Thursday 30 April 2009

Getting my excuses in early

I will be away all Bank Holiday weekend in what, in hope rather than in expectation, I will call 'sunny' Manchester. The next Labour MP for Manchester Withington, Lucy Powell, is getting married. Not taking a laptop with me, so unless I manage to slip my handlers and get to an internet cafe, I won't be blogging or checking comments.

Wanted to blog about today's votes - and yesterday's, although Tom Harris has comprehensively covered that - but more important to clear the desk. One of those things... the more 'interesting' the week is politically, the less chance you get to blog. I might feel sufficiently refreshed by Monday to do a catch up. Who knows.

Tuesday 28 April 2009

Tonight's council meeting

Buses being debated at Bristol City Council tonight. If I'm not in the Chamber I'll watch it on the webcast. Before anyone starts griping about why Labour wasn't saying these things when they were running the Council, the answer is, they were - but they were also trying to work with First Bus and the other local authorities and this obliged us to pursue a rather more conciliatory strategy, building consensus, don't rock the pram or the Tories/ Lib Dems will throw their toys out...

Mark has also put down some questions about the waste strategy (i.e. where is it, what is it and how the hell are you going to make the sums add up with the PFI element?) but I understand there's a good chance they won't get to it.

Monday 27 April 2009

Two nations divided by a common newspaper

Hat-tip to Alex for this one. (Not Hilton, a different one). I'm pretty sure I've blogged on here before about my support for the HPV virus vaccination programme in schools. The Daily Mail wasn't happy, at least not in the UK. Looks like they were quite keen on it in their Irish edition, however, which is quite bizarre considering that I'd have thought there'd be far more resistance to such things (i.e. the notion of schoolgirls being sexually active) over there.

Keira Knightley 'ad' is banned

Bit of a debate going on over whether an 'ad' (if you can call it that) about domestic violence, featuring Keira Knightley, should be shown on TV. The censors said it was too violent, but what's the point of showing a sanitised version? It's meant to be shocking. And that's what I told the Independent. You can see the whole, uncut version, on YouTube.

Just me moaning about things

In the library in Portcullis House. I seem to have finally persuaded the parliamentary IT people that my 'repaired' phone (back from the manufacturers after a month's intensive care) is not working. It took two visits and much explanation on my part of the fact that (a) there is no signal and (b) you can't make or receive calls or texts, which I think would fit most people's definition of 'not working', but we had to have much consultation and expert furrowing of brows before it was confirmed. Am now trying to persuade them that it's not worth sending it away again to be repaired. I'm now plonked in a corner looking at emails while the guy sets up my 'temporary' replacement, which I might not let them have back.

Spotted on my trips to and fro - Diane Abbott and Moira Stewart deep in conversation over a coffee.

More on buses in the BEP today; the Lib Dem seems to be saying that the problem is that the bus drivers don't smile enough. They don't smile, they can't spell... Although Cllr Rogers then comes back in on the comments to say it's a symptom, not a cause. Fair enough (fare enough?) but doesn't really get us very far, does it? Like the buses really....

Rhinestone Cowboy

Friends of the Earth are launching the next stage of their Food Chain campaign tomorrow, see the site for more details, but it's basically about how UK taxpayers are inadvertently funding the destruction of the rainforest by propping up the EU's industrialised farming system. For the launch tomorrow they've invited MPs along for a photo-op which involves one of those bucking broncos. And yes I am going to have a go. And if there's a ridiculous photo, I will post it.

I assume it's going to be in Parliament Square, but that's more or less occupied by Tamil campaigners at the moment, including the hunger striker, so not sure it would be quite right.

Sunday 26 April 2009

She bangs the drums

Just been looking at Sarah Brown's Twitter profile. Most of her tweets - and they are obviously hers, not the work of a Downing Street apparatchik - are about her work on maternal health, which seems to be picking up momentum. Of all the Millennium Development Goals maternal health is the one which is least likely to be met - more than half a million women each year die in childbirth or from pregnancy-related problems - and it really needs a champion, which Sarah is doing by promoting the work of the White Ribbon Alliance. And she manages to get the balance right; despite using her profile to draw attention to the issue, it's still about the cause, not about her - unlike some of the celebrities who align themselves with 'worthy' causes.

She's also obviously interested in other development issues - she's been tweeting today about malaria too. What is also appealing about her 'tweets' is that you get little insights into normal life at Downing Street; she's been planting vegetable seeds with the two boys (at least I assume it's at No. 10, might be Chequers I suppose) and the seed trays are 'peat free', she says. I don't know her at all, but I get the impression that she must be quite clued up about environmental and ethical issues. The press recently reported that she declined to eat veal and foie gras at a banquet at the recent Nato summit in France, which as you can imagine, met with my approval.

And today's Times is saying nice things about her too.

Saturday 25 April 2009

If only I could sell myself.... (updated)

...the way that even I would buy.*

A little while ago there was a bit of a rumpus in the blogosphere about the fact that Lib Dems seemed to have paid for a Google ad which led to a BBC piece having a bit of a go about the Labour MP, Dawn Butler. See Hopi's take on it, here and here.

Well it seems that Bristol Conservatives have now got in on the act. Here's a not particularly interesting piece from the Telegraph about a Lib Dem PPC who has defected to the Tories for what seem to me to be entirely careerist reasons, but that's beside the point. Have a look at the ad at the bottom. Care to comment, James?

PS While we're kind of on the subject of the Tories nicking other parties' candidates, in Blackburn they seem to be looking to the BNP to boost their gene pool. And here's what the candidate has to say about it:

Mr Holt told of his shock at being approached.
He said: “I had no real interest in the town council but they sort of sold it to me... I was a little bit surprised they asked me. I never volunteered it. I still subscribe to the BNP’s principles, but I was taking a break from it. When the Conservatives approached me it seemed like the right thing to do. But I have never renounced the BNP and I never would. They were happy to have me. I laughed at first but they persuaded me.”

So if the Tories had no idea who he was, and didn't know anything about his past involvement in BNP politics - which it what they've claimed, but is rather implausible given how frequently he'd stood as a BNP candidate in Blackburn - then why did they make unsolicited overtures to him? Do they just randomly approach complete strangers and ask them to stand as Tory candidates? Or did they get into a conversation with him on the doorstep and thought he sounded like their kind of guy? Someone's got some explaining to do.

*Soulwax, Too Many DJs, in case you're wondering.

Catch a wave

Been trying to find out through Twitter how TwitterFall works - something to do with all tweets on a specific hashtag appearing on screen. Anyway, my enquiries led Paul from Portishead to reply to me with this gem: what happened when the old fogeys at the Telegraph tried to get with it and show all tweets relating to Budget 2009 on their website. Maybe it should now rename itself the Twittergraph?

Friday 24 April 2009

She's not there

One might think that if one were in the business of organising a picket of an MP's surgery, along with organising the placards and leaflets and remembering to invite the Trots to boost the numbers, one of the items on the checklist might be to find out when and where the surgery is being held. Rather than just making a random guess. Otherwise one runs the risk of turning up at a time and a place where said MP is not holding a surgery, and has never held a surgery (no disabled access). And no sign of the MP, who is busy doing other things in other places.

