This morning I got a phone call from Ming – promoting me to the shadow cabinet as International Development spokeswoman. A nice early Christmas present! It’ll be a bit of a wrench leaving home affairs, as being number two in the team there has been a great job, but I’m looking forward to the challenges of the new job – especially as in these inter-connected days, what happens overseas so often ends up having an impact back home.
Co-presented Iain Dale’s Review of the Year on internet TV – 18 Doughty Street. It was, in the end, mostly about international affairs – which given my promotion earlier in the day was quite appropriate. My new job will place me in the International Affairs Team with Foreign Affairs and Defence. The discussion ranged over Iraq, Israel and Lebanon etc – and I think I went too far in terms of being non-partisan, as in fact it was Iain who raised the Lib Dem noble position on the Iraq war. Though perhaps it’s an interesting and possibly new approach for politicians: if you don’t state the bleeding obvious – others feel obliged to do it for you? So – I found the panel (Peter Riddell, Keith Simpson and Danny Finkelstein) all acknowledging the Liberal Democrat moral (and right) position against the war in Iraq. We ranged over Gordon, Dave, Tony and Ming – and then amazingly an hour and a half had passed.
The highlight today – outside of my work itself – was the Parliamentary Carol Service held in St Mary’s Church, Westminster Abbey. I didn’t go last year – but this year I decided to attend (with one of my daughters) as there are just some things that you want to experience and one day when I am not an MP again (it comes to us all) I won’t have the chance.
I do not follow any faith – but like many others, enjoy much of the celebratory traditions of Christmas (tree, food, sherry and presents) and carols and carol services. Even if you don’t follow a faith – you can recognise that there is something compelling about worship, ceremony and commitment.
Anyway – the choir was beautiful. I love the sopranos when they soar out above all the other voices. The lessons were read by a rainbow coalition of Ming Campbell, David Cameron and Hilary Armstrong. The charity being supported was Westminster Medical Research to buy a particular rare and expensive piece of equipment. By a strange stroke of co-incidence and without going into personal detail – the very piece of equipment that my daughter had needed some years earlier. Strange – hey?
Get a text from the Whip’s Office that there will be an Urgent Question in Parliament from the Conservatives. The Urgent Question is to ask the Home Secretary, John Reid, to make a statement on the death of Alexander Litvinenko.
Basically he just runs through the timetable of events – not really adding anything new. I manage to get called to pose a follow-up question on the lines of:
Mr Litvinenko was my constituent. He was a British Citizen. Can the Home Secretary give me assurances that his death will be investigated without fear nor favour regardless of the diplomatic sensitivities of Russia and that the findings of that investigation will be full, fair and frank?
John Reid was pretty straight in his reply – and basically said that the police would do their job without interference.
As I said in an interview with BBC 24 afterwards, the main points as I see them are: a straight police investigation without interference; that there are questions that still need to be answered as to whether Mr Litvinenko brought his fears to the police before the 1st November; whether other Russian dissidents are concerned and whether they have been contacted in regard to this; have others contacted the police at any time about being followed by secret services and of course – from the public point of view – until the few people who have been asked to take more medical tests get the all clear – there is a residue of concern about contamination around the places where the radioactive material was found.
As Ming Campbell has said, we must not rush to judgement. However, as Ming also pointed out, if it should end up with Russia’s fingerprints on this – then a country which wants a seat at the top table cannot be associated with state terrorism.
On Wednesday several pensioners from Hornsey & Wood Green came to see me and lobby me as part of the Pensioners’ Lobby. Their very passionate argument is that the Government’s promise to link pensions with earnings which is promised for 2012 will see many of them dead – i.e. it doesn’t help those who are in poverty right now. So I will be tabling some questions to Gordon Brown. Moreover – the one-off payment of £200 to pensioners by him just before the last General Election has not been forthcoming again (surprise) and yet pensioners are expected on their tiny fixed incomes to cope with the rises that will come in April on Council Tax and the Mayor’s precept for the Olympics.
Then I had to accompany Ming to a meeting with Sir Ian Blair (Met Police Commissioner). The meeting was private – so sadly can’t reveal all – but I myself did raise the issues (which are not confidential) over the future of police properties in London – there is a big review of their use of property, the location of police stations etc. Our local Commander, Simon O’Brien, has promised he will consult – but in his most recent email to me said he need to get so far (including identifying the actual premises) so that he had something to consult on.
The other issue was my question to Sir Ian a while back off of one of my written parliamentary questions about the disproportionately high numbers of black and ethnic minority people being arrested by the police. Amongst those arrested but not then charged or cautioned, people from the black and ethnic minority communities make up 60% of the total – hugely more than their share of the population. 28% of London’s population are from those communities, but they make up 60% of people arrested but not cautioned or charged. In other words – an innocent black man is much more likely to be arrested than an innocent white man. Sir Ian will get back to me.
PMQs – same old, same old. Bear pit behaviour – no score draw between Blair and Cameron – but Ming was really on form. It was on Iraq – and of course this is home territory for Ming and where he is at his best. Still – despite the barrage of suggestions that our military presence might be part of the problem rather than the solution – Blair is only conceding that ‘of course they want to bring the troops home as early as possible – but not until the job is done’. When is ‘done’?
The debate today is the second day of Modernising Company Law Bill and I sat in to listen to the part that I have had most correspondence from local constituents on – that is the section about regulation and audit for companies with regard to their ethical behaviour in purchase, behaviour and sales.
The Labour Government dropped some rules in this regard a little while back – and the amendments today are to try and introduce a wider remit for what is now called Business Review – a requirement to report on a variety of ethical behaviour issues.
