Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Fisting my MP


Sorry, should have read "fisking my MP". Easy mistake to make, when wish fulfilment overcomes reality.

Anyway, this all springs from an attempt by my MP, Andrew Slaughter, to 'get down and dirty' with the voters. Presumably the leadership has decided that its PR effort needs a little boost (hardly surprising), or perhaps Slaughter has got his eye on the new safe seat of Hammersmith that will come into being after the boundary changes take effect. Whatever the motivation, he has started sending out newsletters to his constituents. Not all his constituents, no - that would be far too democratic. Just those constituents who have contacted his office and, being the ones who have an axe to grind, will be the ones most in need of placating (as if).

So, in the true guerilla spirit of blogging, let's look at his first effort and politely tear seven kinds of shit out of it.

That's a good start - he's remembered the name of his constituency. Pity he forgot the apostrophe in "Shepherd's Bush" but most of the road signs do, too.

Welcome to the first of my email newsletters.

My name is Andy Slaughter
Andy Slaughter? Oh, how chummy. Are we meant to be friends now?

I am the Labour MP for Ealing, Acton and Shepherds Bush, and this is a new way I am hoping to keep in touch with constituents and others interested in this area and my activities as its MP.

You should only be receiving this if you have previously been in contact with me or my office. Even so, you may well welcome a regular unsolicited email from me as much as you would smallpox.
Oh HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA. Nice one, centurion!

So, if this is the case, please reply (gently) declining to receive any more and I will delete your email address.

This will be a longer screed than I will usually write
"Screed"? Ponce!

so I can set out some ground rules.
Rules? Rules? Excuse me, I thought I was your employer. You don't get to dictate to me.

What is the purpose of all this?

I get up to 200 emails, a similar number of letters and about 100 'phone calls a day.
You remembered the apostrophe that time.

This is significantly more than most MPs
Look how hard I'm working for you! Look how overworked I am! Look, there's blood on my hands! Oops, no, that's from the detention-without-trial vote.

and a fair proportion are raising questions of general interest or lobbying me on local or national issues.

There appears to be a growing wish for voters to know more about what their own MP's opinions are, what he or she is up to, or simply to learn more about what is going on in their area.
A growing wish? I'd have thought voters have always wanted to know this. Doesn't this swing against your party's moans about voter apathy?

Email is far better suited to this than traditional means. I write a column for the local papers - Ealing Gazette, Hammersmith & Shepherds Bush Gazette and Hammersmith & Fulham Chronicle - but this appears irregularly, has a small circulation and I am curtailed in what I can write!
Whereas in your newsletter you are completely independent and fear no restriction or censure from your party's high command, obviously.

I do and will continue to use Labour Party and my own newsletters to reach those not on email, but it is very costly and slow to produce and deliver 45,000 of these.

Most weekends I pick an area of the constituency and knock on doors to talk to people. This is very good for finding out what constituents think and what local issues are, but I have worked out that using this method it will take me 50 years to speak to every one (just about possible: I am 45 but from a long-lived family).
This is the kind of limp joke a vicar kicks off his sermon with.

So, an increasing number of MPs use this cheap, instant and unregulated method of keeping in touch.
Unregulated! Nice one, centurion!

I've read some of their attempts and they fall into three categories.

The unbearably tedious. I assume you do not want to know when I go to the dentist or spend two hours replying to general correspondence.

The unbelievably pompous. "How my vote defeated the government", "When I told the Chancellor he was wrong about macroeconomic policy"

The informative and entertaining. Self-explanatory - I intend to adopt this regimen, but inevitably will dip into the other two.
Notice the unsurprising lack of names. Personally I don't know any MPs' blogs (and I've read a few) that fall into the first category; and those that fall into the second category are not usually being pompous, but rightly exposing the deviousness and duplicity of government policy and activity. Austin Mitchell, Slaughter's parliamentary colleague, is one example. (Incidentally, Clive Soley, Slaughter's predecessor in the same seat, is one of Westminster's longest-blogging members. If it was good enough for your constituents before, "Andy", why have you taken it away from them?)

There he goes again...

1. I will always write this myself, in the first person. This has the downside that it will be somewhat idiosyncratic, but you can always press delete.
Yeah, and we can vote you out in 2009 (and will, if you have the guts to stand in the new marginal Ealing Acton seat, instead of doing the chicken run to the new safe seat of Hammersmith).

2. I will try and keep it short. Very soon I will have a website up and running, where long-term prisoners and insomniacs will be able to find my articles, speeches and other background material, but I think it defeats the object if I drone on in the newsletter.
Long-term prisoners and insomniacs? How about people who have a genuine interest in how their elected representative is acting in the House of Commons and why he isn't more critical of government policy? Anyway, the promise of a website is welcome - but is it going to be a blog, where you can actually interact with your constituents in a continuation of the democratic principle which brought you to office?

