Author Archives: Ruth Bright

So farewell then Sunday Politics…

Way back in the early eighties there was a sitcom called “Butterflies” where the mum was lampooned for her terrible cooking and all round failure as a homemaker. I pride myself in being the 21st century version of that mum. I drown noodles, explode baked beans in the microwave, incinerate duck and pancakes (even though Mr Marks and Mr Spencer provide simple instructions) and the hoover gathers more dust than it picks up.

And yet, despite it all I know I am a reasonably ok parent because I have at least managed to impart to my children an interest in politics.

Most …

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RAF 100

Think about it. Have you ever seen graphic footage of the Blitz? Not cheery chaps sifting through some light rubble with the WVS serving tea nearby. No, nothing like that. But bodies and horror.

The footage exists. A little was shown in the 1970s in the series “The World at War” but generally we are much more familiar with appalling images of the Holocaust than we are with the facts of area bombing either in Germany or Britain. The scale is hard to grasp now. Over 600 dead and nearly 900 injured in two nights of bombing in Southampton alone.

A few weeks ago Royal Mail issued a series of stamps to mark the RAF’s centenary. Inevitably they show chocolate box images of bright blue skies, fighter planes and Red Arrows without a wartime heavy bomber in sight. Perhaps the Royal Mail felt that images of the Lancaster had been “done to death” already. Done to death indeed.

People like my late Dad, AC2 W H Clark, an RAF wireless operator during WW2, knew exactly what area bombing meant. What is rarely realised today is that there was a massive backlash about the carnage at the time. In the current sentimental climate it is hard to believe but both during and after the war in many quarters Bomber Command was an embarrassment and so were its veterans. Like many of his generation Dad felt that stigma. He did not collect his service medals. Also, like many of his generation, he frequently messed up his life in an era when there was little sympathy for “combat stress” and little compassion about the lost opportunities of survivors who had given up precious years of youth to war service.

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Cyril Smith: “Scurrilous hearsay?”

11 minutes and 19 seconds into Sunday’s final episode of “A Very English Scandal” Hugh Grant as Jeremy Thorpe spoke the immortal lines: “All that new blood coming through – Clement Freud, Cyril Smith. Exciting Times”.  Of course the lines are fictional but the point is well made. We now know a very great deal about those “exciting times” and how abusers hid in plain sight behind a 70’s larger than life, English eccentric, man of the people image.

All the more astonishing then that Lord Steel said on Monday’s Newsnight that the allegations against Smith were “so far scurrilous hear-say”. 

This when the CPS has already admitted that Smith should have been prosecuted in 1970 or again in 1998 and 1999. On September 16 2017 the Chief Executive of Rochdale Borough Council gave an apology to the victims. The late, great Liz MacKean’ s  extraordinarily moving Dispatches documentary from September 2013 is still available. MacKean hears from those who say they were abused by Smith. I defy anyone not to at least give those witnesses a hearing.

The Independent Inquiry into child sexual abuse (IICSA) issued its interim report about Rochdale on April 25. In no way shape or form does the interim report implicate any Liberal or Liberal Democrat figures in abuse conducted by Cyril Smith. But, terrifyingly, it makes it clear that it is very likely that Smith abused over many decades. It hears from those who say they were abused by Smith in the 90s at Knowl View School and is astonished by the decision to make him Chair of Governors in 1994. Smith’s abuse does not just relate to allegations in the 60s when he was a member of the Labour Party.

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Time to stop wringing our hands on gender balance

Mark Pack has run another interesting analysis on the way we have stalled in recruiting women into local government.

When I was elected to Southwark council in 1994 our large Lib Dem group had already achieved gender balance. When I was selected as PPC in East Hants in 2002 our ruling Town Council group had also achieved gender balance. It is therefore very sad all these years later to see how things are stalling or going backwards.

I totted up the following figures on the counties some months ago. I put the figures together in a hurry, have not allowed for recent by-elections and I might have made the odd wrong assumption that a name is male or female. Please accept my apologies for any mistakes but even with those many health warnings I was shocked by the following balance of male and female Lib Dem councillors on the counties:

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Book Review: Equal Power and how you can make it happen

On hearing of the arrival of a new volume of “how to” popular feminism one might be tempted to channel Brenda of Bristol on hearing about the election: “ANOTHER one!!”

