Observations from the Labour Party Conference 6: How should the left engage with British Muslims?

At a joint fringe organised by Progress and the Quilliam Foundation the question of engagement with British Muslims was debated in depth.  Four key messages emerged (articulated right at the beginning by Ed Husain, author of ‘The Islamist’):

  • you don’t engage with British Muslims as Muslims (every Muslim is like everyone else – an individual with their own interests and preoccupations);
  • don’t just go through mosques to engage (just as no-one would try and reach the white working class just through Church of England vicars);
  • don’t rely on self-appointed “community representatives”; and
  • don’t shy away from confronting “brown fascists”.

The central point for me – as someone who spent the best part of thirty years trying to build community cohesion in London – is that engagement with any community only flows from building a relationship with that community over a long period.  You cannot just be “fair weather friends”.

There is no point in a local councillor asking for people’s support at election time – he or she needs to be seen to working in their interests and listening to their concerns all the time and not just in the four weeks before a council election.

The same applies in building community cohesion: it is offensive (and certainly counter-productive) just to talk to a community when you are worried about violent extremism; you have to build a long-term relationship based on addressing the issues that matter to that community and then you are in a position to have a serious dialogue on more difficult issues.

London Borough Council elections in May 2010 – some early predictions

I was interested in Sean Fear’s analysis on Political Betting of how the London Borough elections will pan out next May.  His predictions (bear in mind he is a Tory activist) give the political map of London Government becoming:

  • Conservative  16  (he calls Ealing, Kingston, Merton and Sutton as Tory in what will be close contests)
  • Labour  8 (he calls Islington as a Labour gain from the LibDems)
  • LibDems  1
  • No Overall Control  6
  • Too close to call  1 (Haringey – between Labour and the LibDems)

I’ve not done my own calculations yet.  However, his analysis looks reasonably plausible, although I would want more information from a number of places before taking a firm view.

In July 2005, I was asked by John McTiernan, then Political Secretary to the then Prime Minister, for my assessment of what would happen in May 2006 in the London elections.  I gave my view Borough by Borough (which subsequently turned out to be almost exactly correct).  This was dismissed as “much too pessimistic” and was told “what you are forgetting is that by next Spring the situation in Iraq will have really improved and we will have got the ID cards legislation through and that’s going to be seriously popular”.  I make no comment on the political judgement expressed ……

Eighty A-level students “Discover Parliament” and get me instead

The Parliament Education Service runs an annual Discover Parliament Programme aimed at 16-18 year olds studying higher level politics, citizenship and general studies.  This afternoon I met 80 students taking part in the Programme.  They were from three schools in Pinner, Chelmsford and Bristol.

As ever on such occasions, the questioning was lively, sometimes challenging and extremely wide-ranging.  We covered – amongst other things – such topics as:

  • aren’t MPs too old (I’d explained that the average age of members of the House of Lords is 69);
  • why aren’t 16 year olds allowed to vote or to sit in Parliament;
  • what did I think of Gordon Brown;
  • should taxes be put up in the current economic situation;
  • should the age for getting a driving licence change;
  • what were my views about David Cameron, Lord Mandelson and the BNP (interesting grouping);
  • what should be done about knife crime and gangs;
  • was “kettling” of G20 protesters fair (from a teacher);
  • should children be taught more about current affairs;
  • did the LibDems have a better record on MPs’ expenses;
  • is the threat of terrorism rising;
  • should there be limits on immigration;
  • was the war in Iraq right; and
  • did I think Labour would win the next General Election and when would it be?

As I said, a lively hour – and an exhilarating one too.

Effectively, these Discover Parliament programmes can only take place during school term time and when Parliament is not sitting.  In practice that means they are only possible for about four weeks a year from the early part of September.  A by-product of Speaker John Bercow’s proposal to shorten Parliament’s summer recess might well be to end these programmes. Whatever the merits or otherwise of Parliament sitting in September (something I personally would favour), it would be a retrograde step to lose this outreach work with young people.

Local Labour Party branch selection meeting

Last night I went to my local Labour Party branch meeting to vote on who will be the Labour Party’s council candidates in my ward in the elections next May.  The ward I live in is now held by the Liberal Democrats with a substantial majority (although twenty years ago, it was one of the safest Labour areas in the Borough).  As a result, my branch is timetabled to select towards the end of the selection process, giving Labour-held wards and those which are more marginal than mine an opportunity to choose their candidates from the panel of approved candidates earlier.

