Wednesday 31 March 2010

Find the River

On train on the way back to Bristol after not quite such a late night as we expected last night. We finished at about midnight, though leaving the office was somewhat delayed by one of my whip colleagues efforts to find her lost Blackberry, which we could hear vibrating but couldn't see... I eventually found it in the bin. That's the last thing you want on the cusp of an election campaign, losing your phone!

I'm now gently easing into the day by listening to REM in mellow mood on Spotify on my netbook: Wendell Gee, Fall on Me, Perfect Circle, Find the River... (Not to be morbid but that's the song I want played at my funeral. I see the press reports now.... "In a macabre twist, she blogged about her funeral only minutes before the train plunged off the track and into the ravine". Incidentally, does anyone else remember the Rob Newman routine, possibly from the Mary Whitehouse Experience, where he says that whenever he walks home late at night he always has a Crimewatch voiceover in his head, as if he's reconstructing his final moments.... "He was just minutes from his front door when the machete-wielding attacker struck him from behind"? And does anyone else do the same, or is it just me?)

Almost in Bristol now. Will be a mad dash to drop off stuff at home, grab the car, then off to meet Paul Smith (Bristol West candidate but you all know that by now) for a visit to Bristol Drugs Project. And then I'm off to a residential care home in St George to judge their Easter bonnet competition! I actually did the same five years ago, as a new candidate... how time flies! Remember, if I don't survive the experience.... Find the River it is.

People Like Us

I've posted this graph before, but this is the up-to-date version from the IFS. I assume it doesn't include the measures which come into effect at the start of the new financial year, i.e. the 50p higher band of income tax or the 1p rise in NI for those on more than £20,000. Political opponents are fond of focusing on the income inequality gap, i.e. that the gap between the richest and the poorest has grown under a Labour, but too often this gets twisted into "the rich have got richer and the poor have got poorer". That's not true. The poorest are significantly better off under this Labour Government, as are many on modest and middle incomes too. And that's before you get onto public services, and the fact that those who can't afford to pay for health care or education have seen a massive improvement in the NHS and schools under Labour.

Tuesday 30 March 2010

Just Step S'Ways

Just had six votes in a row on motions relating to the 2010 Budget. There were actually 50 Government motions tabled, and each one had to be called for a vote, with the Whip saying Aye and then, unless the Opposition benches shouted Noe, things going through without a vote.

Most of the motions were self-explanatory, e.g. income tax, stamp duty, alcohol duty, but then it got more and more obscure. Motion 20was "Sideways Relief etc", causing a couple of backbenchers on the Tory benches to shout out "what's that then?" No-one replied.

And then we got to Motion 24, "Cushion Gas". Looking at the Order Paper I'm none the wiser as it simply says "That provision be made for cushion gas". Cue someone shouting out "Whoopee!" and both the Deputy Speaker and the Whip (me) finding it very hard to keep a straight face.

Somewhat late in the day though it might be, I feel I would be failing in my democratic duty to my constituents were I not to investigate further, and here's the least incomprehensible of all the explanations as to what we're doing on the cushion gas front:

Cushion gas
The Government has announced that from 1 April 2010, all leases of cushion gas will be treated as funding leases and that expenditure on cushion gas will attract allowances at 10 per cent per year. The reason for these changes is that cushion gas does not wear out and the Government were concerned that it would be possible to write very long operating leases of cushion gas without ever triggering the long funding lease rules.

A vote winner if ever there was one.

Gentlemen's Agreement

Had a nice letter today from Stonewall, who have just published the voting records of all current MPs on seven votes which were crucial in pushing forward the agenda for full equality for lesbian, gay and bisexual people. It says "I wanted to let you know that you were among the minority of MPs who scored 100%, reflecting your support in every single vote." The full voting records are here:

On a related note, congratulations to Chris Bryant MP, who at the weekend became the first MP to enter into a civil partnership in the Palace of Westminster, with Jared, whom I've met on a couple of occasions, most recently at the National Portrait Gallery's 'Gay Icons' exhibition; they make a very nice couple. And congratulations to Ricky Martin, who it is now OK to like (which is good because I kind of secretly did anyway! Only in Spanish of course.)

Super Furry Animals

Been a bit of an animal welfare theme to today... Started off at a breakfast briefing with the League of Cruel Sports, talking about their mission to preserve the hunting ban. Did you know, what's proposed by the Tories is a simple one clause Bill, repealing the ban, which if passed would not only legitimise hunting foxes with hounds again, but also stag-hunting and hare-coursing?

We also touched, in passing, on dog-fighting which is actually quite an issue locally. You can see the teeth marks on branches on the trees in St George's Park, where dog-owners hang their dogs up to strengthen their jaws.

Later on I recorded a promo for the Vegan Society. One of those things where I'm not quite sure what's going to happen with the finished product, but it won't be ready until the end of May. I basically had to do some pieces to camera about food security, and the environmental case for turning vegan. The film crew were from this company, Environmental Films. Very nice bunch of people.

While we're on this theme, a reminder to people to vote in Bristol's EcoVeggie awards. Also a bit of a plug for the Bristol Eco Veggie Fayre, at the end of May. This looks rather as if it's replacing the Bristol Vegan Fayre, which is a bit of a shame. I suppose if it pulls in more people it's good, but it's so nice to be able to spend one day of the year somewhere you don't ever have to ask what the ingredients are in things!

Do It Yourself

Most people who are au fait, up to speed, on the ball, etc as far as new media campaigning is concerned will already have heard about Labour's latest wheeze, to 'crowd source' its next election poster. I gather entries have been flooding in, and the best will be published after the closing date, tomorrow. I did an interview about it on Five Live yesterday, when the Tory up against me actually cited #cashgordon as an example of the Tory Party's online success. (See recent post if you need an explanation as to why that provoked guffaws from the listening public).