To digress for a moment, I was told today of the time my predecessor's office was picketed by anti-war protestors, who made an awful lot of noise shouting and blowing horns, and pelting an effigy of Jean with tomatoes. One of their number then knocked on the office door and asked if she could use the loo. And looked somewhat effronted when told to clear off.

On a more serious note, however, it's just not on to picket an MP's surgery in the first place. By all means turn up at an event where the MP is going to be speaking, or try to collar them in a public place. (Although that's not an invitation to do so!)

But surgeries are for people with problems. Sometimes very serious problems. At today's surgery - held at another time, in another place - I had a young woman who ended up in tears telling me about her housing and health problems; obviously I can't talk about her case, but it was a big step for her to pluck up the courage to come and see her MP and ask for help. I also saw two women who have gone through an absolutely horrendous time over the past few years, which again I can't talk about, and several people very worried about their asylum or immigration status, and others with financial problems. Why should any of them be subjected to a barrage of political protest when they turn up to see their MP to talk about what are essentially very private matters?

We missed the bus

Transport Minister Paul Clark joined me and local councillors Terry Cook, Mark Bradshaw, Brenda Hugill, and the ubiquitous Paul Smith in Lawrence Hill today for the launch of Labour's 'Brunelcard' campaign. We think an Oyster card type system for local bus and rail services would cut delays (no endless waits while the person in front fiddles around for change), be more convenient (no last-minute rush into the newsagents by the bus stop to buy a pack of chewing gum just so you don't have to try to persuade the driver to give you change from a tenner), cut the cost of journeys and encourage more people to use the buses and trains.

But it seems we've missed the bus. Big time. While we've been banging on about fare rises, unreliable or cancelled services, dirty buses, rude drivers and First's failure to bring fares down in lines with the drop in fuel prices, not to mention the need for a quality bus contract and an Integrated Transport Authority, the real scandal about First Bus in Bristol has passed us by.

We've been left standing at the bus stop while Cllr Woodman sails past on his way to Original FM to reveal the dreadful truth about First Bus. They don't know how to spell Colston! They spelt it with an 'e'! As Cllr Woodman says, 'it shows just how awful First Bus is'. And it takes a Liberal Democrat to tell us. We hang our Labour heads in shame.

The hidden side of everything

I follow @freakonomics on Twitter. You may have read the book, but if not, it's basically an alternative take on economics and social issues - e.g did crime drop dramatically in New York because of the 'zero tolerance' policies adopted by the city Mayor, or was it because Roe-v-Wade had made abortion more easily available a couple of decades earlier? Their strapline is "The Hidden Side of Everything". So here's one of their latest tweets for starters... Discuss!

Did Celebrating Earth Day Make You Pollute More?
By Freakonomics.
Beware moral self-regulation. Doing good works, it turns out, may make people feel justified in doing ill. A new study from psychologists at Northwestern University suggests that “affirming a moral identity leads people to feel licensed to act immorally.” In other words, as Ryan Sager points out, acting green one day might leave you more willing to indulge your planet-destroying consumption impulses the next.

Thursday 23 April 2009

Picture this

Have just had notice through of a Labour photo op next week, headed "Kitty Ussher on Miners' Knee".

It's actually about a recent announcement that James Purnell has accepted the recommendation of the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council "that the condition commonly known as Miners’ Knee should be added to the list of prescribed diseases". But still, punctuation aside, it conjures up images, doesn't it?

Taking up space

I'm reluctant to do anything that would draw extra attention to the publicity seeking efforts of a certain airline, but seeing as I've started a bit of a row on Twitter, I may as well follow up here. Ryanair have suggested a 'fat tax' on obese passengers, which seems to me just a backdoor way of milking more money out of their customers whilst still advertising 'low cost' flights. However...

I have a teensy bit of sympathy on this, not on the weight issue, but on how much space someone takes up. I spent ten years commuting to London by train and the fact is, if you're small, the bigger people make a beeline for the seat next to you. And then you're stuck, either squashed right up against the window, unable to move, or precariously trying to balance on the half-an-aisle-seat you've been left. (Which was always my preferred option; better to topple unceremoniously into the aisle as the train goes over a bumpy bit than to be sandwiched between the window and someone's hot sweaty flesh for an hour). Experienced commuters soon learn 'maximising body space' tricks, like opening a newspaper or arranging your coat and baggage artfully around you. Or just glaring at people who are heading towards you.

The ones I always hated the most though, were the men who sat with their legs wide apart. A bit of unwanted physical contact with people on public transport is probably unavoidable, but there are some things you really don't want to see first thing in the morning.

I have a letter in the BEP today

Tory has missed the bus on fares

"I read with interest the Conservative candidate for Bristol East's Feedback piece on bus fares in Bristol ("Bristol MPs say bus fares are too high", April 15).

I know she has only recently started taking an interest in local politics, which perhaps explains why she suggests that Dawn Primarolo and I have only just "woken up to the cost of travelling on First buses". The truth, as Post readers will know, is that both of us have been campaigning on this issue for a long time. This has included talking to ministers, meeting with successive managing directors of First Bus, talking to employee representatives and the local authority, and yes, writing letters to try to pin down First to give some firm commitments as to how it intends to improve our bus services. We have made it clear we believe that First must shape up or ship out.

Ms Shafi talks about the prospect of another company coming in to provide a bus service in Bristol, and yet her party, the Conservatives, voted against the Local Transport Act and the new Quality Contract scheme which would make this a viable option.

She also proposes an Integrated Transport Authority, which again was included in the legislation her party opposed. I have long been an advocate of the need for Bristol and the surrounding area to have its own transport authority, and I am glad that she has now come on board. Perhaps she could talk to her Conservative colleagues on the other three councils and persuade them of its merits now?

Finally, I note that Ms Shafi signs off by saying that letter writing is not taking 'proper action'. Perhaps she could inform us what she has done personally to campaign for better transport in Bristol (other than writing her letter, of course)?

Kerry McCarthy, MP."

I did a debate with Ms Shafi at St Brendans Sixth Form College the other week. When she started complaining about the buses, I challenged her on the above points. Her reply? "I'm not here as a Conservative, I'm speaking as someone who wants to use the buses but can't..." I expect I'll be hearing that line frequently over the coming months.

One of the students asked a cracking question, about how could a Conservative frontbench stuffed full of Old Etonians claim to speak for young people like him? Ms Shafi posited herself as an example of just how much Cameron's Conservative Party has changed - at which stage I urged the students to take a look at the Rees-Mogg progeny, Jacob and Annunziata, who are both fighting very marginal seats in nearby Somerset.

Charlotte Leslie, another Bristol Tory PPC, uses the same response in debates - look at me, I'm young and blonde, and I've been selected for a marginal seat; look how much the Tories have changed. Yes, I mutter under my breath, but you're still rather posh Charlotte, aren't you?

More on expenses

At least Gordon's announcement this week has triggered a slightly better informed debate about MPs' expenses than we've had over the past year or so. Michael White has an interesting piece in the Guardian, although I think he's wrong on the second jobs issue. (We're only asking people to declare hours worked and money earned - what's wrong with that? Constituents can then decide whether or not they're getting value for money from a part-time MP).

