Tony McNulty was Labour MP for Harrow East from 1997 until 2010. The interview below took place in February 2010, before he lost his seat to Conservative MP Bob Blackman.
Harrow East’s MP in the hot-seat
Stanmore Politics got the chance to grill MP Tony McNulty in his Westminster Office this week, on everything from expenses to Iraq, the potential challenge from Professor Tim Briggs in the next election to the last Mayoral one, and education to who his favourite American president was.
Interview: Feb 1st 2010
Have Labour had a rum deal from the media recently?
No. All governments face harsher media than oppositions, because they are in power and can do things that oppositions can’t. My problem over the last few years is that they have perhaps been a little less than diligent in their scrutiny over the opposition, [who have] had an entirely free run for the last couple of years, which is changing. The greater scrutiny that the Conservatives now come under is one of the reasons for the polls starting to tighten up. They do not sustain scrutiny. There are three different views on the marriage tax allowance. Who knows what their economic policy is? There is going to be slash and burn, and the age of austerity, regardless of the implications. And now it’s, well maybe we’re not going to cut it. They’re just flim-flamming people, which is not a serious opposition.
Do you feel you were badly treated by the media over your second-home expenses?
No. It was perfectly reasonable for there to be such scrutiny, that when the commissioner carried out his work he did it in a very diligent and fair way. He concluded that I followed all the relevant rules and advice I was given at the time. In his opinion the advice was mistaken and that’s perfectly reasonable. I’m not going to complain about that at all.
Is it fair to say MPs didn’t stop because it was right, they stopped because they got caught?
It’s fair in terms of how rotten the overall system is. There was a degree of groupthink, collectively from MPs about the nature of the system. If I have any complaint about the coverage of expenses, collectively, it’s that the starting premise, which I slightly understand but think is unfair, is that every MP is wrong until they prove otherwise. We may have brought that on to ourselves. I can understand that too.
Did you bring it on yourselves?
Maybe, by not being as clear and transparent when the Freedom of Information requests (FOI’) came out two years or so ago. It was incumbent on MPs, collectively, and I take my share of the blame. We should have dealt with the whole issue much, much earlier.
Do you think there should be more tightening up of what MP’s can do now?
I do. There are some confusions around John Lyon doing what he does as [Parliamentary standards] commissioner, [Sir Thomas] Legg doing what he did in terms of looking at everybody retrospectively and then [Sir Christopher] Kelly, and [Sir Ian] Kennedy coming along and having a view as well. Within all those there are the elements of a much clearer transparency in future, but it’s getting a bit torturous getting to that more clarity and more transparency.
Why did you step down as employment minister?
I thought it unfair on Mr Lyons investigations and the Government for me to carry on as minister while that was going on. That was June and it looked as though it was going to be well into October until things were resolved.
With so many MP’s not contesting their seats as a result of expenses, did you ever consider not standing in 2010?
No. Everyone has their own individual views. I have been solely committed to Harrow since 1986. It’s not a reflection on anyone else’s decision to stand or not stand. In the end its incumbent on me to put that experience, record, and everything else, to the people of Harrow, and let them decide. I didn’t ever consider standing down. I don’t mean that in an arrogant way.
the Royal National Orpthapaedic Hospital
The orthopaedic hospital badly needs funding? Have there been any failings there?
It is desperately in needs of funds. We’re now right at the tail end of the last real push to secure funding for the hospital. Nobody doubts that the hospital needs funding, nobody doubts that it has an international reputation. The state of the building is just disgraceful. That they do internationally reputed work in those buildings is astonishing and I take this as a real passion. It’s a delight to that the Conservatives have finally recognised that the hospital exists and have made their very very easy commitments to its future. I remain convinced that we will secure the funding. Andy Burnham [Secretary of State for Health] knows the case for the hospital and they have expedited the process this time round. I am working hard to get a positive decision.
Then why might Professor Tim Briggs mount a challenge to you as an independent in the upcoming election?
Tim is a passionate man, absolutely committed to the hospital. I fully understand his frustration at the way these things work. It’s easy for opposition people to sit on the corner throwing rocks. My opponents never rang me up and said how are you getting on with the hospital, do you want any help? I’ve said to Tim that if he stands against me that’s entirely a matter for him. I will see through successfully the funding of the hospital because it’s the right thing to do, not because Tim wants to stand against me. That’s entirely a matter for him. The Conservatives, who have done nothing on it for the last 13 years have never picked up the phone to help me with it suddenly say they’ll find the money. Well woop-de-doo, it’s a cheesy-easy promise to make when you’re opposition.
What has been the lowest moment in your time as MP?
The toughest moment, which some people don’t believe because they think we all went through the lobbies like sheep, was the decision on the Iraq war [which McNulty supported]. It was a very very serious decision to make and although people portray things in stark black and white terms, history is not like that. There were lots of discussions with colleagues about supporting the war or otherwise, about the UN resolutions and the nuances from the French and the Russians. It really, really was a tough decision. I weighed up the pros and cons either way, first and foremost as an individual not as a government minister. If I’d arrived at the opposite decision then I’d have done the decent thing and stepped down.
