Posts Tagged ‘Jon Ashworth’

Conference Notebook

30/09/2012, 10:34:33 AM

by Jon Ashworth

I’ve attended Labour conference continually since 1996. I’ve been a steward, a delegate twice, a bag carrier for an MP, a bag carrier for a Cabinet Minister, a back room boy for two leaders and this year and last as an MP.  And I still love it.

Though in my heart I still wish we went to Blackpool, I’m always excited to back here in Manchester the city where I grew up.

Conference effectively starts early on Saturday with the women’s conference, one of the reforms Harriet Harman pushed through her in brief period as acting leader. The event has got bigger and bigger over the last few years and gives Conference a buzz before it has even formally started. So much for the glums who complain there’s no excitement in the run up to Conference this year.

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Whether its cutbacks or the realities of opposition I’m surprised to find no ring of steal round the Conference hotel this year. In fact I can walk right through the Midland hotel front door with my little 16 month old daughter Gracie in her push chair with no need to navigate G4’s security searches.

Unbeknownst to me I rock up minutes before Ed is to make the customary Leader arrival. Harriet waiting on the steps to greet Ed instead bounds up to little Gracie in her pushchair, while i look on embarrassed that her face (Gracie’s that is not Harriet’s) is covered with the residue of ‘Goodies’ tomato cheese puffs. I become even more embarrassed when I realise a camera man has spotted the encounter and is filming our deputy leader and little Gracie. I look on with a fixed grin trying to hide my worries about families watching TV in their front room at homes aghast at this bad father who has allowed his little girl to be on telly with such a mucky face. I hope no one in Leicester recognises me…

I’m then tapped on the shoulder by an officious looking press officer, clipboard in hand, telling me the leader is about to arrive and I need to get out of the ‘arrival shot’. Gracie and I quickly toodle off while I scavenge in my pocket for a face wipe.

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Saturday evening always begins with the conference delegates’ reception. There is widespread support for Ed as he declares that tackling the horrendous levels of youth joblessness would be his priority on day one. It’s an important commitment for cities like Leicester where we our levels of youth unemployment remain stubbornly high. The commitment is greeted with much support in the room.

Among delegates there is much talk of things being good on the doorstep but everyone is naturally cautious and not wanting to take anything for granted. Council by-election results have been especially encouraging for us lately. Just the other week we won a seat with a spectacular 18% swing in the highly marginal Sherwood constituency. Congratulations to Sherwood Labour but there has of course been other good results elsewhere in battleground constituencies too.

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Whip’s Notebook: Cameron may have reshuffled the pack but his troops aren’t happy

14/09/2012, 07:00:48 AM

by Jon Ashworth

Number 10 may begin regretting reinstating the September sitting. While we have had an important and moving statement from the prime minister on Hillsborough, the remainder of government business in the Commons has – as usual – been patchy.

Last week’s reshuffle seems only to have caused further friction for the prime minister with his backbenchers and has left many wondering what on earth is going on with the PM’s political operation.

Even Labour MPs find it hard to fathom why seemingly competent and popular ministers such as (now Sir) Edward Garnier and Charles Hendry got the chop. What’s more it’s extraordinary that sacked men got knighthoods but, as Labour’s Ann McKechin pointed out, there was nothing like a dame for sacked women

Instead friends of Cameron, Osborne and Eric Pickles seem to be the ones who’ve won promotion in the reshuffle such as the elevation of the chancellor’s right hand man Matt Hancock.

Mr Hancock has been a junior minister in the business department for barely a week and already he is comparing himself to Churchill and Disraeli.

Over in the Pickles’ department for communities the hitherto relatively unknown MP for Great Yarmouth, Brandon Lewis, was promoted from backbenches in place of the generally liked Bob Neil.  It turns out this new minister’s qualification for the job is that he once used to present a radio show with Eric Pickles on Brentwood’s Phoenix FM.

The government whips office was more or less cleared out with surprising names returning to the backbenches such Shailesh Vara.  Whereas most of the dumped ex-whip just have to settle for being backbench MPs again, the new Tory whips are doing their best to sweeten the bitter pill for the prime minister’s old Eton chum and sacked ex-whip Bill Wiggin by trying to get him installed as the (remunerated) chair of committee of selection.

In so doing they are trying to push out the current chair and Cotswold MP Geoffrey Clifton-Brown who also happens to have been a Lords rebel. This move by Tory whips was causing much annoyance in the tearoom this week.

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Whip’s Notebook: Oh what a night

12/07/2012, 11:00:41 AM

by Jon Ashworth

Supporters of a democratic House of Lords can take cheer that on Tuesday night the Commons voted by 462 to 124 give the House of Lords reform bill a second reading. But what a night. What a rebellion.

