Thursday, 28 January 2010

Where's Captain Kirk?

One of my colleagues - who shall remain nameless, but no, it's not Tom Harris, has joined in the fun.

Shoot You Down

One of the things I've been saying when asked (on virtually a daily basis) what impact new media will have on the election campaign, is that it will be far more difficult for politicians to get away with spinning a line, unless it's backed up by solid evidence. Witness the Tories this week, who thought that if they said often enough that violent crime has gone up under Labour, they'd be able to fool most of the people most of the time. Enter the BBC's Mark Easton, who has comprehensively rubbished their claim. Are the Tories being honest with their claims on violent crime? he asks. The answer is no.

Channel 4's Fact Checker is also worth keeping an eye on. Here it is on Chris Grayling's claim that parts of Britain bring to mind episodes of The Wire. More scaremongering from the Tories.

New York City Cops (2)

By way of follow up to yesterday's piece about "TC gone mad", I can report that not only has he not managed to dig himself out of the hole, he's dug himself a veritable mineshaft.

On Five Live he's been talking about communities who have "imported into this country barbaric and medieval views about women" and has, as you can imagine, rather upset the Muslim community.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

New York City Cops...

...ain't that smart. So sang the Strokes. Don't know about that, but at least one of our Special Constables definitely ain't.

I refer of course to the contribution at PMQs today from David TC Davies MP. Aka David "political correctness gone mad" Davies, and, on Twitter, #DavidDaviesgonemad.

"Balal Khan was this week sentenced to just three years in an institution for a violent rape. Will the Minister refer that disgraceful sentence to the Solicitor General, and also investigate the parents and community, to find out how that young man could have such disregard for women's rights?"

Now.... big intake of breath. Where do I start? Well here's the Daily Mail report on the case, which was undoubtedly horrible. A 13 year old boy beat, raped and robbed a 20 year old woman. And it's because he was under 14 at the time that the sentence was so short. Whether the sentence was too short is of course an issue for debate, and a perfectly valid issue to raise in a parliamentary question. But let's put that to one side for now.

Let's also leave aside the sheer audacity of TC suddenly presenting himself as a champion of "women's rights", which was what made my jaw drop open in disbelief. (A colleague, actually squealed in horror, which I gather could be heard by the TV audience. Though she'd grasped the real import of what he'd said).

And let's also brush over the silliness of describing rape as a breach of "women's rights". Well yes, if you also regard being murdered as a breach of one's human rights, I suppose. Which it is, but kind of misses the point, doesn't it?

Let's focus on what TC was really saying in his question. Which, put crudely, was that the boy raped because he comes from a community - the Muslim community - which doesn't respect women's rights. That was what he was saying, wasn't it?

Now obviously there's an ongoing debate over Islam and the role of women, and whether the religion is more or less respectful of women than Western cultures, and of course that depends partly on the interpretation of Islam and the form in which it is practised or, even, perverted by extremist elements. And TC will no doubt try to convince his critics that he was trying to engage in this serious, complex debate. But I could point to plenty of examples of Western culture that equally "prove" a correlation between male attitudes towards women and crimes such as rape.

I was going to flag up footballers, their drunken escapades and allegations of rape against them by way of illustration, but that gets into rather tricky territory. So I'll just use a very simple example.

I've mentioned on here before an incident I witnessed when I was about 15. Trivial in a sense, but something that left a lasting impression. (Well it must have - it was thirty years ago!) I was walking the family dog late at night, when a minibus pulled up at the traffic lights near me. The occupants, who had no doubt had a few drinks, had a life-size, naked blow-up doll in the bus with them and were punching it, abusing it, beating it repeatedly around the head... I remember their faces illuminated in the streetlights, contorted in snarls of angry, aggressive pleasure. Yes, it was only a inflatable doll, but they were clearly venting their hatred on it. Their hatred of women.

They were rugby fans. They may well have been Welsh rugby fans. So perhaps TC - a Welsh MP - would like to ask some questions about what in their families, their community led them to have such a lack of respect for women? He'd probably find out they loved their mothers, were fiercely protective of their sisters, wanted to marry a 'nice' girl. Not much different to your average Muslim, in fact. But he would never have asked that question of them, would he?

Picture This

Just a quick, albeit lengthy, cut-and-paste post to nail something that has been raised with me before and has cropped up again in the context of Labour's excellent "Change We See" campaign. Concrete evidence (in some cases literally!) of the social and economic change we've seen in our communities under 12 years of a Labour government. Contrast that with the vacuous "time for change" mantra chanted by Cameron at every opportunity, and challenge him as to what that really means.

Anyway, the suggestion is that it's unlawful to take pictures of public buildings, which is of course not true. Here is what the Minister, Shahid Malik, said in response to a debate in Parliament in April 2009 on photography in public places. And no, I haven't censored the ending. The Speaker cut him off in his prime. Worth reading the full debate, which includes more detail from the Minister on what guidance has been given to police officers and reassurances as to what ought to happen.

