The Sky News poll results are in…

Thanks again to the team over at Sky News at this year. – I come in at number two in their Valentine’s Day ‘Most Fanciable MP’ (and they’ve used a photo that is one of my favourites – not always the case!). Despite the methodology used by Sky – possibly the most unscientific in world history – they have made an old, valentineless woman very happy. What I want to know though – is if I’m so fanciable – where are my suitors?

Sky Press release:

Andy Burnham Voted ‘Most Fanciable MP’

Andy Burnham, Labour MP for Leigh in Greater Manchester and Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Saturday 14 February) is preparing for his letter box to be inundated with romantic cards and gifts this Valentine’s day – after being voted the ‘Most Fanciable MP’ by Sky News’ Boulton & Co blog,

The poll was compiled by Sky News and first time entrant into the list Burnham, has gone straight to the top of the love chart.

Andy Burnham, 39, told Sky News:

“I am very flattered to receive this accolade but if I can win it clearly shows people are not spoilt for choice and that politics really is show-business for ugly people. However, I have to say I am not looking forward to seeing the size of my mother’s phone bill, I just hope Ofcom won’t be launching a vote rigging enquiry.”

Last year’s winner, Conservative MP for Surrey South West, Jeremy Hunt, has dropped off the Top Ten list altogether. The highest ranking female is Lynne Featherstone, Liberal Democrat MP for Hornsey and Wood Green, who comes in second, up three places from last year. Other female entries include Liberal Democrat MP for Falmouth and Cambourne, Julia Goldsworthy, Labour MP for Don Valley and Minister for Europe Caroline Flint and Labour MP for Redditch, Inkberrow, Feckenham and Cookhill. Home Secretary Jacquie Smith also gets a Valentine’s day treat, as a new entry in the chart at number 10. Nick Clegg is the only party leader to make the top 10, with Gordon Brown and David Cameron both absent from the list. The list was compiled by Sky News political producers and correspondents.

Lynne Featherstone is one of only three MPs to survive last year’s list – Julia Goldsworthy has dropped two places to fifth with Nick Clegg remaining in eighth position. Last year there were no cabinet members on the list, this year all five of the Labour MP’s listed are members of the cabinet.

Here is the final list (last year’s rankings in brackets) for ‘Most Fanciable MP’ 2009, which includes five Labour MPs, three Liberal Democrat MPs and two Conservative MPs.

1. (-) Andy Burnham, 39, Labour, Leigh
2. (5) Lynne Featherstone, 57, Lib Dem, Hornsey & Wood Green
3. (-) Adam Afriyie, 43, Conservative, Windsor
4. (-) Ed Vaizey, 40, Conservative, Wantage
5. (3) Julia Goldsworthy, 30, Lib Dem, Falmouth & Camborne
6. (-) Ed Miliband, 39, Labour, Doncaster North
7. (-) Caroline Flint, 47, Labour, Don Valley
8. (8) Nick Clegg, 42, Lib Dem, Sheffield Hallam
9. (-) David Miliband, 43, Labour, South Shields
10. (-) Jacqui Smith, 46, Labour, Redditch

Parliamentary season kicks off again

Back to The Westminster Hour last night – and the gang is all there. They are kicking off for the new Parliamentary season with the three of us – me, Ed Vaizey and Emily Thornberry.

Before that it was a busy day campaigning for Nigel Scott in the Alexandra Ward by-election which takes place on Thursday (Yom Kippur). In fact, I have referred Haringey’s refusal to change to avoid the clash to the Equality and Human Rights Commission as religious Jews are actually forbidden to make a mark during their holy day. Of course – that doesn’t change the date but maybe it will help concentrate Haringey Council’s mind in the future – councils have a choice over which day to pick for by-elections, and that choice should be used with more care and thought.

Sarah Ludford (MEP) took a team in the morning delivering – in the pouring rain! Thanks Sarah.

Much of the political news is still dominated by Peter Mandelson’s return. The Conservatives’ line on it is that ‘Labour must be desperate’. Desperate they may be – but this was a political finesse I really didn’t think Gordon capable of. However – it now looks more and more as if Tony Blair ‘told’ him to go and help. Oh what an ironic twist that one old foe of Gordon’s told him to bring back another old foe to try to save his skin!

