The Andrew Mitchell I knew twenty years ago

I got through four Opposition Leaders in my time as Leader of Haringey Council.  One subsequently stood unsuccessfully for the London Assembly, another became an Alderman of the City of London Corporation, and the third lapsed into obscurity as a junior LibDem minister in the Coalition government.

The fourth was Andrew Mitchell.After he stood down from Haringey Council, he went on to have a glittering career as a barrister, becoming a QC and head of his own Chambers. I understand he is now the leading legal expert on asset confiscation and forfeiture.  He was an effective and challenging (from my point of view) Leader of the Opposition and could usually be relied on to highlight substantive policy issues and (painfully) any – and it did happen sometimes – weaknesses there might be in the argument I was putting forward.

He was also unfailingly courteous and polite.

From which you will gather he is not the same Andrew Mitchell as the new Government Chief Whip and star of PlebGate

However, it might have been easy to get confused.

And so – a little bird tells me – twenty years ago, Andrew “Pleb” Mitchell summoned Andrew “Haringey” Mitchell to see him in the House of Commons to tell him that the Conservative Party was too small for there to be two Andrew Mitchell’s in it.

The solution was straightforward said Andrew “Pleb” Mitchell, you (ie Andrew “Haringey” Mitchell) must change your name to avoid this confusion.

So Pleb’s arrogance was there even then.  It is not something he has acquired with high office – he was always like that.

“Total Politics” blog rankings

I am not getting too excited about it – in fact, I am not getting excited at all – but “Total Politics” have been publishing their latest ranking of political blogs in the UK.  This year, the arrangements changed requiring a lot more effort from those who wanted to vote and I don’t know what that did to the level of participation in the exercise, as the background data is not published.

However, for what it is worth, this blog has been rated as 228th in the list of the top three hundred political blogs in the UK.  Apparently, this is an upward move: I was (although not aware of it) in 271st place last year.  At least, I am above Lynne Featherstone who comes in at 252nd.

The blog is also 33rd in the list of the top one hundred Labour blogs and personally I am 87th in the list of the top one hundred Labour bloggers (this is presumably not a bad result as David Miliband is at 72nd place and Ed Balls at 73rd with Tony Benn in the 90th spot).


Total Politics 2011 Blog Awards

I gather that the Total Politics Blog Awards are now in progress.  I want to make it quite clear that I will not be in the least bit affronted should you chose to vote for this blog by clicking here.

…and by popular request, my speech on the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill

By popular request (well one person asked for it …), here is my speech from yesterday afternoon’s debate on the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill:

“My Lords, I first declare an interest as a member and former chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority, and also as a vice-president of the Association of Police Authorities. The noble Baroness, Lady Harris, has given good service to the House today by moving her amendment, if for no other reason than that it will enable us to have a free-ranging debate in Committee. I hope that it will be a useful introduction to the Minister in her new role; it will enable us to rehearse the arguments for her benefit as well.

The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, is worried that we might pass the amendment, which would be discourteous. However, it would provide an opportunity for-in the current jargon of the coalition-a pause. Apparently pauses are a good thing because they allow the coalition partners to consider whether they are departing on precisely the right track. This would be useful in the context of the Bill. The central objective that the Government have put before us of improving the democratic accountability of the police service is right. I hope that no one in the House would disagree with the principle. The question is whether the mechanism that has been put forward will achieve that objective, or whether it will have unintended consequences. The work of this Committee over the next few weeks or months may be to look in some detail at how this will work in practice, and whether there could be unintended consequences.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, I have no problem with the principle of direct election. I work on the basis that elections are a rather good way of determining who should have ultimate responsibility for things. However, what distinguishes this proposal is that we are talking about the direct election of an individual who will be given tremendous responsibilities, but without a suitable governance structure to prevent a situation in which the individual might make capricious judgments or seek to trespass on the operational independence that chief constables hold so dear. The Bill would give an individual tremendous authority, but without the governance structures, checks and balances that would be necessary given the importance of the role.

When I chaired the police authority in London, I would have welcomed the additional authority that would have been given to me had I been directly
elected to fulfil the role. I was a directly elected member of the London Assembly, but that was slightly different from being directly elected to be in charge of the police service for London. I would have welcomed that additional authority. No doubt it would have been helpful to my relationship with the commissioner of police for the metropolis, the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, who has just left us. It would have been particularly important for my relationship with other elected colleagues such as other members of the London Assembly, local council leaders and so forth. I would have been able to say, “This gives me the authority on behalf of the people of London to say what is necessary”, but I would have been operating in the context of checks and balances on what I could and could not do. I would have had other authority members and the scrutiny processes that were in place with the London Assembly. Therefore, it would not have been untrammelled power. I would have had that responsibility and extra authority, but there would have been these mechanisms around.