"There are two separate issues and I would like to deal with each in turn. First, concerns have been expressed about the stop-and-search powers used under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000. As hon. Members will know, section 44 enables the police to stop and search anyone within an authorised area for the purposes of searching for articles of a kind that could be used in connection with terrorism. The powers do not require a reasonable suspicion that such articles exist. This is a useful power, but it is also wide-ranging, and concerns have been expressed that the power is being used to stop people taking photographs - whether of buildings or of people - within authorised areas. There are also concerns that cameras are being confiscated as part of such searches. Those are genuine concerns that people have raised.

I would like to make it clear that section 44 does not prohibit the taking of photographs. In November last year the National Police Improvement Agency issued revised guidance on the use of section 44 that made it clear that the power does not stop the taking of photographs in an authorised area and that the police should not use those powers to stop people taking pictures. The police may stop and search someone who is taking photographs in an authorised area, just as they may stop and search any member of the public, but the powers should not be targeted on photographers."

"The second issue concerns the new offence in section 58A of the Terrorism Act 2000, which was inserted by section 76 of the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008. It makes it an offence to elicit, attempt to elicit, publish or communicate information about an individual who is or has been a constable, or a member of the armed forces or intelligences services. The information must be of a kind that is likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing acts of terrorism.

It has been suggested that the new offence could criminalise people taking or publishing photographs of police officers. A photograph of a police officer may fall within the scope of the offence, but would do so in only limited circumstances. The offence is designed to capture terrorist activity directed at members of the protected groups, which, sadly, we know occurs. An offence might be committed, therefore, if someone provides a person with information about the names, addresses or details of car registration numbers of persons in the protected groups. The important thing is that the photographs would have to be of a kind likely to provide practical assistance to terrorists, and the person taking or providing the photograph would have to have no reasonable excuse, such as responsible journalism, for taking it.

I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley)—York is a great city—that had he taken a photograph of a billboard in an underground station, he would have been on safe ground. I hope that the incident did not cost him the prize for being the best MP photographer in that year.

I want to be clear about this: the offence does not capture an innocent tourist taking a photograph of a police officer, or a journalist photographing police officers as part of his or her job. It does not criminalise the normal taking of photographs of the police. Police officers have the discretion to ask people not to take photographs for public safety or security reasons, but the taking of photographs in a public place is not subject to any rule or statute. There are no legal restrictions on photography in a public place, and there is no presumption of privacy for individuals in a public place.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing has said that we will issue all police officers and forces with a circular on the new offence. It will set out the policy intentions behind the offence and make it clear that it does not criminalise legitimate photographic or journalistic activity. The circular will be discussed with interested parties before it is issued.

Designated areas may cover any area. They may, for example, cover a town or a borough. They must be approved by the Secretary of State, and, prior to that, by the Director of Public Prosecutions.

It is worth noting in this context the two important safeguards in the statute, which I just mentioned. It is also worth remembering why Parliament only recently agreed to create the new offence. The offence is aimed at protecting those who are on the front line of our efforts to tackle terrorism. Sadly, recent events in Northern Ireland have shown that members of the armed forces and the police continue to be targets for terrorists. We also judge that the police, the armed forces and the intelligence services are regarded as potential targets by extremists in the UK. The new offence is therefore important, and I would not want concerns about its potential application to photographers to overshadow that.

On a separate issue, we have recently been made aware of the publication on the internet of detailed street images of the capital and other major UK cities. The hon. Member for Uxbridge raised the matter. It freely demonstrates that the ability to take photographs in a public place is not subject to any set of rules or to statute. There are no legal restrictions on photography in a public place except where the picture is taken with the intent of committing a crime or terrorist act.

I hope that I have provided some reassurance that we take the issue seriously and that we are doing all we can to ensure that legislation is not misused against photographers, whether journalists, tourists or just enthusiasts. I make it absolutely clear that unless someone is engaged in criminal activity, they must be allowed to take photographs in public places and that the law should not be used to discourage or hamper that activity. I hope the hon. Gentleman accepts that the Government's intentions in this area are right and that we are working hard to ensure that the law does not have an unintended impact on photography.

The hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) spoke about a journalist in his constituency. Freedom of the press is a fundamental foundation of any democracy, and the idea that journalists are being blocked willy-nilly from engaging in their lawful activity is completely unacceptable. Anecdotally, there seems to be a disconnect between what the Government intended and what might be happening on the ground...

If anyone does have proof of the 'disconnect' the Minister talks of, get in touch with your MP, tell him or her all about it. It shouldn't be happening.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Are you Experienced?

"If only I, could sell myself, the way that even, I would buy..."

In the wake of the airbrushed poster debacle - and incidentally is now claiming to be the UK's most visited politics site, with more than 500 posters submitted - news is out that the Tories are advertising for a "Brand Communications Manager" to sell Brand Cameron to an unsuspecting British public.

The new recruit will join a Brand Communications Team, reporting to someone with "overall responsibility for brand management" and her deputy.