Are we getting meaner?

That was one of the issues which came up when I appeared on The Westminster Hour with Conservative MP Ed Vaizey on Sunday night. The trigger for the discussion was last week’s publication of the annual British Social Attitudes survey.

Many of its finding were – to a liberal like myself – welcome: for example, far fewer people now think that homosexuality is wrong (down to around a third from a majority back in 1987), whilst the public service ethos amongst those working to provide the rest of us with public services seems to have strengthened.

But several reports singled out the question of the attitudes of other people towards the poorest in our society: “Hearts are hardening against those who have least” said the Economist, whilst the FT said, “there are signs that attitudes towards state aid for the needy have hardened significantly“.

It was a good thing I’d had a quick rumination over the details before the radio show, because the details seem to me to tell a different story. The key is that these conclusions were drawn from questions such as whether or not the government should spend more on the neediest – and comparing today’s answers with those from 1991, when we were still in the immediate wake of the Thatcher years.

So the change in people’s answers doesn’t really reflect changing attitudes towards those who are poorest per se; rather, it tells us about the difference between the government now and the government, both in policy and in public perception. For all Gordon Brown’s faults, he isn’t Mrs Thatcher – and also the huge splurge in government spending in many public services without matching improvements to show for it means people are, understandably, generally more sceptical about policy solutions which are simply about increasing public spending.

Changing circumstances – changing policy preferences, but without it meaning we’re becoming meaner under all that. Thank goodness!

Fix that term: the case for fixed term Parliaments

A polling stationIt’s 80 minutes into an Arsenal-Tottenham football derby. Tottenham lead 1-0. Arsenal are piling on the pressure. The Tottenham manager shouts at the ref, “OK, that’s it – can we have the final score now please?” The ref agrees, all the players troop off the pitch 10 minutes early and Tottenham get the three points.

Sounds absurd doesn’t it (and I don’t just mean the idea of Tottenham beating Arsenal!)?

But that’s what passes for normal in the world of Palace of Westminster politics when it comes to general election dates. The Prime Minister – and the Prime Minister alone – gets to choose the date. Now – in theory Parliaments last for five years and the monarch has to agree to any earlier election, but in practice – the PM always gets his or her way – and they shouldn’t.

Which is why, even though the immediate fuss after Gordon Brown’s general election that wasn’t has died down, I’ve returned to the topic in my latest magazine article – which you can now read on my website.

It mentions – which is a cross-party campaign on this very topic, including the likes of bloggers Iain Dale (Conservative), Stephen Tall (Lib Dem) and Sunny Hundal (of Liberal Conspiracy), MPs Ed Vaizey (Conservative – and my frequent sparing partner on The Westminster Hour) and former Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell, and journalists including Benedict Brogan of the Daily Mail. If you agree with me on the issue – do go and sign up to support it. And if you don’t – read my article, and perhaps you’ll be persuaded!

Iraqi interpreters

In the evening I sponsor a meeting in Parliament for the campaign to treat properly Iraqis who work for the Brits during our war there.

Dan Hardie, whose blog pushed this campaign to the fore, had brought together Mark Brockway (who was in Iraq with the army and employed interpreters), Andrew (who worked on the economic infrastructure), Richard Beeston of The Times (which has given the issue much impressive coverage – except for one blip in one piece which ignored the massive contribution people like Dan have made to the campaign) and three MPs: me, Ed Vaizey and Chris Bryant.

Mark and Andrew both gave eye witness accounts of what is going on in Iraq and how those who helped us by translating or other service now are being hunted down and killed. It was graphic, appalling and compelling.

These horrors made the mealy-mouthed, half-arsed announcement by G Brown yesterday to allow those who worked for us for more than 12 months some financial (very low) package to resettle and under agreed circumstances admittance to the UK look completely inadequate.

To me, I longed for Gordon just to say what needed to be said – we have a moral responsibility towards you and you are welcome in our country. That’s what Denmark did. In fact Denmark recognising the danger in which their employees now were – flew them and their families out.