3. By regular I mean roughly fortnightly. But I reserve the right to add or subtract from this. The point is to respond to the times: things are pretty lively in Westminster at present, in mid-August, less so.
4. I am very keen to get feedback on what I say or omit to say; less so to enter protracted correspondence with individuals - there just isn't time.
I guess that means we won't be getting a blog out of him. On the one hand, he's "keen" to have feedback, on the other hand he doesn't want to talk to individuals.

So, please reply with your thoughts, and if you raise issues of general interest, I will deal with them in future newsletters.
5. Please pass this on to others and, if they are content, send me their email addresses. I would like to be communicating with as representative a sample of constituents as possible.
There we go, folks - an open invitation. You can send your comments to SLAUGHTERA@parliament.uk. Remember, he doesn't want "protracted correspondence", so keep it pithy!



Big issue - Health.

Hammersmith, Charing Cross and Ravenscourt Park hospitals (the Hammersmith Hospitals Trust - HHT) have some of the best clinical care in the country and are backed by Imperial College which means they are at the forefront of research and development. They also have huge investment going into them. (This week I am visiting the new renal centre at the Hammersmith - £40 million's worth and the newest and biggest in Europe.)

But there are two clouds on the horizon. Firstly, a large deficit. Secondly, the overall review of health services in NW London.

All of this was discussed in a House of Commons debate last week in which I took part. If you want to know what I said click here.
Well, if you read "Andy's" contribution to the debate, you'll see that he spends the first chunk of his speech either swiping at the Tories or eulogising about the work done by the employees of his local healthcare trusts. Hardly difficult debating. He also refers to "black propaganda" about Charing Cross Hospital closing. As regular readers will know, this is a subject I've been blogging on for a while, and as far as I can see the reports of CCH's closure are rather more than black propaganda. If he's so secure about the future of CCH, how come he asks the Health Minister to issue reassurance on the matter? Anyway, after a helpful, Tory-bashing intervention from neighbouring (and soon to be my) MP, Ann Keen (more on her another time), he turns his attention to Ravenscourt Park Hospital, for which he blames much of the health trust's deficit. He goes on to praise the appointment of KPMG to sort it out. Gulp!

In summary, I believe the deficit can be dealt with - most of it results from the under-use of Ravenscourt Park, the old Royal Masonic, which is now a specialist orthopaedic hospital: it's fantastic - and MRSA free - but it doesn't have enough patients!

You could say the Trust is a victim of its own success. The Government set very strict targets on waiting times (a six month maximum for inpatient and 13 weeks for outpatient). HHT got inpatient times down to three months and overspent in the process. Other trusts failed to send as many patients to RCP as expected. There is no excusing the fact that this is a very serious management failure, but a solvable one.
Of course! Let's solve it by sending in an expensive firm of consultants!

One thing that annoys me is that this distracts from the good news that people are no longer waiting very long periods for treatment - one in ten waited more than two years under the Tories. At the last election Labour promised to cut the total time from GP referral to treatment to a maximum of 18 weeks. The Tories promised to pay people with NHS money to go private.

But, what annoys me more is playing politics with Health.
Er, did you read your own speech, "Andy"? You referred to the Tory record on the NHS four times in your speech, and the chairman had to intervene to put you back on track.

In saying this I am echoing what David Cameron said in an interview last Tuesday. Regrettably, on Wednesday he went to Charing Cross to parrot the scurrilous rumour put around by local Tories that Charing Cross Hospital will close.

The only good thing about the Cameron visit was that it brought a clear statement from Jane Kennedy, the Health Minister, that Charing Cross would not close. I have met with Jane and other ministers concerning the problems at HHT. They foresee a bright future for both Hammersmith and Charing Cross.
Hold on, I'm confused now. You criticised Cameron for going to visit CCH and then accused the Tories of coming up with the rumour that the hospital was to close (they didn't). Yet you go on to say that it was a good idea he did go, because it forced the Health Minister to make a statement about the hospital's future.

While I am reassured by this, I will reserve judgment until the Strategic Health Authority review is complete later this year. In the meantime, I will continue to impress on the NHS bosses that we need all our local hospitals to be centres of excellence: accessible, modern and with the highest clinical standards and facilities.

The daily grind - what does an MP do?

