Monday 30 November 2009

Fighters and believers - Tory style

What a pleasure it is to arrive in the Westminster office to be greeted by yet another email from young Samuel Coates on behalf of the Conservative campaign team. I assumed this was the offspring of the Times journalist of the same name, but apparently no, there are just two of them. As if one... etc, etc.

Sam the Younger excitedly tells me all about the great opportunities they are to campaign for the Conservatives, and concludes with this almost too good to resist offer:

P.S. Don't forget: the campaign team with the most members by Tuesday wins some free professional photography, and the campaign member who makes the most calls wins a curry with Eric Pickles!

Sam ends with an enticement to comment on his blue blog, on a piece ironically titled "Harnessing the Power of Online Lobbying", so of course I did:

"Something makes me think that the Tories haven't quite got the hang of this online lobbying lark. It would take rather more than an email, offering me the chance to win a curry with Eric Pickles, to make me resign my position as a Government Whip and come and campaign for the Tories!

P.S. Would be interested to know how my email address ended up on your database?"

Let's see if that makes it past moderation... (Actually thinking about it, the entire Government whips office could have entered as the biggest campaign team, won the free photography session, and sent a portrait of ourselves to CCHQ to hang on their wall! Doubt if they'd have spotted it...)


I also spent Saturday afternoon at an event for young people in London, at the British Film Institute on the South Bank. I've never been there before, despite the fact that my previous London flat was all of ten minutes walk away... very cool place, with the cafe/ bar full of people you think you might vaguely recognise. I sat at a table in the cafe for twenty minutes, totally ignored by the waitress, and then went to the bar and was ignored by the bar staff too.

Anyway, it turned out to be a great event, and if you only watch one of the TrueTube films we saw during the day, watch "Stereotyped". It's only a couple of minutes long.

To be frank, I wasn't particularly pleased with my performance on the panel - some days you have it, some days you don't - but there was a moment during the Q and A session where it started to work. Someone in the audience (not one of the 100+ young people there) said that the problem today was that 30% of kids today don't have parents that are married, and that this is the cause of societal breakdown, etc. I responded by saying that my parents weren't married and I didn't meet my father till I was 27, and that what matters is not the family structures, but what your parents are like as role models. Which received a round of applause...

As I've said on here before, it's always a dilemma knowing when to draw on personal experience, and when to talk in abstract terms. The former is far more powerful, but it means breaching that barrier between the personal and the political life, and that can be uncomfortable. But when you have an audience of kids, most of whom probably don't come from nuclear families, then it's important they know that there are plenty of other people out there who didn't either, and survived. (I hesistate to say 'succeeded' - I ended up as a politician after all!)

P.S. On a related point, Paul Smith, the Labour candidate for Bristol West, has given this interview about being adopted and talking to his Italian birth father for the first time.

Digby, the biggest GOAT in the world

Well I'm on the train on the way to London, after a mad dash to Temple Meads. I've been at an event at the Watershed this morning, to celebrate the work of Ablaze (A Business Learning Action Zone in Education) an education charity established by the local business community to help raise educational standards and, just as importantly if not more so, raise aspirations amongst young people and their parents. I say parents: I was told at this event that one of the secondary schools in my area did a survey of parents, and only 3% expected their child to go on to university, which is quite shocking, but is no doubt a hangover from the parents' schooldays when less than 5% did. (And a lot less than 5% from state schools; it must have been about 1% from mine). I'd be intrigued to know how the schools across Bristol compare, and particularly to see whether schools with a higher ratio of pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds have parents with higher aspirations; I bet they do. Anyway, Ablaze is doing some excellent work, sending reading mentors into schools and inviting schools to visit places of work. More here.

The most surprising thing about this morning, however, was the speech by Digby, the biggest GOAT in the world. (I have a feeling some people won't get either the reference to Goats or to Digby the biggest dog in the world. Oh well.)

I've seen Digby before on Question Time, I've never met him in person and didn't introduce myself to him today. (He was talking to someone far more important). Let's just say I probably shared the view of the average Labour Party member when it came to the issue of Gordon giving him a job in Government. I now know why he did. It was an inspirational speech, from someone who clearly is hugely passionate about the issue, of raising aspirations and supporting the ambitions of working class kids. And not in a patronising way either. I suppose I've just assumed someone called Sir Digby Jones was a bastion of the establishment, bit of a toff, with a name like Digby... got to be a toff thing, surely? But he's actually from a very modest background and hasn't forgotten it. OK, he's living a posh lifestyle now, I'm sure, but he still gets what it's like not to have everything handed to you on a plate.

We also had personal testimonies from some of those involved in the mentoring programme, an again it was quite eye-opening: the senior solicitor, for example, who got quite emotional talking about his upbringing on what we'd call a 'rough' estate, and the woman who'd gone to a school which didn't suit her, left without much in the way of qualifications, demoralised and lacking in confidence, but in the end got it together and is now a teacher of some 18 years standing.

As an aside, I do wish the solicitor had somehow hung onto his original accent; it's one thing telling young people that if you can do it, then they can do it, but the best role models are people who look a bit like you and sound a bit like you. Not that you'd want a 60-something lawyer going into a school dressed in a hoodie, but you know what I mean.

Saturday 28 November 2009

I demand TMI!

Arrived at Paddington for the journey back to Bristol just before 8pm to find a packed station concourse, with hordes of people gazing upwards at the monitors. (Why don't they provide more seats at Paddington? Actually I suspect I know the answer to that from my days on the Luton Airport board. If people can't sit down in front of the information boards to wait for their trains, they're more likely to go to the cafes or do a bit of shopping. It's a money thing). So... there were problems with the signalling in the Reading area, it seems. The 7.30pm was cancelled, the 8.00pm 'delayed', the 8.15pm 'on time', although as is usual in these situations, the 'delayed' soon became 'cancelled' and the 'on time' soon became ''delayed'. There was a muffled announcement saying something about going to Waterloo and getting the South West train service for west of Reading, but it was impossible to tell whether this meant that there weren't going to be any trains from Paddington westwards, and of course no information as to when the trains would leave Waterloo. It's not a frequent service from Waterloo out towards Bristol, and having just come from Waterloo, I didn't want to make the trek back there just on the offchance there would be a train waiting for me. Of course the information desks on the station concourse weren't staffed, and the station staff were all hiding the other side of the ticket barriers. All we had to go on were a couple of monitors saying there was a problem between London and Reading which would be sorted out by 23.45, and a problem between Newport and Swansea (because of a trackside fire), which would also be sorted out by 23.45. Oh, and the monitors telling us the next train was 'on time', which were a complete fiction.

Then a train arrived, and crowds started gathering at the ticket barriers. After a pause for the train to be cleared of rubbish, we were allowed through. The monitor said Reading, Swindon, various places like Gloucester and Stroud, then on to Wales. No mention of Bristol. I overheard someone saying something about 'swapping at Reading'...