92 Tory MPs rebelled against their leader’s position. That’s a bigger rebellion than the recent EU referendum vote and almost the biggest Tory rebellion post-war.

From the start of the debate on Monday, Labour MPs have witnessed a slow motion car crash unfold for the Tory whips and No 10 which culminated, apparently, in an angry exhausted red faced Prime Minister angrily jabbing the chest of a leading rebel late at night in the corridors of the Commons. No wonder influential Lib Dem blogs are comparing David Cameron to John Major.

Should last night’s rebellion have come as much of a surprise to the prime minister and his Liberal Democrat colleagues?

Probably not.

For weeks Tory MPs have sidled up to me in the tea room and elsewhere asking for guidance on what Labour’s tactics would be. Fortunately our position was and had been always clear: to vote against the programme motion but support democratising the Lords and so vote in favour of the bill at second reading.

It’s been less straightforward on the government side with question marks over whether the government would win a vote on curtailing the timetable for debate, the so called programme motion.

On Monday, rumour had it the Tory whips were so worried about losing the programme motion that they were encouraging dissident MPs to vote in favour or abstain but rebel on second reading. But the Tory whips’ strategy was soon to be shot to pieces.

Early on Tuesday afternoon, Nick Clegg was still defending the programme motion but minutes later the Leader of the House Sir George Young opening the debate was forced to withdraw the very same programme motion.

Sir George tried to blame the Labour opposition for government’s failure to build support for the programme motion, an incredible claim later torpedoed by leading Tory rebel Jesse Norman who helpfully pointed out to Sir George that the government had been forced to withdraw it due to opposition on the Tory benches.

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Whip’s Notebook: Cameron is now more focused on party management than running the country

03/07/2012, 07:15:38 AM

by Jon Ashworth

Two weeks ago PMQs served as a reminder of what could have been for a generation of Tory MPs. With Cameron and Clegg both away it fell to William Hague, foreign secretary and also first secretary of state to bat for the government. And what a joy he was to watch. Of course I don’t agree with his answers, but his delivery was assured, witty, measured and a total contrast to the increasingly irritable, bad tempered, stroppy performance we’re now used to from the prime minister.

So far the conventional wisdom on PMQs has been that Cameron is a class act on whom its difficult to land a glove. But despite Cameron’s relative strengths compared to others on the Tory benches, its strikes me as increasingly obvious that the conventional wisdom on PMQs is wrong.

In contrast to Cameron, Ed Miliband focuses on fundamentals at PMQs whether that’s the economy, the squeeze in living standards or the crisis in confidence in the political system exemplified by a prime minister on the run who refuses to report a cabinet minister to the independent advisor on the ministerial code.

Just in the last week, Cameron dithered on whether to hold an inquiry on the Libor scandal before proposing his inadequate, sticking plaster solution of a joint parliamentary committee in response to sustained pressure from Ed Miliband.

By focusing on these big issues, people are again starting to take a look at Labour though I don’t think anyone in the parliamentary Labour party is in any doubt about how much further we need to travel. However the performance of the government is starting reinforce doubts about the Tories and the competence of David Cameron.

The economic policy of the government isn’t working with growth downgraded and borrowing up. Living standards are dropping and youth unemployment stubbornly high. It’s hurting but not working.

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Whip’s Notebook: Izzy whizzy George gets dizzy and blows £200 million

08/06/2012, 07:00:54 AM

by Jon Ashworth

Tory MPs regularly receive briefings from their parliamentary resource unit (PRU) giving them lines to take, suggested responses to letters on policy, attack lines for use in the chamber and that sort of thing. Until last week the PRU will have had standard response scripts on the stocks about the importance of the pasty tax, caravan tax, church renovation tax and charity tax. No doubt these scripts would include a line reminding their constituents that backing down on these new revenue raisers would be deeply irresponsible given the size of the deficit. Loyal Tory MPs will have emailed out these responses whenever a constituent got in touch complaining about the new tax hikes. They will have used the lines in their weekly MP’s column in the local paper and in interviews on local radio.

Behind the scenes some poor staffer in the PRU will have been relieved and grateful that the briefing was available for their Tory MPs. No doubt she or he had been getting a barrage of calls and emails from MPs’ pesky researchers asking for a line.

The poor staffer will have called the junior special adviser in the Treasury who would actually rather focus on important matters like making sure his name is on the list for the Spectator summer party. The special adviser will have no doubt grumpily despaired “why can’t they use the budget PRU briefing, don’t they realise how busy we are?!” Our heroic PRU staffer persists ”but we’re getting lots of calls, didn’t you see the finance bill debate? No one spoke up to support the policy apart from that chap desperate for promotion who founded YouGov.”

