Thursday, 19 November 2009

The soft power of Cathy Ashton

The soft power of Cathy Ashton

She may have been a surprise candidate and she may be new to the field of foreign policy, but the election of Baroness Catherine Ashton as first EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs is an excellent choice. It is not only a good sign for the EU that one of the two new top jobs went to woman. Cathy, as she prefers to be called, brings along a certain kind of soft power: She is known to be extremely bright and an excellent negotiator and is, as anyone who has ever met her will confirm, utterly charming. These are qualities she will need badly to get the job done.

The continental European in me is obviously disappointed that the top jobs were not given to stronger, more charismatic personalities. But the hay may around the Lisbon Treaty showed that not all 27 member states want a more integrated Europe. These sentiments have to be respected; I believe last nights appointment were made in that spirit.

The post of Foreign High Representative combines several new jobs. Apart from sharing the monthly meeting of the EU Foreign Secretaries and leading 8.000 diplomats of the new European diplomatic service, she will also act as Vice-Chief of the European Commission. She will have to handle big egos and differing agendas. She will have to listen to 27 sometimes conflicting voices and create a consistent one; she will have to represent a European Common Foreign Policy on the international stage which has failed to be united on many occasions in the past.

But Cathy Ashton has proven that she has the talent to bring conflicting parties together and building consens. She was responsible for taking the Lisbon treaty through the House of Lords. She has a strong track record in campaigning for social rights and equality, which gives reason to hope that human rights will continue to play a strong role in Europe's Foreign Policy.

No, she is not as experienced and glamorous as Hillary Clinton, neither does she have the standing of an Angela Merkel. But giving the foreign top job to a British woman with a strong talent for bringing together parties at odds is a clever way of making sure that Britain remains at the heart of Europe without antagonising its European Partners. It is a good result for women, it is a good result for Europe, and it is most certainly a good result for Britain.

Monday, 9 November 2009

The Sun triumphs again with distasteful journalism

I watch in horror today as the bereaved mother of a dead solider is presented to the media to criticize Gordon Brown's handwriting and question his intention and sincerity. The Sun newspaper banner framing the shot conjures up images of Sun newspaper journalists snickering together, at that very moment, gleefully enjoying the spectacle they have created...

What a despicable thing for a newspaper to do to a woman who has lost their son, a time when a person is desperately trying to come to terms with their suffering and loss, with the blackness of bereavement sinking in, the reality that they will never see their son again and trying to do so with some dignity. The Sun has exploited this woman in her darkest hour citing a clearly well intentioned letter, attempting to humiliate the PM. These are crude, bully boy tactics in a situation requiring great delicacy. Do the Sun think the general public are stupid? They saw that the Sun shifted it's allegiance to the Tories at a moment carefully timed to undermine Gordon Brown after his conference speech, you can be sure that they see this act for what it is, a very cruel abuse of a grieving mother for political ends. The BBC news reports that their emails and texts are mainly in support of Gordon Brown in terms of his good intentions.

But I'm not surprised at their cruelty. In very emotive subjects they like to fuel the fire rather than report a balanced picture - I remember over ten years ago at a time when there was a debate over Japan granting an apology for events in the war decades before, they published a picture of a Japanese person distorted beyond recognition to play to people's stereotypes and fears, and stir the basest and most unhelpful emotions up to the surface. Their level of acceptability has simply not moved on from these tactics.

There is nothing worse than feeling that you have hurt and wronged a grieving person, it is a time when each bereaved person deserves respect and space, and heartfelt sympathy and support. I don't doubt that this mother was offended by a lack of sentiment in the letter or by other means which she has reason to complain about, and this should be heard. However the Sun newspaper lending their ear and making a public spectacle of it is exploiting her for their own ends at this time and unlike GB's gaffe however hurtful, is fully intentioned and politically targeted.

I've started my own blog at
and can be followed on Twitter at @beckybradyleeds

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

A shocking distortion of the Equal Pay law

The bin strike in Leeds rumbles on, now in its eighth week, even the Prime Minister has called for both sides to find a solution to end the dispute for the people of Leeds whose overflowing bins are bringing both misery and health concerns, amid fears it could continue to Christmas.

But the issue is not simply a pay-cut issue in difficult economic times, although it is reported that the council wish to cut workers' pay by a third in a wage barely over £17000 per year. The council have argued that due to Equal Pay legislation and job evaluation exercises, they have assessed the role as equivalent to that of women doing a less well paid role and rather than raising women's pay, they want to cut the pay of (mainly male) refuse workers instead. This is a gross misapplication of the Equal Pay ethos which is designed to address the endemic failure in society to pay women the same rate as men. Equal Pay provided legal means to ensure that 'women's work' can be raised to its appropriate standing and tackle inequality.

This is then an abuse of the spirit of the law which is intended to protect women, providing a callous pay-cut justification to a council wishing to save money, so hundreds of men will suffer as a result. Not only are their wages being cut but at the same time society is sending them a message about their worth and value at a time when it should be helping those on low pay to remain in their homes and to keep the economy moving.

But of equal concern is how the laws intended to provide equality to women are being subverted. So along with the plight of hundreds of men there is a feminist case to defend in the refuse collector's strike action. We cant allow legislation intended to raise women's pay be used to justify paying both genders the lowest common denominator.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Have We Never Had it So Good?

I cannot have been the only Assistant Principal who wondered a few weeks ago. ‘Will there be a job still for me in the 2 billion pound cuts of the future?’Ed Balls has said that money will be saved by cutting bureaucracy and creating school federations - reducing the number of senior leaders. Jobs, he has said, will be lost through ‘natural wastage’. For the first time the recession that has been so real for architect and banker friends threatens to impact on us in the sheltered public sector. Eek.

As a historian I find it fascinating to think about how the present will be viewed in the future. Will the Naughties be the time ‘we never had it so good’. It is easy to forget the changes we have witnessed. Some are huge whilst others are little ideas that have made a big difference.Going to school in Cardiff, the largest comprehensive in Wales, I remember the building was crumbling - the paint literally peeling off the walls. There were frequent teacher strikes and a boycott of school trips because of pay cuts. Since 1997, 4000 schools have been built, rebuilt or refurbished including four in the local area. It is now standard to have computers and interactive white boards in classrooms, smaller classes supported by teaching assistants and different activities provided in after school clubs. Have we already forgotten the days of buying our own coloured pencils and booking the TV and video for a special showing of History File?

When I started teaching I was inspired by the promise of investment in the profession both in terms of salary and status. I have been lucky enough to benefit from two professional development programmes Fast Track and now Future Leaders. Having the opportunity to visit schools in Boston as part of the programme was incredible and made me realise what was possible.Then there are the little things. Booked Up is a scheme which gives all Year 7 students a free book which they can choose. There is a well established link between poverty and low literacy levels so this scheme is a simple idea that gets children talking about books as well as the joy of owning their own copy.

So will Future Leaders programme survive the cuts? Will there be jobs for us in the senior leadership teams of the future?What is most important is that when decisions are made about how money should be saved, the most important criteria should be - how does this impact on young people? Effective leadership is essential in good schools and though it may be tempting to save cash by cutting expensive senior positions, care needs to be taken that the gains that have been made in the last decade are not squandered because ‘management’ is not a popular way to spend money.

People are the most important resource in our education system. People need to be the spending priority.

But then I would say that.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

The Gude Cause March in Edinburgh.

On Saturday I joined thousands of people in marching across the Meadows to mark 100years since the suffragettes took to the streets of Edinburgh. Because of course we’re still two decades off marking the centenary of women’s suffrage itself. Not until 1928 did women ‘enjoy’ the same right to vote as men.
- Could your granny vote?

In 2009, twenty general elections later, there are just 126 female MPs. 76% of which are Labour.

Rapid progress in the Blair years seemed to develop a degree of complacency about gender representation.

Just look at the Scottish Parliament results in 2007 where the total number of females slid from 39.5% to 33.3%.

The problem lay with the growing SNP back benches, filled with generic and often indistinguishable men.