I asked the ticket collector if there was going to be a train to Bristol. He told me that the train wasn't going to Bristol. I said OK, should I wait for a train to Bristol or should I swap at Reading. He said rather diffidently, 'yes you could swap at Reading'. I asked if there was going to be trains to Bristol soon. He looked blank. 'There will be one train leaving every hour but I don't know where they will be stopping.' So I am now on an absolutely packed train, complete with drunken football fans singing and kids at my feet playing with a Buzz Lightyear spaceship which keeps firing things across the carriage, and eating McDonalds (but behaving much better than the football fans). I've no idea whether I should swap at Reading or at Swindon, or whether there will be trains west of those stations. There have been no announcements since we got on the train, except to advertise the buffet car.

I entirely accept that things go wrong on the rail network from time to time, although I'd still like to know what happened today. What is totally unacceptable is the complete lack of customer service. People have a right to know what is going on, and to be able to ask for advice on how long the delays will be, and on whether they should make alternative travel plans. At the bare minimum they should have stuck one of the platform staff behind the information desk, and made sure that the tannoy announcements could actually be understood. They should also have used one of the screens to convey information on the services from Waterloo, and another to indicate what trains were actually expected to run from Paddington over the next hour or so. Surely it's just a case of someone, somewhere tapping the information into a computer? There really is no excuse for not doing so. Even if they didn't have a clue what was going on, it would be useful to be told that!

More on Uganda

And if you want more detail on the proposed laws in Uganda, this is an excellent blog post. (I assume the details are accurate, it seems well-informed). I became embroiled in a mini-spat with the author on Twitter, who seemed to me to be somewhat premature in criticising Gordon via tweets for not having single-handedly brought the Ugandan Government to heel (NB it's not a British colony anymore), but the blog is good. As I said to him on Twitter, let's not expend energy throwing around accusations on who is and who isn't doing enough on the issue; solidarity is needed!

Solidarity needed - update

Update on my recent post about Chris McCafferty's question to the Foreign Office about Uganda's plans to toughen up the law on homosexuality, which includes making it a capital offence. The Pink News reports that the Prime Minister has personally spoken to the Ugandan President about this:

'A Downing Street source said: "The Foreign Office will be following the passage of the bill closely and we will continue to do everything we can privately and publically to prevent its passage . . . it has been raised in the strongest terms at the highest possible level today."'

I'm very happy to hear this. I've visited Uganda twice and on my second visit I saw a newspaper placard which began 'Homos march.[for gay rights].' When I asked the (Ugandan) staff at an NGO I was visiting if homophobia was a big problem, they shrugged uncomfortably and eventually responded along the lines 'there are very few gay people in Uganda and they should just be quiet about it, stop making a fuss'. This from people who were doing incredibly good work in the development field, but whose compassion obviously didn't extend to homosexuals.

For those who have immediately responded to this news with the criticism that 'it's not enough to raise it, we want action...' Well, firstly look at the Foreign Office statement and bear in mind that not all diplomatic pressure goes on in the public sphere (and also that the FCO statement was the equivalent in diplomatic language of reading the riot act). And if you want something more done about it - make a noise!

Sup up your beer and collect your fags

Nice little quote from the Tory leader of Hammersmith and Fulham council:

"My mates are in the Shadow Cabinet, waiting to get those [ministerial] boxes, being terribly excited. I went to university with them, they haven't run a piss-up in a brewery".

Slightly unfair on the Bullingdon boys to bring breweries into it. We all know their preferred tipple in their uni days was champers.


Beautiful weather in Bristol today, bit chilly but lovely and sunny. I, however, am on the train on the way to London, so the weather is a tad annoying because I'll miss the campaigning today and it's bound to pour down for our session on Sunday. (As an aside: one of the arguments that people put for PR is that in seats with 'healthy' majorities, voters get taken for granted. To those people I'd say look at the work being done by candidates such as Stella Creasy in Walthamstow, and by MPs such as Andrew Gwynne, who has what a colleague described as 'a stonking majority' in Denton and Reddish, but is still out on the campaign trail every chance he gets. As he and I were heading north and west on the trains back to our constituencies on Thursday, there was a telephone canvassing session going on at Gwynne Towers, with ample quantities of food supplied by Mrs Gwynne for the volunteers who judging from the tweets, thoroughly appreciated it. Next week it's her speciality, chilli.

I'm coming back to Bristol this evening. This is just a day trip to take part in the Visionaries: Youth in High Definition event at the BFI, for a discussion based on some short films based by young people with the help of TrueTube, on topics including gangs, knife crime, alcohol, drugs, sex, boredom, stereotyping and job opportunities. The films can be seen on, they're called "Turf War", "Who's 2 Blame", "Stereotyped" and "Hope for Change". I'm on a panel with Brooke Kinsella, Richard Taylor (father of Damilola), Michael Mansfield QC, Tim Loughton (Tory spokesperson on such matters) and Matt Sellwood, a Green Party bod.

I'm wondering if the election broadcast film is still showing at the BFI. A couple of colleagues went to see it Wednesday night. If so, I might pop in and see that while I'm there.

Wednesday 25 November 2009

Not watching TV or being on it either

Nadine Dorries tweeted yesterday that she'll be taking part in a TV programme in December, spending a week living with a family on a housing estate. I think several MPs are doing it. I'm hoping Nadine ends up staying on the Marsh Farm estate in Luton, which borders her constituency and has a certain notoriety. (There were riots there, a long time ago now, but it's like St Pauls in Bristol; people who don't know Bristol always ask me if I represent St Pauls, even though the riots were nearly 30 years ago! April 1980..)

I was asked to do the programme too, but turned it down. Partly because the idea of being followed by TV cameras for a week doing anything is pretty close to my idea of hell; partly because such things nearly always turn out to be stitch-ups (look at the MP demanding these poverty-stricken people feed her poncey, pricey vegan food!); and partly because the whole premise of the show seemed to be that MPs need to be taught what life is like on a council estate. OK, I obviously don't live on one, and outside observation is perhaps no substitute for real-life experience, but I like to think I'm in touch enough with my constituents, and with family and friends too, to have some idea.

Also of course, it's questionable whether spending a week with a family under the glare of the TV spotlight is the 'real deal'. It's like those frequent pieces where someone tries to live on Job Seekers Allowance for a week. (See Liz Jones' recent piece in the Mail for a particularly ludicrous example; she had to stop feeding her 17 cats on fresh cod. And for a much better, properly researched piece, see Polly Toynbee's "Hard Work: Life in Low Pay Britain".) Living on a very limited income is difficult, but the real pressures come over time, for example when the washing machine breaks and you can't afford to replace it, or when you're burgled and haven't got house insurance, or the car fails its MOT. Or even when you have a month with a few birthdays in it.

Anyway, I will be watching the TV programme with interest. If I can get my telly working by then. I was also asked a couple of weeks ago if I was interested in taking part in a show on December 3rd, with Frank Skinner and a couple of other comedians... something to do with voter participation and democratic engagement. But I ummed and aahed because that's the night of the staff/interns/former interns Christmas party, and by the time I got round to asking them what time it would be filmed, they'd crossed me off the list. I might have had a narrow escape.

