Tag Archives: jo-swinson

Parliament, The Telegraph and Jo Swinson

winner-best-ld-blog-postOne of the advantages of being effectively out of action for the past month is that because I haven’t been able to even attempt to cover the expenses row, blow-by-blow, I can now afford to take a somewhat wider view. It has been a fascinating couple of weeks, revealing not just how Parliament works but how the media does too.

Were the Telegraph right to publish these expenses details given the fact that they were due to be published this summer anyway? On balance, I’m afraid I think they were. To start with, I am deeply sceptical that the fees office had any intention of actually publishing in July. They’ve been buying time for literally years now and I have no doubt they would have sought even more time then. Secondly, it was clear that they were falling over themselves to be helpful to MPs with embarrassing claims they wanted to cover up. By fighting the FOI requests every step of the way, ultimately the Parliamentary authorities have made the problem worse. To that extent then, the House of Commons as collective body, deserves everything it is getting right now.

But the problem with the data being in the hands of a single newspaper is that everything we get is transmitted via its own idiosyncratic political position. And the problem with this being an example of chequebook journalism, as opposed to the investigative journalism of people like Heather Brooke, is that the paper has to make good on its investment – and that means extending the coverage and the ramping up the salaciousness of it as much as possible.

In terms of the Telegraph’s politics, it has always and always will be the Conservative Party in print. They couldn’t have got away with just publishing the Labour and Lib Dem expenses details, but it is interesting how they have portrayed the Tory ones. The types of claim broadly fit into three categories. The first, which the Labour MPs exposed tend to fit into, are about mortgages, “flipping” and capital gains. They played the system to make personal profit. The second, which the Conservative MPs exposed tend to fit into, are about moats, duck islands and country piles. Literally, they fit into a different class. The third, which the Lib Dem MPs exposed tend to fit into, are about using the system to get the odd perk, be it a trouser press, an orthopedic chair or a packet of chocolate Hob Nobs.

They category that has captured the public imagination has been the second one. Hogg’s moat has achieved iconic status within just a few days. Yet the Telegraph has conspiciously attempted to portray all three as morally equivalent at all times. It held off publishing the details of Tory MPs for as long as possible, meaning that when they were exposed, Labour had already been buffetted for the previous five days.

I happen to think the house flipping and profiteering is as bad as the showering of cash onto country estates, but the third category most certainly is not. There is no question that the Conservatives have an image problem here and the Telegraph and the Tory press have done all that they can to mitigate this. They have been falling over themselves to portray Cameron’s leadership on the issue as dynamic and forthright despite the fact that, when you look at it in detail, it turns out he isn’t particularly interested in reform at all. He insists that his richer MPs must buy themselves out of the hole they’ve dug themselves but is keen for MPs to be able to continue to profiteer via the ACA. He wants a snap general election, something which would have the effect of scapegoating a handful of MPs in marginal constituencies whilst giving the ones in safe seats renewed terms of office.

A general election now, with the Tories still insisting that (aside from a bit of fiddling), the status quo must prevail, would be a white wash. Yet this is the Telegraph line, too. Fortunately, the Telegraph can’t entirely have its own way and the debacle has revived calls for real democratic reform. It may yet turn out that they have created a monster that they can’t actually control. We can hope.

But the other side that irritates me is the salaciousness of it all. It has started to stop resembling journalism and to start looking somewhat more like expenses porn, designed to titilate rather than inform. What has developed out of this debate over the past couple of weeks is a mood that any expense claim is bad. This is deeply pernicious. Clearly an inner London MP does not need to furnish a second home, but an MP representing a constituency further afield must (this is one of the reasons why I’m sceptical of the calls to scrap the expenses system altogether and replace it with an increased salary – great if you are a single man and have no real intention of representing your constituents, hard cheese if you aren’t). Are we really going to get precious about someone having a telly in their second home? The agenda of the Telegraph has been to convince you that yes, yes you should.

And finally, there is the innuendo. This is the single worst aspect of the Telegraph coverage. Many of the stories over the past couple of weeks have been rooted in the fact that the Telegraph have been able to get away with “X submitted a receipt which included Y” – thus implying that X claimed for Y whilst knowing that if they did say that they would be open to libel. Yet the suggestion is out there and before you can blink, half a dozen other media agencies are repeating the claim as a matter of public record. A lot of the stories they have covered have turned out to reveal nothing more than minor errors in paperwork, but that hasn’t stopped them from smearing everyone with the same brush.

