Jack Straw: It is time the international community did not just mouth words


There was an historic vote in the House of Commons on Monday.

By 274 votes to just 12 against, the Commons resolved “that this House believes that the Government should recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel, as a contribution to securing a negotiated two state solution.”

The last section was added by me, with the agreement of the mover of the motion. As well as the overwhelming vote, the debate was significant for wide cross-party support.

The fact that the Israeli Embassy invested so much abortive effort to see the motion kicked into touch underlines its importance.

When I first became interested in the Middle East, in the 60s, international sympathy lay very much on the side of Israel. The left, especially, was on Israel’s side in the 1967 “six-day” war.

The events of the last 40 years have, changed that basic assumption and Monday’s debate was illustrative of that fact.

Much of the international community is now, bluntly, fed up of Israel saying one thing about a so-called “two-state solution” (by which both a state of Israel and Palestine is established and recognised) and then proceeding illegally to annex more Palestinian land. Each time they do so making the chances of a settlement along those lines ever more unlikely.

On top of that, the conflict in Gaza over the summer, in which Israel employed disproportionate force, leading to the deaths of over 2000 Palestinians, compared to around 70 Israelis, has damaged the international respect for the Netanyahu Administration still further.

Of course Israel retains a strong ally in the US. All who spoke in the Commons on Monday fully support an Israeli state – but within agreed borders. It is time that the international community did not just mouth words about a state of Palestine, and took action to ensure a two state solution remains possible. That, in my judgement, was the purpose and effect of Monday’s debate. While the vote does not bind the UK Government it does, however, send a powerful message.

Blackburn leads the way on local accountability

Wasting police time is quite a serious criminal offence. The maximum penalty is 6 months in jail.

Last Friday I thought I came close to being charged with this

The particulars of the charge would have been these: that I had inveigled a police constable, a PCSO, along with the commander of our large police division, Chief Superintendent Bob Eastwood, to waste two hours at a public meeting for no particular purpose.

There were witnesses, too – at least eighty were present, so an alibi would have proved impossible.

The meeting was a regular residents’ meeting – this time for the Brownhill and Roe Lee area of town, held in Holy Souls’ Church Hall on Whalley New Road.

Now in their ninth year, these meetings follow a familiar pattern. There’s a detailed printed report on the area, prepared jointly by council officers and police staff, put round before the start.   Brief oral presentations are made by the Council Leader, the Chief Executive or Deputy, Mr Eastwood the police chief, the senior officer responsible for bins, litter, blocked gullies and similar delights, and by me. That’s followed by an open session with questions or comments from the residents. A full note is kept, and an action report subsequently sent to everyone who attended.

For some years after this cycle of meetings began in 2003 they were dominated by complaints about crime or anti-social behaviour. These days – as at the Holy Souls’ meeting – such complaints are a rarity. Indeed, at this lively meeting there wasn’t a single comment about crime.

There’s an easy explanation for this: the kind of crimes which really worry people, like house burglary, have fallen dramatically.

When, some years ago, Mr Eastwood was the inspector for the east side of Blackburn there might be fifty burglaries in a month. In contrast, in one month last year there were just twenty-five for the whole of his Division – Blackburn, Darwen, Hyndburn, Ribble Valley.

Joking aside, the police at the meeting were not wasting their time because they had no complaints to answer. Rather, that was a tribute to their effectiveness.

Grinding his axe: yet more sour grapes from Craig Murray

Phil Riley is election agent to Jack Straw

So, the Victorian concept of treating has raised its head in the current General Election campaign in Blackburn. For those of you of a historical disposition, the law around treating (or the process of buying votes through the provision of food or drink) was developed as a response to the Blackburn millowners’ reaction to the 1867 Reform Act which broadly gave the vote to the male industrial working class. In a subsequent General Election, some workers at Brookhouse Mills on the side of the River Blakewater in Blackburn showed independence of thought by voting Liberal in contradiction to the advice of their employers. It wasn’t a secret ballot in those days and they were sacked, but a group of them marched to Preston to petition W.E Gladstone, the Prime Minister of the day, and a process was started which ended up with both a secret ballot and a law against treating.

Fast forward to Blackburn of today and allegations of treating are being made against the Labour Party in that food was provided at a political meeting held last Sunday and attended by Asian voters. It was, but importantly, the meeting was a private meeting and was advertised as an election rally and tickets were given to supporters. The purpose of the event was not to convince the waverer; it was to rally the troops. There were a number of speakers and. not surprisingly for an election rally, there was widespread support for Jack Straw and the speakers encouraged the attendees to work for victory on 6 May. At the end of the meeting, a brief meal of curry, rotis and sweet rice was served in the ground floor of the Centre where the meeting was held. As Jack Straw’s agent, I had taken legal advice about the appropriateness of providing food and, from two sources, was told that, provided the food was not banquet style and provided the meeting was a private meeting for supporters and food was not advertised on the tickets, the provision of a simple meal would be considered a reflection of the local Gujerati culture and would not be considered treating. So, it went ahead but, clearly, the informal arrangements that only supporters would attend the rally failed and three attendees have signed sworn affidavits leading to accusations of treating. These have been dismissed not only be the Blackburn Deputy Returning Officer but also by Lancashire Constabulary.