The job advert doesn't make clear quite how many eager young Tory tots make up the rest of the team, but tells us the Brand Communications team is responsible for above-the-line advertising, design, online creative content and "experiential activity", whatever that may be. Watch out for The David Cameron Experience* coming to a town near you!

*Poster to appear on very soon no doubt. Beyond my technical skills.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Alone Again Or

Disturbing but not at all surprising report in the FT of a survey of Tory candidates standing in the 240 most winnable of their target seats. Of the 144 PPCs who responded, “reducing Britain’s carbon footprint” was the lowest priority for them out of 19 policy options put before them.

Asked to rate each policy on a scale of one to five, where five was the most important to them personally, the candidates gave the climate change issue an average rating of 2.8, significantly below “more help for marriage”, 3.6, and “protecting the English countryside”, 3.57. They rated “cutting red tape” as second only to tackling the budget deficit in terms of priorities, suggesting resistance to environmental regulation.

Tim Montgomerie of Conservative Home is quoted as saying: ‘This is a hugely controversial issue for the Conservative party. There’s almost no support among centre-right think-tanks for all this climate change, so the party has got to be incredibly careful. I’m confident the sceptics are going to win. It’s for Cameron to decide how he’s going to get out of this – he’s lost the battle already.’

So is Cameron going to take a stand and try to whip his party into shape behind him? Or is he going to quietly let this one go? Judging from his near silence on green issues in recent months, even during Copenhagen week, it looks as if he's already given up the fight. (And that's being generous enough to assume that he was ever particularly passionate about the cause in the first place... Which I doubt.)

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Equal but Different

Final blog of the night... and this is only because I said I would.

I am, as previously mentioned on here, thoroughly fed up with outbursts of mockrage from Tories on Twitter, although in some ways it's a useful indicator that what I've said has hit a raw nerve. Latest case is the RTing by me of a Tweet from a constituent, which, as abbreviated by me, was: "A gay man/lesbian voting Tory is a fool. Cameron voted ag repeal section 28 & party is aligned with homophobes in EU". (The constituent, btw, is a journalist who writes on LGBT issues for various local publications. And he's a gay man in a civil partnership. I've met him and his husband; they're nice blokes).

So why has this struck a nerve with the Tories? Obviously no-one likes being called a fool, and perhaps the language could have been more moderate, but you can see I'd already had to condense the tweet to fit it in, without being able to add comment of my own. And anyway, I do think that most people would be misguided/ mistaken/ unwise/ foolish/ irrational/ imprudent/ demented/ derranged/ just plain wrong [delete as appropriate] to vote Tory at the next election. Of course I do. A Tory Government would be a disaster for this country and deeply damaging for my constituents on a personal level.

But let's get back to the main issue. I suspect my constituent's tweet was inspired by reading this piece in Saturday's Guardian, on the Conservatives' less than impressive track record in voting against gay rights. I've not seen any conclusive proof that the leopard has changed its spots, despite Cameron's attempts to convince us otherwise. If a gay man/ lesbian votes on the basis of identity politics, then it's hard to see why they'd vote Tory. (And none of the 'outraged' have said anything to challenge that view).

Of course, many LGBT voters won't vote on that basis, which is where the tweet is open to challenge. If you're a gay man with parents who happen to be very elderly and very wealthy, and the only thing you care about in life is getting your hands on as much of their money as possible, then it could be argued you'd be a fool NOT to vote Tory.

Let's move on though, to the issues which I know concern my constituent, and on which basis he may well cast his vote at the next election. An example of "the politics of But" (rather than "the politics of And"). Yes, the track record of this Labour Government on equalities is remarkable, from equalising the age of consent, gay adoption, scrapping section 28, civil partnerships, recognising homophobic hate crimes.... have a look here for more. But.

Civil partnerships are not the same as marriage. And we won't have true equality until they are. I've tried looking into this, and the explanation I got as to why the UK hasn't gone down the path of other countries who have legalised gay marriage was that it's more difficult in the UK because whereas in those countries you can only be married in a civil ceremony and can then choose to go on and have a religious service should you want one, in the UK you can be married in church without the civil element. Which I took to mean that you couldn't have gay marriage in this country without persuading the Church of England, Catholic church, etc, to accept it.

But you could have a concept of civil marriages for all those who don't care for the religious part of the marriage ceremony, so there would at least be equality there, and hope that the Church takes a more enlightened view in future. (And give it nudges in the right direction). Although that could be seen as downgrading civil ceremonies for opposite sex couples and be met with opposition? I don't know the extent to which this was all discussed before the 2004 Act became law - I wasn't in Parliament then - but I can see why the "But" matters, and perhaps it's time we revisited it.