In 1999, the SNP returned 43 per cent female MSPs, this dropped to 33 per cent in 2003 and again to just 25.5 per cent in 2007. Interestingly, the Labour group remained 50% men, 50% women. Why? Because women’s liberation and the fight for gender equality are causes written into the Labour movement.

Labour is the only party seriously committed to achieving gender equality amongst its Parliamentarians. Why? Because it uses methods of positive discrimination to make it so. All women shortlists are of course the most controversial of these methods and I’ve long been a defender of this process.

The most common argument I hear men make against the case for All Women Shortlists is that it should be based on merit and merit alone.

“May the best man win.” Aye, that says it all.

Of course, if I was feeling particularly flippant, I’d suggest that if political party’s selection processes were truly based on merit – both our Parliaments would look a little different.

And what say the Tories? For of course there were famously more David’s on their front bench than there were women until Mr Davis resigned.

I recently looked at the 50 most marginal seats in the UK to see what would happen to gender equality in our Parliament in the highly unlikely event of a Tory election victory. My conclusion was zero – there would be absolutely no change to the number of female MPs. Neither a cause of celebration or disdain - but stalemate is the enemy of progress.

And progress is what we need.

The pay gap, poverty, low paid jobs, maternity rights, pension rights, opportunity, education, domestic abuse are all priorities for this Government, powered by female Labour MPs.

The national minimum wage is considered one of the most significant achievements of this Labour Government, but people often forget that this policy delivered the most for women. Work that the campaign for a living wage would build on.

When Nicola Sturgeon and Johann Lamont stood in for their respective leaders at First Ministers' Questions last week, they provided one of the most energetic bouts of the parliamentary session. Yet a well known journalist of this very paper remarked that it was “like ladies day at Ascot without the hats.”

Oh how that enraged the women of Holyrood’s corridors.

The Gude Cause march was an opportunity for everyone to celebrate all that has been done to progress the cause for gender equality and reflect upon all that there is to do ahead. This video attempts to capture some of that feeling:

Monday, 17 August 2009

Is a flawed election better than no vote at all?

Remember this post and also this one relating to the legislation passed in Afghanistan in April which obliged Shia women to sexually submit to their husbands once every four days and to obtain her husband's permission before leaving the house? Remember the Shia women who had rocks and sticks thrown at them, were called "un-Islamic dogs" and received death threats for daring to go out on the streets and demonstrate against this barbaric legislation that many described as being "worse than the Taliban"?

I thought I would take this opportunity to expand on the post by CaptainJako who writes for a very good blog "Frank Owen's Paintbrush" which has kept me both informed and entertained during my 6 months out of the UK.

Back in April we were
almost willing to give President Hamid Karzai the benefit of the doubt when he claimed not to have fully read the legislation before signing it and he confirmed that it would be reviewed and amended prior to elections. It seemed that the international pressure from world leaders, including Gordon Brown and President Obama, prevailed over the demands of the Shia clerics claiming to have influence over the voting intentions of the Shia community in Afghanistan.

The amended legislation was quietly signed into law earlier this month. But President Karzai didn't really live up to his promise: the amended legislation is just as abhorrent and allows men to withhold food and maintenance from their wives if they do not sexually submit to them. Back in April, the
Guardian reported that Gordon Brown urged President Karzai "
You cannot have British troops fighting, and in some cases dying, to save a democracy where that democracy is infringing human rights."

But where is the international condemnation this time?

The elections will take place this Thursday against a background of alleged corruption, mounting violence across the country and of course, the unfortunate news that the British death toll in Afghanistan passed 200 earlier this week. It would appear that the international community does not want to speak out on behalf of Shia women this time around, for fear that it might upset the "smooth" running of the election.

I have three problems with this:
  1. It doesn't look as if the election is going to run very smoothly anyway, with the BBC reporting today that voting cards are being offered for sale and that thousands of dollars are being offered in bribes to buy votes;
  2. If there's any time to raise concerns that a country's Constitution has been violated and that international human rights have been breached, it's during an election campaign when the country is at its most politically engaged; and
  3. The women who fall victim to the new legislation may not even be able to vote in the elections. Because most polling stations will be operated by men, it is unlikely that women will feel comfortable turning up to vote - even if their husbands and fathers permit them to do so. Unfortunately, there are very few women-only polling stations and very few policewomen to carry out the necessary body searches upon. It's unclear just how many women would need to be recruited in order to have enough women-only polling stations, but some news outlets are reporting as many as 42,000.
So is a flawed election better than no election at all? With only 2 days until the election and with Ramadan starting very soon thereafter, let's just hope that Gordon puts the pressure back on in October and that the brave Afghan women do not give up hope and do not give up the fight for their freedom.

Monday, 6 July 2009

What Labour women should know about feminism

A friend of mine, a couple of years ago, when asked what she would like for Christmas, requested some books on feminism. It was time, she decided, to get up to speed with what feminism meant in today’s society. The present giver looked for such books and could find none, just works from the seventies and eighties.

If you are interested in feminist and cultural history, these are great. But if you want a look at feminism in the noughties, they are not much help. For although we have much to thank previous generations of feminists for – our great grandmothers secured the vote, our grandmothers made it normal to go out to work, our mothers could have the contraceptive pill, have an abortion if they needed one and own property without a male signatory – feminism has moved on somewhat. We need books that help us understand our place in today’s world, where women are free to behave badly, but are judged more harshly than men for doing so, where ‘having it all’ when it comes to work and the family, is possible, but at a price, and where dungarees are out and yummy mummies are in.

So I started thinking about what feminism means to me and my friends. Some of us, for example, have married, and some have not. Of the married ones some have changed our names upon marriage and some have not. I am a Ms, others kept Miss for as long as possible and others use Mrs with pride. We all work, some have children. We are financially independent. Some of us share our money with our partner, others don’t. Some of us wear high heels, some of us refuse to. The same goes for short skirts and strappy tops. Some of us do all the washing and cleaning in the household. Others of us share it. Some of us pay someone else to do it. But the more I thought about this the more I realised how much we had in common. After all, we all want to be treated equally, to be able to make our own decisions about life, to be able to feel safe walking down the street, to enjoy our careers and not to be judged by our marital status. And I realised that whatever decisions we make in our own lives, as long as we make them freely then we are all feminists, whether we use that word or not.

And in fact there are good books for my generation out there. Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs is excellent. So are Manifesta by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards and Full Frontal Feminism by Jessica Valenti. But these are all by Americans. I wanted to do the same from a British perspective.

The result is my book, published this month, The Noughtie Girl’s Guide to Feminism. It looks at areas that occur in our everyday lives and ponders upon what this means from a feminist perspective – from who washes the underwear to what jobs you apply for, from whether vibrators should be shaped like a penis to why we need more public toilets.

The issue of feminism is hugely political, but it is not necessarily party political. My Labour politics inform my thinking, and therefore the book, at all times. And my definition of feminism is largely focussed on the concept of choice, a key New Labour concept (and of course a key Thatcher one, though I reject her use of it). But one of the problems with Labour is that it gets bogged down in thinking about feminism as being just about childcare, working hours, health and carers, and in thinking about feminism in terms of the dungarees and placard that typified British feminism thirty years ago. But as all noughtie girls know, women’s live are about far more than that. Those issues are important, of course, but we also care about defence, about transport, about farming and about foreign affairs. And we no longer conform to the dungaree stereotype.

I’m hoping my book helps bring together feminists from across the political spectrum. But above all I am hoping that Labour women, and men, read it, and realise that in feminism, like in Labour politics, although there are disagreements and factions, we ultimately have more in common than we have apart, and that by accepting this we form some common goals to work towards.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

La Burqa

In 2004, the government made school uniform, truly "uniform" when it prohibited the wearing of any religious symbols (including headscarves, turbans and skullcaps) in all state schools. A large number of students who defied the ban and continued to wear such items were subsequently expelled and forced to pay for private tuition instead. The law excluded and isolated the very people that it intended to liberate. I think we are about to experience a severe case of deja vu.

Just what France needs: a commission to "study the extent of burkha-wearing." President Sarkozy isn't going to wait around for the results though, announcing yesterday that "burkhas are not welcome here."

