Lib Dem leadership

Watch the rolling news as it turns into Sunday’s political programs. Anxiously watching as to the media handling of Mark Oaten’s fall from grace. My boy Chris is on Andrew Marr and does really well – and inevitably the Mark Oaten issue is first on the list of questions. What can you say? Except what Chris said – that the guy has apologised to his wife, apologised to his constituents and to the party.

I don’t know why he took such terrible risks. An affair – with a man or a woman – is no longer the end of the political road. But the three-in-a-bed with a rent boy combined with the shots of his leadership campaign launch showing him, his wife and their two children was a truly bad move. I just hope he gets the time and privacy he needs to put it back together for the sake of his family. The party will survive fine – but his home life is what matters now.

I phoned round some more key people in London for Chris Huhne’s leadership campaign. Everyone was wondering what next? Hopefully – policy ideas. Still finding a real hunger from people to know about Chris. My own view is that playing safe as a third party is a hiding to nothing and that with Chris we will have the best chance to move on to the next stage. Well – I would say that – wouldn’t I?

Toleration levels

Surgery all morning dealing with constituents’ problems followed by a home visit to a disabled gentleman who wanted me to pop round. I stayed about three quarters of an hour. Last appointment was to go over to the offices of the Howard League for Penal Reform.

As prison spokesperson – this was really interesting. There is a natural alliance between our position and the work they do. The Director said something really interesting during our long discussion. She said that we need to tolerate as a society. What she was referring to was the sort of zero-tolerance environment that was being created by the political battle between Labour and Tory as to who could be tougher on young people and the causes of young people. I think what she was saying was that we need to learn to tolerate a bit of noise, a bit of dirt – a bit of life. And that the pendulum was swinging (swingeing even) too far towards the punitive.

A lot of sense there. However, I said to her, that the other side of that coin was that in my view care in the community wasn’t working. And it’s the police and the prisons who bear the brunt of that.

So – I am thinking about tolerance levels. What should we tolerate? Weighty stuff for a Friday afternoon!

Finish day rounding up the info from the Huhne leadership campaign. All seems to be going incredibly well. Momentum is with us. More and more councillors, peers and supporters are climbing on board;. The funding limit of £35,000 for the campaign is already promised. We expect more MPs to come on board. And of course, Mark Oaten withdrew from the race yesterday – and the betting odds have now shortened on Chris to 5-1. So – all to play for!

Meeting Ken Livingstone again

Ring Peter Hendy to congratulate him. He has been chosen as the one (out of the two applying) for the job as Transport Commissioner for London, taking over from wiley Kiley. Peter was bus supremo – and we have argued across the transport spectrum for years now. And I still want a full time service on the hard fought for 603! What I always really like about Peter is his hands-on approach.

Whenever I put out a press release that he didn’t like – be it about the ‘free’ bendy buses or the ‘bursting into flames’ bendy buses – or whatever – he would phone me on my mobile and give me hell. Despite our opposite positions – we always got on well and I think he will be a great Commissioner. Look forward to seeing his negotiating style with the government. And – on the occasions when he was wrong – eventually he would admit I was right.

My favourite was over AVL – the system of countdown which tells passenger when the bus will be along and is plotted on a computer. Terrible system – never worked properly. I always told Peter that it was pointless finishing implementing an outmoded useless system across the rest of London (it was half in). Have to say – gave me great pleasure the day he told me I had been right all along. Anyway – he is a good thing and I hope to see London improve under his stewardship.

Sonia from the LSE is shadowing me today as part of ‘LSE Women in Westminster’. She and Mette, my researcher, come to Home Affairs Team meeting. We always run through all the Home Affairs Bills with each of the team responsible for that Bill – both Lords and Commons. Mark Oaten (Shadow Home Secretary) heads the team. Updates on Religious Hatred Bill – coming back for another row I think to the Commons soon; ID cards in trouble for the Government – as may be the Terror Laws soon. The Government seem to be having a go at getting back to 60 days on detention without charge. I trust the Lords will stick to the 28 we conceded in the Commons.