I suspect the second category, "highlighting David Cameron's lack of substance" may produce the most amusing entries, but here's a great one in the first category, Labour's pledge to protect online public services, from Bristol's very own Rory Doona (see here for some more of his work, including his manga poster for Paul Smith's Bristol West campaign. He's promised me to do me one soon too!)

Monday 29 March 2010

Banning things

As I came out of my surgery on Friday (Muller Hall, just off Stapleton Road) I fell into conversation with three young guys, who were packing bundles of khat into a box. I'd never actually seen khat before, and was expecting it to be a bit more twig-like whereas it was actually quite green and fresh. I politely declined their offer to try some. (On a complete tangent, I keep getting into conversations where 'Adeela' is confused with 'a dealer'. So I should be very careful in future if I refer to being offered khat by a dealer, or I will be accused of slandering my Tory opponent).

I know many in the Somali community want khat banned, and the issue may well come to the forefront again with the decision to ban mephedrone and other cathinones.

The main active ingredient in khat is cathinone, but it's obviously not synthetic, so I assume not covered by the proposed ban. The guys I was talking insisted that it was fine in moderation, and that problems only arose when people abused khat, e.g. taking it every night instead of as an occasional 'treat'. But I've heard tales of family life being wrecked by it, with men staying out all night, sleeping all day and refusing to work, and it sometimes leading to domestic violence. (It's not exclusively a male phenomenon, some women do chew khat too, though not to anywhere near the same extent). At the risk of being seen to sit on the fence, I think we certainly need more research into the long-term health effects of khat use, and the social impact too, and I'm inclined to think we should be taking steps to limit its use. But I could be persuaded otherwise. As some Somalis would say to me, look at alcohol. And they'd be right.

Ask the Chancellors

Aaagghhh... Twitter not working and it's #askthechancellors time! So let's blog it...

Alistair so far coming across as most human, most likeable (but then I do like him, he actually has a very dry sense of humour). The journos before questioned whether the unflappable Chancellor would prove to be flappable.... I predict not, though he's displaying more passion than most might have expected. Especially those who listened to his Budget speech last week! (Sorry Alistair, but it brought a whole new meaning to 'not playing to the gallery', except on the tax agreement with Belize announcement, the drama of which was somewhat lost on me because I thought it had already been in the papers; it hadn't, we'd had a briefing at the whips meeting earlier).

Osborne opening his response to the "why me" question with "I've been watching someone else do the job for five years" was a bit of a schoolboy error, did nothing to counter the notion that's he's inexperienced and never had a proper job. And Cable seems to be playing interrogator rather than answering questions. Now he's talking about savage cuts. Savage to me means vicious, attacking the weak and vulnerable. Radical cuts would be a better choice of terminology if he wants to signify something more than 'substantial'. (Twitter working again now....)

Might as well do a postscript... as predicted, Osborne wasn't exactly bad but didn't inspire confidence, and doubt if he said anything to win over anyone who wasn't a Tory in the first place. He comes across like a junior minister at best. Would have liked Alistair to have kept up the momentum a bit more, if he'd been stood next to Osborne I think dynamics would have worked better. As for Cable, people seem to like him but I just don't see the passion, or the politics. Does he really want to change the world?

(Also, I'd like to see him and Clegg firmly put on the spot about the unions, and what role they see for them in protecting workers' rights in a modern economy.... I don't think the support is there. And, as I've just been reminded on Twitter, Vince Cable said on this week's Any Questions that all strikes in the public sector should be banned. True, my jaw dropped when I heard him. David Miliband, btw, was very good on it - worth a relisten for his summary of Labour plans to cut the deficit).

Food for Thought

Monday night and I'm in Bristol... we were on a one-liner today in London as it was day three of the Budget debate, and, having managed to persuade a colleague to do my SI (delegated legislation committee) for me, I was able to spend a day with the team in the constituency. We went to Grounded in Church Road for lunch, which followed hot on the heels of my first ever visit there, on Saturday in between campaign sessions. (St George in the morning, Brislington in the afternoon with our council candidate, Mike Wollacott, and then Eastville yesterday.)

Grounded is another step in what some might dub the gentrification of St George - it's all goats cheese, capers and parmesan shavings, quite Clifton in fact, but we like it. And it does soya lattes, which gets my vote. It was virtually full at lunchtime on a Saturday and also at 3pm on a Monday, which bodes quite well for its survival.

In other local news, I also popped into Love Food's Spring Festival at the Old Passenger Shed, Temple Meads, yesterday. Stunning venue and good to see it being used for a farmers market type event, rather than the usual corporate affairs. Lorna, whose brainchild the Love Food Festival is, will feature in the next edition of Marie Claire. Great example of how the Prince's Trust has helped get an original, local business idea off the ground. As I write this I am eating a (vegi-deli mince) shepherd's pie made with forraged wild garlic; someone gave me a bunch at the festival, and very nice it is too. Again, another plus to being able to spend a bit more time in Bristol; I can cook!

I'd been hoping to travel down to London tomorrow morning, but as it happens, I have to catch a late train to London tonight because I'm doing some filming in Parliament with the Vegan Society tomorrow morning, for a promo. At least it means I get to watch "Ask the Chancellors", starting on Channel 4 in a moment. I suspect expectations of George Osborne are so low, he might exceed them, but let's see.

Fox on the Run

Rumours reached me a week or so ago that I would - along with some other Labour MPs - be targeted at the General Election by pro-hunt supporters. This is confirmed in an excellent piece of investigative journalism from the Independent.