Anyway – the key issues that came up for pursuit are: the need for our military to provide proper contracts with those who work for us, proper record keeping, inclusion of family members, removal of barriers for Iraqis needing to come here (currently they cannot get visas in Iraq but have to leave and go to Jordan before they can even apply), an immediate statement from the Government to our Iraqi employees which gives them the information and instruction as to what to do to access what was in the package, a website for them to get in touch (many are in hiding), and of course – the extension of the package to all those who worked for us – not just those who did twelve months. As Mark pointed out – many of the work periods co-incided with troop turn of duty – which was often six months! I have tabled an EDM to this effect. (An EDM – Early Day Motion – is a sort of Parliamentary petition – so please lobby your MP to sign it if you’re not one of my constituents).

Tomorrow, have discovered I am No 8 on the Order Paper for Prime Minister’s Questions – so hope we get that far down the list.

One sure way to tell if Cameron means what he says

So – David Cameron’s been all over the media criticising Gordon Brown over general election dates. But whilst he’s happy to criticise Gordon Brown for what he did (and didn’t!) do, he’s dodged one question: would he behave the same way himself if he were the Prime Minister? In other words – is Cameron really sincere in what he is saying, or just going for the cheap points?

Well – his bluff, if that it is, is about to be called! As Ming Campbell announced in a TV interview today, the Liberal Democrats will be tabling a bill calling for fixed-term Parliaments tomorrow (the first day Parliament returns). We will see whether or not a certain Mr D Cameron is at the front of the queue to support the bill, or if he really secretly thinks, “actually, I’d quite like to abuse our electoral process myself too”. Over to you David!

Appearing on Radio 4's The Westminster Hour with Carolyn QuinnI might also have a bit of fun teasing Ed Vaizey, my new Facebook friend (!), when we appear together on The Westminster Hour this evening on this!

The show is starting up its regular MP panel again, so expect to hear me on a fair few Sunday evenings between now and the end of the year. It’s on Radio 4, 10pm – or if you miss the show you can listen again on their website.

Iraqi interpreters: 9th October meeting

The campaign over asylum for Iraqi interpreters who worked for the British armed forces and who are now in fear of their lives has organised a cross-party meeting in Parliament for 9th October – backed by Amnesty International, The Refugee Council and others.

I’ll be speaking, along with Conservative MP Ed Vaizey (a regular jousting partner on Radio 4’s Westminster Hour!) and a so-far unnamed senior Labour MP. Will be interesting to see who pops their head above the parapet from the Labour side on this!

There is some good lobbying advice over on Dan Hardie‘s blog (though I would very much echo his point that personal letters have MUCH more impact on the receiving MPs than messages which are simple copying and pasting of a standard message), and the Liberal Democrats’ petition is here.

Ed Vaizey's dress sense

Just got back from the Westminster Hour. Ed Vaizey (Conservative MP), now clearly desperate to put me off my stride on our weekly Sunday tryst, has taken to wearing strange outfits. Tonight’s little number was a bright yellow phosphorescent jacket and shorts. That boy will try anything! So if I seemed distracted … perhaps next time I should bring a camera!

First up was the Opposition Day motion on an Iraq enquiry coming up this week in Parliament. The Scot Nats had a debate asking for an enquiry not that long ago – and whilst we Lib Dems voted for an inquiry – the Government (just) won the vote.

This time however, the interesting issue for me is the timing. With Gordon about to ascend the throne – if I was he and trying to put a bit of distance between myself and TB – I might very well in my first hundred days announce an Iraq inquiry. So let’s spoil it for Gordy and vote for one before he gets the chance to spin his involvement in taking us to war.

In fact, listening to a package before I went on tonight, several of the would be deputy leaders of the Labour party were – at one of their hustings in Oxford that the Westminster Hour’s Carolyn Quinn had been to – wringing their hands in grief over how misled they had been over the war (even though most were in the cabinet) and how wrong the intelligence must have been. Spare me the tears. We, the Lib Dems, were the only party asking the hard questions and we were reviled in the House for our stance. Those Labour MPs can’t get away with saying “we were misled”. The truth is – they not only failed to answer the right questions, they reviled those who did ask questions.

