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Thoughts before going: Ian Swales

Continuing our new series of valedictory reflections from departing MPs, the Lib Dems’ Ian Swales looks back on his parliamentary care...


My time as an MP is running down quickly and it’s time to reflect. The result in Redcar in 2010 was a surprise to many, not least me! The swing was the biggest in a general election between the main parties since World War Two. It was a humbling feeling knowing how badly local people wanted things to change. I hope my result will continue to show that ‘safe seats’ can fall. The fewer safe seats, the better our democracy. After being elected I was proud to become part of a coalition government which has delivered a large proportion of the Liberal Democrat’s 2010 manifesto.

Having never been involved in politics before, I found Parliament a strange place. The arcane procedures and rules gradually began to make sense, but many still seem unnecessary. I’ll never understand why each vote has to take 15 minutes. This affects legislation by limiting the number of amendments on which we vote, with the Speaker having discretion on those chosen.

Most MPs are aware of websites like and the like, and you do see a lot of point scoring taking place. However, such data only measures a tiny part of what MPs do by, for example, excluding all constituency and select committee work. I feel my biggest Westminster contribution has been as a member of the Public Accounts Committee for over four years, during that time being the only accountant.

I am very proud of what we achieved in pushing for a more professional civil service, holding organisations like the BBC or G4S to account, and changing the climate on tax avoidance. Who could forget the hearing with Starbucks, Amazon and Google? This reminded me of my earlier observation that our witnesses generally fell into three camps: the good, the bad and the slippery! All three were on display that day.

I have been very active as a local MP, with the headline achievement being a key role in resurrecting Redcar’s mothballed steelworks. The steelworks still takes up a fair bit of time as it has moved from dead, back to intensive care, then to a general ward. There are good signs that the patient is near to full fitness. I also fought hard for a Tees Valley local enterprise partnership and the resulting City Deal.

The Tees Valley is a distinctive geographical area, home to 750,000 people and important parts of the nation’s economic infrastructure. We lost out badly in the past when economic decisions for the area were made elsewhere. I have focused on investment and job creation and the constituency now has 35% lower unemployment, although there remains much to do. I am also pleased to have led on getting services into Redcar hospital and turning the Teesside Coroner’s Service from arguably the worst in the country to the best.

I was previously a manager in the electricity and chemical industries and ran my own training and consulting business. It is depressing how few MPs have had other careers to draw on. Those that have stand out in Parliament, but they seem to be less and less valued by the frontbenches of the three main parties, which are increasingly filled by career politicians from Oxford or Cambridge. The resulting quality of debate and decision making makes me worry about the future of the country.

I will miss the wit and camaraderie, the chance to influence things and the power to really help people in my community. I won’t miss the eight hours a week travelling, the 24/7 scrutiny, the death threats, IPSA and the crazy working hours. I also won’t miss the ridiculous tribalism that sometimes passes for politics in our country. I do get on well with MPs from other parties who ‘play the ball, not the man’. In other words, when the confrontation is restricted to issues, as it should be. The irony is that the differences between the three main parties are tiny compared to my youth. Liberal democracy has largely won!

And so to retirement, and spending a lot more time with my five grandchildren. My wife already has numerous plans for me and I have a few of my own. I will be staying in Redcar and intend to remain active in the local community in various ways. I will be staying in touch with former colleagues. Parliament has been a life experience that I wouldn’t have missed for anything.


Ian Swales is Liberal Democrat MP for Redcar






Thoughts before going: Austin Mitchell

In the first of a new series of valedictory reflections from departing MPs, Labour’s Austin Mitchell looks back on his parliamentary c...


First thought is Dignitas. I don’t want to go and there’s no point in doing the impossible job of MP unless you enjoy it. I still do. I’ve become institutionalised in this cross between a legislative factory, a third-rate London club and a madhouse, so ejection into the arms of Age Concern will be a painful wrench.

My conscience (and Ed Miliband) tell me to go. The MOT on my heart says it’s good for another five years, but the rest of me may not be. I don’t want to die in public. I’m moving more slowly. I’m so deaf that when I ask brilliant questions on the Public Accounts Committee I can’t hear the answers. So it’s time to let someone else kick the can along the road. If it’s a woman, she might clean and polish it or kick a new can.

