Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Melanie Phillips and why the Tories don't cut the mustard

While I have been away Melanie Phillips, a woman more likely to make me grimace than sit up and listen, has metaphorically thrown down a gauntlet for the Tories - "We want a new start, proper leadership, a fresh vision. We are unlikely to get these from yet another Labour leader. The big question, however, is: who will deliver them? " - but a gauntlet that could just as well have been thrown our way.

Now, the problem she has identified is that the Tories are not picking up what she sees as the key issues -

"What are the Tories saying, for example, about the fundamental onslaught upon the integrity and identity of the United Kingdom posed by both devolution and our membership of the EU, which aims to reduce nations to regions controlled from the centre by the super-state of Euroland? They are silent.

What are they saying about Labour's ruinous levels of public spending? Pledging to match them.

What are they saying about the obsession with global warming which has produced ruinous policies on land use which have pushed up the cost of food? They share it.

Far from providing a clear and principled alternative, the new model Tories still defer too much to fashionable opinion; are still terrified of offending that opinion - particularly in the BBC; and are still following rather than leading.

The problem is that, while people know what has fallen, they are not sure what if anything has risen in its place. It is a vacuum which spells danger, not just for the beleaguered Mr Brown but for us all."

Of course, I agree about the vacuum, I agree that the Tories are far from well placed to fill it, but for quite different reasons.

For an intelligent woman her tabloid shallow analysis of our role in Europe is not only pitiful it is wrong. Her concerns about public spending are not accompanied by any intelligent arguments about what she would cut and why. Her view on global warming is plain ostrich like and her ridiculous over inflation of the power of the BBC, a shrinking fish in the global media pool, is laughable.

But the valid point she makes is about the vacuum and the fact that the Tories are ill placed to fill it. That If the SNP can do it, so can we.

The Dreyfus affair..............a boring update

A few people have been asking for an update re the Dreyfus affair. Well, I have to confess I am reviewing my previous scepticism about whether or not he was working for the security services. This having chatted to someone for whom I have enormous respect and who has some professional insight.

However, I have now spent almost a whole day with the Metropolitan Police, giving a statement and trailing through hours of CCTV/video, a key section missing. I also saw stills that I have to suspect have been tampered with. I don't think I can say any more about the matter except to express alarm that this man has not been suspended from a role which by all accounts is a sensitive one. This frankly makes me more not less suspicious.

This case is being investigated as part of the overall investigation into the George Bush STWC demo, an irritation for the police apparently. Let us see what the outcome is, but I for one am not holding my breath.

Good King Billy, Peter Tatchell, Iris Robinson and David Cameron

I am just back from a couple of days in Belfast, attending one of our training courses in Springfield Road. As always I enjoyed the opportunity to peruse the Belfast Telegraph and the Newsletter for an Irish take on the news.

Big news is Peter Tatchell (who was over for an Amnesty International lecture) has really set the hares running by suggesting great hero of the Unionists, King Billy, had gay lovers. A DUP "spokesman" said "This is the kind of deliberately offensive and provocative comment and shock tactics that he has used in the past." Allied to this story of course is Iris Robinson's outburst. The waiter in my hotel raised this with me, he was outraged that she appeared to have got away with it, something he didn't believe would have happened on the mainland. A letter in the BT suggested that Iris Robinson's comments were made with the sanction of her husband, who allegedly is "now trying to address the problem of Free Presbyterians defecting from the DUP" and was using her in a "missionary role".

And there has been a fair bit of comment on the proposal for a merger between the UUP and the Tories. As I raised a couple of days ago, my concern is that by muting this possibility the Tories give the impression of supporting sectarianism, a view not expressed in the newspapers, but one I found was shared by friends in Belfast. The major problem the Belfast Telegraph sees is that Sylvia Hermon will not be happy since she is more sympathetic to Labour and the consequence may be that the UUP lose their sole MP. However, the overtures being made by David Cameron to the party are seen as throwing them a lifeline.

Flying back last night, over the green and gold rolling hills of County Down and the sparkling still waters of Strangford Lough, I reminisced about leaving over 30 years ago when I had planned to go back to teach once qualified. My life inevitably took a different turn, but I still think Ireland is one of the most beautiful places on earth, blessed not only with wonderful landscapes but also wonderful people. I trust that the sectarianism and bigotry that still exists will not scupper the undoubted strides that have been made towards a real and lasting peace settlement.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

What the MPs really get up to on awaydays..........and other stories from Jo Swinson!

One of the great things about the Blogger's interviews is meeting other bloggers that you feel you have at least got to know a little through their blogs. So I was really pleased to meet Alasdair on Monday when we interviewed Jo Swinson. The adorable Milly, Helen Duffett and her son George were also there. Milly and Alasdair have already covered a lot of what Jo said, so I will just pick up on a few things that particularly interested me.

One of the little asides that appealed to my sense of humour was her insight into the recent MP awayday. Apparently one of the things they did was tell each other, one thing they should stop doing, one thing they should start doing and one thing they should carry on doing. Hmmm, sadly we got no more detail than that!

Given Jo's position as chair of the Gender Balance Taskforce, the issue of discrimination in all forms came up, for her age was still an issue she still had comments made about her youth in the House.

Her view was that on gender we had made great strides, with women in 29% of winnable seats, however the support was still not perfect and finance, particularly for child care, was missing.

On dealing with diversity in regard to BME representation in the Parliamentary party Jo's view was that we were rubbish. She was disappointed that having not recruited a diversity officer the post was replaced with a diversity adviser. Her view was that an officer would have had a more action orientated role. Whilst it was encouraging what has been achieved with regard to women, much more needed to be done at all levels of the party to increase our ethnic diversity.