What is so striking about this Bill is that those mechanisms are virtually absent. We will be told that the policing and crime panels offer that substitute governance structure, but they are essentially scrutiny bodies after the event. They are not part of the decision-taking structure and are not there, except in extremis, to say that a decision has been taken inappropriately. The spirit of partnership with other colleagues is so crucial in this area.

5 pm

There is nothing wrong with the principle of direct election, and if that is something that the Government feel is absolutely central to what they are trying to achieve here, that is fine, but around this single individual, if that is what we are to have, there must be a proper governance structure. The danger is that because a number of us, perhaps in all parts of the House, have concerns about the single individual, we will set around that individual not mechanisms of good governance, but limits to their authority and to their ability to make the police service accountable to the local community. The danger is that those extra mechanisms may reduce the quality of accountability and the extent to which the police are accountable to their local communities. If you simply say, “We will give the policing and crime panel more of an opportunity to have a go at the policing and crime commissioner”, that is all well and good, but let us be quite clear that they will then be very political environments. You will have an elected politician, and I share the view that this will almost certainly be someone from a political party. It may exceptionally not be, but it will usually be, and if it is not, it will make the matter worse because they will then be dealing with a policing and crime panel that will be virtually entirely made up of elected politicians from the various political parties. This will then be a party-political forum in which the aim will be to criticise the decisions of the policing and crime commissioner. It will all be good fun, but it will do nothing about the accountability of the police service.

In the Second Reading debate, I referred to the last meeting of the Metropolitan Police Authority that I attended. It was an example of the visible answerability
of the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis in that there was a series of major items with which the public were seriously engaged. It required the acting commissioner to make a public apology to those present and, through the media, to London as a whole for failures in respect of two investigations. In one instance, the family of the person who had been murdered was present to hear that apology. That is something you throw away at your peril. There was also a large group there that was concerned about the death of Smiley Culture. The sight of the police being seen to be answerable to people representing the public is very important in incidents of that sort. The danger, the unintended consequence, of the Government’s attempt to improve the democratic accountability of the police may be that you lose that visible answerability and that opportunity for different sections of the community to come together. We have not heard an answer about how that is to be replicated.

The noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones, suggested at Second Reading that the occasions when the chief officer of police meets the elected policing and crime commissioner could perhaps be held in public, but I do not see how that can work. It is a discussion à deux. There would be TV crews and newspaper reporters would be taking notes. This is not the way accountability operates. We are talking about how you recreate that visible answerability and provide a mechanism whereby an individual elected to this important role is protected from acting capriciously or unnecessarily. I am not suggesting that, in the way of former Roman emperors, they should have somebody going around whispering in their ear that they were mortal, but if there are to be people elected by perhaps 1 million people in some of the larger police areas who have that direct responsibility and no governance structure around them, there has to be some mechanism which reminds them of their wider responsibility and helps them to avoid making capricious decisions or decisions which favour one part of a community rather than another. That is why that structure is needed around what is proposed.

The Government are not wrong to pursue the principle of direct election, nor are they wrong to pursue the principle of improving democratic accountability, but it is important that they get the mechanism right. I am happy to support the amendment because it provides an opportunity to pause and look in more detail at how these mechanisms might be made to work effectively. The Government are in danger of weakening the principle of accountability and of making visible answerability disappear. Under the circumstances, the principle of British policing based on consent, where people can see that the police service is operating in their interests and those of the whole community, is in danger of being thrown away. That is why the amendment and the discussions that we will be having in Committee are so important.”

Why I am voting for Ken Livingstone as Labour candidate for London Mayor in 2012

In the run up to the first Mayoral elections in 2000 I was anything but a Ken Livingstone supporter.  Indeed, I even wrote an article in the Evening Standard entitled “London Deserves Better” arguing that neither Ken nor the emerging Conservative candidate at the time (one Jeffrey Archer – before he went to prison) were suitable candidates to be London Mayor.

But that was before I worked with Ken during his first term as Mayor.  For those four years, I led the Labour Group on the London Assembly and chaired the Metropolitan Police Authority and I saw at close quarters Ken’s commitment to London, his political courage and determination, and his ability to make things happen.

