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Words: Paul Waugh
Pictures: Paul Heartfield
Caroline Flint would like to make clear that she is not Robert de Niro. As she recounts how Labour avoided leaks of its surprise energy bills freeze plan last year, the Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change can’t resist a reference to Hollywood. “What was really great about it was that everybody was in the ‘Circle of Trust’ for four and a half months…” she explains, quoting the phrase made famous by the movie Meet the Parents. But she stops herself, laughing. “I’m not saying I’m de Niro! But because we all knew how important this was, it was a small group of people from my team and Ed’s working together.”
Having been kept firmly under wraps, Ed Miliband’s electrifying announcement in his conference speech certainly changed the political weather at the time and Flint says that it continues to influence Government policy today.
With both Ed Davey’s competition audit and Labour’s Green Paper consultation due to be completed at the end of this month, energy is once again hotting up as a big issue. And while counting down the days to the general election, Flint says that her party will use the coming months to unveil more eye-catching policy to hold onto the momentum it gained last autumn.
A former Health, Employment, Housing and Europe Minister under Blair and Brown, she knows that the devil will be in the detail, but stresses that her guiding principle is translating ordinary people’s concerns into practical policy.
“People want to know that the bill they are paying is a fair bill. I’m really proud that it’s Labour’s ideas that are generating such a massive debate on energy. I know the energy freeze at conference got a lot of the headlines, but we have a pretty thought-through package of reforms to the energy market which I have no doubt kicked the Government into thinking it had better be doing something about it.”
Labour’s ideas include breaking up the generation and supply sides of energy companies, having a pool of transparent electricity sales, a new regulator and establishing a new independent Energy Security Board.
The Flint team has been conducting round-tables with industry experts and academics. “I’ve been very much focusing on where we want to be by the summer recess, and have the outlines of what an Energy Bill will look like under a Labour government.” A further Labour Green Paper on energy efficiency is scheduled for Easter and she offers a teasing remark on further radical measures. “We’ve been thinking about where we need to be by conference. Who knows? We might have a few more policies to surprise everyone with – watch this space. My ambition is that, should we win the election, our team has some ready-made stuff from Day One.”
Flint is used to the backlash from those Labour has in its sights, from Ofgem to Ed Davey to the Big Six energy firms. But she’s determined to press on. “If you’ve got a regulator and that regulator hasn’t got enough clout to expect these companies to operate in a good practice way, that they’ve got to be asked, either they don’t respect the regulator enough or the regulator isn’t asking the right questions and pushing at them. And the one thing I’ve come to a view of during the last two and a half years I’ve been doing this is if you don’t push hard, you don’t get people to justify themselves. Ofgem hasn’t done that and they are in a piecemeal way trying to catch up.”
She cites the recent revelation that the Big Six hold up to £400m in millions of accounts closed after customers switched suppliers or moved home. Flint can’t see why that cash can’t be returned swiftly. “It seems between Ofgem and the energy companies they want to make it as complicated as possible. There’s not one reason why you shouldn’t do something – get on with it. ‘There’s a thousand reasons why you can’t do it’. That’s what we hear all the time. I’m afraid Ofgem have been complicit with that.”
Flint also points out how surprised she was that Energy UK, which represents the industry, had appointed Angela Knight as its chief executive. “No offence to Angela, but I couldn’t believe that they gave the person who was in charge of the British Bankers Association the job of the Energy UK. And at a time when their popularity and public confidence in them is so low, that they thought that was the best way to go. You couldn’t make it up. Sometimes in politics, it’s hard work making your luck. But in political terms, they’re the gift that just keeps giving.
“We sit here as this small outfit, we are like a little start-up business in Opposition, we don’t have the massed ranks of the civil service. We are having to get help from think-tanks and others. And we are set against the might of these big companies and their massive PR machines, public affairs agencies and Energy UK. And I still sometimes have to pinch myself how we hold our own.”
She adds that Knight was a minister at the time that John Major decided to allow energy firms to “vertically integrate”. “So she’s got previous. Also, when you are the voice of the energy sector, don’t say ‘that was before my time’, that’s usually a bad move.”
Ed Davey has stepped up his own repeated attacks on Labour too, claiming Flint doesn’t understand the market or the progress made by the Coalition. “I’m amazed how much time in his speeches he spends having a go at me,” she says. “We’ve obviously hit a nerve. I’m not going to apologise for being tough on this issue. It warranted the visibility we’ve given to some pretty rum things that have been going on for a number of years.” But she scents a change in the air despite the rhetoric, and predicts the Davey audit will call for a further review.