I'm not convinced the daily allowance is the solution, and I voted against it last time, for some of the very reasons that are being put forward now ('clocking in' culture, unfair on people who want to devote more time to constituency than Commons work, lack of transparency in that no receipts are required). I seem to think I got rather a lot of flak for doing so at the time.

But now I think we've reached the stage where the imperative to scrap the second homes allowance is so strong, any alternative would be better. I see the PM's proposals as an interim measure until the full review is concluded at the end of the year.

Michael says he has only 'modest' expectations of sensible comments on his post. Mine are even lower. But have a look at what he says about the systems in other European countries before you rush to judgment.

You're not big and you're not clever

H/T to Hopi for bringing this to my attention (a bit late, but there you go). Excellent article by Steve Richards in the Independent.

The change we don't need

Conservative Future.... more than a little weird.

Wednesday 22 April 2009

She's like a rainbow (2)

Trying green and purple now, after Paul and bevanite complained about the blue. I was just scrolling quickly past the list of tags that I've added to this page, and all I glimpsed was 'Keanu Reeves', 'Marlon Brando', 'Michael Fabricant'... Every girl's dream trio.

Postscript. Sorry, didn't like the green. The blue is much nicer. Why should we let the devil have all the best colours?

More on the Budget - renewables

Because I know at least one reader of this blog will be interested in the renewables stuff - actually two, if you count Paul Smith - here's some more detail which has come through in a press release from the Renewable Energy Association, which represents the UK renewables industry.

"Main measures for renewables

The Budget contained the three main measures the REA had highlighted for renewables:

Up to £4bn of finance for new renewable energy projects in the UK will be provided by the European Investment Bank responding to serious difficulties in access to finance.

The number of Renewables Obligation Certificates allocated to new offshore wind projects will be increased to 2 per MWh for 2010/11 and 1.75 in 2011/12 before reverting to the 1.5 ROC/MWh level. The government valued this at £525m. Projects eligibility is subject to specified criteria.

The decentralised renewables sector will receive £70m of new grant support to bridge the period to the introduction of the new renewable energy tariffs; £45m for the Low Carbon Buildings Programme and £25m for community heating.

This matches the key proposals made in the REA's pre-budget submission to the Treasury, but provides less hard cash.

In addition the budget offers

o £10 million in new grants for anaerobic digestion to turn organic waste into green energy

o Authorising £4bn of networks investment by the private sector to improve access for renewable energy (a 50% increase on 5 years ago)

o £ 405m to support the Low Carbon Industrial Vision including £250m for ‘advanced industrial projects of strategic importance’.

o £50m for the Technology Strategy Board for future growth industries including low carbon technology."

Budget response from the MP for Bristol East

Ok, don't have time to blog about the whole Budget at the moment (and obviously I'm not going to blog about the whole thing anyway, as that would be very dull indeed). So, some things can wait till later, but here are my first reactions:

  • Disappointed more money couldn't be found on the child poverty front, but realise that this is a Budget about getting people into/ keeping people in work, and I suppose that has to be the absolute priority at the moment.

  • Good to see a focus on making sure young people get work or training, and on the long-term unemployed; I remember the 1980s recession when some of my mates were unemployed for years after leaving school. Apparently 10% of the new jobs created for the long-term unemployed will be 'green jobs'; will try to find out more about this. What sort of jobs are they talking about? There was also the announcement of 50,000 traineeships in the social care sector; need to find out more about this too.

  • Higher rate of income tax of 50p in the £ for those earning more than £150k; someone has to pay for the fiscal stimulus, and it's only right it should be those who can afford it most.

  • Climate change stuff is very interesting, including an interim target of a 34% cut in emissions by 2020 and a big uplift in support for offshore wind projects (which will please the company I visited in St Philip's last week). Also announcements re carbon capture and storage, and the development of a low carbon energy and advanced green manufacturing sector in the UK. Bristol is well placed to play a leading role in this, and we have to make sure we benefit from today's announcements.

  • Increase in landfill taxes by £8 per tonne on 1 April each year from 2011 to 2013; wonder what impact that will have on Bristol City Council's waste strategy? (Although I'm not quite sure it has one at the moment...

  • I need to get my head round all the proposals on savings and pensions, but I'm glad action is being taken on that front. The increase in the savings disregard to £10,000 is good news for pensioners with relatively modest savings.

Well that's what caught my eye. Basically it was a 'job that needs to be done' Budget, all about taking the steps that are necessary to ameliorate the worst effects of the recession and get us out of it as soon as possible. Incidentally I thought Cameron put up a reasonably good performance today. Normally at Budget time he sits there on the Opposition frontbench looking like a puzzled potato, while Boy George and Oliver Letwin scribble frantically on his speech notes. But today he seemed a bit more on top of it, although he said absolutely nothing whatsoever about what his party would do if they were in our position.

Cries and whispers

Will blog about the Budget later. Got to go and (very reluctantly) do a webcam thingy on it now.

There was a mass exodus of people from the chamber when Nick Clegg got up to speak, and as I headed out I came across Andy Burnham deep in animated conversation with a member of the press gallery. Talking about the Budget, I assumed... then I heard him say, counting on his fingers, 'There's Liverpool, United, Villa'.

Reminded me of the time I overheard James Purnell vigorously slagging someone off to one of the House of Commons doormen. Bit indiscreet I thought. That was football too.

She's like a rainbow

Playing around a bit with colours on here. Bear with me.

What's going on

Just been asked by interns why everyone started making a noise halfway through PMQs. Basically, what happened was this...

Usually at PMQs there are rather a lot of eager backbenchers bobbing up and down on both sides, trying to catch the Speaker's eye. It soon became apparent that the usual Tory suspects (e.g. Sven and the very tall one) were rooted firmly in their seats, forcing the usually shy and retiring Ms Nadine Dorries into the spotlight. Obviously orchestrated by the Tory whips rather than by a spontaneous show of sympathy for the poor, vilely traduced Ms D.

The Speaker eventually had no choice but to call her. She unfortunately made a bit of a hash of it, and actually gave Gordon a good opportunity to publicly re-state what he has already said about the 'Red Rag' episode.

Of course once this was out of the way, suddenly all the Tories sprang to life again. It's not the done thing to try to 'play' the Speaker in this way, and he was having none of it. Despite their best efforts, he managed to get through to the end of the session alternating between Labour and Lib Dem/ SNP MPs, and none of them got a look in. Hence our cheers and jeers.

What the world's been waiting for (3)

Here's Harriet's statement, which fleshes out some of the points flagged up by the PM, including the news that MPs will be expected to make more of a contribution towards their pension. Incidentally I already pay £500 or more a month towards my pension; I'm not complaining about it, just pointing it out for the benefit of those people who think MPs get it handed to them on a plate.

I expect we'll end up debating this next Wednesday or Thursday, as on Monday and Tuesday next week it's the continuation of the Budget debate. And I assume it won't be a whipped vote.

More info here, in the Guardian, which also explains the savings to the taxpayer. MPs representing seats within the M25 won't be allowed to claim, and the allowance could be set at about £6,000 pa less than the current second homes allowance although that's simply speculation at this point.