Another extract from the Brandreth book

Brandreth talks about the Labour leadership after John Smith dies, and says Blair is way in front. "We want Beckett or Prescott of course. Brown might be best for them long-term; he's the one I find most approachable, most human and he seems blessed with a touch of socialist zeal. However they seem to be setting their hearts on the Young Conservative"

A show of solidarity needed!

This is just a very quick post because the following written question caught my eye just now when I was cutting and pasting from the Order Paper for tomorrow's PMQs. A good example of a backbench MP taking up a really important issue which might otherwise go unnoticed.

Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, what representations the Government has made to the Ugandan government on its proposed legislation to (a) increase penalties for homosexuality and (b) introduce the death sentence for HIV positive homosexuals.

Disturbing news... I'll be keeping an eye out for David Miliband's response. I hope it's robust.

PMQs today

A quick guide to Oral Questions to the Prime Minister later today. As you will see from the colour coding the Tories were caught napping last week, presumably because we were on a one line whip for some of it, and don't seem to have got their questions in. That, or they've just been unlucky. Other interesting things to note. Roberta has never before, in four and a half years as an MP, managed to get on the Order Paper for PMQs; she's been called at PMQs, but only because she's bobbed up and down. This week she's number one and as Chair of the All-Party Group on Afghanistan I suppose she might go on that issue. Phil Wilson on the other hand, is on the Order Paper virtually every week, but always in that twilight spot when he's not quite sure whether the Speaker will get down to him or not. And Eric Martlew, as a Cumbrian MP, will, I'd imagine, have something to say about the floods.

*1 Dr Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham):
*2 Madeleine Moon (Bridgend):
*3 Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside):
*4 Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute):
*5 Paul Rowen (Rochdale):
*6 Eric Martlew (Carlisle):
*7 David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate):
*8 Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test):
*9 Tony Lloyd (Manchester Central):
*10 Sally Keeble (Northampton North):
*11 Jim McGovern (Dundee West):
*12 Phil Wilson (Sedgefield):
*13 David Gauke (South West Hertfordshire):

*14 Betty Williams (Conwy):
*15 Gerald Howarth (Aldershot):

As previously explained here, the Speaker will alternate between Government and Opposition, so it will actually go something like this: 1. Roberta 2. Cameron (6 questions) 3. Random Labour backbencher 4. Clegg (2 questions) 5. Madeline - and so on. I'd imagine if Jamie Reed is in the Chamber he may, as a Cumbrian MP whose constituency has been hit by the floods, stand a good chance of being called. Tony Cunningham, whose constituency of Workington has been worst hit, has been putting in an heroic effort in his constituency since the rain began, but he's a senior Government whip so he can't take part in PMQs. No idea what Cameron and Clegg will go on this week. The floods? The Iraq inquiry? Copenhagen and climate change? Who knows...

Tuesday 24 November 2009

Putting the bully into Bullingdon

The eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotten the reference amongst the Labour Luvvies in the list below to a certain 'Andy Coulson, Sun journalist'. Whatever happened to him?

Well, here are the highlights:

  • His career in newspapers came to an untimely end when he was forced to resign the editorship of the News of the World in 2007 after being embroiled in a phone-tapping the Royals scandal, which saw the paper's Royal Correspondent jailed.
  • He faced a grilling from MPs on the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee earlier this year after allegations in the Guardian that News International had paid out more than £1m in damages to Gordon Taylor of the Football Association amongst others, in a bid to keep the illegal activity of its journalists secret.
  • And now a tribunal has awarded a former News of the World sports reporter £792,736 in damages - believed to be the highest award of its kind in the media - after Coulson was found to have led a workplace bullying campaign against him.

And where is he now? Working as David Cameron's Head of Communications.

This was David Cameron speaking earlier this month in support of Stonewall's anti-homophobic bullying campaign:

"November’s Anti-Bullying Week gives us the opportunity to highlight the prevalence of homophobic bullying in our schools and the impact it has on young people’s lives. More needs to be done to tackle bullying in all its forms..."

And here's an oldish piece from the Telegraph which, although massively inaccurate in its verdict on the relative strength of the two party leaders, has more than a ring of truth about it in its analysis of Cameron's character. It's obvious to all of us who have a ring-side seat at Prime Minister's Questions, or sees him stalking through the Commons corridors. It was also more than apparent in the Sun's recent hounding of Gordon over his letter to Jacqui Janes and his admittedly appalling hand-writing (and I wonder who put them up to that?)

Slebs on the stumps

In February 1997 plans were afoot for the Prime Minister to host a "Cool Britannia" reception at No. 10 (so that's where we got the idea from!) According to Brandreth there was panic at the Department for National Heritage as it was then called - a classic John Majorism, that - because the guest list turned out to be:

"like a Luvvies for Labour Who's Who". The TV section features Harry Enfield, Martin Clunes, Neil Morrissey, Angus Deayton, Richard Wilson, Stephen Fry, and someone billed as 'Andy Coulson, Sun journalist'. I agree to help find some additional names to help leaven the list. Clearly the Department of National Heritage (along with the rest of Whitehall) is readying itself for the new administration. Wouldn't it be glorious if we managed to win after all!"

I don't know how Brandreth got on with leavening the list, but on the 10th March he describes a "show-folk" party for the PM at the Ivy, with guests including Barbara Windsor, Frank Bruno, Joan Collins, Anneka Rice, Ruth Madoc, Anita Harris, Mike Yarwood.... as Brandreth says, "more panto land than South Bank". (Incidentally the book is littered with references to soirees with Joanna Lumley and her husband, who are the Brandreths' best friends, which does make you wonder rather.)

I look forward to seeing whether Cameron can improve on this showing. We'll raise you Alex Ferguson, Eddie Izzard, Stephen Fry, Bill Nighy and Cheryl Cole for starters...

Cast your minds back....

A week or so ago I read Gyles Brandreth's book on his time as an MP, from 1992 to 1997, which included a spell in the Whips office. Quite fascinating, especially on how they managed to just about keep the Government in business despite a tiny, eventually non-existent, majority.

I'd forgotten quite how dire it was for the Major Government during that period. There were the defections: Alan Howarth of course, to Labour, and Emma Nicholson to the Lib Dems, and then Peter Thurnham too. (Does the latter ring any bells? No, me neither). There were the forced resignations. Anyone remember now why David "Two Brains" Willets had to step down in December 1996? Something to do with saying "wants advice" means "is in want of advice" not "wants our advice." There must have been more to it than that, but that's the bit that will go down in history. And the stars of the "back to basics" scandals (David Mellor of course, and Tim Yeo, and poor old Stephen Milligan, but also a whole supporting cast of minor characters keeping the Sunday tabloids busy week after week after week).

What's bizarre about the book is how it reveals in little ways just how different being a Tory MP is to being a Labour MP, even though in many ways the jobs are of course the same. OK, Gyles Brandreth, who seems to have little more than an observer's interest in politics, might not be the best person against whom to make the comparison, but the book is full of casual references to breakfasts at the Ritz and Claridges, to champagne being served in silver flutes at the weekly Whips meetings (we have tea and bacon sarnies at ours!) and to hob-nobbing with members of the Royal Family. I suppose given the Alan Clark diaries, and the Brandreth book, and the House of Cards saga, the Tory version of events prevails in people's minds. Maybe it's time John Mann started keeping a diary?