Given that (a) I wasn't in Parliament in 2004 to vote for the hunting ban, although of course I would have backed it; (b) there are plenty of seats more marginal than mine; and (c) there aren't any hunts in my urban constituency, I regard this as something of a badge of honour. I can only assume I've been singled out in recognition of my support for animal welfare issues during my five years in Parliament, or my online efforts to promote

Or is it because my Tory opponent has been identified as someone who will vote to bring back fox-hunting? I've seen an email response she sent to a constituent a while ago on the topic, saying that she totally supported the Tory pledge to give MPs a free vote on the issue in the new parliament, but she 'would wait and see what her constituents thought' before deciding how to vote. (NB 75% of the British public opposes the ban).

My understanding, however, and I've seen some of the background material on this, is that Vote-OK have only given their backing to candidates who have pledged to vote for the return of fox-hunting. Perhaps someone could ask Adeela if that's true?

PS Easy way to ask -

Wednesday 24 March 2010

Glad to Be Gay

Or at least gay-friendly. So he says. He being Cameron.
I know I'm coming late to this, but this really is a shockingly bad interview from Cameron for Gay Times. Perhaps by the time he gets to Bristol tomorrow he'll have learnt his lines.

P.S. Now had a 'courtesy email' from his diary secretary to say he'll be visiting Bristol East.

Having my Baby*

Such is the life I lead, I often end up just skimming news headlines during the day and reading yesterday's paper the following morning as I'm drying my hair. Hence being rather late to realise that the Guardian has seen fit to devote a whole page to Samantha Cameron's pregnancy, with the tagline "Tory lead among female voters is likely to remain". No doubt the letters page today is full of letters from women who, like me, almost exploded on reading that. Yes, because that's all it takes to win the women's vote, isn't it? Cooing over the prospect of a gurgling little baby in No. 10. (The piece is written by two blokes, by the way. And yes, congratulations to the Camerons, especially after last year's tragedy, but please...).

The Guardian also falls for CCHQ puffery by highlighting their quote "Social action projects are at the heart of everything we do. Sam will champion that." She designs handbags. Rather expensive handbags, along with £250 credit card holders made from the skin of monitor lizards, who don't deserve to end up in some overpaid banker's inside breast pocket. Perhaps she has a hitherto undisclosed commitment to charitable projects, but she's kept it very quiet.

More importantly though, let's look in a bit more detail at that quote from CCHQ. "Social action projects are at the heart of everything we do... Social action projects demonstrate our core values of social responsibility, not state control." That's spinspeak for slashing public spending (and the grants to voluntary sector organisations that go with it), letting the churches and charities pick up the pieces. It's the same old Tory agenda. Any chance of the Guardian finding space for a full page article on that? Or will they just stick a big picture of Sam Cam on the page so the women readers can get a really good look at her baby bump?

* Without a doubt, the most nauseating song of all time. From the guy who wrote My Way.

Tuesday 23 March 2010

Kerry's Guide to PMQs

There is no other way of putting it... it's an absolutely lousy draw for PMQs this week. The statisticians amongst you will no doubt be able to explain what the odds are of only getting two Labour MPs on the order paper when more or less the same number of Labour and Tory MPs submitted questions (c.200 MPs participating in the ballot, 15 MPs drawn). Anyway here it is, a sea of blue. Add Cameron and Clegg to the mix, and lots of opportunities for random Labour backbenchers to seek to catch the Speaker's eye. See last week's post if you haven't quite sussed how it works yet.

1. Mike Penning

2. Mark Pritchard

3. Graham Brady

4. Brooks Newmark

5. Gregory Campbell (DUP)

6. Bob Spink (UKIP)

7. Julian Lewis (with a specific question about mental health units)

8. David Amess

9. Jeff Ennis

10. David Borrow

11. Norman Lamb

12. Andrew Selous

13. Mark Hoban

14. David Heath

15. Edward Garnier

I have no idea what any of the backbenchers will ask. Cameron will no doubt challenge the Prime Minister over what the lazy have dubbed Lobbygate but what I prefer to see as Labour's version of Fatal Attraction - just when you think the ultra-Blairites are dead, they lunge back into life, wielding another knife. Until the wife comes in and shoots them.

I'll be on the front bench for the duration, as it's Northern Ireland questions first. And then of course it's the Budget. Don't forget, it's Cameron who replies to the Budget statement, not Osborne. If you manage to catch a glimpse of the Tory front bench during the Chancellor's speech, you will see Letwin and Osborne frantically scribbling away, crossing out the bits of Cameron's speech which no longer apply, adding some back of a fag packet calculations, while the clock ticks away. Cameron just sits there looking blank. After Cameron it will be a Labour speaker, almost certainly John McFall in his swansong as Chair of the Treasury Select Committee. And then it will be Vince Cable.* The debate continues on Thursday, with Ed Miliband kicking off for the Government, on Monday with Yvette Cooper, and concludes on Tuesday with Ed Balls and Liam Byrne.

*I mis-remembered this, thinking of what happens at the PBR. It was of course Clegg, as party leader, who responded for the Libs, followed by John McFall. And I was also wrong about what Cameron would ask. Sir John Butterfill, by the way, who also featured in the Dispatches programme, was watching the debate from a safe perch up in the gallery, presumably so as to avoid anyone pointing him out).

Offend in Every Way

Oh joy. David Cameron will be bringing "Cameron Direct" to Bristol this Thursday. Wonder if this will bring my elusive Tory opponent out of hiding? I was meant to be debating her on Monday at St Brendan's Sixth Form, but she had to pull out due to work commitments (or should that be "work commitments"?) and the Tories couldn't come up with a replacement. Pretty poor show considering the students at St Brendan's come from far and wide, and there are quite a few Tory candidates hoping to win seats in the surrounding areas. And it would have been absolutely spiffing to have had Jacob Rees-Mogg there.

