Thursday, April 29, 2010

Hot buttons and hotter pies

We've all been given permission to push the hot-button topic of immigration since Gillian Duffy apparently spoke for a nation yesterday. Mrs Duffy wanted to know where the Eastern European migrants were flocking from. Mrs Duffy, of course, knew the answer to that - Eastern Europe. The fact she mis-spoke though didn't diminish the fact she had a concern about the number of migrants.

Ah Gillian. It's a good job you are - or at least were - a Labour supporter. You can express your concern, wreck Labour's electoral chances, break a leader of a nation like a stick of kindling, and move on with your life (once the camera crews have disappeared). Pity Michael Weatheritt, the poor UKIP candidate in Berwick (rapidly becoming my favorite candidate of the election.) I doubt he can sleep at night over it all.

Weatheritt (who has already made the establishment of a crematorium one of his main campaign aims) has now set out his stall to voters in the magnificent local paper the Northumberland Gazette. His CV includes being:
*captain of the school cricket team at 15
*vice captain of the football team.
(He's 60 by the way.)
He is also a
*founder member of the Alnwick Pie Club
*famous for his steak and ale pie
(You've got to love him.)

But I digress - policy before pies and peas.
Weatheritt makes it clear he wants an end to mass uncontrolled immigration.
"If mass immigration continues, the weight of people in the country will cause the island to start sinking and if global warming is to be believed and the sea level rises, then the EU will eventually gets its wish and Britain will disappear forever beneath the waves."

I am tempted to ring him up and ask him to do his bit and quit with the pies. Frankly, the pies won't be helping at all.

I am also tempted to ring him up and ask him if he thinks the earth is flat, but I'm frightened in case he says Yes.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Distaff Side

The electioneering car-crash of "Gordon Brown meets Gillian Duffy" may just have put paid to all hope of Labour surviving another day courtesy of the resurgence of the Lib Dems.

The irony. Throughout this campaign, women have been virtually invisible. And I say this with no disrespect to our new First Ladies of politics, but frankly they've been there to look decorative, supportive, and ideally fecund. They are allowed the occasional innocuous tweet or video appearance, but let's not fool ourselves, they are not there because they have spent decades on the political frontline and have something to say.

There have been a few low-key outings for Labour's Yvette Cooper and the Tories shoe-tree Theresa May, but Harriet Harman, Labour's most senior woman was told to shut up by Lord Mandelson when she ventured an opinion on election strategy. How dare she? What was she thinking? The men were talking. According to The Daily Telegraph quoting a Labour party spokesman: "Harriet said she made a suggestion – only for Peter to tell her to shut up and that he didn't want to hear from her again. She has been virtually invisible ever since."

Three male party leaders. No serious role for any frontline female politician. Silent, fragrant political wives. Male pundit after male pundit pontificating on the papers. Massed ranks of silly female floating voters who couldn't make their mind up. And the entire election jumps track when a gobby Rochdale pensioner who doesn't know she is supposed to keep quiet and nod a lot, says what she thinks.

Vagina monologue? We didn't get a word in. Up to now.

Stop press: Women have Opinions. Does that make them bigots? Don't think so.

Election 2010 - "Women are to be seen and not heard". Somebody write it on a piece of scented lavender-coloured notepaper and pass it to Mrs Duffy and all the women like her who know what they think. (Make sure the cameras don't catch you doing it though.)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

To slank or not to slank

I am still considering how to handle the final TV debate on Thursday. Do I watch it alone in my slanket rejoicing in the good looks of Nick Clegg? Or do I invite round a pick'n'mix of voters like the first time and take my own straw poll post the "Thank you and Goodnights." Am tempted to the slanket approach.

Then again, if I have a watch party, I have the chance to make Eric Pickles happy and chances like that don't come along very often. After all, he did take a leaf out of Michelle Obama's campaign warbook and invite me. In fact, if I was really naughty I could email Central Office and tell them I was having a party and Eric might call me up personally to encourage me to tweet through it. It's very tempting. Particularly, as I now have formal accreditation for the campaign. The local Central Office press handler was explicit about the need for accreditation. I don't think he gets blogging. Both Labour and Liberal Democrats told me to handle accreditation locally, informing me that the Wife in the North blog would be welcome to their events anytime. The Conservative party - that's the party with the take-no-prisoners approach to red tape and bureaucracy - made me fill out an online form and send a digital photograph then wait an entire week for a pass. I'm not sure I'll ever get to wear it. There's only about three members of the Shadow Cabinet I'd be interested in seeing on the ground. Still if I have a "watch party", I could wear my accreditation over the slanket and Chanel No 5 under it. Eric might like that.


In the interests of investigative journalism, I built a rocket made of a Fairy Liquid bottle(empty), four baked bean cans(also empty) and a rolled up cardboard nose cone, in the front garden. With the aid of some accelerant I'd put by to drink during the next party leaders' TV debate, I set light to its drinking straw fuse, and took off for the moon. Which is how far Wifey is prepared to go for a good interview.

I had a bit of a problem finding the Man in the Moon when I got there. I even had to strip off and swim across the sea of tranquility which was as flat and wet as a Liberal Democrat conference, but I dried myself off and took another of my little purple pills and pretty soon afterwards, he turned up.

The Man in the Moon is roundish - a bit like Alex Salmond who has also gone stellar recently, but shinier somehow - which is probably the star quality he shares with Nick Clegg and Andrew Neil.

I put it to him that he may well be on the cusp of playing a major role in British politics and levering Clegg into Number 10. Clegg has assured all and sundry he is prepared to work with the Man from the Moon. But was the Moon Man prepared to work with Clegg?

The Man in the Moon apparently has a price, he told me.
The job of Shadow Chancellor? Half the other Cabinet jobs for his planetary mates, the pick of the government car pool, and an i-Pad, I proferred.
He shook his head and three small tsunamis swept through South-East Asia.
Gordon Brown's immense head then, complete with genuine rictus grin, on a buffed and silver platter?
That would be nice, he said, but No. He was way past human sacrifice.
What then? Down on earth, the parties were frantic to do a political mash-up with Nick Clegg. What would it take for the Man in the Moon to deal.