“We watch very carefully the statements of Government ministers and we’ve noticed in recent weeks a certain dilution of their animosity towards our proposals as they are heading towards maybe a more public acknowledgement there are further reforms of this market that’s needed.”
As for the price freeze policy, it was kept so secret before party conference last year that even Flint didn’t know the party was producing its ‘ice block’ memento (complete with frozen bill) until she emerged from the conference hall and saw delegates handed them.
Flint says just as important as the announcement was the way it didn’t unravel in the days or weeks afterwards. “It is not a gimmick, it is an integral part of an energy policy that’s about reforming the way the market works. And we need a line in the sand where the public can start feeling more confident about the way this sector is regulated. Energy is one of those things, like water, where I think people do expect a higher order of management and regulation.”
She says that while none of the Big Six were happy with the freeze idea, but already live with similar measures in Europe. “This is a temporary freeze, a number of these companies have to work with permanent price controls in some of the other markets they operate in, about 15 of the EU 28 have some sort of permanent price controls. This idea we are doing something different is just not the case.”
Flint adds that on other Labour plans, the party has “had massive engagement” with the energy industry. She has also insisted that on areas such as Contracts for Difference “we haven’t sought to be Oppositional just for its own sake”. On nuclear energy, she says Labour in Government wanted a new generation of plants at a time when David Cameron was saying it should be a ‘last resort’ and the Liberal Democrats were against it. “They’ve now come round to saying it is going to be an important part of our supply for the future.”
On fracking too, Flint say she’s been constructive. “It’s boring I know, but we’ve been a very reasonable voice in this debate because it’s got a lot more polarised than I think is healthy. I wouldn’t set my face against realising a source of energy that means we can have more home-grown energy, we are a net importer of gas and have been for some years now,” she says.
“The difficulty is that the Government, particularly George Osborne, has hyped it up in such a way that I think he has overestimated not only the amount we could realise but the timeframe we could realise it in. We are nowhere near at the moment, as far as I can work out, the point of production, which is why I think things like offering tax breaks – me and Peter Lilley are at one on this apparently – seems a bit odd, given that they may not need tax breaks.
“The danger has been that as soon as the Government started talking up shale gas it was also used as an anti-renewables message. That is heard in the boardrooms of companies who want to invest, like Siemens and others. Our investment into renewables in this country has halved from just over £7bn five years ago to £2-3bn now.”
She says that Labour’s Climate Change Act, with only five MPs voting against it, had been “a world first” that triggered inward investment because “investors said the UK seemed really serious about this”.
“That consensus has fractured somewhat over the last four years. A number of projects that have come online including the London Array [wind turbines] and power stations were projects started under Labour. Much as I regret it, it’s the Government cutting the ribbon but the truth is they started under us and we haven’t seen a matching amount.”
With the Budget coming up, the CBI is urging the Chancellor to freeze his carbon floor price and Flint says “I sympathise with business” on the pain that UK energy-intensive industries feel on the subject.
“I couldn’t really understand to be honest why given everything else the Government say about the EU, why they would want to create a disadvantage for British business compared to the EU trading scheme,” she says.
“Ironically, it has united industry and green groups against it. We wouldn’t have done it. The problem is that it has created a pot of money coming into Government so we are not in a position to turn round and say [we can abolish it].”
Flint is keen to get UK industry more compensation from Europe, however. “Whether it’s steel, glass, ceramics or chemical industries, energy usage is massive for them and there has to be a way in which we can work with these sectors.”
Representing a former mining community that still relies on heavy industry, Flint constantly tries to connect energy policy with jobs, bills and other bread and butter issues.
Her recent call for Labour to attract ‘Aldi woman’, who cuts her bills by shopping at the no-frills store, is part of her campaign to ensure the party reconnects with the voters. She recently visited an Asda in her constituency to talk to customers and staff and found the cost of living agenda dominated.
One man, paid not more than the minimum wage, had to take two buses to work and bus fares were his big priority. Another Asda worker and his wife worked separate shifts for the supermarket because they can’t afford the childcare.
“All the people I spoke to there were in work but they were all in different ways saying ‘it seems like you are just working to pay the bills’. And for people who do work hard, life should be more than that. Life should be being able to go and have fun with your well earned money.”
Flint’s own working class upbringing, as well as her constituents, ground her in daily life. “Your background does inform you as a politician. My family background, I think it helps me enormously,” she says.
“My brother has always been my ‘White Van Man’. He’d hate me for saying that, he doesn’t drive a van but he’s a driver. When I started to get involved in politics, my family thought I was a bit weird and at the time I thought ‘you don’t understand’ but I have to say as I’ve got a little bit older and wiser I have to say appreciate that more than ever.