And those Tories are being very cheeky (if not somewhat opportunistic) having a debate for an Iraq inquiry as they were very much cheerleaders for the war (though boy David has flipped and flopped back and forth on the issue – saying he was for it, then saying he agreed with the Lib Dems, then changing his mind again, and now – I presume! – will be voting for an inquiry).

Anyway – we also had a chat about my colleague Tom Brake’s 10 minute rule bill on Freedom of Information – coming up on Tuesday. It really extends the original powers to request material under the Freedom of Information Act so that when the Government tries shenanigans to avoid giving up information the ultimate decision will be in the hands of the Information Tribunal or Commissioner – and not in the hands of ministers.

Interestingly, the Bill would also bring private contractors who work for public bodies into the realm of FoI. Quite right! Now virtually everything is outsourced – the companies to whom previously public sector contracts are now awarded should be subject to proper scrutiny and come under the FoI banner.

Will the pensions crisis cost Gordon Brown his next job?

Westminster Hour and Mark d’Arcy was holding the fort for Carolyn Quinn. Ed Vaizey was my co-panellist. Gordon Brown and the pension scandal, Iran and various green bits were the key issues of debate.

The sky is darkening over Gordon Brown – and it’s a race as to whether he gets to the Prime Minister finishing line before being engulfed by bad opinion polls and damaging issues – such as this pension scandal. And Labour are doing themselves no favours with the usual New Labour spin: in this case deliberately timing the release of pension papers under a Freedom of Information request from The Times (well done The Times) on the Friday night of the parliamentary recess. Sneaky, disgusting, planned – and it won’t help him.

We will return to Parliament and Gordon Brown will have to face the music – which is not something often seen as most Treasury Question time he puts his minions out front and sits with head below parapet.

The damage to individual pensioners, the pensions industry as a whole and the damage to trust in politicians (if it can go any lower) is immense. But ultimately it may be damage to Gordon that is irreversible. We will see how things panned out. But he cannot say he wasn’t warned. The point is – he needed the money and clearly he didn’t really care about the consequences. That is sooooooo New Labour – live today and let someone else pay tomorrow!

The Westminster Hour

It is so weird to go out at 9.30pm on a Sunday night to do a live panel discussion. That’s the time of the week when I am normally just relaxing before the onslaught of the week ahead, making sure everything is done and ready.

But last night (Sunday) was the first of the new era of The Westminster Hour with its new presenter Carolyn Quinn. One of the innovations is a live slot with a panel of MPs – myself, Kitty Usher (Labour) and Ed Vaizey (Tory). Some weeks will be the three of us together but more often it will be two of the three in any combination for a chat about what’s coming up in the week ahead, any particular issues of interest to us individually – and as Ed and I are consummate bloggers – what the blogs are saying.

So off I went to Millbank for a 10.15 start. Kitty had been all over the papers as one of those on the Government payroll who was campaigning against closure of health facilities locally while being one of those voting for the cuts on the government whip in the House of Commons. I thought she had a pretty good stab at defending herself.

To my mind, the big problem isn’t whether Labour MPs are being consistent or not, but that MPs from all parties are raising concerns – and Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt isn’t listening. In Hornsey & Wood Green (as I said on air) the local council’s Overview & Scrutiny Committee wrote, as did I, to Patricia – and the reply they got was from the equivalent of the Customer Service department in BT or the Royal Mail. Thank you for your letter – but… Being fobbed off with such a junior reply is hardly the Health Secretary listening.

What makes the fob off more galling is that Patricia Hewitt told Parliament that the correct procedure is indeed for council’s Overview & Scrutiny Committees to write to her and she will use her discretion to intervene and takes this most seriously. Not what happened in Haringey’s case!

Then we had a bash at the Home Office – well it’s an open door on a day when the Government is on the run from yet more scandalous incompetence. If the Government stopped trying to make a new law every day (3,000 new offences since 1997), then their staff might have a chance to get on top of their jobs. But the Government just loves headlines that say: we are going to be active – we are doing things. Just as when John Reid said he would work f***ing 18 hours a day to get it sorted – it makes for good headlines, but the results are rather different!