This move by Sarkozy is not entirely surprising, considering the decision of the Conseil d'Etat last year to deny French citizenship to a Moroccan woman on the grounds that she insisted on wearing a burkha. Whilst praising the decision, minister Fadela Amara described the burkha as a "prison." Yesterday, Mr Sarkozy went further to describe such women as "prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity" -- an insult to the fashionistas methinks, lots of women spend absolute fortunes on their "netting."

When I first moved to the Middle East, I was shocked when I first saw women wearing a niqab with an eye veil so that the entire face is covered, even the eyes. It was difficult for me to imagine that there was a human being underneath the black chiffon. It was certainly very strange to be browsing through the clothes in TopShop alongside women in burkhas.

After 4 months living here, the burkha now seems very normal to me and I find it very beautiful. I met with one of our client's key business representatives a few weeks ago -- she is a woman and of course, she wears a burkha.

My message to Mr Sarkozy: you cannot change someone else's culture for them and you certainly cannot change it overnight. By banning the burkha, you may well be taking away the one thing that actually liberates Muslim women in France. Without the burkha, some women may not leave their homes at all.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Labour Women's Network training

It's great to see LWN have put an event together to give women training for parliamentary selections. Full details from their recent newsletter are below.

LWN Training & Personal Development Opportunity
We are running a training weekend from the evening of Friday 10 July to the morning of Sunday 12 July. This is for women who are serious about wanting to be selected to fight a parliamentary seat and are prepared to invest time and effort in achieving it. We will be looking at a whole range of actvities, including personal planning, media skills and CV writing, and you will also be able to meet like-minded women for a great weekend of politics and personal development.

LWN is financing most of the costs of the weekend, and is therefore able to offer it to participants for only £50 - which includes 2 nights' accomodation, meals, and all materials for the course. (You will have to pay your own travel to and from the venue, which is in Leominster, and is accessible by train.) Please note that the training is only open to members of Labour Women's Network.

This is an unmissable opportunity for any woman who really wants to win, and places are limited. If you would like to apply for one, please email our Training Co-ordinator, Ann Leedham-Smith, at explaining why you want to do the training, whether or not you have done any previous LWN training, whether you have stood as a candidate before, and what your ambitions are. We hope you get a place and look forward to seeing you there!

Parliamentary Selections
As you will know, a number of MPs have recently announced that, for one reason or another, they will not be standing at the next General Election. Labour-held seats include Elmet & Rothwell (notional majority 6,078), Wirral South (notional maj 3,538), Barrow & Furness (notional maj 4,843), Makerfield (notional maj 17,903), Carlisle (notional maj 5,085), Luton South (notional maj 5,698) and Reading West (notional maj 4,931). There are also vacancies in marginal seats and in seats held by the Tories and Liberal Democrats - and we need good candidates in all of them!

At this stage we don't know which will be all-women shortlists and which open, but we do know that we will need good women candidates to seek selection. If you would like to sign up for our special selection alert service (currently being developed) please let us know by emailing us at And if you know good Labour women who should be encouraged to stand, get them to join LWN, attend training, and go for it!

Finally, the earlier the information we have about selections, the better. If you know of vacancies which are coming up, please let us know so that we can let other women know. And if you get selected for a seat, let us know so that we can celebrate your success!

Saturday, 6 June 2009

A few thoughts today ...

1. I was really proud to vote for two great labour women on Thursday: Sandra Holland for Mayor of Doncaster and Linda McAvan at the top of our euro candidates list.

2. I can’t believe instead we have a mayor who stood for a party that wants to withdraw from the UN Convention on Refugees. Meanwhile he’s going to stamp out political correctness, by which as far as I can tell, he means anything to improve the position of women, black people or gay people.

3. While personally I support electoral reform for Westminster we need to be really careful about ‘compromise’ systems such as that for Mayoral elections. In London everyone knew it was between Boris and Ken and could use their second preference accordingly. In Doncaster no-one saw the English Democrats coming so I didn’t use my second preference against them and was effectively disenfranchised in the final round. If we’d had either first past the post, or a proper preference system I’m he wouldn’t have been elected. The fact that only 601 votes separated the top three candidates made only putting two through to the final round a farce.

4. I’m astonished – but perhaps I shouldn’t be – that this election is getting almost no national media coverage.

Friday, 29 May 2009

The UN Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka is a disappointment

On Wednesday evening, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva refused to answer calls for a UN inquiry into war crimes and backed the Sri Lankan Government by praising its victory over the Tamil Tigers.

After weeks and weeks of demonstrations by Sri Lankan Tamils in Parliament Square, after allegations from both sides accusing each other of committing terrible atrocities, after actions from the Sri Lankan Government which blocked not only foreign journalists, but also international aid organizations such as the Red Cross from accessing the conflict area, it is hard to understand why the UNHRC would come to this decision.

Of course we must assume that propaganda has been published and spread by both sides. But the Sri Lankan Government’s claim to “not be responsible for the death of even one of the 7,000 civilians” the UN estimates were killed in the first four months of the year seems rather dubious.

Sri Lankan lobbyists have successfully convinced the majority at the UNHRC that the Tamil conflict is a domestic matter which it does not wish to interfere in. The Sri Lankan ambassador in Geneva, Dayan Jayatilleka, described the call from European countries for an inquiry to be a “punitive and mean-spirited agenda” and claimed that the “vast mass of humanity are in support of Sri Lanka.”

It is important to understand that the UNHRC has no enforcement power, no other tool than to make recommendations to the General Assembly about situations in which human rights are violated. A key component of its work is based on the Universal Periodic Review, which aims to assess the human rights situations in all 192 UN Member States.

It is therefore highly surprising, but mainly disappointing, that it now refuses to do exactly that in Sri Lanka. After decades of civil war it seems almost na├»ve to assume that no atrocities were committed by the Government’s military forces. Proving this would, of course, require an independent inquiry; refusing this could be seen as a confession to guilt.

When the UNHRC was established in 2006, the US voted against the relevant General Assembly Resolution, claiming that it did not have adequate provision to keep states which abused human rights from being on the Council. There have been critical voices in the past which claimed that the body was “too politicized” to function and that its existence was therefore obsolete. After Wednesday’s resolution, the Council itself has given these voices their strongest support. Its function, role and capacities need to be urgently reassessed.

A time to celebrate

I have finally joined this blog at a time I think all women everywhere should be celebrating, and decided to post straight away in the hope someone out there might start thinking. On 30th May 1929 women here under the age of 30 were able to vote in a General Election for the very first time. So shouldn't all our leading women be out there reminding women (and especially women under 30) how precious the right to vote should be to them? The little celebrations I am preparing for tomorrow are hosted by a woman of 80 who helps remind us how much we owe to her generation and her mothers. But crucially too, as well as a couple of women around 30, our top woman Euro candidate will be there to remind us that only Labour have an equal number of male and female candidates - and that women owe so much of their quality of life to the political work of women in Europe and at home. Yes we have some big issues to tackle right now - but at least we are allowed to go to the polling station. Our sisters fought so hard for that right without the luxury of blogging networks. Lets all sing and celebrate our achievements.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Countdown to the NEC on Tuesday

I've written two pieces on the expenses scandal on LabourList here and here But with every new frontpage, the extent of the moral decrepitude of some of our MPs becomes clear. Quite rightly Labour Party members are now voicing their right to have their say.

We understand from the Guardian that the National Executive Committee meeting on Tuesday 19th will consider whether Constituency Labour Parties should be given the right to push their Labour MP through a reselection process. This has inspired a letter which has been drawn up by a number of Labour activists, including Prospective Parliamentary Candidates and Councillors, calling on the NEC to take strong action to:

  • Organise a thorough review of suspected excessive and abusive claims - regardless of whether they were eventually signed off by an over-worked Fees Office.
  • Support the immediate removal of the whip from individual MPs who have brought the party into disrepute over this issue and allow CLPs to trigger reselection ballots against them.
Liberal Conspiracy has more comment here.

