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Thursday, 29 January 2009


How sad that Independent Councillor and Mayor of Dartmouth Debbie Morris thinks that councillors who do not share her own Anglicism should be excluded from parts of Council meetings. In the 21st century I would have hoped that the saying of prayers would be a thing of the past. The story of Atheist Brian Boughton being discriminated against is surely wrong. he quite rightly argues for a period of silence so that Jew, methodist and Agnostic can ponder their own civic responsibilities in their own way. Suppose a Council with a majority of Atheists had insisted upon a Humanist ceremony before the meeting? What if Tower Hamlets where I am pretty sure the majority of councillors are Muslim had insisted on having an imam in before each council meeting? Would Debbie say it was right for Catholics to be told they should stand outside a Council Meeting as second class councillors before the proceedings began?

We can imagine the Daily Mail and the Telegraph fulminating and formenting at the very thought. In my experience quite rightly the majority of London Councils no longer have prayers.

In the European Parliament we are secular and do not have religious ervices, quite rightly. Can you imagine the bureaucarcy trying to calculate and appropriately apportion slots between Catholics, Lutherans, Muslims, Atheists etc. It would make the Lisbon Treaty seem simple.

Sadly Parliament sets a poor example, still saying Anglican prayers. The sooner we have the disestablishment of the Church of England and a secular political life throughout the country the better.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009


Yet another plus for human dynamo, President Obama. Tackling Zimbabwe really should have been higher on the West's political agenda. Thankfully the new President of the United States understands that something needs to be done and has wasted no time in taking up the cudgels.

I am constantly amazed that the people of Zimbabwe are managing to survive. How does a country manage to exist when an economy has collapsed? How do people cope with the outbreaks of virulent disease suffered by Zimbabweans? Zimbabwe is not just another failed state. It is a disaster of truly massive proportions.

This disaster has been caused by one man. Robert Mugabe has allowed his own megalomania to destroy his country and reduce his people to inhumane levels of suffering, the like of which we can hardly imagine.

This article from yesterday's "Times" provides a harrowing report of just one small part of what is going on.

According a report in today's "Times" from Tim Reid in Washington and Jonathan Clayton in Johannesburg, President Obama wants a fresh approach to toppling Robert Mugabe and is discussing with aides an unprecedented, US-led diplomatic push to get tough new UN sanctions imposed against the Zimbabwe regime.

The idea is to take the issue of Zimbabwe before the UN Security Council, having prepared the ground with Russia and China to persuade them to support the initiative. Neither country has supported previous moves against Zimbabwe, and both have significant financial interests in the country. The goal of taking Zimbabwe to the Security Council will be to pass strong sanctions, including a ban on arms sales.

In addition, the US and Britain are apparently anxious that Mr Tsvangirai does not sign up to a power-sharing deal. Failure to reach an accord would help clear the way to take the issue back to the UN.

All of this sounds very good. I for one have no faith in another attempt at any kind of deal with Mugabe. Tsvangirai has already tried that one and Mugabe would have none of it.

I wish Obama and his allies all success in their attempts to restore civilisation to Zimbabwe and end the appalling suffering across the whole of that unfortunate country, a country in thrall to one of the worst dictators we have seen for a long time.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009


You may have seen the blog which I have copied at the end of this post which went up on 5 December.

You will see that I put down a priority Written Question to the European Commission. This was, in fact, sent to the Commission on 3 December 2008. To date I have not heard anything back from either the relevant Commissioner or any Commission official.

I have therefore sent the following letter to Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou, the Cyprus Commissioner with responsibility for public health, feed and food safety and animal health and welfare (and incidentally a woman).

Dear Mrs Vassiliou,
You will recall that I submitted a priority Written Question to the Commission on 3 December 2008 about the website

I have not yet received a reply.

As you know from reading my Question, I am extremely concerned that a website developed and funded by the European Commission to teach children about farming in Europe uses an inappropriate image of a young female. The image in question shows an unhealthily thin and provocatively dressed girl who is used to guide visitors through the site.

Such an image is both an horrific gender stereotype and an unhealthy example to the very children for whom the site is intended. You will be aware that the European Parliament recently passed a report seeking to end the use of obvious gender stereotyping. Given this, I find the Commission's seeming disregard for the views of the Parliament both worrying and insulting.

I have to say, the neglect of my Question has only added injury to the aforementioned insult.
I trust you will reply as a matter of urgency.