I therefore approached the meeting with some trepidation, as in previous selection rounds those branches selecting at the end of the cycle have often had a less than impressive range of people to consider.  I was therefore pleasantly surprised with the potential candidates we interviewed last night.  All of them would have made extremely good election candidates and – even more importantly – would have made excellent councillors.  Indeed, trying to decide between them was difficult – I would happily have supported any of them.

Anyway, at the end of the meeting the members present voted and three successful candidates emerged and it is without reservations that I wish Ali, Joanne and John every success in their campaign over the next eight months.

Will Mayor Johnson be on his own by this time next year?

Mayor Boris Johnson has taken to quipping that – as a sign of Conservative economy – he has cut the number of Deputy Mayors from six to three since taking office.  This neatly glosses over some inconvenient facts: first, that one of the first acts of Mayor Johnson was to INCREASE the number of Deputy Mayors (adding five personal appointees to the statutory position held by Richard Barnes AM, who was given the substantive position of being responsible for opening garden fetes and the like); and second, that three of those appointees have had to resign in somewhat embarrassing circumstances.

However, how many of his diminished top team will still be there by this time next year?  Rumour has it that the answer is “not many”.

According to Paul Waugh in the Evening Standard, Anthony Browne, the Mayor’s Policy Director, is about to resign to concentrate on becoming MP for Devizes.

James Cleverly AM, the amiable Assembly Member for Bexley and Bromley, clearly has his eye on the Parliamentary seat of Beckenham that is about to be vacated by Jacqui Lait – look at the picture on his blog post).

Likewise, the UVCDMKMAM, Kit Malthouse AM, is – I am reliably informed – letting it be known that he is available for a Parliamentary seat.

And the by-now-indispensible Deputy Mayor and Chief of Staff, Sir Simon Milton, is widely tipped to be made a Life Peer by David Cameron and appointed as a Minister in the Lords, in the obviously inconceivable circumstance of a Tory election win next year.

So who will that leave to mind the shop for Mayor Johnson?

Step forward that safe pair of hands Brian Coleman AM ….. your time will come!

All change at the Association of Police Authorities as a Tory Chair is elected for the first time ever

The Association of Police Authorities has elected a Tory Chair for the first time in its history.  At the APA’s Annual General Meeting this morning Rob Garnham, a Conservative County Councillor from Gloucestershire and Chair of Gloucestershire Police Authority, beat Labour’s Mark Burns-Williamson, Chair of West Yorkshire Police Authority, by 37 votes to 29.

He will be the first non-Labour Chair of the APA succeeding Bob Jones who stood down after four years in office, who had in turn succeeded Baroness Ruth Henig.

The margin was less than expected – the number of Labour-led Police Authorities has been shrinking as Labour’s presence in local government has declined.

There had been a last-minute flurry when it was being suggested that Paul Murphy, Labour Chair of Greater Manchester Police Authority, might stand a better chance, but in the event the Labour Group stuck with its original nomination.

Rob Garnham’s hustings speech revealed him though to be an opponent of Conservative policy on elected police commissioners (which will have endeared him to most of those present) and he told the meeting how he had challenged Chris Grayling, the Shadow Home Secretary, on this at a private meeting earlier in the month.

Rob Garnham will be joined by two Deputy Chairs, Mark Burns-Williamson and Ann Barnes (the “Independent” Chair of Kent Police Authority, whose hobby I am told is amateur dramatics and about whom one delegate remarked caustically, “She gives good platitude”).

In addition, the APA has recently appointed a new Executive Director, Mark Castle – an Army Brigadier whose most recent assignment was to try and create a properly accountable and non-corrupt police force in Iraq.  These are clearly skills that the appointments panel thought would come in handy dealing with the Association of Chief Police Officers, recently reinvigorated by its new President, Sir Hugh Orde.

The leitmotif throughout was that for police authorities at least “There is trouble ahead ….”

Are Wiltshire Councillors living on the Planet Zog?

It appears that nine Wiltshire Councillors (six Conservatives, two Independents and one Liberal Democrat) are living on the Planet Zog and are trying to persuade the rest of the Council to join them there.

They have put down a motion calling on the Council to withdraw its support for the Nottingham Declaration on Climate Change – a declaration supported by the vast majority of English local councils.

They are not doing this because they believe that such declarations are not worth the paper they are written on unless they are backed up by real actions.  Nor are they doing it because they feel that Wiltshire is failing to do enough to merit being a signatory.

Their reasons are apparently that they believe that the Declaration itself is “contentious, unreasonable and ultimately damaging” and that the idea that climate change is man-made is “founded on the sand of uncertainty” and relies on “the unproven significance” of man-made greenhouse gas emissions in determining climate.

