Friday, 30 April 2010

Community and youth facilities in east Bristol

One of the issues I've flagged up on my latest leaflet is the lack of community and youth facilities in some parts of east Bristol. There's never space to go into much detail about what is in the pipeline, but there are positive things at the planning stage, and I hope that we can deliver on these over the coming year or so. Councillor Ron Stone is chair of the St George Neighbourhood Partnership, and, having been the driving force behind getting a new play park in St George's Park and securing funding for Meadowvale Community Centre, he's now involved in a deal where the Kingswood Foundation will take over the running of the Kingsway Youth Centre and invest in youth provision there, which will be fantastic when it happens.

Ron has also been leading the charge on Bristol City Council, trying to pin the Lib Dems down on the future of the Speedwell pool. This dates back to 2005, when the pool was closed down. There was meant to be an all-party agreement that ageing pools would be replaced before they were shut, but when the Liberals took over, they reneged on this. They're now promising a new pool for Speedwell, but questions from Cllr Stone have revealed there's no money in the capital programme for this... they're funding some sort of feasibility study, but as Ron says, you can't swim in that! At the moment it just looks as if they're promising pie-in-the-sky.

As for other parts of east Bristol, in Brislington we need to make more of Wicklea Youth Centre, but people have quite rightly said that there's also a need for better facilities elsewhere. And in Stockwood, there are suggestions that the site of Stockwood Green school could be used for a community centre, which the area desperately needs. As I mentioned in a blogpost not so long ago, Ron has identified millions of pounds of unspent s.106 money sitting in the Council's coffers. It's time some of that was spent in the community.

"No-one's knocked on my door"

I've had a few people get in touch with the office to say that they haven't had any election literature from Labour or any contact on the doorstep. Many, many more people than that are returning slips from the leaflets or calling up, pledging their support, asking for posters, offering to help, or raising issues, including a lovely 78 year old woman who left a message on the campaign phone last night, saying she'd always voted Labour and wasn't going to change now, and she thought I'd done a great job over the last five years, and don't let the Tories in!

We've had quite a few such calls, of people just wanting to wish us well. (I say "us" - I mean the Labour Party, and my local Labour team. I might be the person up for election, but it's not just about me). I have also been moved by the number of people working in the public and voluntary sectors who have privately told me how worried they are about the prospect of a Tory government.

But to return to topic... virtually every household in the constituency should have had a copy of a hand-delivered newspaper, entitled Bristol News, which went out before the election was called (and I suspect some people have already forgotten they've had that). We have also been delivering surveys as we've been door-knocking - and we've covered virtually every area of the constituency in recent weeks, if not every street - and have been giving out copies of Labour's manifesto for families "Your Family, Your Choice" too. The election address, which is delivered by Royal Mail, is going out now, and we also have a "Change We See" leaflet going out now, to at least half the households in east Bristol. It's a great leaflet with a very positive message. We've also done a fair bit of street campaigning, e.g. with John Prescott in Fishponds, and in St George on St George's Day, as well as having a bit of fun with a fox in St George's Park. And we've been at the school gates, where the reaction from parents has been really good.

So sorry if we've missed you, but it doesn't mean we're not out there trying our best to make contact with as many people as possible. And we're certainly not complacent at all about the result in east Bristol. I don't detect any enthusiasm at all on the doorstep for a Conservative Government, but that doesn't mean that people who are Labour inclined will turn out to vote unless we convince them we're listening to their concerns, and tell them about what the election strategists would call "the future offer". (In other words, what we're going to do for them, their community and the country if we are re-elected). And we will be continuing to do so over the next few days until polling day.

I might try and post pdfs on the leaflets on here, or on the website, so that anyone who hasn't received a copy can download. And if you really want to talk to me about anything before polling day, and you're a constituent, by all means get in touch!

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Another penitent sinner...

Here's a statement I issued earlier:

"On hearing the results of a random and unscientific sample of postal votes, I posted them on Twitter. It was a thoughtless thing to do, and I very quickly realised that it was not appropriate to put such information in the public domain. Because this was not official information, and no votes had been counted, I thought of it as being akin to canvass returns, i.e. telling people how well we were doing with Labour promises on the doorstep, but I appreciate now it was wrong to do so. I have personally called the Returning Officer at Bristol City Council to apologise, and assured him I have removed the information as quickly as possible, within a matter of minutes. He has advised that it would not be lawful for anyone else to publish the information, for example, by re-posting my original Tweet."

I am not the first person to make such a mistake, and I'm sure I won't be the last, but as you can imagine, I'm cross with myself. Tweet in haste, repent at leisure....

Boundary changes blunder - latest

Update on the boundary changes... I happened to speak to Stephen McNamara, the Returning Officer, today, and it looks as if they are reasonably confident that the situation can be resolved. It seems that most, but not all, postal voters in Lawrence Hill and Easton have been given the wrong ballot papers. Those who have recently moved into those wards, or have recently applied for a postal vote, have been given the correct ballot papers, i.e. for Bristol West.

