Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for May, 2010

London’s Gaza Flotilla Protest

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 31st May, 2010

Several thousand people gathered in Whitehall outside the entrance to Downing Street this afternoon, to voice their anger and disgust at the criminal Israeli assault on the Gaza aid flotilla in international waters. It was impressive how many people turned up at such short notice — an interesting reflection of the power of social networking media, including Twitter. Predictably there were many Palestinian flags held aloft by the crowd, but also many Turkish ones too. There are Turks on board some of the craft in the flotilla and possibly amongst the casualties, though at the time of writing both the number and identity of the dead remain contested. The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has rightly condemned the action as ‘state terrorism’ and NATO Ambassadors are going to hold an emergency meeting tomorrow, at Turkey’s request.

The crowd at the London demonstration — which later marched to the Israeli Embassy — clearly felt that the UN Security Council should also meet to discuss the crisis, as is now happening, to discuss this blatant and vicious violation of international law. There were also calls for the expulsion of the Israeli Ambassador from London and revulsion was expressed at the way spokesmen for the Israeli government are portraying the killings as legitimate self-defence. Among the speakers in Whitehall were the veteran radical writer and activist Tariq Ali, Salma Yaqoob of Respect and Craig Murray, former British Ambassador to Uzbkekistan and now a human rights campaigner. Most of the speakers called for a trade boycott of Israel and the suspension of the Israeli trade agreement with the European Union. Action not just words are needed to bring Israel to heel.

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The Rise and Fall of David Laws

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 29th May, 2010

When a Sunday newspaper contacted me earlier today to ask what I thought about the unfolding David Laws affair, I said I thought he had been silly but not dishonest. Since then, he has resigned following revelations in the Daily Telegraph that he claimed allowances for accommodation in the London home of his male lover, and the Prime Minister, David Cameron, has accepted his resignation. I think this is a pity. The more sensible thing would have been for David Laws to tender his resignation and for David Cameron and Nick Clegg to have graciously refused it. David Laws was — and is — the perfect man for the job of Chief Secretary to the Treasury and the fact that he got into a pickle over his second home allowances because he felt unable to admit publicly the nature of his relationship with his landlord is as much a reason for sympathy as for condemnation. Several prominent members of the previous Labour government had behaved far more heinously with their expenses.

But who is this David Laws, who was a total stranger to most of the British public, before being propelled into high office by the Coalition? Born in 1965, he grew up in Surrey and was educated at a Roman Catholic school before going to King’s College, Cambridge, where he got a double first in economics. He went into the City, being immediately recognised as a high flyer, working at J P Morgan and Barclays de Zoete Wedd. In 1994, having already made a packet, he gave way to his political bent, becoming an economics advisor to the Liberal Democrats. He fought Folkestone and Hythe (against the Tory Home Secretary, Michael Howard) before becoming the Liberal Democrats’ Director of Policy and Research. His big political break came with Paddy Ashdown’s decision to stand down in Yeovil and his adpotion for the seat. Once in Parliament, he became the LibDem ‘shadow’ Chief Secretary to the Treasury, little realising that the real thing would soon be in sight. He is much respected within the party, though his strait-laced demeansour and permanent suits give the impression of unapproachability. Of course, now we know that behind that facade there is a different reality. Perhaps now he has been brought down, he can let his other side develop more naturally. In the meantime, our continental neighbours will laugh at yet another case of perfidious Albion getting its knickers in a twist over a scandal involving both sex and money. But in truth, it is no laughing matter and the Daily Telegraph should be ashamed of what it has brought about. It is nothing short of a tragedy and the last thing the country needed when the new government has to try to get it out of the current economic mess.

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The LibDems’ 9 New Peers

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 28th May, 2010

The traditional British Dissolution Honours and new working peers’ list were announced today, with nine new peerages for the Liberal Democrats in toto, including three former MPs: Richard Allan, Matthew Taylor and Phil Willis.  The best-known name on the working peers’ list is Floella Benjamin, the Trinidadian-born author and TV presenter and Chancellor of the University of Exeter. She has been a star performer at recent LibDem conferences and events, as well as having a deep involvement with a number of charities, notably relating to children. She will be the LibDems’ frst black (as opposed to Asian) peer. Another ‘first’ is the Turkish-speaker Meral Ece, a former Islington councillor who is currently Chair of the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats. The LibDems have been making great inroads into the Turkish and Turkish Cypriot communities in London and elsewhere recently, so her appointment will be particularly welcome there.