Rush off to Prime Ministers’ Questions (PMQs) next. Will Ming pass the test? Well – his question was on the Soham murders – so the House fell silent. And he was absolutely fine – not that in my view PMQs should have any sway. It’s just a blood sport. I do wonder why jeering, leering and making rude gestures is rated so highly by the boys and the media!

I race to City Hall for a London Day event with my old sparring partner – Ken Livingstone. He gives me a double peck on the cheek and I observe that he is clearly missing me since I left. He denies this assertion and tells me what a terrible thing we have done to that nice Charles. And what’s wrong with a drink anyway? Well – this from the man who claims to get bored at parties and only drank three glasses of chardonnay! Hey, Ho.

The lunch was fine – and then Ken orated. He is a good speaker – something to do with nasal tones and trying to shock. I learned a lot from Ken during my five years as an Assembly Member (only the good bits) so have a lot to thank him for in as much as I learned to keep in mind when I speak the audience outside the room as well as those present. And to be direct!

Ken wittered on for some time about water and desalination – but his surprise announcement was his endorsement of Simon Hughes as LibDem leader. Not sure if that’s the kiss of death for Simon!

First Lib Dem leadership hustings

The Liberal Democrats have a conference titled ‘Meeting the Challenge’ which was always scheduled for today. It was to find the party’s ‘narrative’ following a general election where we did really well – but perhaps didn’t reach the hoped for heights. One of the reasons seemed to be that while our individual policies, such as free care for the elderly, our stance on Iraq, scrapping Council Tax in favour of local income tax and ending top up fees were very popular, overall people didn’t automatically know what Lib Dem meant.

Of course, events of the last few weeks meant that the environment in which this conference found itself was somewhat changed and the ‘challenge’ has become all the more pointed.

So – four candidates in the ring so far. The man who many people initially thought would almost certainly take over and who started as favourite – Sir Menzies Campbell; Simon Hughes (Party President), who has replaced Ming as the bookies’ favourite; Mark Oaten, Lib Dem Shadow Home Secretary (and my boss in the Home Affairs Team); and my boy – Chris Huhne, who started as a rank outsider at 300-1 with odds now closing at 7-1.

I am supporting Chris because it’s not the office of leader he is interested in for its own sake. He wants to get the Lib Dems into power. And he knows what he wants to do with that power and where he wants to take the party. For me – I am looking at who can take the fight to Gordon Brown and beat him on his own territory. Chris can do it. I want to know that the man (and sadly there are no women standing) who wins this contest could handle running the country and the fight to get to that position.

And, he answered the big questions for me. One of them is the question the media keep on putting to us (and so we have to have an answer to) about whether the party should go left or right. The stock answer we give in our party to this – is ‘neither left nor right but straight on’ – or equivalent such phrases. Chris answered the question as how a party of conscience and reform progresses into the next era. It’s really about using taxation to discourage behaviour which damages our environment, whilst using the money raised that way to take those who are poorest out of taxation all together. So – overall, no increase in taxation, but a fairer society and a better environment for all. Redistribution and responsible consumption in one – that’s the combination that is both liberal and effective. That’s the unique combination that Liberal Democrats need now.

So the hustings began. Ming had the misfortune of a ropey microphone for the first few minutes – but overcame the technical difficulties and delivered a really excellent speech – particularly the second half and the parts on our internationalist commitment. Simon Hughes gave a really good speech too. He rings the buzzers for the party faithful with his challenge to inequalities in society. At the same time, Simon ditched the party’s commitment to a 50p rate on earnings over £100,000. Mark Oaten gave a really vigorous and energetic speech about moving us into the 21st century.

And of course Chris. I thought the boy did brilliant. He was confident, competent and credible. What I really liked (as did others judging from the vox pops afterwards where activists who hadn’t really known much about him were so impressed – plus the verdict on Radio 4’s PM program that it was Chris who made converts) was that he started with the real challenges we face in the world – globalisation and global warming – and quite frankly, unless we ‘meet the challenge’ of the world as it is – we won’t be addressing the real issues facing us. And he delivered ideas. The others all said that we need new ideas – Chris actually gave some. The most radical and challenging is the beginning of the switch away from personal taxation to eco-taxes – a tax system that really is based on responsible consumption and the use of this tax to redistribute to those at the bottom of the income scale to take them out of tax.