As it was, the only other panel members were Vowlsie for the Greens and The Squadron Leader for the Lib Dems, who did a pretty good job of impersonating a Tory. Not that surprising given his past as a Tory councillor in Woking and, according to my mole, rather a right-wing one at that. Someone should ask him how he ended up in the Lib Dems, as it wasn't apparent from anything he said on Monday. The students looked rather bemused when, in response to a Q about the BA strike, he referred to his 20 years service in the RAF - no strikes there! Still, as we say, vote Lib Dem, get Tory.

He did pledge his support for Votes at 16, but as Vowlsie points out in the comments on my earlier "Fighter" post, his conversion to the cause seems to have been rather sudden.

On a more serious note... There are a whole host of candidates standing in Bristol East this time, including the English Democrats, a Socialist/ Trade Union candidate, and the BNP. No word from UKIP yet. The organiser of Monday's debate wasn't aware of the first two candidates and the decision whether or not to invite the BNP candidate was taken out of his hands as the college itself have decided the BNP should not be allowed on the premises.

I've discussed on here before, in the context of Nick Griffin's appearance on Question Time, my support for 'No platform for the BNP'. I know it's debatable, and sometimes the arguments against sharing a platform with them can sound a bit flimsy, but one thing I noticed when I was putting this point to the assembled students on Monday, was that while the students were fairly evenly split on the issue, all the BME students were nodding in agreement with me. And I kind of think they're the ones I should be listening to on this issue.

Killing an Arab*

The Commons annuniciator screen earlier today said David Miliband would be making a statements on "UK Passports (Use in Alleged Murder)". Then it was changed to "UK Passports (Use in Dubai Murder)". I wonder if someone complained about the over-cautious language in the first version?

*This is a song title. Just in case anyone doesn't know that and thinks the reference is a tad gratuitous. The song's based on Camus' L'Etranger. Wouldn't be the first time people have taken it the wrong way. Was the changing of the lyrics to "Kissing an Arab" and then "Kissing Another" a sensible move in view of the danger of them being misinterpreted at a time of increased sensitivity on such issues, or a caving in to people who aren't very bright or very well-read? Discuss.

Monday 22 March 2010

Fighter - update

Must admit I was rather concerned at tonight's PLP when the Chief said that the Parliamentary Committee would be meeting to look at the Dispatches revelations about Byers, Hewitt + Hoon. Yes, that's the right thing to do procedurally, but to hold off from any form of action until 2pm on Wednesday - after PMQs, after the Budget statement - would have been disastrous. So I'm glad that the three have been suspended from the PLP as an interim measure. Swift, decisive action and exactly what furious Labour backbenchers at the PLP were calling for.

By the way, for those who don't know, the parliamentary committee consists of a number of backbench MPs, seven I think, elected by other Labour backbenchers to represent their interests. It meets every week with the Prime Minister. Martin Salter was on it for a while, but to be honest, I don't know who the members are at the moment. As a whip, I don't get to vote for them!

Reasons Not to Be an Idiot*

*Thanks to Ben M for introducing me to the music of Frank Turner. I approve.

And yes, I am going home soon.... though I may stay in the office to watch Newsnight, being sad like that. But firstly I'm catching up on all the fun and games that seem to have happened in the Twittersphere during my self-imposed absence today. Students of my timeline, aka stalkers, will have noticed I sent two tweets before 7.30am this morning, just to prove I was up, and that was it - which means I missed the whole #cashgordon debacle as it unfolded. Here's the Guardian's serious take on it but see below for a handy cut out and keep guide (or here if you want a clearer version).


Business has finished early today, which is good because I'm shattered and so is everyone else, but I'm staying in the office to watch Dispatches, of which more in a moment....

We've had a really busy weekend campaigning in east Bristol, and doing constituency work too. I did a three hour surgery on Friday; only one case from the "new" Bristol East and all the others from the bits I lose in the boundary changes. Bristol West is going to be such a high maintenance seat! I also met Action for ME, for a briefing on various issues including Employment Support Allowance claims and how the system doesn't seem to be meeting the needs of people with fluctuating conditions. Saturday included opening the church fete at St Aidans, and meeting a group of residents in someone's house to talk about a planning objection, and on Sunday we were campaigning in Stockwood. And this morning I was at St Brendan's Sixth Form College to meet three different groups of students. (Big contrast between politics students and the rest in terms of engagement and interest, and surprising lack of support for votes at 16 amongst the non-political, on the grounds that 16 year olds don't know anything about politics and aren't informed enough to make a decision, and might just end up doing what their parents tell them to do. I'm definitely in favour of votes at 16, and hope it will be in the manifesto).

The highlight of the weekend however was John Prescott joining us on the campaign trail... He caught up with us in his battlebus on Saturday afternoon in Fishponds, to launch the local "Spring Clean" campaign (inspired by the very lovely Fiaz and Jacqui who run The Base, a veggie B&B on Fishponds Road). Our haul of rubbish included a copy of the Sun, much to John's delight. He also stood on the steps of Fishponds Conservative Club, in his high-viz gear, waving his litter picker, declaring he was going in: "there's a whole load of rubbish in here!" Later on in the day we accosted unsuspecting shoppers in Broadmead, and ended the night with a rousing Brizzup rally at the Trinity Centre.

John Prescott is of course standing down at the next election. And yet he's up for the fight. He's travelling the length and breadth of the nation, campaigning for Labour.

Which brings me back to Dispatches. Compare and contrast John Prescott - on the stumps at the age of 72, fighting for a Labour victory, talking to voters and picking up crisp bags and KFC wrappers with the rest of us - with Stephen Byers, who is barely seen in Parliament these days, naming his 'going rate' of £5000 a day. It's sickening.