The print version of the Telegraph article on Jo Swinson

The single worst example of the Telegraph coverage can be found in their story about Jo Swinson this week (declaration: Jo is a friend of mine, but I don’t accept this makes a word of what I have to say any less true). The online version of this story has been sanitised by the online editors, who were presumably too ashamed to publish the print version unchanged. The print version has the headline: “Tooth flosser, eyeliner and 29p dusters for the makeover queen” and contains no less than nine seperate photographs of Jo taken at various stages over the last eight years.

There are so many dreadful aspects of this story, I don’t know where to start. Let’s start with the misogyny. What Jo is being attacked for here is for wearing makeup. The epithet “makeover queen” implies someone who has had a lot of makeovers, yet Jo has never appeared in one of those articles about MPs getting glammed up or anything like that and doesn’t do the daytime television circuit. The article states that Jo is “known in Westminster for the attention she pays to her appearance” yet I can find no media story which has remarked on this before this piece. Google “Jo Swinson” and what you find are lots of stories about her campaigns against excessive packaging, winning local constituency battles such as the one to stop a new prison being named after one of her local towns and the leading role she has played in fighting for Parliament to be more accessible and transparent. Is she a slob? Hardly, but since when did not being one become worthy of criticism?

Secondly, the article is complete, unmitigated bollocks from beginning to end. Read it closely and you will find that the Telegraph isn’t stating she claimed for an eyeliner or feather dusters, merely suggesting that she might have done. There is an irony there in that if Jo had not issued them with as full a statement to act as a counter-balance, their legal team might have blocked the story on the grounds that it would have been clearly defamatory. This paragraph is particularly revealing:

At one point, she submitted a Tesco receipt for £22.67 that appeared to show that the MP or an aide went to the trouble of putting an asterisk next to three items, totalling £5.75, for which she intended to claim — a £1.75 chopping board, a “food saver” for £1.50 and a £2.50 sieve.

In other words, what she did claim for were basic cooking utensils. Nowhere in the article at any stage does it claim that a single item of makeup was claimed for – or even ‘asterisked.’ She is being criticised here, not for claiming an inappropriate item on expenses, but for allowing an inappropriate item to appear on a receipt.

jo090523guardianJo has of course rebutted all this, but that hasn’t prevented other media outlets from reporting it as fact, including the BBC (the cost of Jo’s makeup might not come out of your pocket, but the cost of repeating bullshit claims about her most certainly does – they can’t even be bothered to get her photo right) and the Guardian (in print but again, not online – funny how newpapers are afraid to put their misogynist crap on the web for all to see).

After a fortnight, this story has mutated from one about ministers playing the housing market at taxpayer expense to barefaced sexist lies being spread about one of the Commons’ champions of reform and transparency. Yes, the Telegraph have done democracy a service by breaking this story but never forget that they ultimately represent the forces of darkness.

UPDATE: I’ve written letters of complaint to the Telegraph, the BBC and the Guardian and would urge you to do the same.

Why don’t I know more women in technology? [Ada Lovelace Day]

A few months ago I signed the Ada Lovelace pledge. Then, I realised I couldn’t think of anyone to write about.

10 weeks later, and with an hour before the end of the day, and I’m still struggling. As a Lib Dem of course, I might observe that many of the party’s e-innovators – Mary Reid, Lynne Featherstone, Jo Swinson (who despite an antipathy towards blogging has been an early adopter of everything from podcasts through to twitter – not to mention www.scraptuitionfees.com Back In The Day), have been women. But I’m not really interested in writing a piece of party propaganda.

To be fair on myself, I struggle to think of anyone “in technology” – male or female. I could name you lots of people “in social media” but I’m not entirely sure that’s quite the same thing.

Interestingly though, when I was a child I DID know lots of women in technology. My dad ran an apprentice school for the Ministry of Defence and much of my early years were spent in the Aquila Civil Service Sports and Social Club, where my parents helped run the bar and film society. I was surrounded by women in technology – both staff and apprentices. My dad would always say that one of the best feeder schools for him was the nearby girls school, Bullers Wood (years later I would go onto make friends with and have my heart broken by lots of Bullers girls – so much more interesting than the sappy Newstead girls).

