Saturday, 30 June 2007

Making sense of Brown's reshuffle

To understand the last few days' events at Westminster, you need to remember just one thing - the biggest threat to Gordon Brown at the next General Election is that the British people will decide it is "time for a change" and therefore vote Tory. His central strategy therefore is to make it look as though his new government represents 'change'.

That is why every cabinet minister bar (bizarrely) the Defence Secretary has been changed.

That is why jobs and advisory posts were offered to Lib Dems, Tories, and 'experts' of all sorts.

That is why his first speech outside 10 Downing Street used the word 'change' 8 times in 3 minutes!

Of course from a Lib Dem perspective, we need to remind people that Gordon Brown has been at the heart of the Government for more than ten years - signing the cheques for Iraq, backing ID cards etc. And also that for those who do want change, the Tory 'heir to Blair' doesn't constitute change.

I must get on to that chap who is writing the next Lib Dem manifesto...

Thursday, 28 June 2007

Blair's farewell

There aren't many occasions in Parliament where you will look back and say 'I was there', but yesterday for Tony Blair's final PMQs would be one of them.

One of the little known quirks of the House of Commons is that if you want a guaranteed seat for a big occasion you have to turn up at 8am and put in a 'prayer card' in the seat you want. You then turn up at the start of business (1130 on a Wednesday) and attend the three minutes of prayers that starts each day, and then the seat is yours for the day.

Suffice it to say that there was a lot of prayer went on yesterday!

The occasion itself was a bit anticlimactic at first. Virtually every week the PM starts by saluting the British service personnel who have died in the previous week, and this always sets a sombre tone. Early on the Tory leader gets his 6 questions, and he chose to play it very low key, finding common ground and then just wishing TB well. Ming Campbell raised issues about how our injured service personnel are being treated and then also wished TB well.

Things got more lively later on - a Tory Eurosceptic accused TB of selling out at the recent Summit and TB finished off his reply with "Au Revoir, Auf Wiedersehn & Arrivederci", a Lib Dem colleague asked about disestablishing the Church of England and TB said he really "wasn't bovvered", and then Ian Paisley gave a long testimonial which was suprisingly generous. Finally the 'father of the house' (ie the longest serving MP) paid a prepared tribute, and TB left to a standing ovation on all sides. His final comment was that although politics gets a bad press, most of the time it is the pursuit of noble causes - and on that, at least, I agree with him.

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Open for comment!

When I first set up this blog at the start of the year I took the decision to restrict comments to those who were registered with Blogger, thereby ensuring that I would know who was commenting. However, for two reasons I have now changed my mind and am opening up this blog for anyone to comment on.

The first reason is that if you are determined enough you can comment 'anonymously' in any case - you just register with a nickname. The second reason is that the requirement to register means that lots of people who may have comments to make may be put off by the hassle of registering.

So in the interests of opening up a more lively and interactive dialogue, I have today changed the rules so that anyone can comment. Go for it!

It's all happening!

Some days at Westminster are relatively quiet and there is no political news. But today has not been one of them!

In most MP's offices there is a small portable TV set which can be used for monitoring the progress of debates etc. and/or keeping up to date with24 hour news channels. This afternoon I happened to glance at the monitor in my room to see that a Tory MP (Quentin Davies) had defected to Labour! This took me back to the 'good old days', when I was an aspiring Lib Dem candidate in the mid 1990s, and it seemed that disillusioned Tories defecting to the Lib Dems seemed to happen every couple of months. People often say that whilst an individual defection doesn't mean much, it can tell you something about the general trend / mood of political opinion. The commentators have been so excited about David Cameron that they haven't really noticed quite how out of step he is with his own party. Whilst today's defection was the most extreme example, the Tory leader has twice this year been in a minority of his own MPs when voting in the Commons. For as long as he looks like a winner they will put up with him taking them where they don't want to go, but too many polls like the one in the Observer last Sunday which put Labour ahead will spell real trouble.

I thought an unexpected defection was news enough for the day, but then we have heard that Tony Blair plans to resign imminently as an MP!

Leaving aside the issue of whether he is really the best man to bring peace to the Middle East, I have to say that this decision makes sense for him. Having been in charge for 10 years it would have been inconceivable to imagine him sitting quietly on the backbenches. My hunch is that Labour want to get a Sedgefield by-election out of the way on the same day as the Ealing Southall by-election so that the energies of the other parties are divided.

We're about to vote on the Finance Bil at around 7.35pm, so I'm assuming there'll be no more big political news today, but you never know!

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Lib Dems in the new Brown Government?

