In-out, shake-it-all-about…

So Cameron has finally delivered the much awaited Euro-speech, having had a stay of execution last week. Here is the Tribune column I did for the first issue of the new year, when we were first anticipating the thing – not a lot has changed really.

It was in the Monty Python film Life of Brian that the now well-worn phrase “what have the Romans ever done for us?” was famously uttered. As columns swirl around the commentariat and blogosphere from the right slamming our membership of the EU and urging an “in-out” referendum the rhetorical question posed by the John Cleese character could almost be adapted in into the singular with the word “Europe” as the cause of bafflement having had at best rather mysterious benefits to many.

Indeed the daily relevance of Europe and the job of the MEP might not seem obvious to many average voters yet there is an impressive list of achievements we can rack up. The EU goes much further than a purely economic remit.
Important social gains include maternity and paternity pay, consumer protection and working time directives. Even if thanks to Gordon Brown’s five economic tests did we never sign up to the Euro as our currency, UK EU membership has afforded us unfettered access to the world’s largest single market of 500 million. The work continues. The Commission has recently proposed package of measures to promote youth employment known as the Youth Guarentee.
We are best off at the heart of Europe rather than carping from the sidelines. We cannot take a pick-and-mix approach in the Cameroonian way. It’s sad to see any business go to the wall but he should remember that Woolworths business model failed.

Cameron is deluded to think the UK has the right to isolate itself with its unilateral insistence on its own EU changes. His recent macho tough-taking statements suggesting that he cherry-pick are more a showing off exercise to appease his Eurosceptics thereby putting the Tory party before British long-term interest. If he does allow them their much craved for referendum given a choice between a campaign mounted by the “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” of UKIP (his words) in one corner and the sensible mainstream in the other the result could counter-intuitively see the British public opting to remain in the EU.

Indeed the Tories are deeply divided spanning those like Ken Clarke (who I remember encountering at a Britain in Europe dinner organised by the now defunct pro-Euro pressure group in the run-up to the 2004 European election) to right-wing ideologues of the 2010 MP intake. In a Guardian column Peter Mandelson has written that the way the Conservatives are tearing themselves Labour party in the 1980s. Conservative splits in the 1990s over the very same issue denied them power for thst entire decade, something unprecedented for the modern Tories who hitherto had been an election winning machine.

Notwithstanding the fact many of the EU’s detractors seem to derive their living from it: like Nigel Farrage MEP or Tory rightwinger Daniel Hanan MEP, last weekend’s Daily Mail poll projects a big win for Labour the European Elections predicting it’s on course to more than double its current total to scoop 31 seats. Of course we have over a year to go so Labour should not lose its nerve. Surely the most sensible way to put the brakes on any centralising EU tendencies is institutional reform, as argued for by Ed Miliband, rather than jeopardising influence and repelling investment with this simplistic posturing.

When Cleese asked the Life of Brian question in that political game-changing year 1979 his audience reminded him of Roman improvements leading to his own admission “apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health…” All progressives (Lib Dems too if they have the backbone) need to not lose sight of making the positive case for Europe between now and 2014.

We were told that when it happened it’d be worth the wait, apparently like tantric sex. More like an anti-climax I’d say…

Sad to hear of Blockbusters going into administration, in the same week as Jessops and HMV. I’ll refrain from any Bob Holness jokes at this point.
Pictured is the West Ealing branch of the video rental store in August 2011 in the aftermath of the riots. Let’s hope that employees of these three chains can find alternative work if no buyers are found.

The death of the high street by the way is a chapter in my new suburbia book; more details here. It’s being launched on 4th Feb at the House of Commons no less.

Haven’t done any blogposts for a while as it’s been the festive season holiday, in which time I seem to have seen lots films without even having budged from from my sofa or having any additional channels/packages on the set other than what it came with. Here are the ten I’ve hoovered up end-to-end in order of preference, all things I’ve seen for 1st time in last 2 weeks. Those that were deja vu are not included.

1. Rebecca – stunning wartime b/w Hitchcock melodrama depicting the forces of hell unleashed (hat-tip Alistair Darling) when a mysterious millionaire widower remarries a young ‘un (actress had 21st birthday on set) who finds herself with much more than she bargained for

2. Parenthood – can’t remember if I saw this first time round, if so it made zero impression. Director Ron Howard is known for his prudish drama but this one had lots of good stuff in there for me I could relate to now I am a a parent even though it stars non parent Steve Martin. I loved the Keanu Reeves character – 1st 80s outing for his Bill+Ted chracter??