He wants porridge. Cold and plummy.
And a map of Norwich.
He wouldn't say why.
Nick Clegg... over to you.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Been there. Done that.

Feeling strangely uninspired writing about the Liberal Democrats. That's wrong isn't it? We're all supposed to be mad about the boy. It's Pavlovian - years of hearing the words "Liberal Democrat" and plunging immediately into a fugue-like trance. But lift my knee and slap my plump pantomime thigh, that first TV debate was a "game-changer" we're all agreed - suddenly the Liberal Democrats are interesting, and the words "Clegg" and "charisma" are appearing in the same sentences without the word "bypass" following close behind.

Time to take a gander then at local Liberal Democrat Sir Alan Beith. Sir Alan and I go way back to when I was a big-eyed, wet-behind-the-ears local reporter and he was the title-free, chronically hard-working MP for Berwick and I could never get any of his press releases into the paper, which used to pain him. Hopefully, he has by now forgiven me but I didn't like to ask when I met him for a nice cup of tea and a chat at the weekend.

A Methodist lay preacher, Sir Alan lists his hobbies as historic buildings, boats, music and walking, while on Facebook the groups he has joined include
* "We got Rage Against the Machine to #1, we can get the Lib Dems into office!",
* "I'm voting for the Liberal Democrats in 2010" (you'd hope so, wouldn't you?), and
* "Forgotten Berwick"
Berwick itself is one of the biggest seats in England - at more than 1,000 square miles - and its 58,000-strong electorate has been represented by Sir Alan for 37 years. That does not stop him campaigning under the slogan "Change that works for Northumberland."

At a Tory meeting recently, I was taken aback by the animosity of some members towards the veteran MP and their conviction that the constituency has suffered from under-investment because of his party allegiance.
Beith rejects such criticism. "I've never lacked the access and I've been around a long time, " he said. "Most ministers know I've been in parliament longer than they have."
Among his achievements he points to saving the local RAF base from closure, improvements to the rail timetable, helping those affected by flooding, and the dualling of key sections of the A1 (the main North-South arterial route through the region, stretches of which remain single carriageway and used by tractors).

Indeed, his campaign literature informs me I am in the presence of the "local champion with a national reputation".
My favorite quote:
"Traditional Conservative voters are saying 'we don't know what David Cameron stands for - at least we know what we're getting with Alan Beith'."
And my second favorite goes to the "local people" who pose the rhetorical question:
"Wouldn't it be great if more MPs were like Sir Alan Beith."
The leaflet spells out the battle lines for Berwick "Labour can't win here...It's a two horse race," that is to say, the Lib Dems have 52.8%, Tories 28.9% and Labour 18.3%.

The Guardian describes the seat as "fairly safe" for the Lib Dems. Tory candidate Anne Marie Trevelyan has been fighting hard but needs a swing of just under 12% to take it. That's tough - particularly against a Lib Dem rather than a Labour incumbent. Then again, she's a particularly good candidate, the local party has its dander up and it's the sort of seat where people vote for Sir Alan because he helped them when they needed him, but at heart they tell you they are Tory.
However, even if Anne Marie had been picking up disillusioned Labour voters and the natural Tories were indeed persuaded to vote for her, the Liberal Democrat surge courtesy of Clegg-mania must put paid to her hopes (or at least put paid to them till Clegg tanks tonight's foreign affairs debate or completely fails to heal a leper the Daily Mail sends out after him tomorrow.)

Beith then has the numbers in his favour, but is taking nothing for granted. Understandable, when he took the seat in a by-election in 1973 by just 57 votes (Tory incumbent Lord Lambton having resigned after being photographed in bed with two prostitutes and smoking marijuana. You can bet he wasn't doing that in Berwick.) In the two elections of 1974, Sir Alan held on to his seat with majorities of 443 and 74. This means as the longest-serving MP on the Liberal Democrat benches, he has already lived through a hung parliament, minority government and in 1977, a Lib-Lab pact.

Naturally enough, Beith was delighted with the reaction to his leader's performance in the first debate. He was cautious in his predictions but believed the election looks as if it will produce no overall majority .
If there is a hung parliament, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg could well be the kingmaker. But how would he decide who to work with I asked Beith - particularly if one party picked up more seats and another more votes.
"Nick has said the party with the greatest authority to form a government is the one that has commanded the greatest support. He's not gone into the seats and votes issue."
Beith was reassuring of the consequences of any hung parliament. "We will be taking a responsible line. So far from there being a danger in a hung parliament, if Vince Cable has more influence over the way the economy is managed I think most people would recognise that would be a better and not a worse situation."

In the Lib-Lab pact of `77, Liberal MPs agreed to support the Labour government on votes of confidence in return for agreement on fighting inflation, devolution, appointing a minister for small business and direct elections to the European Parliament. This entailed a consultative structure between Liberal spokesmen and ministers. If there was still disagreement, the matter then went to a joint committee which included Beith.
"It's workable, “Beith said of a pact, “but the disadvantage is it's mainly negative power - not wholly, we got things done - but essentially it's a negative power and you don't get the credit for the successes that you can in a coalition."
Any experience about what the party does this time around would be informed by the Liberal experience of the seventies, he said but refused to say whether he favoured a coalition (which in any event requires the broad agreement of the party membership) rather than supporting government on a more ad hoc basis.
“You have to make judgment in situation that arises. You see what the British people decide,” he said.

His own autobiography “A View from the North” however is more explicit, warning of the need to prepare and consult, and expounding on the virtues of working in a coalition.
It says `the pact convinced me that if you are going to work with another party in government, you should do it through a coalition in which you hold key ministerial positions: without this, your input is severely limited and the government machinery is only working for the party which has ministerial office.

Of course that still leaves the question a coalition with who exactly?