The other "But" is the fact gay men are still barred from being blood donors, because they're in a high risk group for HIV transmission. My initial response to this was, well, it's an understandable restriction. But when you think about it... Giving blood is an altruistic thing. We don't pay people to give blood in this country. People do it out of the goodness of their hearts. And it's self-certifying. People who go along to give blood are by and large trusted to say whether or not they've been indulging in risky behaviour. A gay man might not know if he's HIV positive, but I can't see why, if he had any doubt in his mind, he'd decide to go and give blood. And there are second and third generation tests which pick up infected blood anyway. The risk in the US, according to this, of contracting HIV through a blood transfusion is 1 in 2 million units transfused. And - correct me if I'm wrong - people are paid to give blood there. So I can see why gay men find it offensive to all be lumped into the same bracket, and to, in effect, be accused of being indifferent to the fate of people to whom they donate blood.

Policies not posters

In a seminar I chaired at the Fabians conference yesterday I asked Peter Kellner of YouGov whether it was possible to judge what was the more effective form of political campaigning: the Conservatives spending millions on billboards of an airbrushed David Cameron, or Labour supporters parodying it with the pics, which have now received considerable coverage in the mainstream media. His response was that it's difficult to judge, and that 90% of the money spent by the political parties during election campaigns is a complete waste of money anyway. Leaflets go in the bin, billboards are forgotten, etc, etc.

Also, much of this propaganda is directed at people who have already made up their minds how to vote anyway.... Which is why Voter ID/ phone bank work, and then targeted mailings are by far the best use of funds rather than blanket coverage of a constituency. (Not something those with the Ashcroft millions behind them have to worry about though - they can just bombard everyone.)

The received wisdom about billboard campaigns in the past was that what mattered wasn't the billboard itself, but the press/TV coverage it got when it was unveiled. As Peter Kellner pointed out, the only Conservative billboard people remember from the 1997 campaign was the 'Demon Eyes' picture of Tony Blair. And yet there was only ever the one poster; it wasn't a campaign that was rolled out on billboards across the country. You will probably be able to find people who can "remember" seeing the poster, but they won't have; they'll have seen the press coverage.

During my brief stint working for the Labour Party during the 2001 election I remember having trouble explaining this to the Electoral Commission, when we were discussing election spend with them. They were convinced that a 'billboard campaign' would have cost millions, whereas the truth is, most of them only get a very limited run. The current Cameron campaign, which really has been rolled out nationwide, is the exception, not the rule. And yes, people notice the posters, but are they more or less likely to vote Conservative as a result? I doubt it actually makes any difference at all, unless the ad agencies find a campaign that really hits home.

At the coming election Labour has a choice - should it spend its limited funds on targeted mailings, phone banks, battle buses, party political broadcasts, new media campaigns: all those things which genuinely connect with voters? Or should it splash out on billboards instead? My reckoning is we might see one or two limited poster campaigns, to get across a particular message on a particular day, perhaps in a particular location, but we won't be following the Conservative example.

Now Mary

I'm not usually a Telegraph reader - no, you surprise us! gasps my collective readership - but this piece by Mary Portas, aka Mary Queen of Shops, is a must-read. (Given my previous post, perhaps we should just get rid of political columnists altogether and have celebs write all the comment pieces in our newspapers).

Mary dissects the now infamous 'airbrushed' posters, and comes to the conclusion that, frankly, they're a bit crap. (For suggestions as to how they can be improved, see the excellent But it's in her analysis of 'Brand Cameron' that she really excels, coming to the devasting conclusion:

"All successful brands stand for something, whether that's reliability, luxury or usefulness. I've racked my brains but I can't for the life of me think what Cameron stands for.... If he were a supermarket, he'd be Somerfield."

Mere Pseud Mag Ed

Two excellent articles in the Observer today. David Mitchell is on form, parodying archaeologists and the conclusions they draw from tiny "finds". Something which, perhaps I can now confess, I've never really quite seen the value of. So archaeologists, led by a professor of palaeolithic archaeology at the University of Bristol no less, have discovered Neanderthals may have worn make-up. I thought we already knew that from the Flintstones? Betty and Wilma were very glam. They'd completely nailed this season's animal print too. Role models for us all.

Seriously though, perhaps someone can explain to me why we need to know this. Is is that we could then go on to conclude that Neanderthals weren't quite as hairy as we've previously thought, and that could tenuously prove something to do with evolution? Or is it just fascinating to know a tiny bit more about our very ancient past, and I'm the archaeological equivalent of a philistine?

The second excellent article in today's Observer - and tellingly by another non-journalist - is from Regine Chassagne of Arcade Fire fame, who is Haitian and writes movingly about her shock since the earthquake struck. "Since Haiti shook and crumbled, I feel as if something has collapsed over my head, too. Miles away, somehow, I'm trapped in this nightmare. My heart is crushed, I've been thinking of nothing else." Please read it - and then donate via the DEC appeal, which includes most of the major UK charities/ NGOs.

There is also a far from excellent article in today's Observer by Catherine Bennett. I have to admit, I'm not a fan of her comment pieces. She's rarely thought-provoking or infuriating or amusing. The logic of her conclusions often defies me, and there doesn't seem to be any coherent worldview. To be honest, I've never quite seen why she's paid to be a columnist.