You can see his speech in full on the Chris Huhne campaign website (or watch it on the BBC’s website – RealPlayer or Windows Media Player required) but two other key issues he raised for me were firstly – a head-on personal commitment from him as leader to use his personal influence to ensure that we ethnic minority MPs elected at the next General Election. And whilst he is pleased that we have such a talented influx of new women MPs (I blush) we need more. No one else put this at the top of their agenda.

The other key issue he raised was the organisation of the party machine. Chris showed understanding that we need to have a fearsome campaigning machine – which means tools and money for the Campaigns Department – to compete in this ferocious world of political contest.

So – needless to say – he ticked my boxes!

More leadership and drugs on the street

It was back to Parliament on Monday! Of course – the whole place is a tinderbox of gossip. My own colleagues taking comfort from being back together again – and Labour and Tory colleagues privately very sympathetic on the whole about the hideous situation that everyone has been dealing with. The House of Commons is surprisingly kind in many ways when there is real tragedy. Not replicated on the floor of the chamber, however, whenever a LibDem spoke at Work and Pensions questions. Cat calls and jeers – so much for the ‘new’ politics.

I do one radio interview, for the World at One. It doesn’t air Monday for reasons I don’t understand, though goes out Tuesday instead. Needless to say – out of the questions up on my blog to potential candidates – the one the World at One focuses in on – is the one about what part each candidate played in the Kennedy downfall and what they had done during the previous five years to tackle the problem? I thought I was pretty balanced – as there are two key angles: was it bungled plotting, or was Charles impossible to deal with?

I have various phone calls and meetings with would-be candidates or potential but non-declared candidates and so on and then rush back to Hornsey & Wood Green for a meeting with the Chief Exec of Jacksons Lane Community Centre. The building needs major repairs and renovations due to nothing much being done on maintenance over the years (as I understand it Haringey Council are the landlord). So – in essence – it’s about how to get the work done and funded.

Following that I rush to Haringey Civic Center for a full council meeting and then I rush back to Parliament for a vote at 10pm. Following close of play – talk to more MPs and then get home after midnight.

Which is unfortunate – as I have to be up around 5am to study my brief as the Prime Minister is launching his Respect Action Plan in the morning and I have to cover all the media bids because Mark Oaten is going to announce his candidacy.

So, this morning (Tuesday) it was up at crack of dawn. Media bids from BBC, News 24 and Sky – and various radio. So head straight for Millbank. Tony Blair always seems so enthusiastic when he launches new projects or initiatives – which is a real art when so much of what gets announced is just recycled and repackaged!

It is definitely right to tackle the falling standard of behaviour, but – as ever – Labour’s good intentions boil down to more summary justice – a sort of ‘move ’em out’ attitude. The problem with ASBOs and Banning Orders and Dispersal Zones etc is they don’t do enough to actually change behaviour.

Just in the middle of all the interviews I get a call from Ed at my constituency office. He says I have to come home immediately because my next-door neighbour but one’s builders have found two black binbags in the road outside my house filled with cannabis!

We’ve had a number of strange things left outside my little drive – but never anything this extraordinary. Funnily enough I had noticed the bags last night when I came home but assumed they were just dumped rubbish and this morning reversing out of my drive I had run over one of them.

Anyway – first, I ask my daughter (who is at home) and Ed to check this out as far as they can – and then ring the police. Ed rings me later to say that he went up to my house, rang the police who came (three cars apparently!) and who confirmed it was indeed cannabis leaves. Apparently the male part of the plant. (I confess to not knowing there were gender bits). And they took the bags away. End of episode!

Back to anti-social behaviour. I recently had to submit a piece to the HeadsUp ASBO Forum as I had not been able to attend in person which touches, albeit very briefly, on the issues around anti-social behaviour.