Jo also talked further about the barriers to selection that women still face, herself having been asked by a member when she was seeking selection about having children. The reality is that women still disproportionately take on the caring responsibilities and it was notable that of our women MPs 5 had grown up children when they were elected and the other 4 have no children. She felt that lack of confidence was a barrier we can and are doing something about. Some of the other barriers, like for example being able to attend conference and even the cost of clothing, were more difficult to overcome.

Role models were important and Jo felt it was easier for her after Sarah Teather's election in Brent, people could then imagine a young woman as an MP.

Jo talked quite a lot about foreign policy, I was particularly interested in what she said about Iran and Israel. She felt there was gross hypocrisy in the way it appeared there was a one rule for us another for them in the way no one was asking Israel to give up their nuclear weapons but talking about attacking Iran to stop them having the same.
Her concern was that the region was a tinderbox and attacking Iran would be very dangerous. But her view was that if there was an attack it would be Nov-Jan once the US elections were out of the way and before George Bush stood down.

I asked what had been done in relation to the motion passed at conference on Israel/Palestine and heard that so far nothing had been done. However Ed had raised the issue of the blockade in Gaza and they had met with the Israeli ambassador and CAABU.

What was striking about Jo was her ability to comment intelligently on any issue. This, combined with her undoubted people skills and generosity of spirit, made me recall some of the comments that others have made about her being a potential future leader. I certainly came away very impressed.

Tracking the Mosquito

The controversial "Mosquito" is being used across the country to deal with "anti-social behaviour". Not only is this a civil liberties issue, it is also highly discriminatory since the Mosquito works by emitting a high pitched noise that only under 25's can hear. So presumably the assumption is that it is only young people who are anti-social.

I got this forwarded to me by a fellow Facebooker who had received the request from 11 MILLION. If any of you can confirm any of the locations, or add others that aren't listed, please can you let me know either here or via Facebook. Ta.

"I was just wondering if you could do us a favour. I have attached a file containing a list of mosquito locations. As you know we are trying to map all the mosquitos across the country. The one problem we have with the list is that we are not sure how accurate and up to date it is. is there any chance you could post it on the facebook website and ask people if they could verify or otherwise the locations that are listed."

Location Berkshire• Maiden Place, Earley, Reading• South Ascot• Cheshire-Outside civil centre in Poynton, Macclesfield• Bollington, Macclesfield• Co-op, London Road, Macclesfield• Panda Way, Congleton• 2 in Congleton Town Market• 2 affixed to care homes, Congleton• Spar at The Parade in Blacon.Cumbria-West Cumbria: • Main Road, Seaton (3)• Windsor Road, Westfield • Workington• Moresby Park, Whitehaven • High Street, Whitehaven • Westfield Drive, Whitehaven • Wellington Row, Main Road, Seaton • Murray Road, Workington• Senhouse Street, Maryport • Ennerdale Road, Cleator Moor• Sainsbury’s Cockermouth South Cumbria: • Chapel Street, Dalton in Furness • one in Dalton Leisure Centre North Cumbria: • Wood Street, Carlisle (2) • Beachwood Avenue, Carlisle, • Blackwell Road Carlisle.• Chiswick Road, Hylton Castle, SunderlandDerbyshire-• Belper• Ironville• Langley Mill• Boythorpe• Glossop• Derby City Centre.Devon and Cornwall• -Coach parking section in multi-storey car park- Torbay in CornwallDorset• -Community centre in BournemouthEssex• Southend Park• Basildon• Hunwicke Shopping Centre in Greenstead estate in Colchester• Burnham train station.• Montrose Court in Stapelford NorthGloucestershire• -Tewkesbury District• Gloucester• Forest • CheltenhamGreater London• -Lythe Road, Ealing• Hallmark Newsagent Shop in Wembley• Tower Hamlets• Ruislip Manor, Blackheath (M&S).Hampshire• -Hart Plain School, South HampshireHertfordshire• -St Albans, Stevenage (x2), • Three Rivers• MacDonald’s Borehamwood• Broxbourne (x2)• Hertsmere• South Oxhey.Kent• Medway, South Kent• RamsgateLancashire• -Broadfield• Moss Side• Bannister Stores, Bannister Drive Leyland• Bamber Bridge• Lancaster• co-op on Norbreck Drive in Preston• Chorley East• Chapel Walk in Rhodes• StaghillsLincolnshire• -Retirement home (South Holland District Council).Norfolk• -Mulbarton• Broadland• North Walsham• Great Yarmouth• Gorleston• Dereham• Thetford• Kings Lynn.Northamptonshire• -Willow Arts Centre in George Street• Oakley Vale Shopping Centre, Corby• Danesholme Shopping Centre in Corby.Nottinghamshire• -Brierley Forest Visitors Centre, Huhwaite• Selston Medical Centre, Selston, • Morven Park School, Kirby in Ashfield• Ashfield District Council Offices, Fox Street, Sutton in Ashfield• Tichfield Park Pavillion, Hucknall, • Beauvale Chip Shop in Hucknall, • Hucknell NET tram shop, • Ling Forest in Oak Tree Lane Mansfield, Shopping parade in Ravensdale Road in Mansfield, • pizza shop in Bagnall Road in Basford, • shop on Oak Tree Estate in Mansfield • Bulwell area.North Somerset• -Mead Vale Shopping Precinct, Worle.North Yorkshire• -City of York• Selby• Market Place, Bedale,• Starbeck, Harrogate• Whitby Station in Whitby • one used by Saxton Parish Council.Merseyside• -Trapwood Close, Eccleston• Play area behind community centre, St Helens• Play area in Haresfinch Park, St Helens• Thatto Heath, St Helens• Chain Lane, St HelensOxfordshire• Westgate Shopping Centre, Chipping Norton, • Reynolds Way in Abingdon.South Yorkshire• Mexborough, • Swinton• Dalton • Orgreave. • Dinnington Indoors Market, Sheffield• Margetson Crescent, Parsons Cross in Sheffield• Rotherham.South Wales• -Spar shop in Barry, South Wales• Town Hall in Renfrewshire• Spar shop on Caerleon Road in Newport Gwent. • Northern Rail Treorchy Station.Staffordshire• -Burntwood• Tamworth,• Stoke• Leek,• Blythe Bridge in EndonSurrey• Epsom/Ewell• Reigate/Banstead• Tandridge• Guildford• Woking.Warwickshire• Co-op at Shipston on Stour.West Mercia• Weston Rhyn, • Llanymynech, • St Martins, • Reddich, • Wythall, • Wyre Forest, • Stourport, • Shawbirch)West Midlands• Sutton Coldfield, • Wolverhampton • Low HillWest Sussex• Macdonalds on London Road in East Grinstead• Spar store on Tilgate Parade in CrawleyWiltshire• Swindon• (Wyvern Theatre, Theatre Square, Guildford Avenue in Lawn and Park North Shop), • Trowbridge (Longfield Community Centre)• Sainsbury’s in Calne Wiltshire.Worcestershire• Charlton Kings• Tewkesbury