For those of you feeling nostalgic for those times, here's a brief extract from Thursday 5th December, 1996 (yes, five months to go before the May 1997 election, when the Tory party was tearing itself apart over EMU):

"If it weren't so heart-breaking, it would be very funny. We are disintegrating. We are in a massive hole and we can't stop digging! Today's Gallup poll puts Labour on 59% and us on 22. We're heading for wipe-out - and we seem DETERMINED to make it worse."

I don't need to make the obvious point here, do I readers? Game on for 2010, all you fighters and believers!

A quick plug for Snuff Mills: vote early, vote often!

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Visit here to find out more about the project:

There is a short film about the project here:

Also, don't forget to watch ITV West News at 6pm tonight to see our film about the project. And, join us in the Masons Arms on Park Rd Stapleton from 6pm tomorrow (Wednesday 25th) to find out live if we have won - we'll have a party or a wake!

Cheers, Snuff Mills Action Group."


I've been asked to participate in a local BBC discussion at the end of the week about whether politicians should express opinions on popular culture and reality TV shows. Answer: yes, if they actually watch them; no if they don't. (And Gordon does watch the X Factor, btw).

Having been without a TV for the past two months in either place of abode, and without a fully-functioning laptop for most of that time too, my experience of X Factor this year has amounted to little more than wishing people would talk about something else on Twitter on a Saturday and Sunday night, but even I have not been able to entirely avoid the cultural phenomenon that is Jedward.

Which brings me nicely back to politics. As discerning readers will spot - eyes right - the Labour Party did a little Jedward spoof a week or so ago, with Cameron and Obsorne dressed up as the delightful duo. "You won't be laughing if they win"... indeed. Which worked because Cameron and Osborne are callow and inexperienced, and are often to be found dressing up in red vinyl and practising the dancesteps to 'Oops I did it Again' in their Westminster office.*

Cue earnest questions from some hacks about whether this 'marked a return to negative campaigning' and a marked lack of humour from some Tories, who then found it absolutely hilarious when Tory HQ nicked our idea and created the 'Deadwood' posters. And a small case of egg on the face for a certain Tory blogger whose response to suggestions that Labour might be rolling out a Davorge poster campaign was as follows:

"But I doubt very much if Labour is launching any such campaign, mainly because it can't afford to. No political party worth its salt spends any money on poster campaigns any longer. They don't need to, because marketing can be done virally, for free."

Yes, in this modern new media world, no need to waste the Ashcroft millions on poster sites, is there Iain? No need for huge billboards at:

M4/A4 Great West Rd, W4 5QL (the prestigious Torch site)
400 Edgware Road, Victory Park, NW2 6JP
79B Tottenham Court Road, W1T 4DU
Finchley Road, Swiss Cottage, NW3 3HY
Hanger Lane, Ealing Common, W5 3HJ
608 Western Avenue, W3 0TE
214 New Kings Road, Fulham, SW6 4XD
North End Road, junction of Cromwell Road, W14 9ES
A4 Showcase, Great West Road, W6 9AR
Kew Bridge, Chiswick High Road, W4 3AZ
Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre, SE1 6LW
Marriot Hotel, Cromwell Road, SW5 0QD
Wandsworth Road, Vauxhall Cross, SW8 2LF
Westminster Bridge Road, Baylis Road, SE1 7XG
323 Lower Richmond Road, TW9 4PL
Prices Candles, York Road, Wandsworth, SW11 2SJ
59-65 Harrow Road, Paddington, W2 1JH
45 Whitechapel Road, E1 1DU
218 Old Street, City Road, EC1V 9HE.

These are Tory 'Deadwood' poster sites, in case anyone is confused. Further proof, were it needed, that CCHQ really doesn't 'get' new media, even if Iain Dale does.

* To pre-empt the inevitable mockrage from Tory Bear and cries of "smear!" I hereby apologise profusely if I have inadvertently suggested that David Cameron and George Osborne dress up and do Britney Spears dance routines in their office. I have no evidence to support my vile accusation and I am deeply sorry for the distress this will have caused sensitive Tory Party activists. But they are a Wham consisting of two Andrew Ridgeleys. You can't argue with that.

Upsetting people

I decided this morning that I had probably upset quite enough people for one week, so I would make a concerted effort to avoid controversy today. I've managed this quite successfully, and have even failed to rise (well, by my standards, failed to rise) to provocation from one of the Tory tots on Twitter who was trying to pin me down on whether I thought the idea of Margaret Thatcher slipping on a roller skate and falling head over heels down the Downing Street stairs had any intrinsic comedy value (in which case he could denounce me, along with other Labour people on Twitter, for calling for the violent death of a 'frail old lady', and boy did he want to do that. All very silly).

Last night on Twitter was quite bizarre. It started when Sandra Gidley - a Lib Dem MP with whom I have been on a Bill committee, but don't think I've ever spoken to and don't really know anything about - took umbrage at something I'd written on my blog. She tweeted - "Patronising tosh from @KerryMP" with a link to one of my recent posts. (See if you can guess which one..) and this was then duly re-tweeted by a few Lib Dems, and then by someone calling herself @Esther4Luton...

For a start I'd dispute that I was patronising the Lib Dems. I was quite clearly 'on a wind up' (sorry, can't think of a more elegant way of expressing it) as is generally the case when I talk about Lib Dems on here. Their fault, I would argue for having absolutely no discernible sense of humour whatsoever. And I certainly wasn't decrying the intelligence of those who vote Liberal Democrat, though I would certainly stick to my guns in saying that generally votes for the Lib Dems are votes against the two main political parties, not votes for the Lib Dems in an enthused, passionate, committed way. And as evidence for this I would cite something I was told recently; that of those voters who said that the party they 'most closely identified with' was the Lib Dems, two-thirds haven't yet decided which party they're going to vote for at the next election. Anyway, Sandra and some other Lib Dems thought I was being patronising and talking tosh but resisted by entreaties to engage in debate by putting me straight on this blog.

As an aside I do think there's something very Lib Dem, a little passive-aggressive perhaps, about not actually telling me directly that the post is patronising tosh but just dropping my name into a tweet which I would see anyway. It's something that's quite common on Twitter and rather rude, methinks. Far better to say "@N*****D******MP You're talking nonsense again" than to say "I see that "@N*****D******MP is talking nonsense again". (This is of course an entirely fictitious Twitter account and any resemblance to any person, etc, etc).

Anyway.... @Esther4Luton joined in the RT-ing. Can you imagine, being called patronising by Esther Rantzen of all people! I tweeted back along the lines of "Patronising? Pot. Kettle. Black?"