“I realise that my family background is a huge asset to have. You can’t say you’re Everywoman or Everyman but it’s a great asset to have contact with people who aren’t that closely involved in politics and Westminster. I’m not saying I agree with them all the time by the way, we have some nice rows about things, but it’s a great touchstone to have.
“It’s about a politician having the checks and balances within yourself to get beyond the usual people who have access to you and that think-tanks aren’t the be-all and end-all: what does it feel like out there?”
Flint herself has certainly experienced life at the sharp end. Born in a home for unmarried mothers in north London, she never knew her biological father. She was adopted by her stepfather but he split from her mother when she was 12. Flint and her siblings lived in a one-room flat, and had to cope with their mother’s alcoholism (she later died from liver damage).
Despite everything, Flint did well enough at school to go to university. She herself married young but when the relationship ended in her 20s, she had to bring up two young children, both aged under two, single-handed.
She applied for a job on the tills at Woolworth’s, but was rejected because she was seen as too well qualified. “I just wanted to get any job because we were on benefits. I just wanted to get back to work and I was absolutely prepared to do whatever job I could do,” she says. Undeterred, she got a job at ILEA, moving on to Lambeth Council and the GMB before becoming MP for Don Valley in the 1997 landslide.
Her views on welfare policy stem from an empathy with those struggling, combined with a hard-headed view that claimants have responsibilities as well as rights.
“Most people who find themselves on benefits desperately want to get back into work. The problem is how long you leave them. It seems to me blooming obvious that the longer you are out of a situation the more difficult it is. Then there are others who will be chancing it.”
Flint in many ways embodies the aspirational culture that she wants a Labour Government to engender. Looking back at her career she says her late mother “would be really proud” of her. She this week took part in an exhibition encouraging young women in Yorkshire to fulfil their ambitions and was asked to write her own advice to those struggling.
“I would say ‘invest in yourself’ and think about what you can do to help yourself. But also always be open to a helping hand. That has helped me through my life, different steps of the way. There will be times when things are tough and people let you down but if you do those two things then that’s a pretty robust way for helping you get on. That’s what I’ve tried to do with certain knockbacks, it is I hope what I try to do not just as an MP but as a person to other people in situations that are somewhat similar to my own, giving them that support and encouragement.”
Through her various knockbacks, was she ever tempted to track down her natural father? “I never knew my father because my mother had me when she was 17. I don’t want to set a storm going from this interview where there will be various friends from the media hunting down Caroline Flint’s natural father.
“I know he’s Scottish and I sort of know his name. My mother had me at 17 and then later she married and then I was adopted by her husband. Later on when that broke down, he really didn’t want to have anything to do with me. Having said that, the first 10 years of my childhood were a very nice childhood. I think I got to the point where I just felt I have to get on with my own life, and what was more important to me than anything else was the situation I was dealing with my own family.”
Her innate resilience and needs of a young family trumped any urge to trace her own origins, though at times she was tempted. “It’s about being confident in yourself…you may not find the answers you are looking for. Who I am is as much to do with the choices I’ve made as much as my genetic makeup – and you should always get that in balance,” she explains.
“I’ve lived without my natural father for 52 years. Occasionally when I was younger, I used to sometimes think I could find out where he lived and I could turn up on his doorstep like those market researchers and not say who I am. Ask a few questions. ‘So, who are you living with in the house, have you had any ill health problems?’ ‘Who do you vote for?’ I sometimes had a romantic fantasy about that sort of thing and then depending on what I saw in front of me decide to take it further or walk away.
“But whoever my father is, he’s had a whole family life and so I tread with caution on this. My husband does sometimes say ‘Caroline, you’d be really great on Who You Think You Are?’, so they could do all that work for me. But no, I’m not looking for something. I am who I am. For good or bad, my life has made me who I am today.”
Caroline Flint is in many ways a comeback kid, often defying her circumstances and her critics. If she can help her party reconnect with struggling families and restore the ‘circle of trust’ with the voters, Labour could make its own comeback, come 2015.
FLINT ON…. THE ENERGY BILL FREEZE PLAN
“Wholesale cost went down by 45% since 2009 and were never really passed onto the consumer. So we wanted to give something back to the public.”
FLINT ON…SPLITTING POWER GENERATION AND SUPPLY
“I don’t want six different versions of what that looks like. The Big Six have gone off and done their own variations and it almost makes matters worse”
FLINT ON…CLIMATE CHANGE TALKS
“We are working on this, because one of the first things that will be in my in-tray should I be the Secretary of State is the COP meeting in Paris [in 2015].”