Sir Ken (now Lord) Macdonald was Director of Public Prosecutions in England and Wales from 2003 to 2006. He was an alumnus of my old college, St Edmund Hall, Oxford, and writes regularly for The Times. As a practising barrister, he works alongside Cherie Booth (aka Cherie  Blair) at Matrix, which hasn’t stopped him criticising Tony Blair’s ‘sycophancy towards power’. 

The other three new LibDem peers are all well-known in party circles. Mike German was leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats and one-time Deputy First Minister of Wales, while John Shipley has been a party stalwart in the North East of England, as a Councillor in Newcastle upon Tyne. Kate Parminter, former Chief Executive of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, also used to be a Councillor, in Horsham in West Sussex, and is currently a member of the LibDems’ Federal Executive.

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Camden: The LibDem Fight-Back

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 26th May, 2010

The recent general election was a bitter disappointment for the Liberal Democrats in the London borough of Camden. The party’s Ed Fordham didn’t seize the parliamentary seat of Hampstead & Kilburn as had been widely expected, let alone Jo Shaw in Holborn & St Pancras, which looked like an outside chance when opinion polls were suggesting a great ‘Clegg surge’. Moreover, far from taking outright control of Camden Council — which the party had run in coalition with the Conservatives since 2006 — the LibDems lost a significant number of seats in the local elections that took place on the same day. Higher turnout resulted in some of the local party’s most prominent figures being ousted from the Town Hall, though actually the LibDems’ overall share of the vote was much higher than one might think from the results delivered under the first-past-the-post electoral system. Three Council seats were not contested on 6 May, however, as one of the LibDem Councillors in Haverstock ward, Syed Hoque, who had earlier defected from Labour, died after nominations closed, so the election was postponed until yesterday. The result declared late last night was three magnificent LibDem holds for Jill Fraser, Matt Sanders and newcomer Rahel Bokth. This means that the LibDems now become the official opposition. Labour reportedly had over one hundred people helping yesterday to get their vote out, but the result showed that on a ‘normal’ local election turnout, the LibDems still can win in Camden and that their fightback in the borough is well and truly on.


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Oona King Enlivens Mayoral Race

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 24th May, 2010

The contest to become next Mayor of London has suddenly become a lot more interesting with Oona King’s announcement that she intends to run for the Labour nomination. The former MP for Bethnal Green & Bow — famously ousted by George Galloway at the 2005 General Election — has obviously decided that she misses frontline politics after all, having previously seemed to rather enjoy being out of it. She’s developed something of a media presence over the past five years and generally seems far more comfortable in her political skin than she did while she was an MP. It’s about time there was a BME candidate for the London Mayoralty (two of the three LibDem contenders for the nomination in 2008 were Asian, but ex-policeman Brian Paddick won it easily). Of course, there is one big obstacle to Oona King’s getting the Labour nomination an the chance to fight against the Tory incumbent Boris Johnson: Ken Livingstone, who has made it abundantly clear that he wants to get back in charge at City Hall. Ken does have a vociferous fan-base, even if many within the Labour Party think he’s last year’s goods. Others may, of course, throw their hats in the ring imminently. The actual nomination election will run parallel to the election of the new Labour Party leader, so there’ll be a result in the autumn.

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A Baishakhi Mela

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 23rd May, 2010

This afternoon I joined many thousands of my Bengali neighbours at the annual A Baishakhi Mela in Weavers Fields, Bethnal Green. I missed the parade in Brick Lane but the Fields and adjacent Allen Gardens were a swirling mass of people listening or dancing to various groups brought over from Bangladesh or based locally, a mini-funfair and dozens of stalls of various kinds. Negotiating the prams and crowds of excited chidren was at times a challenge. I stopped for a while at the Tower Hamlets Council’s stand for encouraging recycling and thought that they could probably start by recycling the huge numbers of restaurant flyers and other glossy leaflets that were being handed out to people as they flooded in to the event, only to be cast to the ground a few yards further on. Several of the neighbourhood’s Koolest Kids were out strutting their stuff, many in headbands based on the design of the Bangladesh flag (a red spot on a dark green background). Saggies seemed to be the order of the day for weekending schoolboys. It would have been fun to witness some of them running into their schoolteachers.

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LibDem Who’s Who at City Hall

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 20th May, 2010

While media attention has been focussed on the dramatic developments at Britain’s national government level, more prosaically, but importantly, changes have been happening at the seat of London government: City Hall. On the Liberal Democrat front, Caroline Pidgeon has become the new group leader in the London Assembly and she has already highlighted several issues she wants to promote:

— the vital importance of tackling crime and the fear of crime that affects every area in London;

— faster improvements to London’s public transport, including the tube upgrades

— real action to improve London’s environment, especially tackling the capital’s poor air quality

— a real increase in affordable housing.