Then Iain Dale DM'd me (i.e. a private message on Twitter) saying 'No way is that the real Esther Rantzen'. I'd already started to come to that conclusion, having looked at her past tweets, so I tweeted to all and sundry, "Apologies, it's not really Esther Rantzen, it's clearly a spoof". At which point, someone else DM'd me and said, "Errr.. it really is her." And finally Esther [and finally, Cyril...] herself replied saying "It is me. And I can read. And I did not say you were patronising". So I then had to explain to her how re-tweeting on Twitter works, and that if you RT someone else's comment it kind of sounds like you're endorsing what they've said.

Anyway, this episode has led me to discover the joys of the Esther4Luton blog which is all about how passionate she is about Luton and what a marvellous little town it is, and how wonderful the people are, and how glorious the curry was at an event she attended. Or words to that effect. (Which I suppose is an improvement on John Carlisle, the former Tory MP for North Luton, who was proud of the fact he'd never eaten in an Indian restaurant in the town.) She now has a purple and orange office in the indoor market, which is orange for Luton (LTFC, or Easyjet, take your pick) and purple "for the passion she feels for the town." Sounds rather like the house I lived in in Luton in the 1970s. Purple kitchen, orange bedroom, very fashionable.

Esther also blogs about strange creatures called the Caddingtonites, who inhabit a village one mile or so outside Luton. Which happens to be where I spent the first six years of my life (in a council house before you get the wrong idea!) and where my mother grew up, and where my grandfather and an aunt and uncle and three cousins and their husbands and their children all still live. Which is a long-winded way of saying that I am in a position to know what people from Caddington call themselves and it's not Caddingtonites (which sounds a bit too much like troglodytes for my liking). The local magazine is the Caddingtonian.

Esther's pitch for the Luton South vote is of course that she's an independent voice and not a professional politician. She was tweeting that all three main parties are tainted by sleaze (which is a bit of a slur on those candidates standing against her, not to mention neighbouring MP Kelvin Hopkins who has been dubbed by the press one of the 'saints' in the expenses saga) and that MPs from the main parties are completely in thrall to the party whips. (Hmmm..... Kelvin has notched up something like 250 rebellions to date. In fact I have to do a double-take when I see him in the same lobby as me, just to make sure I am actually supporting the Government).

Anyway, Labour has just shortlisted its candidates for the Luton South selection, so hopefully someone will be in place before Christmas. I will of course be focusing all my efforts on Bristol East, but I might be tempted to keep just half an eye on Esther's blog...

Monday 23 November 2009

Hacked by the Tories!

I've received two emails today - well, actually I've received loads, but two that are worthy of comment.

The first is addressed 'Dear Compass Supporter', which I'm not as such 'though I don't have any objection to them getting in touch with me so long as they don't suggest I agree with them on issues where I don't, such as the leadership and PR. It asks for my suggestions for an Alternative Manifesto, to which my response would be that we don't need one, and they'd perhaps be better off submitting their suggestions to Ed Miliband, the Labour manifesto supremo. This close to an election we should be past the policy wonk stage of kicking round interesting ideas; we need to focus on what the election campaign will be about. If they're doing it with the aim of then having some input into the Labour manifesto, then all well and good. If they're doing it with the aim of presenting a 'progressive' alternative then I think that sends out all the wrong signals. But I am sure someone will explain to me what it's all about in due course.

The second email is addressed to 'KerryMP' saying

"Thank you for joining us at You can now log in to using this username and password", etc, etc.

Well needless to say, I haven't expressed a desire to do anything of the sort and they've clearly got an automated way of signing me up based on my Twitter account, (which is the only place I go by the name of KerryMP). This is in addition to my regular emails from Eric Pickles and David Cameron, sent to a different email account, which I didn't ask for either. They'll be sending me begging letters to fund the Tory campaign in Bristol East next.

A welcome change of heart from the Lib Dems

Not sure whether you can call this a U-turn from the Lib Dems, or just a meandering squiggling not-quite-sure-where-they're-going, but it's welcome news anyway, the announcement that they won't be closing the customer service points, and particularly the one in Fishponds, which my constituents were very unhappy about.

I'm all in favour of modernising service delivery but it should be done with the primary purpose of improving service delivery, not just as an excuse to save money. And yes, many more people these days do choose to use the internet or the phone to access council services, but not everyone can, or wants to, and it's their council tax money too. There might come a time when such centres no longer serve a purpose, but that time hasn't come yet.

This is of course yet another example of a Lib Dem administration in Bristol floating a controversial idea and then dropping it as soon as it proves unpopular. Some might say this is a sign they're listening to the public. Others might say it shows a lack of nerve or any strategic sense of direction. In this case, however, I'm just happy they've made the right decision, even if it took them a long time to get there.


I did an interview earlier tonight with Think Politics, via Twitter. Bit difficult to say much in 140 characters, but here's the transcript.

Sunday 22 November 2009

Time to come down off the fence

With the latest opinion poll showing a significant narrowing of the gap between Tories and Labour, down to 6%, which would result in a hung parliament, there is only one question worth asking your Lib Dem candidate in a parliamentary seat where the party stands a chance of winning. (So that rules out Bristol West then....)

That question being: if the latest poll turns out to be accurate and the two main parties come within a couple of seats of each other, which party would you support to form a government? Because let's face it, whether you're voting Lib Dem to keep the Labour candidate out or Lib Dem to keep the Tory candidate out, you need to know whether your vote for the 'Not Labour' candidate or the 'Not Tory' candidate is actually a vote for someone who is then going to betray you by backing a Labour/ Tory Government (delete as applicable).

I will concede, reluctantly, that such a thing as a 'proper' Lib Dem voter may actually exist. (In small numbers. And in strange places. Where people don't know any better.) But even if you've voted Lib Dem on principle (Why?) then I assume you'd still want to know which side of the fence they'd jump off, were they to be forced into a position where they had to do so.

In the past the Lib Dems have had academic arguments amongst themselves as to whether they should support the party with the highest number of seats, or, being true proportionalists, the party with the highest percentage of the vote. I have suggested, kindly, that they should instead base their decision on principle and look to support the party which most closely reflects their political values, but this have never provoked much of a response. Nick Clegg has today, however, as good as announced that he would back the Tories if they got marginally more votes than Labour in the 2010 General Election, which I suspect will go down rather badly with those of his troops who see the Lib Dems as part of the progressive wing of British politics. And with those Lib Dems who are attracted by the Labour promise of a referendum on AV, as compared to the blanket hostility to any form of electoral reform from the Tories.

Clegg's dilemma at this stage is obvious. Some of their seats are Labour/ Lib Dem marginals; some (the majority) are Tory/ Lib Dem marginals. Incidentally, I think this explains why Nick Clegg is only tentatively kicking around the ball marked 'Afghanistan'. He knows that the Lib Dems lack the USP they had in the 2005 election, of being anti-Iraq and anti-tuition fees (though they're still trying, rather limply, to fly the flag on the fees issue). He knows that to oppose our engagement in Afghanistan would win the Lib Dems votes in some quarters, probably from the left, but he's not sure whether it would also lose them votes in their southern heartlands, so he can't quite go there.