3. Attack the Block – sassy contemporary true Brit zombie film set on a sarf London council estate

4. The Lady Vanishes – more Hitchcockian monochromatic stuff, this time a rollicking spy thriller, far superior to the glossy BBC drama serialisation on at the same time with Downton’s Lady Mary

5. Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief – influenced by my 8 year old boy. Amreicanifyed Harry Potterish thing where a slacker – similar to Keanu of (2) – from high school takes on Greek mythical creatures

6. Astro-Boy – a CGI pixar type thing. Never got as famous as Shrek or Toy Story but robot-boy plot centred on decent fundamental story about how difference is good with obligatory double-entres for parents as pioneered by the Simpsons

7. The Spiderwicke Chroincles – more monsters and weird creatures in a old house. A wee bit like Coraline but starring the English boy actor who was in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate factory who plays a yank (rather like Estes and Brody of Homeland or Hugh Laurie as House)

8. Twilight – another variation of US high school flick where the kids seemingly never do any work and pupils drive to lessons. Yet unlike Rebel Without a Cause the main man (pale and interesting) is a vampire played by a Brit – see (7)

9. The Birds – My least favourite Hitckcock of the 3 and a half I saw, bit creepy even if 60s special effects v. primitive by out standards. Like (1) based on a Daphne DuMaurier tale, Set in the US and in colour it appeared to show a girl from the big bad city coming to a smalltown signalling an inexplicable attack of feathered friends – the original “angry birds”

10. Bruno – pretty dire. The suburban wigga with attitude Ali G from Staines was funny (specially before his identity was widely known and he interviewed the late Rhodes Boyson MP, Tony Benn etc). However this excruciating as it was soooo unpolitically correct and trying too hard to shock.

Happy new year everyone anyone. If you have kids the holidays aren’t even over yet so enjoy what remains…

If you have a copy of the Daily Telegraph handy have a look at p15 and you’ll see this (click on it to enlarge):

torygraph

Basically Tory councillor Colm Costello has been caught criticising the council from a fake ID on the Ealing Today forum. He even replies as himself at one point while signed in with the fake name. Beating the Torygraph to it was the Ealing Gazette.

Clearly the coalition does not survive at local level as even the Lib Dems cannot hide their amusement at this faux pas as seen in their leader’s tweet.

Surely there is a lot of it about – fake royal baby accounts at Twitter and from the  2010 election @bigotedwoman but like the popular blogger Gay Girl in Damascus who was unveiled as a 35 year old postgrad in Scotland the hapless councillor with wacky twitterhandle @jackclaudereadi broke the 11th commandment – he got caught.

Bill Clinton, 42nd President of the US was in London town yesterday to speak on Progressive Governance at a Policy Network event. Among points he made were that:

- He always wished he had a Parliamentary system to pass what bills he wanted like Tony given the obstinacy of the legislature he faced

-  Low interest rates these days can feel like the healthy people at a sick person’s party if you have a mortgage

- Reagan made everyone automatically think government = bloodsucking machine, thereby popularising low taxes

- Global warming and energy efficiency are challenges of our times despite the scepticism of many in the US – “Go stick a thermometer in it, it’s not opinion”

- Obama’s brilliance at voter ID (called “micro-level targeting”) should be equaled in governments matching people to employment opportunities and “sequencing” policy initiatives

All this was delivered with a mastery of statistical data and sprinkling of accessible anecdotes eg describing how he’s been for his first cateract operation. He said that the category who feel most neglected now are what we’d call “the white working class” and that rather than being about egos “politics is a team sport”.  In conclusion he said that 3rd way politics (which Lord Mandelson in an introduction declared had reached a high watermark in the 90s) was needed now more than ever.

The session was preceded by a “young leader’s panel” including Kingston University graduate Hadia Tajik, Norweigan Minister of Culture and Najat Vallaud-Belkacem French women’s rights minister – two Socialist Muslim women in government, the latter a mum-of-two to boot. This is not something yet experienced in the UK (Sayida Warsi doesn’t count). All in all a fascinating night all round – boosted by the fact I was sat next to/ swopped pleasantries with third way creator Lord Anthony Giddens for the duration (if you’ve ever done sociology you’ll know who I mean).