FLINT ON…THE COST OF LIVING
“In politics we are so focused on the macro stuff but it’s the small things that make a difference.”
FLINT ON…THE WESTMINSTER BUBBLE
“You can make laws here but with the best intentions in the world, by time things get delivered on the ground, sometimes things get lost in translation.”
Words: Jess Bowie
Pictures: Paul Heartfield
Industrious MPs frequently find themselves clock-watching, wishing there were more hours in the day. The Member for Harlow, Robert Halfon, is a time-poor clock-watcher too – but, unlike his peers, he’s also a watch clocker. If this devoted horologist clocks a timepiece he likes, chances are he’ll buy it.
“I’m a watch fanatic,” he says. “Since I was a kid, I’ve loved them. I’ve got loads – Casios, Citizens, all kinds. I play with them and I read watch magazines. I’m really sad.”
Halfon’s Brazilian partner Vanda, whom he met via Facebook in 2008 and who lives with him in Harlow, is now used to seeing various watches strewn on the living room table – and even to the sight of the 44-year-old Halfon launching a Casio G-Shock out of the bedroom window, just to prove that they never scratch.
“I shouldn’t really admit any of this stuff,” he says with a grin.
His favourite watch is the Omega Speedmaster – President Kennedy’s timepiece of choice and the only watch ever to be worn on the moon (an old poster featuring Kennedy and the Omega adorns the back wall of Halfon’s parliamentary office). Halfon, who was born and raised in North London, clearly enjoys it when his passions – watches and politics – come together, and goes on to describe a subset of his collection: watches depicting political figures. “I’ve got a George Bush watch, a President Nixon watch, one with a picture of Winston Churchill on it...” Halfon also boasts a Chairman Mao watch, bought from a street seller in Beijing.
It’s a fitting collection for someone who’s been linked to a British ‘Tea Party’ movement but who is also fascinated by communism. After completing a Masters in Russian politics, the young Halfon approached one Michael Fabricant MP, who shared his interest in communist Russia. Under the guise of wanting to discuss Eastern European politics, Halfon asked Fabricant for a job. (He describes working for the famously flaxen-haired politician as “amazing” and says he is not at all surprised by his old boss’s conversion to social media star, saying Fabricant is “made for Twitter”.)
But has Halfon, who has made his name since he was elected in 2010 by championing the causes of people on low incomes, ever flirted with the left?
“Oh yeah, I think about it all the time. I always think that socialism is an incredibly noble ideology because people who become socialists usually do so for one reason, which is that they want to help the poor.
“So when you knock on a door if you’re a socialist, immediately the person looking at you thinks, ‘ok you may not get the economy right, but your heart’s in the right place because you’re there for the underdog’.
“Every time the Labour MPs speak in the Commons, it’s always about the underdog and so I’ve always thought ‘what an incredible philosophy’.”
The problem, Halfon says, is with its implementation. He also “can’t stand the authoritarian, Fabian, statism/metropolitan PC-type-left where they think the state can run everything like Davros the Dalek… I’ve always rejected that and that’s why I didn’t become a socialist.”
Another nuance of Halfon’s politics is his attitude towards trade unions. He is a proud member of the Prospect union and, in 2012, published a pamphlet called Stop the Union Bashing: why Conservatives should embrace the Trade Union movement. And, while he didn’t agree with the recent Tube strike over ticket office closures – “the tube is a public service and the strike made the lives of the millions of people who depend on it a misery” – he argues against changing the law on majority strikes, pointing out that “if you say 50% of unions have got to vote, then you’ve got to apply that to every election.”
“Twenty per cent of people vote in Euro elections, local government elections and so on. I don’t think you can have one rule for trade unions and another for everyone else,” he adds.
Sitting proudly on Halfon’s coffee table, near a small handmade cushion given to him by one of his constituents, is the ‘Transport Campaigner of the Year’ award which the Harlow MP won at January’s Dods Parliamentary Awards. The accolade recognised Halfon’s long-running campaign on petrol prices, which was credited for influencing the Government’s decision to scrap planned fuel duty increases in 2013.
Halfon, who has also targeted the excessive profits of water and energy companies, has just launched a new campaign against the extra charges utility companies impose on customers who don’t pay their bills by direct debit, saying they are tantamount to “a stealth tax on the poor”.
Nor does he have much time for the utilities regulators.
“On the whole, they’re terrible. They’re like company secretaries and auditors rather than consumer bodies. The regulators have now said they’re going to look into this direct debit issue, having said before they thought the costs were proportionate – and they’re investigating one energy company, Scottish Energy, about this. But they need to be much more hands on. I’ve had huge arguments with Ofgem, and the OFT – who won’t investigate the petrol market properly – and I think they’re just cocooned in their worlds of being regulators rather than consumer bodies.”
