Paxman scares Brown and Cameron – but not our Nick Clegg!

Just read the Guardian piece on how both Gordon Brown and David Cameron have failed to respond to a Newsnight invitation to be interviewed by Jeremy Paxman. The deadline was today apparently.

Nick Clegg accepted straight off!

So – two of the three men who would be Prime Minister are obviously cowardy cowardy custards! Guess that leaves only one option then!

General election nearly here – at last!

Vince Cable speaking in ParliamentHere’s my latest column for the Ham & High:

The betting is that Gordon Brown will go to the Palace shortly and call the general election – finally! – for May 6.

This election will be different for me in two ways – the first time I’ll be fighting it as an MP seeking re-election and the first time my party will be fighting it with such a high profile and popular Shadow Chancellor as Vince Cable. The national polls repeatedly say that he’s the most popular choice for Chancellor – and that’s what I hear on the doorsteps in Haringey too.

Door knocking never fails to be interesting – because people are infinitely interesting. You couldn’t or shouldn’t be doing this job if you don’t think that. And all politics is local in reality – even when we speak in strange tongues at the Mother of all Parliaments, it’s still about how we are affected in our own lives at home or at work.

Take the woman who told me that she never voted because she didn’t need anything from the state. Her children went to private school; she had a private GP and so on. I had a go. What did she think would happen if she had an emergency accident or illness – or if one of her children needed urgent medical attention? So – having got her attention – I told her about the Labour Government’s health plans with the threatened closure of the Whittington A&E and of our massive fight to stop the closure. When you or your children need emergency medical help – not much use saying that you go privately – you need an ambulance and an A&E that is on your doorstep. You can’t live as if you are in a protected bubble. Yes – money can buy many things, but a society where the super-rich isolate themselves is not only wrong – it creates a divide in society that damages everyone, on both sides of that divide.

We know from detailed research that the most economically successful countries and those with the happiest people are those where the gap between rich and poor is the narrowest.

Yes of course small class sizes in private schools are a fantastic privilege – and the reason that children do well in the private sector – regardless of their innate ability. That’s why the Liberal Democrat ‘pupil premium’ would put £2.5 billion extra into schools, including those in Haringey – letting heads and governors decide how best to spend it to close that advantage the private sector has.

I don’t think this woman will change her children’s schooling even if the state classes were smaller and that is her right – but for parents who could never afford to send their children privately this will make a huge difference. And here in Haringey – it will end Labour’s unfair funding in our schools as our children get £1,300 per head less than pupils in Camden, Islington and Hackney – grossly unfair and equivalent to 1,000 + extra teachers.

And then – I knocked on the door of a woman who told me that she was thinking of giving up working because it wasn’t worth it. She was very poorly paid, could barely make ends meet – and actually thought she would be better off on benefits. So I talked to her about the LibDem manifesto pledge on fair taxes – that no-one would pay any tax on their first £10,000 of earnings (which not only takes the very low paid out of tax but puts £700 back in the average earner’s pocket). Helping people sustain themselves – helps all of us – and putting money back in people’s pockets means they can start spending again – which will help our struggling local high streets.

She said her children were nearing the end of their school and college days – but that there was no work around and she was worried about them having no future. I shared her concerns about young people becoming a lost generation – and the dreadful loss of self worth that comes with believing you have no future.

I explained that we are promising that no young person would stay on JobSeeker’s allowance for more than 90 days. Every young person would then be able to get work experience, training or education education. It is so difficult to get a job without experience – but how can you get experience when no one will give you a job? We will actually pay a ‘training allowance’ so that young people can afford to do internships in their chosen field.

I could go on endlessly – every door has its own story to tell. But time and again, even if at the start of the story it’s nothing about politics, somewhere along the line the decisions we make in Parliament – the laws we pass, the budgets we set – have an impact on the story. That’s why the choice of who represents us is so important.

Gordon Brown's temper

On my last post ‘Gordon, Temper Temper’ a comment came in which I publish below. Having vaguely defended Gordon Brown to the extent of asking in that last post whether the passion of caring makes you a good boss or a bully – this comment continues the dichotomy – as to where truth lies. I remind readers this is a comment posted on a previous blog post.

Jon says:

About 15 years ago, Mr Brown when he was Shadow Chancellor, used to be one on my regular clients, I worked as a telesales operator at a tour operators and he used to regularly fly to Nice (S.France) for whatever reason.

On one occasion he reduced me to tears when I was unable to find a flight for him. He turned up at Heathrow (last minute) and demanded me to get him onto a flight immediately to Nice. When I was unable to do so, due to it being a Friday and flights being completely full, he launched into the most unbelievable tirade of abuse I had ever experienced. This was not controlled anger and I saw first hand the terror he can cause, let me assure anyone he can be very scary – what I experienced was rage fuelled by not getting his own way yet it was not bullying in my opinion as it was an isolated incident – his rage is not malicious, it is passionate rage as I also found him to be warm and courteous prior to this incident and typically Scottish.

