sort of words and phrases you use? Something like that.

Anyway, seeing as I haven't blogged for a while, and the laptop's history has been deleted after major surgery, I had to Google my own name to find my blog. Only to find this - "what a lying slimey new labour moron you are kerry mccarthy" (see post below). Methinks perhaps I scored something of an own goal there. And may have just done it again.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Technological ineptitude

I'm in my constituency office in Bristol at the moment, just finishing off stuff. Lots to blog about, obviously, and have a relatively clear weekend. Although I say 'relatively' in a very relative way. Foolishly, given my four hours sleep last night, have agreed to do 8am slot on Radio Bristol tomorrow morning. In the afternoon there's a men's health event in Barton Hill and later on in the day I'm attending, but not speaking in, a debate on "Living with Environmental Change" at Bristol's Festival of Nature. But apart from that, and the emails, I'm a lady of leisure. No canvassing this weekend!

Blogging will however depend on whether I can get the office laptop connected to the internet at home, either by modem or wireless. I do not hold out much hope...

Not only have I not been able to blog much lately, I also haven't been able to read any other blogs. Lots of catching up to do! I could of course stay in the office for the rest of the evening, but have run out of oatcakes and would be quite nice to eat something else. So... if I'm offline all weekend it's because technology has once again proved a unvanquishable foe.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Proof that the Lib Dems can't organise the proverbial...

A little earlier today we had an email from John Pugh MP promoting Sir Alan Beith's campaign for the speakership. Unfortunately instead of attaching his candidate's manifesto, he attached a list of Select Committee members, which I assume is their working list of supporters. John Bercow's name is crossed out twice, with the words "SUPER NO NO" added for emphasis! They have now sent round the proper document, with apologies.

A good reason to vote tomorrow

I did one of my regular stints on the Simon Mayo show earlier, and mentioned the unpleasant billboard campaign being run by UKIP, with huge posters saying "No to unlimited immigration" in the heart of Bristol's most ethnically diverse wards. If you go to one of the higher floors in some of the tower blocks in Barton Hill, that's what you see from the walkway. I also mentioned this in Parliament yesterday. We don't have unlimited immigration, we have pretty tough laws, included the new points-based migration system. I deal every week with people who have been refused asylum or visas. I also receive quite a few emails from people who think the current system is too tough, particularly when it comes to removals from the UK of failed asylum seekers or over-stayers. Anyway, I've already had some feedback from my radio appearance. Not quite a ringing endorsement of my views...

"what a lying slimey new labour moron you are kerry mccarthy telling simon mayo that there has not been unlimited immigration since you got in power.how strange that is when hazel blears in her words said are biggest mistake is opening the floodgates to the whole world when we got in power in 1997,at least blears is honest whatever ever people think about her.lets remind you mrs liar 6 million immigrants have came to the uk since 1997 under your free for all open door policy and now the ordinary people of the uk are paying for this in the mass crime wave and islamic extremism that is speading around the uk like a wildfire,you really made me get my sick bag out with lies after after lies that come from you greedy corrupt gob when you was on simon mayos show , and you wonder why people vote for ukip and the bnp well the reason for that is 2 words=new labour, your hated now by everybody i know and i will make a prediction now i will bet you £100 that you lose your seat at the next election,lets see if you take me up on that bet you smug arrogant new labour loser,get the message quick white working class people like me who voted you lot into power in 1997 hate and despise you now.....peter"

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Scientists in Parliament

I'm not at this late stage going to break my rule about not commenting on individual cases re MPs' expenses (except for the occasional exclamation of a moat?! a duckhouse?! a mortgage for a man with £30 million in the bank????) But with Ian Gibson being deselected by Labour's star chamber and Doug Naysmith standing down at the next election, Parliament will be losing two of a rare breed: MPs with a scientific background. (As well as two of a less rare breed: Scots who represent English seats. Actually make that three, Ian McCartney's going too). Between them they covered all the bases, on health and science and technology, serving on numerous committees and All-Party groups, and speaking authoritatively on issues such as stem cell research and GM. Maybe we should have an all-scientist shortlist in Norwich North?

Contrary to media reports...

"The Bristol Vegan Fayre and there's not a besuited politician in sight". So says BBC West's political supremo Paul Barltrop in this week's Politics Show. (Scroll in to 43 mins).

Hmmm... well I may not have been besuited - I was wearing a summer dress - but I was certainly there. And I not only walked past Mr Barltrop as he was filming the opening 'holding the Telegraph up to the camera' shot, I waved and said hello. And then I saw him twice again, and said hello again. I feel my credentials as Bristol's numero uno vegan MP have been vilely traduced. (Belated thanks to Ellie for bringing this to my attention).

On the food front the highlight was probably the Creole stall, with gumbo, cornbread, mushroom fries and lots of chilli sauce. Although the coconut custard tart came a pretty good second. (Basically the vegan fayre is about eating your way through the entire day, just because it's there and because you can, for a change).

Rather disappointed with a poor showing from the stalls on the stickers front. Came away with just two - one from the Young Vegetarians and one from Doris' Dog Rescue. Good old Doris. (I have a sticker collection on the inside cupboard doors in my Westminster office; normally the vegan fayre provides some good pickings. The best ones are from the 2004 Kerry campaign: "Christians for Kerry", "Conservatives for Kerry" and my favourite, "Firefighters for Kerry").

The evening finished with a set from the Blockheads. Excellent stuff although they did insist on plugging their new album at some length, which wasn't really what anyone was there to hear. Sweet Gene Vincent was the highlight for me, although Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick was a bravura performance too.

See, vegans know how to have fun!

An e-trusion

Have just received an email from Gary Gibbon, Channel 4 political correspondent, publicising his new blog and apologising "for the e-trusion". I've never heard that phrase before. Someone will no doubt tell me now it's been around so long it's entirely passé.

Back... (sort of)

A lazy post here, because I've got lots of work to do... Extract from Ian Onions piece in today's BEP. I've said this plenty of times before, but it bears repeating.

"Unlike most councils, Bristol continues to use a senseless election system in which a third of the city's seats are contested every year for three years (there are no elections every fourth year). It's senseless because it's difficult to understand what you are voting for or what difference it makes. You might find a green voting slip coming through your door if you live in north Bristol but if you live south of the river, the local elections will pass you by because no seats are being contested there.

Our neighbours in North Somerset and South Gloucestershire hold all-out elections every four years which is far more sensible.It means everyone has a say on who runs the council at the same time. It also means a clean break, an easily defined watershed when one administration stops and another starts. Even if the same party is in control, all-out elections can mark a new beginning, a chance to make changes. In Bristol, councillors are always keeping one eye on the elections which are always just around the corner."