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Intervention saved British Energy, and can save our Steel too

Over 40,000 jobs are at risk if TATA walks away from the colossal steel works of Port Talbot in South Wales. The government has been left looking flat-footed and indecisive by TATA, with ministers unsure about whether to return from overseas trips and then sending out mixed messages about whether state intervention is merited or not.

It was welcome to see Vince Cable on the news talking up intervention last night, but from my clear recollections that was not always his position. Although Vince and the Liberal Democrats are not directly relevant to this debate anymore, the 2015 general election saw to that, his journey on this issue is a lesson worth observing.

The Labour government of 1997 to 2010 may not have had an interventionist reputation, but it was nimble and muscular when jobs and the UK economy were at risk. Nationalisation of the banks during the crash was a high profile example, but not the first example.

Vince Cable and I crossed swords on the issue of intervention in 2002, I had been the MP for Gloucester for about a year and he was the Lib Dems’ Trade and Industry spokesperson. The issue wasn’t steel; it was energy, British Energy to be precise. Thousands of jobs were at stake, over 1,000 of them in my own constituency, which was home to the company’s headquarters. A slump in wholesale energy prices had led to severe financial trouble and so the company, with my support, approached the government for financial aid.

Vince vocally opposed this at the time and felt that it was not the role of the state to act in such a muscular way to save the company. I’m glad he’s changed his view but the view he held a decade ago is still shared by some in the Tory government. In the case of British Energy we ended up moving very quickly to emergency legislation and a four clause bill on the floor of the House which allowed the government to loan money to the company, with an initial £650 million injection.

By September 2004 the government’s investment was over £3 billion and the company was reclassified as a public body – de facto nationalisation.

The Labour government didn’t nationalise for the sake of it, it did so to protect the UK economy and save highly skilled jobs.

Today, Port Talbot supports thousands of highly skilled jobs and the plant’s collapse would result in an economic shock wave.

British Energy was eventually restructured and new investment came in through EDF and the company was returned to good health in the private sector.

The experience hopefully taught many a seasoned politician an important lesson: used wisely, government intervention will work.

Parmjit Dhanda



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Meeting Margaret Thatcher…

A snippet from My Political Race

The Locarno Suite is a very plush room in the Foreign Office. It’s the room the great and the good retire to after the wreaths have been laid on Remembrance Sunday. Baroness Cathy Ashton, at that time Labour’s Leader of the House of Lords came over to Rupi and me to check we were OK, and all had gone well. As we were talking, Rupi pointed out Baroness Thatcher at the other end of the room. “Look its Maggie,” she said. Before I could I could shush her Cathy asked us if we’d like to be introduced.

“Nope.” I said.

But then the two them ganged up on me. “Oh go on! Get over yourself! What harm can it do?” And all that kind of stuff. Truth be told, I was a little curious, and was confident that I wouldn’t do anything silly. The Duke of Edinburgh incident was years ago. And I hadn’t laid a glove on her in 2002 at the Queen Mother’s Service.

So there we were. Slaloming through the dignitaries with Baroness Ashton, off to meet the Iron Lady. Then Cathy whispered in her ear, as Rupi and I stood alongside her. Cathy let her know there was someone she’d like her to meet.

Mrs Thatcher looked at me. I didn’t turn to stone. I wasn’t even scared. She looked ever so slightly bemused by me. I leaned down to talk to her. “Hello Baroness Thatcher.” I said it slowly and clearly. And she looked back at me. It wasn’t much of a chat-up but I followed up with my name, the fact I was the Member of Parliament for Gloucester. Which I knew was a bit of a spinout for many a Tory younger than Mrs T, so to put her at her ease I said: “Sally Oppenheim. Sally was the MP for Gloucester when you were Prime Minister. She was one of your ministers Mrs Thatcher.”

At that point I thought we’d connected. She looked around the room for a moment, no doubt recalling Oppenheim, and the many ministers junior and senior she held in her charge in the Downing Street days. And here I was. Like one of the establishment, in the Locarno room talking to the most famous Prime Minister of my lifetime.

Her eyes returned to me. And she spoke to me. “Which country are you from?” she said.

To read more or buy a copy visit:


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My Political Race

My Political Race is an unlikely tale. It’s a story about my time on the political frontline as a Labour MP and a Minister. But more importantly it’s a story about people who are like me, and quite likely people who are like you too – outsiders.

It’s a story about people who are not meant to become MPs and Ministers – people who don’t fit the Westminster Village stereotype. And it’s about some of the barriers that hold them back. But it’s not a story of woe. If you’re a Labour Party person involved in this general election campaign, I do hope some of the stories in my book about campaigning in elections make you smile and give you a lift in the weeks ahead.