Anyway, today she is writing about about the possibility of her mate, the highly unappealing Rod Liddle, becoming editor of the Independent. Completely bizarre logic, once again. She seems to be defending Mr Liddle's right to free speech - sexist/ racist/ Islamophobic though it may be- whilst condemning those in the blogosphere and on Twitter who are expressing the view that a man of Mr Liddle's views should not be put at the helm of one of our few liberal-leaning newspapers. It seems free speech only applies to Mr Liddle and not to those who disapprove of him. (Check him out on climate change denial too; surely if the Independent has a particular USP, it's that it's been excellent on environmental issues).

Stop press - the folks over at Liberal Conspiracy are running a piece suggesting that Mr Liddle has been leaving racist comments on a football website. Wonder what Ms Bennett has to say about that?

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Glam Racket

Was toying with the idea of doing a post here on silly Tory claims that is negative campaigning. (Well it is, in so far as it's saying that Cameron and his Tory Party are not an entirely good thing, which we are allowed to do, but it's witty and fun and some of the pics at least are based on policy differences which need highlighting - for example, the BBC one - and this is a good way to do it.)

As I say, I was going to do that, but I've been distracted by discovering Worth checking out for the picture of Geoff and Patricia alone. And I like Andrew Adonis and his salt supplies.

Hollow Man (2)

Sorry to harp on about the Cameron poster campaign (well, not really) but according to the Mail, Senior Tory officials have said that the campaign is "designed to appeal to floating voters in Lib Dem held seats". So does that mean the Tories are targeting Bristol West? The three posters I've seen so far are in the new Bristol West seat or roads leading to it... It was a three-way marginal last time, but I'd have thought the boundary changes put it as a straight Lib Dem-Labour fight (which will be won by Labour).

Stephen Williams, by the way, reckons Bristol North West is a three-way fight, as his safest Lib Dem ward has gone into there. No doubt we will be seeing "Only the Lib Dems can beat Labour here" leaflets going out soon.

Wax and Wane

Some good pieces on the airbrush campaign by Brand Republic. (See the links at the bottom too.)

Haiti - earthquake

DFID is making excellent use of its website - - and its Twitter account - @dfid_uk - to show what the UK is doing to help the people of Haiti, including sending out search and rescue teams. The UK were first on the scene after the Pakistan earthquake and are acknowledged experts in this field. Of course after the rescue efforts have been exhausted, there will be a huge amount of reconstruction needed, in what was already one of the world's poorest countries. You can donate to the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal at

Kurious Orange

Just received this email. Somewhat baffled by it.

Dear Kerry McCarthy,

Whatever happened to that revolutionary Rearing of Cod in Freshwater Project?

Well, I am delighted to advise that our activities are developing at a rapid rate!

The website has just been updated together with a summary of 2009 and the Annual Report.

We have included a very honest assessment of our activities and performance, as well as an opinion of current trends and policies.

It makes good reading and may ruffle a few scales!

Take a look at

Kind regards,

It's the New Thing!

Douglas in the New Statesman on the election campaign:

"Look at the Conservatives: they're running a broadcast campaign in a networked world. If you look at their poster advertising - a thousand posters last week - I think the idea that you have one-way dialogue with the public … fails to recognise the appetite for engagement". Indeed.

No Good Advice

A few hours in the office, for the first time this week... I see people are reporting that Andy Burnham has 'let slip' the election date. I was at that event yesterday, which was the parliamentary launch of Julie Morgan's Private Members Bill to stop under-18s using sunbeds. The Bill will also outlaw unstaffed tanning salons of which there are quite a few in Bristol, sometimes offering sessions for as cheap as £1 or even 50p a minute. When I was first elected I met with Consol Suncenter, who run a lot of these unstaffed salons and have a regional office in my constituency. We discussed the steps they were taking to make sure under-16s didn't use their salons, and that others didn't over-use the salons, which was mostly about conspicuously displaying signs in the salon and having CCTV and spot checks, but I have to say, I wasn't convinced and will be supporting Julie's Bill.

Andy was joined at the launch by Nicola from Girls Aloud, who was obviously nervous at speaking in public but gave a lovely speech saying "You don't have to be Tangoed to be accepted". Have to say, she looked great. Killer heels.

Anyway, during Andy's speech he said something about a May 6th election, which caused these flutterings amongst political pundits. It doesn't mean a thing. I'm working on the assumption of a May 6th election. Everyone is. It seems the most obvious choice of date. But the only person who knows is Gordon, and I suspect even he doesn't know yet. He might wake up tomorrow morning and decide, what the hell, let's go for March 25th. He might not!

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Double take

Grazia magazine is, I confess, one of my guilty pleasures in life, and this week I'mAdd Image in it. They seem to have got their Hiltons muddled up... and I don't mean Paris and Nicole. Not sure who should be more offended, Steve or Alex.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Hollow man

Lots of spoofs of the Cameron 'Airbrushed for Change' poster doing the rounds... some funny, some not so funny. Check out for some of the best. So far in Bristol we've spotted one huge billboard along Old Market, one along the Feeder (now adorned with a Hitler moustache, which is a bit unimaginative for the city that spawned Banksy) and one in Southville (or make that half, as I gather it's been partly torn down already). Anyone seen any more?