Best to go while people are still prepared to say nice things and express the view that I’m irreplaceable as Shadow Spokesman on the Cones Hotline, and before regrets become ‘get out of the way you old bastard’. Invitations to appear on the media to leaven parliamentary life dried up years ago. They only want youngsters and women, unless Andrew Neil gets it into his head to do a funny item on Alzheimer’s on the backbenches. I’m already labelled as ‘veteran’. Staying on will change that to geriatric. Some oldies like Gerald Kaufman should stay on to contribute their valuable experience, but it’s always ignored. I can offer less.

So I guess like many retired MPs, I’ll write a book on how the place has gone to the dogs. No one will publish it (books by ex-MPs have become as saleable as guides to growing cucumbers), but the accusation is true. When I came in there were several survivors of the age of giants, like Healey, Foot, Heath and Powell. We’ve moved down several notches since to smaller men, garagistes, arrivistes, apparatchicks and chaps. Politics is no longer an elite game but a mundane middle-rank job, attractive to the second and third rate but not to the most able. We’ll not bring them back unless we boost parliamentary salaries, but we haven’t enough confidence in ourselves to do that.

First-class minds have moved out. We’ve no deep thinkers like Crosland, Gilmore, Professor Mackintosh or Phillip Whitehead. No wits like Julian Critchley. No orators like Powell or Foot. No awkward buggers like Tam Dalyell. Sales have taken over from thought, calculus from commitment, and the age of oratory and the lightening flash of real debate are dead. Ministers read prepared statements written for them and backbenchers read sixth-form essays, head down. MPs are limited to five-minute gabbles to get something into local papers. No one should speak unless they feel strongly and have something to say; either that or compress speeches to 140-character tweets. That would force some compression and clarity of thought.

Paradoxically, we’ve made Parliament easier and less demanding, to the detriment of its ability to check the executive or even inconvenience it by chucking spanners in the works. Parliamentary work is harder but more mundane. Select committees are a joy and give us all a chance to play Perry Mason, but their work is humdrum and mostly unreported. The chamber is a mere election platform or – in the case of Prime Minister’s Question Time – a bawling, brain-numbing, shouting disgrace where the Prime Minister answers questions with insults and the opposition taunts: ‘Have you stopped beating the poor lately?’ We’ve turned the educative processes of debate into hate sessions worthy of Orwell’s 1984.

Politics is more bitter and frustrating because the whole atmosphere has changed. When I came in, the social democratic consensus which Labour struggled to hold together in the 70s still prevailed. Margaret Thatcher began the demolition of Keynes, the mixed economy and the welfare state. The cold, hard imperatives of free-market economics, globalisation and competition took over and life became a frightening retreat from socialisation to financialisation. No wonder that around a third of the electorate – the ‘pissed-off people’ – are alienated from both main parties, creating the prospect of hung parliaments, uncertain governments and more frequent elections. It’s not going to be fun after May.

None of this is caused by the increase in the numbers of women. That’s right and desirable and to say anything else is to attract a heap of feminist abuse, though in Labour’s case it’s been achieved by undemocratic processes which undermine local parties. The women have civilised the place, eliminated many of the boys’ public-school sillinesses and shifted focus away from strutting upon a collapsed imperial stage onto issues of importance to the people. But the attempt to accommodate women through family friendly hours has been a disaster to community and social life. Too much has to be crammed into shorter hours so people can go home and watch the telly.

Parliament has become more pressured and constituency demands greater. My predecessor, Tony Crosland, had a third of a secretary shared with others. He visited Grimsby, which he regarded as the real England, once a month. I have four staff (which isn’t enough), a house in Grimsby and am there every Friday, which is a drag because Grimsby is 200 miles there and back every week. It’s a tough, taciturn and unemotional town, inured to suffering because of the death of fishing and the inadequate level of support and spending it gets from government. It grumbles and the pool of alienated curmudgeons which exists in any town may be bigger than usual, but I love it. It will be the main thing I miss on retirement. Grimsby is the real England, and the south ignores it at its peril.

My other sad loss won’t be parliamentary life or the club, but losing the platform from which to pursue interests and push causes. Some retirees have already steered themselves into jobs, directorships or charity roles and become part-timers. A few, like Tony Blair, have gone on to accumulate cash, and several will find a useful and remunerative half-life on the aldermanic benches in the Lords, but for me – and for most retirees – there’s no role, no powers and no clear future unless you build a new career, which I’m a bit old to do.