Let me put a few things on the table. If you're privileged enough to be elected to Parliament, that is what you should spend your time doing. No second jobs.

A lot of MPs are be standing down in May, but until then, they were elected to do a job, to serve their constituents. They're being paid to do that job. And in putting themselves and their venal desire to line their pockets first, they've let down everyone in the Labour Party, who has been out there working for a Labour fourth term. (And of course the Tories are going to have a field day with this, although it's patently obvious Byers was talking complete and utter nonsense about his supposed influence over decision-making, and any corporates out there who would be prepared to pay him £5000 a day obviously have money to burn).

At tonight's PLP it was announced that the Chief Whip would be watching the programme, talking to those concerned and looking for a speedy resolution, possibly at Wednesday's meeting of the Parliamentary Committee. Harriet Harman also confirmed in the Commons today that there will be tougher rules on lobbying, which were in the pipeline anyway. But all in all, as one wag on Twitter said "It's a good day to bury Stephen Byers".

When the Going Gets Tough*

Given yesterday's inclusion in an Observer piece on the Top Ten political blogs, I feel under something of an obligation to raise my game and blog a bit more. The more observant amongst you may have noticed that I've barely even tweeted over the past few days, and good intentions of blogging last night ended instead with falling asleep on the sofa to the sound of the Boyzone tribute to Stephen Gately concert. (And no, not a fan, and their version of the godlike Billy Ocean's "When the Going Gets Tough" is a travesty, but I felt under a moral obligation to watch. One in the eye for Jan Moir, etc.)

Actually, in the absence of any other contenders, I'm coming to the conclusion that "When the Going Gets Tough" - Billy O version - should be our election song on the grounds that:

a) Things have got tough, but you need Labour fighters and a tough guy at the helm to deal with it, and Labour has comprehensively risen to the challenge of difficult economic and political circumstances;

b) It has an amusing reference to Alistair Darling in it. Sort of.

c) We can have a lot of fun on Twitter with "When the Going Gets Tough, the Toffs Get Going"

d) See above re godlike genius that is Billy O.

e) When referred to a panel consisting of: Blog the Week's Conor Pope; the Stilletoed Socialist herself, Bevanite Ellie; and Twitter's @BenMosley and @BenCooper86 (collectively known as BenSquared) over brunch on Sunday, it met with virtually unanimous approval.

OK, we may have some explaining to do when it comes to the line about "Gonna make you stand and deliver, and give me love in the old-fashioned way", which conjures up frankly disturbing images, but I think we can deal with that.

Anything to stop that big-haired pomp rock nonsense, "Don't Stop Believing". I may have to resign the Labour whip if we choose that.

*I may well have used this title before, but hey, worth a reprise.

Thursday 18 March 2010

Fragile Happiness

Interesting findings from a survey of MPs for a programme on the BBC tonight, the People's Politician. Two-fifths of MPs say their work has left them feeling depressed, 84% say that the public doesn't understand their jobs, and four out of ten say that they 'always' or 'often' exceed the government's recommended weekly alcohol limit. Four-fifths of the MPs agreed they were "hate figures".

However.... it's not all bad. 58% said they got "a lot" of satisfaction from their work and 21% said they could not imagine being happier doing anything else. And 14% want to be Prime Minister.

The programme is on at 9pm tonight.

Postscript... I'm sure my original version of this ended with a rather sarcastic commentary on all the above. But frankly I don't have the energy to try a repeat performance.

Wednesday 17 March 2010

Kerry's guide to PMQs


*1 Tony Baldry (Banbury):
Random Labour backbencher
Cameron (6 questions, could be split)
Random Labour backbencher
Clegg (2 questions)
Random Labour backbencher

*2 Mr John Redwood (Wokingham):
*3 Gwyn Prosser (Dover):
Random Opposition backbencher
*4 Derek Twigg (Halton):
Random Opposition backbencher
*5 Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton):
*6 Mr Anthony Steen (Totnes):
*7 Mr Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley):
*8 Simon Hughes (North Southwark & Bermondsey):
Random Labour backbencher

*9 Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire):
*10 Mr Michael Clapham (Barnsley West & Penistone):
*11 Mr Gerald Howarth (Aldershot):
Random Labour backbencher
*12 Mr John Baron (Billericay):
Random Labour backbencher
*13 Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight):
*14 Mr James Plaskitt (Warwick & Leamington):
Random Opposition backbencher

*15 Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd):

Predictions... Cameron will go on Unite/ Charlie Whelan/ Labour in hock to unions, at which point you may just hear the words "Ashcroft" "Belize" and "tax-dodger" from the Labour benches. Bring it on, I say - nothing at all to be ashamed of about being funded by a democratic organisation representing 1.5 million people and their families (who all pay tax). Or if he doesn't do that it could be a continuation of the alleged underfunding of troops. Or blaming Gordon for the break-up of Kate Winslet and Sam Mendes marriage because he didn't give them a Married Couple's Allowance. (See also, Cheryl and Ashley Cole; Mark from Take That and Emma. Kerry Katona and that dodgy bloke.)

Don't know about Clegg. Tempted to say I don't care, but we're in hung Parliament territory, have to be nice to Lib Dems! Or perhaps not.

This is almost certainly Sir Anthony Steen's swansong at PMQs. He's been speaking in Westminster Hall this morning on visas for domestic workers, the issue being that if they are badly treated by their employers they have no choice but to put up with it or lose their job/ visa and be kicked out of the country. Got to hand it to the old boy, he's been good on issues like this and human trafficking. Not so good on 'getting' why it's not a good idea to tell people they're just jealous because his house looks like Balmoral, but there you go.