Heard it Through the Grapevine

On my way to London, rather enjoying the picturesque snowscenes from the train window.

Today officially starts at 2.15pm with the usual Whips meeting, then it's Defence questions, then a statement from the DfT on the severe weather, then the Second Reading of the Children, Schools and Families Bill.

The CSF Bill goes into Committee next week, and, as the departmental whip, I've spent the past week trying to agree witnesses for the evidence sessions with the Tories and Lib Dems. If the programme motion timetabling the Bill is approved tonight, we'll have four evidence sessions next week, then eight scrutiny sessions over the following fortnight. No idea whether the Tories will vote against the Second Reading, or the programme motion (they shouldn't because they've indicated they're happy with the number of sessions), so we may be voting at 10pm tonight, we may not. I've also got an SI committee this afternoon, with my DFID departmental whip hat on. Shouldn't be controversial; just got to make sure people have managed to get to Westminster in time!

The big event today is of course the PLP meeting at 6pm. (Parliamentary Labour Party, all Labour MPs and peers can attend). According to the Mail at the weekend, the agenda for tonight has been rejigged following "A Very Rubbish Coup", and it's a sign of the Prime Minister's weakened position that he is now sharing the platform with others. Seeing as I - and presumably others - were told on Tuesday that this Monday's PLP would be Gordon, Peter and Douglas talking about plans for the General Election, I can only say that the Mail's piece is "A Very Rubbish Scoop".

I don't know in such instances whether lobby correspondents, under pressure to file copy, seize on tiny bits of information and go wandering off down the garden path with them, or whether it's Labour MPs who are feeding them such titbits. All I can say is, articles in the press about the internal affairs of the Labour Party should be treated like those paths: with a hefty dose of salt.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Love Cats

More here. Also see the Lolitics site for more LOL-ing.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Guest blog...

Well not quite, but Stephen Pound emailed me last night with a copy of an article which appears in today's Sun. So for those of you who aren't Sun readers, here it is. Obviously I am posting this because I like it. (P.S. Busy, busy, busy today, might blog on train. If indeed there are trains.)

The Sun. 8th.January 2010.

I strolled out of Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday with a light heart and only my worries about Bobby Zamora’s collarbone matched the damp and depressing weather that was bringing the nation to a slip-sliding halt.

Within minutes I had been plunged into a depression that was as all enveloping as the snow. From the highway of hope I had skidded into the defile of despair because a couple of ex-Ministers had decided to give aid and comfort to the enemy by an act of monumental foolishness that came as a source of immense delight to the Conservatives.

My Parliamentary colleague Geoff Hoon had decided that what the country really needed was to forget about the economy, the awful weather and indeed the whole business of government and, instead, devote the next few weeks to a bloodstained bout of backstabbing aimed at dumping Gordon Brown.

It would be easy to define the polar plot as another case of a bitter former Minister putting his own ego ahead of the issues that really matter and within minutes there was talk of Geoff having gone from no job to snow job by attempting to plunge an icicle into Gordon’s back.

First reactions from my constituents confirmed that the prospect of politicians hurling snowballs at each other instead of getting on with the job we’re paid to do was not one that they found appealing.

The blizzard of e-mails that swept over Geoff and Patricia Hewitt in the hours after their declaration confirmed to me that majority opinion was clearly not on their side but I still find if insulting to the people we represent that so much time has been taken up on a matter which may be of deep fascination to a few but which the rest of the country views with icy indifference.

Soon the nation will have the opportunity to vote on Gordon Brown’s Prime Ministership and it is in the court of public opinion and at the ballot box that these matters should be decided – not in the dank alleyways of Westminster.

When I was in Rome, for the match which Fulham unluckily lost on some very dodgy refereeing decisions to Roma, I picked up a book of poems and sayings by Ovid and one stuck in the mind.

“Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason?
Why if it prosper, none dare call it treason”

That seems to imply that if you organise a successful plot then everyone thinks you were not indulging in treachery but motivated by nobility.

Somehow I doubt that this will apply to Geoff Hoon and I fear that he will be remembered for slipping on the black ice of self indulgence and back-sliding into a snowdrift.

Making up an execution party to see off the Prime Minister may have been Geoff’s intention but, in reality, he and the plotters have formed a circular firing squad.

It’s not just the snow that is flaky at the moment and I’m pretty sure that in years to come any who asks what happened to the person who proposed the polar plot the answer will be “Geoff who?”

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Never Trust a Man with Egg on his Face

Not a particularly relevant title, except it has the word egg in it, but has just reminded me how much I loved Dirk Wears White Sox. It's fairly obvious to me that after a pretty hectic day I'm not going to be able to get to sleep for ages so might as well add a bit more to the post below...

When I first saw the Daily Mail story about the battery cages, my first thought was disbelief, tinged with a little touch of "please don't let this be true". I didn't think it could be. I know how committed the Labour Government is on this issue, and the lead it took in pushing for an EU-wide ban. And the Secretary of State, Hilary Benn, and the Defra Minister, Jim Fitzpatrick - both vegetarians - were hardly going to be the ones to start wobbling on the issue.