Halfon’s solution would be to give new powers of oversight to Which?. “They’re the most incredible organisation on the planet, I think. I guarantee if Which? were running the regulator, every consumer would be hundreds of pounds better off every year.”
Close your eyes and it could almost be Ed Miliband speaking. There is undoubtedly an overlap between Halfon’s message on cost of living issues and the Labour leader’s. Does he have time for Miliband’s policy proposals?
“I think Labour suddenly woke up last year, because they were in this kind of weird two years where they were going on about predistribution and really bizarre stuff that I can’t even spell, let alone that the average person in the street could understand,” Halfon says. “But they’ve obviously got good advisers because suddenly they woke up to things that many of us – not just me in the party – were saying about the cost of living.
“The problem is that they’ve come up with ‘motherhood and apple pie’ solutions which sound amazing but actually don’t work in practice,” he says, before enumerating the reasons Labour’s energy price freeze couldn’t work in reality.
Thanks to his tireless cost of living campaigning, Halfon has reportedly been dubbed “the most expensive MP in Parliament” by the Prime Minister. Just last week he and a band of his constituents were marching on Downing Street, calling on the Government to lower bingo duty. He certainly seems to have become a key voice within his party for blue-collar voters.
“First of all, I hate the phrase ‘blue collar’. It’s patronising and it reminds me of those old Tory grandees who would come down from the mountains and say to the workers in the factories, ‘have some bread’. I hate all that. I prefer ‘white van Conservatism’,” Halfon says, before explaining that ‘white van Conservatism’ is not about ‘white van man’, a phrase which can mistakenly be understood to mean “a big burly guy, kinda like Brutus from Popeye”.
Halfon, whose Jewish Italian father became a fruit and vegetable seller in London after fleeing Libya in the face of Gaddafi’s pogroms, is in fact writing a book called White Van Conservatism. The cover picture is a woman in a white van “because there are so many women who have micro businesses and small businesses – huge amounts”.
Tory modernisation is something Halfon supports, but for him it should be about one thing: “being the party for the working poor. And everything else should follow.” He even thinks the Tories should re-brand themselves The Workers’ Party.
While a name-change may be a tall order, Halfon’s ideas seem to be taking root; in a speech last week Grant Shapps referred to the Conservatives as “the workers’ party” – to the horror of some Labour MPs who pointed out that this niche was already occupied, and that the ‘clue was in the name’.
Halfon would also change his party’s logo, replacing the tree with the image of a ladder. “The Labour Party give people safety nets, whereas we give them ladders,” he says. “What I said before about socialism having a noble aim, knowing you’re about the poor. The problem for Conservatives is always: what are we about? Freedom – well what does that really mean to the person on street? Sovereignty, Europe... it’s all esoteric stuff. Partly Conservatism is a way of life – by habit you tend to be more traditional and so on. But actually the thing that we’re about is the ladder.”
Halfon refuses to say whether he is better equipped to speak to white-van voters than others in his party. “I don’t like to say that, not in a million years,” he says. “People have their own emphases and there are so many people who can talk better than me on all kinds of things”. But he does think the Conservatives need to create a stronger identity. “We’re slowly doing it, saying we’re the party for hardworking people, but we’ve got to build a real narrative around it, a real passion that we’re there to help the working poor and not only that, we’re there to help people who aren’t working get into work.”
Would this narrative be easier to promote if the party’s upper reaches weren’t so dominated by Eton and Oxbridge types?
Halfon answers the question with one of his own: “Guess how many people in my constituency have asked me about David Cameron’s background?”
The answer might disappoint Team Miliband. “Not one. In 10 years. And nobody – I guarantee – nobody really cares that David Cameron went to Eton. In fact many people would love to send their kids to a school like that. What they do care about is that we’re on their side – when they wake up at 5am, go to work all day in their van, come back at seven or eight at night and their wife then goes to work in a factory or in Tesco or whatever it might be. They’ve got two kids, they live in a small house. They don’t go on holidays, they’re earning 25-30k a year. They want to know: is the Government going to make their lives easier? Are we going to cut fuel duty, are we going to make their energy bills easier, are we going to make them put all this environmental stuff on their van which makes them double the cost of buying the van? These are things that matter.”
He adds: “We may get into coalition again, we may even win a small majority of 10 or 20 MPs, but we’ll never have a big majority unless we have a real narrative and working people think that we are speaking for them.”
Surely Robert Halfon is just the man to help the Conservatives achieve this. Does he have ambitions within the party?