So 15 years on and he is my Prime Minister and remember this episode like it was yesterday, apart from nearly losing my job for putting the phone down on him and my language back to him – I was called in to the MDs office but cleared of misconduct due to the nature of his call and the abuse I received.

I always wondered if this was an isolated incident and perhaps I caught him on a bad day – should I have apologised for my language, should he have to me, for the way he spoke?

All things aside I would far rather have a strong personality running the country than a shrinking violet and assume he uses the fear factor as a tool in what must be a fairly stressful job – I am sure that a lot of this story is pre election banter and if it were not this then it would be a n other story.

I also now have the ultimate dinner party story of having told the PM to FO!

Brown's temper, temper

Two things struck me about the allegations about Gordon Brown’s temper, bullying and violence. Firstly – if Rawnsley has written something untrue – why doesn’t Brown sue? Probably too simplistic.

Secondly and perhaps more interestingly is what constitutes bullying? If a ‘boss’ shouts at an employee because they’ve done something wrong – something serious that puts the firm or organisation in jeopardy – is that bullying or is that just the sign of someone who is passionate about their work, firm or reputation?

My mother, who ran a small chain of shops in London’s West End was from the old school. The customer was always right – for a start. She was definitely paternalistic (I know – it needs to be maternalistic really) and when employees erred grievously they would be called into her office. She would lecture them and tell them exactly what she thought of their actions and what would happen if such an occurrence recurred.

She was much loved and respected by her employees, most of whom stayed with the firm all their working lives. Was she a bully – or a good boss?

Leadercide – not so easy

So – another coup bites the dust.

Hoon and Hewitt have egg, no – a whole omelette on their faces. So what happened? I assume that H & H had reason to believe that the six cabinet members named on the news last night had indicated that they would jump if the water looked inviting. Clearly – within an hour of their letter/text to colleagues  – the water was icy and none of them jumped. And not jumping – the lukewarm messages of support for Brown dribbled out in an untimely and limp-wristed way.

So – Brown is damaged. Labour is damaged. H &H are damaged. Well done team Labour!

But, leadercide is not easy. I first arrived in Parliament in May 2005, to a strange atmosphere in our Parliamentary Party. I didn’t really know why, as this was clearly my first experience of a Parliamentary Party, and for all I knew that might have been normal – but it felt bad.

 Of course, now, we all know from what happened that Charles Kennedy was in trouble because of his then drinking problem and there was a need for drastic action which did take place and did result in his resignation. Of course, the difference is huge in that Charles was a great leader, much loved by the Party and the country and the problem was a very human problem. Perhaps this was even more difficult – as it wasn’t his talent or ability that was the issue – and colleagues were rightly very reluctant to hurt him. However, in a situation which in a way was more difficult, actually Ed and everyone recognised that if we were to act we had to act swiftly and all together or not at all.

However, it was my induction into how important it is to know clearly in your own mind what you believe must happen and then act upon it when and if the moment arrives. I remember getting a call from Ed Davey saying that a letter was going to Charles which basically said if he didn’t resign the signatories would all resign their positions – did I want to be a signatory. I was spokesperson for Crime and Policing at the time but not a member then of our Shadow Cabinet.

I remember saying I would have a think and phone him back. I put the phone down – but within a few minutes picked it up again and called Ed back – knowing in my own mind that Charles had to go for the sake of the Party and therefore I would and should be a signatory. As I walked from my kitchen into the my lounge the moving Sky headline on the bottom of the screen said something like ‘and one of the first signatories is Lynne Featherstone’. It terrified the life out of me. I had no concept of the public aspect of the decisions you take – as a new MP.

Anyway – the point of telling this story – is to demonstrate the importance of making a decision in your own mind – so that when the moment comes those who needed to act did so. What seems to have failed so monumentally in the Hoon/Hewitt fiasco is that they were weak in their actions, that none of the cabinet were prepared to actually show leadership and put their heads above the parapet and the timing and the moment was wrong. It’s a real – he who hesitates is lost – scenario.

With no leadership, no defined successor, no specific action to be taken – even the mild and misguided aspiration that this would settle the matter once and for all – was lost.

Leadercide needs real guts ,and right timing. H & H and the cabinet apparently had neither.

So it begins………..

Hi Ho! Hi Ho! It’s off to an election we go – and can’t you just tell from the first salvos from Labour against Cameron and Tories against Brown that it’s going to be an edifying few months.

No doubt we LibDems will be above such things – judging from Nick’s pronouncement this morning (continuing a theme from Conference) that we are different to the other two parties. We are. We definitely are. So – let’s hope we remain different. The last thing this country needs is the same bankrupt politics that has held sway for so long. New hope with each new Government – only to find out within a few years that they fall from grace and were just the same in the end as the one before.

Would we be as good as I believe we would be in Government?