And a lot did happen.  There was the successful introduction of the congestion charge – something that most pundits were convinced would never happen when the provision was first included in the Greater London Authority Bill.  It required vision, drive and an attention to detail.  And Ken showed that he had all three.

There was the transformation of the bus service in London – so that the capital became the only part of the country where there was a shift of traffic away from other transport modes.  And, of course, those four years saw the birth of the Oyster Card – then an innovation, now an integral part of London life.

At the same time, London’s policing was turned round: morale increased; the haemorrhaging of police numbers (which had started under Conservative Home Secretary, Michael Howard) was reversed; Police Community Support Officers were introduced and began their visible patrols all over London, leading to the creation of Safer Neighbourhood Teams in every Council ward in the city; and crime rates that had been increasing for years started to come down.

In Ken’s second term, I was less closely involved.  However, all Londoners saw the leadership that successfully won the bid to host the Olympics and Paralympics in 2012 and that brought London together following the terror attacks in July 2005.  There was also the leadership shown on climate change, which established London as one of the leading cities in combatting the effects of global warming.

All of this was a big contrast with the Boris Johnson Mayorality, where despite the frequent announcements of “new” initiatives that either turn into damp squibs, like the “Story of London Festival“, or are re-packaged initiatives started under Ken’s period as Mayor.  The major so-called success has been the new cycle hire scheme – again originally initiated by Ken – but with the details mismanaged by Boris Johnson and his team – see the analysis by Helen at Boris Watch.

So why should Ken be the candidate in 2012?

The first point to make is that he is the best-qualified candidate.  An effective London Mayor must have a coherent vision for London.  And this means much more than merely stringing together a series of half-worked-through ideas.  Ken has that vision – a vision he has been refining and articulating throughout his political life.  What is more London’s Mayor must be committed to the job.  It should not be regarded as a stepping stone to some different office (as the current incumbent clearly regards it), nor should it be a consolation prize for someone who has failed in their political career elsewhere.  Ken is committed to London and I have already mentioned his political courage and determination, coupled with his ability to make things happen.

The second point is the breadth and clarity about what he would want to achieve for London and Londoners in the next Mayoral term.  This includes:

  • the visionary proposal to make London the world’s first ‘Smart City’, utilising cutting-edge technology to the full;
  • introducing electric buses to cut emissions;
  • managing the tube upgrades more effectively so as to minimise disruption;
  • refocussing housing investment on affordable housing;
  • reinvigorating London’s cultural life with a commitment to live music;
  • protecting and promoting jobs in London by engaging directly with the world’s great economies and capitalising on London’s diversity and diaspora to make this a reality;
  • making the Living Wage a condition of procurement; and
  • rebuilding the consensus on major infrastructure projects in London to strengthen not only London’s economy but to benefit the UK as a whole.

Can he win?  ConservativeHome clearly think he can, pointing out that “London isn’t the most hospitable territory for the Tories” and that it “won’t be easy” for Boris Johnson.  And as Steve Hart’s detailed analysis has shown the 2008 election:

“took place on a very bad night for Labour  …..  one of the worst nights of local election results since before the second world war, with Labour polling 24%.  …. On this terrible night for Labour Ken Livingstone actually increased his first preference votes from 685,541 in 2004, to 893,877 in 2008. This was not simply a consequence of a higher poll. He actually increased his share of first preference votes by 1.3% from 35.7 per cent to 37 per cent (the London wide Labour member vote increased by 0.32 per cent to 27.12 per cent, which was 10 per cent behind Ken?s vote).

Any reasonable interpretation of these results would suggest that on virtually any other Thursday of the last five years, Ken would have been likely to win. Ken?s share was higher than Labour achieved on General Election night in London – when the national results had Labour 10 per cent better than in 2008. On this alone, it is clear than Ken was outperforming Labour by a wide margin and also that, to a lesser extent, London Labour outperformed the rest of the country.”

The message is that Ken has consistently out-performed Labour in the elections he has stood in and as Steve Hart concludes:

“The evidence that Ken is a substantial electoral asset across London is substantial, whereas the only evidence regarding Oona is that she has lost a safe seat; and nothing whatsoever suggests that Ken?s rival for the nomination is an asset in any other part of London.”

Now this does not mean that Ken Livingstone is without his flaws – indeed no political leader with any flair ever can be.  Nor does it mean that I agree with all the judgements he made during his terms as Mayor (I disagreed, for example, with his decision to extend the original Congestion Charge zone westwards rather than creating a separate zone).  However, I am clear that having Ken Livingstone back as London’s Mayor would be good for London and Londoners and that Ken Livingstone is the candidate best-placed to win the Mayorality for Labour and to get rid of the current ill-focused and chaotic regime.

