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MP’s Agog – Was it One Finger or Two?

Chapter 27 of my book (My Political Race)

Bonfire Night 2002 and the Tory Party was almost ablaze. Iain Duncan Smith (IDS), their leader (yes, he really was, you didn’t imagine it), announced that his party must ‘unite or die’. The latest split was over gay adoption. IDS was trying to whip his party up to oppose it and Michael Portillo led the rebellion against him on Bonfire Night. So, what was front-page news the next day? What was everyone talking about in Parliament afterwards? It was the Duke of Edinburgh, what he’d said to me, what I’d said to him; whether he’d patted me on the back or whether he’d flipped me a V-sign. Here is how The Guardian reported it on their front page:

One finger or two?

MPs agog at Prince’s salute

The Duke of Edinburgh’s gift of the gaffe left him accused yesterday of giving a V-sign to a Labour MP at a Buckingham Palace reception.

Prince Philip was said to have issued the salute after encountering the backbencher at a party for parliamentarians hosted by the Queen.

According to a prominent Labour MP, the famously prickly Prince raised his fingers then turned on his heels after an exchange with Gloucester MP Parmjit Dhanda.

The Prince, on hearing Mr Dhanda had been a student and trade union official before entering the Commons, had told his guest: ‘You didn’t do anything then.’

Mr Dhanda, formerly assistant national negotiator in the Connect information technology union, used his industrial experience to turn the question back on the Prince. ‘What did you do before becoming the Duke of Edinburgh?’ he inquired. The Prince replied he had been in the Royal Navy, serving during the Second World War.

What did, or did not, happen next was the talk of the Commons bars and tearooms yesterday, with the precise details a matter of dispute.

The prominent Labour MP, who asked not to be named, swore that the 81-year-old Prince gave Mr Dhanda a V-sign. ‘It was unmistakable … bloody funny,’ said the MP. ‘I didn’t know he had it in him.’

Mr Dhanda, attempting to laugh off Monday night’s incident, said the Prince playfully raised one finger, not two.

The Blairite, elected in 2001, said: ‘He didn’t stick up two fingers, he pointed up one and said “there you go”, patting me on the shoulder before he went. He had a big smile on his face and it was very much in a sense of fun.’

A palace spokeswoman suggested there was ‘obviously not a lot going on’ in the Commons if MPs were talking about whether the Prince raised one or two fingers.

‘The Duke of Edinburgh would certainly have no intention of making a gesture of that nature in Buckingham Palace or anywhere else to a member of the public, let alone an MP,’ she said.

The Prince is no stranger to controversy and his comments have a habit of backfiring. Trying to share a joke this year with a blind woman and her guide dog in Exeter, he said: ‘Do you know they have eating dogs for the anorexic now?’

As I hid in my office for the coming days, avoiding calls from journalists and colleagues alike, virtually every newspaper covered the story – from the Daily Mail to Corriere Della Sera in Italy, from Private Eye to a Bolivian publication that I could not pronounce… and beyond.

They couldn’t get enough of it and I guess I was the lucky one – since the Duke is always making gaffes, he copped the flak. Reruns of every politically incorrect statement he’s ever made were reprinted – and, my goodness, there are a lot of them. But this one was a bit special for the gaffe collectors. It involved a young MP (you’ll note from The Guardian’s coverage I’ve gone from being called a Trotskyite in my political life to a Blairite) and it involved the trade unions (who had their own say on the letters pages about ‘Prince Philip’s disgraceful insult to the movement’). It also involved rudeness and a level of mystery because I wasn’t talking about it, regardless of the barrage of requests. To this day, whenever I receive messages on my mobile I still fear it’s Francis Elliott of The Times chasing me for a quote about what happened that night in Buckingham Palace.

In the coverage, I got away with being the quick-witted victim of the Prince’s crime. For years my colleagues – particularly those with republican tendencies – dined out on this story and often added their own spin on what I said to HRH or what he said to me. I’ve been asked about it many times over the years – the conversation, the manner in which it was said, whether it was actually one finger or two… Did I really ask him what he did before he married the head of state?

I have always kept my own counsel and my reply to these questions would always half-jokingly be: ‘You’ll have to wait until I write a book!’