Yesterday, Blackburn Labour Party’s enemy since 2005, the failed ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, blogged about these accusations. Murray, not surprisingly given his history of loathing for Blackburn MP and former Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, has accepted the allegations and given them wide and hysterical publicity. Odd then that he should be silent about the behaviour of Bushra Irfan, the candidate that Murray is supporting in this election. She has held a number of events in a local Asian restaurant and these have been widely advertised in the local press with the strapline – ‘Free dinner – must be registered voter in Blackburn’. This falls well within the definition of treating but Craig Murray,with his acute long range observation of all things Blackburn has not been moved to comment.

Double standards, maybe? Or is Murray so consumed with hatred for Straw that he can’t see the wood for the trees?

A tale of two phone numbers

I often read the comments on the thisislancashire.co.uk website. I’ll be honest, I’m fairly new to all this politics business and I don’t pretend to know everything about it but what I do know is what I think would work for Blackburn. I am Blackburn born and bred, but now I do live in Darwen (simply due to the cheaper house prices and the nightlife).

My first encounter with Jack Straw was at a residents meeting which my Mum dragged me along to (literally dragged, it was on a Friday night – I mean who organises these things?!).  Once I was there I actually got quite into it.  A discussion very close to my heart came up (thanks to my Mum) – youths.  At this point I was working at a local law firm and knew the youths in the area and often asked them why they committed crimes, or why they thought it was funny to rip someone’s fence down “for a laugh”.  I found myself faced with Jack Straw and various Councillors and an audience and I stood up and said my bit in response to a comment from one of the local residents, “it’s all the parents fault”, something that I feel is not necessarily true.  After a bit of a “heated debate” Jack said to me, “talk to me at the end”, followed by some grey haired man laughing at me and said, “if I knew so much about how to put the local area right why didn’t I get involved”.  I told him why, “because I work full time and have a part time second job at the weekends as I am struggling to pay my mortgage and I am trying to fund my university degree otherwise I would!”  I sat down and my Mum whispered, “You’re in for it now”.

At the end of the meeting I was approached by a really nice lady and man, they introduced themselves (I had no idea who they were) and told me just how impressed they had been and asked for my opinion on various local issues.  This man was Michael Law-Riding, the Tory candidate for Blackburn. Michael told me he’d really like me to help him with his campaign and asked for my phone number and said that he’d definitely be in touch.  I also had a few comments from Councillor’s that where there -the grey haired man who was laughing at me, turns out he’s the leader of the council, Michael Lee, another Tory.  I finished the meeting having a chat with Jack Straw.  I’d never met him before but my grandparents knew him very well when they were alive.  We had a good chat and he also asked me for my contact details.

I don’t judge people by what others tell me, I make my own opinions, same as I think everyone should.  Jack Straw rang me and offered me a job; I’m still waiting for Michael Law-Riding’s call and Michael Lee, you were right, I can’t do anything about my local community and changing it for the better by sitting at home on my computer slagging everyone else telling everyone how wrong they are and how they shouldn’t do things that way.

So I dedicate this blog to the both of you, the two Michaels, because this year I’m standing as the Labour candidate for Livesey with Pleasington, hoping that I will be given the chance to make a difference and starting off with the basics – following through with something I say I’m going to do not just talking about it.  And for those people who chose to comment on the thisislancashire website this is for you – in the words of Michael Lee, “if you think you can do a better job why don’t you stand for council?”

Vote for someone who will actually do what they say they’re going to do! Vote for me on Thursday 6th May 2010.

On the soapbox

“I started life in very straightened circumstances” this lady said very sharply to me, “and now I’ve got my own home with four bedrooms. I’m never voting Labour”.

“Well, I’ve got my own home with seven bedrooms, and I too started life in a family without money, and I am voting Labour” retorted another, equally well-dressed lady of a similar age.

The great thing about my open air soap box sessions in Blackburn Town centre is that you never know what’s going to happen. They are entirely unscripted, impromptu events where the crowd is mainly people who happened to be in that part of town.

Last Saturday’s meeting didn’t start too wonderfully, if you happened to be me.  Once I’d done my five minutes’ warm-up, a man with big lungs and a loud voice asked me a “question” – or rather made a very effective speech without pausing for breath about the iniquities of the bonuses the banks were still paying themselves, and the failure, as he saw it, of the Government to ensure that every citizen had a proper shareholding in the banks which they as taxpayers now owned.