Dee Doocey has become the new Chair of the London Assembly and will lead for the LibDems on the Metropolitan Police Authority, while remaining involved in overseeing the Olympics brief. Mike Tuffrey, who led the LibDem group ably over the past four years, now takes the lead for the group on the London Fire Authority, as well as retaining the lead on budget and performance, environment, housing and planning.

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Tim Llewellyn and Lebanon’s Spirit of the Phoenix

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 19th May, 2010

SOAS played host to the Arab British Centre and the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (CAABU, on whose Board I sit) this evening, for a talk on Lebanon by the former BBC Middle East correspondent Tim Llewellyn. We must have overlapped briefly in Beirut, while I was doing some work for the Middle East Council of Churches in 1980, though our paths didn’t cross in the city. Tonight’s event also served as a book promotion for Tim’s latest volume: Spirit of the Phoenix: Beirut and the Story of Lebanon (I B Tauris, 2010; sale price £12.99), a series of vignettes in a style that Tim described as akin to Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. Several of these tales are amusing, though the tone of Tim’s talk was grave, as he fears that it is only a matter of time before there is renewed conflict with Israel. Asked in the question time afterwards what he thought of Tony Blair’s effectiveness as the Quartet’s special envoy to Israel/Palestine, Tim commented damningly, ‘Useless!’

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The Liberal Democrats’ Special Conference

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 16th May, 2010

The Liberal Democrats’ historic special conference, to endorse the coalition government deal, had an added twist for me, as it was held in Birmingham (well, at the National Exhibition Centre on the outskirts of the city, to be precise). Although I was born a Mancunian and have long been a Londoner by adoption, I cut my political teeth in Birmingham, as a very young sub-agent in the Birmingham Ladywood by-election in the Spring of 1969. To most people’s surprise, we won, though as I have discovered since, not least in my repeated attempts to get into the European Parliament, winning elections as a Liberal/Liberal Demcrat is not always easy. So why am I still active four decades later? The answer was in the NEC hall today: not just one government Minister but a whole charabanc full, who wil be responsible for ensuring that the Liberal-Conservative coalition lives up to its promises. Already, several LibDem manifesto pledges have been implemented: cancelling ID cards and the associated National Identity Register, ending the incarceration of the children of asylum seekers, and scrapping the third Heathrow runway, to name but three, With Lynne Featherstone at the Home Office (Equalities) and Norman Baker at Transport, for example, we can expect the Liberal influence in policy to be strong.

What was particularly interesting about today’s special conference was that people from across the party spectrum spoke — often movingly (Simon Hughes got a standing ovation) — of why and how they had realised that going into an arrangement with the Conservatives was the best thing both for the party and for the country. Only about half a dozen conference reps voted against the motion endorsing the deal. There is a determination, shared by David Cameron and his more moderate MPs, to make this a truly progressive, reforming government. And that, will of course, include movement on electoral reform, with a largely or wholly-elected House of Lords (using PR), and a referendum on AV for House of Commons elections, with Nick Clegg personally spearheading the ‘yes’ campaign.

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Tom Brake Outlines the Deal

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 14th May, 2010

About a hundred Liberal Democrats from across South East London gathered at the St John’s Church Hall in Downham (Lewisham) this evening, to hear and ask questions about the agreement the party has made to enter into government with the Conservatives. Originally, Simon Hughes was scheduled to speak, but he was reportedly asked onto the BBC’s Any Questions programme at short notice, so his fellow MP Tom Brake ably took his place. I was expecting some unhappy voices among party members and activists, but actually the tone of the discussion was very positive and Tom’s argument that a full deal with the Conservatives was really the only viable option, particularly given Labour’s lack of genuine interest in a deal, was persuasive. One questioner expressed dismay at the appointment of Theresa May as Home Secretary, given her record on equality issues, but I was able to share today’s news that LibDem Lynne Featherstone has been appointed Minister of State at the Home Office, with special responsiblity for Equalities, which is a much more reassuring prospect. The big question, really, is how William Hague will behave as Foreign Secretary, but even on Europe, it looks as though the Tories have been tamed somewhat by the LibDems. There are issues (such as Trident replacement) on which there was no agreement between the two sides, so LibDem MPs will have to abstain on any related vote, but Tom Brake assured us that that won’t stop us arguing the case against, both in parliament and in the country.

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