The Council will be able to tell whether someone has voted twice, so if anyone in those wards has received and returned a Bristol West ballot, and then, say, gone off on holiday before receiving the reissued ballot paper, (see below for a possible scenario), then that will still count. The only people who will miss out will be those who have mistakenly received a Bristol East ballot paper, and go away on hols before the replacement arrives. However, the Council are hand-delivering the replacements and want to get them all out before the weekend (not May 4th as they stated in their letter). There is no guarantee given as to how soon before polling day postal vote ballot papers have to be sent out anyway, but the guideline is at least four working days, which will be met is they are received by Friday. So... the only problem will be if the result in Bristol West is close, i.e. within a few hundred votes.


There are a couple of hustings set to take place in east Bristol between now and next Thursday. The first one is this Friday, at St John's Church on Lodge Causeway, starting at 7.30pm. I think all main party candidates will be there, not sure how many of the other candidates have been invited. Anyone and everyone is welcome to attend.

The second is next Tuesday, at the CityAcademy. That's a 7pm for 7.30pm start. It's organised by Greenpeace, but open to everyone. I think it's just Labour, Tories, Libs and - of course - the Green candidate.

Arnos Vale

In a a moment I'll be off to the opening ceremony at Arnos Vale cemetery, which is featured in today's Guardian. It's a shame the Guardian piece doesn't elaborate on quite what a battle it was to wrest ownership of the cemetery from the developer - how the volunteers set up stall outside the cemetery gates for many years, raising funds for its upkeep, fighting legal battles, before the developer was finally forced to transfer ownership and then a £5 million plus grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund meant that restoration work could begin.

I've paid tribute on here before to the work of Richard and Joyce Smith; sadly Richard died recently, after a long battle with cancer, but he lived long enough to know that his dream of seeing Arnos Vale restored and open to the public in all its gothic glory was about to be realised. If you have never visited, you really should; it's a stunning place.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Don't judge my family - update

The Tory proposal for a Married Couples Tax Allowance came up at the Fawcett Society debate in Bristol last Thursday, and I think it's fair to say that the audience was not impressed. I've blogged about it on here before, so won't repeat myself, but it's good to see the heat being turned up, today with a letter from 70 widows and widowers to the Telegraph, pointing out the unfairness of the policy, which wouldn't benefit their families at all. As they say, money "should be spent to support children and families who need it most", not to make rather nasty political gestures in a bid to win over the Daily Mail editorial team.

Boundary changes - yet another blunder!

Reports have reached me of voters in Easton receiving my freepost election address - that's the one which is directly delivered by Royal Mail, which every candidate is allowed. (There's an issue about whether the postal workers will deliver the BNP one, I think they refuse to do so).

The office had a call this morning from a voter in Easton who knew she was backing Paul Smith this time, but then got a postal vote with my name on it, and an election address from me. And then she got a letter from the Council telling her the postal vote ballot paper was wrong and she'd be getting a new one. Can't blame her for being confused!

Meanwhile some people in Lawrence Hill ward have received letters from the Council apologising for being sent Bristol East ballot papers, telling them to scrap them, and that they will be sent Bristol West ballot papers by May 4th at the latest. But they haven't actually been sent Bristol East ballot papers - they've had Bristol West ones! (It seems the wrong ballot papers have mostly gone out in Easton, but the Council has recalled all those sent out to the bits of Bristol East going into West).

So... what happens if they've already sent off their ballot paper? Will they realise they have to vote again? And what if they've gone away on holiday by then? Surely there must be a way, when verifying the postal votes, of checking whether people have voted once or twice, and if they've only sent back the first Bristol West ballot paper, then that should be allowed?

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Vote Lib Dem Get Tory

I am getting heartily sick of all this talk of hung parliaments. I've just composed a letter out to voters in east Bristol, urging them to take a look at policies instead.

I am also getting very, very fed up with Nick Clegg. He's getting rather full of himself, isn't he? How dare he presume to dictate to the Labour Party who we should have as our leader in the event of a Lib-Lab deal? Memo to Nick: we choose our leader, you don't. And if we were to have any say over the Lib Dem leadership, it wouldn't be you. We've read the Orange Book and we have just an inkling that you're something of a closet Tory.

Speaking of closet Tories, the Lib Dems in Bristol are of course fielding a former Tory councillor, in the person of Mike Popham. I have yet to see much evidence that he has repented his right-wing ways. If you vote Lib Dem in Bristol East you either: a) split the progressive vote and let the Tories in by the back door; b) vote for a party whose leader seems to be expressing a clear preference for getting into bed with Cameron; or c) vote in Popham and get a Tory MP in all but name!

You would of course be far better voting Labour... You know where you are with us ;-)

Update on postal voting in "old" Bristol East

Latest on boundary changes blunder... The Council say all those affected will have their new postal ballots by this Friday. Still not sure if that will protect them from a legal challenge, but it's better than May 4th which was their original estimated date.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Boundary changes blunder

The boundary changes that come into effect at this election mean that Bristol East loses the Lawrence Hill and Easton wards (which go into Bristol West) and the little bit of Knowle (which joins the rest of Knowle in Bristol South), and gains Frome Vale and Hillfields from the Kingswood constituency.