My parents came to England in the early 1960s to (in the case of my father) become a truck driver, and in my mother’s case to become a cleaner at Hillingdon hospital – the hospital in which I was born. Growing up in a working class Sikh Punjabi community in West London in the 1970s and 1980s was a wonderful experience. But not remotely suited to a career in Westminster. I knew about the Southall riots, about the National Front and about Thatcher. However, I didn’t know who the Tolepuddle Martyrs or the Durham Marchers were and I was a fish out of water amongst my political contemporaries as I worked through the ranks.

Despite that, in the year 2000, aged 28, I pulled off an unlikely heist. I won the first Parliamentary selection contest I entered, for the seat Labour needed to hold to have a majority of 1 at the 2001 general election – Gloucester. Becoming an MP with a brown face in a white constituency was the beginning of quite an adventure, one I’m very proud of.

But there were also some tough experiences that I couldn’t really talk about out then, that it would be a disservice to politics and society for me to leave unsaid.

Last week, at Speaker’s House in the presence of my said parents, John Bercow, Peter Hain and Steve Pound spoke at the launch of My Political Race – my book. Alan Johnson has written the foreword and I’m very pleased to say Trevor Philips and David Lammy have written blurbs for the book’s cover.

It begins with a sad story about post-election defeat, a knock on the door and news of a severed pig’s head left on our front drive. As I say in the book, something broke that day. But perhaps writing this book has helped to piece things back together again.

To give you a flavour of it here is a snippet from Chapter 8 –  ‘1 May 1997 – A New Dawn.’ I am the Labour Party’s full-time agent for West London, and I am at the count in Ealing North, where Steve Pound is the Labour Candidate. It’s not a key seat but I am hopeful that we can take the seat from Tory MP Harry Greenway…


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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2014 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here's an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,000 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 33 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Labour’s Lessons from a Sikh Wedding Season

There’s been a fair bit written about the Sikh community in the nationals in the last few days in relation to Cameron’s political appointments to the Lords and some criticism for Labour for not having any representation from the 700,000 strong Sikh community in its Westminster ranks.

Personally I don’t think there’s anything to gain in attacking Cameron for making more diverse appointments, even if the guy may not be as entrenched in the Sikh community as was claimed and even if he’s a major donor – let’s face it no party has been immune to that.

And from Labour’s standpoint, it’s nobody’s fault that Piara Khabra, Marsha Singh, Lord Tarsem King died and I lost in 2010. Far more important than who represents who from which culture and race is what the Parties do to stay in touch with these communities on policy.

My wife Rupi, our two little boys and I have not had a summer holiday. If you can pass the Sikh test you’ll know why.
The reason? August, in the Sikh community, is wedding season. Over the August Bank Holiday Weekend we had to divide ourselves as a family between Southampton, West London and Birmingham to attend three weddings of close family and friends.

Every weekend in August has been like this, and yes, we’re exhausted and need a holiday. If you can pass the Sikh test you’ll understand why we had so many weddings to attend. It’s not because we have a fetish for buying toasters.

The reason goes back to the 1950s and 1960s. When my parents arrived in West London (the men folk first, sending for their fiancés or wives later) they lived in shared rented accommodation. Several in every bedroom in houses in communities like Southall with 10 or 15 in a house. Hence the bonds in every Sikh community are so tight – they all lived cheek by jowl and their shared common experience was so strong. Close bonds mean close family ties, means lots of weddings to attend.

Much to the annoyance of our five year old I cannot escape the summer of festivities without being dragged in to conversations about politics. I get the flak for most things the Labour Party does – good or bad from the Sikh community as their last surviving (albeit it ex) Westminster Parliamentarian.

The Sikhs are a key audience for Labour. In 2010 41% of them voted Labour, compared to 29% of the wider public. However, polling shows two thirds of them think the Tories are changing, and for the reasons I’ve described above, moods and views channel through our community extremely quickly. These are your ultimate strivers. In my case and Rupi’s and countless Sikhs you meet, you will get the tale of their fathers arriving here with 2 quid in their pockets, never going away on holidays and yet working to buy their first homes within a few years of their arrival.
Non-dependence on the state, a sense of community and an environment to succeed in business are key themes that come up again and again. Not least when you’re collared at a Sikh wedding.

My impromptu wedding surgeries reinforced this. My message to those making policy in Labour would be this:

Firstly, property is key in the community. It anchors our families, makes people feel they belong and creates an income to hand on to their children. In Southampton a delegation of Sikh landlords descended upon me. Although in fairness to them it was at the temple in which my wife and I were married in 2003 so it kind of serves me right, they do own me. The pervading view was, and I’ve had this from many Sikh businessmen around the country, Labour is perceived as the Party of the tenant and not the landlord.

A common refrain was “I have worked hard all my life, never depended on the state, never took a holiday and have used my savings to buy property. Why doesn’t Labour like people like me?”

So firstly, let’s balance the rights and responsibilities of landlords with the requirement of tenants to pay their rent and to be responsible tenants in the private sector.