As for the others... Redwood will go on something to do with economy/ regulation/ EU and will think he's being very clever. Sometimes he asks very short questions. Gwyn Prosser has a big local issue, re the port of Dover. If we get to Mike Clapham it will probably be pleural plaques, he's a long-time campaigner on the issue. And Simon Hughes will be greeted with cries of "too long!" "enough already!" as soon as he opens his mouth. It's a longstanding Commons tradition. And expect quite a few grandees called as 'randoms', i.e. those who are standing down. Not many PMQs to go before they depart the green benches.

Can't Stop the Spring

Two pieces of good news on the intervention and investment -v- 'savage' cuts, inaction and indecision front today... Unemployment down 33,000 (remember when economists predicted it could reach 5 million in this recession?) and the DfT announces £43 million investment in the Ashton Vale-Temple Meads Rapid Transit Link. There is also £11m announcement for a Weston scheme.

Note that the press release from the West of England Partnership gives a Tory councillor from North Somerset and a Lib Dem councillor from Bristol as contacts should the press require further information. That's fair enough, seeing as they're portfolio holders in the respective local authorities, but watch out for them trying to take all the credit without any mention of the Labour government giving the go-ahead and providing the funding.

Expect a Focus leaflet through your door any day now claiming credit for Lib Dem 'delivering on transport investment'. NB Lib Dems are not responsible for extra police officers and PCSOs either. That was Labour too. And the school improvements.

I could go on...

Monday 15 March 2010

And Even the Vegetables Screamed

I emailed round MPs a little while ago, asking if any of them would own up to being vegetarian. This was prompted in part by the fact that the Bristol-based vegetarian campaign group, Viva! has a very limited selection of politicians listed on its site under 'Famous Vegetarians' and in fact no-one who will be in Parliament after the election. It's quite a fascinating list actually: Sir John Gielgud, Larry Hagman, Leonard Nimoy AND William Shatner, Doris Day...

My quick and unscientific survey (i.e. those who could be bothered to reply to the email) has produced the names of 18 vegetarians, another half dozen or so who eat fish but not meat, and a smattering of apologetic "not quite but almosts". Plus the ex-Minister who replied "I have a wife who's vegetarian and a daughter who's vegetarian but I'm afraid I'd eat a scabby dog if I was hungry enough!"

As for party breakdown? 16 Labour, 2 Lib Dems. Quite a few retirees amongst them, so we will have to see what the post-election scenario is. If all goes according to plan there will be at least two of us vegans, as Cathy Jamieson has been selected for Des Browne's seat.

Dr Ashok Kumar

MPs were shocked today to learn of the sudden death of Dr Ashok Kumar MP. I didn't really know him, and consequently was surprised - pleasantly surprised - to see this email from the BHA paying tribute to his brave work on humanist issues.

BHA mourns Dr Ashok Kumar MP (1956-2010), politician and distinguished supporter of Humanism

The British Humanist Association (BHA) has expressed its sorrow at the death of its Distinguished Supporter, Dr Ashok Kumar MP. Ashok Kumar was a great supporter of the BHA, a committed and active member of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, and a self-described life-long “liberal humanist”.

Andrew Copson, BHA Chief Executive, said, ‘Ashok was a long-standing supporter of Humanism and often went out of his way to get involved in and further humanist issues in Parliament. Ashok was especially interested in education, and was opposed to the divisive and discriminatory “faith schools” system, preferring inclusive schools and objective religious education, not religious instruction. In fact, Ashok spoke of the dangers of segregation and religious indoctrination consistently over the last decade, and in almost every Education Bill.’

‘Ashok also took the lead in Parliament in campaigning for a national holiday on the anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, in honour of one of the fathers of modern science and one of Britain's greatest scientific minds. The loss of Ashok’s commitment, good humour and humanist outlook will felt by many in and outside of Parliament.’

Speaking in a House of Commons debate called in 2006 by his fellow humanist MP, Dr Evan Harris MP, he commented on the failure of Alan Johnson to ensure that faith schools would take pupils of other backgrounds:

‘I am against segregation, and I think that in his great spirited way the Secretary of State was trying to break down barriers and avoid future segregation. For that he was slapped down by the whole religious lobby. I find that very sad, because the Secretary of State was thinking, as we say in new Labour, for the long term—not tomorrow or the day after but perhaps 15 or 20 years' time. We do not want groups of people in society who believe that one religion is superior to another—a generation in which some believe that the only way is jihad and others believe it is Khalistan, and in which there are also Hindu fundamentalists. By the way, I am of Hindu and Sikh descent, and I am very happy to be so, although I am a non-believer. I was raised in both of those beliefs and went to a state school. I had no problem with learning about all faiths.’

Thursday 4 March 2010

Slates, Slags etc

I think I've expressed concern on here before about just what kind of Tory parliamentary party we're likely to end up with if they do reasonably well in the election. They're certainly not all modernisers. Google, if you must, the Daily Mail feature on 'Cameron's Cuties' and tot up how many of those are in favour of reducing the abortion time limit, for example. Or check out the recent FT article on the influence of the religious right within the Tory Party.

And now we have a prime example of free market lunacy from the Tory candidate in Hyndburn. How do we reduce the number of abortions and stop all those feckless teenage single mums getting pregnant just for the hell of it? Oh, and sort out sexually transmitted diseases while we're at it? Simple: price them out of the market. I defy you to read it without wincing.

William, it was Really Nothing

Sometimes song titles just hand themselves to you on a plate....