Just realised the theatre review I’ve done for this weekend’s Tribune won’t leave readers long to see the play so here it is now:

The Supper Party

Capers at parties have been rich fodder for dramatists – Harold Pinter’s early work included “the Birthday Party” and who can forget the cloying superficial suburban niceities masking deeper problems in Abigail’s Party from Mike Leigh?

In this brand new production from Alison Evans it is a bunch of luvvies we encounter at close range. A playwrite and his author wife throw a soiree where guests including an ex lover of his and boorish male actor pal grace their table as well as new faces in the form of a young couple that the hosts have taken under their respective wings.

The first half probes the conundrum of cultural value: is a gossip column worthless? Should life reflect art and vice versa? In the second half the competitive arched asides of the guests are knocked for six with the arrival of the fiery lost son of the piece and then… well, without wishing to signal too much of a spoiler alert, sparks really fly.

This gripping, convincingly acted play in the intimate setting of the Tabard, will literally have you on the edge of your seat at times as well as in laughter at others. It makes you think too, raising important questions about what is referred to as “the stifling colour supplement life” where behind the veneer of perfection much more is always at play.

Go see for yourself. It sure beats Eastenders anyway.

The Supper Party is at the Tabard Theatre, London W4. Book at www.tabardweb.co.uk

Found myself at the Battle of Ideas Institute of Ideas conference over the weekend. I have argued before that party political conferences seem increasingly out of step with modern times – a lock in for a big chunk of the week of preaching to the converted with set piece stagey bits and the main point of interest being new ideas generated at fringe meetings away from the cameras and the social/ networking type aspect.  Those of us still with actual jobs to do can’t get away for their entire duration anyway.

The Institute of Ideas managed however to command an impressive turnout – they reckon some 2,000 over the 2 days – of people presumably attending voluntarily on a wet weekend. Despite their self style radical humanist/ libertarian bent there were some lefties there on the Saturday (possibly squishing in the AM before attending the march?) I bumped into ex Tribune editor Mark Seddon who was speaking on the Arab spring and heard David Lammy Tottenham MP on last year’s riots as well as sessions on social media, Europe, the music industry and racism in football. Phew!

With intense back-to-back sessions and  no lunch break programmed networking was potentially limited, a little like party conferences although due to their corporate nature you can usually snaffle a vol-au-vent or two over a fringe meeting thanks to their sponsors. So a slightly exhausting experience even if it was all sedentary but a good one nonetheless with lots of food for thought in any case.

NB Two future dates for people who like these things/ are not too conferenced out in which I’ll be speaking myself: this Saturday at Goldsmiths College, University of London am doing on keynote at a day conference on popular music and on the 31st am speaking at a symposium on suburbia at the CPRE. Both are free as far as I know so sign up if you fancy it.

If you turn to page 10 of today’s Independent  on Sunday there’s a small picture of me with my answer to the question: how is Ed Miliband doing? and what should he doing more of/ less of? The online version is here. Although it’s understandable that it was cut due to space limitations in the print media and our soundbite age, the full quote I supplied them with goes like this:
Miliband is proving the doubters wrong. It’s Cameron who’s behind in the polls and facing a threat to his leadership. Ed is the unflashy tortoise in the race for No 10 but he’s on track to win as the government keeps stumbling on successive policy disasters.
Manchester has special significance for Ed Miliband, it’s where he became leader. Part of the reason he won the leadership is that in years leading up to 2010 he dazzled members with unscripted speeches at conferences of internal Labour groupings like Progress and Compass demonstrating his likeability, bold ideas, passion, thoughtfulness wit, humour and principles. Thousands of party members saw this but the public haven’t yet. This week presents a great opportunity for him to present himself to the electorate at large who are still getting to know him. I’d advise him to be himself more and not be stifled with the demands of the job ie thinking he has to be the stereotypical stuffy suit that people might equate with “being Prime Ministerial”.
Good luck to Ed and all delegates this week. The fact that recent polls have given Labour significant leads eg 10% in today’s Observer and 15% in some surveys is cause for cheer. As Political Betting also points out Ed M leads Cameron  by 2% on trustworthiness & 21% on being more in touch with ordinary people according to YouGov.