If you are interested in signing the full letter, send an email to the main signatories: Cllr Richard Bingley, Fred Grindrod (National Policy Forum and Former Parliamentary Candidate)
Beryl Milnes (Former Chair of Hemel Hempstead CLP) and Tom Flynn (Labour Parliamentary Candidate) at

Meanwhile, Ann Black, a conscientious NEC member has sent out the following email:
Hi all

Thanks to everyone who has already mailed about this. Like other NEC members I recognise and appreciate the hundreds of hours of unpaid time put in by volunteers on the ground, most of whom do not even claim expenses for travel, postage and telephone calls, but give them freely to help in electing Labour representatives. I know that campaigners now also have to deal with outright hostility to politics and politicians.

The NEC meets on Tuesday 19 May and, according to yesterday’s Guardian, will discuss automatically deselecting any Labour MP found to have made improper expense claims. I am not clear whether this means only MPs who have actually broken the rules, or extends to those whose claims were authorised but appear to have stretched the rules beyond reasonable limits. I would welcome your views on this, and on the criteria for deciding what is reasonable.

Some members have suggested that all Labour MPs should be subject to a formal or informal reselection process by their constituency party. Others believe this would create doubts about MPs whose integrity is not in question. Again I’d appreciate your thoughts on whether and how constituencies should approach this, particularly if you live in a Labour seat.

I’d also be grateful for any other ideas on how to rebuild trust within the party and with the country, and on what the NEC should be doing in addition to the actions and statements from the prime minister.

I anticipate a lot of replies, and will read and take them all into account, though may not have time to respond to them individually before Tuesday.

Thanks for sticking with the party.

Ann Black
NEC constituency representative /
I would encourage all Labour women to have their say. These are unprecedented and horrible times, but we have to ensure that our voices are heard loud and clear.

Labour needs to be more confident on the expenses crisis

There is no doubt that the expenses issue is a constitutional crisis, the likes of which I do not think we have seen in our time, not may see for another generation. In 100 years time, what we are going through will be the a key topic I am sure in many a GCSE student's history and politics class. It is hugely serious, and enormously sad. I for one feel enormously let down by politicians across all parties who have clearly done the "unforgiveable" - simply because they could.

Perhaps it is the final trigger that will bring the parliamentary expenses system into the 21st century. I have never understood why expenses whether for Westminster or Europe were so loosely defined. Perhaps this comes from having had a career in the private sector, where my expenses have always had to be backed up by receipts, scrutiny was clear, and accountability was clear. As well as the finance teams monitoring expenditure and rules, so did the business you were in. For projects I have run, I had to estimate project expenses and be accountable to the business for costs incurred. Accountability, and clarity of accountability is a jolly good thing.

The crisis we are currently going through has been exacerbated I believe by Labour's reluctance to get on the front foot. I knew from talking to journalists a year ago that this was the issue political journalists were going to hold on to like a dog to a bone. It was never going to go away. The end result we were going to arrive at, by hook or by crook, was transparency of the expenses. There is no doubt this fervour by the media would have been fed by inside information that was not in the public domain; they knew the extent of the story perhaps more than politicians and certainly the public. Politicians may have known about their own expenses but very little about each others; hence the system blindness that led do a total underestimation of this issue.

That's why for the Speaker to have led the resistance in making expenses information public has been perhaps the biggest tactical blunder. And I for one would join the calls for him to go. The resistance to making this information public only delayed the inevitable, and the resulting impression of the political class desperate to hold onto its privileges has been as damaging as the exposure of an out of date expenses system, totally out of touch with today's standards and expectations.

But one thing that puzzles me is why Labour has not taken a more confident ground on this issue. It is Labour that came in in 1997 with a desire to clean up British politics. Political donations reform through the PPERA has meant that for the first time all can see who is potentially pulling the purse strings of political parties. The removal of hereditary peers; unquestioned for generations, and against which as an injustice the expenses system is like a younger cousin. Freedom of Information - courageous and morally right. Labour brought it in. And once the genie is out of the bottle, you cannot push it back it in.

We should still be the rightful leaders to sort out the expenses system - it has been the predictable consequence of what we began in 1997. And even at this time, I am proud to be Labour, and that the exposure of this issue would most likely not have happened without my party. But it means that now we need to find the courage to step forward and to consistently be leaders not followers on this issue.

But to do that is going to require real clarity. Clarity on who is in charge, and who we want the public to know is in charge. Clarity on how to respond to the public mood. Clarity on how the parties must work together - things will only change if consensus is reached. Clarity on how we think the expenses rules should change, which were clearly wrong and in which there is no public confidence. Clarity on who is accountable for the system, including the fees office who I hear have apologised to some MPs for the advice they gave; but who had a responsibility to the public on this and have little defence for what they have allowed to happen.

No crisis in insurmountable in my opinion; no valley of despair is so deep that there is no way out. There is always a way forward, and it may well be a long march. But with confidence, a clear view of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable and communication of this, tough action against Labour MPs who have crossed the line (e.g Elliot Morley and David Chaytor), but equally defence of those who have been potentially libelled or certainly unfairly treated in this frenzy (e.g. Phil Woolas, Ed and Yvette).

This is vital; MPs who have either minor misdemeanours or factually incorrect allegations against them should not be listed alongside the potentially criminally fraudulent; they should not be hung out to dry or given to the lynch mob that is the Tory led media. Gordon's leadership is not under challenge; but his support could start to fall away if the party does not show it is prepared to defend the right-doers as well as punish the wrong-doers. We will start to see an "each person for themselves" response that will simply lead to death by 1000 cuts.

This story has a long way to go before it ends. But by being leading player, we might yet be surprised at how this story starts to turn, where the public mood goes and the confidence in politics that could and should start to return. We really should take the moral high ground on this issue and find the courage to do it, that we know is there in our leaders and in our party values more widely.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Derek Draper resigns from LabourList

A lot of vitriol has been thrown at Derek Draper who despite everything, staged quite a remarkable political comeback in the last two years. Some of the bile has been undeserved, but having been a close observer of e-campaigning and new media, I find it unsurprising. There were many things that Derek did wrong, but at the root of it all was a fundamental misunderstanding of how political debate and campaigning had been developing on the internet and how Labour activists needed to work with it.

As Susan Boyle demonstrates, the internet provides a space for anyone, talented or not, to reach a potentially vast audience. Most people never reach beyond a close circle of friends, but when they have something that captures the imagination of people, their audience can be huge. This cannot, and should not, be controlled by a central committee. Derek made the mistake of thinking that he, or his friends, could reshape the political debate space on the internet by traditional attack politics. He was entering a world which, yes, had been overly shaped by the political right, but which had an equilibrium which needed to be carefully managed.

The two main protagonists for Derek seemed to be Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes, rather than the Conservative Party and ConservativeHome. This meant that every intervention he made was based on personality politics rather than practical politics. There are decent ways of taking on Iain and Guido, but sadly Derek made every mistake in the book which not only degraded the left blogosphere in the eyes of everyone, but also gained more notoriety for his enemies in the process. I would wager that more people read both their blogs while Derek was 'taking them on' than while he wasn't. It hasn't exposed the real racism and sexism which exists in the comments on Guido's site, nor does it take head-on the progressive sounding, but essentially Thatcherite politics of Iain Dale.

Derek has posted a statement on LabourList which is revealing. It's almost as if he thinks the fact that someone hacked into his account should be judged more harshly than the fact that he, at one point, entertained the idea of making up disgusting rumours about senior opposition politicians in concert with someone working in Downing Street while trying to pose as someone editing an independent Labour blog. Yes, of course everyone can see their mistakes in hindsight, and his apology should be accepted and we should all move on eventually. But I don't think we really can until there is a more genuine understanding of why so many Labour party members were sickened by this style of politics in the first place. The statement reads more in anger than in sorrow. This isn't what we hoped for.

What I do hope for is that Alex Smith, who has ably worked as Derek's Deputy Editor and who I expect has been responsible for shepherding much of the more sensible engagement with Labour Party members including a very good Young Labour weekend edited by Richard Angell, will be allowed to guide LabourList to a better place. I don't think the vast majority of Labour people who visit LL think that it should be allowed to wither on the vine. It feels now like a space which we might all be able to claim as our own, rather than something which felt like Derek's plaything. But we should let it grow organically. Keep posting, keep arguing, and see where it is in a year's time. If Derek wants us to salute him for his legacy he should wait until then.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Memories of 1997.