Patronage and the House of Lords – Radio 4’s “A Touch of Ermine”

Yesterday’s Radio 4 “Beyond Westminster” programme, “A Touch of Ermine” contained an interesting discussion featuring Mehdi Hasan and Meg Russell debating the role of patronage in British politics and the future of the House of Lords.

I provide some local colour being interviewed by Michael Dobbs (author of “House of Cards”) recorded over coffee on the Lords Terrace last month (with the extraneous noises of the police helicopter and motor launches edited out, along with my response to one question “As somebody once said, you might say that, but I couldn’t possibly comment”).

I thought two important points emerged.  The first was (I said it, so it must be important) that we have not yet had the debate about what we want the Second Chamber of Parliament to do – and that really needs to take place before we embark on the next round of reform.  The second came from Meg Russell who pointed out that electing the Second Chamber would not necessarily remove the element of patronage from who become members of the new Chamber.

The Repeat Season: “I become Minister of Death for the day ….”

From 24th November 2009:

I spent a big chunk of yesterday visiting Broadmoor Special Hospital, in my capacity as Chair of the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody.  The visit was fascinating, staff were very generous with their time and I learned a lot.

I also enjoyed the security arrangements, which are rather more rigorous than most that I have encountered.  You need a photo-ID, you provide two fingerprints for matching on entering and leaving the hospital, most electronic items have to be left in lockers outside the hospital, and you need to go through a metal detector as well as being searched.  When all that is completed you are issued with a visitors’ identity badge, which carries your photograph, your name and job title or designation.

Presumably, when it came to a job title, only a certain number of characters could be entered on the badge and “Chair of the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody (Ministry of Justice)” obviously didn’t fit.  I found myself bearing the label: “Lord Toby Harris, Minister of Death”.

Fortunately, the font size was quite small, so I think (hope?) that none of the patients could read it ….

The Repeat Season: “Sainsbury’s home delivery service excels itself”

From 1 November 2009:

We do a regular shop from Sainsbury’s using the home delivery service selecting items on-line.  Those who do likewise will know that if the item you want is not available Sainsbury’s will carefully select for you an equivalent purchase – unless you have ticked the “No substitution” box.

This morning’s groceries arrived with only one substitution.  We had ordered four 125gm bars of Wrights Coal Tar Soap (you will be pleased to note that the Harris household washes).

However, instead of this:

See full size image

Sainsbury’s sent:

four three-packs of Wrigleys Orbit Complete Strawberry flavour chewing gum.

I am still trying to work out the thought processes of those who made the substitution.

The Repeat Season: “Eighty A-level students “Discover Parliament” and get me instead”

From 25th September 2009:

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.

The Repeat Season: “Becoming a Peer 4: The Introduction”

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

A date was set for my Introduction.  This is a formal process where you are robed up (the one and only time that I have worn the robes) and led into the Chamber at the beginning of the day’s business.

You form part of a procession involving both Black Rod and Garter, together with two colleagues also in robes who “introduce” you (in my case, the two introducers were Lords Andrew McIntosh – the other Haringey – and Frank Judd, both of whom I had known since I was a teenager). Then you listen to your Letters Patent being read out, swear or affirm (I affirmed) an oath of allegiance to the Queen, sign the Roll, and bow.  This is the abbreviated ceremony that lasts about seven minutes – the old ceremony lasted about twice as long and involved much more bowing and the doffing of hats with feathers.

Fortunately, this – as far as I was concerned – took place in something of a pleasant haze.  It is customary to have a good lunch beforehand (which you pay for) with your two colleagues, along with your family and friends.  (With another feudal touch the three Peers are served first when the food arrives.)  I dimly remember being taken off to the Moses Room, putting on the robes and my two colleagues bursting into a chorus from Iolanthe, before a brief rehearsal, and into the Chamber.

Colleagues in the Chamber are keeping tally of those who swear and those who affirm, and mark out of ten the quality of the bow at the end – although (just as well) didn’t know anything of this at the time.  Finally, as you leave the Chamber, you shake hands with the Lord Chancellor (now the Lord Speaker), colleagues growl “Hear, hear” in approval (you hope), and the formal process is over.  Then, after a brief pause to take off the robes and have photographs taken (I was advised not to have any official photographs taken in my robes, as these would thereafter always be the ones used by the media whenever your name was mentioned), you go back into the Chamber in more normal clothes – and the rest of your life begins.