Tuesday 21 April 2009

What the world's been waiting for (2)

Just a postscript on this: watching Newsnight at the moment (which is becoming something of a tired old joke these days, at least when Paxman's on it).

Didn't take long for the backlash to start, did it - MPs being paid on top of their wages 'just for turning up', etc, etc. That's another reason why I voted against this suggestion last year, but also because the whole thing wasn't thought through. Tony Wright has just said on Newsnight that last time this came before the House we 'made a complete botch of it'. Yes.

If we are to go down the daily allowance route, which is the one bit of the announcement where I have some reservations, we somehow we need to make clear this isn't a payment just for turning up to work. It's an allowance to cover the additional costs which that entails (for some, not all of us), such as overnight accommodation.

Some people seem to be suggesting that MPs might claim the money and then, for example, crash on someone's sofa, thus making a bit of money on the side. When my father worked for a well-known furniture removal company on their European moves, the men got given a daily allowance for a hotel and food. They'd spend it all on beer and sleep in the van. Obviously it was more comfortable on the way out, when they had beds in there. I won't be emulating him, I can assure you.

What the world's been waiting for

Just appeared on the Number 10 website: Gordon Brown announces proposals for a radical overhaul of MPs' expenses.

I'm particularly pleased by the plan to make all staff employees of the House of Commons, which is something I've been arguing for for a long time. Not sure how the attendance allowance thing would work out - I've voted against such measures in the past as if someone has a modest flat in central London it's going to cost them the same regardless of whether they're there three nights a week or five. There's one particular MP I know who has a marginal seat, a very long journey to the constituency and a young family there; he would lose out under these proposals because he tries to spend as much time in his constituency as possible, whereas someone who only occasionally visits their constituency might gain. And the bit about second jobs will really put the cat amongst the pigeons for the Tories! Will Gordon be able to achieve a cross-party consensus on this before next week? I suspect not.

"Going round the country I have been struck by the comments that are made by young people when I meet them about the jobs they want to do when they grow up. I meet large numbers of people who want to be doctors and nurses, many who want to be teachers and firemen and ambulancemen and many who want to be in the caring services. And when I ask them why they want to do what they plan to do, they say because they want to make a difference.

But these days I rarely meet anyone who wants to be a Member of Parliament when they grow up and that is a shame, because I think MPs can make an enormous difference to people they represent - whether its voting for laws that improve the whole of the country in or whether it is fighting the cause of a single constituent who needs your help. And we need future generations of committed young people to come into politics.

Now the vast majority of MPs I know do an excellent job. They are in public service not for what they can get, but for what they can give.

Yet the issue of expenses is casting a cloud over the whole of Parliament. So MPs need to have the humility to recognise that the country has lost confidence in the current system. To restore our faith in Parliament, and the good that it can do on the public’s behalf, we must commit to tightening up the system of allowances urgently.

Every MP I know wants to live by the rules, but for too long some of these rules have been insufficiently clear. So we need to make the rules clearer, and we also need to save money.

So I am announcing today urgent proposals to make our system of MPs’ allowances and expenses simpler and less generous.

Sir Christopher Kelly and the Committee on Standards in Public Life are continuing to carry out an independent review into the system so we can make permanent changes.

But I believe we have to act urgently with interim proposals to restore people’s confidence that MPs are there to serve the public and not serve themselves.

And I want a vote to take place to overhaul the current system as early as next week. A detailed written statement setting out our will be made by Harriet Harman but its main points are:

- the additional costs allowance - or second homes allowance - should be abolished and replaced by a flat rate daily allowance. This will reflect the fact that MPs do incur extra costs from working in two different places but it should be based on attendance in the House of Commons.

- those ministers who live in official residences would not be entitled to this allowance. Nor would MPs within travelling distance of Westminster - they would receive a London supplement similar to London weighting of salaries.

- the Committee on Standards in Public Life is examining the rules governing employment of spouses or other relatives. But in the interim, staff appointed by MPs should, without exception, become direct employees of the House of Commons, which will now be centrally responsible for their employment terms and conditions, contracts, and the payment of their salaries within the statutory limit allowed - and will have the right to make an audit and independent assessment of such contracts.

- while the committee on standards in public life looks into the issue more fully, we will ensure there is greater transparency on second jobs held by MPs. Where members of parliament have a second source of income from second jobs, every payment should be declared with a full description of what it is for and who paid it. There shall also be a full declaration of the hours worked for the payment received.

I want to discuss these interim proposals with the other party leaders and hope we can reach consensus. We will ask the House of Commons to approve them next week. With these changes I hope that the work of MPs can become recognised again for what it should be – a service to the public."

Hanging on the telephone

Waiting for an important phone call from a firm which operates in my constituency, but they seem to have forgotten all about it. While I'm waiting... I went to see "In the Loop" last night. Have never really had the chance to watch much of "The Thick of It" but the film is excellent, very funny.

Shoot you down

Hopi has just posted this over on his blog, about the Erith and Thamesmead selection. And I'm telling you because I agree with every word he says. As I so often do.

Monday 20 April 2009

They work for you

Had a bit of a chat earlier on with one of the guys from theyworkforyou, most specifically about the topics they choose to highlight an MP's voting record. As I've said on here in the past, I think it's a bit of a crude mechanism, in both the selection of topics and also in the absence of any nuance or explanation as to what the votes were actually about. (Which I've explained on here before - e.g. regarding the Iraq inquiry vote, where the issue was actually about the timing of an inquiry, not whether it should happen or not. And the 'voting against a transparent parliament' one is the one which really gets MPs angry, as we've voted on numerous measures which have done just that over the years; it was just one specific point which people had a problem with, which was wrapped up with other issues too. But again, I've covered that on here before).

So, looking forward... The MD of the site has reassured me that it's a registered charity with no political axe to grind. They see their role as informing people about the workings of the democratic process, and basically giving people the information they need to make up their own mind. They try to explain that there is more to the stats than meets the eye; for example, your MP might not speak very much in the Chamber but may be a very assiduous member of a Select Committee. I've noticed they've started putting down Bill Committee attendance rates too; can I just say that the reason I didn't attend the one and only sitting of the Financial Mutual Arrangements Bill Committee was because the Whip didn't tell me I was on it! Apart from that, and missing one sitting of the Finance Bill Committee because the Treasury Select Committee was having a rather important meeting at the time, I think my record is rather good.

Anyway, back to the conversation with theyworkforyou. I'm told that anyone is free to suggest a topic to be covered and to provide the relevant stats, (although there is, understandably, some sort of approval process). He says he'd be happy to run with different topics, provided people out there are actually prepared to do the work. So, how about some suggestions? I'm thinking particularly on the economic front, and maybe on the equalities side too, or maybe controversial issues like stem cell research?

For the record, here's my voting record from the site, which I am quite happy to defend - but only if you make the effort to come up with some suggestions for other topics too.

Voted against a transparent Parliament.
Voted very strongly for introducing a smoking ban.
Voted very strongly for introducing ID cards.
Voted very strongly for Labour's anti-terrorism laws
Voted very strongly against an investigation into the Iraq war
Voted very strongly for replacing Trident
Voted for equal gay rights
Voted moderately for laws to stop climate change

Why we blog

Labour bloggers have been signing up to this statement on 'Why we Blog', which seems to be a Fabian-inspired exercise. I'm sure it could have all been said in a couple of sentences, but there you go. Policy wonks do like their big words!