I was then contacted via Twitter about it, and although I told the person who got in touch with me that I very much doubted the story was true, I said I'd check it out. Of course I wasn't at all surprised to receive categorical assurances from the Secretary of State that the Government was still 100% committed to the ban and was in fact now going the extra mile to make sure other EU countries step up to the plate too (if that's not a mixed metaphor?).

But the point is.... if the Daily Mail article was enough to sow tiny seeds of doubt in my mind, to the extent that I went and sought out the SoS, think how corrosive such stories are when people who don't know Labour's record on this issue, don't know the Ministers in question, and think that if they read it in a newspaper it's probably as least partly true. That's what we're up against, and that's why I value being able to use new media to tell people the truth behind the headlines.

All We Have Is Now

When people talk about the modernisation of Parliament one of things flagged up for criticism is the archaic system of voting, i.e the fact we have to go through the division lobbies and each vote takes about 15 minutes so tonight, with four votes, we were there till nearly 11pm. Tonight though was a good example of why the current system works. During that time I managed to:

1. Catch up with the Immigration Minister for an update on the 50 failed asylum seekers who are being removed from Bristol to Cardiff, by the UK Borders Agency tomorrow (Weds). They're in what's known as 'section 4' NASS accommodation, which is for those who can't at this point in time be returned to their countries of origin (e.g. they're from places like Darfur, Somalia, Iran, Zimbabwe). NASS have the right to send them wherever they want, at short notice, and have decided to ship them off to Cardiff, telling them of this fact just before Christmas. OK, they're all single people, not families, and their asylum claims have failed, but it's still no way to treat people. (And actually it looks as if at least one of them may have just had his asylum claim approved). Anyway, the Minister has got his officials looking into it urgently, and I'm expecting a report back tomorrow morning.

2. Collar Hilary Benn about a Daily Mail report that the Government was secretly trying to renege on the commitment to an EU-wide ban on battery cages by 2012. I asked was it true and his immediate response was an emphatic No! The Government is absolutely committed to the ban. Some other EU countries have said they won't be ready to meet the ban, and the UK has therefore said that if that's so, we won't accept imports from those countries. That's what the behind the scenes lobbying was about. Usually we can't stop imports from another EU country under the single market, but we don't want other countries trying to wriggle out of the ban so this is a way of putting pressure on them. (I suspect the hunting lobby have a hand in this story, as I've noticed recently they've started using the line 'what about battery hens' whenever anyone says fox hunting is cruel). Anyway, Hilary apparently put the Government's position straight in a speech to farmers today.

3. Ask Ed Balls and Vernon Coaker, the Schools Minister, if they'd heard anything about Cameron's alleged statement of support for EMAs at a public meeting today... which is either a U-turn or another as the official Tory line is they can't commit to them. Also spoke to Vernon about the Children Schools and Families Bill which has its Second Reading next week. (I'm the DCSF whip).

4. Have nice chats with (a) Douglas Alexander and (b) Tom Harris about the online nonsense that has erupted again over the past couple of days.

5. Talk to Jim Knight about some South West issues.

6. Have other conversations with fellow MPs, including Doug Naysmith and Roger Berry about Bristol stuff, and with a Tory whip about how they want to handle the CSF Bill.

That's all I can remember at the moment. But still - six ministers, including several Cabinet ministers, that's not bad going for an hour's work. And voting for our Fiscal Responsibility Bill (opposed by the Tories) too.

Will be doing Radio Bristol tomorrow at about 7.35am, unless there's lots of snow, in which case they're going to be talking about the weather instead. So really ought to get to bed, just in case.

Sunday, 3 January 2010


Once again, something for those of you who might have had their eye off the ball over the Christmas break. An interview with the delightful Mr Otis Ferry. I can only assume it was past his bedtime and he was "overtired". Surely no-one can really be that obnoxious?

Friday, 1 January 2010

Arise therefore

Sometimes I wonder what it takes to become a political journo, given the quality of some of the articles. Take this piece from the Independent on Labour candidates standing at the next election. The suggestion is that it's a tired old bunch of former Council leaders. Couldn't be further from the truth. OK, nine of the 59 candidates selected in key seats are council leaders or former council leaders, which sounds about right to me. (Take a look at Simon Burgess, the former leader of Brighton + Hove, who's standing in Brighton Kemptown. I've known him since 1998 when we were both elected to Labour's National Policy Forum. Thoroughly decent bloke. Very Brighton, in that he's passionate about the environment, vegetarian, even has good taste in music.)

So let's look at some of the other candidates Labour has selected in winnable seats. For a start. we're almost certain to see the first Asian woman MP, with Rushanara Ali standing in Bethnal Green + Bow, Shabana Mahmood in Birmingham Ladywood, Yasmin Qureshi in Bolton South East and my personal favourite, 27 year old Maryam Khan in Bury North. (Never met her, but love her tweets @Maryam4BuryNth. And yes, she's a former councillor, which makes something of a mockery of the Independent assuming that "councillor" = boring old guard).