Friday, July 25, 2008

The SNP - Taking the Tide on the Flood?

Hearing the results in Glasgow East at some ungodly hour this morning my first thought was of my pal who is a member of the SNP. We had an email exchange a couple of weeks ago and she had been out campaigning. She was genuinely buoyed up, believing they could win. I remembered visiting her and her family a couple of years ago. Her father too is an SNP activist and what struck me about both of them was the enthusiasm with which they talked about their party. They conveyed a real sense of commitment to and belief in everything the SNP stood for. The party was full of heroes, leading lights who they spoke of almost in hushed tones. The contrast with Labour, even then, was palpable. In the inevitable ebb and flow of politics it is clear the SNP are flowing. Barring a huge disaster, this kind of momentum is almost impossible to counter, on the contrary, a party that is ebbing can do virtually nothing about it. Sometimes the more they try to do, the worse it gets.

I guess our challenge is to think about what this means for us. Where are we in terms of the ebb and flow? Where were the SNP a few short years ago, did they anticipate the changing tide and take full advantage of it? Regardless of our views of their politics we must surely learn lessons from their success.

To quote Brutus in Julius Caesar "There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat and we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures."

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Marching with the enemy?

As someone who often gets ticked off for being too pally with people from other parties, I have probably earned myself a few negative brownie points over the past couple of weeks. Regular readers will know that I often chat about the Tory Boys and I also value my friendship with our local Labour MP Patrick Hall and friends from Respect. Politics of course is important to me but it frankly isn't the only thing I care about and if I made a condition of friendship shared political views I'd be quite a lonely person!

So on Saturday I was at Chicksands at the Defence Intelligence and Security Centre for Intelligence Corps day. This is always an enjoyable event, Pimms on the lawn, lunch in the marquee (always a reminder, despite the fact that it is private contractors providing it now, of 1970's army food!) and an afternoon to look round the beautiful Chicksands Priory and visit the excellent Military Intelligence Museum. One of the guest's of honour was Sir Stanley Odell, erstwhile President of the local Tories. He is quite a character who I first got to know when I ran Bedford Boys Club some 16 years ago. Whenever we meet he likes to tell me he thinks I am in the wrong party (after all I look like a Tory (!)) but is also always disarmingly informed about what I am up to politically. Clearly has taken on board the army maxim "know your enemy".

Then on Monday, having interviewed Jo Swinson (more about that later), I met up with Patrick for dinner in The Adjournment at Portcullis. I have also known Patrick almost as long, he was a County Councillor when I worked in the Youth Service and was always a great supporter of our work, going out of his way, unlike others, to attend events and to encourage our young people. In fact, one of the deciding factors for me in not standing for PPC in Bedford was a fear that, being the fighter I am, I would find myself pulling my punches standing against a friend, although this has never meant I haven't challenged his party's policies on public platforms, or when chatting privately.

There are many examples in Westminster of close cross party friendships and I have to say I find it quite sad that some in our party disapprove so vociferously, for me it holds echoes of the sectarianism that has been so damaging in places like Northern Ireland. But, whilst such attitudes make me cross, they have absolutely no impact whatsoever on my behaviour. If those who display such attitudes think by doing so they will force me to change my wayward ways, they will be sadly disappointed!

The Revival of the Conservative and Unionist Party

I woke up to the news this morning that David Cameron is having talks about closer links with the Ulster Unionists. This could be seen as a sign of the times, the climate has changed. But despite the progress in Northern Ireland, the UUP will still be seen as a sectarian party. I always remember a Catholic union colleague of mine from Belfast, who would constantly chide the Tories about being the "Conservative and Unionist" party. Of course what the Tories do is up to them, but I will be watching with interest the fallout from this.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

That Nick Clegg - what a hoot!

Drawing to the parliamentary end of term, Nick Clegg has attracted a little criticism in some quarters for appearing not to have a sense of humour. He has dealt with PMQs extremely competently but with little of the dazzling humour employed by his stand in predecessor Vince Cable. Although it has to be said, I heard one parliamentarian the other day declaring that he thought Nick was our best leader in a generation when it came to dealing with PMQs.

