Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Q&A session with David Miliband
David Miliband - that is the Foreign Secretary to you - was in Liverpool this afternoon, at the Devonshire House Hotel on Edge Lane, to hold a Q&A with NW Labour Party members.
An intimate group of about 40 members sat with him - and Jane Kennedy MP, and heard a really good speech lasting about 20 minutes and then had a further half an hour or so to make points, ask questions and engage directly with him.
The members were from Liverpool, Wigan, Bolton, Warrington, Wirral, Knowsley and elsewhere. Someone from outside of the LP asked me later if we charged an entrance fee, and the answer is no. We didn't charge, it was a free event and you even got a cup of tea and a biscuit.
David was introduced to the meeting by Jane Kennedy, our retiring MP and former minister and was extremely warm about her when replying to her introduction. He told the meeting that he always says nice things about the local MP when he visits their constituency, as you would expect, but that he genuinely believes that Jane was personally responsible for helping to "save the Labour Party". He talked about the period in the 1980s when he said the Labour Party was at a crossroads, deciding whether to take itself into an idealogical oblivion (that is not the phrase he used, but I cannot bring it to mind just now, I think it may have been about moving "into the cold"), or whether to move forward as a truly Progressive party. (I think that deserved a capital letter).
He said this battle was fought most strongly in the "crucible" of Liverpool and that Jane was at the forefront of that fight - against Militant. Jane and I were sitting with David at the top table, and I could see and sense that she was genuinely touched by this significant praise. A thoughtful and well deserved epitaph for a fantastic Parliamentary career and all-round contribution of an active Labour Party member.
David gave a really interesting and stirring speech about the challenges facing the Labour Party. He said there were three main points we needed to consider as we enter the election period - to counter the myths that we don't have a record to be proud of, that there are no big issues to fight any more and that there is no difference between the Tories and Labour. I wont go into detail because this entry is already running above the length my readers generally prefer)
One of the benefits of being a card carrying member of the Labour Party, as opposed to a supporter or a voter, is that you are regularly invited to such events. Those members today were absolutely free to put their points and questions directly to the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary of Great Britain - and were free to raise any issues at all that were of concern.
I chaired the Q&A session, both as local councillor for the ward in which the hotel is located, and also as the Deputy Chair for the Region.
One member asked David about the new vacancies of European President and European Foreign Minister - he is backing Tony Blair but is less sure about the Foreign Minister post as he wanted someone from Sweden who has not been put up by that country. He was asked about alternative forms of energy and raised a laugh when he said we needed to concentrate on wind and water sources because we cannot really rely on the sun/solar energy in Britain. He was asked about the situation in Iran by an Iranian LP member and about the impact of China on Trade Aid. He answered questions about all-women shortlists from Wigan and Warrington members, and agreed with a Wigan member about the importance of Housing as a vital issue.
A particular round of applause went to a local Liverpool Labour Party member Louise (not me) who has set up a facebook group in support of sure start centres and already has 900 members - do join it if you have not done so already. Louise takes her two small children to her centre every morning and has been talking to other parents about the impact that closure would have, if the Tories win the next election and get their way over this. He also answered questions about Somaliland (I hope I have spelled that correctly) and was very knowledgeable, I think the questioner who was also very knowledgeable was very impressed, and asked a Bolton member who raised the issue of GB pilgrims to Mecca, to write to him privately about the matter.
He left us to be interviewed by Channel 4 for a news programme and then onwards to two overseas engagements which he shared with us but which I will not share with you.
My closing remarks to the members was first to reiterate my point above about the access to Ministers that a Labour Party membership gives, and then to say that we should feel honoured and proud that a man who is as busy as he, having been to several meetings of world importance earlier in the day, and moving on to other vital meetings later today and tomorrow, has found the time to come and talk to interested LP members and hear their concerns and views in person.
And to the last question I know you will be asking, do I think he could be the next Labour leader? After today's performance I will say he was impressive, open, honest, frank, aware, alert, totally on top of his brief, funny, dynamic, questioning, thoughtful and very engaging. So, yes, it is a very real possibility, if it comes to a leadership challenge.