I've got to know lots of voters in Easton and Lawrence Hill over the past five years, through attending community events, dealing with casework and just generally getting out and about. So Paul Smith and I have gone to some lengths to explain to people that he'll be their candidate, not me. Unfortunately it hasn't quite sunk in at Bristol City Council, who have somehow managed to send out ballot papers to 2,800 postal voters in those wards with the names of the Bristol East candidates on them. (The 2,800 is their figure, although it may be that they've assumed they've got all the Easton/ Lawrence Hill postal votes wrong, and they haven't, which makes it even more muddled.)

Stephen McNamara, the Returning Officer, is going on Radio Bristol tomorrow to explain how it happened ("software error" I'm told), and what he's going to do about it. Apparently they're writing out to everyone, telling them the ballot papers are invalid, and will re-issue the ballot papers by May 4th at the latest. Is that going to be good enough? I suspect not. Look at these possible scenarios.

1) Mr and Mrs A have applied for a postal vote because they're going off on holiday on May 1st. Their replacement ballot paper arrives May 4th. They don't get the chance to vote.

2) Ms B doesn't get her postal vote until she arrives home from work on the evening of May 4th. She puts it in the post on May 5th. It's touch and go whether the post gets there in time for polling day on May 6th.

3) Mr C gets his ballot paper with Bristol East candidates on it, sends it off straightaway, and is confused by the second ballot paper arriving, so he doesn't send it off.

4) Mrs D is elderly and housebound, and can't get to the post office. She can't send off her ballot paper until her daughter comes round to visit on Thursday, which is too late.* NB In this scenario her daughter could drop the postal vote into the polling station on polling day, as that's always permitted; postal votes don't have to be sent by post.

Bristol West is likely to be a very close fight anyway, between Labour and Lib Dems. So what happens if, say, Paul Smith loses to the Lib candidate by 500 votes, but 600 postal votes are either invalid or aren't returned? (It's actually quite normal for many postal votes not to be used, though turnout is higher than it is for normal voting, but you wouldn't be able to assume that it was a deliberate abstention). Or even if the outcome is clear, but one of the minor parties narrowly misses holding onto their deposit? In the latter case I'm not sure whether they'd succeed in a legal challenge, or whether they could just be fobbed off by being given their deposit back, but in the first scenario it's pretty obvious that a legal challenge could be mounted, to try to declare the election result invalid. And if that happens, it means a by-election....

NB We had a couple of frantic hours in the office this afternoon, trying to find out whether it would affect all four Bristol seats, but it looks like it's just Bristol West. There is also a problem with ballot papers in the three south of the river wards, Brislington East + West, and Stockwood, with 800 or so ballot papers issued with duplicate numbers - i.e. there are two number ones, etc - but that can be sorted by checking against addresses, we hope.

Meet the candidates

So, nominations are in for Bristol East and there are eight candidates on the ballot paper. Those leaning to the right are spoilt for choice, with the BNP, English Democrats, UKIP, Tories and Lib Dems (well, it is Popham after all), and on the left we have Labour, the Greens and the Socialist/ Trade Union party. The UKIP candidate is called Phil Collins, which got us excited for at least a couple of seconds in the office.

The only proper, open to all hustings of the campaign is taking place this coming Friday, at St John's Church on Lodge Causeway. It starts at 7.30pm. Would be good to see plenty of people there, asking lots of awkward questions. Not sure how many candidates have been invited.

I'm doing a couple of other debates this week, one in front of PCS members and a 'speed-dating' event somewhere in Clifton, which is being organised by Oxfam. [JUST RECEIVED EMAIL - THIS HAS BEEN CANCELLED BECAUSE IT CLASHES WITH A BRISTOL WEST HUSTINGS]

I bumped into Wilf from Greenpeace in the Post Office today (the first of three visits to three separate post offices, due to gross under-estimation of just how many postal vote letters we were sending out) and he wants to organise an event for Bristol East, so will keep you posted if that can be pulled together at short notice.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Better Banking

I've just signed up to support the campaign. Of course it's always tempting for a candidate to sign up to virtually every pledge which is waved under their nose, in the hope that it will coax another voter into the fold, but I have a track record on this issue from my days on the Treasury Select Committee. Indeed, I made a speech in Parliament in 2006 on the need for a UK-equivalent to the US Community Reinvestment Act, which I seem to recall was met with rather blank looks in the Chamber. (Actually I made two speeches on it; here's the other one, you'll need to scroll down.)

Here's an extract from the Better Banking website, setting out their objectives:

1) Transparency

In order to understand how big and widespread the problem of financial exclusion is, we first need to know exactly which groups of people and parts of the country banks are lending money to and which they aren’t. The Better Banking Campaign therefore believes that banks should provide information on where their money comes from and where this is invested, and that this data should be broken down by demographic group and geographic area.

2) An Incentive Structure

Once we know who banks lend to and who they don’t, an incentive structure needs to be created to encourage banks to start lending to people, businesses and third sector organisations in underserved communities. Banks which take their responsibilities seriously should be rewarded, while those performing poorly should face penalties. In America, this incentive structure is provided by a piece of legislation called the Community Reinvestment Act. The Better Banking Campaign believes that an equivalent piece of legislation should also be introduced here in the UK.