“I know you’re not going to believe me, but this time around...my seat is a very tough one, so I’ve got to work very, very hard in my seat. I love campaigning so if there was some kind of campaigning position, I would do it. But other than that, ahead of 2015 I need to... I’m very happy doing what I’m doing.”
But after 2015? What would be his ideal ministerial post? “I’m not going to go down that path,” he says with a smile. “I always think it’s so arrogant people saying that kind of thing. I would love a campaigning role one day within the party. That’s all you’ll get from me on that.”
The Tories’ problems with representation don’t stop at white-van voters, of course. There’s a much larger demographic at stake: women. They still make up less than one in five Conservative MPs, and even many traditionalists in the party are mulling the possibility of all-women shortlists.
Halfon says that while he would be “tempted down that route”, he “can’t get himself to agree with it”. He draws an analogy with his own experience as a candidate.
“I had to fight hard to get a seat. I’ve got leg issues, as you can see [Halfon suffers from osteoarthritis and a form of cerebral palsy and walks with the help of crutches] and I would have hated it if there had been three disabled people in the final shortlist and I’d got there because there was a disability quota. In fact, I wouldn’t have gone for the seat. When I was being interviewed for seats, I knew I couldn’t just be an a A candidate – I don’t mean A list, I’m talking about A grade – I had to be an A++ candidate to get over people’s worries about whether I’d keel over if I went canvassing. Not because they were evil, but because they were worried about whether I’d be up to it. The idea of being on some disabled shortlist would have been horrific, because I would’ve known I’d only got there because I had a disability rather than because I’m good. That’s what worries me about the women’s shortlist thing.”
This said, Halfon admits his party “has to do something” about its woman problem. “Let me put it this way, if you had suggested all-female shortlists to me two or three years ago, I would’ve said ‘absolutely not’ and now I’m saying ‘not’, but without the ‘absolutely’”. His preferred solution would be bursary schemes – not just for women candidates but also for those from lower income backgrounds who are put off by the huge costs associated with running for Parliament.
It’s yet another way in which Halfon wants to do politics differently – a thread that runs through almost everything he says. But one key area where the Harlow MP is challenging orthodoxies has so far escaped mention: his clothes. In addition to his hoard of watches, Halfon boasts a dazzling collection of colourful suits.
“Today I’ve got a boring thing on. I should have remembered to wear something colourful for this. I just get fed up with wearing boring grey suits all the time. There’s such inequality here; if a woman wears a colourful dress, everyone says how wonderful that is, but if a man doesn’t wear a grey suit it’s seen as something abnormal.”
Halfon’s resplendent wardrobe takes in purple, a shade he calls ‘Hamas green’, and tangerine. The latter suit’s outing in the Chamber last summer, and the parliamentary banter that greeted it (“One knows when one’s been tangoed,” Eric Pickles joked in response to a question from Halfon), shot Halfon to the top of that day’s most viewed videos on the BBC website.
Halfon promises never to ditch the day-glo ensembles, even if he’s one day made a minister. “Absolutely not, no way,” he says. But does he think some of his male peers dress in a dull way?
“No, I wouldn’t say that about anyone. It’s just convention, not just in Parliament but everywhere, that men wear dark suits. And we look identikit. So I do bring a bit of colour.”
HALFON ON...SAME-SEX MARRIAGE
"I felt I didn't want minority groups – Christian and other faiths – to be under constant fear of persecution. It was a very, very difficult issue for me because...there is a liberal side, but I also have a Conservative side as well, and they're constantly battling in these issues."
HALFON ON... HOMEOPATHY
"Just three EDMs I think I've ever signed [on it] since I got in. And you'd have thought I had called for the burning of every hospital in Britain. I've had unbelievable abuse and it's bizarre because I've never spoken on it in the House, I've never said anything. All I did was sign these innocuous – I thought innocuous – EDMs."
HALFON ON… UKIP
“To me there are two kinds of UKIP – the Godfrey Bloom guy who’s like a cross between Sid James and Bernard Manning, and then there's a much more sinister element, like the MEP who said every Muslim has got to sign a declaration of non-violence, which to me is literally akin to the Nazis saying Jews should wear a yellow star. I genuinely find it abhorrent and frightening. I'm amazed that man is still an MEP. How someone could say such a thing and then not apologise for it.
“In many ways UKIP have done us [the Conservatives] an enormous favour because they're cleansing people from the Tory party that had these kinds of views, which is great because I don't want people who have those kinds of views in my party. So good luck to them, really.”
HALFON ON... THE PM 'REINING IN' ERIC PICKLES
"I don't think anyone would dare rein in Eric Pickles because he'd just biff them one, basically."