Lockerbie: shades of Alexander Litvinenko

When Alexander Litvinenko was murdered (in Muswell Hill), poisoned – I challenged the Government and then Home Secretary John Reid to pursue his killer without fear nor favour, however close the trail got to the Russian establishment.

That is the promise I got from him – but in the end – and despite taking Mrs Litvinenko for a private meeting with David Miliband in which he also promised to bring this to the European table to put pressure on from that angle – justice has never been done.

And it will never be done – because not only is there definitely fear and favour – but it would seem that real justice will always take second place to trade deals and arms deals, with political expedience coming way above the justice that ordinary folk believe in.

If the Libyan bomber had genuinely been released for genuine compassionate reasons because he was genuinely going to die within three months and we are a compassionate country and there were genuinely no other considerations – then we could argue the genuine debate about whether he should have died in prison or be released.

As it is – we have been duped again. It is quite clear, after all the leaks and all the published papers of correspondence and the contradictory statements (contradicting themselves usually)that Straw and Brown have made, how justice gets treated as an expendable add-on. The size of the tragedy at Lockerbie highlights throws into sharp relief that expendable face of justice.

To be or not to be?

Of course there should be a debate between the main party leaders. It would put them on their metal in front of the nation – where we pick up all kinds of signals (most of which have little to do with policy) and see how they deal with pressure under fire. One of the problems, however, is that the conditions that are put down before someone like the PM will take part will probably sterilise the process – perhaps even to the point of pointlessness – and the ‘dealing with pressure under’ fire is totally minimised. Secondly – the incumbent has the advantage of office and so never really wants to give the others the exposure – let alone give them a chance to outshine them. And – given Gordon Brown’s cowardice quota (as Chancellor he used to let his junior ministers take the difficult questions at Treasury Questions) it is hard to imagine he will grow the balls to get out there and fight.

But as for someone who loves getting out there and fighting the fight – I have a confession, I’m a bit of a fan of Peter Mandelson. I know – you’re not meant to say things like that and no – I don’t agree with his policies etc etc etc. But this guy is clever, clever, clever – and a real operator.

Although I knew that he ditched Brown for Blair in the leadership contest – and therefore was never to be forgiven – I hadn’t really fully appreciated his Machiavellian talents fully. I just hope that he is keeping extensive and honest notes – because if his autobiography tells the truth one day – it will be the most fascinating read ever.

I remember doing the Westminster Hour on a Sunday night the week that Gordon announced his was bringing Mandelson back from Europe, popping him into the Lords and making him Business Minister. I said that I had been completely taken aback by the move because it was brave, clever, shocking and I didn’t think Gordon had the balls to have the vision to take this brilliant strategic move. Retrospectively, I am now sure that it was Mandelson’s proposal – not Brown’s. And of course – you have to pay the piper – which is why Mandelson now sits on all the important Government committees and pulls the strings. Where will his rise and rise end? Will we see him come back to lead the Labour Party post Brown?

Helicopters again!

Gordon Brown in his statement to the Commons on the G8 – which was mostly about Afghanistan – re-iterated the same exact statistics on helicopters that Harriet gave at PMQs. He said that we had increased them 60% in the last two years as well as increasing the flying time capability. Many members referred to the need for helicopters – but the Prime Minister just repeated the mantra again.

I managed to get called myself to ask him what percentage of that 60% increase were helicopters that can transport troops. Once again he re-iterated the figures he had now given a number of times. I can understand he didn’t want to give numbers – but percentages should have been alright.

He went further than Harriet in that he did say that both types of helicopter were in that 60%. What is so difficult though without a proper answer – is to know whether the Government is hiding the fact that so few of the helicopters in that additional 60% could actually carry troops or whether it is a military secret.

Reshuffle thoughts

So – whilst we’re waiting for tonight’s results in the Euros – I pause to wonder how the mighty (and not so mighty) are fallen. I guess Caroline Flint has the most egg on face . To support Brown publicly and then execute a complete volte face to diss him certainly doesn’t help her message re window dressing. And during her stints as Minister for Housing and Europe she hasn’t really registered.

I am surprised, however, that Dawn Primarolo, didn’t get a promotion – as she has impressed me. She was particularly good at steering through the Embryology Bill – which was hardly the easiest of gigs – but which she did successfully, authoritively and well.

Looking at Gordon Brown’s record from the outside – and his behaviour and attitude to women – Caroline Flint probably has a point in that the Prime Minister always seems uncomfortable with the women in the Cabinet. The shame is that the accusation came from such a flawed quarter. He clearly damned and dumped Blears. He was underwhelmed by Flint. He failed to support Jacqui Smith. Conversely – he has protected Darling, Hoone, Purnell – although with hindsight he might have not bothered.

Harriet Harman has handled herself and the situation pretty well over recent weeks – and as she actually is the only person with a mandate (albeit not loved by her brethren – and I do mean brethen) maybe she could push further forward. Round and round she goes – where she stops nobody knows…