It's May 1st today, the 12 year anniversary of Labour's sweep to power in 1997. Tony Blair, then young, fresh with a head full of fluffy dark hair, took to the stage and announced that ''A new dawn has broken, has it not?'' The start of something better, a new era of hope and possibility had arrived. And oh my, was it overdue.

I was 8 years old and living in the rural Tory heartland of Northamptonshire. I remember the election well, and John Major being PM. That day, I awoke to my radio alarm and the local station's presenters complaining that ''This is awful - everything's going to change. The bins are changing, even the lampposts are going to change!'' Needless to say, my 8-year-old self wasn't filled with joy. I mean, what was wrong with the lampposts?!

I remember my Mum talking about the fact Tony Blair had won, and how he seemed like a good man, and sitting down to watch the news. It all just felt a bit strange, when I thought of the PM, I could only see John Major, and I felt a bit bad that he'd lost his job, but amazed at all the excitement everywhere. Everywhere, it seemed, except my school or my village...

May 1st 1997 has shaped that 8-year-old's life in more ways than I could ever have known or imagined at the time.12 years on, at 20, I'm sitting here a by-product of the Blair years. The national curriculum, double the amount of spending in schools, lower class sizes (my own down from 37), treble the amount of spending in our hospitals - and those are just the things that helped this 8-year-old.

For everyone else, there's the minimum wage, double the spending on overseas aid to and dropping the debt of the very poorest countries, the New Deal - helping over a million left unemployed by the Tories back into work, Sure Start, better maternity leave and the introduction of paternity leave, the halving of NHS operation waiting times, record numbers of police on our streets, the introduction of civil partnerships and negotiating peace in Northern Ireland.

And, of course, the Tories called the minimum wage 'dangerous' and even David Cameron opposed paternity leave (before taking it himself, that is).I am so proud to be a member of this Labour party - the only party with the values of fairness and opportunity for the many, and not just the few, running through it's veins.12 years in and of course there are calls for 'change' - but change for the sake of change will only drag us back to the way things were with the Tories 'do nothing, the market will fix it' approach.

Labour party members all received an email from the PM this week to mark the 12 year anniversary and this part just really showed why we can't take that gamble with the Tories. They are not only reluctant to come forwards with any real policy ideas, and have had no sense of direction over the current economic situation, but, as Gordon Brown quite rightly points out - ''While our party offers a £145 tax cut for 22 million basic rate taxpayers, the Tories talk of putting “some taxes up” and prioritising a multi-million pound inheritance tax cut for the wealthiest few.

And while our party focuses on spending money to help people back into work, David Cameron’s Conservatives refuse to spend a single extra penny to help the unemployed and talk about £20 billion of cuts to public services. He should be straight with the British public about where he’s going to cut and who will have the help they rely on dragged out from underneath them''.

The party of the many, and not just the few. 12 years on and Labour are still fighting for all of us.

This is why I am so proud to represent this Labour party.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Beauty, bravery and the right to keep fit

My time in the Middle East is going really well. I've had my first barbeque in the desert, ridden a camel and I'm even learning a bit of Arabic (especially since it got me discount in the local shop last week). I've moved out of my temporary accommodation and am now living in an apartment block which seems to house mostly locals and a few other Westerners.

My parents visited a couple of weeks ago and the presence of a man (my dad) made a real difference to how I am treated: people were happy to strike up a conversion with us, although they were also rather confused when it was me who paid at the end of a meal!

Living and working in a Muslim country has really encouraged me to try to read as much
Middle Eastern literature as possible. I'm currently reading Iran Awakening which is giving me a brilliant perspective on Iran's modern political history, its relationship with the West and the development of the Iranian women's movement. We don't have a television connection at home so I am also trying my best to keep up-to-date with the news and here are a few stories that caught my eye recently. It's a real wonder that they were published in the same century, let alone the same month!

In Italy, Berlusconi shows us just how beautiful democracy really is by gathering together some of the most gorgeous women in the country, including a Big Brother star and a Miss Italy contestant, to run as candidates in the European Elections. I'm sure we all have all heard of the "fit vote" (certainly in student politics) not to mention "The Blair Babes" of 1997, but Berlusconi is taking it a bit far. Whether these women know anything about politics appears to be irrelevant - their faces would look good on en election leaflet.

Then we turn to Afghanistan where legislation has been passed that effectively legalises rape within marriage and requires a woman to seek permission from her husband before leaving the house, which arguably legalises life-long detention. As Rachael pointed out previously, many women marched together in protest against this law, despite violent opposition and the great risk to their lives. Many have described this legislation as being "worse than the Taliban" and several international leaders, included President Obama, have publicly expressed their opposition. I am disgusted by provisions such as "as long as the husband is not travelling, he has the right to have sexual intercourse with his wife every fourth night" and "unless the wife is ill or has any kind of illness that intercourse could aggravate, the wife is bound to give a positive response to the sexual desires of her husband." More recent reports are suggesting the law will be revised (some even suggest that there was simply a misunderstanding arising from the English translation, which I find difficult to believe). Nonetheless, I am pleased to read that the revision may even happen before the elections in August. After reading this story I decided to look up when the marital rape exemption was officially abolished in the UK and I was shocked to discover that it was as recent as 1991 - only 18 years ago.

Finally, this week in Saudi Arabia, women are protesting against the government's plan to close down women-only gyms. Whilst there are many gyms and health clubs which men attend, there is no legal equivalent for women. Apparently some senior Saudi clerics have condemned women-only gyms and clubs as "shameless" and criticised women for wanting to neglect their husbands and children by spending a few hours at the gym. The protest takes the form of an internet campaign called "Let Her Get Fat" which unfortunately doesn't come up on Google and focuses on the serious health implications of not exercising on a regular basis. Good luck to them - maybe they could sneak in the right to drive at the same time?

Monday, 20 April 2009

Why we blog: our ethic of progressive blogging

I've signed up to the following statement which has been put together by a number of bloggers on the centre-left. I hope you support the sentiments too and would be interested in your comments.


We are a group of Labour party members and supporters who believe that blogging can make an increasingly important contribution to progressive politics. We are seeking, in different ways, to make our own individual contributions to that, and wish to set out the ethic which informs our blogging and the broader politics we are working for within the Labour Party and beyond it.

Many of these are truths which should be self-evident. We are well aware that the broad spirit which we seek to articulate has long informed what most Labour bloggers do, as it also does most of those who blog in other parties and in non-partisan civic activism. So we do not claim any particular originality; still less do we seek to impose our views as a new regulatory code, or to attempt to police others.

Our purpose is simple. We do not believe that new technology leads to inevitable outcomes, but rather that we must all make choices about how we use it and for what purposes.

So we wish to set out why we blog and how we want the party which we support to change so that it can connect to new progressive energy for the causes we support.

1. Ethical and value-based

We believe we must act as ambassadors for the political values we profess. This applies to all politics, online or not. The Obama campaign's power to mobilise was rooted in supporters living its ethic of 'respect, empower and include'. As Labour supporters, we wish to ensure that our values of solidarity, tolerance and respect are reflected in how we do politics as well as the causes we seek to serve.

So we oppose the politics of personal destruction. We believe that the personal can be political, where it reveals the hypocrisy of public statements, the wilful misuse of evidence, or breaches proper ethical standards in public life. Where it doesn't do that, it should be off limits. Politicians should be able to have a family and private life too. A politics of personal destruction violates progressive values and brings all politics into disrepute.

2. Positive about political engagement

We do not believe that the internet is inevitably a force for anti-politics. We reject the mythology of the internet as a lawless and ethics-free zone. Bloggers are subject to law, as well as to the ethical and civic pressures of our online and offline communities. We are clear that the left can never win a politics of loathing and mutual destruction, because the faith in politics that we need will inevitably be a casualty of war. The nihilistic approach practiced by a few online should not overshadow the greater energy and numbers engaged in constructive civic advocacy.