When Thatcher decided to shut these apprentice schools down and make polytechnics into “universities” I can’t help but wonder if we lost something in the process. By making engineering an academic subject, have the less academic girls had their options limited to hairdressing and shop work? And can science and engineering compete with languages and English literature for the academically-minded girls? Apprenticeships used to exist as a means of escape for a lot of young people (male and female) who couldn’t bear the idea of spending another day in school. Now everything seems either school- or college-like. As such we are now talking about bringing back proper apprenticeships (as opposed to “new” apprenticeships). But unless we are prepared to pay for actual, proper apprentice schools (as opposed to schemes running out of FE colleges), will it actually cater for the evident gap in the market?

I’m totally rambling on a subject I am distinctly inexpert on. But I do wonder if, at a time when we are likely to see massive unemployment rear its ugly head once more, the time for such schools may have come again.

Finally, a brief word to the WISE – that’s Women In Science, Engineering (and Construction). WISE is a campaign aimed at promoting science and engineering to girls of school age. I am particularly endebted to them because I often use a freebie canvass bag from one of their conferences for hauling my boardgames across town. Check them out!

Representation in politics: what has gender got to do with it?

One anniversay, two very different ways of covering it. The Today programme opted to mark the 90th anniversary of the first woman elected to the Commons by interviewing the son of a hereditary peer and his granddaughter. Both of them poured cold water over the idea of all women shortlists altough, this being Tony Benn, he then instantly contradicted himself by calling for a system of doubling up constituencies to ensure they were all 50% male and 50% female.

Emily Benn, I’m afraid, rather drew my ire by describing herself as “post the 1970s, 1980s feminist agenda.” So, that would make you anti-equal pay, anti-choice, pro-casual sexism in the workplace and pro-domestic violence, then? If not, what was the 1970s, 1980s feminist “agenda” you consider so irrelevant? What do they teach in that school of her’s these days?

As someone who spent a lot of time in youth politics in the 90s, I found Emily’s “I am not a feminist” stance wearily familiar. In fact, she reminded me a lot of the 19 year old Jo Swinson. The older Jo Swinson however is much wiser, and on politics.co.uk has this to say:

“It’s not harder for women. It’s just harder for carers.”

“The division of family duties in society is still very unequal. This is what we find all the time. Women get involved in politics in their twenties and then in their thirties they say ‘I’ll take time out’. But men don’t take that time out.”

This is an absolutely crucial point, and one which so often gets missed or glossed over – sadly all too often by organisations like Fawcett. So often this debate gets turned into a simplistic, and thus irrelevant, debate about all women shortlists and not about what a truly representative parliament would look like. It wouldn’t look like the current one except with the male lawyers and political careerists replaces with female lawyers and political careerists. It would have a broader range of men. Let’s not forget that the woman whose achievement 90 years ago we are marking today, was a countess. John Harris has criticised the new Speaker’s Conference on a more representative parliament for ignoring class and he is absolutely correct.

Emily Benn may have very little chance of getting elected as the next MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, but if she chooses to stick with it, she is all but a shoo-in for the general election after next, largely thanks to the family name and the other advantages being a member of a family which has provided her with a stable family life and a good education. I hope that, as she grows older, she will gain an insight into that advantage instead of using the platform that advantage affords her to belittle the cause for women’s rights.

As I’ve written before, the BBC does not have a “liberal” bias per se, it has a middle class bias. Their coverage of this anniversary is an excellent case in point.

Is Nick Harvey happy being the unacceptable face of Parliament?

One thing that really bugs me is when people who clearly don’t know what they are talking about come up with fatuous excuses for not allowing reasonable requests. Nick Harvey MP, sadly, is a case in point. His response to Jo Swinson’s reasonable request for Parliament to allow video clips to be posted on YouTube and other websites was met by what can only be described as utter stupidity:

Mr Harvey, who is also a Lib Dem MP, replied that copyright of the pictures was an issue, as was the cost of filming.

He said the rules dated back to when cameras were first allowed into the chamber, in the 1980s.

MPs, he added, were allowed to use clips for their own website if they showed them speaking – or a reply from a minister to their own question.

They were not permitted to show clips on “any third-party hosting website”, however.

Mr Harvey said: “At the moment the rule is that the clips can be streamed to be viewed in real time, but not downloaded in such a way that they can be manipulated at a future point.”

How is this stupid? Oh let me count the ways. To start with, what is the precise difference between an MP’s website and a “third party hosting website”. Does that apply to ePolitix’s dreadful homepages for MPs? What about Prater-Raines, the hosting service most Lib Dems use for their own websites? What is the fundamental difference between them and a YouTube channel? I suspect you can count the number of MPs who host their own websites on the fingers of one hand.