The weekend. I met the developers of the Bromyard Avenue site to see what they were planning now. The answer is another 400+ mainly private, mainly small flats to go with the 440 they are already converting from the old government building at Bromyard House. I am very concerned about this. Firstly, this is a huge number of new dwellings to crowbar into a built up area with few community facilities to hand. Secondly, it is affordable family and keyworker housing we need, not hundreds more shoeboxes and cars on the roads. Thirdly, they wish to demolish the family sized flats, currently occupied by prison officers from Wormwood Scrubs and their families, to build the new development.
Right, and you're going to do what precisely about it?

I also attended a meeting called by resourceful local residents in Askew Road to get Thames Water to take action over the blocked sewer which is causing regular flooding of premises in the area. They produced photos and video to prove the problem, which Thames denied, existed. Now, the works have been promised by the end of next month. Another small victory against this dreadful company.
A victory which you had nothing to do with, it seems. Thank goodness for those "resourceful local residents". Keep buttering them up, or they'll be voting Tory next time.

Having sorted out the Church Road at last, I am still pursuing them over Acton High Street and Horn Lane. Please let me know of any other wet spots.
I think I'm listening to a 'wet spot' right now.

Monday. I did my surgery at Shepherds Bush Advice Centre in Uxbridge Road. If you need to see me either here or in Acton, please ring my Commons office (see below). I have two excellent staff who may well be able to sort out your problem without an appointment
...or at least keep you busy and give me time to slip out of my office...

but I am always prepared to see constituents.

Tuesday. I was in committee, scrutinising the Merchant Shipping (Pollution) Bill. All MPs get put on committees, but I do all the transport stuff as I am Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to the Minister of Transport, Dr Stephen Ladyman. A PPS is an unpaid bag-carrier, but it sounds good.
Grand. You have a meaningless job sucking up to a government minister, but at least it "sounds good".

Wednesday. The debate on West London Health Services, which I referred to above. This is the first Commons speech I have made for some time, having made it a rule to speak only if I think I have something unique to contribute or wish to speak up on matters important to the constituency. Not all MPs have this rule.
That is, if you can speak about relatively uncontroversial matters or promote government policy, rather than risk using your conscience and putting your parliamentary career on the line.

At the end of business all Labour MPs gathered in the Chamber for a photograph to mark the centenary of the first Labour MPs being elected: then there were 29, now 354. Parliament is a peculiarly cynical and non-collegiate place
No shit, Sherlock.

and so I was surprised by the genuine warmth of the occasion. I think we all remembered why we were there: to try and improve the lot of the majority of hard-working people in Britain, and particularly those who are disadvantaged.
Copyright, G.Brown, 2005 (incidentally, Brown appeared on "Andy's" election leaflet, but Blair did not - read between the lines, if you will).

The Commons chamber resounded to the spontaneous singing of the Red Flag. "Were you drunk?" my Spanish teacher asked me the next day, bemused by the un-British emoting. Only with nostalgia.
Happy days, eh, "Andy"? When you could be a true socialist without having to worry about the Whips coming to get you...

Thursday. Between votes I scurried over to the Linford Christie Outdoor Sports Centre next to Wormwood Scrubs. Here Barclays, on behalf of Chelsea FC, and Hammersmith & Fulham Council have invested £1 million on a new full-size all-weather soccer pitch, four five-a-side pitches and a netball court. It's superb, and, along with the new running track and the new pool and gym in White City, represents over £6 million invested in sport in Shepherds Bush in the last year. I had my photograph taken with John Terry and Shaun Wright-Phillips, which was painful for a lifelong Fulham fan.

In the evening I spoke at the Cathnor Park Area Action Group meeting. The main topic is a developer's plan to built a monstrous tower overlooking Ravenscourt Park. I intend to give evidence against this carbuncle at the public enquiry in June, but the residents, supported by Hammersmith & Fulham council, are already doing an excellent job of dishing it.
So they don't need you sticking your oar in and trying to take the credit.

I am hugely impressed by the residents groups I have worked with in Acton and Shepherds Bush.

I suspect I will correspond next week as this is one of those big Parliamentary weeks: ID cards, smoking (I'm voting for a total ban) and terrorism. I said this would be succinct. Did you believe me?
You're a Labour PPS. I wouldn't believe you if you offered to sell me your mother.

Shame on you.
Nice one! etc.

Incidentally, "Andy's" website can be found here. Read the text on the front page - it's like a LibDem council by-election leaflet.


Monday, February 27, 2006

A law unto themselves


While my sacrum was busy digging itself painfully into my other lower vertebrae whenever I so much as blinked, the government cleverly introduced the boring-when-you-first-hear-about-it-but-actually-terrifying-when-you-think-about-it Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill. In a nutshell, it permits government ministers to dream up new criminal offences without having to go through all that tedious Act of Parliament nonsense.