The only really new bit is the idea of a parenting academy. It’s not a college for parents to attend – it’s a college where social workers etc can get special training to work with parents who need support and skills. I am all for real support as societal breakdown is seemingly having a knock-on effect and creating an ‘anything goes’ and ‘no one cares’ society.

I remain convinced that the answer is sustained interest and attention on the child with lots of alternative occupations to keep them busy and aspirations and pathways to enable real behaviour change. Labour’s problem is all headlines – but little follow through. For example, if a kid breaches an ASBO s/he can go to jail – where they will undoubtedly learn more handy criminal tricks to perpetrate on release. Hardly the sort of change of behaviour that is going to bring about respect!

So – I do my stuff and then hurry back to meet a few colleagues about the leadership. Then as I drift through Portcullis House – I am tackled by Mark Oaten’s camp and then Ming goes by and says he will see me at 5pm to answer my questions. So at 5pm I go to his office. What passed between us is confidential – but what I will say is that Ming was very good and very forthright.

Read the day’s letters and sign them, make some more phone calls and then the Whip comes through as unlikely to be any vote tonight. So can head off. Message from Simon Hughes that he will see me to answer my questions tomorrow.

Police restructuring

Christmas is relentlessly approaching – and I’m not ready! Panic.

But not today. Today am on the front bench for the police restructuring debate in Parliament. As I arrive in my office, I find a sweet message from David Cameron on my email, inviting me to join him. Such a nice boy!

I reply thus:

Dear David,
Thank you so much for your very sweet invitation to come and join you and your colleagues. However, I must decline.
I wondered if the invitation is a sign that you are already feeling isolated. If it gets too bad, you can always come and join us.
Merry Christmas

So now we know – all that baloney about new politics – and he is barely out of the starting blocks with a not very clever stunt. No change there.

More importantly – the police debate. The Government wants to merge police forces across the country so that they all average around 4-5,000 police officers – on the basis (they say) that current small forces don’t have the capacity for dealing with serious or organised crime. Now there may be a very good argument for restructuring on the basis of making the specialist resources pooled to serve a wider area than just one force – but wholesale restructuring to the size and distance the Government is talking about is bonkers. Everyone knows that the more local the police force is, the better the intelligence and the policing. To have a Chief Constable (incidentally the Met is not changing) miles and miles away and who has no knowledge of the territory is, as I say, bonkers. And if it isn’t bonkers – then the Government did not put forward any rational arguments to support their proposals. Moreover, the deadline for police forces to put in their views is 23 December and they will have had next to no time for something this momentous.

Mark Oaten was leading for us – as Charles Clarke led for the Government. I ‘covered’ the front bench. The chamber was full of those wishing to make their constituency case – whichever party they were from. Backbench speeches were cut to 10 minutes – and virtually every single speech begged for more time, and asked what benefit would really be delivered from such a merger. None that couldn’t be gotten a better way in my view. However, for reasons I truly do not understand the Government seems determined to railroad this through regardless of common sense or argument and at a punishing pace. And the police are against it – yes, the same police the Government said we had to listen to their advice re 90 days detention or die as a consequence.

Sports facilities for Haringey children

Rush up to New Scotland Yard for meeting with Sir Ian Blair. I accompany our Shadow Home Secretary – Mark Oaten – as I am Police Spokesperson for the Lib Dems and worked with Sir Ian for 5 years on the Metropolitan Police Authority. The meeting was private, not unnaturally, but it wouldn’t be talking out of school to say that it covered the ground you would expect in terms of the terror bill, Sir Ian’s ‘debate’ with the people over the future of policing; the shooting of Mr de Menezes and the proposal to merge police forces. (My latest newspaper column has more on all this).

Then literally dash back to the constituency to go to the opening of the new facilities at the New River Sports Centre. Barclays have put in £600,000 as part of their program for sports spaces right across the country. Although they will undoubtedly get great advertising out of it – you have to be impressed with the re-invented tennis and football and track facilities. I hope we get at least one kid who comes from Haringey through this system and into the Olympics in 2012!