Why hadn’t we got a grip, instead of allowing the banks to go on as before?

There is an answer, which I gave. We were controlling bonuses in the banks we owned, but if we had to act in concert with other leading countries otherwise the bankers would simply move, and banks which “we” owned would be worth less to the British taxpayer.  The problem however was that my answer was a long and complicated one, whilst the questions and the statements leading up to them were short and pithy. It certainly didn’t convince the man with the loud voice, and it didn’t altogether convince me!  I could and should have put it better.

But thanks to the man with the voice the crowd suddenly thickened, and the fascinating exchange between these two ladies began.

The first lady’s central point was that people like me who may have come from a low income family but who now have a very good income and supported the Labour Party were hypocrites especially when they criticised “toffs”.  I explained that I’ve always avoided doing so, since none of us can chose our parents. I said that you should judge people not by where they came from, but where they wanted to take society to.   But this lady did raise one of the central questions of politics in all democratic countries.  How far does the state on behalf of the people try to equalise opportunities, and incomes; or would such intervention simply dull people’s sense of personal responsibility and initiative.

That’s where the second lady came in.  She was essentially saying that she’d only been able to do well (and central questions of politics in all democratic countries.  How far does the state on behalf of the people try to equalise opportunities, and incomes; or would such intervention simply dull people’s sense of personal responsibility and initiative.

That’s where the second lady came in.  She was essentially saying that she’d only been able to do well  (and get her seven bedroomed house) thanks in part to the doors which had been opened by others through the state, and though she was now doing fine she wanted others in the future to enjoy similar if not better opportunities.  I paraphrase but that was the essence of it. And by the time she’d finished what amounted to her speech, there was a loud and spontaneous burst of applause from the crowd.

Who said that folk are turned off by politics?   Not in Blackburn they’re not, if this meeting is a guide.

The moment we flinch from confronting BNP lies is the moment they have won

Jack Straw has caused a little controversy and certainly a great deal of attention for his decision to appear on tonight’s Question Time, which will also feature Nick Griffin.

I for one support Jack’s decision wholeheartedly. The British National Party need to be challenged. From the same ideological cesspit as the Nazis and the National Front, the BNP are no different from any other far-right organisation and have spent the last few years peddling fear and racial hatred and encouraging ideas that peoples are different and unequal.

These parties have always had a clear tactic – exploit an unhappiness or wrong in society and then find a racial scapegoat. In the 1920s and 30s Hitler blamed the Jews for Germany’s depression and poverty. Today the BNP have found a new scapegoat – the Muslim community. They prey on deprived areas where unemployment is high, and say “it’s their fault – they are taking your jobs and money”. Yet the evidence does not back this up. The moment we flinch from confronting the lies told by the BNP is the moment they have won.

Blackburn Labour Party have never been frightened of standing up to far-right thugs. As a councillor I represent Mill Hill ward, where the BNP secured their first – and hopefully last – victory on Blackburn with Darwen Council. Did we run away? No. We argued back on the doorstep, in the pubs and in the public meetings. And now we’ve forced them out.

Jack Straw himself has always been at the forefront when it comes to standing up to Nazis and tackling the lies they have told. He is the only Member of Parliament who holds regular open air meetings in the town centre, where any member of the public can question him on any issue – no matter how unpleasant or controversial. And Jack has been there in the communities where the BNP have tried to cause division.

Nationally the BNP are getting too much of a free run to say what they want and behave like some kind of oppressed group. The people of Mill Hill soon worked out that the BNP had no answers to today’s social and economic problems. With persistent challenge to them nationally we will get that message across and make sure that they are never elected to the European Parliament (or any other body for that matter) again.

I back Jack Straw for his decision to go on Question Time tonight. It’s time for Labour to take the fight to Griffin and the BNP!

Audio: Jack Straw soap box session on Radio 4

Following in the footsteps of journalists such as Jeramy Paxman, Paddy O’Connell from Radio 4’s Broadcasting House came to Blackburn town centre yesterday to see one of Jack Straw’s famous “soap box” question and answer sessions:

Tory candidate Michael Law-Riding was spotted shuffling past. Funny he didn’t stick around for long!

Radio 4 attend latest town centre meeting with Jack Straw

There was a great turnout at Jack Straw’s latest “shoutabout” meeting on King William Street today. Some really interesting questions from shoppers, which was excellent as Radio 4’s Paddy O’Connell was there recording a piece for Broadcasting House. You can catch the programme at 9:00am tomorrow morning – or later on BBC iPlayer if you fancy a lie in.

The open air meeting followed on from a really productive campaign planning session, where we fleshed out plenty of new ideas for the coming general and local election campaigns. We’ll be sure to keep you up to date with what we’re doing over the next few months – so watch this space!