Yours sincerely,
Mary Honeyball MEP

Earlier blog posted on 5 December 2008

This new website, developed and funded by the European Commission, came to my attention this week: site aims to teach children about farming in the Europe. Sadly it completely ruins any good work it does by using an image of an unhealthily thin and provocatively dressed young girl to guide users through the site.I find it both shocking and depressing that the Commission’s Department for Health and Consumer Protection finds it acceptable to promote their work by using this image. Not only is it a horrific gender stereotype but it is also an extremely unhealthy image to promote to children. In the recent gender stereotyping report passed by Parliament, my colleagues and I noted that children are particularly impressionable audiences and that promoting unhealthy and unrealistic body images can negatively affect young viewers’ self-perception.The DG Health evidently was not listening.I have written a priority question to the Commission asking them what they were thinking of when they made this site and how much it cost to develop. I am also currently rallying support in the Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee to take further action.

Monday, 26 January 2009


Woe indeed is the Labour Party when our members of the Upper House sell their integrity for money. If the allegations against Lords Taylor, Truscott, Moonie and Snape turn out to be true, they will all have breached House of Lords rules. But it goes further than that. In an interview on the Andrew Marr show yesterday morning, Tory returnee Kenneth Clarke, Cameron’s newly appointed Shadow on the BERR portfolio, called the allegations against the four tantamount to corruption. I agree with this. Peers, MPs and MEPs are not to be bought.

There is little appreciation in the UK about the extent of lobbying which takes place in the European Parliament. The EU system resembles the set up in the United States and other European countries, including France, in that the European Parliament is the legislative body, scrutinising and amending legislative proposals put forward by the European Commission. Given that there needs to be agreement between the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers (Member State Governments) before the proposals pass into legislation, MEPs have considerable power. Those affected by European legislation, particularly the big business interests, are only too aware of this. Hence the lobbying. I have been contacted by all kinds of organisations from the Ford Motor Company to the Women’s Institute regarding every piece of legislation on which I have worked.

When I do meet lobbyists I do so in my offices in Brussels and Strasbourg. Very occasionally I accept a free lunch or dinner, though usually for rather matters such as the one I recently blogged on when I heard a speech by Mr Erdogan, Prime Minister of Turkey. Sadly not all my colleagues, especially some Tories and UKIP MEPs, do not take the same view.

Every MEP has had the same experience. We therefore know what we are talking about. I am absolutely clear that it is totally wrong to accept payment from lobbyists. It is even worse to ask for money for facilitating the submitting of amendments. Elected representatives and legislators in the House of Lords are not, and never should be, up for sale.Baroness Jan Royall has handled this sad and sorry matter quickly and decisively. It is to be looked at by the Sub-Committee on the Committee on Privileges, whose verdict I hope will be known sooner rather than later.

Sunday, 25 January 2009


I have to say the idea of a conference with Ken Livingstone monopolising the front of the programme sponsored by the GMB, UNITE and ASLEF filled me with some dread. What could possibly be progressive about that was my initial reaction. On further investigation this was not even a Labour conference. Greens and even Liberal Democrats were there in force. This confused me even more. As a pluralist use to the European spirit of discussion and compromise, I heartily approve of cross party working. But is this what our trade union comrades see as the way forward?

In actual fact, it proved a good day, an event which included a number of imaginative workshops. I attended “Blogging London – The New Media and London Politics” chaired by Ivor Gaber, Research Professor in Media and Politics at the University of Bedfordshire, with Adam Bienkov from Tory Troll blog, Martin Hoscik, editor of MayorWatch and Tom Barry from It was a shame about the all male top table and the overwhelmingly male attendance. However, it was a good hour and a half and very good indeed to meet other bloggers. Given that I get concerned about the disembodied nature of the blogosphere, the workshop provided a welcome opportunity to meet people and discuss issues face to face.
Ivor introduced the session with the idea that the online environment had been significantly enhanced by the Obama campaign. They had collected 10 million e-mail addresses. Staggering though this achievement was, information needs to be used in the right way. Left of centre blogging appears weak on the whole (except perhaps for Liberal Conspiracy) in contrast to the more vibrant work done by the Right. Moreover, left blogs in London did not appear to have any impact on the mayoral elections.