So here is the definitive account of what actually happened the night I visited Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen and her consort…

It’s one of those invites you can’t really turn down. An invite for MPs to meet the head of state in her own home (one of them, at least) was not something this Mellow Lane Comprehensive kid could ever have imagined receiving. This was woah! Very big.

So off I went, along with literally hundreds of MPs. I remember walking up this long staircase and waiting in line. The Queen was shaking hands with each of us as we bowed or curtsied before making our way into a grand ballroom kind of a place. I don’t know what it was but it was an eye-poppingly big room steeped in splendour, with paintings and curtains you can’t even buy in John Lewis. When it was my turn to shake the Queen’s hand I was disappointed to see she was wearing white gloves and it was more of a parting magisterial high-five than a handshake, with no time to shoot the breeze. But I had no knowledge of etiquette or any common sense about such things so there was no point in feeling offended. It was her house, her rules.

My knowledge of protocol would change over the years as I got to meet her on several other occasions, but at this stage in my life the closest I had got to a royal event was a street party for the silver jubilee in 1977 on our road in Hayes. I was only six and had thoroughly enjoyed it. My sister entered the fancy dress competition as an Indian princess but so did every Indian girl on Berwick Avenue. It basically involved wearing an Indian suit, as they normally did at home, but borrowing some of mum’s make-up. The imaginative winner of the contest was an eight-year-old white boy (white people still lived down our road then) who had dressed up as an old woman by borrowing (without her knowledge) his grandmother’s dress, shoes, make-up and wig. Unfortunately, with a long line of MPs behind me bursting to get in to sample the household wine, I sensed this would not be the opportunity to share my story with our Queen.

I wandered around with a perfect crystal glass in my hand, and took a sip of red wine. There were lots of people there, mostly Labour from recollection. (This may have been due to the fact the Tories had decided to have their huge bust-up over gay adoption that evening. They must have concluded that spending an hour at Buckingham Palace wasn’t as much fun as spilling their leader’s blood on the carpet of the Palace of Westminster.)

I was talking to some fellow MPs when, out of the corner of my eye, I spied the Duke of Edinburgh. As relaxed as you like, he came over and joined Wayne David, Brian Sedgemore and myself. He was in a chirpy mood and, like the rest of us, was enjoying his drink. Then his attention turned to me:

‘You’re a bit young to be an MP, aren’t you?’

‘Yep, probably right.’ (It was all rather playful.)

‘So, you’re not fresh out of school then? What did you do before you became an MP?’

‘My student days weren’t that many years ago, but I worked for a trade union before becoming a Member of Parliament.’

‘Worked for a trade union?’ The Duke had a cheeky smile on his face and then delivered his line. ‘So you didn’t do that much then?!’

Now I thought that was funny – nice one! – and I wanted to join in this little gag-fest with my new friend. Then something sprang to mind as the perfect retort to ‘worked for a trade union, so you didn’t do that much then?!’…

An older and wiser Parmjit Dhanda would have bitten his tongue and smiled, but I was young, naive and having fun – and, from the glint in Prince Philip’s eye, he was certainly having fun too.

Then I said: ‘So what did you do before you married the Queen?!’

Momentarily I think that caught him off guard. Was the joke over? Was I about to get sent to the Tower? No. He came back with: ‘I was in the navy for fourteen years. So there!’

Unbeknown to me, one of our witnesses, Brian Sedgemore, was one of the biggest gossips in England and the story of me and the Duke was circulating almost before he’d stopped wetting himself with laughter – which may have taken an hour in itself.

Anyway, then the ‘one finger or two’ controversy happened. One version of events was that he patted me on the shoulder and pointed a finger as he said ‘So there!’, before spinning away to entertain another group of unsuspecting parliamentarians. The other version was that he gave me a two-finger salute as he turned on his heel. Whichever version of events was true, he didn’t deserve a week of articles in the media trawling through his gaffe collection.

My recollection – sorry to let the republicans down – was of two people with very little in common sharing a moment of humour and harmless sparring over a drink.

For the record: yes, it was two fingers, not one.

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When you need an AHP, not a GP

Returning to the running machine at the gym after the excesses of Christmas was a bigger challenge than usual for me this year.