We believe that we can challenge our political opponents without always questioning their integrity. We believe that there are big political arguments to be had between the left and the right of politics, and the left has every reason to be confident about our values and ideas, which have done much to change Britain for the better over the last century and which are in the ascendancy internationally after three decades in which anti-government arguments have often dominated.

We also believe that what is pejoratively called 'negative campaigning' has a legitimate place in politics. Scrutinising the principles, ideas and policies of political opponents is an important part of offering a democratic choice. We should challenge the ideas, claims and sometimes the misrepresentations of our political opponents, just as we would expect them to challenge us. We believe that this is effective when it is done accurately, and that this will become ever more important as the internet makes politics more transparent. So we will point out where there is a mismatch between professed principles and policies, or where the evidence does not back up what is claimed, but we will try not to assume our opponents are in bad faith where we do not have evidence to support that.

3. Pluralist and open

We believe that pluralism must be at the heart of the progressive blogosphere. We believe that debate and argument are what brings life to politics. We want to promote a cultural 'glasnost' of open discussion within our party, to show that we understand that the confidence to debate, and disagree, in an atmosphere of mutual respect helps us to bring people together to make change possible.

We believe we must change the culture of Labour's engagement with those outside the party too, including those who were once our supporters but who are disillusioned, and new generations forming their political opinions. For us, democratic politics is about individuals working together to create collective pressure for change, but also about the need to continue to talk even when we disagree deeply. We believe in engaging with all reasonable critics of the Labour government and Labour Party, wherever we can establish the possibility of taking part in democratic arguments in a spirit of mutual respect.

4. Independent spaces

We believe that attempts to transfer 'command and control' models to online politics will inevitably fail. Labour must show that it gets that - in practice as well as theory - if we are make our contribution to the progressive movements on which our causes depend.

The government and the political parties should use their official spaces to contribute to and enable these conversations. We also want to see Ministers and MPs having the confidence to engage in political debate and argument elsewhere, while being clear that there is no value for anybody in seeking to control independent spaces for discussion.

5. Participatory and cooperative

We believe in a cooperative ethic of blogging, because the internet is most potent when it harnesses the creativity, ideas and expertise of many people. The internet is a powerful tool for individual expression. We believe it also enables citizens to interact and collaborate in ways that were never previously possible, and catalyse new forces for participation and activism. As citizens, and as bloggers, we believe in asking not only what is wrong with the world but how we can work together to improve it.

We hope that others will offer ideas and responses - supportive and critical - about these ideas and how they can help to inform the future of our politics.

We know that the outcomes of politics matter deeply, that politics is about passion and argument, and that we may ourselves sometimes fall short of the values and standards that we aspire to.

But this is why we blog - and what we hope to achieve for our politics by doing so.


Sunder Katwala

Nick Anstead

Will Straw

David Lammy MP

Rachael Jolley

Jessica Asato and

Karin Christiansen

Paul Cotterill

Laurence Durnan

Alex Finnegan

Gavin Hayes

Mike Ion

Richard Lane

Tom Miller

Carl Nuttall

Anthony Painter

Don Paskini

Andreas Paterson

Asif Sange

Stuart White

Graham Whitman

Why postal votes can help not hinder democracy

A lot is being written about the Erith and Thamesmead selection process, but there was one line of argument which struck me as being particularly in need of perusal. In some of the print coverage of the postal vote accusations, it suggests that the large number of party members registered to vote by post in the selection must signify that something dodgy has happened. (The Labour Party meanwhile has commented that the number was not unduly large). Even if it was a larger amount than usual, is this necessarily a bad thing? Obviously if the allegations were true that people were filling in forms before approaching members, that's wrong and against Party rules. Though the investigation by the Labour Party has concluded that there was no irregularity. So, given that we try and maximise the postal vote in normal elections, why shouldn't we do the same in selections?

But it was a comment by Susan Press in Saturday's Guardian which really got me thinking:
Democracy should be about making a choice and people can't make a choice if they are not hearing the candidates speak and answer questions.
The current rules state that you can only have a postal ballot if you know you can't make the hustings. And I thought, actually, if you've made your mind up about who you want to vote for, why shouldn't you have a postal vote? We all know things happen last minute - children get ill, you have to stay at work late - so why should you be disenfranchised from voting for your parliamentary candidate, one of the few powers local Labour members have, just because we have an outdated notion about needing to be at the hustings.

If the candidates have done their job properly you should know all their views backwards! If they haven't knocked at your door four times, had inordinate amounts of cups of tea, explained their position on the electoral system, Trident, Iraq and the recession, and sent you a nice card afterwards, they haven't pulled their finger out. Of course it would be best if you could hear everyone give their stump speech - after all, we know politicians perform differently on a one-to-one and it's always good to see if they crumble in front of a bigger audience - but if you have heard all the candidates' views and want to be on the safe side I think you should be allowed to request a postal vote without needing to give a reason.

I think this presenteeism represents a wider problem with the way the party operates. Unless you can make your branch meeting or GC it's hard to have a say in the way your local party works. And yet we know that online forums give people who live busy ordinary lives the opportunity to get involved, yet we don't allow for proxy votes or give people systems to debate without turning up to the church hall every month. I think we need to get a little bit more savvy about the reality of peoples' lives and make it easy for them to participate in key decisions in the party, not harder.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Bravery is not enough

There ought to be more that the international community can do to support Afghan women who see their human rights under threat from new repressive national legislation.
The bravery of those Shia women in Afghanistan who chose to take to the streets this week to protest was immense. For someone sitting here, it's hard to imagine being brave enough to do that.
It was an incredibly scary and difficult thing to do to take on the braying masses of men who threw stones and angry words at them as they made their public protests.
The photos of the event show an incredibly divided gender split - women marching and crowds of men baracking.
In a culture which is increasingly putting women under pressure to stay inside and not act without the permission of their male supervisor - either husband or father, those mostly young women chose to make their protest public, showing the world that is not just western outsiders who are criticial of President Karzai's decision to cozy up to the conservative Shia Afghans.
Without such protest, it is much easier for Afghan leaders to suggest that such measures are indeed the will of their people, and critisize other nations for interfering in their cultural disputes.
As the women protestors pointed out, this is not about religion interference, but about one interpretation of religion.
Historically religions have often been interpreted/translated by men from conservative sections of society to oppress women even when this was not the original intention of the text or movement.
Where religious interpretations are being used to further conservative ideologies such as women not being allowed to take a job, drive or have financial independence, then no one should feel that criticizing those mandates is actually an attack on a religion, but an argument with those who choose to use it for those ends.
Meanwhile, we should put pressure on the Afghan government to treat all its citizens equally and not create a backward-looking elitism based on gender.

Monday, 13 April 2009

A Blog About Blogging...

Quite a week for the political blog. We've recently seen behind the veil of many a political blogger, with Derek Draper and Paul Staines (aka Guido Fawkes) going head to head on TV, shifting the polticial blog from the computer screen into our front rooms. A sign things were on the move?

The friendships and angst sometimes felt between individual members of political parties is often released in the blogosphere, and is reaching new levels of notoriety and influence at the same time. With heavyweights such as Alistair Campbell, John Prescott and now even Sarah Brown, the Prime Minister's wife, joining the world's of Facebook and Twitter, it is now easier than ever before to find out what key individuals think who once, not so long ago, seemed much more inaccessible.

But is this a good thing? I mean, there really is something out there for everyone, and if you wanted to find out that Jonathan Ross's dog had been sick in the night then maybe he's the 'Tweet' for you. But what about politicians, who traditionally have been less accessible, is this the way to break down those barriers, or is the average Twitter-er not yet ready to know what you had for dinner? It might sound odd, but for so long politicians (of all parties) have been criticised for being too impersonal and out of touch - but where do you draw the line? A new personal/private boundary is being drawn up, but will it lead to a productive blend of politician and public, or to the resignation of well-meaning politicians for an off messsage 140 character long 'Tweet' on a low day? Are we ready to accept that our representatives aren't perfect?