60 kids from Broadwater Primary School are joining us for the cameras and events etc – but their coach has broken down and they are late and having to come on public transport the rest of the way. Luckily the day is gloriously sunny (though cold) and they eventually arrive and the ceremonies begin. I am there, as is Charles Adje, Council Leader, and we obligingly do as we are told for the photo ops. Two Tottenham Hotspurs players (both Michaels) are there as is a chap from GMTV. Celebs or what!

A great day and great hopes for the future.

Then – dash, dash, dash, via my HQ to do signing and reading back up to Westminster for debate, meetings and discussions. We vote at 7 and 10pm on climate change and then home.

90 day detention without trial: what the polls really say

I’d been puzzled by the (numerous!) comments by Labour about how popular their plans to lock people up without trial for 90 days were. My post bag has been pretty 50-50 on the issue – and this is even despite me having gone forth with all sorts of media coverage standing in for our Shadow Home Secretary Mark Oaten – who’s been ill.

I know – you need to take with a pinch of salt what your postbag (real or virtual) tells you as it’s a self-selecting sample. But normally people are much happier to tell you they disagree with you than they agree!

Enlightenment comes with Saturday’s Guardian and a proper poll by a proper company. Not one of The Sun’s phone in polls – but a full opinion poll by ICM.

And the verdict? 18% think 28 days detention without trial is too long; another 28% think 28 days is about right. That makes 46% supporting 28 days or less. So much for overwhelming support for 90 days! It’s only a thin majority in favour of Labour’s position.

So – that makes my post bag make a bit more sense after all! For me, it is a very important point of principle which I’d have stood by and argued my ground on regardless of the polls – but I will admit it’s nice to see evidence that there are rather more people with me and other than Blair and The Sun would have you believe…

(There’s a great piece taking apart The Sun’s claims on Tim Ireland’s blog. And if you’re wondering about the YouGov poll sometimes quoted – well, that presented as fact the police’s claims that they need 3 months to investigate people before charging them. But the whole debate has been about whether or not this is true!)

Problems at the Whittington

Surgery all morning meeting residents who wanted to raise issues – with a pause for a live radio interview right in the middle of it. Our Shadow Home Secretary Mark Oaten was otherwise engaged – so I had to just take it there and then. ASBOs – need I say more. I will. There has been something like an 86% increase this year – and still it doesn’t (according to the radio presenter) stop or deter anti-social behaviour. Shock! Horror! Of course it doesn’t. Banning people from doing anything rarely works in any real or sustained way. Tougher would be to really tackle those youngsters as with Acceptable Behaviour Contracts (pioneered in Liberal Democrat run Islington with the Met) where parents, the young person, teachers, police, local authority, social workers, or whoever is necessary sit down and work out an agreed program – and come back to it – week after week after week. Sustained interest and effective mentoring works – but it is truly tough liberalism.

Then the presenter meanders into the territory of whether policy should support marriage and the nuclear family (probably following on from the Tory leadership debate last night). I say that’s a difficult one! The world has changed – and I don’t know that you can change it back even if the ‘wholeness’ of a two-parent family unit were proven to be ideal. So I opt for the important thing – which is loving and caring for your children whatever the surrounding construct.

Afterwards surgery I make a home visit to an elederly lady who wants to talk to me about people not listening to old people and trying to get rid of them. Her son is there when I arrive – and I sit down and have about an hour’s chat with her. She highlights the recent treatment of herself at the Whittington – and cites the dismissive way in which old people can be treated and worse. I totally agree. I have some terrible tales from the Whittington – and I have been there and met with the Chair and the issues I raise have been batted away on the whole by generally suggesting that the complainant is a difficult person etc.

I will regale you with one tale from my own experience to exemplify what my constituent and I are on about. My daughter was admitted to the Whittington overnight a while back. From A & E she was put in the womens’ geriatric ward as the only place with space. She told me this tale. During the night an old lady in a bed not far away was calling for the nurse for quite a while. The nurse kept walking past and not responding to the woman. Eventually, my daughter got up and went over to the woman to see what was wrong. She wanted to go to the toilet. My daughter went and found a nurse and told her that the old lady in the bed needed to go to the loo. The nurse basically said that the woman was a nuisance, always wanting something and she would just have to wait. The old woman wet herself in the end.