Secondly, Sikhs are very entrepreneurial by nature. Labour is not anti-business, but the Tory message that it is, is being heard within the community. That needs to be tackled.

Finally, Sikhs are mainstream voters, but their experience of striving when they came here in the 1960s era has put a huge onus on educational attainment for their children. Labour’s record is good in this area, but I’m aware of many a Tory MP trying to take credit for improved exam results and better schools resources – which were actually agreed under a Labour government, particularly in key marginals. The ownership of our investment and reforms in this area is very important so let’s defend the record, rather than letting Cameron and his Sikh MPs and Peers steal our achievements.

If Labour passes these policy tests it has every chance of keeping the loyal support of a well networked community at 2015 and beyond. So don’t let the lack of a summer holiday for Rupi and my kids be in vain please. The wedding season never lies.

I’m sure Piara, Marsha and Tarsem would agree with me.

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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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The Need to Build on Ed’s PMQs idea – a More Deferential Parliament


Ed Miliband’s comments about public dissatisfaction with politics and politicians on the Andrew Marr show cannot be refuted. His idea about getting the public in to Westminster for their own PMQs session is an interesting one, and an important foray in to an area Labour should now exploit to the full.

If this idea is left in isolation it will be referred to in the coming months as just another gimmick – a throwaway line without substance. But if Ed develops a theme here, I predict he will get some real public traction, and deservedly so.

My attempt to become Speaker of the House of Commons in 2009 may have been ill-fated, but it is still one of my favourite personal political memories. There’s a reason for that. John Bercow was triumphant but in the radio call-ins, the TV hustings and the political write-ups, I had more traction with the public than the other candidates; although my message also made me less popular amongst the ‘old guard’ in the House of Commons. You can judge my pitch for yourself here

During that process I learnt that the public appetite for a more ‘deferential’ House of Commons was immense. Not in terms of castigating politicians (leave that to the media) but in terms of connection with the public desire to shift the pendulum of power away from Westminster towards local communities through a more direct form of democracy.

Ed has now entered in to a debate that he must follow up and take ownership of. And he’ll reap the benefits if he does. To develop this theme his team need to look at the technology gap between real lives outside of Westminster and the antiquated system of decision making in the House that people find so off-putting. That’s not just about PMQs.

‘Issues for Topical Debate’ in Parliament are now structured by a back bench committee, which considers online petitions before issues are selected for debate in Parliament. Although that’s an advance from the year 2009, this is just not good enough for the 2015 Parliament.

Labour needs to grasp that the television/mobile age has changed the public’s attitude to interaction with the pillars of power in their democracy. The topical issues for debate in Parliament should be selected each week by the public directly via internet polling. Parliament could select the menu, for example in the past few days it would have included the conflict in Gaza, the downing of an aircraft in the Ukraine, or the right to die. But the public should make the final choice.

Only through high profile and direct public involvement will the electorate be convinced that the hands of the whips and the front benches are being loosened from the political agenda. It would be easy, yet radical to hold a public vote each Wednesday to set the agenda for a Thursday debate. And it’ll be a brave MP who decides not to attend if they know that hundreds or more of his/her constituents have participated to define their agenda. For years we’ve seen the thinning out of attendances for debates on Thursdays in Parliament. This would reverse that decline and give the public real influence.

Beyond the agenda of what goes on inside the Palace of Westminster, Ed’s team could build on his steps in this fertile area, to change the political settlement out in the regions and localities. In my Speakership hustings Speech in 2009 I got some taciturn looks from old-school MPs when I talked about moving some of the apparatus of Parliament out of the capital. Many ministers are far too comfortable on the green or red benches, and don’t face the heat of public opinion often enough when it comes to making major decisions. That makes for bad government because the public don’t feel involved and our leaders don’t get the chance to explain what they’re doing before a local audience, reinforcing that feeling of disengagement.

Local and regional issues taken up by MPs in half hour or 90 minute ‘adjournment debates’ do not attract much interest in regional media and amongst constituents, because they are sleepy events tucked away in Westminster. Ed is right to try to close that gap.

The way to reinvigorate interest in these Parliamentary debates on local issues is to take these debates to town halls around the country. A collection of ministers having to respond to backbench MPs in a full day of debates in Bristol, Newcastle, Birmingham and Liverpool (for instance) will attract far more interest than these debates currently do in Westminster Hall. At the moment you’re likely to find one man, his dog and a lobby correspondent in attendance. And you’ll find ministers rushed out at short notice to read out scripted responses on sheets of A4. I remember it all too well.

Ministers need to get out to respond to debates in areas that will attract public audiences. Only then will they feel the heat of their decisions to close shipyards, reconfigure health services and the like. It also gives government an opportunity to get its argument out directly to local communities.

I hope Ed’s announcement on the Andrew Marr programme will be the prelude to more policy in the area of direct democracy. If his comments about opening up PMQs become part of a narrative about a more deferential Parliament, I believe he and the Labour Party stand to be the winners.

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