Celebrity endorsement

I have my first celebrity endorsement of the campaign. Sarah Brown has described herself as "so pleased" that I cooked up her recipes for dinner the other night. I informed her on Twitter (because that's how anyone who's anyone talks to each other these days.) "They get my vote," I told my new best friend. "SO PLEASED!" she tweeted back. Note the capital letters. That means she is shouting in excitement at hearing my verdict. Note too the exclamation mark which means this news is probably the best she's had since the Sex and the City girls said they were making another movie. Any minute now she'll be tweeting me an invite for coffee and oaty flapjack on the campaign bus.

Sarah won't expect an exclusive relationship though. I've asked Sam Cam's people for a recipe as well. I was told Sam is "unbelievably busy" but the media handler would see what she could do. I'm about to ask the Liberal Democrats for one from Miriam Gonzalaz Durantez (Nick Clegg's legal eagle wife). I'm betting the message comes back that Miriam thinks I should go buy myself a cookbook and read it.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

UKIP identifies a burning political issue

And in Wifey world - while everybody beyond looks to change and its instrument Nick Clegg - the Berwick UKIP candidate Michael Weatheritt has a different approach. Mr Weatheritt, a 60-year-old self-employed bricklayer has two campaign priorities for the region - more jobs paying above the national minimum wage(fair enough) and a local crematorium to serve north Northumberland. It has to be a vote winner.

Thus far, Mr Weatheritt has peaked at 7.5% of the vote (or 135 of them if you are being picky) in a local district council election. This time he's hoping for greater things.

The nearest crematorium he claims is a 30 mile drive away in Blyth and across the main East Coast railway line. If the barriers come down at the wrong time, the hearse can be separated from the mourners following the coffin in their own cars. Mr Weatheritt makes the point this can be upsetting.

If I was cleverer I could construct a metaphor about mortality and eternity but it's beyond me at this point in the campaign. I do wonder though whether the bigger parties are missing a trick - "Vote Tory for The Right Place To Go When You Die", "Rest Easy With Labour" or even "Nick Says Burn Baby Burn".

Monday, April 19, 2010

Food for Thought

There are moments you wait for in an election - moments when your heart starts to pound with excitement and the emptiness inside that makes you question everything about your life just goes away. This is one of them.

The first recipe from a political wife. And Sarah Brown came up with it. Good job she didn't have to tweet it - her favourite means of communication - or it would have been something like "Unwrap loaf. Choose slice. Toast it. Grate cheese. Add cheese to toast. Grill till bubbling and eat while tweeting. Tastes yummy."

Instead, in the Observer Food Monthly magazine, Sarah extolled the virtues of her vegetable patch at Downing Street (at least I think that's what she did, my eyes kept glazing over as I tried to read it). Vegetable patches, the joys of having a newborn baby, exotic holidays, and anything to do with saving the planet have to be four of the most boring topics of conversation ever invented. Anyway, the reward for going cross-eyed with concentration reading about bamboo bee boxes, harvesting rainwater in big tanks and wormeries, were recipes from Sarah.

Political wives have put out recipes before. Michelle Obama for mac and cheese - so homespun, so simple while Cindy McCain (wife of John McCain one time presidential hopeful) kicked off "Recipegate" with her recipes for passionfruit mousse and oatmeal-butterscotch cookies. Sarah is cleverer than that - far cleverer. She comes up with a tribute recipe for spring lamb that she got from Maggie Darling ( "the chancellor's wife, my neighbour at No 11 and a famously fantastic cook") going so far as to call it "Maggie's New Season Roast Lamb on Leeks and Potatoes".

But political wives don't just publish any old recipe. There's always a subtext. So I felt obliged to cook the lamb along with Sarah's recipe for dessert - Ginger Oat Rhubarb Crumble - to discover it. I started at 7.45pm. My husband looked confused as I put away the ready-meal curries and left £17 of lamb on the kitchen table.
"We're having lamb then?" he said.(Needlessly in my opinion unless he thought I was going to dress the leg of lamb in baby clothes, call it Billy and start carrying it around in my arms for company.)
"Actually, we're having Sarah Brown's lamb," I told him at which point he left the room muttering something about "getting a life."

My first job was to convince myself not to do that thing they do on "Come Dine With Me" and hit the bottle as they drag the first saucepan out from the pan-stacker. I bet Sarah doesn't do that. I bet she says "I'll just have a small one, Gordon" when she starts cooking and I bet that's exactly what she gets.

My next thought (which came straight after "My - that was a very small glass, I think I might have another") was Clever Sarah has effortlessly demonstrated the closeness between the Browns and the Darlings. Tsk. Tsk. A tricky relationship between the PM and his Chancellor? You're thinking of that Blair guy. The Browns and the Darlings pop into each other's homes nearly every day for a cup of soft brown sugar or to sample a sprouting broccoli quiche.

I didn't cook the way I normally cook because I wanted it to be an authentic political experience. That's not entirely true. If I have to cook, I quite like doing it with the BBC i-Player on in the background and I had 20 minutes of Ashes to Ashes left to watch as I chopped and sauteed. Sarah, on the other hand, is probably not allowed to watch Ashes to Ashes. But I did weigh things, and usually I don't bother. Since I've only got my mothers' weighing scales for the blind (which she can't hear because she's also deaf), the scales kept lecturing me about how much I had in the bowl. But there's probably quite a bit of lecturing goes in the Brown house so that was OK although irritating. And I was precise about the figures because as both Gordon and Alistair Darling would tell you, if you have a leek deficit, you risk throwing out the whole balance of the dish and it can take a generation to recover. (There was actually little I could do about my own leek deficit other than put another onion in, but I'm expecting 35 economists to send a letter to The Telegraph tomorrow in protest.)

