Sunday, August 16, 2009

Esther Rantzen's first major political speech - exclusive

Today, despite suffering my latest babysitting injury (who babysits the babysitters I ask?) I hobbled on my crutches down to Love Luton Hate Racism in St Georges' Square. Blessed with glorious weather, the point of the refurbishment of the square (courtesy of the former Lib Dem administration it has to be said) was clear. A fantastic community space in the middle of town useful in order to cock a snoop at the racists who have tried to hijack our town for their own nefarious ends.

A great turn out, a fabulous atmosphere and a succession of excellent music. I was honoured to have asked to have contributed my 2 pennyworth - and included my granddaughter Sumaiyah (alongside crutches, or crunchies as she calls them) to demonstrate what "British" looked like now. We had been asked not to use the opportunity to slag off the BNP (very hard!) others found it harder than me, though I did my best to avoid the temptation.

About an hour after my spot, the moment we had all been waiting for, the celebrity we had all been promised, the woman who would not only take Luton by storm, but more importantly, the Palace of Varieties itself..............Esther Rantzen. We spotted her early, resplendent in red and white spots - heading diplomatically for the Love Luton Hate Racism stall - this woman is a consumate professional! Deftly she changed into a bright red Love Luton Hate Racism T Shirt, outclassed only by the large floppy, I'm a celebrityesque, red hat - wow - she knows how to work a crowd. With pomp and not a little ceremony she was introduced as an I'm a celebrity star - my pal quipped "I'm not a celebrity - how do I get out?" The atmosphere was electric - her first official political engagement - would she use the opportunity to declare her abhorrence of fascism? Would she join us in celebrating the vibrant cultural diversity that is Luton? Would she tell us what she would do for us hapless constituents were she to be elected as our MP - would we see her more than we are seeing the invisible Ms Moran at the moment? Would she tease us by outlining just a few of her political policies? And if forced, would she let us know who she would form an alliance with in a hung parliament?

Errrrrrr.................NO. None of the above. What we got was a 30 second rendition, telling us she loved Luton, she loved the music, we all loved the music, we all loved Luton (I may be doing her an injustice, she may have said she loved Luton again)........not even a whisper about hating racism. My sister in law perceptively observed that it sounded like a drunken rendition of a wedding speech. So that was it. Interestingly enough, I had attended a pre meet last week where there was some debate as to whether or not she should be invited. The consensus was that as a Jewish woman she may have something to say about the rise of fascism in this country.........yeah right :-) However, in her defence I do have to say she wasn't being paid - and - she truly demonstrated the difference between celebrities and politicians - one is all smoke and mirrors and superficial packaging - the other is...........OK point taken! And she did look fantastic, a real encouragement to those of us of a certain age that we should have a good few good years in us yet a while...........

So massive congratulations to all who made this such a fantastic event, very special and I trust the first of many similar. That Luton will be renowned for its diversity, rather than as the racist would prefer, its division, is something I trust this great event will contribute to. And Esther, if you really want to make your mark in the political space - this is somewhere you could truly use your celebrity to positive effect. Join us in promoting unity and defeating racism. Join us in making Luton a beacon of hope and unity in an increasingly polarised society. Join us in challenging the fascists and defeating the despair that gives them oxygen. This is a cross party objective and a cause to which you will be welcomed with open arms!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Bedford's Mayor Branston dies

News reaches me for the second time that Bedford's first directly elected mayor, Frank Branston has died. I say the second time, since I first heard he had died 11 days ago. The news had ironically also made the newspaper he founded, the Beds on Sunday, but was swiftly taken down - something, had he known about it I am sure Frank would have found very amusing! But he didn't recover from a heart operation and now his death will force a byelection in Bedford, probably on 1st October. Last week it was a real shock, when someone is such a larger than life character it is hard to imagine the world without them.

Frank hated the Lib Dems almost obsessionally, and yet following our becoming the largest group in May, he was obliged to include Lib Dems in his cabinet. But for some reason, I always had a good relationship with him. When he was first elected mayor he asked me to join his cabinet, even promising to create a special youth portfolio for me. For someone who was passionate about making a difference to the lives of young people in Bedford, this was hugely tempting, but of course I would have had to resign as a Lib Dem. Frank was shocked when I said that I would have then to resign and recontest my seat - but I can hardly shout the odds about others not doing so and not doing so myself.

Frank was a non practising Jew, but took an interest in Israel Palestine and attended meetings we arranged through Elijah Trust with Elias Chacour and others. He shared our concern about the situation and privately donated to one of our partner groups as well as supporting other similar charities. He also wrote an unpublished novel, "Millenium Man" about an apocalyptic plot to precipitate Armageddon, in the 80s which he lent me - It was excellent and still incredibly topical - having had other novels published I couldn't understand why he hadn't published this one too.

I always enjoyed the banter with Frank. A couple of years ago I discovered that he had been responsible for a piece about me in Beds on Sunday describing me as "cuddly Councillor Jack". I vowed to get revenge and was able to do so twice. Firstly during a heated budget debate when things had turned quite nasty I started by describing him as a round brown bear of a mayor - certainly turned the temperature down; later, in the run up to the last mayoral elections in 2007, I referred to him as now being a polar bear mayor, an endangered species, likely to be extinct after the next election - a comment which was also picked up by BOS resulted in this amusing pic.

There is no doubt that Frank was an imposing character, often difficult and sometimes downright rude, but underneath all that was a man who I have seen show genuine compassion, who could be very funny, who was an impressive writer and was also very much a family man. My heart goes out to his wife Marlies and his daughters.

Tomorrow we must begin the campaign for a Lib Dem Mayor in Bedford, today is time to remember a man few of us will ever be able to forget!