People say to me: "Well, it's a dirty old trade; if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen"

My mother used to say that "may you live in interesting times" was an old Chinese curse. Had she been alive this week, she would have certainly said it again. Probably right in the middle of her 90th birthday celebrations which we would have held in the past few days had she not died, suddenly but peacefully, at the end of January. She was always there for me. And now she is not.

She did not approve of my politics. The speech I made on Thursday about the future of sanctions would have been greeted with a sniff. The long hours of select committee work on the subject would have been dismissed with a harrumph. But, having lived for 30 years in an embargoed South Africa, she would have had to agree that sanctions were effective only after 1985, when the United States stopped supplying financial and technical assistance. Seven years later, South Africa was independent. Just think of the suffering and death that could have been avoided if this had been done earlier.

Driving back to Stevenage, I remembered how often anti-apartheid activists in South Africa had begged the world to stop buying its gold. We never did. But now we have the chance to stop buying the diamonds that have fuelled the bloody war in Angola for the past 25 years. The big producers have an identification system that will tell buyers where their diamond comes from. Couples can make sure the ring that seals their love was not mined in hate.

Love, or the lack of it, featured in almost every number that Ken's blues band played at the Bottles wine bar in Stevenage old town later that evening. The place was packed. The gig was hot, loud and sticky, but enormous fun. Ken loved it. The band have been together more than five years. They rehearse every Monday and have progressed from all right to really good.

On Saturday morning, I was in St Albans, chairing the parliamentary report at the Eastern Region Labour Party conference. I resisted calling too many Stevenage people during the question and answer session, but I had to give Noel Campbell, one of my hardest-working party members, a chance. He wanted to know what we thought about compulsory voting. We were mostly for it. If people want the rights of citizenship, they must also accept its responsibilities.

Responsibility was the theme of Ken's article on negative briefing due to be published in the Observer the next day. This occupied my mind on the train journey from St Albans to London, where I was meeting him to see Ralph Fiennes in Coriolanus and Richard II. We had talked and argued about it for two weeks. I understood his passionate dislike of the practice. I knew why he believed that it was necessary to bring it out into the open. I would rather have dealt with it behind closed doors. But, as Ken kept pointing out, people have been trying to do that for years, and failed. In the end, Ken is his own person and has to do what he believes is right.

In the pub after Coriolanus, a woman suddenly called out: "Is there a Mrs Follett here? We have an urgent call from her daughter Kim." My heart stopped. By the time I reached the telephone, I had at least one member of the family dead and buried. But Kim was just cross. Her preparations for her daughter's seventh birthday party the next day had been interrupted by an endless stream of press calls. To top it all, I was not responding to her desperate pages. The Observer had leaked the article and the icing on the donkey cake was being ruined.

The next day, Ken went off to review the papers on Breakfast with Frost while I helped prepare the party. After hanging the balloons on the gate, I rushed off for one of my regular Sunday morning ward walkabouts with local councillors. No one mentioned the article. People were far more concerned with louts, litter and parking.

Back home, the party was under way. Thirty or so seven-year-olds ran around shrieking, eating and dropping food to the delight of our dogs, Custard and Bess, who spent the afternoon scoffing it up. In between, the telephone kept ringing and the pager kept vibrating. I dealt with the tension by eating at least a dozen chocolate cornflake biscuits.

On Monday, I walked into the lobby with trepidation for the seven o'clock vote. A few people hugged me. Others squeezed my hand and said: "Are you all right?" One or two looked angry. Several looked afraid. That was the most disturbing thing of all.

We have to change the sneer-and-smear culture of politics. People say to me: "Well, it's a dirty old trade; if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." I say: "New Labour, new kitchen." We promised to make things better. We all have a part to play in this change. We all have to take responsibility for it.

First and foremost, we must all admit, not just behind our hands, that negative briefing happens. Then we must make some real changes. Televise lobby briefings as they do in America. Stop printing unattributed briefings - again, as they do in America. Get all ministers to tell their staff to brief on policy, not people. Tell the newspapers not to offer parliamentary staff £50 for telephone numbers and £200 for gossip. Pay parliamentary staff enough so they are not tempted by these bribes. Refute negative briefings on websites and in parliamentary meetings. Complain to whips and ministers when rumours crawl down the corridors of power.

Politics will always be rough, but it does not have to be dirty. It is time we cleaned up our act. Then we really will be on message.

This article first appeared in the 10 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Education, education, profit