Although I tried hard, I couldn't do everything exactly the way Sarah wanted it done. I was supposed to ask the butcher to "butterfly" my lamb for me and use the bone to make stock. I was guessing Sarah hadn't had the privilege of reading the Conservative manifesto when she handed over her recipe, and as we are all going to have to start doing things for ourselves if David Cameron has anything to do with it, I butterflied it myself. That is to say I sliced it from the bone, spread it flat and told it life was short. Next, Sarah says you "make knife point incisions" in the fatty side of the lamb. That is to say you stab it repeatedly shouting "Bloody Eton Gobshite" before rubbing grated salt, lemon rind and thyme into the wounds - I mean, incisions. Nearly done, you put the lamb onto leeks, onion, potatoes and garlic drown it in wine and cook it.

And it was delicious - it tasted of lemon and thyme and the comfort of a good and clever woman.

Compared to the lamb, the crumble was slightly disappointing, but that's often the case when good things start to crumble. It was I think particularly disappointing for my husband who is allergic to rhubarb and couldn't eat a bite.
"Sarah told us to 'enjoy the rhubarb' while it's here," I informed him in explanation, and there was more muttering.

Nick Clegg may be flavour of the month in the polls at the moment, but the more Gordon Brown travels the country with Sarah, the happier and more burnished he looks. It is my belief he's thinking about what they'll have for tea.

Friday, April 16, 2010

It's my party

Woke up this morning with a bit of a hangover. I blame the politics. Last night went well though. Ten of us ended up watching the election debate together in my lounge, and we were a mixed bag. Staunch Labour, rabid Tory and floating voters with experience of voting Liberal Democrat. Most arrived with wine. One arrived with a biography of Margaret Thatcher. There was dark mutterings from the rabid Tories about Labour and Gordon Brown's record, but the hour and a half went quickly enough and at least the book didn't get thrown.

My absolute favourite comment of the evening from one of my Conservative friends has got to be: "Universal suffrage has got a lot to answer for. This country has gone downhill since Joe Ordinary got the vote."

At the end, I polled the 10 of us:
* three thought Nick Clegg had performed the best
* two backed Gordon Brown
* no-one (including the most fervent Tories among us) thought David Cameron had outperformed his rivals.
One of the floating voters said she was now minded to vote Liberal Democrat.

Nick Clegg. He has a sensible wife and sensible women rarely marry fools. He said he was going to prepare for the debate with an afternoon walk in the Pennines. Last night, he was straightforward and appealing. David Cameron's not having it easy.

After everyone left, I went to bed and dreamed of beautiful women wrapped in bandage dresses made of the skins of aliens, which they wore to keep themselves safe as they attempted to cross a river of acid.
I blame the cheese.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Just time for a quickie

Am having Election debate party. That is to say half a dozen people coming round to watch TV and make rude comments about our glorious leaders. Asked a lot more people. Excuses included:
* "I know enough already."
* "I've got five lambs to feed."
* "I've got the lambing men to feed." (Lambing is big right now in Northumberland.)
* "I'm away - very away."
* "I'm a fascist. I shoot at the TV these days when Gordon Brown's on it. You wouldn't like me any more if I came."
* And strangely enough "He's canvassing, or putting leaflets through doors or something" because the political process goes on up here even in presidential politics is arriving at a TV station near you any second. In fact, Friends of the Earth organised a meeting tonight for the Berwick constituency candidates which they are all going to apart from the Tory candidate Anne-Marie Trevelyan. I don't know what Anne-Marie is doing. (I invited her to my party but she hasn't replied. There's a chance she's lambing.)

I'm only having the party because I went round a couple of the local pubs hoping someone would have it on one of their big tellies. Excuses from managers included:
* "No, we'll have the sport on. People are more interested in sport",
* "It's happening at dinner time. People like to eat their dinner in peace."

Looking at the local paper, the magnificent Northumberland Gazette (everyone reads the Gazette up here - it's the law) life goes on regardless. Aside from the Friends of the Earth meeting, there's a nature talk on "Birding in Majorca" hosted by the Natural History Society, and another talk entitled "My Love of Flowers" to the Warkworth and District Flower Club and yet one more on the Newcastle and Carlisle Railway to the Aln Valley Railway Society (with Refreshments.) So is the world going to stop to watch the guys in action? Not everybody's. Mine is though.

I've bought in smoked salmon pate for the Tories, hummus for any Liberal Democrats and guacamole for the New Labour among us. There is alcohol (a necessity) and bags of popcorn (a luxury). I've even moved a sofa from one room to another exposing all the dust and grime that lurks underneath which you usually don't get to see. Maybe it was a sign. A bit like the volcanic eruption. I'm pretty sure the Romans would have cancelled any event slated for a day a volcano erupted and filled the sky with ash. Plus, driving back from the shop, I saw three different dead pheasants on the road. I just about stopped myself from climbing out the car, slicing them open and reading their entrails.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


First things first. Newspaper journalists are writing about the breakfasts they have at the early morning press conferences. (Apparently the Tory manifesto provided chocolate croissants, brioche, bacon and sausage sandwiches.) Just for the record, I had porridge and a crumpet this morning while the children fought over who had the most red bits in their cereal bowls.

Moving on. According to the Daily Telegraph, Cameron reached out to women voters with his manifesto yesterday. Female shadow ministers made speeches before him to prove how highly he rates women, and he focused on making Britain one of the most "family friendly" countries in the world. What's not to like about "family" and "friendly"? A family friendly country sounds great. Perhaps he could start with cafes and build up? "Every cafe to have wax crayons and paper for young customers", for instance. "Cafes to ban sniffy customers who stare accusingly at mortified mums trying to mop up juice spills and hush up noisy children."

There's a problem with Cameron's offer of a DIY revolution and women are going to spot it. The manifesto talks of:
*the redistribution of power to individuals, families and local communities.
*higher levels of personal and civic responsibility
*a society where people come together to solve problems and improve life for themselves and their communities
Parents will be enabled to start new schools and communities empowered to take over parks and libraries under threat.