3) A Cap on Extortionate Lending Rates

When people are unable to access finance from a mainstream bank, they are often forced to turn to a high-cost lender (such as a pay-day loan company) or, even worse, a loan shark. As the UK is one of the few EU countries without a legal cap on lending rates, these alternative lenders are able to charge whatever rate they like. Sometimes this can be as high as 3000%, meaning people end up paying back vastly more than they originally borrowed. The Better Banking Campaign believes that it is unacceptable that any form of lender should be allowed to profiteer in this way at the expense of people in need. We are therefore calling for the introduction of a cap on extortionate lending rates.

4) A Commitment to Re-invest 1% of Profits

In recognition for the assistance taxpayers have given banks since the financial crisis, we believe banks should be required to re-invest 1% of their pre-tax profits for social benefit. Some banks do in fact already do this through their CSR policies, but the Better Banking Campaign believes that making this a requirement for all banks will help ensure they take seriously their contribution to wider society.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Thursday - the spotlight's on Bristol!

Final blog post of today, and keeping it short... Am still going to blog about the manifesto at some point, I promise! And on John Healey's visit to Bristol yesterday to highlight Labour's commitment to new council house building.

Tomorrow is going to be a really big campaign day, for obvious reasons. The party leaders are in town for the Leaders' debate, along with some 300 or so media hacks. Gordon is, I hope, going to be doing a visit or two earlier on in the day, and will also be tweeting live from Bristol - check out @Tweetminster #askGB.

Later on in the day I'll be out campaigning, possibly with a Minister in tow, then I'm doing a debate at the uni on education issues, and then a Fawcett Society debate at the Council House, on women's issues. That one could be quite interesting. I think Adeela will be there.

And then it's off to Bordeaux Quay for a VIP screening of the Leaders' Debate which is taking place across the water at the Arnolfini. Or I might disappear early to the St George Labour Club where we're screening it too. The first half of the debate is on foreign affairs, and I'd David Cameron will do his best to try to paint Nick Clegg as a rabid euro-federalist. (He's actually mildly rabid on the euro-federalism front, but not fully-fledged). Mr Clegg - or, indeed, Gordon - might want to watch this video on Tories in the EU parliament as part of their prep. It also includes Cameron's must-see interview for Gay Times.

Putting the record straight

New media is a great way of bringing to wider attention the work done by 'old media' in dissecting and judging claims made by politicians during the campaign. Here, for example, is James Purnell's piece for Channel 4 about the Tories' pledge to cut benefits for people who refuse to work. (Not so much 'dog whistle' politics as placing a great big juicy steak right under Fido's nose.) As James points out, there have always been sanctions. The Tories "are railing against a problem that doesn't exist." He also goes on to expound on some interesting work he's been doing for Demos, on what he dubs 'Liberation Welfare'. Left Foot Forward however, point out that the Tories are proposing far harsher sanctions, and that actually, DWP research shows that sanctions have very little impact on behaviour.

One of the things I've found most - not rewarding, that's the wrong word, not satisfying... interesting perhaps, but more than just interesting... the most interesting and enlightening and heartwarming if that's not too soppy a word, over the five years I've been MP for east Bristol, has been spending time visiting organisations that work with welfare claimants, advising them, encouraging them, and giving practical support to enable them to move off welfare and into work. It's not something that produces immediate results, it takes resources and time, but it's so worthwhile seeing how people's lives can be turned around.

Obviously things like childcare and making work pay (and Labour's manifesto includes a pledge that we will ensure anyone would always be at least £40 per week better off in work) and the logistics of travelling from A (home) to B (work) via C (school or nursery or the childminder) are important, and I've blogged before about how we need to take such things into account, but equally important is a focus on boosting confidence, and just making people realise that, yes they can sort things out, that their problems aren't insurmountable, that they do have something to offer. I've seen this in the past fortnight at the Bristol Drugs Project, at Hartcliffe and Withywood Ventures, and at the Terence Higgins Trust, to name just three, talking to people who at times felt they'd reached rock bottom but have been given a helping hand up.

One of the things that struck me when I was talking to the Terence Higgins Trust though, was that it's these organisations that are actually the frontline services we need to protect under a future Labour government. It's easy just to think of frontline public services as doctors and nurses in hospitals, and teachers in schools, or staff in the job centres. But the Terence Higgins Trust is also on the frontline: face-to-face contact, hand-holding where necessary, being an integral part of service users' lives. And although they get some charitable funding, they also receive a lot of their funding from the Primary Care Trust. (Some criticise this giving of grants to third sector organisations as 'privatisation' of public services, but I've seen so much evidence of them doing excellent work, better and more personalised than a more bureaucratic public sector organisation could.

My fear is that when we talk about protecting frontline services in the face of cuts, the focus will all be on teachers and nurses, class sizes and hospital beds. Of course these are important, and Labour has pledged to protect them even as it seeks to reduce the deficit through efficiency savings. And they will have trade unions fighting for them and so they should. But let's not forget the community-based organisations who are doing valuable, publicly-funded work too, who can't shout as loud and might not be as obviously missed were the axe to fall.

I could now stray into a discussion of Cameron's plans for the 'Big Society' here, and why I don't think it's the same thing at all as what I see and admire in Bristol, but seeing as senior Tories are now saying it doesn't exist, or if it does "it's boiled vegetables that have been cooked for three minutes too long" (eh?) I really think I should preserve my energy.