That said, I have to say I have been disappointed that Nick's sense of humour hasn't as yet really emerged, I am hoping that next term, perhaps when he can relax a bit about the ordeal that is midday on a Wednesday, his real character can emerge. I have always found him to be great fun and very witty. One example was when we travelled back from Birmingham together. I had been chatting away (out of character I know !) about this and that when Nick went off to buy coffee. He asked me if I wanted sugar, my reply was to say no, "Thank God for that" says he "we would have been on to story 143!"

So it was great to read this story from Black Dog in the Mail -
"Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg is no fan of David Cameron's favourite new political book, Nudge, by Richard Thaler, which says human behaviour is best changed by small nudges not heavy-handed laws.
'Thaler says if you draw a fly in the centre of a gents' urinal, men will aim more accurately,' said Clegg.
'Cameron has drawn the fly on the floor.' "

Making it Happen?

Having had one of my manic few days my only response so far to Making it Happen could have been interpreted as a negative one. In fact that is not the case at all, my concerns were predominantly about one aspect of it and the marketing of that aspect, namely cutting tax.

So, what do I think of Making it Happen in the round? A few weeks ago we had a detailed look at the draft at an FPC awayday. I elicited some amusement by saying how excited I was about it as a document. But I was excited then and I am excited now. Overall it begins to tell the story which so many have been crying out for. It connects with our values and has a genuine thread running through it which is about making life better for so many in our country who struggle financially, but also in terms of being heard when they come into contact with the state; who are fearful but feel powerless to change anything; who share our values, but don't see those values reflected in any of the other major parties.

There are elements of the detail I personally would want to change, but overall I think it has a fresh, intelligent and forward thinking feel. On many issues it puts clear blue water between us and the other two Tory parties and articulates beautifully what that looks like. Anyone who asks "what are the Lib Dems for?" would be hard pressed not to be able to find an answer in these pages.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Topsy Turvy World - Cameron or Clegg on tax?

Arriving home in the early hours from the Liberal International AGM last night I heard the news about Nick's plans to cut taxes on 5 Live. This novel idea was not news to me, it had been discussed at FPC last week, which elicited my (measured!) response that whilst I had no problem with cutting taxes at the bottom end, I was concerned about where the cuts would be coming from to pay for such cuts. Presumably this was rushed out in response to David Cameron's "we may have to put taxes up" comment. Has the world gone completely mad?????! I arrived at work this morning to be greeted by a jokey comment from my boss (who happens to be a former Labour minister) about what was happening. It has elicited the expected response - Nick will cut taxes but he doesn't know as yet where the cuts will come from. THIS IS WHAT MAKES MY BLOOD BOIL!!!!!!! Of course I am a great supporter of Nick, but he knows and I know, this does not extend to supporting policies that potentially undermine all the promises we are making about the changes we would make in public policy terms, the pupil premium, ending child poverty, covering the cost of private health care……….need I go on? If Nick had identified something he wouldn't be doing anymore (I have made plenty of suggestions, Trident for example could be a big chunk of his savings -and maybe the silver lining of this premature promise is that we could offer the electorate a choice, Trident or tax cuts?) then I think he would have been in a much stronger position. We are in grave danger of falling into the unjustified stereotype of being opportunist. Whilst I respect the fact that many fellow bloggers are jumping for joy at this announcement, I am afraid, I am very afraid…...what happened to the party of 1p for education and the 50p tax rate, a recognition that quality services cost money? My position hasn't changed, but I fear my party's has.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Cameron on Black Fathers

Cameron has jumped feet first into the debate about black fathers. I have to say it makes me a little uneasy, an Old Etonian presuming to comment on an issue about which he has little experience and even less understanding. In an age when the political imperative seems to be to score points by finding simple solutions to complex problems, my view is that the last thing politicians should be doing is moralising. Actually Dave, what we want are political solutions not moral ones. Now don't get me wrong, of course there are moral issues - and solutions have to take account of the moral landscape, but this constant need to find someone to blame worries me. He does touch on poverty and education, though his comment that "mobility has to be unblocked by a revolution in secondary education where you have got to bust open the monopoly of the state system..." should sound alarm bells for all of us who care about education.

Last week I attended a conference for academics in the field of youth and community work. Bernard Davies raised a number of important issues with regard to the political landscape, some of which I will return to. But he struck a chord with me when he bemoaned the fact that we no longer talked about race equality but rather 'community cohesion'. A friend of mine, who has been in the Race Equality field for years, just got a job, doing what he has always done, as a community cohesion officer. Hmmmm, the power of language in helping us side step difficult issues!

At the same conference I attended a shocking workshop highlighting the discrimination still faced by black students in HE, something else I will return to having naively thought things may have changed.

So, getting back to Cameron, if he has to start moralising I would have a lot more respect for him if he did so in a context that acknowledged the racism so many black people still face and looked at serious policies to tackle poverty and an education system that condemns some of our most vulnerable young people to failure. Now those are all issues politics can tackle head on.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The giggling Chancellor?