I’ve never asked the Mellor Question of ‘don’t you know who I am?’. As one of the few television personalities of the 70s who’s not helping police with their inquiries, some folk still recognise me. The title of MP does produce access and a degree of deference. When I lose it at the end of March, I’ll try not to ask ‘don’t you know who I used to be?’, but I’ll be relegated to a life of pottering, shouting at debates on TV and writing tweets no one reads. But at least I won’t have to go to London.


Austin Mitchell is Labour MP for Great Grimsby and an Associate Editor of The House




The Road to Westminster

Each week The House speaks to a parliamentary hopeful about why they want to be an MP. This week, Darren Hall, the Green Party PPC for...


Who is your political hero?

Bill McKibben’s determination to act against climate change has inspired so many, and the way he has galvanized firstly America and now much of the world from grassroots level shows what can be achieved.

Wangari Maathai is another of my political heroes. As the first black African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, she truly understood and embodied the link between social, environmental and political action.

My personal motivation comes from Carl Sagan’s speech “The Pale Blue Dot” – to look after the only home we’ve ever known.

What would you bring to the job of MP?

I would want to bring Bristol to Westminster, and vice versa. Bristol is a philosophically green city and sits apart from many others because of that. I don’t think Bristol’s distinctive voice has been properly represented in Westminster by its recent MPs, and I would like its unorthodoxy to challenge and inspire.

We have ideas and practical examples, but need the devolved powers necessary to implement long-term policies – for example, improving air quality to the point where it ceases to cause public health issues. I want us to be able to disinvest from fossil fuels and plan our own, community-led development agenda based on some of the fantastic projects evident here.

What one thing do you hope to influence?

My top domestic priority is to challenge the increasing health and wealth inequality in Bristol, and to do so in ways that demonstrate that prosperity isn’t just about money.

My constituency is a case in point, with extreme child poverty evident alongside significant wealth. This could be mitigated by policies such as the introduction of a real living wage and payment of a citizen’s income. We have to recognize that GDP isn’t the one measure to rule them all and that in a more equal society, everyone benefits. 

What does the Green Party need to do before May?

The Green Party is growing extremely quickly, with many new members coming from other parties as well as younger people disillusioned by mainstream politics. This has presented an enormous opportunity, but also a huge organisational and cultural challenge.

We have to stay true to our core values and help people understand the fundamental link between social and environmental justice. We also need to be flexible enough to recognize the realities of delivery and turn our vision into practical policy that people understand and support. Voting Green is no longer a protest vote, especially in Bristol West.




Grammar time?

Should the moratorium on new grammar schools be lifted? Labour's Shadow Schools Minister Kevin Brennan and Conservative MP Graham Brad...


Ditch the rose-tinted glasses. In reality, most children were failed by the grammar system, says Kevin Brennan

A schools system based on selection at 11 is not the way to raise standards or promote social mobility. Instead we should focus relentlessly on supporting schools to raise standards for all, regardless of their backgrounds. The most effective way to do this is through great teaching and leadership.

Economic and social changes, including the creation of more white-collar jobs, better healthcare through the NHS, and more free education increased social mobility in the postwar period, but there is no convincing evidence that this was driven by having a schools system dominated by secondary moderns with a selected minority attending grammar schools. In fact, as Andreas Schleicher – who oversees the OECD Pisa scores – has made clear, the international evidence shows that systems with selection for children at the tender age of 11 perform less well than non-selective school systems.

Far from promoting social mobility, selective systems entrench social division. The difference in domestic average wages between the top 10% and bottom 10% of earners is much wider in selective areas that in non-selective.

Furthermore, grammar schools are highly socially selective institutions overall. Of the 164 that remain, 161 have fewer than 10% of pupils eligible for free school meals. In 2010, 96,680 year 7 pupils received free school meals out of a total of 549,725. Of the 22,070 grammar school pupils, only 610 were receiving free school meals. It is undeniably the poorer children who are losing out, in part because in some areas almost everyone who passes the 11-plus has had private tuition.

Some people look back at the previous selective system through rose-tinted glasses. At its height at the beginning of the 1960s, more than a third of grammar school pupils got only three O-levels. Just 0.3% of grammar school pupils with two A-levels were working class. Less than 10% of the population went to university.

Most pupils were failed by the 11-plus test and attended resource-starved secondary modern schools where they could not take O-levels, and where they were highly unlikely to have the opportunity to go on to a sixth form. In contrast, teenagers are now 50% more likely to go to university than they were just 15 years ago.