Eventually the Treasury special adviser relents and signs off an agreed brief while remaining irritated that his more important special advisor colleague Rupert Harrison gets the Spectator summer party invite not him.

But at least the tenacious staffer is happy and finally emails the pasty tax brief out to a grateful parliamentary party and now turns attention to the “Hunt hasn’t really broken the ministerial Code” brief that the Number 10 Political Office are demanding goes out.

But an updated PRU brief wasn’t enough to satisfy MPs or more importantly public opinion.

The Government’s majority had already been reduced to just 25 on the votes on the pasty and caravan tax. They should be winning votes in the Commons by 83. Overall 31 Tory MPs – around 10 per cent of the Conservative Parliamentary Party – voted against one or more of George Osborne’s budget measures.

And if Osborne thought winning the votes was enough to put this issue to bed, he was wrong.

Lib Dem MPs were handing out pasties in Parliament, 4 Tory MPs brought petitions to the Commons on the caravan tax even though they voted for it, Labour’s frontbench Treasury team were constantly up and at them. MPs were calling adjournment debates forcing ministers back to the Commons to defend the policy. Just two weeks ago poor David Gauke, Exchequer Secretary was sent out to defend the pasty tax in a Westminster hall debate and confirmed that samosas cooked and sold in sweet shops, many of which we have in Leicester, will have VAT as well.

And then in the week that Tony Blair, Vince Cable and Jeremy Hunt were all at Leveson we witnessed what appeared like a dizzying u-turn a day from Osborne. In total he makes £200 million of u-turns with no explanation of how these latest unfunded commitments will be paid for. That’s a lot of cash for Osborne to spend to try to save his draining credibility.

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Whip’s Notebook: Where have all the Tories Gone?

22/05/2012, 07:00:53 AM

by Jon Ashworth

Since the Queen’s Speech, the House of Commons chamber has become a very different place. As a dutiful whip I spend most of my time in and around the chamber and although too many dismiss what goes in there as irrelevant, I still agree with Tony Blair’s valedictory description of it as the arena that sets the heart beating a little faster and is often the place for the pursuit of noble causes.

Whipping affords me the advantage of seeing our opposition on the Tory benches close up, indeed I can often see the whites of their eyes.

I’m fast becoming familiar with the various personalities on the Tory benches. There are the desperately ambitious types mustard-keen for George Osborne’s recognition (it’s always Osborne they want to impress not so much Cameron oddly), the eurosceptic rebels who bang on about nothing else, the thoughtful select committee parliamentarians and the patrician grandees who, I have to admit, are like nothing I have ever come across before in my life.

But this last week I’ve seen less of them. Labour MPs have totally dominated the debates on the gracious address. Our chief whip in the Lords has highlighted already the flimsiness of this Queens Speech. All quite extraordinary for a government’s second Queen’s speech considering this government is made up of a party out of office for thirteen years and another that has been out of office for ninety or so years.

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Whips Notebook: Is Number 10 Thinking of Sacking the Wrong George?

07/05/2012, 07:00:02 AM

by Jon Ashworth

Was it the smartest move from Tory spinners to put George Osborne up as the face of the Tory fightback this weekend? The chancellor has had a shocker since his budget and his performance on Marr coupled with his Mail on Sunday piece won’t be enough to rescue his plummeting reputation.

By the time this hitherto presumptive heir to Cameron arrived at the BBC studios on Sunday, opinion polling had been published which showed just 10 per cent would consider him well suited to be prime minister against 73 per cent who said not.

What a turnaround for Osborne. Before the budget he was lauded by commentators and Tory MPs alike. Tories would approach me in the tearoom and proudly out themselves as really being in George’s not Dave’s gang. Political magazines would produce photo montages of him looking brooding and serious in the No 10 political meetings he apparently spends too much of his time in.

Now his budget is ridiculed by Tory MPs as the bodge-it and is generally seen as the beginning of the great omnishambles of jerry can fiascos and £40,000 give-aways for millionaires.

All while ordinary people were clobbered by further squeezes on their living standards. It was extraordinary in the Commons’ budget debates recently on the various VAT rises on caravans, pasties and church renovations that Tory MP after Tory MP stood up to criticise the chancellor’s proposals with no one coming to his rescue.

Following the local elections losses more Tory MPs broke out of the traps to criticise Osborne’s budget with one usually loyal Tory MP saying “my own view is that, for example in the budget, that there was no desire here for the 50p tax change.”

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Whips Notebook: Postcard from Bradford West

23/03/2012, 03:15:10 PM

by Jon Ashworth

I love by elections and always have done so since I first campaigned as a scruffy teenager with a hair-do like Noel Gallagher in Littleborough and Saddleworth.