It remains to be seen what their colleagues on the Council will make of this, but I suspect – despite the eco-friendly noises made by the Party Leadership – this is a fair reflection of what the Conservative Party (or at least its grassroots element) really believes.

The Conservative Party in Europe has already linked itself to the Planet Zog fraternity by leaving the EPP Grouping (already a pretty broad Church).  Here is more evidence of a Party occupied by Zog dwellers.

Another step towards a democratically-commissioned health service?

Local Government Chronicle is reporting that plans are nearly finalised for a “health integration board” covering fifteen London Borough Councils and their respective NHS Primary Care Trusts.  To be honest the article is rather fuzzy as to what precisely is happening, but the idea is clearly to look at ways of integrating the work of commissioning local health services with the similar work that the Boroughs do in respect of social care.  Already the Chief Executive of Hammersmith and Fulham Council doubles as Chief Executive of the Primary Care Trust and there are a number of models of joint commissioning around in London and elsewhere.

The key point in this is that it will be a move to providing some local democratic ownership of NHS decision-making.  It runs rather contrary to the approach that is being promoted by the Department of Communities and Local Government whereby local authorities are taking on a wider scrutiny role for local public services in their area (which would obviously includes health).  However, as far as the public are concerned, a model that enables their democratically-elected local councillors to take the strategic decisions about the shape of local healthcare is probably more transparent and attractive than a model where those same councillors are merely empowered to ask questions of the unelected bodies that are responsible for the NHS.

The long-term direction of travel remains unresolved and a London Health Integration Board will certainly be worth watching to see what it delivers.

Becoming a Peer 3: North London meets the Feudal System

I have been posting about the experience of becoming a member of the House of Lords (see here and here).

Before you can take your seat, you have to have a series of meetings with a number of strange and wonderful feudal functionaries with mediaeval titles.  Like Black Rod – or to give him his proper title: The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, then General Sir Edward Jones  KCB CBE. Or jonese@parliament.uk to give him his e-mail address.

Then you have to see Mr Peter Gwynn-Jones LVO, who is the Garter Principal King of Arms, to “settle the question of your title”.  You don’t know who the Garter Principal King of Arms is?  That’s easy.  He’s the Chief Herald.  Still not clear?  Let me give you a clue: he’s the one who dresses up like a playing card in the State Opening of Parliament.

Now I had been warned about him.  I was told he might be difficult.  So I wrote to him in advance to ask him what the rules were regarding the choice of titles.  By return of post I got back a letter saying that Garter (as he likes to be known) has discretion under Rules (capital R) agreed by Her Majesty the Queen.  So that puts people like you and me in our place.

And then the letter went on for three or four paragraphs to summarise these rules.  But what it actually said was that you should call yourself after an area that was neither too small nor too large. Frankly, not too helpful.

Now I knew that I wanted to call myself after Haringey, the Borough I had been brought up in, live in and whose Council I had led for nearly twelve years.  But I was aware of one problem: Andrew McIntosh, then Deputy Chief Whip in the Lords, was already called Lord McIntosh of Haringey.  Could I use the same place name?

Anyway the appointed time came for my meeting with Garter at Garter House in the College of Arms (where else would you expect it to be?).  So I explained my concern.

“Oh, that’s not a problem” came the immediate reply.  “Who would mistake a Harris for a McIntosh?””

“Fine,” I said.  “Where do I sign?”

“Oh no, you can’t call yourself Harris of Haringey.  It’s against the Rules.  London Boroughs are now too important for mere life peers to be called after them.”

“But what about McIntosh of Haringey, or Turner of Camden, or Fisher of Lambeth, or for that matter Morris of Manchester.  There is even another Harris – this time of Greenwich.”

“Oh I think you’ll find that their titles were all created before the Rules were changed.”

All of this was beginning to take on even more of an Alice in Wonderland feel.  I began to understand why Garter dresses up as a playing card.  Every time I mentioned a name called after a London Borough, a dusty card index was produced.  A card would be pulled out, waved triumphantly, and I would be told “No that was in 1991 before the Rules were changed.”

“Are these rules actually written down.”

This was an insult:  “Of course they are” and a dusty paper was pulled from the bottom of a pile of papers and read out aloud.

“But that doesn’t say what you said the rules said.”

A pause.  Garter looks at the paper.  “Aah.  That’s because these are the 1963 rules.”

What was being proposed was that I should call myself after part of Haringey.  And I kept explaining that I couldn’t do that because I had spent the last ten years trying to hold the different parts of Haringey together.  I couldn’t show favouritism to one part at this stage.