This afternoon I got an excited telephone call from my daughter Lara. She was at her local petrol station in Flitwick and "Fifth Gear" had been asking people about the shocking price of petrol, reminding them it was all the government's fault - and giving everyone £2(?). She had been interviewed but was ringing me to apologise. "I just got so nervous Mum, when they started talking about the government I wanted to say something about you but I just giggled!" What she would have said about me she didn't know...........maybe, "what this country needs is my mum as Chancellor" or "if you vote to get my mum into Europe she'll sort them out", or "my mum said it would all end in tears if we went into Iraq" .................or maybe just "Hi mum!" Reminding me of the interview I did with the PM programme when I was the candidate in Luton North.
They had called to ask if they could do an interview..........I was puzzled, there was a lot of interest in Luton South at the time, but not Luton North. I asked if they had it right, yes, they say, we think Luton North could be a shock result, no one will be more shocked than me says I! In the event they arrived on the day Simon Hughes was in town, catching some typically sage words from him.....then on to me. Hmmmm, did they broadcast my wise words about the world the universe and everything? What they broadcast was me giggling. The only saving grace was that an old friend who I hadn't seen for years heard it contacted me. "I heard the giggle and I knew it was you!" says he.
So, we will all be watching agog in August to see if we can spot Lara (see pic) following in her mum's footsteps.......

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Gene Robinson - the personification of grace

Grace is a virtue rarely talked about, perhaps because it is in such short supply. But this fact means that when it is demonstrated it is all the more powerful. As "Tuesday's Child" I am supposed to be "full of grace" but I confess it is a quality that I admire so much in others, but rarely find in myself. So I was deeply moved watching the Andrew Marr interview with Gene Robinson this morning. As the only Bishop not to have been invited to Lambeth he could have been full of pique and anger. Instead he has chosen to come and be around the fringes of the conference in order to have the conversations he believes need to happen in order to help move the church on, he says " You know I think miracles happen when people who are divided by something sit and talk with each other, get to know one another as human beings and as brothers and sisters in Christ and that's why I'm going to offer myself in that way"

Whilst he has a clear position himself he is not condemning those who don't share it, he is rather recognising the importance of keeping lines of communication open. He is a brave man, whose suffering, far from embittering him, has deepened his humanity and prophetic zeal.

Sir Ian McKellen who was also there, revealed that he like Gene had received death threats in the past. But, although an atheist himself he encouraged the Bishop with the words of Thomas Jefferson, talking about whether the Constitution should ever be changed "One might as well require a man to wear still this jacket which fitted him when a boy as for civilised society to suffer under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors".

Ian adds -

"And you know we do have barbarous ancestors, in politics, in religion, in the military, in every part of our lives. And argument between the twenty first century and those old prejudices that's been played out here in this man. And that he should be in the eye of the storm as his autobiography puts it is a, an enormous weight on his shoulders. And I do wish you well on behalf of us all".

Knife Crime - John Major nearly gets it right - Jacqui Smith doesn't get it at all

Andrew Marr interviewed John Major this morning, remember him? Inevitably following the chat about the economy the subject of the current moral panic about knife crime. What he said I found very interesting "....If you look at knife crime in the cities, if you go back to the time when I was a boy I, I lived in the middle of Brixton at a time of quite a lot of social turmoil, when there was relatively little to do. But there were gymnasiums, there were places where you could go and you could box, you could play indoor soccer, you could do things of that sort.

Now one of the reasons I set up the Lottery which the government have ransacked and taken a large part of the money sadly, was to set up things like that right the way through the big cities. We need to find things for our young people to do. In the early part of the century, the previous century when there was a lot of trouble with youngsters, er, youth clubs, the Scouts, things like that were established and became set up.

Maybe not the same prescription. But we certainly need the opportunity for sporting facilities and arts facilities inside the inner cities so that youngsters have something to do when they go out rather than stand on the street corner. Give them something to do. Give them the opportunity to do it. I think that would be expenditure well spent. It was the purpose of the Lottery. I very much hope and believe that a Conservative government will return the Lottery to its original intention.

.......We need to help them. Of course we condemn people who use knives. That is unacceptable by any measure. But let us give them something to do that will attract their interest. And if that isn't worthwhile expenditure I cannot myself imagine what is." (my emphasis)

Yes, this was John Major, the same John Major who was part of a government, later leading it, that presided over the wholesale decimation of the Youth Service! And does he really believe that a future Conservative Government would be any different?

Last week I had a coffee with a leading light in the youth policy world (who will remain nameless). We were talking about who the political champions for young people were in the different parties. For us the answer is simple, both within, but particularly without, our party, Simon Hughes is seen as the parliamentary champion par excellence for young people. Annette Brooke is someone else who has also been tireless in her advocacy for young people. In the Labour Party,when he was responsible for the Youth Service Ivan Lewis was highly regarded, also Phil Hope and John Denham. But, could we think of a champion for young people in the Tories...........???? Er, no.

Now, of course, John Major is right to say we need to prioritise spending on young people, but he got it wrong in thinking that the National Lottery was the answer with the government washing their hands of the problem. He has essentially admitted it was the Tory Government's fault. Ten years of a Labour Government hasn't seen much additional funding going to services, but it did arrest the trend. Sadly Andrew Marr didn't challenge him on this.

I am not suggesting youth facilities and services are all the answer, but there is enough evidence that youth crime falls when, for example, the local youth club is open. What is more of an indicator of risk is poverty and poor education - that surely has to be a starting point. One only has to look at Maslow's hierarchy of need to understand that for many young people whose needs are not being met in other ways, they will look elsewhere. So the gang becomes the surrogate family and support. Young people who are made to feel of little or no worth at home and I have to say in many cases, at school, gain the little self worth they possess from being someone in the gang. So, my argument is and always has been, this isn't just about providing so called "diversionary" activities for young people, it is providing safe places and safe relationships. It is about tackling poverty in the round and providing an education system that truly takes account of the needs of all pupils. I often argue that we wouldn't put an acid loving plant in lime soil and then blame the plant for not thriving, but we do it to our children every day of the week.