Monday, 19 April 2010

School's out

We're off to do some school gates campaigning soon, as we will be every day for the rest of the campaign. My team have decided that I am "not an electoral asset" first thing in the morning, so it's afternoons only for the time being! The more I see the reaction of Tories online to the campaign, the more I appreciate the need for it. I wonder how many of the parents at the gates of the schools in Stockwood today will be in the 'ideal' family set-up envisioned by the Tories? We will also be out canvassing in Stockwood afterwards; sometimes I think I should walk up and down the streets with a megaphone, so that people know I'm there! We always get that 'I only ever see you at election time', as well as people denying they've ever received any election literature from any candidate, local or parliamentary, for many, many years, even though we know we've delivered the whole ward.

...... The above post was started on Tuesday, or was it Monday? Then I had to rush off. We did school gates in Fishponds today, really positive response, including from some young pupils from Bristol Met, who'd been at the debate yesterday. One of them, a 13 year old Somali girl, ended up handing out leaflets with us. They're all Labour. Excellent stuff.

Got a call from someone today saying that my Tory opponent is apparently telling people she did so brilliantly in the debate at Bristol Met I rushed off straight afterwards, leaving her to bask in glory. Er, no... I had a Cabinet minister waiting for me in Hillfields! And I had already been at the school three hours. First we had a group of 11-13 year olds, then the older pupils, talking to them about the election, and then we did a Q and A with the pupils who'd expressed more of an interest.

I think the Tory mentioned one actual policy from the Tory manifesto, and not sure the Lib Dem mentioned any, he just kept going on about business and the national debt. And using words like 'interfacing' and 'optimally'. Today he's quoted me on his blog saying that I admitted in the debate that Bristol East has been ignored. Well, yes, I don't have any problem saying that in public, so not sure what he's getting excited about.

Parts of east Bristol have been overlooked, in that they don't qualify for regeneration funding in the way that the inner city wards do, and there's a lack of youth and community facilities; I've been saying that for the past five years. And there is undeniably resentment amongst many people, who feel that they've worked hard and fended for themselves, but that has meant they've lost out to people who haven't done so and 'have things handed to them on a plate'. (Not my words, but words I certainly hear on the doorstep).

We've made some progress, e.g. in St George, look at St George's Park new play area, and Meadowvale community centre has got funding, and schools provide more pre-school and after-school facilities under the Extended Schools initiative, but areas like Hillfields and Stockwood are crying out for places for young people to go, and things for them to do, and community centres too. A lot of this is, of course, down to the Council, not central Government. Labour Councillor Ron Stone has fought tremendous battles to get things happening in St George West, and this has paid off. He got 350 school pupils to lobby the council to fund the St George play area, for example; they were drawing up a shortlist of places across Bristol, and St George wasn't on the list until Ron marched into the office with his pile of 350 letters. Who could resist? Ron has also identified huge amounts - £16 million - of unspent s.106 money, which was earmarked for community facilities but has just been sitting in the council coffers. Quite frankly, it's a real scandal.

Brilliant Britain

David Cameron is on TV at the moment saying in one breath he's going to fight a relentlessly positive campaign and in the very next saying 'we don't want another five years of Gordon Brown, of dithering and despair and depression'. (There goes the dog whistle, we all know what he's getting at). For the record, Dave, I can tell you that voters in east Bristol aren't impressed by the current batch of billboards featuring a grinning Gordon (looking quite cute actually, in a pixie-ish way) and nasty slogans. They don't like negative campaigning, they want to know what the Tories stand for.

Voters this week were - I assume subconsciously - quoting back at me the message from Labour's Party Election Broadcast, the Road Ahead. 'We're on the right road and now is not the time to change direction'. (And incidentally, this must be the first election where PEBs aren't something you accidentally catch on TV at the end of the news, but where you can track them down yourself on YouTube and tweet or email the links to friends).

Our second PEB, starring Eddie Izzard, is also worth watching. Yes, it criticises the Tories, it points out what's wrong with their principles and their policies, but it's not nasty, it's not personal, and the overall message is overwhelmingly positive: that Britain is not broken, it's brilliant.

After praising the virtues of positive campaigning, I may be laying myself open to accusations of hypocrisy for posting the link to the Who Has David Cameron Met? site, but it is rather entertaining. I suspect he won't be relaying quite so many anecdotes about people he's met on the campaign trail when it comes to this week's leaders' debate. "Last week I met an imaginary foreign sort who told me that New Labour got a free car on the NHS". Enjoy.

Don't Judge my Family

On Tuesday this week Harriet Harman was in the city, to launch Labour's document "Your Family, Your Choice", which highlights the real differences between Tory and Labour policies on the family. She came to the Gatehouse Centre in Hartcliffe, which I'd not visited before, it being in Dawn Primarolo's patch, but they seem to be doing excellent work with children, parents and grandparents, offering support, fostering aspirations, and giving practical help and advice as needed. Their website takes a long time to load, but here's the link:

One of the things the visit highlighted was something I've blogged about on here many times before. Most families aren't nuclear families. I had a really good conversation with a grandmother who has her grandchild living with her. I wasn't at all surprised to learn of the bureaucratic obstacles she'd had to face when she'd first assumed responsibility for the child. (This issue, of informal adoption, and how we can better help the adopters and the children in such circumstances is also something I've raised in Parliament, in the context of the welfare of children of prisoners).