I don't have time to go into detail about this insanity. Luckily, others have done it for me, so hie ye away to Chicken Yoghurt, Europhobia and Right Links (to whom I wouldn't normally link, but it's taken the least socialist Labour government in history to push me into unholy alliance with Tories).

In the meantime, I'm writing to my MP; no, "Andy", I haven't forgotten you, there'll be more about you tomorrow.


Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Why Hillary will never be President


I am presently reading Hillary Clinton’s autobiography, Living History. The self-aggrandisement doesn’t stop at the title. The book is riddled with false modesty, coupled with a peculiar kind of over-reaching grand vision, a large dollop of self-justification and a number of cautious restatements of friendship, favours which will no doubt be called in on a future occasion.

Let’s be clear: I think Hillary’s a babe. As even Michael Moore commented, “Boy, is she easy on the eyes!” (I think it was in here). How Bill could have overlooked her in favour of the frankly rather frumpy Monica Lewinsky is beyond my comprehension (unless he, like his predecessor and hero JFK, is a sufferer from satyriasis, in which case any port in a storm). And one thing that comes through clearly from her memoirs is her dedication to the rights of women and a determination to improve social justice for worse-off Americans.

So, would I weep if Hillary made it to the White House? Not at all. The Democrats would be back in power, we’d have a female President for the first time, and what’s more it would be one genuinely interested in promoting the welfare of her own sex and not ignoring it in a Thatcherish 'more-macho-than-the-boys' sort of way.

I just don’t think she’s going to make it. (Click 'More' now!)

First things first: the 2008 election is a long way away. We haven’t even had the mid-terms yet. There are several possible candidates for the Democratic nomination. Hillary may be heading the list now, but there is no absolute guarantee that she would seek the nomination. I can’t believe she wouldn’t (and there is a grassroots campaign emerging to force her into standing) but there are other contenders, some of whom have already declared an interest in standing (like Joe Biden) and some of whom haven’t but are expected to pitch in (like Mark Warner). There’s going to be a lot of excitement – possibly even desperation – among Democrats about the prospect of wresting the White House back from the neocons, and there are going to be a lot of people who want to be The One That Does It. Even John Kerry can’t be ruled out of having another go (after all, he came close last time and he may have the example of Richard Nixon in mind – a near miss the first time, then victory later on. Of course, a better example to keep in mind might be Adlai Stevenson, another twice-runner).

However, let’s assume the Democrats do go with her and that she wins enough primaries to secure the nomination. I believe that she cannot win the White House back. She’ll get a decent chunk of the vote, but it won’t be enough to carry the necessary states. Here’s why.

First, the most likely Republican candidates would all beat her. At the moment (and, again, remember that there’s still a long way to go) the likeliest candidates are John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Condi Rice. All three come with baggage: McCain and Giuliani are both divorced and have had cancer treatment. McCain was also vociferous in pushing for the War on Iraq, increasingly looking like a mistake in the eyes of many Americans. He failed to win the nomination against Dubya, and is believed to have run a lacklustre campaign, after a promising start. He will also be 72 at election time, which would make him the oldest ever first-time candidate. Giuliani is pro-choice (and a Catholic), and many in the Religious Right have committed themselves to opposing his candidacy. Rice is closely associated with the Bush regime and with the Iraq debacle. She is also black, which may make a difference to some white voters.

Nevertheless, to my sadness, I believe all three would beat Hillary.

McCain enjoys a popular reputation as a moderate (and sometimes maverick) Republican, the only senator to vote against his party on several key bills. He represents a southern state. Although he has been strong in urging on the Iraq War, he has been critical of the way it has been carried out and famously stated he had no confidence in Donald Rumsfeld. He has a high-profile media image and is widely recognised across the US. His strongly pro-life views may help win the Religious Right round to him, despite his marital history. In any case, even if he loses some of the Christian support that helped Bush over the line in 2004, he will pick up a lot of the centrist Democratic vote because of his moderation in key areas, his co-operation with Democratic senators (including Ted Kennedy and Russ Feingold) and his personal charm and appeal. McCain has, as a footnote, toured New Hampshire and spoken in every town there. Although New Hampshire is a small state in terms of electoral votes, and was the only state to swing to the Democrats in 2004, his popularity there may help it back into the red fold - and, in any case, it will give him a good chance in the important first primary (just as it did in 2000).