Saturday 18 April 2009

Range life

Have decided that Range life is going to be default option for a title whenever I'm just space-filling by blogging about the mundanities of domestic life, and generally over-sharing. At the moment I'm having an absolute feast - a bowl of organic tortellini filled with tofu and spices, chunky pieces of courgette and mushroom, and edmane beans in chilli soy sauce. Come Dine with Me is on in the background, and the one task I have left to do today is dispose of the huge pile of newspapers in the hallway in the appropriate environmentally sound way. I also have to deliver some leaflets for Paul Smith which won't take long. And then I'm off to the Zimbabwean Independence celebrations in Lockleaze, also with Mr Smith.

As this post has so far comprehensively failed to feed the trolls, despite its coded references to veganism and recyling, and a possible opportunity to throw in a ZanuLab or two, let me share this discovery with them. My bubble bath has these intructions on the side: "pour under running water and enjoy a ten minute soak". No doubt the result of a new EU Directive prescribing the optimum length of such a pleasure, soon to be enforced by draconian laws and CCTV cameras installed in every bathroom to ensure compliance. It's an outrage.

I wanna grow up to be a politician (2)

Tried to download actual song, but technology failed me. If you click on 'video and lyrics' you get the full Roger McGuinn. And you may then realise that it's more than a little tongue in cheek.

I wanna grow up to be a politician

Been looking at the Labourhome site, which for some reason I don't do very often. It's better than I recall. I think last time I looked at it was when there was reshuffle gossip and someone on there was suggesting Ruth Kelly was in line to be Chief Whip. (That would be the same Ruth Kelly who at the time was battling with her Catholic conscience about whether she could support the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, and who, even leaving this aside, was probably the least likely candidate for Chief Whip in the entire Cabinet.) So my reservation about Labourhome was that it simply didn't feel like somewhere frequented by sufficient Labour people who were 'in the know' about things, by which I mean the quality of comments, not the posts. What I like about it, however, is that it's a relatively troll-free zone. And may it remain thus.

BTW on the Erith Thamesmead selection... to say the ballot box was 'tampered with' sounds like someone was trying to fix the result by, for example, removing, adding or amending some votes. 'Sabotaged' would be a better word.

Lyrics Byrds lyrics - I Wanna Grow Up To Be A Politician lyrics

Sometimes a pony gets depressed

Interesting day yesterday: started off with a visit to the Wholesale Fruit Market in St Philips to talk to the management about various issues, including their ambition to move from recycling 70% of the market's waste (food, wooden pallets) to at least 90%. Then had a meeting at Garrard Hassan, also in St. Philips. They have the most amazing offices, in the old iron works, adjoining the Aardman warehouse destroyed in a fire a few years ago. It's all tiles and wrought iron and friezes inside; absolutely stunning. (On the Garrad Hassan website there is what's described as a 'virtual tour' of the office, but doesn't actually seem to feature any pics or video footage).

Garrad Hassan
is first and foremost a wind energy consultancy; in fact it's the world leader in this field. We had a really interesting discussion about the future of renewables, what more the Government could be doing to facilitate the industry, and Bristol's role as a hub for green sector jobs. Things like the need to simplify the system, from planning issues to grid connections, e.g. whether the Government should 'socialise' grid connections, and possibly create a national renewables grid? Also the 20% by 2020 target (can be met, needs a bit of help) and the Renewable Obligation Certificates regime, and of course, the current economic situation: the impact of devaluation, the availability of finance, possible green bonding as a solution? Lots more info picked up, (did you know, wind power is Denmark's second biggest industry, after bacon?), but need to decipher my notes.

Spent most of the rest of the day in the constituency office, which included a meeting with BUAV to receive my cruelty-free office award. It's such an easy thing to do, buying cleaning products from somewhere like the Co-op, and is part of BUAV's campaign for a ban on testing household products on animals. (Totally unnecessary, and very easy to stop it).

Then we had our monthly GC (General Committee meeting), which is held in St George Labour Club. We got turfed out of our room early because there was a darts match, but then piled into the club for Councillor Charlie Price's surprise 60th birthday party. (Quote from Charlie: 'Thank you all for coming because you know I bloody hate this sort of thing'). Spent most of the evening discussing council waste management policy with Cllr John Bees and Paul Smith. Next time I'm going to ask them to bring their Powerpoint slides. Also discussed how Bristol City Council could follow its cows at Stoke Park, goats in the Avon Gorge, strategy. Hippos in the Floating Harbour?

Friday 17 April 2009

Music when the lights go out

From the Guardian music blog: why do right-on musicians look so bad and/ or make such dreadful music? I think the person who has responded by citing Chumbawumba has kind of missed the point!

Thursday 16 April 2009

Gwreiddiau Dwfn/mawrth Oer Ar Y Blaned Neifion

Today's BEP's tops a report with the headline that 'MPs oppose the Severn Barrage'. And then goes on to mention only one MP in its article (and a Lib Dem one at that). Who turns out not to actually oppose a barrage at all. He just wants the shorter option.

Aphid manure heist

So we're getting cows on Stoke Park and now goats in the Avon Gorge. What's next? Donkeys in the Council House? ((c) The Bristol Blogger, even though I have no idea whether he's ever said it or not.)

One of the comments runs thus:

"After the kerfuffle about the cows on Stoke Park and how they might cause global warming by breaking wind, I hope that Glenn Vowles and his vegan mates don't get to hear about this otherwise they'll get in a right panic."

This follows a front page splash from the BEP which I blogged about here and an exclusive from the Bristol Blogger which should perhaps be compulsory reading for the new residents in Avon Gorge. And then another annoying BEP story which I didn't get round to blogging about at the time, that "despite protests from vegan groups" the herd of cows in Stoke Park was getting the go ahead. Those 'vegan groups' would be Timbo the vegan DJ and... ermm, who, precisely?

Anyway, it looks like Glenn is now firmly fixed in the mind of the Bristol Evening Post reader as Public Vegan Enemy Number One, despite the fact he eats meat.

As another of the readers says:

"More evidence of the 'nanny' state?

I'll get me goat..."

What difference does it make?

One memorial event. One Culture Secretary. Two entirely different accounts.
From the Times and the Guardian.

How soon is now?

My Comment of the Week or Until Something Better Comes Along is now six weeks old. Frankly it's not good enough. I expect better from you. (Obviously not based on past performance, but come on... at least try!)

A professional pirate (2)

In comments on the earlier post about piracy in the Gulf of Aden, Cato has suggested that the solution is simple: shoot them. There's an excellent piece by Ben Macintyre in today's Times, which I hereby present to Cato as an explanation of why he doesn't know what he's talking about. There's also a fascinating feature by Jay Bahadur on the same issue.

He's a mighty good leader*

Nick Clegg was apparently cleaning windows in my constituency yesterday. He said 'I'm not pretending that coming to clean a few windows is going to change people's lives'.

*Beck. I could of course have gone with Loser, 'In a town of chimpanzees I was a monkey', but that would have been cruel and unwarranted. And I'm saving it for someone else.