While I'm on the topic of families, a campaign has been launched in protest at the Tory's plans to introduce a Married Couple's Tax Allowance. The site - Don't Judge my Family - lists all those categories of people who wouldn't benefit from the Tory tax move, including single parents, the widowed or those who have left an abusive relationship. The Tories themselves admit that the amounts involved are not much of an incentive for anyone to get married, but that it's about 'sending out a signal' that marriage is best. As the campaign says, this is not just judgmental, it's also highly offensive to many people. And it reflects a very conservative, old-fashioned view of marriage, in that it only kicks in if one partner in the marriage doesn't go out to work. So much for Cameron the moderniser.

Finally on the same topic, an absolutely brilliant article by JK Rowling. A must read.

Saturday, 17 April 2010


I don't know if it was because I was selected so late last time round and didn't make it onto the lobbyists' databases, or whether it's just because campaign groups have got much more internet-savvy, but I'm getting a lot of requests to sign up to pledges and respond to candidates' surveys on all sorts of things. (In 2005 I had just the one, from the protect public toilets campaign, much to the amusement of all my friends).

In most cases the groups will be posting the results online, so that people can check to see if their local candidates have signed up or how they've responded, but I'm going to try to see if I can put links to at least some on my own website too, in the interests of letting as many people as possible know what I've done or said. Will try to get that sorted in the coming week. Here's one that I've more or less replied to, from Election Crossroads (I ignored some of the questions because I didn't think it was possible to give a yes or no answer, and commented in the space below). Incidentally, I know my Green Party opponent has press released the fact I haven't replied to this one, from DemRef - I have, actually - I assume they will be updating it soon. And I've just emailed another organisation because I think they've recorded my responses wrong, possibly because I tried to give a more intelligent answer than just yes/ no, which ends up getting recorded as prevarication or fence-sitting, whereas sometimes it's actually about not seeing things in black and white, or not liking the way the question is phrased. Maybe it's the lawyer in me, I can always see the possible caveats....

None of this matters a great deal in the big scheme of things, but it all adds up to letting people know a little bit about you, and like I said in the previous post, it's important people know who they're electing, even if most of them vote for the party, not the candidate.

Friday, 16 April 2010


I've spent the evening listening to political pundits analysing the leaders' debate ad nauseam, so will reserve my words of wisdom for next Thursday's debate, the Sky one, on foreign affairs, which is of course being held in Bristol. Quite where it's taking place, I'm not sure. I did a piece to camera from the Sky 'bureau' in Bristol a week or two ago, and it's little more than a broom cupboard in an office block at the Science Park. (Incidentally, I hate those 'down the line' pieces. Never know where to look.)

I've been invited by Sky not to the actual debate, but to the VIP screening and after-show party, as have all the candidates, so not such a big deal really. I say all the candidates, it might just be the three main parties whose leaders are taking part. As it stands - and nominations don't close till Tuesday - there are at least seven candidates standing in Bristol East. Me for Labour of course, got the nomination papers in today. Adeela Shafi for the Tories. Mike "Biggles" Popham for the Lib Dems. Glenn Vowles for the Greens. Bloke called Jenkins for the BNP. An English Democrat, I think. A lefty trade union/ Socialist candidate, can't remember what the party is called. No sign of UKIP yet. And someone tweeted tonight about a Pirate Party candidate, but I don't know anything about that.

So far I've only taken part in one debate with people who are actually standing against me, with Mike Popham and Glenn Vowles at St Brendan's Sixth Form. Adeela pulled out. I was going to say, Adeela pulled out, so no Tory on the panel, but as I've already said, Mike Popham was there. Vote Lib Dem, get a Tory! (He was a Tory councillor in Woking, quite a right-wing one by all accounts, who defected to the Lib Dems because the Tories in Bristol wouldn't give him a safe council seat. Or so I'm told - feel free to rebut.)

I cannot detect any sign at all of liberal leanings. The one issue he's chosen to highlight on the front of his latest leaflet is something to do with undernourished soldiers, though he doesn't quite say what he's done about them. And he talks about "Tories and Labour buddies" on the Council. Excuse me! Wasn't us who was in coalition with the Tories! By the way, I can say now, if I haven't said it already - I will not even be mentioning my political opponents in my leaflets. Their parties, yes, their leaders, yes - but not the sort of nasty personal attacks to which the Lib Dem has resorted.

I also did a debate on Sikh issues last Saturday, but that was with the Bristol West Lib Dem and Green candidates, as well as someone from Plaid Cymru and the delightful Lord William Dartmouth from UKIP. Adeela pulled out. (Do you detect a pattern here?) There are more debates in the pipeline, but until today, when we took a call from a vicar wanting to put on something at his church in Lodge Causeway, none of them are between the Bristol East candidates, they're more cross-city affairs.

In fact I've started turning down some of the invitations to do things with Stephen Williams because (a) I think he should be going head-to-head with his actual Labour opponent, Paul Smith and (b) if I'm going to debate with a Lib Dem, I think it should be the guy who's standing against me. So, for example, I'd agreed to do a community radio show next Tuesday; then they said Stephen Williams would be on with me, so I've said, get Paul in. Or get Popham in, and then I'll do it.