But his balancing act is not just limited to Afghanistan. He has to maintain this stance of being Not Labour for voters who don't want to vote Labour, and Not Tory for voters who don't want to vote Tory, but also Labour-lite for people in LibDem/Tory marginals who hate the Tories and Tory-lite for people in Lab/LibDem marginals who hate Labour, but also Labour-lite and/or Left-of-Labour in Lab/LibDem marginals where people hate the Tories but are for one reason or another fed up with Labour.

Perhaps this is why, instead of being able to discuss the coalition issue in terms of broad principle and what sort of policy platform he'd want to support, he has to reduce it to a mere numbers game? Because, as a supporter of proportional representation, he can't really believe that a party which gets, say 37% of the vote compared to another party getting 31% and 'others' picking up the rest, has an indisputable right to rule, regardless of what their policies are and the degree of support they'd attract from the 63% who didn't vote for them. Can he?

The other possible interpretations of this are that (a) Nick Clegg thinks the Tories are going to win and is getting cosy with them now in the hope of a decent job in a Tory Cabinet or (b) Nick Clegg is really a Tory at heart, who's just a bit keener on Europe than the rest of them. And it's easier to imagine Clegg in a Cameron government than imagining him entering the Labour fold (he told me once he thought Labour was far too tribal - too damn right we are!) But whether his troops will follow where he wishes to lead... that's another matter entirely.

Anyway, it's entirely hypothetical. 6% behind, all to play for - game on!


A while ago I was reprimanded on Twitter for, I think (my recall of events is a bit hazy) re-tweeting someone else's comment that the English Democrat Mayor of Doncaster was a 'nutter'. I was reminded of it this week by the news that Nick Griffin has announced his intention to stand at the next General Election in Barking.... which is simply asking for it, isn't it? It's a headline writer's dream. In fact it's so obvious that you can't actually have that much fun with it... "Nick Griffin is barking in Barking". Ho ho. Or 'facepalm' as the young people seem to say on Twitter. If anyone can do better on the barking/Barking front, please let me know.

So.... given the sensitivities over mental health issues and what the Mayor of Doncaster's son would no doubt term 'political correctness gone mad' (see earlier posts on Philip Davies MP, for it is he), but which the more englightened amongst us would see as a desire to avoid causing offence to marginalised or vulnerable groups, is it ever OK to use the N word?

Something that is very rarely discussed by MPs in public, for obvious reasons of confidentiality, is the fact that each one of us will have at least half a dozen files on the go at any time where the constituent has serious mental health issues. I'm not talking about the harmless eccentrics here, which we all have our fair share of too, and long may they continue to write to us with their interesting perspectives on life, the universe and everything in between. I'm talking about seriously disturbed people, who can be extremely offensive, aggressive, even quite scary and potentially dangerous, and/or people who evoke a huge degree of sympathy and concern in the office. (The two not being mutually exclusive of course - you can be extremely worried about someone's mental health and wellbeing, whilst at the same time not prepared to have them come anywhere near you or your staff.)

To avoid any misunderstanding, wilful or otherwise, I can categorically state that I would not dream of describing such people as 'nutters' or 'loonies' or anything else along those lines. No matter how objectionable or unreasonable they might be, I still have a huge amount of sympathy for them, even if their behaviour makes it very difficult to do anything to help them, and I wouldn't tolerate a member of my staff making light of their problems either (not that they would).

However.... if it's wrong to use the N word in respect of people who have serious mental health problems, does that mean it's always wrong to use it? Or is it OK in reference to people like the Mayor of Doncaster, who, let's be honest, it's very difficult to discuss without resorting to such adjectives? There's nothing wrong with, for example, describing Ann Widdecombe as 'bonkers', is there? (One could argue that it's actually quite an affectionate term. I quite frequently tell one of my nephews he's bonkers, which in these days of Dizzee Rascal he probably regards as a badge of honour). But there would be something a little dodgy about describing Susan Boyle as bonkers, given that her mental health is, allegedly, somewhat fragile. And there's something a little offensive in saying about something 'that's mental!' but not, I think, in saying 'that's mad!' or 'that's crazy!' unless you're actually talking about a person whose mental health is questionable, in which case it's wrong too.

Ironically, I have just realised that Daniel Hannan is on Radio 4 as I blog... someone else who is frequently described as a fruitcake, and not in an affectionate way. So what do you think? Is this OK? Or is it offensive?

From under the floorboards

I am very rarely ill, but this weekend I am definitely more than a little under the weather and incapable of any form of physical or mental exertion beyond stumbling the ten yards from bedroom to kitchen for more cocoa. So any blog postings today come with the caveat that the brain is not quite in gear... (and if that's not an invitation to insult me, I don't know what is).

Stephen Fry's brain was most definitely operating in top gear when I saw him speak at a NESTA event on new media on Thursday. (Actually - frightening thought - perhaps it wasn't, perhaps he was just coasting and is capable of being even more intelligent and erudite and charming?)

I've never been a massive fan of Mr Fry. I suppose I've always thought of him as a nice guy, and obviously bright and entertaining and 'a good thing', but I've simply never really paid him that much attention. I'm not sure I even follow him on Twitter, although seeing as he's just attained Twillionaire status, I don't suppose he cares.

So I didn't turn up at Thursday's meeting expecting to be starstruck - but I was. As well as being almost supernaturally articulate, he was self-deprecating and funny and open and just seemed like an impossibly nice and interesting human-being. Have a look yourself - - to see the man in action, but here's a taster, written up in a piece in the Guardian, which for some reason won my heart.

"Of all the stinking, sliding, scuttling, weird, entomological creatures that inhabit the floor of the internet those comments on blogs are the most unbearable, almost beyond imagining. Their resentment, their desire to be heard at the most vituperative level, at the most unpleasant and malevolent, genuinely ill-willed malevolent, level is terrifying."

From under the floorboards, indeed. (With the obvious exception of people who comment on here about things like traffic lights and are generally reasonable folks. I'm talking about the people whose comments generally, these days, don't make it past moderation because I am, frankly, fed up with their very existence).

There was of course more to the debate than criticising people who comment on blogs. Stephen said that he thought politicians would win plaudits on Twitter for openness and honesty, and just simply saying things like 'I feel crap' or 'I messed that up' and things along those lines. He is probably right, within the wonderful world of Twitter, but I think he underestimates the extent to which the mainstream media is waiting to pounce on us. Or perhaps the extent to which we fear that they're waiting to pounce?

I do think he's right with the general point he makes though. Given time, politicians may find that the experience of having direct and unmoderated contact with the public through new media forms like Twitter is a liberating one.

Friday 20 November 2009

It's the Fighters and Believers who change our world..

If you haven't seen the latest Labour Party broadcast, here it is. And me, backing the campaign on Labour List and Alistair Campbell congratulating Ellie on succeeding 'against the odds' in getting the film - which was first shown in its original form before the Leader's speech at Labour Conference - broadcast on national television. (Also worth reading for Alistair's sideswipe at William Hague for effectively backing a centre-right candidate for EU president who wants to introduce EU-wide taxes).