Adam Bienkov from Tory Troll said that as newspaper readership declines more people are turning to blogs which are now read by a number of people engaged in politics, including activists, journalists, civil servants. A blog needs to be distinctive to get noticed. Local newspapers are very stretched so there is often scope to follow local authorities. Adam was convinced that the main impact of blogs was on the politicians themselves.

The editor of the MayorWatch website, Martin Hoscik, pointed out that during the Mayoral election all the candidates were keen to harness some blogs. The smaller parties, especially, found blogs useful for getting their message across. However, bloggers need to make sure their content is attractive. Left politicians should also engage more with blogs; sometimes there is a feeling that it is beneath them. MayorWatch has, in fact, been rebuffed by every Minister of London since it was set up.

Martin predicted that by the next GLA elections there will be much more audio and video content on blogs. YouTube is becoming more popular, and politicians will be increasingly do interviews to be put on the internet.

Tom Barry from gave an amusing talk, concentrating on how blogs can be used for reporting. He had found out where Boris Johnson wanted to site the new London airport by plotting a dredger Boris had taken down the Thames Estuary and noting where it stopped.

It won’t surprise you to hear that these presentations were followed by a lively discussion. I am particularly grateful to LabourList who not only provided a blog from the whole conference, but gave me the following mention when I made a contribution at the blogging workshop:

Mary Honeyball MEP makes the point that Labour bloggers need to be linked up far better. She also goes on to illustrate how driving more people to blogs like her own could show up just how fringe and nutty European Tories actually are. All fair points, in our view.

Saturday, 24 January 2009


I am at the Progressive London Conference and have just heard Harriet Harman announce that Barack Obama will be visiting Gordon Brown on 1st April.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Feminist in Chief or will Obama keep ladies waiting?

“I am a feminist” exclaimed the man pinned with the world’s hopes, Barack Obama, when he met two eminent experts on women’s rights last year.

One of these women, editor of America’s leading feminist magazine Ms. seems to have been convinced by this statement. The front cover of this month’s magazine has the President ripping off his inaugural day red tie and white shirt to reveal a t-shirt emblazoned with “This is what a feminist looks like”.

However, as the President sits down this week to an in-tray, of economic despair and two wars, will women’s issues be in the forefront of his mind?

Let’s hope so. In his first week, which incidentally shares the 36th anniversary of US women’s abortion rights, the President has pledged to rescind the Global Gag Rule that stops UN family planning programs receiving US federal funds. This rule has been the subject of political ping-pong for the past 25 years, initially put in by Reagan, rescinded by Clinton then reinstated by Bush. A telling example of how presidential powers set the lifelong agendas of women across the world.

Obama’s next planned move, in what is fast looking like a full set of political ping-pong, is to overturn the shameful decision, by the Supreme Court in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire Rubber, with a new Fair Pay Act. This will re-empower American women workers to sue for wage discrimination. In a country where parking attendants still make more than childcare workers, and there’s only one woman on the Supreme Court, this is some much needed equality legislation.

However, as we know from over 30 years of equality legislation in the UK and a widening pay gap, legislation can only go so far. American economist, Randy Albelda, points out in a recent article “The Macho Stimulus Plan” that in order to effect any real change government rhetoric must match the statute books. And so far, for all Obama’s oratory heights, in my opinion his triplets don’t look far enough past alliteration to make any great cause for feminisation. In Obama's speech on stimulating the economy he spoke of “building roads, bridges and schools, developing eco friendly technologies”. But as these are construction based industries that are dominated by men (just 2.7 per cent of US construction workers are women) such fiscal stimulation is almost to the sole benefit of male workers. To rectify this Albelda proposes an additional stimulus plan for the female side of the economy: “caring for those who cannot care for themselves, healthcare and primary education are the very foundation of a civil society. Investing in these outcomes is as vital to our long-term economic health as airports, highways, wind turbines, and energy retrofitted buildings.” She points out that not only do these jobs disproportionately employ women, but “investments in direct care, education, and healthcare would also go a long way in alleviating poverty.”

Taking it a little closer to home let’s examine Obama the boss. How is the new president shaping up as a pro-female employer? Disappointingly, just five out of the 20 cabinet-level posts in his administration have gone to women. A number comparable to cabinets of the last previous presidents, which has earned the scorn of one journalist who claimed Obama’s feminist credentials as no more “impressive than any previous president”.

A measly one in four ratio in no way gives the voices of American women equal representation in the room where all the big decisions are being made. But it can be argued that Obama’s cabinet does not just have the responsibility of being representative in terms of gender, but also ethically, politically and in terms of people’s life experience.

