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Archives for September 2009

Have Compass lost their direction?

Peter Henley | 13:35 UK time, Wednesday, 30 September 2009


Caroline Lucas

I'm hearing a lot of grumbling about the decision by the left-wing pressure group Compass to invite the leader of the Green Party and MEP for South East England Caroline Lucas to a debate on the conference fringe.

Labour supporters really worry about the chance for protest votes that Greens offer in certain constituencies.

One of those is Brighton Pavilion, where the conference is being held and where Lucas is hoping to take the seat from Labour at the election.

But it's not just that Compass invited someone from a rival party to speak in a constituency Labour is defending.

There's a lot of sympathy around for the Greens, and one cabinet minister said anyone thinking that way had simply got it wrong.

"They're not cuddly, they're ruthless," he said.

"We can't afford to give them an inch."

What does an MP look like?

Peter Henley | 12:26 UK time, Tuesday, 29 September 2009


MP drawing

Just back from Middle Street School in Brighton where Year Six had a great time with Trevor Phillips from the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

They'd been asked to draw a picture of what an MP looks like, and describe their idea of a politician's lifestyle.

OK, you might expect the talk of big cars and smart clothes.

And virtually none of the boys thought the MP would be a woman.

But it was striking how many thought an MP would be unhappy, and strange.

Olivia said her MP was rich, single and lonely - extremely strange and quite depressed.

It looks like there's a red plane on standby behind her in the picture, so I asked Olivia to explain why she thought an MP would be so sad.

"She would be quite a clever person," she said, "and at work she gets a chance to think and be on her own, but she knows that no-one really likes her."

Out of the mouths of babes...

Hey, Gordon... come up and see me sometime

Peter Henley | 13:05 UK time, Monday, 28 September 2009


Gordon Brown

They're almost in adjoining bedrooms. The Prime Minister and 19-year-old dance student Jasmin Moss.

The PM only moved into his suite at the Metropole on Brighton's sea front at the weekend, and Jasmin's been in her student digs a week or two longer - since starting at college in Lewes - but she's keen to meet her new neighbour.

Jasmin is so keen in fact she's hung a banner from the third storey balcony inviting Gordon in for a cup of tea. He can't miss it - it's right above the VIP entrance to the Labour conference site.

Jasmin and the tea sign

The students got the house by accident. "We went in looking for the cheapest place we could," Jasmin explains.

"We couldn't believe it when we saw one on King's Road, right on the seafront, next to hotel rooms that sell for £500 a night."

From the balcony Jasmin has been watching all the cabinet ministers coming and going, but the one she really wants to meet is Gordon Brown.

She promises not to talk politics, in fact she doesn't really like it much.

She doesn't have a TV - student finances and all that. But she doesn't really need one to follow the conference since all the action's happening on her doorstep.

It might be tricky for her to hop across the balcony. There's Sarah, of course, and the armed anti-terrorist officers.

But Jasmin reckons the PM needs all the friends he can get right now.

If Gordon would like to pop next door for a bag of sugar, Jasmin's waiting, the kettle's on.

Labour's wartime spirit - fighting on the beaches and the streets

Peter Henley | 10:34 UK time, Sunday, 27 September 2009


GordonBrown.jpgIt is only when you see the packed bars and hotels here in Brighton that you remember what a big political party Labour still is. Here in the South of England they're so often outnumbered. But this week they're planning to use their strength in numbers to particular effect.

While on the beaches of Brighton Gordon Brown was fielding Andrew Marr's questions Labour Party workers are out pounding the streets of the south.

It's a concerted effort to meet as many voters face-to-face on the doorstep during conference week. "They see a human face" one Southampton Labour member told me "which is more than they'll get through the TV screen."

It's an extension of the PM's own strategy of getting as many people as possible through Downing Street. He's been sending invitations to local dignitaries up and down the country ever since he arrived. There's nothing to beat pressing the flesh - a garden party invitation to number 10 has dampened the cynicism of thousands of people.

Before today's Politics Show discussion Brighton candidate Simon Burgess was telling me about his own campaigning. He'd come hot foot from his constituency where he'd been out on the doorstep with armed forces minister Bob Ainsworth.

Some of his conversations with voters were long ones, but he believes that it is much the best way to get enthusiasm back.

One face they won't see in Southampton, however, is Gordon Brown's. Our party worker admitted his image was not one they want to push through people's doors at the moment!

Wish You Would Hear! - getting your questions answered.

Peter Henley | 18:02 UK time, Friday, 25 September 2009


There have been some great questions from you for the politicians to answer at the party conferences. I especially loved Jack's question about oil under the South Downs - should we leave it there to help the environment, or look after ourselves in the recession. Also Ann's question about wealthier couples getting the child allowance - responses to that were franker than I would have thought. You can see the first page of question and answer here. Now we're working on the long job of getting the rest up on line (well, Simon Marks in our newsroom is working on it, I'm packing for Brighton)

Huhne cuts Hague skinhead comment

Peter Henley | 21:18 UK time, Tuesday, 22 September 2009


Chris Huhne

I sent a tweet on this as soon as I heard this morning (@peter_henley if you want the most up to date info!) But it's getting some wider discussion and worth thinking about the reasons Chris Huhne left out the comment.

