Simon Hughes

Simon Hughes is indeed in the tabloids today – as being gay or bi-sexual. Now, it is hardly news to anyone I know – but Simon has always protected his right to keep his private life private – and I support him on that. But the attack is because a week ago to three newspapers he denied he was gay. I guess he was cornered and the question was never going to go away – and he just made an error of judgement. The media say he lied. I think he just defended himself badly. So another roller coaster for the party to bear as this latest news works its way through the rounds of the media.

It is the first question Steve Richards asks myself, Ed Davey and Phil WIllis who are having a pre-recorded panel session which will go out Saturday at 11am – the Week in Westminster. This is a panel of the key supporters for the leadership – me for Chris Huhne, Phil Willis for Simon Hughes and Ed Davey for Menzies Campbell. So – whilst none of us would go on any media to discuss Simon – once they’ve got you there anyway, there’s no stopping the question. We all basically defended Simon’s right to privacy and right to be whatever sexual orientation he wanted. Then, thank goodness, we get on to policy areas and have a right good ding dong. Great fun!

I get a call last thing because we (Lib Dems) need to put out a statement on Sir Ian Blair’s attack on the media for being biased towards coverage of white murders. For bizarre reasons he chooses Soham as an example of their bias. I remember the coverage at the time – because first the poor girls were missing and we all went on that journey of anxiety as we moved toward the eventual horrific reality. It would have been the same what ever colour the girls were. It was a huge story and the press were bound to follow that one.

However, Ian Blair is right to highlight the issue of bias in coverage. But when I think back I can remember examples both ways – when two murders occur when sometimes the black murder will be covered and sometimes the white. So methinks we need proper examination of this issue – as it is a very important one. We need to look at the way information about a murder gets to the press. Which stories originate from the police forces themselves. What are their policies in terms of media liaison over murders. Let’s have an analysis of all murders and their coverage over the last few years and see what led to what. I am not happy about statements that are not backed up by factual analysis on this. So I welcome the opening up of this as an area for concern – but let’s get it right and based on factual information.

Get home late – just in time for Question Time and Simon Hughes is on tonight. I don’t know if it’s good or bad to have such a media opportunity at this point when there is a feeding frenzy around him. It did give Simon the chance to put his case – which he did as well as he could under the circumstances.

Police reform

There is a lobby of parliament today by the Association of Police Authorities (APA). The Government wants to merge the current police forces into fewer but larger police forces. Almost everyone is against this.

Labour state that it is to plug a gap that appeared during the Soham murders where a local force did not have the specialist capability to deal with the investigation – and argue that a larger police force would have the capacity. But a smaller force can always bring in such specialist skills when needed. And what we know is that Safer Neighbourhood Teams and local policing work – work in terms of intelligence, in terms of public visibility and so on. In other words – local services, delivered close to the people they are meant to serve, work best. Labour’s proposals centralise the controls of forces – just going the wrong way. And as ever – this nonsense will cost millions and millions and millions.

So the APA have come to see me to put their case against the Government proposals. I am with them on this. There will be an opposition day debate on this next week in Parliament.

The Lib Dem leadership contest rolls on – an my boy Huhne is definitely coming up on the rails – overtaking even Simon Hughes now in the betting. Having taken an hour’s questions from Stroud Green Residents’ Association I get home just in time to listen to the special Any Questions being held in Richmond. They all did pretty well I thought. What is very striking is that following the first hustings, where Chris laid out some key themes around eco-taxes, taking the low-paid out of tax, localism and so on – the others are now singing the same song. I guess this is how it goes. I remember the Mayoral contest in London last time – where Ken and Steve (Norris – in case you’ve forgotten) apart from a couple of issues largely took our ideas.

In fact, it made me laugh today when I heard that Ken is going to allow an extra day to pay on the congestion charge. I first floated that one even before the Mayoral contest – and Ken pooh-poohed it publicly at many an Assembly. But now it will happen! So – look out for Oxford Street to be humanised and for GPS to come to bus management instead of CountDown and AVL!

Simon sounded a bit lacklustre – probably explained later by a text around 10pm saying Simon would be in the tabloids next day. Who says Liberal Democrats are dull?

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.

Terror Bill

On Thursday I was absolutely determined to get called in the Third Reading Debate on the Terror Bill as I wanted very much to get what my consultation with local Muslims had delivered onto the record.