Jo Swinson enters a very crowded market with her new book. Can she really have anything to add?

To be fair she doesn’t just write about this stuff; she really means it. Largely ignoring the six week old baby strapped to my (very sore) front she once nagged, cajoled, charmed and begged me to stand in a forthcoming by-election. She has probably directly encouraged hundreds of women and girls to get involved or go further in politics.

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#timetotalk – My story

It can safely be said that there are not too many articles on Lib Dem Voice inspired by Adele! But with LDV’s record of taboo-breaking posts on mental health she is a fitting heroine for her refreshing honesty about post-natal depression. She said in an interview a few months ago that it affected her so seriously that she hesitated about having more children. It is something many of us can identify with but few admit.

For me, it was very tied up with having a sick baby and the pressures of being …

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Congratulations, Jacinda

It was lovely to hear that the Prime Minister of New Zealand is pregnant. What more extraordinary proof that women can have it all.

Even for political minnows though going back after six weeks as she plans is a tall order.

Hopefully her eminence means that she will have a fantastic support system in place. For those of us small fry activists who have to write our own leaflets, print them, pay for them and deliver them delivering a baby at the same time and fending off the hostility for having “deserted” our post is pretty tough going.

It is amazing how having a baby exerts such strong feelings in others. Lovely ones like protectiveness, joy and empathy but also hideous ones like jealousy, misogyny and even revulsion. It is salutary to note that pregnancy is a time when women are most in danger from domestic violence. When I was a pregnant parliamentary candidate I could scarcely believe how downright rude people could be: “a walking caesarean”, “oh not another one”, “have you got another one in there?” (and that was just the Lib Dems!) This was a decade ago and I really hoped that the climate had changed so it was depressing to see that very recently the Labour MP Luciana Berger was greeted with derision for supposed absences when she was breastfeeding.

Perhaps a good way forward is to have proper protocols for maternity leave for politicians at all levels. According to a recent report a mind blowing 97% of councils have no formal procedures to allow councillors to take maternity leave.

I drafted the following for our own party and would welcome your thoughts.

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Snowflakes and Safe spaces

What sensitive flowers they are! You cannot move these days for some commentator dismissing students (especially women and LGBT students) as lacking resilience and unable to cope with criticism, contrary views or even a bit of banter.

But would we really want to go back to the university culture of thirty or forty years ago – particularly for women? The revelation in Harriet Harman’ s biography “A Woman’s Work” that her tutor threatened to downgrade her degree if she did not sleep with him does not come as a big surprise to those of us who went to university a few decades ago.

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Just a joke, love

Embed from Getty Images

I blame Strictly Come Dancing. Autumn last year my son and I are settling down to watch our regular two hour marathon of sequins and emotion when he pipes up that he fancies a Chinese takeaway. Doting Mum, off I trot down the high street to fulfill my youngest’s whim. It is not even 7pm in a sleepy market town and stepping out into the evening holds no fears. But as I pass the Crown Hotel and then the Baker’s Arms my path is blocked by two young men. The shorter one is almost face to face with me and as I side step him he side steps too, blocks my path again and blows smoke in my face. Having enjoyed my discomfort for a few seconds off they go giggling into the evening.

The cemetery down the road a few weeks ago. Broad daylight. I am at one end of the cemetery -three teenagers at the other. I have caught their attention and they clearly have not yet clocked that I am old enough to be their mum (ye Gods, their grandma even). As they come towards me one of them starts: “Are you going to say hello to us? Are you going to say hello to us? Are you going to..” He becomes more sheepish when he gets closer and realises my seniority but he does not want to back down in front of his mates and keeps on at me, tailing off as his mates snigger and I swerve onto another path. I am all too conscious that that path leads me deeper into the churchyard with no means of escape if things escalate. They wonder off, doubtless to continue studying for their A’Levels at the sixth form college down the road and then home to Mum.