He was keen to hit Conservatives hard, with talk of alleged Nazi connections in the European Parliament but 1) He didn't want to get into a discussion about "hairstyles or drinking" - nice little extra dig! - and 2) The decision to cut was Chris's - not forced on him.

All rather neat and tidy. So was the release of an early draft of the speech with the comment just a publicity stunt all along?

Lib Dems get the Mark Oaten blues

Peter Henley | 19:37 UK time, Sunday, 20 September 2009


It's one of the questions Liberal Democrats hate. Are you targetting Labour, or Tories? They say the left/right split is dead, that Lib Dems have an individual appeal of their own.

But in terms of election strategy it's often the key to a successful campaign. Know your enemy. In public Nick Clegg dismisses talk of easy to win soft Tory votes in the South of England. He sees the political tide more likely to sweep him to victory in the Labour seats of the Midlands and North.

One look in the conference hall here in Bournemouth might suggest another story. The place is a sea of blue. And the talk is of cuts in public services, rowing back from plans for scrapping tuition fees. It's clear the party believes it can take on the Tories too.

So why mention Mark Oaten? Well, before The Scandal he got quite a name for his Conservative friendly policy initiatives. Some Tories used to say to me, he's really one of us. Reading his book - tactfully titled "Screwing Up" - it's clear he met a great deal of opposition within the party.

When the famous "Orange Book" came out before the 2004 conference, an unknown MEP called Chris Huhne took some flak for what looked like Tory friendly policies.

Then the suggestion of Lib Dems offering tax cuts caused consternation. Facing the next election the blue rinse is much more evident.

Political Animals - The Quiz!

Peter Henley | 15:01 UK time, Friday, 18 September 2009


bournemouth.jpgThe Politics Show South section will be live from the Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth on Sunday (on at the strange time of 1.35pm because of coverage of the Great North Run.) We've got Labour in Brighton the week after, then the long trek to Manchester for the Conservatives.

Some of the most interesting people at these conferences are the candidates - aspirant
MPs who often have more ideas and enthusiasm than many of the more senior party members.

So our guest panel for the South of England part of the Politics Show each week will be made up entirely of candidates. For the Liberal Democrats that means Steve Goddard, who's fighting Oxford East, David Rendel from Newbury and Liz Leffman, who's been chosen to fight the new seat of Meon Valley in Hampshire.

Researcher Julie Massiter has been lining up the guests - talking to bright young Labour and Conservative hopefuls too - and says she's found their open attitude refreshing.

Not only are these aspirant MPs aiming to rejuvenate their parties, then, they've also brought a fresh burst of energy to the Politics Show office. So much so that Julie and Producer Ian Paul managed to come up with this special quiz to celebrate the new generation of Political Animals.

(I'm not telling you my score but the comment was: not quite the cat's miaouw!)

Postcards to politicians - Wish You Would Hear!

Peter Henley | 14:53 UK time, Wednesday, 16 September 2009


Perhaps it's simply that my questions are rubbish, but I always find politicians respond better when the inquiry comes from a voter rather than a journalist. They're some of the best moments in election campaigns - do you remember Tony Blair's astonished confusion when a Question Time audience member pointed out the trouble they had getting a doctor's appointment?

Well, here's your chance to put that burning question direct to senior politicians at the party conferences. We call it Wish You Would Hear - and here's how it worked last year:

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Each time I'm amazed at the variety of questions submitted. Take a look at some of the questions people asked before. You can send me an email by clicking at the bottom of this page. I'll help with the filming and question sharpening if neccessary!

Whoever the Vestas protesters are, they won't go away

Peter Henley | 13:55 UK time, Tuesday, 15 September 2009


Vestas DocksAs I write, four climate change protestors are chained to cranes at Southampton docks. Others are attempting to board the barge Blade Runner - which transports the huge wind turbine blades across the Solent from the Vestas factory on the Isle of Wight.

We're not sure if any of the people taking this direct action are former workers at the factory who staged the occupation last month.

It's the latest stage of a campaign that's capturing the public imagination. The Guardian has pointed out the new red and green alliance between unions and climate change protestors.

The police will no doubt get them down, they will have made their point, it's all exciting stuff. But what still interests me is where the energy for this campaign is really coming from.

Coverage of the Vestas dispute on the island has a different tone. Read Ventnor Blog (it's not just about Ventnor), the County Press, Wightbridge or Island Pulse and you'll see much of the talk has been about jobs.

Watch a short BBC video of the protesters...

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And read the full news story from BBC Hampshire.

I heard a little anecdote from someone sitting in a Newport pub during the protests on the island. Someone came in to call on the locals to show more support - there are too many mainlanders was the cry.