And yes, I accept this is not much of a comeback after more than a week's absence from the blog, but at least it's a start. I'm confined to barracks this weekend with a severe case of what the unsympathetic amongst you might term "man flu", and I have remembered to bring my dongle back from London, and the TV is still not working, so no excuse not to blog...

Thursday 19 November 2009

Pirates and Parliament

Memo to self... must blog more often! Anyway, here's notice of an event being held in Parliament next week, which may be of interest to some people who have been Twittering about the Digital Economy Bill. I assume it's only open to members of the APPG, but thought people might like to know it's happening. I'm going to try to go along, or send a researcher at least.


Janet Anderson MP invites you to a joint meeting of the All-Party Intellectual Property Group, the All-Party Group on Publishing, the All-Party Music Group, the All-Party Film Group and the All-Party Writers’ Group - Tuesday 24th November 2009 from 15.00 to 16.30 hrs

The meeting will hear from people whose livelihoods depend on the protection of Intellectual Property online and how the Digital Economy Bill could best help protect jobs and community projects across the country.

Speakers include:
Huw Jennings, Fulham FC’s Academy Director
Francis Keeling, Universal Music Group
Joan Smith, Writer and Journalist
Fionnuala Duggan, Publisher, Random House
Paul Hayes, Construction Manager, Leavesden Film Studios

As I've mentioned on this blog before, I had a long chat with Feargal Sharkey at a dinner at Labour Conference, about the file-sharing/ illegal downloading issue. He's obviously speaking from the music industry viewpoint, and he was at pains to stress that this isn't about protecting the Coldplays, Lily Allens and Radioheads of the world. It's about new artists trying to make it, and artists who have been around for years and never quite had their big break, who rely on royalties to scrape a living doing what they love. I challenged Feargal on this: surely file-sharing and downloading for free actually helped these bands get established, by making more people aware of the work and building an audience? Or by allowing a new audience to discover the work of older bands who are still out there plugging away on the gig circuit? (In my day it was all about taping stuff off the John Peel show, tacitly encouraged by Peelie's obstinate refusal to talk over the intros or endings of songs unlike his Radio 1 colleagues who tended to blather on regardless). But Feargal said it doesn't work like that, that it actually hits such artists pretty hard. And surely they have a right to be paid for their work, and to have copyright protection?

Some might argue that the genie is out of the bottle, that illegal downloading/ file-sharing is here to stay, that 'consumers' rights are more important than those of the industry. I suppose my view is coloured by being rather keener on music produced by independent artists/ record labels, so when I think of buying a record I think - showing my age here! - in terms of keeping the likes of Factory or Rough Trade or Postcard going (which, it could be argued, was almost a moral obligation in the 1980s) not in terms of adding to Simon Cowell's bank balance.

Interesting debating point - is there a difference between illegally downloading a Beatles song, thus denying Michael Jackson's estate a few pennies in copyright payments, and illegally downloading, say, an early Orange Juice track, denying the estimable Edwyn Collins (who has had a hard time of it lately) a chance to make a living? Morally, perhaps there is - but in law, there's no way such distinctions could ever be made.

As for the Bill itself... I am trying, and, I confess, struggling to get to grips with all sides of the debate, which has been complicated by suggestions that delegated legislation (i.e. a statutory instrument rather than a full-blown Act of Parliament) could be used to introduce some of the changes.

Credit is due to Tom Watson MP, who has set up a Facebook group and to Sion Simon MP, for attempting to answer people's questions on Twitter. (Sion, as a DMCS Minister, will in part be responsible for steering the Bill through the Commons). He is saying 'three strikes' is an inaccurate description of the proposed law, that "the plan is to reduce unlawful filesharing through education and warning letters. a/c suspension is a last resort reserve power." The response from some has been to argue that the Secretary of State should never have this power, that people should be fined if they break the law, not have their internet connection stopped, which, it is argued, is a fundamental breach of their civil liberties, especially where there is a family/ household computer and only one person in the household has been guilty of copyright infringement.

Anyway, this is just me dipping my toe into the water on this issue... I expect there will be a lot of debate over the coming months, as the Bill goes through Parliament, whether it's an enabling Bill which will allow further rules to be set by delegated legislation or something more substantial. Here's where you can track the progress of the Bil through Parliament. It hasn't even had its Second Reading - a general debate on principles of the Bill - yet, so those who are unhappy with the proposals as they stand will have plenty of opportunities to make their voices heard.

PS Thanks to @problybored on Twitter who has pointed me in the direction of the Featured Artists Coalition, of musicians who oppose cutting-off accounts but want to find other ways to defend their livelihoods from illegal downloading/ file-sharing. And in the direction of an open letter he's written to his own MP, which is interesting.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Cameron's claims exposed

Excellent analysis by Factcheck on Cameron's claims that "Who made the poorest poorer? Who left youth unemployment higher? Who made inequality greater? No, not the wicked Tories. You, Labour: you're the ones that did this to our society." Well worth a read.

And is this a case of Cameron just getting his facts wrong? Osborne not doing his sums properly? Poor advice from the ex-News International hacks at Tory Central Office? No - I think they know exactly what they're doing and saying. Anything that will win them the election. (And if you really want to know what the Tories would do in Government to 'help' the poor and needy... just Google "Wisconsin" and "welfare".)

Tuesday 10 November 2009

Building on brownfield sites

I've been doing local media today about this piece in the BEP, about the derelict former Royal Mail building by Temple Meads. Are the developers, just sitting on it, waiting for the price of land to increase so they can sell it at a profit, or are they genuine developers (rather than property speculators) and have plans for the site? Given the pressure on land use in the city, and the relative scarcity of brownfield sites, especially in such a plum location, should the Council be doing more to get things moving, or can we do nothing until the developers decide to act?

Being polite to Americans

This is as ever not the most topical post, but one that keeps bubbling up every now and again, and finally has reached the stage when I feel it should be committed to online immortality. (What a build up... it's not really deserving of that!)

Jeremy Paxman interviewed Al Gore the other day, on Newsnight, and as ever when he interviews Americans I was struck by just how persistently he pursues questions which are designed to catch the interviewee out, or embarrass him. This - famously summarised by him as the 'why is this lying bastard lying to me' - is par for the course with UK politicians, but it seemed rather discourteous and frankly a little petty to be trying to trip up the former Vice-President and Nobel Prize winner on how eco-friendly his house is, and whether he's going to give up meat for environmental reasons. (The latter is a valid question, but Paxman was so obviously only asking it because he knew/ strongly suspected the answer was no and would thus give him an opportunity to sneer.) I just thought it was, rather rude? This is one of the reasons why I think people love Evan Davis, which I may well have mentioned on here before. He is genuinely interested in the answers to the questions rather than just trying to land a cheap shot and catch a still sleepy politician out.

Incidentally, Gore used the interview to praise Gordon Brown for his 'outstanding leadership' on the international stage, on climate change. Something even Paxman couldn't sneer at.