David Cameron was right in 2007 when he said that those who wanted to expand the number of grammar schools were “splashing about in the shallow end of the educational debate”, and that his party was in danger of becoming a “rightwing debating society” rather than an aspiring party of Government.

Yet the current government led by him has pandered to those he said were “clinging on to outdated mantras that bear no relation to the reality of life”, by creating a loophole to allow the expansion of selective provision by stealth to locations many miles from existing grammar schools.

A future Conservative government would be likely to further expand selection at 11 against all the evidence that selective systems do not work, and even though across the country parents overwhelmingly do not want a system where children are segregated at such a young age.

In government, Labour legislated to prevent the expansion of divisive selection at 11, and to allow local parental decisions to determine the future of the remaining grammars. That remains our policy.

In the next government we will focus on school improvement, ensuring all teachers are qualified and on achieving outstanding provision in all our schools for all young people. Our education policy will be designed for the many, not a socially selected few.   

Kevin Brennan is Shadow Schools Minister and Labour MP for Cardiff West


We need to look again at grammar schools to level the playing field and spread opportunity, says Graham Brady

When Rab Butler legislated to open grammar schools to all regardless of the ability to pay fees, the Labour party welcomed it.

In January 1944, their spokesman John Parker said: “We are particularly pleased to see the Tories accepting progressive ideas and I welcome the fact that the two main parties are collaborating in trying to pass this bill as law. In all our big educational advances there has been a sharing of ideas.”

Then, the only objection of a Labour party truly in touch with working-class aspiration was that the 1944 Act did nothing to open the public schools to the many and not the few.

Through the postwar decades, grammar schools powered a massive levelling of British society. Grammar-school girls and boys led an assault that opened up the professions, the media, the civil service and politics in a way that had never been seen before.

How depressing it has been to watch this process go into reverse over the last 30 years. An unholy alliance of deluded egalitarians on the left and the comfortable middle classes, who can afford to go private, has connived in the removal of opportunities from people of limited means.

Still, no one has really opened up access to the public schools, so we are left with a gross distortion. If you are well off, you are allowed to buy access to schools that specialise in catering for the more academically inclined: if not, you should know your place and do what the man in Whitehall tells you to do.

Those who campaigned against selection in the 1960s always said they objected to second-rate secondary modern schools, not to grammar schools, but their dubious achievement was to get rid of the bit of the system that worked – not the bit that failed. Authorities such as Trafford – which kept our grammar schools – top the league tables year after year, not just because of the outstanding grammar schools but because the high schools do such a great job too.

Now, where grammars remain, the proof of the pudding is found not just in the academic performance of selective and part-selective areas; it is in the support of the public, too. Opinion polls show three-quarters of people wanting more grammar schools and the only local vote to decide the future of a grammar school since the introduction of the ballot system in 1998 showed similar support.

As both serious parties approach the election struggling to gain support much above 30%, perhaps their determination to stop people having more of the schools they want is part of the reason?

As the 7% educated in independent schools rebuild their grip on the establishment, it is time we looked again at how we can level the playing field and spread opportunity more fairly. The last government and this one have both encouraged diversity. We have academies and University Technical Colleges; schools that specialise in everything from maths and computing to the performing arts.

Parents can even open free schools when they are unhappy about state education where they live, but still those who think Whitehall knows best insist on telling them what kind of schools they are allowed to have.

In 21st-century Britain it is unacceptable that people’s choices are so severely constrained. It is a bizarre anachronism that in most of the country only people who can afford to pay are allowed access to academically selective schools. It is absurd that admission to the best state schools is routinely determined not by how well a child is suited to that school but by whether his parents can afford to buy a house in the catchment area.

Those of us who really want a fairer Britain should be prepared to trust the people.

Graham Brady is Conservative MP for Altrincham and Sale West, Chair of the 1922 Committee and an Associate Editor of The House





Lords Gallery: Terror powers in the spotlight

Josh May reports from a timely debate in the House of Lords, as peers debate the government's Counter Terrorism and Security Bill


The horrifying attacks in Paris have thrown the spotlight onto Britain’s own protections against terrorism. While all acknowledge that no legislation can remove altogether the risk of an attack, there is a debate – fostered at least in part by the agencies themselves – about whether security services have adequate powers and access to information to keep Britain safe.