I'm very keen actually to debate Popham more, and Adeela, who is not only pulling out of debates, she's not answering media calls either. Since the election was called local Tories have been busy getting their glossy airbrushed billboards up in supporters' gardens. Voters deserve the chance to find out if there's substance behind that sleek exterior. And at the moment, that's being denied them. Unless she's replying to emails, and in that case I'd be very interested to see what's she's saying...


As usual we were out door-knocking tonight, this time in Hillfields, the oldest council estate in Britain. It was built in 1919, as "Homes for Heroes" returning from the First World War. Nice spacious houses, mostly populated by very nice Labour voters. Last night we were out on the Speedwell estate, and the night before on the St Anne's estate in Brislington. Quite similar areas, and no, we're not just concentrating on our 'core vote', it's just a coincidence we did those three estates over the past few days. So what's the verdict from the doorstep?

Firstly, there is absolutely no sign at all of any shift from Labour to the Conservatives (and this is true in other, less traditionally Labour parts of the constituency too). Cameron goes down incredibly badly in this neck of the woods, with the common refrain being "he's not interested in people like us". These are the sort of voters who might perhaps have been won over by the Thatcher/ Tebbit brand of Conservatism; they've bought their council houses, they think there's too much immigration, and there's a degree of resentment against people who haven't worked hard or put aside savings, but receive benefits 'paid for by our taxes'. But Cameron doesn't do it for them, at all. Some are swayed by the idea of "Time for Change", but when you push it home and say that means "Time for Tories" they recoil.

There's not much sign of support for the Lib Dems either, though to be fair Nick Clegg's name did come up on the doorstep a few times tonight. After last night's debate he'll be able to capitalise on being the "Change" candidate, but once the buzz settles down, will people really see him as prime ministerial material? I still think he's a lightweight, and basically a Tory 'wet' who is too pro-European to be in the Tory party. And no interest in, or grasp of, economic issues. And needs putting on the spot about Lib Dems policies on a whole range of other things too. I think he may do well, in a particularly sanctimonious way, in the next debate, on foreign affairs. Down a drink for every time he mentions Iraq and you'll get absolutely bladdered. But give Gordon half a chance and he will absolutely hammer him on the third one, on the economy. (That's if Gordon wants to, of course, there may be good tactical reasons for not doing so.)

What worries me the most - and not because I think they have a hope in hell of winning, but just because of the sheer principle of it, the absolute horror of them gaining a foothold in east Bristol - is support for the BNP. The Government came up with a list, a while ago, of 100 wards across the country which could perhaps be labelled as typical 'disaffected white working class', vulnerable to the BNP, and some funding for community cohesion projects there. Six of those wards were in Bristol, and four of those six were in my constituency: Hillfields, St George East, St George West and Brislington East.

And this is being borne out by what I'm hearing on the doorstep. It's all about fairness: people who have worked hard, lived a fairly modest, decent life, never looked to the state for much help. Their resentment is not just about immigration, though that certainly comes up, almost every time, but also about people on their estates who don't work and 'get given everything', and MPs who can claim for duckhouses and cleaning the moat. Myths and stereotypes abound, from asylum seekers loading up supermarket trolleys with luxury items, paid for with vouchers (on £35 a week?) to young girls on the bus boasting about how they're going to get pregnant to get a council house.

But I've been having very long conversations with people, while the rest of my team get on with the canvassing, and you know what? These voters might want to make me work for their vote, but they're still Labour at heart; they just want to make sure I'm listening. I had one woman who insisted she wasn't going to vote Labour, bent my ear for a good twenty minutes or more about immigration, and then followed me up the garden path saying "well are you going to give me a poster then? can't have those ****** Tories back in!"

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

21 days to go...

Rather cross with my failure to blog over past week, since the election was called. Hope to make up for it over the next few weeks. I finished up in Westminster on Thursday (by 'finished up' I mean gathering all the outstanding correspondence up and shovelling it into my suitcase, and forgetting to return my library books). As of 5pm on Monday, when Parliament was dissolved, we are no longer MPs and are not allowed into our Westminster offices, or allowed access to our parliamentary email. I've got it on auto-forward, to - people from Bristol East are welcome to contact me on that; people not from Bristol East, to be frank, I'd rather you didn't!

It was quite a weird feeling actually - I got off a train at Temple Meads at exactly 5pm, and suddenly thought: I'm not an MP anymore. I might never be an MP again. And then I walked home past Transport House, the TGWU headquarters, and saw loads of Vote Paul Smith posters in the windows where five years ago there were posters for me. (Boundary changes, it's in Bristol West now). So I've been feeling quite nostalgic, thinking back on the past five years. More of that later, perhaps.

Although I'm not an MP anymore, my office is still allowed to deal with outstanding casework, but I can't do surgeries, can't call the MPs' hotlines for immigration or DWP cases, can't use my MP letterhead... There's the added complication of the boundary changes. Much of my staff's time at the moment is spent writing to people in Lawrence Hill and Easton wards, saying I'm sorry but I can't represent them anymore because even if I am re-elected, they will be in Bristol West constituency, and do they want me to pass their files to the new MP after May 6th? (Incidentally, when the Tory, Jonathan Saeed, was beaten narrowly by Labour's Jean Corston in Bristol East in 1992 - not just one but two boundary changes ago - he simply binned all his casework files. That's Tories for you.)