Haringey could not be permitted.  If the Rule was bent for me, then everyone would want to be called after a London Borough.  And where would that end?

Eventually, to try to be helpful, I said, “What if I call myself Harris of Hornsey, Wood Green and Tottenham?” – thereby covering all the constituent parts.

There was a long pause while Garter digested this.

“Well, it’s not actually against the rules, Mr Harris, but ask yourself is it practicable?  People will shorten it.  The newspapers in particular.  Then there will be confusion.  There will be trouble.  People will complain.”  I had a vision of the massed ranks of Lords Harris marching on the College of Arms.

Finally, I said “Look we seem to have an impasse here.  I want to call myself Harris of Haringey.  You tell me that’s against the Rules – Rules you yourself have changed in the last few years.  The alternative is Harris of Hornsey, Wood Green and Tottenham that we both agree is a little unwieldy.  Would you like time to think it over?”

Now I don’t think that anyone had ever suggested that Garter should think something over before – certainly not a mere Life Peer.

We arranged to meet a week later.  “But there’s no point in coming back if you are not prepared to be more flexible,” he warned.

Anyway, a week later I returned – stubborn as ever – to be greeted by a beaming Garter.  “Mr Harris, you are in luck.  I have found a precedent.” Pause for effect.  “There is a Lord McIntosh of Haringey.

“I know, we talked about him last week.  I’ve known him for thirty years.”

It was though I hadn’t spoken.

“If my predecessor in his infinite wisdom, decreed that he could be called after Haringey, I don’t see how I can prevent you doing the same.”

Huge relief all round.  Where do I sign?

“There is one little thing you could do for me.”

Warning bells ringing.  “Yes?”

“I’ve been checking in the Domesday Book.”  (As one does.)  “Would you mind using the alternative spelling of Haringey – with two “R”s and an “A”?”

So I said: “Well, you do realise don’t you that in the local area Harringay spelt like that is either associated in people’s minds with a Sainsbury’s Superstore or with the old greyhound racing stadium.  I mean do you think it’s really fitting for a Life Peer to be called after a greyhound stadium?”

There was a very long pause.  “I think you’re going to win on this one, Mr Harris.”

So that’s how I became Lord Harris of Haringey.

But then we came to the really serious part of the meeting.

“Here in the College of Arms, we always feel very sorry for Life Peers.  They have nothing to hand on to their children.”

At this point a price list was slid across the table.  “A coat of arms at £4,035 costs less than a car and lasts forever.”  (I believe the price has risen since then.)

“What do people use them for,” I said.

Another question that hadn’t been asked before.  “Well, people used to put them on their shields when they rode into battle.”

However, I have to admit that I wasn’t convinced that it would come in useful in the hurly-burly of London politics.

So now – or at least once my Letters Patent had been Sealed – I was a Lord.  The final step was to take up my seat.

Becoming a Peer 2: The wait

A couple of days ago I posted about the telephone call that contained the offer to become a member of the House of Lords.  This is what happened next.

Having accepted the offer, I was still sworn to secrecy.  I filled in a form so my nomination could be vetted and then I heard nothing more.  I discovered subsequently that this was quite normal, but it certainly felt strange.  I was supposed to be reorganising my life, giving up full-time paid employment, creating an alternative income, but I had nothing in writing to say it was actually going to happen.

Despite the urgency with which I had been asked to make my decision (“We do need to know by the end of the week”), the rest of April 1998 and the whole of May passed without any announcement.  And, of course, I knew that the Labour Party was quite capable of changing its mind about such matters.

Then in June a contact in the North East told me of a conversation about my putative candidature for the National Executive Committee of the Party.  One of the trade union regional officials there had asked Peter Mandelson (very much a power in the land in 1998, although not quite to the same galactic extent that he is now – still “Prince of Darkness”, not yet “pussycat”) what he thought about me standing for the NEC.   Apparently, Peter’s response was not entirely positive:  “Toby Harris is precisely the wrong sort of person to be a member of the NEC – the last thing we want is another middle-aged, white, overweight, bearded local government leader from London.”  So if that was the received wisdom about the NEC, what about the House of Lords?

At this point, I cracked and rang Downing Street:  “Oh yes, you’re still on the list.  It’s just that Tony’s been very busy with Northern Ireland and so on.”

Finally, at the end of the first week in July, a letter arrived saying my name had been forwarded to the Queen – and the formal announcement came seven days later.

If the wait had felt a strange and surreal experience, it was still no preparation for the process following the announcement up to the moment I was introduced and took my seat.