Great turnout today at the rally on Ealing Common where two marches (from Southall and Acton) converged with the message “Save Our Hospitals” ringing out loud and clear. A sizeable chunk of those in the crowd were not your usual protesting types but the proposed NHS reorganisation (or rather cost-cutting exercise) has struck a chord with many for whom this was their first ever demo – from pensioners to babies in buggies.

There was a shared platform befitting this common cause with Ealing Central Tory Angie Bray speaking alongside Ealing Labour MPs Steve Pound and Virendra Sharma and Hammersmith’s Andy Slaughter – a rarity as Ealing Lib Dem leader Gary Malcolm points out. Also in attendance were Seema Malhotra MP for Feltham and Heston and John McDonnell MP for Hayes and Harlington- even though there are no closures in their seats. Councillors from all three parties too spoke out against and came from as far as as Kensington and Chelsea, underlining how disasterous the  proposals to decimate Accident and Emergency services in west London will be, with knock-on effects across all of these boroughs. If this crackpot scheme goes ahead ushering in the effective destruction of Ealing and Charing Cross hospitals, the nearest A and E for people in Ealing Borough (which includes places as far away from central London as Northolt) will be St Marys in Paddington. The hassle and expense involved in getting there will inevitably have potentially fatal consequnces. As health professionals (including newly elected Labour GLA member Onkar Sahota) too pointed out NHS staffers are firmly against too.

At times I had flashbacks to previous demos I’ve attended: was almost expecting “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out out out” to be chorused. Saw plenty of SWP banners, they always had a reputation for bandwagoneering with any cause going seized on for a recruitment drive but it felt a bit odd to see the Conservatives  (who are not locally in coalition with Ealing Lib Dems) employing Socialist Worker type tactics, even having Tory t-shirts printed for the occasion (modelled in the photo by Cllr Phil Taylor). Isn’t it their government forcing through these short sighted cuts? Shouldn’t they be applying pressure on their leadership, or crossing the floor if they are the two are so out of synch that they cannot be reconciled?

Finally as with is usual at demos in gauging the exact number who were, there are widly varying estimates: the BBC says 1000 The Ealing Gazette doubles this to 2k. Heve seen figures of 15-20,00 claimed at an upper limit and 8,000 from the organisers.

Today 13th Sept is… cue fanfare… Roald Dahl day! This event is now in its sixth year and was lanched as part of National Book week to commemorate the birth of this literary legend in 1916.

Pictured below is the recreation of Dahl’s writing hut which I was lucky enough to visit at the Roald Dahl Museum and Story centre in Great Missenden, Bucks at the weekend (not to be confused with the Roald Dahl Gallery of the Buckinghamshire County Museum in Aylesbury). The hut’s contents are now behind glass for all to see and its exterior can also be seen a couple of times a year, including the weekend of Roald Dahl Day, when his family let visitors into the grounds of Gypsy Cottage his old home to raise funds for his charitable foundation and children’s charity.

Have had this up at the Guardian about the man himself and shed-gate. Might be a bit of a revelation to some but he was a writer of adult fiction too which veers into some distinctly adult themes – some were dramatised by ITV as Tales of the Unexpected in the late 70s/ 80s. There is also a degree of overlap like the adult  short story “Champion of the World” later reworked into “Danny The Champion of the World”. His kids’ books are peerless though. As with recent obituaries of Nina Bawden or the work of Jacqueline Wilson he did not shy away from familial dysfunction – lonely only kids, orphaned children, overbearing parents, evil aunts etc.

The pictures below are taken in Dahl’s backyard (which has a pretty neat maze, stone carved inscriptions from his books and a gypsy caravan as well as his hut) and in the museum’s “boy” gallery. His widow Felicity Dahl and grandson Ned were on hand to answer questions on Sunday and a village fete type atmosphere ensued. The museum too has lots for the young Dahl fan including storytelling in Miss Honey’s Classroom and a cafe selling Dahl inspired fare – snozzcumber sandwich anyone? Didn’t spot Miss Trunchball anywhere thankfuly.

It’s often been remarked that we need more bank holidays in the UK. After August there’s nothing until Christmas. Surely Roald Dahl Day to honour this man who was so many things – war hero, spy, author, grandfather, dad etc would be an ideal candidate?

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