The amendments widened that remit to include reporting and revealing things like the supply chain – for who a company buys from is just as important in terms of how ethical or not that company is as its own direct behaviour.
Sadly, the so-called Labour rebels withdrew their amendment on this before the vote. Our amendment was on bringing a formal audit to the Business Review – alone in the lobbies with the moral high ground as usual – we lost the vote. The debate continues.
Big lobby on Parliament today by the sub post office masters with the largest petition ever presented – something like four million. Not surprised – as per my entry on Monday it was down to the Lib Dems to bring a debate on the Post Office to the floor of the House of Commons as the Government won’t even give it debating time – let alone save the sub-post offices that remain after decimation under both Labour and Tory governments.
I’ve got a piece on Liberal Review this morning about my experience trying out webcasting:
I’ve been a webcast guinea pig!
I was one of a trio of people who tried out doing a daily video diary / webcast / online film / call it what you will from the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton this year. The other two were our leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, and my friend Duncan Brack – who chairs the conference committee. We were also joined on various days by a few “special guests”, such as Paddy Ashdown who did one broadcast himself too. (Given Paddy’s well-known fondness for hi-tech gadgetry and his background, I was a bit disappointed to find he didn’t go round with his own live web-casting camera sown into a buttonhole!).
You can read the full piece here.
Ming’s speech went well and it was good. I am glad he didn’t try to be anything he isn’t or resort to gimmicks. Ming’s strength is serious commitment and integrity and belonging to an era where men stood for something and stood by their word. That’s his forte. The speech itself covered all the bases and sent us (the party faithful) home content with a week in which we grew in confidence and progressed in content.
I finally bought Greg Hurst’s book ‘Charles Kennedy – A Tragic Flaw’. Now the story in full is in the public domain. I feature briefly – the book revealing how in the Parliamentary Party before Christmas when Charles opened the floor up for comments I was the first MP (after nine or ten had spokes in support of Charles) to raise the issue of his drinking – albeit I termed it ‘personal habits’. Then Julia Goldsworthy followed later saying how unhappy she was with the way things were then being run in the party in parliament. Both she and I were in the group of 25 MPs who signed a letter saying we would resign our front bench positions if Charles didn’t resign. And the rest, as they say, is history.
I saw Charles on Question Time last night – and he was on pretty good form. His conference speech was well received – he is held in much affection in the party – but it was quite clear that his political salad days are past and his future hopefully will be as an effective front bencher – when the time is right.
Tuesday was the big day at conference! Would Ming’s leadership be dented by defeat? That was the media’s obsession. In the event – Lib Dems had a red letter day. Our big idea – switching taxation from the person to pollution passed without amendment. Now both Labour and Tory will have to come onto our territory if they are really going to walk the talk – as opposed to their current hot air.
Later Charles made the traditional speech given to leaders of our party. He received a standing ovation on coming and going – and went for a Liberal drum-beating approach. He was never going to come on as an avenging angel – despite what the media probably hoped for. He wasn’t out to upstage Ming. It was just good solid stuff.
The evening was the piece de resistance! The book – Britain after Blair was launched and five of us who have written chapters were there to entice people to buy it. My chapter is about race relations. Blair’s legacy is worsening race relations. The negative impact of our American inspired foreign policy is clear in the growing fear of Muslims and consequent growing divisions in our communities. We are also more segregated than when Blair came to power – both residentially and socially – and this incendiary neglect of deprivation and isolation can lead to awful outcomes where communities have become extreme in their segregation – look at the race riots that were sparked in France and Holland because they were simply left to fester. But you’ll have to buy the book to not only know what proposals I argue for but also what the other 13 MPs say as well as a sensational audit of the country in Britain after Blair!Published by Centre Forum.
Today (Wednesday) – started with my usual (now) video diary – with another TV crew filming me filming my diary. The media love this stuff at the moment! You can watch it here:
Yesterday was Nick Clegg’s big moment with his set piece speech (he’s my boss as our Shadow Home Secretary).
Targeting Labour’s favourite tendency – legislation – Nick went for the 3,000 new criminal offences created by Labour (1,300 under Blunkett alone) with the message ‘do less, but do it better’. I guess that’s something Labour just don’t understand. Less is more! Wave after wave of new laws that have broken the Home Office down into a gibbering form of incompetence as they fail to cope. John Reid blaming the civil service for what has been an intolerable torrent of ineffective law.
Far too often Labour goes for bringing in another law that does the same thing as an existing law which hasn’t actually been properly used – which is so often the case.
Nick also reeled off the list of illiberal laws that Labour has brought in taking away our freedoms and indeed, our British values. The right to protest, control orders, curfews, etc etc etc – the list is long, long, long. There is even a law against selling or buying grey squirrels.
So Nick’s big idea is the Great Repeal Act – an Act that will take away unnecessary laws and roll back all the illiberal infringements of our civil liberties. And he wants the public to send in the laws they believe should form part of this – so you can contact www.greatrepealact.com with your ideas.
The basic message is that ‘tough’ and ‘soft’ – the language of Labour and Tories on crime is yesterdays world. For LibDems it’s what is effective that matters.
In the afternoon it was Ming being interviewed by the Guardian’s Michael White (who was quite fabulous I thought). It was Ming in his best setting. He is comfortable and at home in this milieu and came over as relaxed and confident. He did make a mix up with Arctic Monkeys but suffice to say that even Olympic sprinters can occasional encounter a hurdle! But the over-riding impression I got – and indeed always get – is that Ming is a truly decent human being. And in this day and age of political volatility and shallowness – is a welcome change.
And today as I write (Tuesday) is a biggie. Usually they say only two things are certain in life – death and taxes. At the LibDem conference it’s Charlie and taxes!