Am I the only woman out there whose heart sank when I read "Our ambition is for every adult in the country to be a member of an active neighbourhood group"? Was it just me who heard the threat implicit in the pledge "We will stimulate the creation and development of neighbourhood groups, which can take action to improve their local area." There's even a spending pledge to fund the training of "independent community organisers" to help get these groups off the ground. And of course a "Big Society Day" to celebrate their work. (I am so looking forward to that one.)

The manifesto goes on: "Building the Big Society means encouraging the concept of public-spirited service - the idea that everyone should play a part in making their communities stronger."

And as final evidence that these manifestos aren't written by wives and mothers, but crafted by policy wonks who don't get out enough along with politicos in the business for life who only ever talk to other politicos in it for life, the assurance that a Tory government will "use the latest insights from behavioural economics to encourage people to make volunteering and community participation something they do on a regular basis."
I repeat. What?
You read a couple of hardback books of socio-economic psycho-babble and make a wish and the world changes and everyone in it. Yep. Like that's going to happen. If women are as important as they are supposed to be in this election, and this (along with SamCam looking bumpy and radiant) is all the Conservatives have in their armoury to appeal to them, then watch that electoral lead narrow, chaps.

I like the fact Cameron is an enthusiast and an optimist and believes he can change the world. I do. But the fact is talk to me about taking on anything else and I'm going to start screaming.

Women with families (friendly or otherwise) are operating at full stretch. If they are working as well, then they probably feel on a pretty regular basis that their lives are coming apart at the seams. They can hardly find time for the PTA, let alone become "a member of an active neighbourhood group." Oh good, something else to feel guilty about. Now you have to dodge the neighbourhood group chairman as well as the chairman of the PTA (and I speak as a former chairman of the PTA). Women will be hiding in the car boot from these people. They will tremble every time there is a knock at the back door. OK, there are indeed times we organise a petition to save a park or a playground, we fight some or other petty bureaucracy, and we bake three dozen currant buns for the cake sale at two o'clock in the morning because it's the only time we have. We'll do what we can when we have to. We already try our best. We already do our best. But please David, enough's enough. We can only do so much.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Modern Father

I watched a couple of venerable journos pontificate over the papers about Tory leader, David Cameron's interview on ITV during which - stop press - he became "emotional" discussing the death of his son, six-year-old Ivan. It's been slightly over a year since Ivan died. Not long. No time at all really. The pain within touching distance.Cameron told the interviewer "the loss is very tough and it takes a very long time to even start to get over it. It's a sort of journey between understanding what you're missing, what you've lost and being grateful for what you had. It just takes a very long time."
There were raised eyebrows among the country's world-weary. Oh so world-weary. Could it be that Cameron was seeking to electorally profit from the death of his son? "How distasteful", they muttered among themselves. After all, they'd seen it all before.

In February during another ITV interview, this time with Piers Morgan, Gordon Brown spoke of the death of daughter Jennifer, born prematurely weighing just 2lb 4oz, dying in 2002 at just 10 days.
“She would be 9 this year and you know, you think all the time of the first steps, and the first words and the first time you go to school and it’s just not been there… this is the happiest time of your life and then suddenly it becomes the most grief stricken time of your life. It was such a pendulum swing. I couldn’t listen to music, I really wasn’t much interested in anything for a while because you had to come to terms with something that, you know... you’d expect it would work out so completely differently.”
One commentator came to the verdict "He might have steered the country on to the rocks but last night we were invited to vote for him because, I'm sorry to say, he and his wife suffered the intense sorrow of losing their first child. That sounds harsh but this excruciating TV appearance left one no alternative conclusion."
Another opined: "Was it a cynical U-turn by a man who once decried personalised politics and Blairish exploitation of family? Yes shouted an army of cynical pundits and bloggers."

My child (stillborn at term) would be 10 if I hadn't lost him. Lost him like a sock or glove or pair of spectacles for reading. Just like that. But worse. And what these pundits don't understand is Brown and Cameron don't have a choice to talk or not to talk, to weep or not to weep, because the life and death of their children runs right through them. Tragedy defines them more than any manifesto ever could. Whatever power each man holds or chases, he would abandon it all, without hesitation, for just one more day with his lost child. He would sell his own soul for his lovely political wife never to have had her heart broken up into ugly pieces that no policy or strategic thinking - however clever and well-meaning - could ever mend. These party leaders may day-dream of glory, but at night they dream of sons and daughters they can no longer hold. They are not wrong to talk about it, they are right. Unspoken griefs twist and turn and do not grow smaller for darkness and a lack of air. They speak their children's names and they tell of their sorrows because to do otherwise would be to deny those children, it would be to say those children came and went, and that coming and that going did not matter in the scheme of things. Honesty in politicians - isn't that a good thing?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Dead Man Walking

I remember being on holiday as a little girl in Scarborough. One of the tabloids had some prize whereby if you carried a copy of the paper and discovered their man out and about in a seaside resort and told him something like "To my delight, it's Chalkie White", you could win £5. He came to Scarborough when we were there and I spent a whole day looking for him. I didn't find him and I didn't get the fiver. I figure someone owes me a fiver today though, because I found Chris Grayling on the campaign trail.

Finding Grayling on the campaign trail is really hard because ever since he said Christian B&B owners should "have the right" to reject gay couples, the apparatchiks have kept him in a locked cupboard in Central Office and fed him pancakes they slide under the door. I only wanted a bit of colour for the blog. My "mummy blog" which is pink. I'd have been quite happy with a bit of a chat and carry-on-campaigning-Chris. But they weren't that happy to see me at Berwick Tories HQ. Not at all happy.

The first thing his minder did was start cross-examining me about who I was.
(Actually thinking about it, it was the second thing because the first thing was to ask me to leave the building on the grounds it was a private meeting and he presumably thought I might hear something Chris was saying to members which he wouldn't say in public. Something like "Gay-boys, don't you just hate them?")
After I'd left the building, the minder starts asking how I knew Grayling was in town and how many readers I have (not many I told him, which is true), and how disappointing it must be if nobody reads me (a slightly unnecessary remark but there you go.) I asked for two minutes with Chris before he started glad-handing, but No, I could put a few questions as we walked.