Secondly, downloading footage on YouTube is the best way to prevent them from being “manipulated at a future point.” YouTube converts footage into flash files, which apart from usually being of low quality, cannot simply be imported into editing software in the way that windows media files and Quicktime files can be. If an MP hosts their own footage using these formats they are far more vulnerable to future manipulation. But it’s a daft reason anyway because if it is live streamed at any point, it can always be saved and manipulated in the future. Therefore, this is a reason to shut down BBC Parliament, not for disallowing films on YouTube.

What really bugs me about all this though is that we’ve already been through all this. Not long ago, Harvey’s committee was playing silly buggers over TheyWorkForYou and using very similar arguments for why this website should be shut down. The question over the use of footage could and should have been resolved then. They had another opportunity over the Puttnam Report. Three years down the line and they are still being obstructive. The House of Commons Commission was also where the dreadful Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill – happily defeated last year – came out of. And all this on the same day that the police rule out an inquiry over the Derek Conway scandal due to a “lack of systems in this case to account for MPs’ expenses.” Which committee is responsible for those systems? Step forward Mr Harvey.

In short, this committee consistently fights to defend the exclusive, clubable air of Parliament and blocks attempts at greater openness, transparency and accountability. It isn’t really Harvey’s fault that he is the unacceptable face of Parliament – it is the Commons as a whole that appoints this damnable committee. But after the last couple of months, it is perhaps time for a new broom. Such a shame that far from calling for this, Nick Clegg has been spending so much of his time of late defending the Speaker and thus the status quo. So much for being anti-establishment.

Swinsongate Goes National…

Front page of Young Labour websiteThree weeks on from the original Swinsongate and Young Labour are still claiming the veracity of the story on the front page of their national website.

Of course, this puts Omar Salem in the uncomfortable position of having one version of the press release on the national website and another, contradictory, version on the London website.

Jo Swinson news story on Young Labour websiteJust to recap: Jo Swinson a) has never been the party’s youth affairs spokesperson and b) has never been LDYS’s Chair. To top it all, she’s been promoted, not sacked, and so has Jenny Willott (who is now the martyr in the London Young Labour version).

None of this exactly suggests that Young Labour is a vibrant, go-getting organisation these days, does it?

The Lib Dem B Team (UPDATE)

Since my last post on Clegg’s frontbench reshuffled caused such a stir, I thought I ought to at least comment on the finalisation of his team.

Firstly, on the question that adding the names makes the teams too large, I don’t accept this. The Shadow Ministers have limited roles to focus on specific areas; there is no question, as far as I am aware, of them taking a lead on issues. They are there to deputise primarily. While there is certainly an argument that the party should focus on pushing a handful of personalities – just the leader even – rather than a wide and potentially confusing group, we still need a team in size roughly equivalent to the government and Tory front benches simply to keep abreast of things.

Secondly, and I have to admit to knowing this shortly after my last post, but it is nice to see Jo Swinson and Jenny Willott on the list. I would rather see them doing substantial roles such as FCO and Justice than to be given totemic roles such as women, equalities and youth. The tendency to push women into these “soft” positions, while often well meaning, undermines them. It is one of the reasons why I view London Young Labour’s attempts to portray them as martyrs with such contempt.

Thirdly, it is interesting to see Evan Harris’ return from the wilderness. Shadow Minister for Science is an ideal role for him and I wish him well.

Fourthly, the absence of a culture minister is noteworthy. This means that Don Foster is covering the whole brief, from television through to the Olympics. Whilst this is possibly not the most crucial area of policy going, it does look as if it has been given a very low status by Clegg. By contrast I view this brief as an opportunity, if used creatively, to reach out to people normally uninterested in politics. I don’t think Don Foster has been doing that and I certainly can’t see him being able to do so if he has to do all the spadework himself.

UPDATE: It has been pointed out to me that Evan Harris was already Shadow Science Minister and thus this isn’t a promotion for him. Apologies (this, Omar, is called making a correction).

It isn’t just me who gets my facts wrong however; the Guardian describes Jo Swinson as the previous spokes on youth issues. ARGH!

When Jo Swinson met Joe Stalin

London Young Labour Press Release on Jo SwinsonThey teach airbrushing technique young in the Labour Party it seems. You may recall, dear reader, that I took Chair of London Young Labour Omar Salem to task before Christmas for manufacturing a story about the Lib Dem reshuffle by selectively quoting this website and getting a whole heap of facts wrong, a story which sadly Independent Political Editor Andrew Grice allowed himself to be taken in by. Now it would appear that Omar has gone back and tried to destroy all the evidence of his stupidity.