According to the Fawcett Society ethnic minority women face double discrimination on the grounds of their gender and race. So Obama’s appointment of six black women as his closest aides and ambassadors pushes back barriers of discrimination beyond that of gender.

Nonetheless, rumbles of discontent amongst many women’s groups are already audible in the media. Co-founder of non-partisan women’s group New Agenda has accused the new president of taking “shocking steps backwards”.

The President’s choice of pastor Rick Warren to lead the invocation at his inauguration ceremony was also felt to be an affront by many liberal women’s groups who had previously backed Obama in his campaign. On this issue, I think people’s upset and confusion is justified. Choosing a pastor who preaches socially conservative views on abortion rights and gay marriage does not shout “I am a feminist” to me.

But President Obama got to his position and an approval rating of 80 percent, dramatically higher than either Clinton or Bush, not by making enemies but by finding common ground with people with whom he disagreed with on some issues. This is most certainly an outstanding skill to have as a diplomat and even as a politician, world leader and president. But will it will make for an outstanding feminist? We don't have time to wait and see. Feminists of all political colours across the world need to put pressure on Obama to set about making concrete feminist policies and include the needs of women in all of his globally inspiring oratories. As one thing you can be sure of, is that pretty much every other interest group is doing that, right now.


It was meant to challenge ConservativeHome. We hoped it would be the activists' arena. Instead LabourList is top heavy, dominated by people centred around Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and Ken Livingstone. These three may make interesting bedfellows, but where is the authentic voice of the Labour Party? Where are the grassroots members who make Tory blogging so appealing?
By no means an expert, I have nevertheless been blogging for almost two years, often but not exclusively, on issues and events in the EU. As a MEP I am extremely concerned that there appear to be no European references on LabourList. Foreign policy in general fares little better. I know from my post bag that Labour Party members care passionately about foreign affairs, as my massive inbox on Gaza amply demonstrated.

I am immensely proud of the Labour Government's achievements over the last ten years in more than doubling overseas aid, writing off millions of pounds of debt and leading the world in campaigning for the millennium goals. Labour Party people are international people - it’s one of our defining characteristics. Conservative Home can’t beat us on this. The Tories stand isolated in the European Union with economic policies no other right wing party in America, France or Germany shares. Let them be Little Englanders, but let LabourList be a Labour InternationaList.

However, my biggest LabourList bugbear is its casual sexism. I expect it from ConservativeHome but not a Labour product. The Labour Party has striven to increase women’s political representation with all women shortlists and equal gender representation on closed lists. But frighteningly LabourList is taking us a step backwards by appointing just six women out of 34 as contributors on the site. Making up just 17 per cent of contributors, women are better represented in the Commons than they are on this Labour blogsite!

This gender bias is not just a loss to women in politics, but it’s a distinct loss to the quality of the site. In a recent discussion on blogs on women’s hour, media historian Professor Jean Seaton argued that political blogs run by men tend to be gossipy, aggressive and partisan, whereas those run by women are more often issue-led and constructive, with wider cross-party appeal.
On the same show, Iain Dale said that he is disappointed that women only make up 15 per cent of visitors to his site. This is not because women do not engage with blogging. Women fuel internet traffic with lively and amusing debates, for example campaigning on domestic violence on Nerys Evan’s blog and discussing women’s rights on the F-Word. The difference between these sites and Iain Dale’s, or some of the other overtly political sites, is that they open up blogging to real social problems, away from the arguments of Westminster, and into the day-to-day issues that affect people beyond the Village.

There’s an election coming. We have won the last three because we have taken record shares of women’s votes. New media should take us forward, not back. Sadly once again women must battle for their share of the political arena.

LabourList is also far too London centred. I say this as a London MEP. I truly believe London is the greatest city in the world, but LabourList needs more voices from the regions. Let’s have Bob Piper from the West Midlands or Grimmerupnorth, rather than yet another former minister or adviser from the London dinner party circuit.

LabourList should also make cleverer political judgments by, for example, remembering that the majority of Labour representatives, including myself, are in opposition rather than power. Someone like Stephen Cowan reporting from the frontline fighting the Tory Taliban in Hammersmith merits a slot. For a Trade union voice active in the Party, LabourList should perhaps include John Gray.