Getting back to the role of youth work and youth facilities. The best youth workers, in particular detached youth workers (working out on the streets) will offer both safe places and safe relationships for young people. Good Youth Workers don't see young people as problems but acknowledge the challenges and look for the good in every one of them. During my career one of my great senses of satisfaction was when young people I had worked with firstly aspired to be, and then became, youth workers. These youth workers are the best, they understand the streets, they understand what is going on, but all too often, given the lack of respect given to the field, they are not heard.

And so on to dear Jacqui. Something has to be done, so, like governments before she retreats to that old chestnut - shock tactics. Get young people into A&E to see the consequences. Remember Aids and the iceberg, beeping babies, various anti smoking, drink driving campaigns? These campaigns, whilst they may have an impact on a very few, rarely have much if any lasting impact. I always look at the example of the campaign to reduce teenage pregnancy. Young people can be taught how to put condoms on bananas, how and why pregnancy happens, given the skills to negotiate and an understanding of the choices they have and the consequences of those choices. However, how much has teenage pregnancy actually reduced? It seems to me that the important missing ingredient is an understanding of what motivates behaviour and as we all know, behaviour is the hardest to thing change.

Jacqui Smith's solution, whilst different in that it gets away from the lock 'em all up mantra, is a clear demonstration of the lack of connection between policy making and the reality of people's lives. It is a top down solution which is designed to be headline grabbing and get the good burghers of middle England nodding sagely and saying, yes this is what these reprobates need. These young people know the consequences of their actions, but the alternative is more unthinkable. Rather be remembered as a "fallen soldier" than appear to be soft.

The carnage on our streets, particularly in London, is deeply disturbing. There are no quick fixes, but until and unless we start talking to the young people who live with this reality we will never even begin to scratch the surface of a lasting solution.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The highlight of the Bedford calendar - Bedford River Festival

One thing I love about Bedford is our real sense of community and that is never more wonderfully demonstrated than at our bi-annual River Festival. At one time Bedford was the most culturally diverse town in the country and we are still home to over 100 different people groups - a fact that is evident in the diversity of the festival.

This year will be the 30th anniversary of an event that started as a celebration of the Ouse becoming navigable from Bedford to the coast and is now second only to the Notting Hill Carnival as the biggest free festival in the country.

My first River Festival was 14 years ago. I remember it well, my son, 4 at the time, went round commenting that by the next River Festival I would be 41. Heavens, that seemed so old to us both then! There have been great years and not so great years, times when the event seemed to be losing its way, but this year looks like being exceptional. For anyone close enough to get to Bedford (and remember we are only 35 minutes from St Pancras) it is well worth a visit. I have to say the highlight of the weekend for me is always the parade of boats as it begins to get dark, all decorated and lit up - magical!

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Shall we have the bun fight in the Autumn or the Spring?

To scrap or not to scrap that is the question ..........whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous activists, or to take arms against a rebellious party and by opposing......hmmmm who knows?

That frankly was the dilemma facing FPC last night. To go to conference with a proposal to change our popular no tuition fees policy, or to delay the potential bun fight until the Spring. The almost overwhelming decision was to defer until Spring, when of course we are also anticipating another bun fight when we debate our schools policy. Well, let's get all our bun fights over together, why not? Deferring also gives some more time to try and find a compromise that the whole party can support.

Of course FPC protocol and the delights of the Chatham House Rule, sadly prevents me from reporting back on what at times became a very heated debate. Suffice to say, despite my feelings of being in drawbridge mode, having benefited from a free education myself and in a professional capacity having serious concerns about the debt culture we are contributing to, I come down on the side of the argument that we do need to review the situation. We need to treat part time and FE students more equitably and we have to look at where scarce resources are most effectively used. Or, we need to get back to the tax debate. Also, it is something I bang on about all the time but I despair at how little cost benefit analysis is done in regard to public spending of any kind.

Of course all this could have been avoided. We could have continued with our no tuition fees policy, doubled the grant, raised the threshold for repayment and kept the motion on the agenda for Er...........revisiting our Trident policy, which as luck has it, if the FCC see sense, we may have an opportunity to do!

As for the bun fight......those intending to participate, please bring Krispy Kremes:-)

Monday, July 07, 2008

Stop wasting food......OK Gordy, whatever you say!

You know when you lie in the bath and you can hear what is going on outside but it is a little muffled, and anyway you are in your own little world. Or you sit on the tube and miss your stop because you are reading and the monotone voice barely pricks your consciousness as it says Kings Cross St Pancras.......?'s just me then!

I had the same kind of sensation at the news today that Gordon Brown is urging us to stop wasting food. My ears didn't prick up, my conscience wasn't kind of washed over me really. The thing is, he has a point. The question he the right person to make it?

Remembering 7/7

7/7 - like 9/11 and for those of us of a certain age, the assassination of Kennedy, the shooting of John Lennon, will always remain scars on our memory.

My daughter called this evening to ask if I was watching Channel 4. She was watching their programme on Islamophobia (an issue she is well informed on, her partner being a Muslim). She tried to describe a Tory who had been speaking, who she was less than impressed with given his attitude to women who wore the Niqab, who apparently did it because they were affiliated to Islamists. I am still trying to figure out who this guy is, apparently blonde, really skinny, speaks with a plum in his mouth and is often on Question Time - any ideas????

