Article for Birmingham 13 Magazine


Labour was elected on May 1 1997 on a wave of enthusiasm under the slogan "things can only get better". I will never forget the remark of a constituent two days later when, pointing to her daughter, she proclaimed "She’s got a future now". I felt a lump in my throat as it was brought home to me just how high people’s expectations were even though the five promises on the pledge card were so limited.

Five years later, things have certainly got better in many ways. Standards in schools are rising, greater investment in the NHS is starting to pay off and even crime is falling, (though not the fear of crime). Gordon Brown is widely regarded as having stewarded the economy well. The British Government, urged on by campaigns like Jubilee 2000, has played a leading role in international initiatives on debt reduction in the world’s poorest countries. But people are perhaps more realistic in their expectations of Government and, sadly, more cynical than ever too. The slogan now is "a lot done, a lot to do".

Whilst I have no doubt that the country is being better run now than in my first five years as your MP sitting on the opposition benches, it is a harder job as a government backbencher who is unwilling to swallow the Party line unquestioningly. I blame it on my scientific training which encourages me to weigh up all sides of an argument before coming to a decision. I have always preferred plain talking to "spin" but it is quite a challenge trying to explain complex issues in the couple of sentences usually offered by the media. Unless it’s a live interview, you can be sure your words will be put in the context that suits the line the journalist wants to peddle. How often I have had to explain this to constituents upset at something I have been reported as saying. At least if they contact me I can put the record straight. I relish the opportunity that correspondence with constituents gives me to provide information and, I hope, insight but it would be so much easier to just tow the standard line from the many "briefings" the Parliamentary Labour Party produces.

It’s also very difficult to avoid being typecast, in my case as the rebel, even though most of the time I troop through the lobbies on the Government side. I couldn’t remain a Labour MP if I didn’t! After the major rebellions on lone parent benefits (resulting in a big increase in child benefit across the board), student finance (chickens now coming home to roost) and incapacity benefit (as featured, not very accurately, in the recent TV drama, The Project), the last parliamentary session has been fairly low key from a rebel point of view, although I did vote against the Immigration and Asylum Bill. I am sorry to say that some of the provisions in this legislation are just plain immoral. However, we’ve just had the Queen’s Speech announcing draconian "criminal justice" measures and yet more unnecessary organizational changes in the health service. I am sick of the use of the word "modernization" to describe unacceptable reorganizations in a way that labels opponents as dinosaurs. So it looks like I’ll have to once more don my rebel hat. Not to say that I don’t welcome the greater emphasis given to the so-called petty crime that blights our communities. I have lobbied for greater enforcement powers relating to graffiti and fly-posting but these will be of little help without the people on the ground to catch the culprits. There is to be consultation on these proposals which will, I am sure be of interest to Birmingham 13 readers. I’ll keep you posted. I wonder whether greater responsibility will be placed on the cable companies to clean up their boxes?

Important as our well-being locally is, I know the thoughts of many constituents are with those caught up in conflict in the world. The situation in the Middle East and Kashmir and the potential for war against Iraq are deeply worrying. As I said in Parliament after Jack Straw’s statement on the UN Security Council Resolution, I hope and pray that this represents a genuine wish on the part of the US administration to resolve Iraq’s non-compliance over weapons’ inspections by peaceful means. It is a pity that the US does not possess the same resolve to use its economic and military dominance to ensure the implementation of Security Council resolutions affecting other countries. My minimum requirement for war would be UN and parliamentary authorization and, even then, given the history of the last 12 years, I have to question whether the alleged threat justifies an attack on Iraq, odious as its ruler is. Oh for a coherent European foreign policy to exert some balance. (An end to the royal prerogative would be good too.)

There has been much talk of "modernization" of parliament but most of the changes are cosmetic. Real changes are needed in the functioning of parliament to give backbenchers real power and influence but that’s another column’s worth. The promised referendum on proportional representation seems sadly to have been well and truly put on the back burner but I believe such reform is the only way to re-invigorate our democracy.

Finally, I am writing this article during the firefighter’s first 48 hour strike. Having talked to local firefighters in the weeks leading up to their eventual decision to strike and urged them to wait for the Bain review, I can understand their anger at the outcome. They have been told the 4% offer this year is non-negotiable and strings are attached to any future increase. I have urged the Government to reconsider this stance so that meaningful negotiations can take place. All the firefighters I have spoken to recognize that the 40% claim was an opening position and they are realistic about changes in working practices. Let us hope some common ground can be found and further strikes avoided. We will all have a happier Christmas then!


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