Rupert Murdoch owns too many newspapers

Labour Party

Rupert Murdoch owns too many newspapers. This was the uncompromising message from the Shadow Culture Secretary Harriet Harman at the Westminster Media Forum yesterday as reported in the Guardian.

It’s not solely a British problem. Here in the European Parliament we have debated media pluralism, or plurality as we call it in the UK, on many occasions. One of the first debates after the 2009 European elections was about Silvio Berlusconi’s vast and often unedifying media empire. The vote on the resolution went narrowly against the appalling Berlusconi to the surprise of many on the centre right who wrongly foresaw an easy victory for their side.

The media pluralism question raised its head again during the Hungarian EU Presidency. Prime Minister Viktor Orban of the right wing Fidesz Party sought to change the country’s constitution in a number of ways, including curtailing the freedom of the country’s press and media outlets.

Control of the media, specifically media plurality, is a polarised issue in the European Parliament. Given that much of the business here is conducted on the basis of consensus and the rough and tumble of robust debate so strong in Britain is largely lacking in the European Parliament, this is an unusual phenomenon. The only conclusion I can draw from the way parties of the right and centre-right in the European Parliament have rallied round to defend mass ownership of the media is that they benefit from such an arrangement. Berlusconi as Prime Minister of Italy and media magnate was very much to the right as are most owners of newspapers and television.

Harriet Harman is right when she says, “Murdoch owns too many newspapers and had it not been for the phone-hacking scandal the government would have waved through his bid to take control of the whole of BskyB. Both Ofcom and Leveson are looking at ownership . It is clear that there needs to be change.”

This is very welcome news and I for one will be following the progress of the forthcoming Communications Act closely. As Harriet said yesterday, it will be “an opportunity to take action to deal with difficult, historical problems which have been unaddressed to too long.”

Meanwhile the debate on media pluralism continues in the European Parliament. Control of the media is now more than a national issue. Media spans borders and what happens in one European country affects another. I do not wish to see the mauling received by the Labour Party before the 1992 general election happen anywhere else. Neil Kinnock was vilified by the Murdoch press because he bravely committed Labour to tackling media ownership were it to form a government. Tony Blair later felt he needed to make it up to Murdoch prior to the 1997 election.

This is not the way the UK should be conducting its relations with the media. Political parties should never feel they have to be nice to an all-powerful media baron and they should never feel any pressure to compromise their principles and beliefs to get support from such a quarter. The UK and Europe as a whole needs a free and fair press and media. It’s one of the best ways of securing our democracy.

Holborn and St Pancras Fundraising Dinner

Labour Party

Yesterday I has the enormous pleasure of going to a  Holborn and St Pancras fundraising dinner in the deservedly famous Limonia Greek restaurant in Regent’s Park Road.

It was an excellent event with many old friends present. It was really good to catch up with Scarlett MccGwire and Dianne Hayter, now a member of the House of Lords, and to see Andrew Dismore, the candidates I’m supporting for selection as the GLA candidate for the Camden and Barnet seat. Local MP Frank Dobson was also there as was Camden resident Helena Kennedy, now a QC.

The highlight was Neil Kinnock who gave us a typically rousing speech. It’s good Neil is still around and involved as we need him in these times of Tory-led cuts and increasing international gloom to keep our spirits us and remind us we are fighting for fairness and opportunity for all.

A Lurch to the Left would be disastrous for Labour

Labour Party

MPs are, as we all know, in the middle of Shadow Cabinet elections. I am most certainly not going to make any predictions about the outcome or encourage support for any particular candidates. I do, however, think this is an appropriate time to consider the issue of leadership in political parties, particularly the Labour Party.

I hope and trust that by electing Ed Miliband we have avoided the worst of the mistakes of the past.  Our real problem following Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1979 was, of course, to lurch to the left in opposition. Michael Foot, elected by the Parliamentary Labour Party in 1980 was a wonderful man and a great orator, but far too left-wing and without any real leadership ability.  Neil Kinnock proved to be in the same mould, though a far better leader. It was not until the Labour Party woke up and chose the charismatic and centrist Tony Blair that we stood any chance of becoming the government of the country.

A similar “lurch to the left” also occurred in the years following election defeats in 1931, 1951 and 1970.

The Conservative story after 1997 is uncannily similar to that of the Labour Party: William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Howard and finally some kind of power with David Cameron. The Tories’ big difficulty was not being able to find a Tony Blair equivalent who could detoxify the brand sufficiently to bring about a Conservative victory in 2009. The Tories still have their equivalent of the Militant Tendency in their off the wall Eurosceptics, many of whom I see every day in the European Parliament.

Some of my fears that Labour will, now that we are in opposition, move leftwards to the point of unelectability were eased when I read Luke Akehurst’s blog last Friday.  Only 7.3% of the votes were cast for Diane Abbott, the only candidate explicitly on the left of the Party. We would assume that some of Ed Miliband’s 29.8% first preferences were from the left, but obviously not the Diane Abbott wing.

Yet, maybe all this shows is that at present there is no real hard left active in the Labour Party. 

While I am strongly of the view that we must all unite behind our new Leader, I also believe we should absolutely resist the temptation to move leftwards. The genius of Tony Blair was to make Labour electable.  He did this by steering a middle course, by quite simply being a Leader people could and would vote for.