The Chamber was relatively and eerily empty by comparison with the high drama of Wednesday’s votes – and so I got my chance after about the first four hours of bobbing up and down at the end of every speech.

I made two basic points: the first was to relate back the results of the consultation. The Prime Minister at PMQs (Prime Minster’s Question Time) had asserted that Muslims did not want to be associated with being against this Bill – and the inference was that everything with them was therefore hunky-dory. Well – it clearly wasn’t so simple and I read out the Secretary of the Mosque’s email to me as it makes moving reading.

There was no division at the end of the debate. Basically – the Government’s defeat yesterday means that the outstanding issues over ‘glorification’ and the definition of ‘terrorism’ will have to be sorted in the Lords. Now the aftermath of the Government defeat is the running news story. From what I can make out listening to John Reid – it was Parliament that got it wrong; Tony Blair is right. That statement appalled me. The democratic duty of Parliament and the will of Parliament were clear.

In the evening I had invited, with the help of Merel Ece, key members of the Turkish, Turkish Kurdish and Turkish Cypriot communities in to discuss informally with me the key issues for their communities. Overwhelmingly – it is education. Of course there is concern about Cyprus, minority rights in Turkey and autonomy of some sort for the Kurds – but it is here in this country that the main thrust of their problems lie. The attainment record in our schools is extraordinarily low – and relatively little seems to be being done, although some good projects are happening (at least one here in Haringey) but there is no coordination of best practise. There is clearly also a problem with the Home Office in terms of visas for students. The other issue that stood out was the lack of recognition for the Alevi – a faith and a culture but not a race.

So now I feel I have put faces to names and issues and it was a really interesting couple of hours. Simon Hughes MP also popped in to give a little troll through Liberal Democracy and our position on the international issues – which was really appreciated.

Liberal Democrat conference, Blackpool

My bags are packed and I hi-tailed it out of town on Saturday morning from Euston. On the train, I sit down and the woman across the aisle from me immediately asks me if I am Lynne Featherstone. I cannot tell a lie! Actually, she turned out to be a constituent living in Creighton Avenue on her way to Glasgow to visit her Mum and we had a few enjoyable hours putting the world to rights; if only we were in charge!

Blackpool may well be a wonderful place for stag nights and hen parties for the young, drunk and noisy, but – sober and middle-aged, truly sorry and no offence meant, it would not be my first choice. Every time I enter the Winter Gardens – which is the conference centre – I try and imagine what nightmares were haunting the author of the design brief. Must have been truly evil!

The Conference Hotel is adequate – but is nowhere near the Winter Gardens and so the delegates are consigned to spending a good part of each day travelling between the two from main hall debates at the Winter Garden to all the fringe meetings at the main hotel and others. In fact, the local authority provided a free shuttle bus – but hardly anyone was told.

But to the business. My guess is – as always – that the media will focus on whether Lib Dems are going to the right or the left and whether Charlie boy’s leadership will be challenged. I turn out to be right on both counts. I do one fringe meeting on the right/left kafuffle. The title of the event is ‘Can the Liberal Democrats be part of a Progressive Consensus’? This is hosted by the Independent Newspaper and chaired by Steve Richards who does the early Sunday morning politics show on GMTV. (You can read my speech on my website).

I have a go a Gordon Brown – basically. Don’t believe he is capable of a consensus – progressive or otherwise. Or more accurately, Brown’s progressive consensus is just that – OK so long as you agree with him. Anyway – as everyone knows – I think Brown is a coward who keeps his head down below the parapet when the going gets tough, votes a straight New Labour ticket, is the author of the astronomically expensive and appalling part-privatisation of the tube and who broods in the shadows whilst waiting for Tony’s tide to go out.

But what the media really, really want – is for the Liberal Democrats to tear themselves apart on the basis that those of us who fight or represent old Tory seats will want to shift to the right and those of us who fight or represent old Labour seats (like me) will want to be on the centre-left of the political spectrum.

Clearly a disappointing night then as all four of us speakers – Simon Hughes, David Laws, Vince Cable and myself – in one way or another all argue that it isn’t a matter of right left – it’s about Liberal values. Especially when the Labour government is knee-jerking poorly thought out legislation into being and striking at the principles of justice and freedom that make our country what it is.