I suppose I should be pleased that the Lib Dems are making the headlines!

It's ironic that when we have a big announcement on something that really matters to people like last week's plans for more affordable homes we hardly warrant a mention. But as soon as we hit the 'Westminster bubble' with personality issues, speculation about who said what to who etc. then the press is interested. It's hardly suprising people get turned off politics.

On the substance of the issue, it's a crazy idea that a Government elected with a healthy working majority and a programme for Government should put members of a different party into office. It's true to say that Labour got nothing like a majority of the popular vote last time, but our electoral system did them a mandate to govern, and they should get on with it. I'm pleased to hear that Ming Campbell made it clear that there would be no Lib Dems in this Brown government, and unless there is mischief-making going on in the Brown camp, that should be the end of it. We will be fighting the next election as an independent political party, seeking a mandate to govern the country, and that is as it should be.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

A US Guru on social networking

I attended a very interesting meeting this morning at Westminster hosted by the social networking site 'Bebo', and addressed by Joe Trippi - the mastermind behind Howard Dean's famous use of the internet in his US presidential bid, and now one of the advisers to the John Edwards campaign.

Joe Trippi's view was that social networking would turn politics upside down. He said we have been used to a small number of 'Goliaths' but now we will have a large number of 'Davids' shaping the political scene. He reckoned that political parties which embrace this culture will prosper, but those who wish it would go away may die!

When questioned about the 'digital divide' and people being excluded, he pointed out that coverage of mobile phones is very extensive and that increasingly people will access the internet through this route. He also said that although the initial contact may be through the internet, the US experience was that 'online' activity quickly translated into 'offline' meetings etc. which could involve a much wider group of people. His view was that this was all good for democracy - whereas for 30 seconds on TV politicians could get things past the public, in an online community with ongoing dialogue, authenticity would win out.

On a more challenging note, he said that political parties needed to be less jealous about controlling their message, and let people shape it and disseminate it for themselves. As he said, at the moment, we are all "pioneers". Scary territory, but something I think we have to embrace.

Saturday, 9 June 2007

How planning shouldn't work

Earlier this week I chaired a public meeting in Charfield about plans to extend Wickwar quarry. Understandably, residents are concerned about an expanded quarry, longer operating hours etc. But what people were almost more angry about was the fact that the conditions attached to the existing planning permission for the quarry are being openly flouted. It appears to be accepted by everyone that the quarry is working faster, producing more lorries, operating over longer hours than it is allowed to. But Government guidelines tell the Council that because there is a pending application that could 'regularise' the situation, they shouldn't take enforcement action.

The problem is that this breach of the planning consent has been going on for months, and could continue for months more, especially if there is any delay in processing the present application. If the new application is approved, it may well have conditions attached - but given how widely the present conditions are being flouted, what confidence can people have that any new conditions wouldn't be completely ignored. It simply makes a mockery of the whole planning system.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

A guest blogger

I'm handing over my blog today to Francis Churchill from Bradley Stoke, recently elected to the UK Youth Parliament, who is spending a day at Westminster, 'shadowing' his local MP. This is his impression so far....
"So, what does an MP do when he can’t think what to write on his blog? He enlists the support of a 15 year old student on work experience from Marlwood School. I must stress now, I haven’t yet forged any political leanings, it was purely my interest and enthusiasm for what goes on in my community that has led me to be here: sitting in a office at Westminster, overlooking the Thames and the London Eye.

My first impressions were quite startling; Portcullis House itself is quite impressive, but you should see the rest of the place. Even more impressive, is was what goes on here.

When Steve got back from a morning meeting, he gave me a tour of his office, showed me some of the projects he was working on. It was only when he started to show me how he communicated with his constituents; the public; and the press that I realized how subtle this game really is. I don’t think many people notice all the little things, the odd sentence or quote, that change and bend our opinions.

I suppose that this would be a prime opportunity to plug the UK Youth Parliament, which I for one believe deserves more attention that it gets. For those of you who don’t know, the UKYP is an organization set up to give young people a voice. And it works. We have achieved many things, formed bonds between young people and the wider community, and really created a voice.

From a completely un-political stance, seeing what sort of work Steve and his team are doing for our constituency, it’s a wonder why politicians get such a bad reputation. And the number of emails and letters he gets gives the impression that there are a lot more people in this constituency than I originally anticipate.
I've had a wonderful time here in Westminster, and what Steve and his staff are doing here is great. Being a politician is not as easy as it looks, and I have had first hand esperience of this. Watch out Westminster, I'll be back."