It is a terrible tale – but I have other similar ones. When I have presented them to the Whittington – as I say – they are batted away one way or the other. We are currently waiting for an apology for the way another of my constituents was treated and have been told one will be forthcoming. We will see on that one. I appreciate that nurses do a great job under incredible strain and stress. Nursing care – not the clinical medical side – but the caring, motherly side of nursing – is what is needed as well as the clinical and medical excellence. How to make time for nurses to give that care alongside the tablets is where I want to head. It can only be (or I hope that the reason is) that nurses have no time for any real degree of that side of nursing anymore. And my constituent old lady was voicing just that need, particularly from an older person’s perspective of being treated so poorly. I will continue to work on this issue.

Then back to my constituency office to meet with a foster care expert who is concerned over the gap in the care that is given to those leaving foster care. Government is meant to be funding people to do this job. But the system isn’t working as it should – another one to pursue.

Then last job of the day is my quarterly meeting with the Labour Leader of Haringey Council, Charles Adje. We run through an agenda of local issues and council business and whilst there are no major issues on the table, it is a useful regular meeting – as we are all working for Haringey’s benefit – whatever our political persuasion and whatever our different roles.

Holloway Prison

Off to jail – Holloway Prison!

I hadn’t been to a prison before – so slightly wondering what it will be like. My views were probably coloured by the Green Mile and Jailhouse Rock! Holloway was much more akin to an old National Health Hospital. It’s not built in that galleried style that you see so often in films – with cells with bars onto long galleried corridors.

I spent an hour or so with the Governor – who well impressed me. I think he has embraced the sort of attitude that I have towards crime and punishment and showed a real understanding of the issues around rehabilitation, deprivation, and punishment.

A senior officer took me around the various areas for a couple of hours thereafter. They had just opened a first-night reception centre. When women first arrive – there is not only the shock to deal with – but also the worry of what is happening at home, who is looking after the children etc. This centre is set up so that within 24 hours your caseworker deals with all the people or departments you need around housing, childcare, etc. And then you are taken into the main prison. I also went to the mother and baby unit, the lifers section, the segregation section, the resettlement section and I also met with the ‘listeners’. These are about 6 women prisoners who have been trained by the Samaritans to ‘listen’ to their peers who come to them. Suicide is not rare – and these women know what it is like. They don’t offer advice but are there literally to listen.

Talking to them, they were all training or studying so that when their sentences are spent they can get jobs or continue in university or whatever. I was much taken with what can be done to help people change their lives.

At party conference the other week, Mark Oaten (Lib Dem Shadow Home Secretary) was floating the idea of all 16 year olds having to do a gap month of community service. This isn’t the misbehaving ones – this is all of them. The idea is to give youngsters a sense of service and a sense of doing something good for the benefit of someone else. Not a bad idea I thought. In an argument with Nick Ferrari (LBC) about this area he was saying he didn’t see why his sons should have to go and “paint old lady’s fences”. But as I said to him, even his wonderful sons might learn a thing or two. Lots of people (who can afford to) send their kids to summer camps and that does the same thing to a degree – but not everyone can afford to or chooses to. We’ll see where Mark gets to with that one.

Then dash to Tottenham football ground to give out Community Chest cheques to the HARCEN annual Conference Community Chest Awards. They had been there all day having their conference. Not a bad job. These are awards as part of a Government funded initiative to empower communities and a bit of dosh always helps.

In fact lots of great groups there doing good, small works in the community. However, there were loads and loads of awards. I had thought there would be about three or something – but the administrator came in with a pile of folders and cheques and I must have given out about 30 cheques and folders to the various recipients – and smiled for a photo with each one. I was really surprised when I asked how much the awards were – as I thought they would be about 50 each given how many there were – but she said they were between one and two thousand pounds! Fun it was.