A month ago. A new low. This time I am accompanied. A late evening walk with my son and husband. We are just going past my son’s old school.  My son is on his bike and freewheels on ahead followed closely by my husband. I fall back a few metres and have noticed a couple of lads hanging around. I turn round to look as they don’t seem altogether benign. I am greeted with: “You’ve got a big butt.” (technically not inaccurate but a somewhat unnecessary observation to a complete stranger).”I said you’ve got a big butt.” I offer them a cheery expletive (feeling safe to risk antagonising them because my husband is not that far away) and receive a rapid stream of f-words. 

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Cyril Smith – an apology is the very least we owe the victims

The Chief Executive of Rochdale Council has apologised for letting down the victims of Cyril Smith. It is time that the Liberal Democrats, as successor party to the Liberal Party made an apology to the victims too – not for any direct responsibility but the fact that he was able to use our party as a front for the “big Cyril”, “national treasure” image which helped him cover up earlier crimes. Cyril Smith is not a figure from ancient Liberal Party history. He was a Liberal Democrat MP for his last three years in parliament, he died in 2010 and his accusers were being criticised on this site as late as 2015.

Victims deserve the following actions from the party:

  1. An apology from the Leader of the Liberal Democrats that the party was unknowingly used as a front for Smith’s respectability.
  2. An inquiry into any remaining evidence about him within the party.
  3. A direction to the pastoral care officer to support any party activists who wish to talk about their own experiences with Smith.
  4. A direction that all references to Smith be removed from the Rochdale Lib Dems website (which has an extraordinary archive with cheery references to his 80th birthday and other events).

Editor’s Note:

The party’s position on this was made clear in a statement issued some time ago. 

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Dementia Tax – Project Fear

Dementia has been a big part of my life. Over the years I have worked with people with dementia in some of our most deprived communities in south London – Brixton, Elephant and Castle, Peckham, Old Kent Road and the surrounding (often high-rise) estates.

I have therefore felt very torn by the party’s recent headlong charge for the populist line on the “dementia tax”. As a (naturally pretty tribal) Lib Dem of three decades standing I recognised a fantastic campaigning issue that might help claw back a few coastal “retirement” seats. However, I also knew that the inaccurate use of the term dementia tax (it is neither a tax nor is it about dementia) causes pain to many for whom this is not just a line in a press release but something real and near at hand.  People with dementia have a cognitive impairment but they are not stupid; they can and do take in political messages. Politicians need to think of the deep distress their negative campaigning can cause to many of our 850,000 fellow citizens who are living with this disease.

During the election the party launched a “Theresa May Estate Agent” website that quoted the  example of a “lady from Runcorn” who at the first symptoms of dementia had her home whipped away by the government. This achieves the triple whammy of being misleading about dementia, misleading about the current system and misleading about the (then) prospective system. If only we had moderated our language on this. For a start the dichotomy between “free” coronary care and “paid for” dementia care is false. Thanks to the voluntary sector (usually funded by health services or councils) many people with dementia get significant help and advice for free. If you are diagnosed with dementia early the stereotype of a tragic husk of a dementia victim slumped in a chair is completely untrue. There is no cure for or reversal of dementia but the NHS funds drugs which can have a plateauing effect on the symptoms of Alzheimer’s for many years. Lots of dementia care from MRI scans to memory clinics is completely free of charge.

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Keep on keeping on

The talk of the Blitz spirit in London can become a bit mawkish at a time like this. A family member of mine went through the real Blitz in 1940 and 1941 and she told me that all was far from the myth. Class still pervaded all – for example, many looked down on those without a shelter who hid from bombs in the tube. Not everyone sang “Roll out the barrel”; not everyone cooed with gratitude as Queen Elizabeth wafted by in chiffon. Looting was a common occurrence. Horrible things were covered up by the authorities.

And yet it was also a time of extraordinary solidarity. The resilience of the East Londoner was not made up. Grandma talked matter-of-factly about being bombed out, of losing home and possessions – not once but twice, as if it were a minor inconvenience.

When I was a child in the seventies I was taken to see the Christmas windows at Selfridges. Not far from where my Grandma worked throughout the Blitz. Selfridges was bombed later that day (the IRA gave a warning and there was enormous damage but no loss of life). Twenty five years later the office where I worked received damage when a nail bomb was left in Brixton market. My colleagues and I were lucky. It was a weekend and none of us were in the building but many Saturday shoppers suffered horrible injuries.

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International Women’s Day: Could there ever be a Lib Dem Jess Phillips?