I liked Grayling as soon as I met him - he was charming, intelligent and pleasant. (He'd even read the blog.) He's slightly tall for my taste bearing in mind I'm 5ft 2" and he's about 8ft nothing. Bearing in mind he's tall and I'm short and we are walking, it wasn't easy. It got less easy when the North-East communications man promptly stuck his phone right in front of my face to record my recording. This is disconcerting but I'm willing to go with the flow. As I say, Grayling is a grown-up politician and I'm a blogger, so we're fine right?

After all hell broke loose after his comments, Grayling issued a statement saying he was sorry "if what I said gave the wrong impression" and assuring all and sundry that he had voted for gay rights. As we walked through the archway into the market town of Alnwick, (past a sign advertising a B&B,) I asked whether he was sorry for his words that B&B owners should have the right to reject gay couples.
He said: "I said everything I was planning to say about it last week. I said I didn't intend to cause any offence. I pointed out I actually voted for gay rights, I actually voted for this particular piece of legislation. I voted for a number of other pieces of legislation particularly the civil partnership ones, and these are difficult, sensitive issues as I said but the proof of the pudding is what you do and I voted with my conscience."
I said he had patently been talking off the top of his head (well, I didn't want to suggest he'd been talking out his arse) but was he sorry for the words? Would he like to take back what he said?
Grayling wouldn't. He said: "The important thing now is to focus on the rest of the campaign. What I don't want to do is get into a prolonged discussion. I think I have said what I'm planning to say."
But I made the point this was an opportunity to retract. (After all, an apology for creating the impression you have given, is not the same as an outright apology and admission what you said was beyond the pale.)
"I think I've said what I'm going to say, I said (it)on the BBC last week, explained my comments, made a number of statements. I think I want to now talk about the rest of the campaign."
I asked as an honourable man whether he had offered his resignation as Shadow Home Secretary.
"I think as I've said I want to talk about the rest of the campaign."
At this point, the Northern press guy who is so close to me on the narrow pavements of Alnwick that he is virtually in my handbag told me I could keep asking the same question, but I'd get the same answer so I might as well move on. (I love it when people give me blogging tips.)
I explained I had to ask the questions.
The press guy repeated I was going to get the same answer so I might as well move on to another question.
So I did as I was told.
I said: "The Daily Mail described you at the end of last week as Calamity Chris... The Sunday papers also said you weren't long for the world, you were going to lose your job. Can you actually go on?"
He told me: "We're in the middle of a general election campaign. Our goal is to win the general election and bring change to Britain. Nobody has got a job for the future anyway - we haven't won the election. We're not measuring curtains. We're not planning for the future. We're taking the Conservative message out onto the doorstep
to try and deliver the change people want."
We danced through the Dannatt issue, and with the North press guy insisting we keep moving and instructing me to ask "a local question on a local campaign please", I asked about reports that lawyers claimed there was a case to arrest the pope when he comes in September. (According to the frontpage of The Sunday Times, lawyers believe they can ask the Crown Prosecution Service to initiate criminal proceedings against the Pope, launch their own civil action against him or refer his case to the International Criminal Court over his role in the alleged cover-up of sex abuse against children in the catholic church.) Did he think the lawyers had a case against the pope, I said.
The North press guy intervened again to inform me I was here to talk about local issues.
No, I'm not I told him, and asked him not to tell me what I was there to do.
I turned to Grayling again. Was there a legal case?
"I've come to Alnwick to talk about local issues..." he said and sang the praises of candidate Anne-Marie Trevelyan and what a good MP she would make.(Which is true, she would work her socks off.)
I made the point he was the shadow home secretary and asked again "Do you think there is a legal case to arrest the pope if he comes in September."
Now the guy may be called "Calamity Chris" but I did not expect him to tell me "Fuck the Pope - they guy's got it coming" but I'd have liked some sort of answer to the question bearing in mind his front-bench responsibilities.
He repeated the fact he was in Alnwick to talk about Anne-Marie and the local campaign, and I didn't mind that so much. Politicians don't always answer questions, and at no time was Chris Grayling less than couteous and straight. He knew what I was doing and I knew what he was doing.

I do however mind about political hacks like Bill Clare, (Grayling's minder) and Peter Bould (the Northern comms guy)acting in a way I found intimidating. And I speak as a former national TV and newspaper journalist so I'm not that fragile. As a press journalist, however, you have status, and as a TV journalist you have a camera recording everything. As a blogger, you're on your own, mate.
Clare interrupted us and told me they had "very courteously" asked on a number of occasions not to do any more questions. (This was not true. They hadn't asked me to stop.) While he hectored, I shook Grayling's hand and thanked him for his time. Other people had a reason to spend time with him, Clare went on. I kept the recorder going and showed him it. "If you think that's the way to conduct it, OK - you know better than that" he said like a disappointed father.
Bould then chipped in to tell me I'm supposed to have an accreditation pass to join them. Did I have it? (This was just to prove how they weren't brow-beating me.)
"You are supposed to have an accreditation pass to join us, have you got your pass with you."
I'm a voter, I told him.
"I know but you are supposed to have an accreditation pass to interview him which is what you wanted to do, and I'm wondering if you have your pass with you? Do you have your pass with you? " (Bear in mind, here I've already done the interview and we are way past this conversation.)
I told him I was doing what I did as a member of the public.
"No," he said. "You are interviewing him." This presumably means members of the public shouldn't ask questions.
(At this point, and just for good measure, I got thrown out of a shop the Tory posse had gone into on the grounds "the owner" didn't want me in there.)
"You are interviewing him," said Bould. "Members of the public don't come along with a dictaphone and record him. You're very much like a journalist to me."
I asked him to let me get on with it.
"I'm not being confrontational here," he assured me.
At which point, so unconfrontational was he being, I got out my camcorder and YouTube loomed.
I reminded Bould I had already done the interview, I was indeed there as a blogger and a member of the public. At which point with a camcorder pointed at the two of them, they started talking about the weather (which was lovely by the way).
Now I could have gone home at this point what with the fact none of them seemed to like me all that much. (Apart from Chris that is. I bet Chris thought I was OK really, and I'd return the compliment.) But if I'd have gone home, I'd have missed the electioneering proper. Trailing in the wake of Chris and Ann-Marie, I asked a good 30 Alnwick folk did they know who the tall man with the blue rosette was. One did (and he'd been introduced, but in all fairness he assured me he knew before. Honest.) When I asked another if he knew who Grayling was, he proferred: "A shadow muppet?"