So, I am just done watching the programme about the survivors of 7/7 on Channel 4. It was very moving, the triumph of the human spirit, the putting into perspective all the triviality we worry about. But it brought back for me, as I am sure it did for many others, memories of that day three years ago.

I had hmmmd and haaaaad about whether to go into work that day. I had work I could have done at home. In the end I decided to go. When I arrived at the station I was frustrated that Midland Mainline was not running. There were problems at Mill Hill, this meant not only would I have to go on the painfully slow Thameslink, but it would be positively snail like given it was stopping at every stop. Again I debated with myself about whether I should just go home and phone into work to tell them I was working from home. In the end I got on the train. On the way I had a brainwave. I could save time by getting off at West Hampstead and jumping on the Jubilee line. This I did, arriving around 9.25 and taking the short walk along to the tube station.

It was one of those days when you grit your teeth, not only had my journey taken twice as long, now I had arrived at the Jubilee line to find that the gates were being closed. A message flashed up above the gates, there was an electrical problem. Now, how on earth did I get to Canary Wharf? I followed the crowd around the corner to the bus stop, no idea how to get to where I wanted to be. I couldn't get on the bus, it was too crowded. I decided to call work - but, unusually for me, I had left my mobile at home. I walked into the nearest Kebab House and asked if I could use the phone. They kindly allowed me to and I called work. Karen, our administrator answered. She told me that they had heard there were problems in London, something about four explosions, all the buses and tubes had been suspended. She suggested I went home.

I was lucky. I went back to West Hampstead and got on a train going back. Had I gone all the way into St Pancras I would have been stuck. The journey home was surreal. People were picking up news on their mobiles, there was far more chatter than usual. As we travelled the story began to unfold. We tried to signal to people coming the other way on trains that they should get off, but they clearly didn't know what was happening.

I finally got home at about 11.30 - switching on the TV to watch the horrifying story unfold. On my mislaid mobile were 14 missed calls. My children, desperately asking me to call, my friends, some of whom had been called by my children, wondering where I was.............I remembered my daughter's concern when I got my job a year earlier in Canary Wharf - why did I want to work somewhere that was such a terrorist target? She didn't really buy my attempted reassurance that actually Canary Wharf was probably one of the safest places to work.

What was worse was when I got back into work the following Monday. My children had also left heart wrenching messages on my answerphone. All I could think about was how many other such messages had been left on other answerphones across London, the difference being that the recipients had never received them. I also reflected on my journey. The 7/7 bombers had boarded the train at Luton, my hometown. The problems at Mill Hill had clearly affected them too. Their train was late - it reminded me of the Thornton Wilder book the Bridge Over the San Luis Rey, the story of five people who found themselves crossing a bridge in Lima, Peru, when it collapsed. So, presumably, they had intended to arrive in London earlier. I have no doubt, given the time, that more people, but different people, would have died had they arrived earlier.

For anyone caught up in that day it will remain with them forever. So much more for those whose loved ones died, or who were injured. For weeks afterwards we all travelled on the tube suspicious of anyone with a rucksack looking vaguely Asian. And then there was the tragedy of Jean Charles de Menezes. This hit me particularly hard - that could have been my son.

What happened on 7/7 was an outrage. But frankly we must try to understand what motivates intelligent young men to do such terrible things. The alternative is more and worse of the same.

Yes, I really am this shallow!

Do you suppose inanimate objects have a sense of humour? I ask this for a very good reason. Last week I discovered I had lost my beautiful pink sandals. I had only worn them a couple of times so I was a bit miffed and retraced my steps mentally as to where they may be. I decided, through a process of elimination, that I must have left them on the 6.55 on my way back to Bedford. I called lost property - but no sign..............then, at the weekend I found them! They had crawled under a pile of washing waiting to be ironed (I know it isn't one of my strong points!). I was delighted to be reunited and celebrated by wearing them, despite the pouring rain, yesterday.

Today, I again decided, despite the pouring rain, to continue the celebration. Given my half hour trek to the train station I wore an old pair of flatties and put my dear sandals in a little bag. I put the bag next to my handbag to remind me to pick it up. Did I remember?! So, my theory is, the little devils had a mind of their own and decided it would be rather fun to really get lost......

.......OK, shallow I know, but if anyone finds them, please send them home :-(

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Feeling Sorry for Bojo

OK, there goes me street cred (if I ever had any, tho I did get asked by our illustrious leader the other day if I worried about such things at my age!).......but I found myself feeling a little sorry for Boris today. This, it has to be said, having previously posted that the best outcome of a Boris win would be that it would probably have the unintended consequence of undermining the notion that the Tories could govern. I suppose my unexpected feelings spring from an appreciation of how being well meaning can sometimes end one up in the soup.

Boris's decision to appoint Ray Lewis as one of his deputies I saw at the time as a sound move and if nothing else I was delighted that he had recognised that a youth worker rather than a police officer could offer more in the fight against youth crime. So far from crowing I am rather disappointed that he hasn't had an opportunity to even begin to get to grips with a serious problem that is destroying lives on almost a daily basis. This is not to condone any wrong doing if it is proved, or to excuse Boris for his lack of judgement, but to put what has happened (in which as far as I know nobody died), in the context of the far more serious problem in which many young people are dying and families (of victims and perpetrators) are being devastated. Do we want to take the risk of involving those who may have answers but don't tick all the boxes, or maintain the status quo with those who tick all the boxes but never get beyond the questions? This morning we have heard the news that Martin McGuinness and Lord Alderdice are going to Iraq to try and help them move forward in building a peaceful and cohesive future for that country. I don't hear anyone disqualifying Martin McGuinness from that vital task because of his past? I know I am venturing into dangerous waters, we expect our public servants to be beyond reproach, but sometimes they don't have the answers for that very reason. Frankly if we want to resolve any problem we surely have to involve those who understand, are affected by, or part of the problem. Anything less will lead us back into the vicious circle, the blind allies, the mealymouthed words that have failed to even come close to changing things.