Since getting back to Bristol on Friday - and what a relief it is to be in one place for a whole month! - I have of course been busy campaigning. I also spent Saturday afternoon debating Sikh issues with candidates from the Lib Dems and Greens, someone from Plaid Cymru and a rather rude and objectionable UKIP MEP (is there any other sort?) who I have since learned is Barbara Cartland's grandson. I'd have thought she'd have insisted on better manners from him. He tried at one point to suggest I'd said that people guilty of crimes against humanity should be allowed into the UK, but people who said things I disagreed with shouldn't. Needless to say, I said nothing of the sort.

Monday was the manifesto launch in Birmingham, and back in time for canvassing, and Tuesday started with Harriet Harman's visit to a family project in south Bristol. Lots more to blog about there, but enough for tonight.... busy day campaigning ahead of me tomorrow!

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Do You Realize?

I am determined not to log onto Tweetdeck tonight unless/ until I've made deeper inroads into my email inbox, but here's info from an email I've just received. Apparently I am 'the most engaged' politician on Twitter. Though maybe not tonight! Well deserved first place for Tom Watson, who is far more of a geek than I will ever be.

Radio Gaga*

It was my intention to blog several times a day throughout the election campaign, but to be honest I've seen very little of it so far. I haven't had time to watch television, read the papers, or check out any online coverage. Over the next few days I will try to give a summary of what Parliament has been up to in the last few days, and my personal take on both issues and process, so please bear with me... Obviously have to prioritise clearing the decks in Westminster first and replying to all of the many, many requests to sign election pledges. To keep you entertained in the meantime, someone has sent me this transcript of an interview David Cameron did on BBC Radio Gloucestershire today. [Actually, now got the link, painful....]

Mark Cummings: How important to you is this part of the UK?

DC: Oh very important and there are vital swing seats we need to win, Cheltenham, Gloucester itself so you’ll see very hard campaigning across Gloucestershire. I feel I’m almost a home boy as my constituency’s just next door in West Oxfordshire but it’s obviously, this is a vital election and there’s a real chance of proper change in our country, not having to put up with another five years of Gordon Brown and I hope people take the opportunity.

MC: OK, swing seats, this is your neighbouring patch, you mentioned Cheltenham and Gloucester, any other places in Gloucestershire you’re interested in?

DC: Well I’m interested, we’re interested in winning every seat in Gloucestershire frankly. There are no no-go areas for the party, I mentioned two that spring to mind. Um, but you know, you have to…the truth about this election is that you have to win in every part of the country, you’ve got to win in the South West, you’ve got to win in the West and East Midlands, win in the North of England and that is what we’re focused on.

MC: But if you want to be the next Prime Minister obviously you need to get a grasp of which are those vital swing seats, so you mentioned Cheltenham and Gloucester, but obviously here there is another one in Gloucestershire. Which is the other one that you’re desperate to get that you should really get?

DC: Er, you’re giving me a test here. Um, well it’s all of them. I’m trying to er, think,, you’re testing me out now, hold on, er, which other seats. Well I can’t think of one we don’t want to win.

MC : Well Gloucestershire, it’s easy. It’s next to Oxfordshire.

DC: Yeah I know where exactly where Gloucestershire is. No. You can test me…no we need to win every seat and obviously we already hold the Cirencester seat, we already hold the Tewksbury seat, we need to, we already hold the, um, er, the, the, um, er, the, the, the…we need to win Cheltenham, we need to win Gloucester, er, I’m desperately racking my brain and thinking what other seats, er, we’ve got. Obviously, er, we’ve got Mark Harper as well, I’m sure he will be fighting very hard in this coming campaign. What have I missed out?

MC: Laurie Lee? Cider with Rosie? David Drew?...

DC: Aah, yes of course, Stroud. Very important. We’ve got an excellent candidate there in, in, in Neil Carmichael. I’ve been out on the streets with him, I’ve done a, erm, public meetings in Stroud. You’re quite right. Sorry. First thing in the morning, my geography let me down, but no Stroud is a vital seat and we’ll be fighting all of not just Stroud but the Slad valley, um, and Cider with Rosie, you’re quite right. I will go and refresh on my Laurie Lee.

* This breaks my rule about only using titles of songs I like, but my teabreak is over and I have to get back to work so no time to think of anything better! Good songs with radio in the title: Radio Free Europe, Radio Radio... Good songs about radio: Transmission, Turn it On.... No, inspiration fails me, back to the grindstone!

Sunday, 4 April 2010


This seems somehow timely, given the Chris Grayling furore and it being Easter and all that. Watch, enjoy and memorise for future reference.

P.S. Transcript here.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Cold brains

I do love Joaquin Phoenix. Walk the Line is one of my favourite films of recent years, one of those you have to watch when it's on telly even though you've got it on DVD (as I did only the other night). He's just done this video for PETA, "Cold-Blooded Horrors: Inside the Exotic-Skins Trade" (wish I could embed, but technology fails me). Please watch, it's powerful stuff.

I hope someone shows Samantha Cameron a copy.