This March 15th, the Syrian conflict will enter its fourth year. It is the defining humanitarian crisis of the 21st century, a catastrophe that has left nearly 150,000 people dead and more than nine million Syrians in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.
Syrian families’ continuing flight from their country – one of the largest refugee exoduses in recent history – will see neighbouring states buckle under the pressure of hosting more than four million Syrian refugees by the end of 2014, with dire and unpredictable consequences for the wider region. Were the violence to cease tomorrow it would take decades to rebuild Syria; as it stands, a political solution appears distant, a sustainable peace ever more remote.
Against such an appalling backdrop, all ‘success’ is relative, all ‘progress’ incremental. Last month – a week after a second round of peace talks in Geneva failed to yield results – the UN Security Council finally demonstrated a common resolve to address Syria’s humanitarian tragedy, and unanimously passed a resolution demanding safe and unhindered access to people in need.
We can and should be very proud of the UK Government’s forward role in securing this diplomatic breakthrough, as we should be proud of the UK’s immensely generous response to the humanitarian relief effort. Our commitment to date of £600m to help those affected by the conflict should inspire other G20 countries to reflect on and raise their current levels of support.
But let us be clear: it is a disgrace that the Syrian people have had to wait three years for the Security Council to agree on a meaningful response to Syria’s humanitarian crisis. Indeed, as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said shortly after the resolution’s adoption, when it comes to humanitarian assistance there should be nothing to negotiate.
Time will tell whether the Council’s resolution can secure real progress on the ground. A diplomatic breakthrough does not necessarily entail a humanitarian one. But while it may be too early to talk of ‘success’ or ‘progress’ in alleviating the suffering of those Syrians languishing in hard-to-reach or besieged areas, there are some points of light and hope.
They lie in the remarkable resilience of the human spirit, evinced by the courage and dignity with which the Syrian people continue to live their lives under the some of the most extreme conditions on earth, day by day, hour by hour. Forced from their homes, fashioning an existence literally out of rubble, we hear stories of Syrian women dashing across conflict lines to keep a school up and running for young children, refusing to concede their pupils’ future or their present.
We hear the story of a shell-shocked Syrian girl overcoming trauma and unfamiliar accents to play with classmates in a Beirut education centre. And we hear the story of a Syrian father pushing his six-year-old daughter’s wheelchair to school every day in Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp, and later to the physical therapy sessions her missing right leg compels her to attend.
There are no words for courage like this. Yet as Members of Parliament we cannot but raise our voices to say that today we stand in solidarity with the Syrian people, and to call upon our Government to commit to do everything it can to ensure that this month’s third anniversary of Syria’s nightmare is the last.
In the run-up to March 15th, as part of the #WithSyria campaign, men, women and children around the world will be transforming iconic landmarks such as London’s Trafalgar Square into symbols of hope for an end to the Syria crisis.
Events like these points of light in our country, as well as the many smaller vigils planned in schools, churches and mosques across the UK, will send a message to the Syrian people that we will not abandon them to another year of bloodshed.
We, as parliamentarians, enjoy a privileged opportunity to lend our voices and presence in support of these events. But our duty to do so derives from our common humanity with Syria’s suffering people, not from our seat.
Alistair Burt is Conservative MP for North East Bedfordshire and was a minister in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office from 2010-13.
I write in praise of parliamentary graffiti. Not the scribbled libels you occasionally read in the gents (presumably the ladies too though I wouldn’t know), but Early Day Motions. I think it was Phillip Cowley, a politics Professor at the University of Nottingham, who first likened the mini statements to illicit sprayings but I view them as more Banksy than mindless vandalism.
The notices signed by MPs are an insight into what’s on the minds of our elected representatives, as are Business Questions to the Leader of the House on Thursdays. They lack the gladiatorial thrill or TV ratings of Prime Minister’s Questions yet they are an important if small cog in the democracy of the nation.
EDMs are MPs letting off steam and bolstering campaigns, taking the temperature of public support or reprimanding corporations considered deserving of a kicking. Most days we hacks scan the list of motions and, it anything tickles your fancy, ringing one of the signatories may lead to a story.
Glancing at the current list as I write there are interesting motions on premises selling food hiding hygiene ratings, Burma, the Land Registry, homosexuality in Uganda, the Fair Tax Mark and complaints that Waitrose giving away free newspapers is ruining newsagents.
I’m not sure the EDM congratulating Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, on his elevation to College of Cardinals is worth the £360 price tag attached to a motion but the 12 MPs who signed presumably do and the value of every statement is in the eye of the beholder.