I had mistakenly assumed that with a few days break that nagging pain in my right knee would just disappear, and I’d be able to get back to jogging a few miles, perhaps even return to slow paced football.
I was barely a few hundred yards in to my jog when I realised that I needed to make the call I’d been putting off. I didn’t want to see a GP, but our GPs have always been the gatekeepers for referral to the ‘right people’.

Who are the right people? Invariably they are the third biggest group of health workers in the NHS. They’re not the doctors or the nurses. Allied Health Professionals, or AHPs as we say for short, are over 170,000 in number and we are often referred to them to make us better.

AHPs include physios, OTs, dieticians, radiographers, orthoptists, paramedics, podiatrists, prosthetists, speech and language therapists as well as drama, art and music therapists.

But back to my knee for a moment. When I got through on a call to the GP reception, a very polite and apologetic lady told me that that I wouldn’t be able to see the GPs for days. As if it was a consolation prize, she then said: “However, you could come in to see a physiotherapist next Wednesday, if you can’t wait for the GP. If you don’t mind.”

If I don’t mind?! I explained that I didn’t want to see the GP at all. It was actually a physiotherapist that I felt that I needed, and how glad I was that my surgery was now starting to embrace the brave new world of multi-disciplinary services.

Since then we’ve seen the launch of the NHS Long Term Plan, and as Chair of the Allied Health Professions Federation, I must say there are some encouraging words in it about the need to invest in more joined up services in community settings. In recent days we’ve seen further announcements about plans to train 20,000 more NHS staff to ensure GP time is spent more appropriately.

But for us all, as patients, the proof of the pudding will be in how these plans are carried out in practice, including the investment required in the workforce to make it happen. Local organisation and some culture change will be required too, to get the very best out of the mix of talents we have in our NHS.
As for my knee, I’m grateful to the physio who has set me a strict daily programme of stretches. Three weeks later I think it’s making a difference. I didn’t need to see my doctor, just an AHP.

Parmjit Dhanda
Chair, AHPF

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Politicians Need to be Braver on National Infrastructure

I have a confession to make. I was the planning minister that helped take the 2008 Planning Act through parliament – an Act that was designed to speed up development of national infrastructure projects. As you can see, it has had only limited success.

We haven’t built a new runway in the south-east of England since the second world war. By 2026, when we expect Heathrow to open its third runway, the Chinese will have built 136 new airports.

Frankfurt opened its third runway in 1984. In 2011, when Heathrow reached 99.2 per cent of its capacity – Frankfurt opened its fourth runway. Paris’s Charles de Gaulle also has four. Amsterdam’s Schiphol now has six.

Back in 2009, the Labour government reaffirmed its support for a third runway at Heathrow. The Conservatives set up their own Independent Airports Commission to look at it in 2015 and came to similar conclusions. Parliament finally voted on it in June of 2018, backing the idea with a majority of 296. And all of that was just to get it to the planning application stage.

But this isn’t just the Heathrow experience. Whether its railway lines, major roads, or power stations, the infrastructure we need to create jobs, live our lives and grow our economy is stymied. At least in part, politics and our politicians must take responsibility for that.

At a time of economic and political instability it becomes more important than ever for our politicians to be braver about national infrastructure. They need to articulate the reasons to ‘do’ rather than find excuses to ‘not do’.
It is difficult for politicians to say what they really believe these days, many fear they will be shouted down on twitter. There will invariably be a lobby (or at least a few difficult individuals with multiple online identities) who will give them a hard time. My fear is that we are heading towards a democracy where our MPs will one day be replaced by online voting on all the key decisions because it has become so uncomfortable for them to do something that is not universally popular.

The third runway project at Heathrow is an interesting but not untypical example. The local polling shows that far more people who live in the constituencies and boroughs close to the airport back it than oppose it – including in the seats of Hayes & Harlington, Uxbridge and South Ruislip – where the local MPs have been high profile critics.
With big projects the protests are often small but vocal, often led by interest groups from way outside the area. Local people tend to be the ones that understand both sides of the argument and make balanced judgements about the economic and environmental case for change. They should not be ignored.

In a political environment where being rational and correct is often trumped by being loud, getting investment for new infrastructure projects will remain more challenging in the UK than in our competitor countries.
Its time for our politicians to be brave, and to place trust in silent majorities in their own communities.