We care a lot

Mildly interesting debate going on over at Lib Dem Voice about whether, in the event of a hung parliament, they should throw their lot in with the party which gets the highest share of the popular vote or the party which wins the highest number of seats. This might be a slightly radical concept for the party to grasp, but here's a suggestion. How about looking at the policy platform of the two main parties and see which party has policies you can broadly support? Or which one has policies to which you absolutely and violently object? Stop wittering on about the political process, and make a decision on principle for a change.

Receptacle for the respectable

Letter in today's Guardian re child poverty, from what politicians tend to call 'people of faith and people of no faith'.

We write as faith leaders, humanists and scientists united in our commitment to the eradication of child
poverty in the UK. In our current economic crisis, moral leadership is needed to rebuild an economy in which values come before markets, paying attention to the poor, the marginalised and the vulnerable. An end to children growing up in poverty must be a founding principle.

Economists argue that targeting resources to poor families quickly stimulates the economy, as they immediately spend to keep a warm home, put food on the table and shoes on feet (
Our tax system is a mess, 11 April). While we hope that the chancellor will consider the economic argument, our primary concern is the moral imperative we have to help the country's poorest children. It is their need that is greatest in this crisis.

Taking the final steps to halve child poverty by 2010 is far more affordable than the bailouts for failed financial institutions and will deliver so much more in return by safeguarding the health of our children, the quality of their education and the joy of their play. We therefore add our voices to the 110 MPs and thousands of campaigners who have called on the chancellor for action in the budget to "Keep the Promise" on child poverty.

Rev Dr Martyn Atkins General secretary, Methodist Conference
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari Secretary general, Muslim Council of Britain
Rt Rev Tom Butler Bishop of Southwark
Rt Rev David Lunan Moderator, General Assembly of the Church of Scotland
Polly Toynbee President, British Humanist Association
Professor Richard Wilkinson University of Nottingham
Professor Lewis Wolpert Vice-president, Humanist Association
And 21 others

This letter, which of course follows the letter from 110 MPs which appeared in the Observer a couple of weeks ago, much along the same lines and organised by yours truly, contrasts neatly with a letter in the Guardian earlier this week from Compass and some others.

We write to highlight personal tax avoidance by some of the wealthiest in our country, and to urge the chancellor to take action to close in on personal tax avoidance in the budget. Over 15 times as much is lost through tax avoidance at the top than to benefit fraud at the bottom. If those at the top choose not to pay their fair share, it has grave consequences for everyone. It robs our society of the funds that could end child poverty, or the money needed to increase welfare benefits and help alleviate the conditions which drive the most vulnerable to commit things such as benefit fraud in the first place.

We call on the chancellor to close in on tax avoidance, close in on tax loopholes and deliver greater tax justice. Measures could include: abolishing the domicile rule; abolishing tax havens; taxing investment income equally to income earned through labour; introducing a new wealth tax for all those earning over £250,000; introducing a new tax on bonuses; adopting a general anti-avoidance rule; removing secrecy from all British-controlled tax havens and increasing the number of tax inspectors to allow more thorough investigation.

It is time to close in on tax avoiders, recoup public money and ensure everyone in society pays their fair share - we urge the government to act.

I entirely endorse where Compass is coming from, in spirit if not down to the very last detail, (some of which is more deliverable than others) but I think it's a shame that they don't give equal emphasis to how the money would be spent. Their campaign is for 'Tax Justice', and yes, of course rich people shouldn't be able to avoid paying tax altogether by exploiting tax loopholes or tax havens, although a passing acknowledgement of just how much Gordon Brown has already done to close the former would have been appreciated.

But to isolate the issue thus, with only a passing reference to child poverty and welfare benefits, and running polls on 'taxing the wealthy' runs the risk of creating the impression that this is more about a desire to 'tax the rich till the pips squeak' than it is about ensuring we have sufficient funds in the public purse to meet social objectives.

I'd also question whether it was judicious to mention increasing welfare benefits in such a letter; I know why it was done, to juxtapose benefit fraud and tax avoidance, but again there's a risk that the suggestion is that the rich should be taxed simply to pay other people to do nothing. It would have been better to focus on childcare/ nursery provision, extended schools, tax credits, skills training - all elements in helping people move from welfare into work.

Whenever we make the case for increased taxation, which is what Compass is doing, even if it's just increased taxes for a relatively small proportion of the population, we have to justify not just why it would be 'equitable' to take the money, but also why we need it and how we think it should be spent. Yes, Compass are right to say about tax avoidance that 'it's not fair', but child poverty isn't fair either, and I wish the left of the Labour Party would throw their weight behind the End Child Poverty campaign in the same way that so many others across the political spectrum have done.

Guidance note on commenting for trolls:*
This post is about how the left makes the argument for tax and spend in today's political/ economic climate. It should be read in the context of many years debate on the subject, from the Denis Healey quote mentioned above to the 'no return to tax and spend' of the New Labour years. I am entirely confident that the post will result in a deluge of libertarians ranting on about how 'it's our money' and going off on one about how the state shouldn't be taxing anyone or spending money on anything or passing any laws or doing anything at all except equpping our troops with sufficient ammunition to blast illegal immigrants into outer space, or whatever. Please don't. Unless I get the impression your responses are (a) thoughtful (b) measured and (c) at least tenuously connected with the actual issue under discussion, I will just be pressing delete. My blog = my rules!

*The first of what may become a regular feature.

Wednesday 15 April 2009

Satan gave me a taco

Just been alerted by Blackburn Labour via Twitter that Stuart Bruce has blogged saying that either Tom Harris or my good self should be in charge of Labour's online strategy. He says I have "one of the best set of blog house rules I’ve seen – My blog = My rules!" Indeed.

The more eagle-eyed amongst you may have spotted that I've introduced a new one recently: "Thirdly: I might just randomly delete comments from certain people because I'm getting thoroughly fed up with them and want them to go away and annoy someone else for a while. You know who you are." Have a look at the latest comments from Dave H (on 'Get the Message') and Cato (on 'A Professional Pirate') if you want to get an idea of what would make me wearily reach into my pocket for a yellow card. I am still not entirely sure whether Dave H is joking or not.

As for Stuart's suggestion, I'm not sure the analogy between the Conservatives having Jeremy Hunt MP in charge of online strategy and therefore Labour needing a political steer from an MP is quite right. The Tories' presence on the web is led by Iain Dale, Conservative Home and Guido Fawkes: all laughably described by Tim Montgomerie in yesterday's Guardian as 'Centre Right' blogs. None of them are in-house journals, and none of them are 'master-minded' by Jeremy Hunt. (Much as I love the idea of discovering that Guido is just a puppet in his hands!)

I think LabourList can and should be salvaged (though under a new name because the old one was frankly rather dull), and blogging MPs should play a role in deciding its future, as well as people like Alastair Campbell, Hopi Sen, Sadie Smith and other established Labour bloggers in my 'If you're bored with me' list. The site needs to be significantly whittled down, with a lot less immediate content coming through. There are too many contributors at the moment and some of them should be making their name by commenting on posts rather than writing their own pieces. Why surrender the comments sections to the trolls?