Of course, the blogging world has picked up on some big stories, led the media on tips more than once and, yesterday, resulted the publication of some fairly awful emails between Derek Draper (Labour blogger and founder of 'LabourList') and Damian McBride (Downing St. staffer until yesterday). This story has a few aspects to it, and it's only right to explore all of them. But all-in-all, yesterday was a bad day for Labour, and for politics as a whole. We absolutely should not have key members of staff in Downing St. suggesting the spreading of harmful and hurtful rumours about the opposition to 'throw them off'. No way. And some of the rumours that they were discussing are so bad that it would have been absolutely unforgivable had they have circulated them and, as quite rightly noted by Labour MP Tom Harris, Draper and McBride owe a few people a very sincere apology. Politics should be about the battle of ideas, ideology and policy, not jibes or playground games of Chinese whispers. This is exactly what turns people off from politics - the sense that everyone's as bad as each other, and are just trying to shoot each other down the whole time. And we really aren't helping that image right now, when most of us actually are so much better than that.

But leading back to my point about political blogs, this, at least in part, came to light because of Paul Staines' (aka. Guido Fawkes') severe dislike of Derek Draper - only highlighted by his comments on his blog today that ''actually Guido gave the story to the News of the World and the Sunday Times for pleasure not profit''. This isn't to take anything away from what Draper/McBride were discussing, but does bring up the question of not only how Guido actually obtained these emails but, as a separate issue, how far someone will go to tear down their blogging nemesis. It's a bit like the Dr. Who 'Time War', where clearly there were no winners, just a few left standing at the bitter end, all damaged by the goings on. And, outside of the Draper/Guido example, is that what might be in store if more politicians do enter the fray? Do we really want our politicians to be getting involved in Facebook arguments instead of focusing on policy, or does this actually open up the debate?

As someone who has had a fair few things posted about them online since their selection as a PPC, written a fair few blogs since taking up Channel 4's interactive 'YearDot' mantle, and a product of the Facebook generation, I've seen both sides of it. Whilst it may be tempting to grab your computer and blog away the rage at something said at PMQs, you really have to be careful. Just because you're typing away, the moment you press 'Post', that's it. Whatever you've just spouted off about is out there and always will be. So it's worth pausing for thought and remembering that as reflective and theraputic your blog may well be, it's not actually your diary...

There are those who will always take it too far. I've spent part of today watching on in sheer disbelief as two right wingers who, in all honesty, probably would agree on a lot of things, tear chunks out of each other. I've lost count of the number of times legal action has been threatened in the 2-day discourse. Neither of them, however, are our representatives, but is this kind of thing what we're really after? Is this what we've always been heading for since the set-up of social networking sites? Actually, a 140 character response at PMQs would finally get rid of all that jeering...but I think we need to keep the passion in politics if we are to keep it alive and well.

It's a tough question to answer really, because we just don't know how the political blogosphere is going to evolve, and if it does help politicians and the public connect in a productive way, then that's great. John Prescott, just as one example, uses Facebook to tell people about the 'Go 4th' campaign for a Labour 4th term and to post useful petitions, including one about bankers bonuses. Alistair Campbell now posts links to his new blog on Facebook and Twitter, as well as send out weekly 'to-do' lists to Labour supporters. It really can work.

All in all, politicians linking up with the people via social networking sites and blogs has been and could continue to be a good and useful way to open up and enhance political debate, and we shouldn't be afraid to get involved in the debate because we worry about what may get thrown at us. But no political Facebook account should be set up, no Tweet sent and no blog posted without heeding the big 'caution' sign stamped on them.

And, in true politician-of-the-21st-century style, I'd like to know what you think about this. Should politicians see the blogging sphere as virus free and jump right in, or just slowly test the waters before taking the plunge? And where should the 'too much information' line be drawn?

Thank you for reading, and Happy Easter!

Sunday, 5 April 2009

It's a man's world...

I’m not sure if this blogosphere is meant to be political or just for political women. If you think it’s the former then please skip over to the next post which will undoubtedly be far weightier and likely more interesting than mine.
What inspired me to start pounding the keyboard today was a quick glance at the BBC news site where I read about an incredible sixteen year old called Alice Powell. Now I appreciate it’s difficult to imagine a profession more male orientated than politics (and here I’m hoping to avoid the debate about whether politics should be counted as a profession...) but spare a thought if you will for women trying to break into the world of motor racing. Not only are the participants almost wholly male but the key role assigned to women is that of glamorous bystander, someone to hang on an arm and totter around the pit lane in uncompromisingly high heels and low cut tops.
Alice Powell, for those that do not know,is not a scantily clad hanger on, but rather has just raced in the Formula Renault Championship (where Lewis Hamilton started off) and her ambition is to be a top F1 racing driver.
So, next time you're tempted to complain about male political dominance, spare a thought for Alice...

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Is it cos I am a woman?

Do other Labour women bloggers think that Jacqui Smith is being unfairly picked out because of her sex? I mean, there are just as many male MPs who have taken advantage of the fees office. I'm not defending the current expenses system, mind you, I think MPs should be paid a proper wage, and forget the John Lewis list. The public think it's madness, and so do I.

But what I'm talking about is the way that Jacqui Smith has been singled out (and if you read the front page of the Independent, it's Hazel and Jacqui who are the culprits, not the the male Tory MPs who spent more than them). I wonder whether it's because lobby journos think that men are meant to be venal, but women, no - they are supposed to scrimp and save and let the men be the ones who do wrong thing. Why are women always the ones who are judged more?

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Is global warming all my fault?

Her eyes narrowed, and their gaze held mine for a few seconds. The contempt was all to obvious. Then her look shifted slowly from me to the people behind, and as it did so the looked changed from hatred to a demand for agreement. I saw the people behind edge slightly away, fearing they would be associated with me, and their eyes remained fixed firmly on the ground, afraid they would be drawn into the argument. 
'Did you bring your own bags?' she said.
Stupid question. Why would I ask for bags if I had some already? 
'No. I forgot.' Of course I forgot. I had spent the day ferrying children around, sorting out the house, and shopping was an afterthought. 
'We're encouraging people to use their own bags.'
Yes I know that. I have a supply of the reusable ones at home. I just forgot. In the list of great crimes, where does that feature? Obviously quite high on the list.
'Could I have some bags please?'
A sigh. Not a quiet sigh, but one audible even to the people at the end of the queue. Be ready people. I noticed a man at the back discretely slide his trolley to an alternate queue. I wished I could join him.
Two pieces of orange plastic were thrown in my general direction, and the shopping started to move along the belt. The quantity of the latter did not seem to correlate to the former. And in her haste to dismiss my meek request the handle of one of the bags had remained in the stack of orange under her seat, meaning that I was now expected to fit several days supply of food into one small orange bag. Which was rapidly filled by two boxes of cereal.
'Could I have a few more bags?' A simple request. Said politely, no hint of sarcasm or suppressed rage. 
'We're trying to encourage people to use their own bags'. Yes, of this I am aware. But its a bit late now. I am here, my bags are at home. Ergo, I need some of theirs.
'It's to help the planet. You know, stop global warming.'
I held her gaze and stopped packing shopping. Though the packing stopped because I no longer had anything to pack into. She saw the pile of produce at my end growing larger, and realised that I wasn't going to load it all into my trolley and go away shamefaced. She needed to dish the plastic once more.
Usually they pass you bags singly. Sometimes they even open them slightly to make it easier to start getting your purchases inside the bags and out of the shop. 
A pile of orange plastic was flung to the end of the checkout. The bags were not opened. They weren't even separated. They were still firmly attached to each other, in the same condition in which they had left the orange plastic bag factory. 
I had my revenge. I took each bag off the pile as I needed it. I packed slowly and carefully. And I didn't hand my card over until the packing was complete and everything in my trolley. 
'Which is worse,' I asked, as I entered my pin number, 'to use your carrier bags instead of my own, or to drive all the way home and back again because I remember my bags are still in the kitchen?'
Her jaw dropped slightly. Her eyes flicked from me to the others in the queue. A smile flashed across someone's face, just for an instant. 
'We're just trying to do our bit. Every little helps.'
'Wrong shop.' She really should learn her jingles better. 
But the question hung there. No one answered. So which is worse for the planet? And in the grand scheme of things, how important are six plastic bags? And do they completely wipe out the good I did three times in the past two weeks when I have walked there instead of driving? Is my poor memory the sole cause of global warming? Have I brought about the downfall of civilisation because I am too busy to remember to stuff my car with thick plastic bags and instead rely on the thin plastic bags in the shop? And are bags that last for ten visits to the shop before disintegrating really any better for the environment than thin plastic bags that get reused for holding muddy football boots, transporting small amounts of goods between home and office, or visiting the butchers? Both are plastic, are both bad?
And if shops are rationing bags to do their bit for the environment, why do they use so much packaging on their products? Why are carrots in a plastic bag? Why are garlic baguette slices on a plastic tray inside a plastic bag? 
'Well at least we're trying.'
It was over. I had lost. I had to admit my guilt and leave. I had forgotten my plastic bags, and the world will pay a terrible price. As I left, hailstones began to fall. It was all my fault. The world will end, and Mr Sainsbury will carry no shame, he has done his part. It is I that failed, it is I that wasted the planet's resources, and now the weather is exacting its revenge. 
Mea culpa. 