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The AHP Voice must be heard around the Boardroom Table

The NHS has benefitted from having a diverse workforce over the past 70 years. That’s something for is all to be proud of. But diversity isn’t just about race, faith, gender or sexuality. There are many types of diversity that help to make our public services better.

The importance of ethnic diversity in our public services was brought in to sharper focus earlier this year by the Windrush scandal. But I think it’s also important to recognise how the diversity of skills in our NHS too. We would be poorer without that diversity, but we could do much more to ensure we benefit from it.

It’s been long recognised that diversity at board level generates better leadership. But If you asked ten people on the street what an allied health professional (AHP) does, you would get a blank look from the majority.

Alarmingly, in a world where doctors, nurses and hospital beds have become the political currency of the NHS, most politicians would be left scratching their heads when posed the question too. Its small wonder that AHPs are so under-represented in senior roles in our NHS.

In Foundation Hospital Trusts that under-representation has been institutionalised by the ring-fencing of Medical Director and Nursing Director posts on boards, largely to the exclusion of other health professionals. Don’t get me wrong, I think having doctors and nurses on hospital boards is a good thing, but if you want to have a diversity of medical experience and if you want to disrupt the group-think which holds back the creative thinking the NHS needs to serve patients well, then you need more AHPs around the boardroom table too.

We know that AHPs are a crucial group of health workers, like occupational therapists, chiropodists, dieticians and podiatrists who, through their work in early intervention, save patients from being admitted to hospital in the first place. We also know that physiotherapists, speech and language therapists and many other AHPs help to rehabilitate you from your illness and reduce the length of your stay in hospital.

The whole phalanx of AHPs that make up around 170,000 health workers have a particularly strong understanding of the patient’s pathway from early intervention through primary and secondary care, through hospitals and post hospital care too. So why are we so rarely seeing them in leadership roles?

Why is it that the NHS does not reach beyond the traditional pools of doctors, nurses and administrators? Our country has a diverse AHP skills base, a base that is equipped to join up services for the patient between community settings and our hospitals. That kind of expertise is crucial if we are to stop people turning up in droves at A&E departments and if we are to smooth a pathway away from unnecessarily long stays in hospital.

The Allied Health Professions Federation recently met with the Health Minister Philip Dunne MP, and then his successor Caroline Dinenage MP, after the reshuffle. We were following up our representations to the Faculty of Leadership and Jeremy Hunt about the need to transform leadership in the NHS, in part by removing the restriction that prevents AHPs from becoming executive directors of Foundation Trust Hospitals.

To be fair to the Ministers, they were good meetings, although we need to monitor progress in this area carefully. We know we have a shared problem. But, at a time when Brexit is swallowing up all the government’s legislative bandwidth, there will be no parliamentary time to change rules that act as barriers to AHPs taking seats around some of the major decision-making tables. The AHPF will press on, to ensure the scale of the problem is recognised, and that remedies are found.

But until we find a way of getting the most out of the rich diversity of talent and knowledge at senior levels in the health service, we won’t see the full range of benefits from early intervention or rehabilitation that is quietly being delivered each day by Allied Health Professionals.

To change the narrative, we will need to change the mindset on boards in our Health Service. After all, we know that the NHS is not just about doctors, nurses and hospital beds. This isn’t about special pleading for AHPs. This is about acknowledging that the diversity of people and skills in the health service workforce has made it stronger over the last 70 years. To tap in to that at leadership levels is not just the right thing to do, it’s an important way to improve patient care.

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Tackling Antisemitism – Face to Face and Side by Side

I’ve had many roles in my life. One of my favourite was as Minister for Faith Communities in 2008, a role I held as a Minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government.

It wasn’t the title I fell in love with, but the role, including the challenges. I was lucky enough to be part of an extensive project to build trust across faith (and non-faith) groups. It began with a consultation document which borrowed a phrase first used by the chief rabbi: ‘Face to face and side by side’.

It can take a long time to build trust, and just a few ill-judged words to wreck it. Our work with the Jewish community in 2008 began with an all-party group of members of parliament investigating the causes and effects of antisemitism. The work involved the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council and many other groups. Tea and sympathy with politicians can help build some trust – but it is only policy change that really ingrains it. So that is what I did.