Another young Asian candidate, Anas Sarwar, who made an excellent speech at Labour conference a couple of years ago, is standing in Glasgow Central. Then of course we have the rather suave Chuka Umunna standing in Streatham. And Chinyelu Onwurah in Newcastle Central, who I've heard very good things about. Have a look at her biog, and tell me what's old guard about that!

Then there are plenty of feisty young women, from Stella Creasy in Walthamstow, Rachel Reeves in Leeds West, Emma Reynolds in Wolverhampton South East and Lucy Powell in Manchester Withington (trust me, John Leech does not stand a chance!) I've just mentioned the ones I know best. Late addition.... Liz Kendall in Leicester West. Excellent choice.

And of course we have the return of Stephen Twigg in Liverpool West Derby (former Minister, but anyone who describes him as old guard really doesn't know Stephen!)

Final plug must go to some old mates who are standing in marginal seats. Daniel Zeichner in Cambridge (whose chances have been boosted by the current absence of both a Lib Dem and Tory candidate!), Andrew Pakes in Milton Keynes North (leading light in SERA and according to my sister who lives in the seat, really gunning for it), and of course Paul Smith, Sam Townend and Ian Boulton in Bristol West, Bristol North West and Filton Bradley Stoke. Paul is of course an Alderman, which makes him a bastion of the old guard!

I Close My Eyes and Count to Ten

Belated blog post* on the Rage Against the Machine/ Joe McEldery stand off for Christmas No.1. I stood rather disdainfully aloof from the whole process for a while, on the grounds that I didn't like either song. Then something - possibly Cameron declaring for the Joe camp - prompted me to download RATM. And then I felt guilty at robbing a sweet, harmless and, let's face it, rather pretty young lad of his dream of being No.1.

And then I actually heard 30 seconds of The Climb. (No TV for past three months means no X Factor, and yes, I know I've already said I didn't like either song, but let's just say it was an educated guess that I wouldn't). And I heard enough to persuade me it was an abomination, and that Simon Cowell wasn't even trying anymore. He just knew whatever he released would be bought by the bucketload. So I was quite glad I'd made my own little contribution, although I'd still think it would have been rather more radical to have mobilised behind an absolutely brilliant song by someone oozing talent. (And have to admit, I was quite pleased Joe did get to be Number 1 the next week. It's not his fault).

Anyway... it has to be said, the noughties were a pretty dreadful decade for music, and I don't think that's just me getting old. OK, you can never judge the state of the music scene by which records get to No.1, but just look at the Top 10 best-selling records of the decade:

1. Will Young -Evergreen

2. Gareth Gates - Unchained Melody

3. Shaggy - Wasn't Me

4. Tony Christie/ Peter Kay - Amarillo

5. Band Aid 20

6. Hear'Say - Pure and Simple

7. Shayne Ward - That's my Goal

8. Kylie - Can't Get You Out of My Head

9. Bob the Builder - Can we Fix It?

10. Atomic Kitten - Whole Again

That's pretty bad, isn't it? With the honourable exception of Kylie, which I accept is a classic. Not my kind of thing, but I like the Kylie -vs- Blue Monday mix. Still, at least James Blunt didn't make it in there. Or Westlife, surprisingly, seeing how they had so many Number Ones. (There were 275 Number Ones in the Noughties, 40 of which were in the year 2000. I don't think you had to sell many records).

I was going to do my own Top 10 of No.1s from the decade, but after skimming the list, I'd have been struggling.... yes, Independent Woman, Rise and I Don't Feel Like Dancin' are good pop songs, but more the sort of song you'd sing along to if they came on the radio than the sort of thing you'd select on the iPod. Instead let's just give honourable mentions to some excellent tracks that did make it into the higher chart rankings and demonstrated that not all was lost, like Franz Ferdinand with Take me Out, Arctic Monkeys with I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor, Eminem with Stan... Album of the decade for me was The Libertines' Up the Bracket. Let's hope Pete Doherty gets his act together in 2010.

Also looking forward to seeing Pavement playing Brixton in May, and am definitely going to see 2 Many DJs at one of the many festivals over the summer. And maybe the Flaming Lips, as it's been ages. That's the plan anyway. Would be nice to find something else to get excited about... (And if my niece Caiti is reading, no, that doesn't mean the Jonas Brothers!)

*OK, explanation required. I did a rough draft of this on 6th December in that I pasted into the blog the list of the Top Ten from the past decade, for future reference. Obviously the rest of the post was completely some time later, on Jan 1st 2010 in fact. Try as I might - i.e. changing the date under post options to 01/01/10 I can't get it to publish as anything but a 6th December post. And I can't follow usual practice of cutting and pasting into a new blog post either, as Blogger seems to have stopped allowing me to paste content. All very annoying!

PS Typical - I go to the trouble of typing an explanation and now it's working (that was after about twenty attempts!)