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Future women, real lives

The Women Candidates’ weekend is about to take place and (apart from the odd party pooper) most reasonable folk can see that an event that boosts confidence and offers a quick burst of training is of value. But what about candidate support and candidate retention when the big weekend is over?

In a small party with a reliance on the selfless hard work of a thin layer of ridiculously dedicated volunteers it is not surprising that the pastoral care of candidates has not been a big priority over the years. It was a luxury we could not afford. But that has …

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Believe?

Children’s ward, 1974.

A nurse has told us what to do. Important. Nurses are grown-ups and important. They have a uniform. You do what they say. All of us, boys and girls, all ages, we have to do what they say. I am 7 and here to have my tonsils out. This hospital is special. It was where I was born. I have never been away from my parents or my grandparents or my cat. On the bedside table is a Blue Peter Annual and a Lucie Attwell prayer book, it has pop-up pictures. The books remind me of home. I don’t much like the older boys. They like to watch Planet of the Apes on the telly at the end of the ward. That’s scary we don’t watch that at home. I asked for the Wombles on the Hospital Radio. They haven’t played it yet.

The nurse says that we all need to go to the toilet in potties by the side of the bed. All of us are doing it. At the same time. Horrible, I am 7. Babies use potties. I don’t want the older boys to see me. I Shuffle close to the bed so no-one will see me do it. But the other end of the ward can see me do it. They can see under the bed. You have to do it because it is the hospital. But no-one at school makes you go to the toilet in front of other people. Everything’s different in hospital.

As you can probably tell my first spell in hospital is almost as vivid to me today as it was 43 years ago. A minor incident? Inadvertently or intentionally abusive? Obviously it would be unacceptable now. What possible excuse can there have been for a urine sample to have been required from us all at the same time in view of each other and staff?

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A Christmas Gift Guide

You know how it is. What with by-elections and all you simply haven’t had time to sort out your Christmas gifts. Before panic sets in relax, don’t worry, sit back and enjoy the LDV last minute gift guide. All the political pressies you could possibly want – and plenty you didn’t!

For children

It simply has to be the “Tiger Tim” cuddly toy. Like our leader, his qualities and all round niceness speak for themselves and he even has a miniature bird of liberty T-Shirt. Yours for £9.50 from the wonderful Lib Dem Image. The Parliament Shop has also has a lovely wooden toy – “House of Commons in a box” but a bit pricier at £19.99.

For the ageing activist

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A time to speak out?

It was in fact the mid-seventies but looking back it seems more like Victorian times. Rows and rows of little kids in red and grey uniform and we chirruped in unison from a hymn we were far too little to understand about how to “master self and temper, how to make our conduct fair, when to speak and when be silent, when to do and when forbear”.

When as Liberals should we be silent and when should we speak out?

Three examples for your consideration:

On the school run I walk alongside a mum, like me, whose family go back many, many years in this town. She has assumed we are on the same wavelength. We make small talk about how the town has grown and changed. Out she comes with: “There weren’t any black people here when we were young were there Ruth?” I hesitated, I admit I hesitated, the school run is not a political occasion but her tone and inference were clear and I replied as gently as I could by asking her if she had a problem with that (ie that the town was now multi-racial). She scuttled back into her shell and waffled about how “it” just showed how the town has changed. She has hardly spoken to me since.

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Time for some Liberal Herstory

British Liberal LeadersTraditional Mothers’ Day treats do not really appeal to me. My gift on Sunday was the new(ish) book British Liberal Leaders (Brack, Ingham, Little et al) and the free time to finish reading it. I love tales of Lloyd George’s derring-do and of Steel’s “going back to your constituencies” as much as the next Liberal. All human life is there in the chapters on each party leader: Asquith’s failings, Ashdown’s verve, Clegg’s self-pity.

Well I say all human life is there but is it? In many ways it is an admirable book, John Campbell’s chapter on Roy Jenkins is a particular treat. There is a catch though. Where on earth are the women?

There are 24 chapters on each of the 24 Liberal, SDP or Lib Dem leaders. All the leaders analysed are men of course. Fair enough. We cannot go back in time and insert Nancy Seear or Shirley Williams as party leaders in a retrospective All Women Shortlist!