Under the auspices of a ‘Command Paper’ we made government departments work together to tackle the problem, and bring their solutions under a single umbrella, so that no department could dismiss the issue of antisemitism any more than it could other forms of racism.

This led to a string of policy initiatives including:

  • allowing schools to use capital money to protect buildings that had security concerns
  • the Crown Prosecution Service were instructed to look at where prosecutions had fallen down when antisemitism was involved
  • funding was secured to send two sixth formers from every school to visit Auschwitz (with support from the Pears Foundation) and report back to their fellow students (I can recall today the impact this had on the young people who visited the concentration camps, and how it changed their attitudes towards prejudice)
  • Support for other Parliaments in Europe and Canada to follow our best practice of working across government department to tackle antisemitism

The model of working across government departments to alongside key stakeholders from minority communities is not rocket science – but it is hard work. It requires a level of desire and unswerving concentration. But it also delivers stronger relationships and a greater level of trust between politicians and local communities.

I would commend it, and a reading of the 2008 Command Paper on Antisemitism as essential bed time reading for anyone interested in tackling antisemitism.

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Green Milestones for Future Airports to Follow

In June 2018 the proposed new runway project at Heathrow achieved outline planning consent, through its Parliamentary majority of 296 in a vote of MPs.

It is set to be the biggest privately funded infrastructure project in the world. However, there are still many hoops it must jump through before the first plane can take off, which should happen come the year 2026.

The scheme’s critics have focussed their concerns largely on the impacts of noise and air pollution. As someone who grew up close to the airport I can relate to those concerns – the project isn’t just about 180,000 new jobs and 10,000 apprenticeships, its also need to be about the quality of life for local people.

However, it is very important to remember that aviation has moved on a great deal in recent years. In terms of noise, aircraft are now quieter, less polluting and improving year-on-year. Although the number of aircraft using Heathrow has doubled since the 1970s, the footprint of those affected by noise has reduced by 90 per cent. Technology is moving on at a rapid pace. But it’s important to remember the here and now too, this project is not about promising jam tomorrow, and neither should it be. Which is where the help of a senior environmentalist has helped to make a radical difference.

Tony Juniper, the former executive director of Friends of the Earth has been closely involved in the sustainability plan for the Heathrow expansion plan. With Juniper’s input, a strategy with real impact was produced, a strategy which can change the way all airports look at their impact on their neighbourhoods.

As part of that vision, Heathrow aims to make the airport carbon neutral by 2050 and it has already achieved its target of being 100 per cent powered by renewable electricity. By 2020, Heathrow will convert its vehicle fleet to either electric or plug-in hybrid.

The Heathrow expansion will never convince all its critics. It has a national responsibility to boost the local and national economy, but it is also going beyond its local environs to enhance the airport’s sustainability.

Better public transport links play a key role in this. For many years the airport has needed better public transport links. Major transport infrastructure projects like Western Rail access, HS2, new Southern access, the completion of Crossrail and major improvements to the Piccadilly line will help to ensure that in the future over half of all journeys to Heathrow will be by public transport. That work is not complete, but it is certainly taking shape, each day.

Perhaps Juniper’s biggest influence on Heathrow has been on its involvement in a plan to restore peatlands to offset its carbon. Peatlands cover 12 per cent of the United Kingdom, of which 80 per cent are in poor condition. As well as putting one of world’s busiest airports on a path to carbon neutrality, the peatlands restoration project will have real benefits for wildlife.

Heathrow will not win over every critic of expansion, but by involving serious environmentalists it is showing a path towards a greener world of aviation which other airports can follow.

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Ealing North

A New Dawn

From feedback, this is one of the most popular chapters of my recent book (My Political Race). I hope you enjoy Chapter 8, about Steve Pound MP’s count in Ealing North, 1997.


Chapter 8

1 May 1997 – A New Dawn

I rang Terry Ashton. He was my big boss and he needed to know. It was around 3am in the morning, Friday 2nd May 1997.

I was going to finish this off as calmly and professionally as I possibly could. I was put through to Terry and the conversation went something like this.