So, the wheels may be falling off early in the Boris Mayoralty. Frankly he is a colourful character but has not to me demonstrated any of the attributes necessary in a leader. As I observed on Tuesday, he appears to spend no time at all preparing for anything and flies by the seat of his pants. He talks the talk but I fear we will discover he is incapable of walking the walk. He makes the perfect maverick MP, entertaining writer, Have I Got News for You chair.............but Mayor of one of the greatest cities on Earth? Er.........don't think so. He may be well meaning, which is why I find myself in this peculiar place of feeling sorry for him this morning - but as the saying goes the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

"Appropriate Rewards" Geoff Hoon, Keith Vaz

That leaked handwritten letter, promising Keith Vaz an "appropriate reward" raises again that old chestnut of cash/votes for honours. Now, it has to be remembered that Geoff Hoon used to be affectionately referred to in military circles as Buff Hoon - so no stranger to the relationship between foot and mouth. But it got me to thinking about how we go about dishing out the honours. We have a buffer in the Peers list, but this has done very little to ensure our presence in the Lords reflects the party, let alone the country.

At some time Gordo will see fit to offer some crumbs from his table to Nick Clegg - so what will he do? Does he have favours to repay? Will he break the habit of seeing honours as a reward system for the great and the good? Now I am a great believer in a directly elected second chamber, but we are where we are for the meantime, so my view is that we should not see appointing folk to the Lords as a reward, after all, they are supposedly "working peers". Some clearly take that responsibility seriously, some seem to swan off all over the place and do very little to support the party in the Lords.

During the hustings for the last but one leadership, Simon Hughes made a commitment that he would use appointments to the Lords to begin to address the lack of diversity in the parliamentary party - stating categorically that “If I am leader then I will expect, if the opportunity arises, to nominate people to the Lords. I will not normally nominate any white male because we have to correct the imbalance. We have about ten women out of 70 peers and we have two or three people from minority communities. We have to take positive action.”

It may be window dressing (and I have it on good authority that it is) but at least the Tories have begun to grasp this nettle - the appointment of Sayeeda Warsi in order to give her a role in the Shadow Cabinet, the selection of a number of BME candidates in winnable seats - while we, of all the parties lag behind. So, Nick has the perfect opportunity, which I am confident he will take, to use his prerogative to do the same and send a clear message that he is serious about redressing the balance. After all, as I have said before........and will no doubt have engraved on my tombstone - if we want to represent we have to be representative!!!!

Answers not Lists - Nick Clegg at PMQs

PMQs was a little subdued today. The speculation is that Cameron is pulling his punches as he would rather keep Brown there than contribute to his downfall. But I was impressed with Nick - he asked an important question about mental health, drawing attention to the fact that there is a two tier system. Brown just did his usual and banged on about the NHS and all their investment in mental health services, Nick rightly challenged him, asking for answers not lists.

Regular readers will know that this is an issue close to my heart, having grown up with a father with a bi-polar condition and having spent most of last summer supporting a sister who suffered unbelievably in a terrible psychiatric unit. To put vulnerable people in mixed sex wards is inexcusable - I lost count of the number of times my sister called me terrified because of something that had happened, whether that was a man exposing himself, or coming into her room in the middle of the night and trying to kiss her, or there being a fight. I was also horrified at how badly she was treated by some of the staff, even being threatened. Of course, when I complained it was all put down to her condition. One of the worst things that happened was when she was so frightened she hid in the tiny cupboard in her disgusting room (which looked and to her felt, more like a prison cell with tiny windows, chunks out of the door, dirty walls and carpet) all night, eventually wetting herself. Perhaps this is not the sort of thing to talk about on a blog, but it seems to me part of the problem is that there is still such a stigma attached to mental illness and we don't talk about it. We are quite happy for people to be locked away in disgusting conditions so that we don't have to see them or think about them. These people are often the most vulnerable in our society. Some will have families who will do their best to fight for them, others have no one. Of course there are dedicated caring doctors nurses and care assistants who try to make the best of a bad job, but sadly mental health is not top of anyone's priority list. So I for one am pleased that Nick is taking this up as a campaigning issue. At a time when the government is lauding its new vision for the NHS - that people should be treated with care and dignity - my question is, isn't that what we should have expected anyway for goodness sake?

Boris - Shining with Pride?

Last night I went with Yas to the Pride reception at City Hall. It was a lovely evening with good company, just a pity about Boris really. Now he clearly plays on his bumbling image, but frankly there are times when I think it is plain ignorant and disrespectful - last night was one of them. Friends of mine who attended the LGBT Mayoral hustings told me that he had apparently said something like "yes.....L...G...B....T er yes that's right isn't it? Er yes I'm all in favour of it!" Now he has had a little time since then to become a tad more well informed. Last night demonstrated that he hadn't, it was cringemakingly awful, patronising and frankly insulting to the extent that he even engendered some booing. There was no evidence that he had really prepared for the event (know your audience), especially when he started talking about the Pink List, then kept asking the signer next to him if it was the Pink List, if that what it was called etc. Apparently David Cameron thinks he will "shine" on Saturday, hmmmm, we will see!

Good to see Simon Hughes flying the Lib Dem flag, though he was clever enough to arrive after Boris had left!