It was timely, therefore, that the House of Lords had a full afternoon and evening set aside for the Second Reading of the Government’s Counter Terrorism and Security Bill. This legislation, passed by the Commons well before the Paris atrocities, makes a series of changes: it permits the seizure of passports for terror suspects; allows the Home Secretary to impose ‘temporary exclusion orders’ on British citizens who have travelled abroad to carry out terrorism-related activities; adds the option of relocation orders to Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures; introduces IP address matching; and requires public institutions like universities, schools and prisons to watch out for the risk of radicalisation.

As he introduced the Bill, Home Office Minister Lord Bates (C) set out the challenge facing security forces: “We are in the middle of a generational struggle against a ruthless terrorist ideology that challenges the core values of our society. Those charged with our security must be properly equipped to do the job that we ask of them.”

Two of the most contentious issues are the plans around taking passports and imposing exclusion orders. Lord Lloyd of Berwick (X), standing for his “swansong” address to the House despite having had an operation on his spine days before, attacked the ideas, which he said were “so objectionable in principle that they should be resisted on that ground”. The first ever Interception of Communications Commissioner argued that the pretext for the Bill, namely the hundreds believed to have gone to fight in Iraq and Syria, was unsound because of the security services’ success in handling the challenge of thousands of would-be terrorists stationed in Britain over the last decade.

Baroness Neville-Jones (C), a former coalition security minister, took issue with Lloyd’s comments, saying there was “nil justification” to believe that the terror tourism would slow down. “The real danger is that it will both spread and intensify before ending,” she said. Her message was echoed by another former Tory frontbencher, Baroness Buscombe (C), who now sits on the Joint Committee of Human Rights. “To all those who say that these measures are just about being seen to be doing something, I say that I wish that that was true, but it is not,” she said.

The overwhelming stance in the House was that more powers were needed, although with disagreements about what Lord Hennessy (X) labelled the “jagged frontier” between security and liberty. Lord Carlile (LD) was the previous independent reviewer of terrorism legislation and his verdict on this bill was, broadly speaking, positive. Critics of the passport seizure power, he said, needed to “get real”. Former police chief Lord Condon (X) also supported the moves, but stressed that they could not be a panacea: “We must acknowledge that violent acts of terrorism will probably be part of our lives for decades to come and we cannot legislate them away simply by a cascade of new tougher laws and powers.”

Lord Butler of Brockwell (X) was critical of the Government’s handling of the legislation, even as he said the measures involved were “necessary and useful”. “There is evidence that parts of the Bill have not been fully thought through before presentation, and there is a regrettable and unhelpful element of political window-dressing,” he said. Baroness Kennedy (L), too, was cautious about the proposals and the threat of giving the Government a “blank cheque” in the wake of the Paris attacks. “We should be deeply aware of the risks associated with erosions of civil liberties because once we create paradigm shifts inside the law, the reality is that they are very hard to reverse,” she warned, going on to urge greater judicial oversight of the powers.

Over the last week there has been much talk of the importance of listening to security agencies about their needs. The Lords had the chance to hear first-hand the thinking of the intelligence community, courtesy of the maiden speech of Lord Evans of Weardale (X), until 2013 the director-general of MI5. And he was unequivocal about the importance of bolstering prevention programmes, warning politicians against “hesitancy…to engage with the religious dimension of the threat”. 

Rejecting the narrative of a “zero-sum game” between security and liberty, Evans said: “Inadequate security will breed vulnerability and fear, and that in turn will tend to limit people’s ability to contribute to civil society, will provoke vigilantism and will diminish people’s ability to exercise the very civil liberties and human rights that we wish to sustain.”

His predecessor at MI5 was present to hear his input, and Baroness Manningham-Buller (X) agreed about the importance of the Prevent programme to try to stop people being attracted to extremist ideology in the first place. “If Prevent had been working for the past 10 years, we might not have seen so many going [to fight in Syria and Iraq],” she argued.

Evans’s was not the only maiden speech of the session. Lord Green of Deddington (X) used his first contribution to warn that the current threat from radical Islam was “of a completely different order of magnitude” to previous threats by Irish republicans or state-sponsored terrorism.

On indications from the Second Reading, the House will not seek to reform fundamentally the powers in the Bill – although the Government has already foreshadowed concessions about judicial oversight on certain aspects. The wider debate about balance, communications data, and other elements of security, will rage on well beyond the passage of this bill. As Lord Goldsmith (L) concluded: “These are such difficult questions. There is nothing absolute about any of them except, I hope, our abhorrence of terrorism.”   






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