Terry: “So you finished off the job in Swindon and made it back to Ealing?”

“Yes, all done. Haven’t heard any news of declarations in Swindon but I’m pretty sure we’ll take Swindon North and Swindon South too. I spoke to the RD (Regional Director) earlier.”

“Well done. So what news of Ealing North?”

“We’re just about to declare here at Greenford Hall, Terry.” I wanted to savour this moment. It was like having the coordinates for the gold buried at the end of the rainbow. Only I, as the agent, the returning officer and the candidates had this precious piece of information. And I knew my history. Never had a party achieved a 6% swing before to win a general election. My project in Ealing North was to achieve a swing of 8% to overturn a majority of 6,000. “Terry, we’ve overturned their 6,000 majority and won by over 9,000. I make it around a 17% swing, Tory to Labour.”

There was a long pause from the Greater London Labour Party Regional Office. I had taken up a quiet spot behind a pillar at Greenford Hall. The public gallery looking down on us was packed with our activists. My dad and brother had come down to give me moral support. On the floor of Greenford Hall, the assortment of rosettes of all the main parties were on display. I’d made sure my counting agents were well drilled and had kept their focus on the trestle tables in front of them, looking out for every single spoilt ballot paper. Their focus and their discipline had been immense.

They were tuned in to their radios. They were becoming increasingly aware this was going to be an extraordinary night. Their eyes were on Steve Pound. They were also looking to me to tell them how it was going.

Terry spoke at last. “So, the Parliamentary Labour Party is going to have to put up with Steve Pound as an MP then.”

He made me laugh. I think he was joking but you could never be certain. “I think they’ll cope!”

“Well done. But make sure he’s behaving himself. What’s he up to?”

I looked across the hall. Steve Pound was standing on a chair and conducting a sing-song to the gallery above him. To the tune of Skinner and Baddiel’s Three Lions he was singing at the top of his voice: “He’s on the dole, he’s on the dole…Portillo’s on the dole!”

I covered the mouthpiece of my phone and moved out to the corridor. “He’s fine Terry. A bit quiet, probably overcome by the occasion…”


My Political Race is now in most good bookshops or you can order it online here

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The Unrepresentative House

I recently asked Insight Public Affairs to work with me to compile some data about political parties, their MPs and the racial make-up of the constituencies they represent.

The research has just been published by the Guardian and I can only assume, and hope, that the main political parties are as worried about it as I am. It does make for breath-taking reading. You can read it here.

There are 650 MPs that represent us. All but 27 of them are white. If the 14% of the nation’s BME communities were replicated in Parliament there would be 91 BME MPs. My research goes further. It examines the communities represented by each party in its own constituencies.

The Tories hold 305 seats which contain over 2.5 million BME voters. The Conservatives have a 5% gap between the diversity of their parliamentary party and the constituents they represent. Just 3.6% of their MPs are non-white compared to 8.6% of their constituents.

On the plus side for the Conservatives, the figures are much worse for the Lib Dems who have 56 MPs, all of whom are white and yet 11.4% of their voters are not white.

The picture is even worse for Labour where nearly a fifth of their voters in the 257 Labour held seats are from BME backgrounds, yet the parliamentary party 93.8% white. Nearly 5 million BME voters are represented by Labour’s 257 MPs.

Of the 27 ethnic minority MPs 16 are Labour and 11 are Conservative. The Conservatives went from just 2 non-white MPs to 11 at the last election, which helped boost the overall figure from 15 to 27.

And finally, if the parties looked like the constituents they represent in Parliament, the 11 Tory BME MPs would be 26 in number, the Lib Dems would have 6 instead of zero and Labour would have 50, not 16.

Unfortunately, Insight’s analysis which looks at the background of new candidates in seats where MPs are retiring suggests that the 2015 election will make only a little bit of difference to Parliament’s racial profile. Akin to chipping away at Mount Everest with a toothpick I fear.

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Alan Johnson’s Master Class

Some politicians love doing TV interviews, some hate them and you can tell. I must confess due to it being late/a long day at work/the World Cup/the dog ate my homework, I didn’t see that much of BBC Question Time this week. But what I saw was a delight.