Monday 9 November 2009

Traffic lights - a disappointing response

I'm disappointed with the council's response to the BEP campaign to reduce the number of traffic lights in Bristol city centre. They've come up with seven sets of lights shortlisted for a potential switch-off (either permanently or during off-peak times). But why are none of them on roundabouts? Surely a roundabout is in itself a device to manage traffic flow, which should be more than adequate apart from during the very busiest periods?

Wednesday 4 November 2009

The week so far

Just in case people think I've done nothing this week but tweet and sit on the front bench waiting to trip up the Prime Minister on his way out of the Chamber (almost!), thought I'd just give a bit of a rundown of the week so far... It's included: meeting a constituent (and friends) on a lobby of parliament by people with disabilities, concerned about changes to the direct payments regime; meeting a constituent on an Amnesty International lobby of parliament regarding trafficking and victims on domestic violence; sitting on a Northern Ireland delegated legislation committee regarding the regulation of private security guards; meeting with Refugee Action to talk about changes to payments to asylum seekers; meeting with BUAV to talk about their 'Ugly Truth' campaign; attending a meeting of the All-Party Group on Vaccine Damage, (because of a constituency case); in the Chamber for Northern Ireland Qs, PMQs, Harriet's statement on the Kelly report, the Prime Minister's statement on the Council of Europe; an anti-social behaviour debate, and more; meeting the head of New Media at the Labour Party; and doing whips stuff. And of course emails and paperwork and all the Kelly-related stuff...

Beastly behaviour in the tearoom

Shocking behaviour by two Tory grandees in the Members tearoom yesterday. One was seen to waltz in there, grab a slice of meat from the buffet with his bare hands, stuff it into his mouth and waltz off again. Another - a knight of the realm no less! - slapped a shocked female Labour MP firmly on her bottom in full view of other members.

Perhaps their excitement over the collapse of Cameron's "cast-iron guarantee" on Lisbon has gone to their heads. It's like Lord of the Flies in the Tory ranks - and fairly obviously who Piggy is!

Tuesday 3 November 2009

The ugly truth about botox

Just had a very interesting meeting with BUAV, which was arranged a while ago but neatly coincided with a piece in the Sunday Times this week on what goes on in a lab where botox is tested on mice. Summary execution with ballpoint pens for starters...

Since the ban on cosmetics testing on animals (introduced by a Labour Government - hurrah!) the ingredients in expensive moisturising creams which claim to erase wrinkles and fine lines or cheap ones for that matter - cannot be tested on animals. But because botox has some useful medical qualities and was originally designed for medical purposes (for example, it's used for patients with Parkinsons and MS, as a muscle relaxant), it not only can be tested on animals. It has to be.

There's a legal requirement for LD50 (Lethal Dose 50) batch testing, i.e. testing to be carried out to such levels that 50% of the animals die, which then establishes what a lethal dose would be.
Apparently licences cannot be granted for tests where death is the intended end result, but it's OK to carry out LD50 testing which results in death so long as you intervene before death occurs and use your trusty ballpoint to put the animal out of its misery. (Got that? Good).

People will be aware that I don't have a totally hardcore attitude towards animal testing. I accept the necessity of testing in certain fields of medical research. But it seems to me that testing batches of botox which are designed purely for cosmetic use, just because the product has other uses, goes against the spirit of the ban. 75,000 mice a year are used in botox testing, which is small scale when put against overall numbers of animal tests, but still seems rather unnecessary.

And I'm not sure how effective or accurate such a test could be; I know the Minogue sisters are small, but even so, I think they might be able to handle slightly more botox than your average mouse.

More on the BUAV "The Ugly Truth" campaign here -

How PMQs works

I promised someone on Twitter last week that I would explain how the ballot for PMQs works, and who else gets to speak, so here goes, using tomorrow's session as an example.

Backbenchers (which includes all the Lib Dems except Clegg and all the Tories except the Shadow Cabinet) have to submit their question for PMQs by 12.30pm the Thursday before. They don't have to actually specify what question they want to ask, other than 'what engagements the PM has today'. Then it's down to pure luck, whether your question comes up in the shuffle conducted by the Table Office. I don't know how they do the shuffle but it is entirely random. This week, for example, there are five Lib Dems on the order paper as well as Stephen Pound, who was called by the Speaker at last week's PMQs, and Karen Buck, who has been down the bottom of the order paper twice in the three weeks that Parliament has been back. Maybe they'll get round to her this week; she just missed out last time.

The draw for tomorrow's session is as follows:

1. Jamie Reed (Labour)
2. Tom Brake (Lib Dem)
3. Dr. Brian Iddon (Lab)
4. Andrew Turner (Con)
5. Ronnie Campbell (Lab)
6. Sir Alan Beith (Lib Dem)
7. Dr Phyllis Starkey (Lab)
8. Bob Russell (Lib Dem)
9. David TC Davies (Con)
10. Liz Blackman (Lab)
11. Stephen Pound (Lab)
12. Willie Rennie (Lib Dem)
13. seems to have disappeared
14. Karen Buck (Lab)
15. Paul Rowen (Lib Dem)

The Speaker will also call Cameron (who gets six questions), Clegg (who gets two) and then various backbenchers who bob up and down to get his attention, to ensure political balance - i.e. it has to alternate between Government and Oppostion benches.

1. Jamie Reed (Lab) - Jamie will actually ask the PM what his engagements are today, by just saying "Question Number One, Mr Speaker", and will then get a supplementary question

David Cameron (Some Tory leaders have used their six questions in two bursts of three, but Cameron always does his six together, even if he changes subject halfway through).

A Labour backbencher
Nick Clegg
A Labour backbencher

2. Tom Brake (Lib Dem)
3. Dr. Brian Iddon (Lab)
4. Andrew Turner (Con)
5. Ronnie Campbell (Lab)
6. Sir Alan Beith (Lib Dem)
7. Dr Phyllis Starkey (Lab)
8. Bob Russell (Lib Dem)

A Labour backbencher

9. David TC Davies (Con)
10. Liz Blackman (Lab)

An Opposition backbencher - could be Tory, Lib Dem, Nats

11. Stephen Pound (Lab)
12. Willie Rennie (Lib Dem)
13. seems to have disappeared from order paper
14. Karen Buck (Lab)
15. Paul Rowen (Lib Dem)

Occasionally the Speaker will depart from this order, if for example there is an issue which is all over the national media and one MP has a particular constituency interest (in which case the MP will normally drop a note to the Speaker beforehand). Or he might call one of the Unionists/ SDLP when there's been a significant development in the peace process.

So... that's it. As you will see from tomorrow's draw, it's not a good week for the Conservatives. They only have two MPs on the order paper - and one of those is TC - and only one opportunity for someone else to be called (and the Speaker could well choose a Nat instead). Usually there are more opportunities for MPs to 'bob', but the draw this week is unusually evenly spread. It's still worth bobbing though, because the Speaker will note who has been trying week after week, and it may up your chances of getting called.

PMQs this week is preceded by Northern Ireland questions and because I'm Northern Ireland whip I get to be on the front bench. This happens when it's DFID questions too.