So I've got another blog rule for my Standards of Blog Conduct
Rule 2: Use a camcorder at all times.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Rule One

Bearing in mind the etiquette on blogging a UK general election is fluid, that is to say there isn't any,(or at least if there is, none of the big blog boys have sent me a neatly-bound, leatherette copy entitled "Standards of Blog Conduct"), I decided to set myself some rules.
Rule One: Out and about. Tell politicos I'm a blogger. This seems fair.
I set this rule today.
I immediately broke it.
It was the BNP. It doesn't count.

I'd gone up to Berwick to fix a tyre.(Pot holes. I blame Alan Beith. Or a Labour Government. Or the council. Or the weather. Or God.) Out and about with the children, we stumbled upon a BNP stall. You have to go to Berwick to realise how unlikely this is. It is England's most northerly town - it has got encircling Elizabethan walls, historic barracks, and its population is white, white, white. I was so astonished to see the BNP, I felt obliged to ask the candidate how come the party have a prescence when immigration is not an issue in Berwick.
Silly me. The nice man explained it's not just about immigration.
OK I said. But what is the proportion of ethnic minorities in Berwick.
The nice man said he didn't know. (I'm guessing so small as to be statistically insignificant.)
I looked down the Berwick street heaving with shoppers and made the point I could not see a black or Asian face.
A BNP lady informed me that some people might be looking at the national picture, not just the picture in Berwick. (As a matter of interest, she didn't seem to take to me at all for some reason.) The BNP candidate, however, was just glad to talk to someone. Nice chap. Publican. Three pubs. Employs a Muslim and two black people. There's white immigration too he told me.
Really? I said. What was he thinking about there?
Polish people. And the Portuguese.
Portuguese? I had this vision of a Berwick positively overrun with Portuguese immigrants. (I'm sure he said they came over for jobs in salmon farming, but my husband said that wouldn't make sense so I probably misheard him.)

I took some leaflets and newspapers. For some reason, (and the Good Lord Jesus only knows why because as the nice man said, the party isn't racist), his literature had lots of stories about Islam and immigration and the like in it.
Such as:
* "Tories pledge to flood Britain with African Homosexual 'Asylum Seekers'."
(Just wait and see, it's in the Tory manifesto.)
* "Mohammed second most popular boys name in Britain."
(I thought about calling my own boys Mohammed. It was a toss-up. I ended up going for Mustafa and Osama.)
Then there was:
* "Immigrant baby boom costs over £1b."
(That'll be the Portuguese. They're Catholic. No birth control.)
And, of course:
* "Another Muslim Paedophile Gang Uncovered."
Patently, the BNP have more to offer than immigration. The nice man told me they did. For instance, Northumberland is a rural constituency, and the BNP acknowledges the importance of "farming bloodlines that stretch down through the centuries" and offers to "promote the yeoman family farm".
In any event, "The Northumberland Patriot" leaflet informed me in no uncertain terms:
"The British National Party is not a racist party. We do not hate anyone because of their race. Nor do we advocate abusing or attacking individual immigrants or minority groups."
That's reassuring. I haven't heard Cameron or Brown give that kind of lead.
It is merely that "Mass immigration harms all of us, whether black or white"
Stacked among the leaflets were maps proclaiming "Welcome to Berwick upon Tweed." Handy sort of map to have if you were an immigrant, though they could do with it translating into Portuguese.

The BNP can get a bit anxy with press, but I did think about saying I was blogging the election and there is no doubt the nice man would still have talked to me, and still have let me have the leaflets. Perhaps it would have reassured the BNP lady who cruelly and sotto voce said "You're a timewaster lady, you are" as the candidate and I talked. Mind you, she explained her defensiveness later. Someone once kicked the table of leaflets. Can you believe that? And she was "physically assaulted" another time. I asked if someone decked her. She havered. I asked if someone had hit her. She havered some more. The candidate explained, a man had thrown his sandwich at her. I didn't ask what was in it.

Friday, April 09, 2010

A Right Herbert

There's two worlds isn't there? The real one which is all about work and whether you can give the kids fish fingers again, and the one on TV and in the press where politicians and pundits are hopping on and off endless planes and trains to supermarkets and business parks all to shake hands, twitter it, turn round and leave again.

The two worlds collided for me today. Nick Herbert, the Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs came up to campaign for the local Conservative-candidate-with-a-double-barrelled-name. Luckily, the double-barrel is Anne-Marie so she got away with keeping it, though for a moment, there was a chance she might have to change to 'Wor Annie. But 'Wor Annie (who is an immensely capable, confident, intelligent woman working her guts out trying to take the Berwick seat from Lib Dem veteran Alan Beith), was wasting her valuable time if she was hoping Herbert's magic dust would rub off on her. He hasn't got any, and having seen his Shadow Cabinet in action all I can say is David Cameron is quite right to make this election all about David Cameron.

Nick was up in Northumberland for a meeting. Anne-Marie turned up to the meeting with an earnest man-child who carried her handbag, and a clever-looking agent in a dark suit. Nick had his own text-busy aide and a bod who I'm guessing drove him up there. Other than that, there were 10 or so Tory farmer-types dressed in mustard cords, gilets, silk ties, three tweed jackets and a Barbour. They weren't asking for much.(Money from Europe obviously but that goes without saying.) They did want the odd firm opinion. On something. Looking in the wrong place guys.

