Forget values or policies - if you're a woman, getting selected as a parliamentary candidate is all about the hair

Sally Gimson, who is seeking selection as the Labour parliamentary candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn, shares a few thoughts from the campaign trail.

I have been obsessed for the past few weeks with the selection of Labour’s next parliamentary candidate in Hampstead and Kilburn. Glenda Jackson will be standing down in 2015, the all-women shortlist has been whittled down to the last three of whom I am one, and the hustings and decisive vote are on Sunday, which also happens to be Bastille Day. In case you are wondering, this is a selection Unite has decided to sit out. Hampstead and Kilburn has a large and independent-minded membership, about 900 strong, which makes the outcome horribly unpredictable. As a candidate, the election is about mobilising your friends, holding a fund-raiser and spending every day knocking on members’ doors, ringing them up, sending them emails and leaflets until they are sick to death of the lot of us. And then giving a knock-out speech at the hustings. It is costly in both time and money, which is why candidates always try for union backing because that is one of the few sources of help if you are not independently wealthy. I am proud to be endorsed by Aslef. One forgets though that politics was always for some people a hand-to-mouth business, and can be the worse for not being so. Clement Attlee had lots of jobs before he became an MP, working for charities, as secretary to Beatrice Webb and to Toynbee Hall, and serving at Gallipoli, where he was the last but one man out of Suvla Bay. Disraeli was scandalously in debt.

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What I detest most about the current bunch of Tories is that they have encouraged and indeed see nothing wrong in a global oligarchy which is floating away from the rest of us. These people do not pay taxes and have their businesses registered off shore. This is the case for many of the businesses now taking over public services. Neither these firms nor their bosses have any  real stake in Britain. They don’t care about public services and are interested in pushing down wages across the board. Moreover they use expensive lawyers to close down any legal challenge to their position, while  the Tories and LibDems have abolished much legal aid which would help the less well-off  challenge them. It is inherently unfair and a Labour Government will have to pass bold legislation to stop it.

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Out canvassing, I find myself meeting everyone from young management consultants, pragmatic Labour as one might call them, who have spent their adult life in Blair’s Britain and are passionately interested in how you obtain social justice within a global capitalist system, to the romantic old literary left in Hampstead, poets and artists who have seen the world change beneath their feet. Their reference points are Attlee and post-war Labour governments and they make the necessary connection to Labour’s intellectual socialist foundations.
 

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Meanwhile a significant part of the electorate live on the council estates in Kilburn. These people most need a Labour MP and a Labour government to stand up for them, but very few of them are Labour members. Nor indeed are most of them unionised. They are stuck on very low pay, going in and out of unstable work, sometimes disabled and heavily reliant on benefits. With the Government’s cuts and changes to benefits they are all too easily forced into the hands of loan sharks and many may end up being forced out of London. As lawyer on the Kilburn High Road reminded me Labour in the 1970s was instrumental in setting up law centres, and legal firms up and down the High Road offered free advice. That has all but gone now. The Citizens Advice Bureau also moves out this summer.

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My husband, Andrew, has been the subject of a certain amount of speculation. Does the fact he’s a bit of a Tory make any difference? With a majority of only 42 in a three-way marginal I hope it might be an advantage to be able to pick off supporters of the other side. This is the letter he wrote to the Camden New Journal:

In your admirably even-handed account of the candidates to succeed Glenda Jackson, you suggest people might think it a drawback for Sally Gimson to be married to me. So I would like to reassure any of your readers who may be worried about this that although I have Tory tendencies, I have been unable, in the last 21 years, to change a single one of Sally’s political opinions.
 

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I haven’t yet managed to meet Emma Thompson, another famous member, who is a prominent campaigner against the third runway at Heathrow. Alan Davies, the comedian, has come to several events, behaved charmingly and seems genuinely enthusiastic about choosing the next parliamentary candidate. I do wonder whether the whole process might not make for a one-minute comedy sketch and he is just gathering material.
 

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My preoccupation with politics means the house has become a bit of a mess. When a professor friend arrived to stay from America she had to get our younger daughter to take her shopping for supper.  I get occasional texts from our son’s school saying he has not done his geography homework. The 11-year-old is acting more like a flatmate than a daughter, the kind of flatmate who labels the milk, keeps their room immaculate and gives you disapproving stares when your friends come round. And the 17-year-old . . . I can’t tell you about the 17-year-old because that would embarrass her. Suffice to say that seeing her parents’ rackety lifestyle of journalism and politics is making her more determined to have a proper job as a doctor.
 

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My biggest, if somewhat disillusioning, discovery is that it is really all about the hair. Forget values or policies, one of the essentials for being a woman MP or parliamentary candidate is the hair. Get up close to Harriet Harman’s hair and you’ll see what I mean. It’s a work of art: the different subtle colours, the smoothness. And Rachel Reeves’s hair, dark, shiny and immaculate. Barbara Castle and Margaret Thatcher used to have their hair done every day. Even when Mo Mowlam didn’t have any hair, she still used her wig to her advantage. For the first time in my life, I have invested in a proper hair dryer, but I am not sure this is enough.

Sally Gimson is a Labour councillor for Highgate, Camden and is seeking selection as the Labour parliamentary candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.