And it needs more gossip - not smears, but genuine political gossip, the stuff of diary columns. (By which I mean the way diary columns used to be before the blogs took over). People who want lengthy policy analysis have plenty of places they can go to on the web. If you want to read think-tank pieces from policy wonks, well, they've already got their own sites.

LabourList (NewLabourList?) should be informative, pithy and above all, fun. And no, that's not a job application. Although I will volunteer to draft the rules if they want me to. Our blog = our rules!

Tuesday 14 April 2009

Get the message

Just trying to track down what I assume is my missing birthday present from my father (all the way from Ireland). I wasn't in when they tried to deliver it, and now we're going through the familiar rigmarole of trying to phone the delivery office, no answer, trying again, and yet again, leave it ringing for ages, still no answer, trying the online redelivery, asking for it to be sent to the nearest post office, going into post office, not there, emailing them again, being told it is there, going back to post office, being told it's not there, emailing them again... And the 'Sorry you were out card' doesn't have the attempted time of delivery, or the reason it couldn't be delivered, which they want to know. In Bristol we also get a recorded/ special delivery letter virtually every day which just arrives straight through our letter box without anyone asking for a signature.

I don't like complaining about such things because it's not always the person who deserves the blame who gets it. On the one occasion I did get an answer at the delivery office I was told they couldn't answer the phones because they're under-staffed. But I'm getting a bit fed up with it. Anyone else have the same problems?

Instant karma

In the wake of the Phil Spector trial, what do people think of the US system of allowing members of the jury to comment afterwards on why they reached their verdict?

Random rules

Why are Formula 1 incapable of deciding before the season starts whether a car is legal or not? Rather than suddenly deciding it's illegal because it's winning. Maybe there's a rule which says it's OK to stick funny bits on your car providing they don't work.


Why are people suggesting Madonna wants to adopt another baby to compensate for splitting up with Guy? She's been after this one for years. Is it part of a media agenda to make her look sad and desperate?

So. Central Rain

I seem to have accidentally deleted the last few comments which came in, rather than publishing them. Not that you're missing much. One was verging on the complimentary towards the BNP and the other (from Tony Blair) was suggesting I read Derek Draper's book.

A professional pirate*

I'm keeping a close eye on what's happening in the Gulf of Aden, i.e. the activities of the Somali pirates. I have a feeling this could be one of those situations where something which starts off as a small localised problem that no-one is paying too much attention to, and ends up triggering something highly historically significant.

*The Muppets!


The other weekend I allowed one of the nephews to have a look at my new mobile phone. The next morning I was rudely awoken by the alarm on the phone going off at 6am; his idea of a joke. The nephew should (but probably won't) be saying sorry to Auntie Kerry for his evil deeds. His long-suffering mother should (and probably will) express regret for having spawned such a child. That's the difference.

Monday 13 April 2009

White riot

Apparently it's kicking off in Luton Town Centre, with a BNP protest, according to @ukdk on Twitter. - "Scuffles breaking out ..lots of police...horses dogs".

Depressing - this sort of thing used to happen when UKDK played the Luton carnival 25, maybe 30 years ago, with NF skins trying to provoke trouble. More as I hear it.

Beneath the valley of the underdog

According to the Mirror's opinion column today:

"This blogosphere is largely populated by the cretinous, infantile forums of abuse dressed up as argument - pompous prigs of all political persuasions passing themselves off as intellectuals. But the power of these small-minded attention seekers has seduced the real political world into thinking they actually matter. They don't."

Well, I admit... I kind of know what they're talking about. But there's a risk that events of the past days could lead Labour to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and decide that the territority of the blogosphere is too dangerous for 'mainstream' politics. Which would be a shame. I think LabourList needs to be salvaged, whether under its current name or not, I'm not sure. I think it has its faults. I confess, it's not on my 'must read' list, although I do always at least skim through the LunchtimeList email.

I think one of its problems is that, quite frankly, there are too many contributors. I know the idea is that it should be an open forum, and anyone who wants to post, can do so. I appreciate the good intentions behind this, but the trouble is, it means the site ends up with no coherent identity, no personality. Multiple contributors can work; Blackburn Labour is a good example, but there they've taken care to personalise each contributor and there is an overall 'feel' to the site, which is lacking on LabourList. The other problem of course with so many contributions is that you end up not being able to see the wood for the trees; I end up simply clicking on articles by people I already know (OK, I read the ones by Douglas, so I can tell him I have) and the less well-known contributors don't get a look in.

I have some ideas as to how it can be reformed, but I suspect there will be lots of talk about this over the next few weeks so I'm keeping my ideas to myself for now.

Postscript: Have a look at Hopi's take on this too. Note that I make it into his 'comedy' section of blogs to be encouraged.

A thousand forms of mind

Yes, I'm in Mudhoney mode today for the titles.

I read Alastair Campbell's novel, 'All in the Mind', yesterday and actually thought it was rather good. Here's Tom Harris' review (he obviously got the hardback). Tom ends his review by saying "It is also one of the few books I have ever read which has brought me close to tears in its closing pages". Yup, me too. Recommended.

Touch me I'm sick

One of my more recent posts, Human, somehow with a wearying sense of inevitability veered off into a discussion of all things libertarian again. (If I ever get more than 20 comments on a post, that's a given). It included a brief discussion of the merits or otherwise of an insurance-based, US-style National Health Service. Here's Theo Blackwell explaining just what would be wrong with that.

Guest informant

Seeing as the debate over the 'email affair' is going on all over the blogosphere, can we have a mini-debate on one particular aspect of it? To what extent was it justified for the mainstream media to report the content of the 'smears' against prominent Tories in such graphic detail?

It could be argued that without knowing all the details we might have accepted the 'bit of harmless fun' defence, and that it's the detail - in particularly the snide comments about the mental health of someone's wife - that make it all so profoundly unpleasant. And yet, those allegations are now in the public domain, thanks to the newspapers. Yes, they would have no doubt been all over the blogosphere anyway, but that could be used as an excuse to print virtually anything these days.

I assume the newspapers will have consulted their lawyers very carefully, and provided they include phrases such as 'entirely without foundation' or 'totally denied' then they're in the clear. But how many people will think, 'no smoke without fire'? Has the damage now been done? If you were one of the politicians mentioned in the story, would you rather they had, or hadn't, reported it in the way that they did? Couldn't they, for example, have given a basic outline without naming the individuals involved? (As they seem, somewhat mysteriously, to have done for just one of the four stories, which seems to me to be the one genuinely worthy of reporting, if it can at all be substantiated. And that's obviously a big if.)

Going to be absolutely ruthless in editing comments by the way. I'm pretty sure I know what you all think of Messrs Draper and McBride, and there are plenty of other sites where you can continue to express those views to your hearts' content. I'm asking one question: should the press have repeated the 'smears'? Yes or no?

Love train*

Andrew Adonis is taking a very long train journey. Doesn't include Bristol but I'm expecting him soon (i.e. the visit that got snowed off last time). So if you spot a lonely figure sitting on the platform, waiting for his connection, go up and say hello.
* Sorry, but Adonis/ train journey - what else was I to do?