On the island there was a backlash against the continued occupation of the factory. You've made your point about the redundancies, people told those on the sit-in, the Isle of Wight planners will look more favourably on turbines in future, now you're harming the island's chances of future investment.

But that really isn't the point. The suggestion that there's some connections between Isle of Wight residents rejecting planning applications for wind turbines and the loss of jobs is entirely bogus. The manufacture of blades is an entirely global market - largely unaffected by individual orders, but heavily dependent on political opinion.

The Danish owners of Vestas know that their continued prosperity is entirely dependent on public views about wind power - in this country, the US, and China. That's why they openly spend millions each year on political lobbying.

So say, as we think, the people up cranes today come from London, perhaps they're international protestors, so what? The action was highly co-ordinated - spokespeople immediately in front of the media at the TUC conference - does it matter?

Climate change is not a local issue.

The South East Grand Committee comes to Reading

Peter Henley | 18:18 UK time, Monday, 14 September 2009


DoorkeepersSome laugh at the House of Commons doorkeepers. Their gold-chained splendour seems part of history. But it was the sight of them on the steps of Reading's Old Town Hall that really made the point that Westminster is starting to take the regions more seriously.

The idea of holding regional committees away from London is the same principle we use by holding the South section of the Politics Show on the road whenever possible.

The most important thing is not the surroundings, or the participants - it's the different quality of debate outside of the bubble of Westminster or TV studio.

Taking the train to Reading is a new routine for MPs. It was a strange "back to school" feeling for the politicians who've had a couple of months away from their colleagues. But they soon got back to the rumbling "hear, hears" of Westminster, and the cut and thrust of debate.

Fourteen Conservatives turned up, nine Labour MPs and four Lib Dems.

The South's crowded roads were discussed - why has the £300m Hindhead Tunnel swallowed up so much of the roads budget asked the Conservatives? The pros and cons of housebuilding too, Oxford's plans for 58 new council houses the proud boast of the Labour side.

You can read Hansard's account of the debate, and the previous Grand Committee for the South-West region, here.

But much of it came down to national policy. John Redwood complained that the meeting would take no proper vote, and couldn't really get to the heart of the problems of local businesses without answers from the Chancellor.

So is the Grand Committee just so much grandstanding? Or will the travelling doorkeepers help burst that Westminster bubble?

Sandra's Sofa - ultra-local campaigning

Peter Henley | 08:56 UK time, Wednesday, 9 September 2009


Sandra on sofaIt's the seat that she hopes might save her seat.

Sandra Gidley is taking this sofa all around her Romsey constituency to encourage voters to bring their troubles to her. She's certainly got a good reputation as a campaigner for local causes, but I've got one issue with all this.

It's not the cheesy photocall - any MP with a majority as slim as Sandra's ought to be using every trick in the book.

It's not the idea of suggesting an MP ought to be some sort of social worker of last resort, always popping down your street to pick up the pieces.

What I found strange was the way Sandra bills herself on the press release I received.
In big orange and black letters the release proudly declares itself to be from "Sandra Gidley - MP for Test Valley."

The River Test is a beautiful river in a beautiful valley and some of the finest trout fishing in the world. For those who don't know this lovely part of Hampshire, Test Valley is also the name of the District Council, which includes Andover in the North running down to Southampton in the South and including Romsey along the way.

But Test Valley is not the name of Sandra Gidley's constituency. That is (after boundary changes) - Romsey and Southampton North.

Why should she want to claim to represent Test Valley? This would include parts of Sir George Young's true blue North Hampshire constituency. Is she snubbing the Labour voters of Southampton North?

Her PR man says she uses "different titles for different media". And this is true - I find another press release about Southampton business headed "Sandra Gidley - MP for Basset and Swaythling" - and yet another one headed "Sandra Gidley - MP for Romsey".

Who benefits from this quick-change routine? It's all about the campaign for local first - ultra-local in this case. The logic must be that we're all so narrow and insular we don't want to hear from the person from the other part of the constituency.

Surely the voters will see through that?

The only Green in the village

Peter Henley | 10:30 UK time, Monday, 7 September 2009


Ben DuncanThe Green Party conference barely manages to fill Hove Town Hall. Compared to the stadium sized crowds Labour will bring to town later in the month the Greens feel more like a large family wedding reception.

But you shouldn't underestimate the influence of their ideas.

Since Greens became eligible for a seat on the Sussex police authority Councillor Ben Duncan has been raising the eco/peace/justice flag. One vote doesn't count for much alongside 17 others, he says, but if you can make a persuasive argument you can shape some important decisions.

"I have a more radical approach, and some of the independents are more responsive to Green thinking than on the City Council."

Ben (who blogs here) says a good example is the discussion over how to police the May Day protests.

He pressed the case that people ought to have confidence in their police - that they should do more to avoid headlines about police violence.

"Putting it that way convinced people who'd previsouly seen it as a lot more tribalistic."

Ben Duncan calls the effect "The only Green in the village" - sometimes lonely but with all the impact of the shock of the new.

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