As a former member of the Labour Party in the South West region, I was especially pleased when Jim Knight won South Dorset. Up until university I spent my life in Tory areas. At times it was a little lonely as a socialist. One of the great things about the internet is the way it can bring people with the same views and interests together whatever the geography. So for the campaigner in a safe Tory seat, coming home and clicking on LabourList should feel like the embrace of solidarity from virtual comrades.

There is no doubt that a cohesive community has developed around Conservative Home. The feeling of working with like minded souls motivates Tory activists. Let’s reach out through the web to all Labour Party members in all parts of the country.

Labour Party activists frequently tell me how much they appreciate National Executive Committee member Ann Black’s reports on meetings. Why not sign Ann up to provide a forum where Labour Party supporters can discuss events after every meeting of the Party’s governing committee? She’s a voice from outside London too.

LabourList could also put the informative campaigning work done across the Party online. Someone like Mary Southcott in Bristol who sits on the National Policy Forum and the South West Convention, writes for Chartist and campaigns on Electoral Reform and Cyprus would be an ideal contributor. Such Party stalwarts are one of the strengths of ConservativeHome.

I know LabourList will not have much in the way of resources, let alone the Ashcroft untaxed millions, but I question whether the money is being used to the best advantage. Why only a weekday operation? Why the fixed deadline of the lunchtime list? Many Labour people will only be able to surf in the evening or at weekends. Most people can’t surf the web for long in working/childcare hours, and if they can very few will have LabourList as a priority ahead of Facebooking friends or making online purchases.

Too many of the initial LabourList bulletins contain large chunks of press reviews. If people want that they will sign up for a press summary service, a newspaper email service or get text alerts. It is not sensible to spend resources on such duplication. References to other media are fine; a Labour press list is not.

I think there is a real need for a blog space for Labour Party members and I very much want LabourList to succeed. I hope these comments will be taken in the spirit in which they are intended - to do the very best for the Party and the Government.

Thursday, 22 January 2009


This diatribe comes to you courtesy of a Ms Brenda Orsler, a delegate to the conference against prohibition who apparently paid to attend out of her own resources.

As far as I can make out, it is a pro-smoking event. What is even more interesting is that has been sponsored by the appalling Godfrey Bloom, UKIP MEP.

Press release:
The 1st international conference against prohibition which was scheduled for the 27/28th January in the EU parliament, Brussels, was blocked on the 15th January following a letter to the EU president from the anti smoking organisation, The Smokefree Partnership. The conference had gathered a great deal of interest and support due to the fact that eminent scientists from around the world, including some from within tobacco control, were attending to give speeches regarding the passive smoke fraud. Fortunately the organisers of the event, TICAP, anticipated underhand tactics by the anti smoking industry to prevent the conference from happening, and a contingency within a separate venue right opposite the EU parliament has now been put into place. All scientists and other participants along with live satellite links for
those unable to attend in person are available in the alternate building.

In the letter that resulted in the EU venue being withdrawn Florence Berteletti Kemp, Director of the Smoke Free Partnership, falsely claims a commercial interest for financial sponsors of the conference offering no factual evidence to back up her allegation. She also states that –
the event goes “against all of Parliament’s adopted reports and the European Community’s legislation and commitments on this topic”, and that “it violates the spirit of the International
Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.” This is clearly a demand to prevent the freedom of speech of some of the most highly recognised scientists in the field; a demand that was upheld by the EU Bureau and hidden from the parliamentary sponsor of the conference,
Godfrey Bloom MEP
. Kemp also stated that – “The TICAP conference purports to develop methods and strategies to end “the use of pseudo-science” in relation to tobacco control, in contrast the WHO FCTC recognizes “that scientific evidence has unequivocally established that tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke cause death, disease and disability”. In other words, no debate will be allowed, no scientist will be allowed a platform to disagree, only those who do agree with the policies have the right to freedom of speech on this subject in the EU building. In an unprecedented move, the EU Bureau cancelled the conference with no record on their meeting agenda and without communication or right of reply to the sponsoring MEP, who was left to discover the truth by rumours almost a week later. These astonishingly undemocratic revelations were based upon unsubstantiated false claims and a demand that no debate should be allowed, and were submitted by an anti smoking group opposed to the content of the event. For decades the anti smoking industry has grossly perverted science for their own ideology; it comes as no surprise to us whatsoever that they are now perverting democracy and freedom in the very heart of the EU.