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Choice and voice in public services

Another day, another article analysing 12 years of labour government and what went wrong. While agreeing with much of the new labour perspective on public service reforms: state regulation rather than control; what matters is good service, not who provides it etc. I feel there is something missing from the analysis. Perhaps it comes down to the obsession with choice and voice. The principle is simple. State provision stagnates, fails to innovate, and crucially fails to provide what the public want, if there is no ability to go to an alternative provider (choice). The solution is either competition or strong mechanisms for voice and customer responsiveness. Fine if you are a policy wonk and are happy to do nothing better than spend hours on end debating the finer points of the failings of a particular service or weighing up a variety of choices. But most people want life to be simple. In all honesty how many of us, even writers and readers of a political blog, have decided not to complain about bad service (whether publicly or privately provided) because the time and effort involved did not seem worth it. Too often such calculations, which we make instinctively, are not considered in public policy making. I’d like to see a debate about choice-and-voice-lite. Policy makers decide where the state needs to intervene, and in what way, and there is a default option for service. If members of the public are dissatisfied with that they can then exercise either choice or voice. But neither should be seen as hoops we have to jump through – consider three hospitals etc. – before we are allowed access to the service.

Since this is my first post on LabourWomen, it also seems appropriate to point out that much of this choice is exercised by women in their role as primary carers of children (school choice) or the sick (hospital choice). Too often, for too many, it can be just another burden.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

The Middle East - my first impressions as a westerner

Before I came here, I had only ever travelled to Europe and the East Coast of the US. My first few weeks in the Middle East have been fantastic and I have many stories to tell of what it is like to live and work in the Middle East as a single Western woman. Hopefully, I will be able to find the time somewhere between the desert, the shopping malls and corporate law to share my stories on this blog as the weeks pass and as I begin to understand my role here.
The heat was shock enough - 35 degrees and it's only March. Checking into my hotel, the receptionist was looking confused and asked me if I was "Mr..." and I confirmed, with a grin, that I was not. He then asked me whether my husband was accompanying me and, having already been warned by the Resident's Guide never to admit to not actually having a husband, I confirmed that he was not. I wake up the next day at 5am and am completely disorientated and the call to prayer only confuses things further. Luckily, that was the only morning (so far) where the call to prayer has woken me up.
I soon venture outside wearing fairly modest clothes: skirt over the knee and a top covering my shoulders. The staring begins. Apart from being a weird to have men staring at you and your legs, it's emotionally draining. I walk to and from work and have to keep my eyes focused on a spot in the distance so as not to make eye contact with anyone, just in case it provokes them to start talking to me. Last week I was walking home from the gym with a male friend and every man that walked past me would watch me as they approached and then turn their heads towards me as they walked past. This makes it rather difficult to have any kind of normal conversation! As you can imagine, this has been the main theme of my first few weeks here and I fully expect it to continue for the next 5 months. It has start to make me wonder: is this how we stare at Muslim women in Britain?
It is illegal to cohabit here, it is illegal to have children before marriage (I know of one women who had to marry her long-term partner and father of her children just so she could move here) and it is apparently even illegal to hold hands with your partner in public if you are not married. I applied for my resident's visa yesterday which is a long process involving an eye exam, blood test and X-ray - I was asked whether I was married 4 times by 3 different people. The visa application form includes a box for details of your wife but there is no box for the details of your husband because if you are a woman you would be on your husband's form - you certainly wouldn't be travelling alone.
The working week is Sunday -Thursday which is rubbish when I turn up to work on a Sunday morning envious of those lazy afternoons on Hampstead Heath, but absolutely magic when I'm lying on the beach on a Friday afternoon sending photos of my toes in the sand to folks back home. I have joined a hotel beach club which is mainly full of expats and is almost a "safe haven" where women can wear bikinis and you can drink cocktails by the pool. You need an alcohol license to buy alcohol in shops, but women are only allocated half the amount that men are allowed!

On the subject of women being entitled to half of what a man is, you may have been pleased to read the recent change to Iranian law which allows women to recover the same amount as men from insurance companies (in cases of death or injury). This means that up until the law was changed, Iranian insurance law literally valued a woman's life as being half of a man's!
I'll finish this post off with my favourite story so far. I was in a taxi and got chatting to the driver who was telling me how many times he had visited London and what he thought of it. He began to praise the public transport system and how amazing it was that you could "buy one ticket and use it for unlimited travel" and then suddenly he exclaimed "WOMEN even drive the double-decker buses!!" Indeed they do...they also run the country!

Monday, 23 March 2009

All Women Shortlists Revisited

The male dominated blogosphere in Scotland is awash with posts about All Women Shortlists and the current selection process for Airdrie and Shotts.

Thought I'd take this opportunity to share with you my take on events as a politically active woman in Scottish politics with a few broader views on the health of party politics thrown in as well.

Grateful to hear your views.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Jade Goody

As tributes pour in for the late Jade Goody I stop for a moment to ponder on how this young woman's brave fight against cervical cancer has touched us all. Told four years ago that her symptoms were caused by stress she went about her daily life unaware she would be ravaged by this deadly cancer. As girls become sexually active before they reach their teens there is an urgent need for the Government to review the age at which cervical screening starts. To leave the first screening until 25 as at present is taking too big a chance. Jade has died at 27 leaving her 2 young sons and her husband and her family grieving. She need not have died so young.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Our membership in the EU still matters!

I’ve noticed that lately, the Guardian has strengthened the virtual voice of some Eurosceptics by allowing them to blog on their comment is free website. This week alone, two of the contributors were an MEP from the UK Independence Party (whose role is an oxymoron in itself) and a senior figure from the Europhobe think tank Open Europe. That is, of course, the Guardian’s prerogative. But it reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend a couple of days ago. In between a couple of pints she laid out the question: If we left the EU now, would it really matter?

After two years in this country, I really get the island mentality. As much as I would like to change it, it seems that a lot of even my most pro-European friends simply still think of “Europe” when they talk about the continent. And after 60 years of peace and 36 years of membership of the European Union, I can also understand why the benefits of this membership are sometimes taken for granted. So what would change if the UK left the EU (as Cameron’s Conservatives still sometimes threaten to do?)

The 1.6 million British citizens who currently live in another EU country would lose their right to do so. The 7,000 British students who take part in the ERASMUS exchange every year would no longer be entitled to participate in it. The rules of the single market, which is Britain’s best hope to find a way out of the current recession, would no longer be co-decided by a British Government. The 50 million visits made by the British to the continent every year would become difficult and more expensive.

Not only the rest of Europe, but also the US would probably look at the UK with some bewilderment. The role of being the bridge between Europe and the US would no longer suit a country that quite frankly would have affronted and rejected its neighbours by leaving the Union. And while the times of the British Empire are simply over and will not be won back by a trip into isolation, this isolation would certainly weaken the UK’s role in the world.

Britain does not only play an important part in Europe, it also is an important part of it. Europe is not about living next to each other, it’s about living together. As long as this idea is alive, membership in the European Union still matters. We should remember that for the upcoming European Elections on 4th June.