Obviously more than a little degree of schadenfreude at Westminster today, and I'm not talking about the Labour ranks. More than a few Tories - including those who loathe the Cameroons to the point they're quite prepared to lose the next election if it means seeing the back of him, and those Tory traditionalists who feel he's hung them out to dry over expenses - are finding it hard to hide their glee as the Ashcroft chickens finally come home to roost.

The does he/ doesn't he, should he/ shouldn't he pay tax issue has been done to death elsewhere, so let me just put a few things on the record.

1). I believe that all UK legislators should be resident in the UK and pay full taxes here. No non-doms.

2) I support, and have voted for, a wholly-elected House of Lords, not one appointed by patronage.

3) The difference between Ashcroft and other non-dom donors is that his peerage was conditional on him becoming a UK taxpayer, and based on undertakings he gave after he'd been turned down for a peerage twice. And his sheer effrontery in trying to brazen it out.

4) It is absolutely ridiculous that the Tory leadership could have got away with, until now, simply shrugging their shoulder whenever they were asked what Ashcroft's tax status was. Obviously Cameron, within days of becoming leader of a party bankrolled by the ignoble Lord, should have asked him. Ditto Hague.

5) It's time to deploy that well-worn phrase: the Tories simply don't get it. They think all this sort of stuff - and the Guardian, for example, is now carrying claims that Ashcroft avoided a pretty hefty VAT bill by invoicing opinion polling to Belize - is perfectly legit. Paying taxes is what the little people do.

What I'm most curious about, however - and what I think other people ought to be more curious about than they have been to date - is just what the deal is between Hague and Ashcroft. OK, Ashcroft bankrolled the party in its darkest days, when Hague was leader. And Hague is grateful to him for that.

But it's what happened after Hague stepped down as leader that is really intriguing. Ashcroft began funding Hague's parliamentary office, and then, to quote the Guardian: "Soon after, Hague was being flown across the world in Ashcroft's jet... He went to Prague in March 2006... followed by trips to Sudan, Israel, Jordan, China, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Bahrain and Syria, all courtesy of Ashcroft." The question is simple: why?

The Guardian piece goes on to say "Their relationship appears to have grown closer - and Ashcroft's support more generous - after David Cameron appointed Hague shadow foreign secretary in December 2005. The businessman began accompanying the politician on official shadow foreign secretary visits prompting speculation that Ashcroft was being considered for a ministerial role in the Foreign Office in a future Tory government." Trips to Iceland, Belize, Brazil, the Falklands, Cairo, Cuba, and official meetings with Obama's advisers in Washington....

Now I can see why a shadow foreign affairs spokesperson would go on lots of overseas trips. I can see why he'd take with him the guy who was so generously funding them. I can see that Ashcroft might have fancied a role in a Tory government, and given his past generosity, it was an offer the Tories couldn't refuse to make.

What's most intriguing is the period before Hague was given the foreign affairs brief, when he was supposedly taking it easy on the backbenches, spending time with his business interests. What were they up to, flying round the world? What were those meetings about? I genuinely don't know. But I'd certainly like to.

Wednesday 3 March 2010

Many Rivers to Cross

It's quite entertaining at the moment to observe how so many organisations who seem to have taken a Conservative victory at the election for granted are getting the political narrative so wrong. I get invited every day to think tank and charity events with 'keynote' speeches from leading Tories, as if they're already in Government. (No idea why they're asking me, if Teresa May had anything interesting to say about poverty and welfare reform I'm sure I'd have heard her say it by now). And yesterday I saw an ad for a book, on something like 'Where did it all go wrong for Gordon Brown?' Well, don't bank on that. Yes, we've been through tough times, but it's still very much #gameon for Labour, and if I was a political hack I'd be assembling my thoughts on how the Tories managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, just to be on the safe side.

People tend to underestimate what a mountain the Tories have to climb to achieve even a simple majority at Westminster. Don't forget - at the moment they have fewer MPs than Labour had after Michael Foot had led us into the 1983 General Election.

The Tories need to win 117 seats across the country to form a government. And that "across the country" is crucial. They can't just rely on picking off Labour marginals in the South East. And increasing their majorities in the southern seats they already hold, won't make any difference at all to their chances of forming a Government.

This is how the 117 seats the Tories need to win a majority break down on a regional basis.

London – 13 seats (10 Lab – 3 LD)
South East – 15 seats (12 Lab – 3 LD)
South West – 17 seats (11 LD – 6 Lab)
East – 8 seats (all Lab)
East Midlands – 10 seats (all Lab)
West Midlands – 16 seats (14 Lab – 1 Ind – 1 LD)
North West – 15 seats (13 Lab – 2 LD)
Yorkshire & Humberside – 12 seats (11 Lab – 1 LD)
North – 2 seats (1 Lab – 1 LD)
Wales – 5 seats (4 Lab – 1 LD)
Scotland – 4 seats (2 Lab – 2 SNP)

I can't see them doing it.

Talk about the Passion

Here is the tribute Gordon paid to Michael Foot today. Very typical of Gordon to mention Michael's passion for Plymouth Argyle; he could be talking about his own obsession with Raith Rovers! I really wish I'd been in Parliament at the same time as Michael Foot, to hear one of the great orators in action. I've been listening to some of his speeches tonight - funny, idealistic, and above all absolutely passionate about his politics.

"Michael Foot was a man of deep principle and passionate idealism and one of the most eloquent speakers Britain has ever heard. He was an indomitable figure who always stood up for his beliefs and whether people agreed with him or not they admired his character and his steadfastness.

The respect he earned over a long life of service means that across our country today people, no matter their political views, will mourn the passing of a great and compassionate man. All his life, Michael campaigned and fought for the ideals he believed in. I remember fondly my time with him and Jill Craigie, the love of his life - they both inspired me with their passion and kindness. They leave behind so many people whose grief overwhelms us today.