Those were heady summer days indeed as us young insurgents fought like tigers for every Labour vote. The drill was soon to become familiar in by election after by election. We slept on floors at night and knocked on doors all day. A merry band of brothers and sisters from which enduring friendships formed and last to this day – Tom Watson, Michael Dugher, Gloria De Piero to name just a few of the future stars I would first meet on the by election campaign trail in towns like Littleborough.

Sadly in Littleborough and Saddleworth it wasn’t enough with the Lib Dems managing to just nick it. But the Tories were obliterated and we knew that our unsuccessful candidate Phil Woolas would easily take the redrawn seat whenever the general election came. 15 years later I would be trudging through many of the same streets in thick snow to help Debbie Abrahams secure victory in the successor Oldham East and Saddleworth seat.

Not downhearted with defeat, in fact the very opposite, we moved on to Wirral South. A ‘safe’ Tory seat that easily tumbled to us with local businessman Ben Chapman, whose election posters proudly boasted “Ben Chapman means business”, becoming Wirral South’s first Labour MP. Ben retired at the 2010 election but Wirral South is still held by us today by the ever impressive Alison McGovern.

Looking back it feels like all I did was work on by elections in those early years of the Labour government.

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Whip’s Notebook: Top down NHS reorganisations, Hulk Hogan and Oliver Letwin

05/03/2012, 07:00:22 AM

by Jon Ashworth

Last week the leader of the House of Commons and lord privy seal Sir George Young (who by the way reads my posts for Labour Uncut or at least his special advisers do and then lets him know if I say anything interesting) announced the likely date for the Queens Speech.

Get your diaries out because the next Gracious Address is set to be May 9th. It didn’t come as much of a surprise to Labour MPs as Politics Home’s brilliant Paul Waugh revealed weeks ago. But MPs are always the last to hear these things anyway.

It means we will have had one of the longest parliamentary sessions on record even though we’ve hardly been scrutinising any legislation at all in the Commons in recent months. Instead we’ve been spending our time on innumerable backbench business debates with countless one line whips. All important stuff of course but rather odd when you consider we are elected to be legislators and we’ve not been doing much actual legislating.

Take the controversial Health and Social Care Bill. So despite it being one of the biggest issues in my postbag (actually inbox, nearly everything I get is by email but us MPs like to say “postbag”) and I suspect colleagues’ postbags (inbox) too, MPs have only had the opportunity to debate this monstrous bill in recent weeks because Andy Burnham tabled an opposition motion on the NHS Risk Register and asked what’s known as an urgent question on Nick Clegg’s health amendments as well last week.

So effectively Andrew Lansley in recent weeks has only come to the Commons to defend his policies because Labour has forced him to. Last month at health questions, genuine Lib Dem rebel Andrew George had a question on the order paper asking the Secretary of State whether he would withdraw the Health and Social Care Bill. Did Mr Lansley step up to answer it? No his loyal deputy Simon Burns was sent into the breach instead. “Frit” was the inevitable heckle from the more boisterous Labour MPs.

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Whip’s Notebook

22/02/2012, 07:00:01 AM

by Jon Ashworth

So we’re all back after our constituency week and I’m spending my time as a dutiful whip touring the tearoom, smoking room and the various other nooks and crannies hidden away in the palace of Westminster to catch up with fellow members of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

The first day back after recess always has that back to school feel and we’re all eager to swop stories of what we got up to. Talking to colleagues, I’m struck by the extent to which unemployment is affecting all our constituencies in similar ways.

Last week we learnt that unemployment, youth unemployment, over 50s unemployment all rose again across Leicester South. I’m not surprised. In recent months, I’ve found more and more people turning up at my advice surgery desperate for any guidance I can offer to help them find work. Almost every Labour MP I’ve spoken to this week tells a similar story.

And yet we have a government that is completely failing to show any grip and put in a place any strategy to deal with the unemployment crisis so many areas of the country now face. I’m well aware it’s so clichéd to remind Labour Uncut readers that Norman Lamont twenty years ago famously said “unemployment is a price worth paying” but I’ve become convinced that the government’s complete lack of action in tackling unemployment suggests that David Cameron probably harbours that attitude even he is not so gauche as to say it in the way his former boss did.

Take for example when I asked Cameron at PMQs when he had last met a young unemployed person, I was amazed he couldn’t answer. What’s more neither he nor George Osborne could tell me when they last visited a jobcentre plus office. Instead of organizing Downing Street summits on the wretched and disastrous health bill, where are the Downing Street summits on youth unemployment? Where are the meetings out in unemployment hotspots to find out what needs to be done?

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