It’s become trendy to dismiss EDMs as all inspired by lobbyists (I’m sure a number are) or praise for local football teams and newspapers (again they exist). Years ago on the Daily Mirror we used to have a competition to get the name of a nationally obscure MP into the paper. I was given a name (I’ll spare the MP’s blushes) and won the challenge by discovering he’d signed a particularly good EDM. Hey presto!
Who signs and won’t sign is always interesting to watch in Portcullis House or Strangers’ Bar. Some MPs will sign anything put in front of them, compliance easier than scrutiny or resistance. Others, however, insist on a chat before getting out a pen or declining – not always politely.
In these austere times Weaver Vale MP Graham Evans suggested at a meeting of the Commons’s Procedure that EDMs be published online rather than green paper, potentially saving upwards of half a million pounds. People outside the Westminster village already read them online. When checking back on the record of an MP, I’d log on, not pull out a file to trace their fancies.
It’s true also EDMs can be printed in an office or at home. I’ll admit I prefer to collect an edition every day from the Vote Office, the printed version carrying greater authority than words on a computer screen. I reckon the fair few MPs I see with hard copies will agree. But it wouldn’t be the end of the world for the motions if they were abolished offline.
In coming to praise not to bury EDMs I’d like to second an idea floated by Prof Cowley to enhance the status of parliamentary grafitti. Devising and giving backing to a statement is all well and good.
Far better to enable EDMs to trigger debates in the Commons chamber or Westminster Hall should they gather in excess of, say 200 or 300 signatures. Inserting a cross-party hurdle, requiring qualifying motions to be endorsed by MPs of several political hues, could satisfy objections from those who fear devious whips would hijack the entire process. The humble EDM could have a bright future.
Kevin Maguire is associate editor (politics) at the Daily Mirror
Dennis Turner’s death on 25th February after a short illness brought to an end a life devoted to fighting for the people of Bilston and Wolverhampton. He died within yards of where he had been born and raised: Bradley, in Bilston. It was his home throughout his life and where he found comfort, strength and friendship.
In a political career spanning decades, first as a councillor, then as the local MP, Dennis lived through all the traumatic industrial change which caused so much damage to his home town and to others like it in Britain’s manufacturing heartlands.
Through his union position at Stewarts and Lloyds, the Bilston steelworks, he fought a valiant but ultimately losing battle to save the works from closure in the early 1980s. He saw not only that landmark name but also others like Sankey’s, John Thomson’s and others who symbolised Bilston’s economic identity pass into history.
It is hard to overstate how devastating these closures were. Each of these workplaces employed thousands. Their loss ripped the heart out of Bilston’s economy and damaged for a long time the town’s sense of purpose and confidence.
Much of the modern history of Bilston and Wolverhampton has been about trying to adapt to the loss of this industrial legacy and find new purpose in today’s economy, and Dennis’s role as the local MP was to try to lead his community through this change.
Few MPs know their constituents and community like he did. A walk down Bilston High Street with him could take hours because he knew so many people and he would inquire after their husbands, wives and children, all of whom it seemed he knew by name.
Dennis was also a very popular figure in Parliament, acting first as a Labour whip and later as PPS to Clare Short. His philosophy in life, as he put it, was always to make friends not enemies. The natural optimism this outlook embodied helped him make many friends in politics.
There were certainly a number of decisions which Labour took in Government that he didn’t like, but he never went into opposition mode against his own side and he remained a strong and loyal supporter of the Labour Government.
Following his retirement in 2005 he was given a peerage and took up his seat in the Lords under the title of Lord Bilston. In recent years he championed the cause of Fair Trade, chairing Wolverhampton’s Fair Trade partnership and taking pride that the city was one of the earliest Fair Trade cities in Britain. He believed strongly that the food we consume should not come at the price of the exploitation of those who produce it. He also worked hard in Wolverhampton’s inter faith forum to reach out to Wolverhampton’s growing Indian population.
When the Coalition Government’s boundary changes proposed the carving up of his former constituency into four parts across three different local government boundaries Dennis backed the local “Keep Bilston United” campaign which eventually resulted in significant change to the original proposals. He knew the value of coherence in a political identity and did not want to see his home town cast asunder in this way.
Dennis faced his final struggle in recent months with great bravery and strength of spirit. Right until the end he wanted to catch up on the latest political news, locally or nationally, and hear what was happening. He was cared for with great love and tenderness by his wife Pat, his son Brendan and daughter Jenny and his brother Bert who is a long serving councillor in Wolverhampton.
Wolverhampton and Bilston have lost a great son. Dennis Turner will be hugely missed.
Pat McFadden MP is Labour MP for Wolverhampton South East