While Michael was a brilliant thinker – a first rate journalist and a celebrated biographer – he always knew that for the people and causes he had entered politics to represent, the Commons was not simply a forum for debate but the theatre of change.

As Leader of the Labour Party in the most difficult circumstances he was a respected and unifying figure who sought to steer it through turbulent times. And his record as a Labour minister and champion of working men and women will always be a tribute to his convictions and a source of pride - leading through Parliament the Health and Safety at Work Act .

He served the communities of Plymouth and Ebbw Vale with distinction. But Michael wasn't just a great parliamentarian - a historian, a journalist and an author, he showed the same skill as one of the youngest editors of a national newspaper in his twenties as he did when writing articles and books well into his nineties.

A founder member of CND, he is often remembered for being a self-proclaimed "inveterate peace-monger" although his determination to break the rise of Fascism in Europe in the 1940s was demonstrated in his hugely influential book, "Guilty Men".

A lifelong Plymouth Argyle fan who continued attending Home Park well into his 90s, his love of his football club mirrored his love of the labour party: sticking by the Pilgrims through thick and thin, no one could ever doubt his loyalty and determination to see them reach the summit of success.

We will never forget his good humour, his passion and above all his enduring values and determination to fight for them - as, one of his favourite poets, Shelley proclaims "Ye are many — they are few."

Michael Foot was a genuine British radical - one who possessed a powerful sense of community, a pride in our progressive past and faith in our country's potential for a radical future."

Time for Heroes

Very sad news today about Michael Foot, although he certainly had a good innings, and a phenomenal life. I'll post Gordon's tribute to him on here as a separate post, but if you want tears brought to your eyes, read Ellie's blog on how he inspired a young Labour activist who wasn't even born when he was party leader.

I caught the news of his death on Twitter in the middle of PMQs (which was horribly rowdy today, and not in a fun way) and, as duty whip on the front bench, managed to pass the news to Jack Straw just as he was about to introduce the main debate of the day. He'd heard, but wasn't sure if it was true... I said I was pretty sure.

Jack of course used to work for Michael Foot's great pal, Barbara Castle, in the 1970s so would have known Michael way back then, and was an MP under his leadership from 1979 to 1983. His tribute was very moving, very funny - and a poignant contrast to the Punch and Judy show we'd just had to sit through. (I'm not against Punch and Judy PMQs, I just didn't like it this week. There was something quite nasty about it).

I never really met Michael Foot as such, but during the 1983 election campaign Michael Foot gave a speech at what was then Luton Technical College, and I went along to it with my friend Mark and his Dad, a Labour Party member. He was an incredible speaker and also a tall, physically quite imposing man then, far removed from the public caricature of an old man with a walking stick. (Echoes of Gordon Brown and the way in which the press has tried to portray him as a weak, dithering, nervous wreck, whereas he actually has an immensely powerful physical presence. One reason, I suspect, the Rawnsley book hasn't harmed him, in that it's challenged the previous caricature, but that falls under the "I shan't dignify it with a blog post" heading. And no such comments on this post either).

My next encounter with Michael Foot was ten years or so later, at Labour Conference in Brighton. I was working in the City at the time and, having recently started a new job, was still 'in the closet' as a Labour supporter. No-one at work knew I was going to Conference - I think I said I was going to a family wedding - and I spent most of the week trying not to get on television.

In those days the big Conference occasion was the Tribune rally. As I was walking along the carpeted hotel corridor towards the hall where the rally was being held, suddenly I was caught in the full glare of the spotlight, as a host of cameras turned on me. Turned out Michael Foot was hobbling along behind,with his walking stick... It was a very long, slow walk, live on the TV news, and I had to resist the temptation to turn tail and run for it. He was of course, given a hero's welcome when he arrived in the hall.

Michael came to a PLP meeting in Parliament last year, where we paid tribute to him and Jack Jones, who has sadly also died since then. I got both them, and Gordon, Neil Kinnock and Bill Morris to sign a copy of the Minimum Wage Bill. I'd planned to auction it next week at my campaign fundraiser, but not sure I want to let it go now.

Here they are... a great pic of Michael in his Plymouth Argyle scarf.

Monday 1 March 2010

Blue Arrangements

Can't say I'm as shocked as Toby Helm is about the Ashcroft admission - surely today's announcement only confirms what everyone suspected all along? - but he does a pretty thorough job of explaining just why it matters. His article also highlights the extent to which senior Tories simply 'don't get it'. (See the Zac Goldsmith affair for another case study).

About time the Electoral Commission got its act together to decide whether Ashcroft's company is a valid donor too, or is it just a front, through which Ashcroft's overseas money is channelled? And just what influence does Ashcroft have on Tory foreign policy? Questions, questions... Shame Cameron and Gordon aren't going head to head at PMQs this week, but I imagine Harriet will have a few things to ask Mr. Hague.

Milk and Alcohol

Interesting little item at the end of business today.

Under 'Presentation of Public Petitions' the Tory MP Christopher Chope will be presenting a petition on 'Bellamy's Bar Closure'. And no, it's not a matter of vital importance for his constituents of Christchurch. It's about plans to turn Bellamy's, one of the many bars on the parliamentary estate, into a creche. Mr Chope objects. Will be interesting to see how many signatures he's got from 'the public'.

Mr Chope is also fighting a rearguard action, along with Philip Davies MP (Dinosaur Jr) to stop moves by Harriet Harman to enshrine in legislation a rule that parliamentary committees should use the term 'Chair', and not Chairman from now on. I can see this might be a point of principle for the 'political correctness gone mad' brigade, but I look forward to seeing his justification for trying to scupper plans for a creche.