Sunday 12 April 2009

What did your last servant die of?*

My new find, Irfan Ahmed, says that Labour's plans for young people to do 50 hours of community service before they reach the age of 19 is 'slave labour'.

I think it's an excellent idea; my only gripe is that we've been talking about it for rather a long time, and it's about time we just got on with it. In a small way it will help address one of the issues I've blogged about on here before, i.e. the lack of opportunities for kids from certain backgrounds to participate in internships or gain work experience when they don't have 'important' contacts, and in many cases don't actually know what is out there in the world of work. How can you aspire to something if it's not within your horizon? OK, 50 hours isn't much (I wonder if Irfan thinks it's 50 hours a week?) but it will make a difference, I'm sure.

* And yes, the song titles are back, by special request.

Elevate me later

I don't think I could say it better than Tom Harris has. So I'm not even going to try.

Saturday 11 April 2009

The Next Episode

Got this email a few days ago.

Hi, This mail is to tell you about a new local blog which aims to start a debate about the future of news, current affairs and issues reporting in Bristol. Local newspapers across the country are having problems with declining readership and recession. In Bristol, the Evening Post and Western Daily Press are making almost a third of staff redundant, while ITV West's local coverage is now almost non-existent. At the same time, we have seen the rise of DIY news on the web with sites like Bristol Indymedia and various bloggers and newsgroups. I thought it would be interesting to get lots of informed people talking about the future of news reporting in Bristol, so Ive started this blog. In coming weeks I plan to post a series of short articles addressing various questions and hopefully will get some debate going. It might be a complete waste of time, or it could fire some really interesting ideas. We might even create some wonderful new media models for other cities to emulate. I am a Bristol-based freelance journalist, working for local and national organisations, mostly in print. I am not an employee of any media firm and have no ulterior or financial motives in doing this. It's simply that the future of news is something that colleagues and I discuss constantly in the pub and something which we all assume, rightly or wrongly, is an important issue. So let's open the debate up beyond the pub. I'm doing it under a pseudonym for now, not because I have anything to hide, but because some of you know me (at least by name) and I don't want anyone's feelings about me and my work (which I hope would mostly be good!) affecting the debate or comment. If you're really desperate for me to reveal my secret identity, just mail me back and I'll tell you. Please take a look, please make lots of comments, please tell any friends and colleagues you think might be interested and please link from your blogs and websites.

Slow motion

The BEP reported this week that a new housing project in Bristol has been delayed whilst the many slow-worms found on the site are rounded up and found a new home. I particularly like the observation from the site manager that '"They are quite easy to catch, as they are quite slow..." You don't say.

Friday 10 April 2009

The wrong child

Johann Hari has just restored my faith in human nature, with this piece in the Independent, after Jan Moir lived up to the Daily Mail's usual standards.

I appreciate this was lazy blogging on my part, and was going to say more about the incident in Doncaster, but Cllr Tim has now said it for me. Have just discovered his blog, and it's excellent.


Ok, I'm back.

I found out about 10 days ago that someone to whom I am closely related is seriously ill. There are various other factors which make the situation rather complicated. I don't intend to say anymore about it on here, other than to offer it up as an explanation as to why I wasn't in such a tolerant mood as usual. I didn't see why I should offer myself up in the absence of higher-profile politicians on the blogosphere as a sacrificial lamb to receive the torrent of abuse for which some pseudonymous bloggers were no doubt sharpening their green-ink-stained quills in preparation. (And thanks for the delightful comments left in my absence, none of which have made it past moderation).

If this was SATC, we would now cut to a shot of me sitting at my ancient typewriter, with a voiceover saying: This made me think... "Are we human, or are we politician?" Cue theme of this week's episode.

For those of us who are public figures, even in a fairly modest way, and can't hide behind pseudonyms, blogging presents something of a dilemma. What to put into the public domain, and what to keep under wraps? (I'd suggest Nadine Dorries' online anecdote about dropping her underwear in the gym car park probably falls into the latter category).

On the one hand, people want to see their politicians as human. On the other, we're entitled to a private life. And yes, I know, some from the 'I'm paying your wages' school would dispute that.

My family and upbringing were undoubtedly the biggest single formative influence on my politics. All of human life is there, as they say. (It's a big family!) And sometimes it's difficult to explain where you're coming from as a politician without reference to your background, either to convey a particular empathy or to defend yourself when people make certain assumptions. There are shorthand methods some MPs adopt: 'I'm still the only person in my family to have had a university education' is always useful. Or 'I'm from Luton'. (There are no posh people in Luton).

There are almost certainly MPs in this current parliament who have been raped, had abortions and miscarriages, been the victims of domestic violence, or were sexually abused as children. Mo Mowlam was famously the daughter of an alcoholic parent, and talked about it her later years as a politician. There are some with family members who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, or have died from drug abuse (Ian McCartney's son, for example), or have mental health issues. There will be some who have survived serious illnesses, or have children with serious disabilities.

Each politician should be entitled to make their own decision as to how much of this they choose to reveal, or conceal. Personal anecdote can be very powerful; I still remember a speech Dari Taylor made in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill debate, where she talked about her own infertility and the hope that this legislation offered to other women in her situation.

The dangers of revealing details of one's personal life are, however, manifold. Firstly, once a label is publicly-attached, it can be difficult to remove it. Neil Tennant always say that the reason he didn't choose to out himself in the music press was because he didn't want to be pigeon-holed in the press as 'gay pop star Neil Tennant'. True enough, as soon as he did choose to tell people he was gay, that's exactly what happened.

Secondly, there's the creaking sound of floodgates being opened... once you've allowed yourself to be pictured in the pages of Hello magazine boasting about your wonderful marriage, you're fair game for the paparazzi when it all goes horribly wrong and you're seen walking through the streets with a 'blotchy face' ((c) Daily Mail) and slept-in clothes. So it's best to keep off the topic altogether.

Thirdly, there's the risk of being seen to exploit the issue for personal gain, as we've seen with accusations levelled at David Cameron and others in the past. David Davis' single parent childhood formed an integral part of his pitch for the Tory leadership. Alan Johnson wouldn't be Alan Johnson if we didn't know what we know of his background. But where do you draw the line?

And finally, it's not just about you. (Some of the more ego-driven politicians may find this a hard concept to grasp, mentioning no names.) If you start talking about your family, you are putting the spotlight on people who may well not want to be subjected to its glare. Maybe a politician feels quite comfortable talking about his feckless, philandering father when discussing the issue of men taking equal responsibility for raising their children... but how does his mother feel about it? Sometimes it's easy to forget that you've got an audience, or that what you say is being recorded for posterity. It's important to keep this in mind.

I tend to operate on the basis of no names, no pack drill. I've got enough sisters (five) and enough nieces and nephews (thirteen, plus a few 'step' ones) to be able to tell the occasional anecdote without embarrassing anyone. Sometimes I will use phrases such as 'a young woman I know' or ' a friend of mine'. On more serious issues, if I did decide to 'go public' I'd probably ask the most reticent member of my family first, and they'd almost certainly say no. And that would be the end of that.

Monday 6 April 2009

Range Life

I've been having a bit of a blogging holiday... normal service will be resumed tomorrow. Possibly.