I used to love doing difficult TV interviews. Largely down to the fact an obscure TV Channel called TV Asia was based round the corner from our home in Hayes when I worked as a local Party Organiser. They let me go on live every week for 20 minutes to review the newspapers and basically lark around.

But it taught me a few key things. Firstly relax. In the years to come when I felt under pressure on say Panorama, Newsnight or Andrew Neill’s show, I would revert to Channel East relaxed sofa mode. Sometimes tapping my thumbs together as a subconscious reminder to myself if put under pressure.

Secondly, know enough but don’t over rehearse. Know the key issues but don’t put yourself under so much pressure that you look like you want to explode with statistics, which just turns viewers off.

Finally, sound-bites. Political parties love them and think by repeating them often it’ll help a message sink in. But if you do that you just look like an automaton so don’t do it. Use them sparingly and only to finish off a more relaxed conversation.

So what a delight it was to see Alan Johnson on Question Time this week. Relaxed, conversational and deeply political in his own way. The best moment was the question on the strike action that many public sector unions are taking later this month.

I’d slipped back under my duvet at this point, dreading the usual line: “Public sector workers are great but blah blah, strikes are bad, must continue to negotiate…” Nothing inherently wrong with the line but the awkwardness of the position makes many frontbenchers look uncomfortable.

But not Alan. He basically said: “Hang on a minute. These people are having a crap time and you lot have all just said that you believe in unions and their right to do this, but it’s always next time. Not this time.” Genius.
I’m not going to argue about the politics of the strike. What Alan and his media savvy showed was this, to get a warm response from the audience and the viewers it was the way he said it as much as what he said.

I wonder if he taps his thumbs together?

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The Pig’s Head, and all that…

I do still get quite a lot of questions about the incident mentioned in this article.

This blog tries to answer those questions here in my own words.

I gave evidence in person to the All-Party Inquiry in to Electoral Conduct, which looked in to abusive behaviour in election campaigns.

The headlines largely focussed on the issue of the pig’s head that was left in my front garden. Although I guess it helped to illustrate a point at the extremes, as did the appalling death threats faced by Tory MP Lee Scott, I wanted to post my written evidence in my own words in a blog when things had settled down a bit, following the inquiry’s publication at Speaker’s House a few days ago.

I think the report was a very worthwhile piece of work and I wanted to put on record my thanks to MPs John Mann, Natascha Engel and Angie Bray in particular, and the members who took evidence. I hope you find my written evidence balanced and more measured than the headlines, but for completeness here is a sample of the reporting too, which is also relevant to the issues that were raised:

Evidence to All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Electoral Conduct

By Parmjit Dhanda

I am responding to the request to present written evidence to the All-Party Inquiry into electoral conduct. I am very familiar with and supportive of the work of the All-Party Group on Anti-Semitism, and grateful for the opportunity to support its work.


Gloucester is known as a bell-weather seat, usually swinging to the party of government. In 1997, when Tess Kingham won the seat from the Conservatives (they held it from 1970) it was the seat Labour required for an overall majority of 1.

Although I had no local connections, I managed to win the selection to be the candidate for the 2001 election. There was a strong field of over 80 candidates. Although our majority was halved, I became the MP in 2001, was re-elected with a slightly increased majority in 2005 and was defeated at the 2010 general election.

I held ministerial roles as a whip at the DTI, and as a Parliamentary Under Secretary at the Department for Education and finally at the Department for Communities (CLG). Amongst other responsibilities at CLG I was Minister for Community Cohesion – working closely on the Command Paper with the All-Party Inquiry on Anti-Semitism.

It was a privilege to serve the people of Gloucester, and at the outset of my evidence I would wish to make clear that I do not regard them to be prejudiced in their views. If they were, I would never have been elected in the first place.

Political Challenges

I was not seen as the front-runner to be selected as the Gloucester Labour Candidate, an overwhelmingly white constituency (92%) and hence my emergence from the process surprised and unsettled some in the party, nationally and locally, but was embraced by others. The selection was on a one member one vote basis and the result of the ballot was clear cut.

Nonetheless I was quickly made aware that my background would be an issue in the campaign, right or wrong. The Conservative slogan for the 2001 campaign in Gloucester was: “Vote Gloucester, born and bred.”