Ed Miliband should do the same in his own way.  This does not mean giving up on Labour values. It does not mean giving up our belief in a better world, equality of opportunity, the very best health care and education for all, equality between men and women and an end to racial discrimination.  We can still believe in all these things, and more, and win a general election. Never forget that we need to win to implement our policies.

And there is one final consideration.  The idea of coalition governments in the UK will not, I believe, go away.  The increase in minority party MPs make some form of joint working between the leading parties ever more likely. Any move leftwards by the Labour Party may make a coalition agreement with us more difficult and possibly less likely.

If Labour does not achieve government it is nothing, a fringe party putting forward its own sectarian agenda.  It often felt like this during the 1980s when I was very active, being a councillor and a parliamentary candidate on two occasions. I don’t want to go back to that and I am sure the overwhelming majority of Labour Party members agree with me wholeheartedly.

We should change the way we elect the Labour Leader

Labour Party

It’s time, I think, for some reflections on Labour Party Conference other than talking about my fringe meeting Blogging for Labour. As I’m now back in Brussels wrestling with the harrowing and appalling subject of child pornography on the internet as well and judging a European journalism prize, now seemed as good as any to put my thoughts on paper.

First and foremost, we must unite behind Ed Miliband.  I say this as a committed David supporter, and I would not be telling the whole truth if I said I wasn’t upset that David didn’t make it.  David is, in my opinion, one of the most able, most intellectually capable and most sincere of our MPs.  He was one of the best Foreign Secretaries this country has ever had with a deep understanding of foreign affairs and the international stage. (Since I am posting this blog before David has made a statement on his future, I won’t say any more at present).

Yet, we all have to move on.  The overriding task now is to fight the coalition and win the general election.  It’s not a Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition, it’s a Tory Government. This should be our message.  Those who voted Clegg got Cameron while those who voted Cameron got exactly what it said on the tin.

Having attended almost every Labour Party Conference since 1978, I am far from being one of the new generation. However, I completely agree with Ed that Labour must now look forward. There’s nothing to be gained in harking back to the past, and I for one now hope that all references to the Iraq war are well and truly laid to rest.  Yes, I opposed the war publicly as an MEP. But now, I truly believe it is not only unhelpful but utterly damaging to rake this one over any more.  Both Labour and Great Britain have to move on.

The Conference was more than aware of the awesome nature of the events as they unfolded.  I’ve never seen anything quite like it, a subdued and expectant atmosphere amid the thronging delegates and myriad exhibition stands.

In my conference lifetime, I have been a Party member under seven leaders, including Miliband E – James Callaghan, Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, John Smith, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Of these, Callaghan and Foot were chosen before the electoral college was introduced and were elected only by MPs.  Kinnock, Smith and Blair faced little serious opposition and Brown was crowned without a contest.  Step up Ed Miliband who won by just over one percent.

It’s been a long 30 years and much has changed.

From the election of the left wing Michael Foot as Labour Leader in 1980 there was a battle royal between the Left, represented initially by Foot but later metamorphosing into the Militant Tendency and other Trotskyite factions (the Hard Left), and the Labour Party’s right wing, ironically during this period led by a number of influential trade unions. The exception among the trade unions was the then largest, the Transport and General Workers’ Union, who held a more left wing position.

Neil Kinnock, himself from the left stable, to his credit moved decisively away from the Foot legacy  as did John Smith his short period as Leader of the Opposition.

Crucially, however, it was not until Tony Blair and New Labour arrived, subsequently winning the 1997 general election, that the Hard Left was seen off as a force to be reckoned with. Although no longer influential, the Left as such never went away.  Moreover, there remained a significant number of Labour Party members who felt New Labour had sold out.

Yet this was nothing compared to the trade unions, who are by and large now to the left of the Party.  The affiliated trade unions, now mainly representing public sector workers, were never really on side with New Labour, and their evolution from right to left is, perhaps, the most interesting aspect of the 2010 Leadership contest.

So where does this leave us?  I have to say, I have difficulty with a system whereby victory can be gained without either a majority of MEPs and MPs or of local Party members.  The electoral college was, ironically, set up in the 1980s to give the right wing unions power on the basis their vote would marginalise the Hard Left. Since we no longer have a Hard Left, merely a Left, the time has, I believe, come to reform the way the ballot is held.  One member one vote would obviously be more democratic.  Even the Tory Party has OMOV for the two candidates selected by the 1922 Committee.

The new generation have to prove themselves.  What better way than reforming the way our Leader is elected to bring our outdated system into line with today’s Labour Party? To take this bold step would be to send a strong signal that things really had changed and that Labour is continuing its modernising agenda.

Camberwell and Peckham Labour Party Fundraiser

Labour Party

10634_161347306850_654186850_3343816_7116414_n[1]I had a great time last night at Camberwell and Peckham Constituency Labour Party’s Fundraiser. Neil Kinnock was the guest speaker and he was his usual passionate humourous self. It also gave me a chance to catch up with Harriet Harman MP on current equality issues, and GLA member for Southwark and Lambeth Val Shawcross on life at City Hall.  I am grateful to Camberwell Councillor and blogger  John Friary for the photograph with Southwark Councillor Sandra Rhule. Camberwell and Peckham is a “safe” seat, yet the members work it like a marginal. I am confident their endeavours together with other members in Southwark will see Southwark Council return to Labour control next year.

The Caravaggio restaurant in Camberwell Church Street was excellent, I recommend it.