Of course, that leaves me with a bit of a problem – I’m now open to the accusation that I made the whole thing up. Fortunately, someone saw fit to send me Omar’s press release in PDF format for your perusal. Enjoy!

London Young Labour Press Release (web version) - bottomLondon Young Labour Press Release (web version) - topUPDATE: It occurred to me I ought to include the web version of the press release for you to compare and contrast (and just in case Omar decides to change it back again!). Plus, I should point out that, as a researcher for Emily Thornberry MP, Omar has of course learned from the best when it comes to doctoring press releases.

Swinsongate: why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

Credit where it’s due, when it comes to getting lies repeated as fact, Omar Salem is clearly a latter day Joseph Goebbels. Perhaps he’s been getting advice from his erstwhile colleague Miranda Grell. Andrew Grice at the Independent has regurgitated his press release all-but verbatim over on his blog, incredibly even painting this as “Clegg’s first rebellion.”

What’s interesting is that Grice has filed his article 24 hours after Salem put out his press release and has subsequently visited this website where all the facts have been corrected for him in easily digestible, bite-size chunks. Yet for some reason that hasn’t stopped him from blundering in. Modern news values, eh?

Down with the youth! (UPDATE)

I fear my post on Thursday about Clegg’s reshuffle has roused the Labour Blogosphere into a frenzy of mock outrage at Jo Swinson being demoted from her post as youth spokesperson. Both Rupa Huq and Omar Salem are working themselves into a lather, with Omar singling out LDYS for failing to mention her demotion in their press release despite her being a former Chair of the organisation.

There are just two slight flaws with this analysis. Firstly, Jo has never been Chair of LDYS (although to be fair, she is a former Vice Chair). Secondly, and a little more significantly, she was not and has never been the Lib Dem youth spokes for the Lib Dems. That role, now performed by Lynne Featherstone, was until recently the responsibility of Tim Farron (current Hon President of LDYS, natch).

If I were a youngish MP I would be very wary of taking on the youth brief. It’s a poisoned chalice and one that can set back careers. Sorry Dawn, but look at the meteoric (as in, crashing to earth at great speed) career of Lembit Öpik for an indication at how it can set you back. Jo, as the youngest MP in the House, has I understand always been very wary of taking it on as a direct result. Being pigeonholed can be catastrophic for a politician.

If Labour bloggers want to feel bad for her, lament the treatment she received at the hands of Ming five months ago when she went from Shadow Scottish Secretary to a non-frontbench role on equalities, despite doing a perfectly good job under the circumstances (and bearing in mind the limitations of that post when the Lib Dems had not just a leader in the Scottish Parliament to contend with but at the time the Deputy First Minister as well), while the aforementioned Öpik got a promotion for presiding over the implosion of the Welsh party. Where were Jo’s newfound Labour friends then?

In any case, a little bird tells me that Jo’s demotion is not quite the step back as it first appeared. Watch this space.

UPDATE: It emerges that London Young Labour have press released this. What a bunch of buffoons.

UPDATE 2: Still no correction from Salem, but he’s decided that he’s Jenny Willott’s new best friend now. As it happens, he’s right here, as Jenny Willott does indeed appear to have been the party’s youth affairs spokesperson (shows what I know). But just to add to the confusion, I wasn’t wrong about Tim Farron either.

Gay Rights: a shit writes

It’s fascinating to speculate the psychology behind Alan Duncan’s decision to publicly call Jo Swinson MP a “shit” for inconveniently pointing out the Tories’ lamentable record on gay rights.

As I pointed out a couple of months ago, the Conservative Parliamentary Party response to Cameron calling for his party to support the Sexual Orientation Regulations was to do the opposite. This isn’t a dead issue, it is a very much live one – particularly at a time when Cameron, via his predecessor Iain Duncan Smith, is reintroducing Back to Basics. With the appointment of Sayeeda Warsi, the fact is that when it comes to gay rights, a vote for the Tories is a vote for a pig in a poke. As we’ve seen over the last ten years, civil liberties won hundreds of years ago can be removed by a government with minimal debate – who knows what would happen to comparatively recent civil liberties outlawing discrimination on the basis of homosexuality if people like Eric Pickles were in charge?

It isn’t just legitimate for the Lib Dems to point out their voting record; as the only overtly liberal party in the UK, it is incumbent on them.