As a young man (28 at the time), a long way from home, bedding down in a different area and in a seat with a huge political focus on it, it was a momentous challenge.

Although the campaign from the Conservatives was aggressive, I don’t believe it broke any rules, other than those of gentlemanly conduct at times.

Although I was made aware of remarks like: “I’ll bet his grandfather wasn’t in Dunkirk” made by a Conservative Councillor I thought it best to bite my lip and concentrate my campaigning on bread and butter issues in the constituency. For the record, my grandfather was part of the bearded and turbaned Sikh army fighting with the British Army in Burma in the Second World War. He was in the Royal Bengal Engineers.

I do not believe rules were broken in the 2001 campaign, and there is a level of ‘hurly-burly’ that goes with any intense political campaign. However, I was a member of the Speaker’s Conference on Diversity in 2010 when all the political party leaders talked about signing up to codes of conduct for election campaigns.

I would recommend some oversight of campaigning to make sure that parties fulfil the commitments that were made in 2010.

The Media

After my selection as the Labour Candidate in the summer of 2000 the local newspaper’s (the Gloucester Citizen) political correspondent wrote a column in which he stated:

“The people of Gloucestershire haven’t reached a sufficiently advanced state of consciousness to elect a foreigner as the local MP.”

He went on to say the Labour Party should have selected: “…a candidate more appropriate for a Cathedral City in the West of England than a Sikh from West London.”

He then went on to add that the Labour Party at head office should deselect me and impose somebody else if it wanted to keep the seat at the general election. I won’t name the journalist, although the matter is well documented, because (although he has never apologised for the article) I believe it was a blemish on an otherwise positive career and contribution to the locality.

It did have a profound effect on me at the time. It unsettled me, so I rang Michael White from the Guardian and asked him to investigate whether there were plans afoot within my party nationally to deselect me. He was very helpful and got back to me to say there were not.

Quite separately to this episode, from my experience, I do have real concerns about the conduct of local newspapers when it comes to their treatment of politicians from diverse backgrounds. Local newspaper letters pages and blog posts are easily influenced by a small minority with extreme views, which leave high profile people who are ‘different’ in a very vulnerable position.

These are not matters you can really raise when you are in office, in case you are seen to be whining or weak. I was informed on a number of occasions by journalists who I knew, that there was a stream of racist and nasty posts and letters about me that never made it in to print. Nonetheless, there were still times that my office had to complain and proactively push to get things removed from the newspaper’s website.

These matters became more of a concern to me when I got married and then had children. When you are a long way from home and your partner and young children are in the constituency, you become more conscious of the likely impacts on them than perhaps you are when you are young and single.

I would recommend that the Parties and local newspapers work better together to address some of these issues, particularly where it involves anonymous and threatening behaviour.

Political Parties

Without doubt there has been real progress in the selection and election of candidates from diverse backgrounds in less diverse communities, particularly in the Conservative Party in 2010.

Political parties are right to celebrate that fact. However, there is a danger that we will assume that all in the garden is rosy. I have known and still know BAME MPs that feel isolated or struggle to cope with issues akin to the ones I have mentioned in my evidence. I think political parties needs to do more to support politicians that face these challenges in office. This Inquiry is the first time I have seen politicians begin to air these difficult issues publicly.


I am grateful for the invitation from Natascha Engel MP to provide evidence. I have included some broad recommendations in my evidence about political behaviour during campaigns, the role of the media and the need for political parties to provide more support to MPs and candidates from diverse backgrounds.

It’s difficult to strike the right balance when writing a response to an inquiry like this. There are difficulties and challenges that politicians from minority communities face in less diverse areas and the All-party Group is right to look at the impacts of this on the election process.

Political parties need to be aware that it’s difficult for politicians to talk about these issues whilst they are in office, or even if they hope to return to office.

Having said that, I can think of nothing more rewarding that I have done in my life than representing Gloucester from 2001 to 2010, and the vast majority of fabulous people I got to know there. I would urge others from ethnic and other diverse backgrounds to seek selection for seats that may not be seen as an ‘ethnic fit’.

However, it’s important that we realise that they and their families need to be prepared for some particular challenges, and may need an element of protection.

I would be prepared to give evidence in person.

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