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Save Lloyd George!

Some important centenaries are marked in 2016 but for Liberals perhaps the most intriguing centenary of all is the one that marks the start of Lloyd George’s term as Prime Minister.

But Lloyd George’s legacy is in danger because the Welsh museum dedicated to him might soon have to close.

Gwynedd Lib Dem Cllr Steve Churchman and his colleagues have been valiantly fighting the closure due to a loss of grant of a mere £27,000. They point out what would be an incalculable loss to their community. We should surely all support their bid to save a precious slice of Liberal history.

As Cllr Churchman explains:

The museum comprises the dedicated museum building, Lloyd George’s uncles workshop, his childhood house and garden, the museum garden and car park and the riverside grave and memorial. It physically cannot be relocated. Many of the treasures are on long-term loan from family members. If the museum is closed then these artefacts will be splashed to the four winds and lost from public sight forever. We also lose an educational facility used by many of the county’s schools.

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Open letter – please reinstate the creche

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Dear Tim

Yesterday you were campaigning in Faraday, my old ward in inner city Southwark. Way back in the 90s I was councillor for Faraday for eight years. Councillors’ expenses were meagre at that point and it took many thousands of pounds to win and keep that ward. My two ward colleagues and I dipped into our own pockets many a time. I can say without any shadow of a doubt that I could not have afforded to be a councillor had I had a family to provide for at that time.

When I was selected as a PPC and with a baby on the way I gave up work to combine my roles as candidate and parent. My husband reduced his hours to share childcare with me and be a mainstay of our 2005 General Election campaign. Our annual income at the time was £18,000 and we put £9,000 of our savings into paying for leaflets etc. In no way is this a personal whinge. My family’s financial sacrifice is not unusual. I knew another PPC who had remortgaged his house to pay for his campaigning.

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The condescension of Camila

Two years ago I was in acting charge of a London day care setting for the elderly not a million miles away from the fabled Kids Company. My young colleague put together a craft afternoon for our clients. She sent off for £20 of glass beads on Ebay. A lot of elderly people with dementia had a lovely time making jewellery thanks to her. The £20 was authorised by my manager beforehand and accounted for afterwards. Of course it would have been nice to give handouts to our clients, many of them in great need, but we had to vouch for every penny spent.

It was therefore utterly bewildering to watch former head of Kids Company Camila Batmanghelidjh give evidence to a select committee yesterday and admit that large sums were handed to young people just because she and her colleagues deemed them vulnerable.

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Pregnant pause

Ruth BrightHere is a picture of a woman. There is something strange about her. Can you spot it? Well of course you can. She is from a very small and curious minority. She is a Liberal Democrat activist! The bump? Well that puts her in a numerically far more significant group. 700,000 women in this country have a baby each year. Having a baby is a normal thing to do. All the time people are saying that they want more candidates to be “normal” people. But being a pregnant candidate some years ago made me feel that I was in a freak show, the ultimate “elephant in the room”. Sadly I do not think that things in the party have changed very much.

Here are my top 6 clumsy attitudes to my “political” pregnancy:

  • Doing a speech and being told by a former councillor that I mustn’t get too big;
  • Being told by a former PPC’s wife at a party fundraiser that I was “a walking caesarean”;
  • “Oh no not another one”- reaction from a party chair when he spotted my second pregnancy;
  • “I’m afraid I could spot you all the way down the corridor” – party veteran at the Commons when I was 8 months pregnant;
  • “Have you got another one in there?” comment from local treasurer at my failure to shift the post-baby weight
  • Removal of my baby birth announcement from the local party website as it might help my imminent re-selection (!).
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Why Lib Dems should support this SNP pioneer

Ruth Bright and childA few weeks ago an SNP MP did something very brave but ridiculously ordinary. Did she:

  1. Eat chips on the terrace of the Commons
  2. Clap instead of saying “Hear, hear”
  3. Say the UK parliament should relocate out of London

No, none of the above. What Alison Thewliss did was tweet a photo of herself breastfeeding her toddler. Ask almost any breastfeeding mother and she will tell you that many people will tolerate cute young babies breastfeeding in public but breastfeed an older child and the reaction is very different. 