Giuliani has a strong campaign behind him, even before he runs. He would be challenging Hillary on her home turf, New York (and it would be interesting to see if he could carry that state in a Presidential contest – if he did, it would be all over for her). His handling of the 9/11 emergency is widely believed to have been both efficient and compassionate, and made him a godlike figure among many. He is the subject of a Draft Giuliani for President campaign (like Rice and Hillary). He is widely credited with reducing crime and improving the economy of New York City. A CNN poll last December ranks him even higher than McCain among Republicans.

Both McCain and Giuliani also have the advantage of being male. I’m not sure the Americans are ready for a female President – unless they’re forced to have one, which brings me onto Condolezza Rice.

There is no indication that Rice is considering standing for President (and she is the least likely of the three Republicans I have mentioned to stand), but many former Secretaries of State have moved on to the highest office, and there are many groups attempting to draft her (such as this one). Polls show her beating every likely Democratic contender. She has the Southern credentials which are apparently necessary for any Republican contender these days. Her race may count against her among white voters, but it is likely to push a lot of black voters into her camp. Educated voters will be attracted by her intellectual prowess and her linguistic abilities (though it’s claimed she may not be as fluent in Russian as she appears, leading Fox News to jump the gun on her Presidential ambitions). She was even a Democrat until 1982. Her views on abortion are not known, but are unlikely to be more liberal than Hillary’s.

Perhaps Rice’s strongest suit is her standing on the world stage. She is perceived to have brought gravitas and competence to her office (where her predecessor, Colin Powell, perhaps too nice a man for the job, was often seen to be floundering). As one of America’s faces on the world stage, she has contrasted powerfully with the bumblings of her President, the snarlings of her Vice-President and the inexplicability of her Defense Secretary. (Although part of this is probably the “talking dog” syndrome of which Hillary rightly complains in her memoirs.)

The other person who will beat Hillary is Hillary herself. She’s just got too much going against her to win the election. While she has a strong, vociferous, devoted bedrock of support across the country, she is the kind of person who polarises opinion and there are as many people against her as for her (partly because she’s the kind of person who polarises opinion – after the splits revealed in American society in the last two elections, voters may be looking for a consensus candidate, someone who can bring both sides together. This suggests McCain or Rice, but not Clinton). She is a Chicagoan who represents New York, and the only Southern state she could possibly count on for support would be Arkansas. Rumours, failures and scandal flit around her like evil shadows – Whitewater, the failure of her healthcare plan, her husband’s infidelity, her recent comments on Martin Luther King Day (and more - I can't believe there's an entire Wikipedia page devoted to Hillary-related controversies). She seems to stir up trouble wherever she goes, although it’s clear that most of the trouble is stirred up by her opponents. Karl Rove must have had an anti-Hillary strategy drawn up for years. She’ll be a sitting duck. Furthermore, as one of the many Democrats in the Senate who supported the War on Iraq, support from the left-wing of her core can no longer be taken for granted.

And there's one more thing: how many sitting Senators have gone on to be President? They tend to be elected from governorships (Dubya, Clinton, Reagan, Carter - since the war, only Kennedy made it to the Presidency from the Senate). There's a maxim among political pundits in America that says voters are instinctively mistrustful of Washington insiders, and that they prefer to elect someone who's been 'on the ground' (which swings the balance back towards Giuliani).

I’d love to see Hillary as President, though I’m not at all convinced she’d make a good job of it. McCain and Rice I could live with, if only because they are, respectively, independently-minded and intelligent. But if the neocon agenda, which has already cost the lives of thousands of American and other troops, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, not to mention benefited the wealthy of America to a huge degree to the detriment of the poorest, is to be stopped this can only be done with a Democratic victory. And Hillary is not the person to deliver that victory, alas.

[FOOTNOTE: I should add that I am notoriously bad at predicting elections, so no doubt 2008 will see George Allen taking on Evan Bayh...]


And we're back!

Well, what a long hiatus it's been. I've been furiously editing a feature film (more details when the bloody thing is actually finished, which could be another month or more), but I've got a window of opportunity to resume blogging. And my back, which I put out two weeks ago, has recovered enough for me to sit at the computer for more than twenty minutes at a time.

Anyway, coming up in the next few posts, lots of exciting gnu-fuelled rhetoric and dialectic, including:

  1. Why Hillary Clinton will never be US President.

  2. My MP has a voice! And he uses it!

  3. More about ID cards, the inevitable but insane scheme to put details of us all on a massive, insecure database.

  4. England's tour of India - can the boys recover the pride of the Ashes?

  5. The Liberal Democrat leadership contest. (Sorry, too boring.)

Keep watching this space! No, go on, there'll be something along soon. Please don't go. Look, look what I can do! Bet you've never seen that before! Oh, all right, then.