A charming buffer accused a villainous, off-stage Beith of being responsible for the underfunding of hospitals and schools and the "potholed death trap" of the A1. (I think I can safely say, Beith would refute these charges.) All Nick could manage was: "I know Anne-Marie would be as good and as conscientious a Member of Parliament as Alan has been." Not "better than". "As good as". "Vote for her - she's as good as the last guy". According to the candidate's website she's taken one day off from electioneering since 2000. Since January, she's knocked on 20,000 doors (10,000 still to go). I bet that pat on the back from Nick Herbert made it all worth-while.

I didn't have great hopes for my own questions but in for a penny in for a pound. I can't cover the entire general election from underneath a red slanket on my sofa watching BBC News 24 and eating chocolate cake. (Or can I? Thinks hard.) Anyway, I am genuinely interested to see what access you get as a blogger. Will they treat us like journalists? Or stalkers? Or just particularly irritating voters? Potentially armed with recording equipment. To Nick's credit he gave me five minutes after the meeting, though I'm willing to bet he wished he hadn't.

He is out and proud. Good for him. In February, he said the Conservative party had seen a "definite change" in its attitudes to gay people. In a speech to a Washington think tank he said "it suits our opponents to argue that we haven't changed. But we self-evidently have changed." Yes. But has anyone told Chris Grayling?

I asked him what he thought of Grayling's comment that Christian Bed & Breakfast owners should be able to turn away gay couples.
He said: "Chris Grayling has made it clear he voted for the legislation in question and that he does not want to change the law - that's the statement he made."
I made the point I was asking him what he, Nick Herbert, thought.
Herbert said: "That's what Chris Grayling has said."
I repeated that I was asking what he thought.
Herbert said: "That's what Chris Grayling has said and that's what we've said about it."
He refused to say whether he had talked to the Shadow Home Secretary, or indeed bitchslapped him (- OK, I made the last bit up but frankly, I was disappointed in him).
He said: "That's all I'm going to say." At which point his aide dragged him away.

Before we talked through his feelings re Grayling though, we dipped our toe into fox-hunting. Herbert (like Cameron) describes himself as a "country boy". Between 1990 and 1996, he worked for the British Field Sports Society and became its Director of Political Affairs. He also played a leading role in setting up the Countryside Movement which became the Countryside Alliance.
I asked him whether he hunted.
He used to, yes.
I asked him whether there would be legislation to repeal the hunting ban in the first Queen's Speech.
He said: "What we've said and we've always said is we will give Parliament an opportunity of a free vote on repeal with a government bill in government time. I have said that I believe that will be an early opportunity."
(In October, Herbert ruled out a backbench Bill and said the party had decided to bring forward government legislation.)
I asked if he was pushing for it to be an early opportunity.
Herbert said: "That's all I've said, and I have also said we have no intention of wasting parliamentary time as the government did. They devoted over 700 hours of parliamentary time to producing an unworkable piece of legislation and we are not going to make the same mistake. We have a series of priorities both for the country in terms of restoring the economy and so on, and for rural areas. While I believe the law is unworkable and that the new parliament will want the opportunity to vote on its repeal, we do not intend to waste time on this matter."
I asked whether he personally would like to see it in the first Queen's Speeech.
Herbert said: "What I have said is I believe there should be an early opportunity for repeal."
You get the picture.

Afterwards one of the faithful few who'd listened politely,labelled Herbert's reluctance to back his own candidate "feeble." This member of the faithful said: "I wish some of them were rich, then they might actually say what they believe instead of thinking about their own jobs all the time."

What gets me is this guy's clever. He set up a thinktank of his own and has one of those high shiny foreheads so he has to be clever right? And he must have impressed someone because his name was mooted as a possible Home Secretary after Grayling's catastrophic venture into the do's and dont's of the tourist industry. He's not just thinking of his job. He doesn't want to offend. Say nothing - it's safer that way. I bet there are things Nick Herbert believes in. I wonder if he can remember what they are?

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Mumsnet election ( 2)

This "wash-up" they keep talking about getting through. Previously, I've been leery of MPs too willing to don the marigolds (I've always found it best to run away at the snap of damp rubber against plump flesh) but then again these days anyone willing to do my washing-up gets my vote. There's a lot of it right now because my dishwasher's blinky and leaves sand in the bottom of every cup. A bit like it nips out to the beach when I'm not looking and rolls around in the surf for a while. I bet if I check it's had all the sunblock too.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Mumsnet election? Alright then.

OOOh, blood running cold and choppy with excitement at call of election. Think it's the election anyway, there's a chance I had too much caffeine and I'm about to arrest. Have been toying with idea of blogging it all, though I shouldn't cos I'm supposed to be working for a living. What the hell. They did say this was the Mumsnet election I'm sure. That would be why my seven-year-old remarked lying on the sofa watching the party leaders making their starter pitch, "Why isn't any of them a girl?". Of course, there were a few girls around. There was Harriet-Harman-woman with Cabinet colleagues arranged faithful and smiling like lunchtime gospel singers behind a presbyterian preacher; there was a blonde among the tie-less geeks stood by Dave Cameron; and the youngsters behind Nick Clegg that he kept checking on incase any of them were making a V-sign behind his head. And the wives of course. A clicketty-claketty Sarah Brown (has she lost weight? This is the sort of vital question we need to put to women who lay like a glittery-pink varnish over the ugly macho reality of British politics. And if we don't ask it, the Daily Mail certainly will.) And just how many days till the cry goes up "Put Sam First Dave" as his pregnant beauty begins to look shattered as she trails loyally after him. Maybe a formerly double-barrelled young man with a Blackberry in one pocket and his silk tie in the other, could be missioned to carry with him at all times a white plastic garden chair so Sam can sit down while she listens to Dave opining in the open air about the future. Note to Tories: garden chair for Sam. Definitely not shooting stick. Hell to drill them into concrete and may not play well.
So here we go then.