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Opinion: Politics? It’s child’s play

Toys debate politicsPity, poor Tristram Hunt. On the campaign trail the other day he made the classic mistake of asking a young child how he was going to vote.

Child: “UKIP”

Hunt: “Oh why is that then?

Child: “Because they’ll get all the foreigners out of the country”

To adapt the old adage: Never do politics with children and animals!

For a candidate kids are a minefield but as a parent I’ve been struck by how interested my kids (one pre- teen and one mid primary) have been in this their “first” General Election. They even staged their own election debate with toys which of course I enjoyed as much as they did!

There isn’t much help for parents attempting to introduce their kids to politics and political history.

Even really young American children have reading books about the Founding Fathers, Lincoln and the Roosevelts. Imagine the laughing stock a British parent would be if she went into a bookshop and asked for: “Gladstone and Disraeli for toddlers” or “Learn to read with the Tolpuddle Martyrs”

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Opinion: Cyril Smith – Liberal Democrats should allow scrutiny of all party archives

As late as last year there were people defending Cyril Smith’s reputation on Liberal Democrat Voice.  Well now we know beyond all reasonable doubt that the old Liberal Party had its own Savilesque character – it is just that none of us knew, in fact none of us even had an inkling. None of us could possibly have known and none of us could possibly have had an inkling. Could we?

I joined the party in 1985 when I was eighteen. Of course three decades on I do not remember every earnest conversation amongst my fellow Liberal students. What I do remember though is that in the entirely peripheral and uninfluential party circles in which I moved, “Hanger Smith” was viewed with contempt and wariness for supporting capital punishment and rejecting a woman’s right to choose. I never heard any rumours about him and sexual abuse, but there was a sense that he was an old local government bruiser who was somehow untouchable despite being totally out of sync with the mainstream of the party. 

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Opinion: In praise of Jenny Willott

Jenny Willott, Ruth and Orla Bright, 2004The Liberal Democrats of course have a dismal record electing women, particularly women with young children. We have, therefore, to be truly thankful to Jenny Willott (and her family) for salvaging our reputation in a single television programme. Last night on Michael Cockerell’s “Inside the Commons” we saw her juggling work and motherhood in a way that has rarely been portrayed so honestly. Seeing her collect her son from the House of Commons nursery (and then having to leave him on the lap of a colleague while rushing to an unexpected vote) might have made parliament seem remote. In fact many parents would have watched that scene and been reminded of their own work/family balancing act.

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Opinion: Hoping for more women presenting election coverage

Wading through some 1960s election coverage (yes, I should get out more) I was taken aback by a comment from the presenter Cliff Michelmore as he passed onto a colleague: “The girls are much prettier than last time.” He was referring to the typists. The main role of women on these election programmes was to type out the results. Tappy tap tap they went in the background; but theirs was not to speak because it all had to be interpreted by important people – funnily enough all men.

Posted in News and Op-eds | 15 Comments

Opinion: Clegg’s big fat gypsy blunder

Once a week I stay with a relative in South London. I am not talking here about Nick Clegg’s South London (a Putney, Wimbledon or Clapham) but about a very different South London – the border between Camberwell and Peckham. The Guardian-reading euphemism would be that Camberwell and Peckham are “vibrant and diverse” places. The upshot of some of that diversity is that at all times of the night people hang around chatting in the street, especially in the summer. In a ground floor flat late at night it sometimes feels a bit intimidating. I have never talked about this …

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Opinion: You’re not from round here are you?

Some rights reserved by ztephenWas “local”, I wonder, the most overused word in the Eastleigh by-election? Of all the terms in the Lib Dem lexicon “local” is surely our favourite.

A few years ago when the party had one of its periodic embarrassments, it looked like there would have to be a by-election in Winchester. I had a week-old baby at the time and was barely out of hospital when the phone calls started – “Why don’t you stand?”, “Hampshire bred”, “You got a great result in the next

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Opinion: Three-in-one leader’s speech

Editor’s note: This composite leader’s conference speech was written last Thursday, well before Andrew Rawnsley published a similar piece.

Today we gather in a generic city with a bit of regeneration.

It is good to get out of the Westminster bubble.

It’s hard being outside the bubble.

Some people outside the bubble don’t like us.

Posted in Conference, Humour and Op-eds | 12 Comments
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