The other great debate going on is about multiculturalism and what it means to be British, particularly after 7/7.

Trevor Phillips, Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, has thrown down the gauntlet with a nifty little sound bite: ‘we are sleepwalking our way into segregation’. His thesis being that we live in our cultural enclaves and mix less and less. Statement of the bleeding obvious I should say – although it strikes me lots of politicos are fundamentally in denial whilst a Sky TV poll clearly puts over 80% + of real people in line with that thesis.

I get two bites at this issue. I speak at a fringe meeting and then there is also a debate in the main hall.

For the debate, conference has introduced a new format where representatives send in their preferred topic for a discussion on an urgent issue. There is no motion or vote – but people’s views are taken back and with further work and consultation a motion will then be brought back to the next conference for decision. It’s my job to summate the debate.

I have my own views too- and whilst I do think we are becoming a segregated society, I don’t think the 7/7 bombers were making a statement about poverty or alienation when they blew us up or that solving the issues of poverty and alienation in our ethnic communities will have anything but a tiny effect on terrorism in ours or any Western country. Terrorists don’t generally come from the poorest or most alienated.

However, history has given us a bit of a lesson about where extremists go to find fodder for their causes. So whilst tackling poverty and alienation won’t directly stop terrorism, it will help make it harder for terrorists to recruit support in future.

I also chair two of the keynote speeches in the main hall. The second one is for my Home Affairs team leader – Mark Oaten – our Shadow Home Secretary. So with only a sentence or two to say I introduce him as the ‘toughest Liberal I know’ – a phrase picked up by the media sketch writers for the Telegraph and the Guardian! Mark had said a couple of days earlier that he would kill me if I introduced him thus – but I did it purposefully as I believe that ‘tough liberalism’ is the way forward – particularly in terms of law and order.

Mark gave a bravura speech.

I (and you will thank me for this) am not going to go through every fringe I spoke at – but I was allowed to pontificate on a much wider range of subjects than ever before. In my previous incarnation I was kept pretty much to my policing and transport portfolios. This time – outside of my usual training sessions for the party on ‘How we Won Hornsey & Wood Green’ and ‘Grow your Own Target Seat’, I covered Lords – the Last Bastion of Freedom?, What Difference would Electoral Reform make to Women? (not a great deal in my view); The Future of our Towns; Making the Breakthrough (or how to get our arses into gear in the 100+ seats we are second to Labour in for next time); Blogging and so on.

New experience for me (it is always great to do something you have never done before) was something called GNS. I had to go and do the radio responses on what Mark Oaten had said about breaking the consensus around Labour’s proposed new terrorist legislation. Whilst we support three of the proposals – an offence of training for terrorism, incitement to terrorism and acts preparatory to terrorism – we can’t support an offence ‘glorification of terrorism’ or the ‘three months detention without trial’. Briefly – the ‘glorification’ one is just too wide a definition. It would turn into a feast for lawyers all interpreting (as is their job) but with such a wide spectrum that it would be very hard for such legislation to be effective – and you don’t want the real terrorist dodging around the new legislation because it is poor and they have a good lawyer.

The other – three months detention – strikes at the very heart of our principles of justice – and is another form of internment. Moreover, having seen how stop and search works in practice when I was on the Metropolitan Police Authority – it would be just too easy for profiling to lead to autom
atic three month detention on suspicion – and suspicion as we tragically know from the Met shooting an innocent Br
azilian isn’t enough. And if after 14 days they need more evidence and more time, there are other ways. They currently put people under surveillance and the numbers are not such that that would be too difficult or expensive. In fact it might very well concentrate the police mind on intelligence-based evidence rather than suspicion. Three months internment would make them casual in their rigour.

Anyway – none of this was the point of my tale. The tale was about the GNS process. I was to speak for eight minutes to each BBC radio station around the country – live! So with headphones on in a tiny studio and with an electronics box – one after another station around the country dialled me up and did the interview. It was pretty tough going. I was just brilliant by about the fifth one – when I had got all my best lines in place – but definitely going off the boil with over-confidence by the ninth! But – as I say – had never even heard of this type of interview before.

And so – the rest was a late dinner with friends and pretty early to bed – and yes – it really was all work!