Did the Government make the right decision over Iraq?
Given all the information at the time it was the right decision. History is replete with people looking back with 20/20 hindsight.
Your share of the vote dropped from 2001 to 2005. Did Iraq damage your electoral prospects?
Undoubtedly, and in David Ashton we had for the first time in a long time a very good Conservative candidate. I lost 1,500 votes to the Lib Dems in 2005, principally from an anti-war, anti-Blair, anti-trust perspective.
Immigration and the BNP
As a former Immigration Minister, have Labour failings on this put people in to hands of the BNP?
It’s a failing of politics to be engaged with people properly. All parties need to find ways to do that. It’s too crude to say that it’s all about immigration because that affords these people a bit too much legitimacy. BNP members clearly dislike black or brown faces full stop, they’re not saying you’re a third generation Asian so you’re OK, they’re against black and brown people. So the BNP person will come to Harrow and say, look what immigration has done to Harrow and they’ll be talking to the majority of population who were born in Harrow. There is an issue about working and engaging with all communities. There is something to the point that there has been a failing over the last ten or twenty years, not just under Labour, that takes away the legitimate identity, particularly from white working class. But I wouldn’t put it necessarily around immigration.
Could the BNP win in Harrow?
I would neither dismiss the BNP threat nor over egg it. Harrow is multicultural Britain at its best with all communities working together. We saw that when the various far right groups tried to come to the mosque. The way the various interfaith communities came together in Harrow was a mark of the really good work that goes on in Harrow.
Did you see the Paddy Power and William Hill odds of 2-5 that you will lose the election? What do you think of your chances?
In 1997 most of the bookies had us down as unsuccessful as well. All I can do is my job, my campaign and then it’s for the people to decide. I’d rather leave it to the people than either opinion polls or Paddy Power.
What do you think about your Conservative opponent Bob Blackman?
The only thing locally in Harrow we have to judge Bob Blackman on is his four years in the Greater London Assembly (GLA). He was a ghost, he did nothing. Absolutely nothing for the people of Harrow. Most people in Harrow would be surprised he’d even represented them for four years. Navin Shah [who took Blackman’s seat on the GLA in 2008] has done more in 18 months than Blackman did in four years. In terms of Harrow, Blackman’s done nothing. David Ashton [who contested Harrow East in 2005], by contrast, has been a man of some substantial public service.
Do you think the expenses scandal will impact turnout in 2010?
Hard to know but I hope not. Its’ going to be a closer election than the last couple have been. That means more interest and hopefully that means more turnout. What will be interesting is that for I think the first time ever, if its May 6th, I have to put the caveat there, but I assume it is, the London borough elections will coincide with the general election. On a 60 or 70 per cent turnout for the borough elections, probably double what they usually area, it could be quite interesting.
Could Labour take back Harrow council?
It’s a real possibility. On a 60 or 70 per cent turnout there might be some strange ward based results throughout Harrow. I’m predicting that Stanmore Park and Canons are to go Labour.
If you don’t win, what’s next?
I shan’t lose, I shall do my very best not to lose.
I’m not even entertaining questions on whether I lose. My focus is on maintaining a very high representation for the people of Harrow.
You spoke against Boris Johnson and London policing last week?
Boris is getting away with murder. Whatever your politics people like safer neighbourhoods teams, they like what we’ve done with neighbourhood policing. It was extraordinarily brave for Ken Livingstone as Mayor to say to people I’m going to put so much on your police precept, but I promise you a team of six police and PCSO’s in each ward. There’s now such a team in every ward. The way Johnson is for political reasons starving the Metropolitan police, next the safer neighbourhood teams will be under threat. It’s very easy to say to people I will freeze the GLA precept, and he gets a rah rah rah for that. But he didn’t explain to people the consequences. The only new money the police will get this year and next year is a 2.7 increase from central government. Had Boris matched that, we could have been consolidating the police. Now I’m very fearful that the police are suffering.
So you think he’s been a disaster for London?
I do. What’s he done? Boris promised to be the Mayor of the suburbs and has done nothing for the suburbs. Ken [Livingstone] did a good job.
Controversial figure though.
There are things I deeply disagree with Ken on. Especially around inviting Al-Qaradawi because I don’t accept whatever someone’s exalted status as a scholar you can excuse people who support terrorism. I think that’s unequivocal.
Did that sort of thing contribute to him losing?
In part. Plus a concerted and well organised Conservative campaign.
Your commitment in your maiden speech was to education. Do you feel you have lived up to that?
We’ve transformed education in the borough. Much of Harrow’s fabric in terms of its schools was crumbling. There has been huge and significant capital investment and revenue investment and that has transformed the place. That’s from the government. Making sure that Harrow got those monies was hugely important. We’ve now got children’s centres and resource centres that weren’t there before. What we’ve done for the social and educational fabric of the borough has been enormous, so I think we have lived up to that. But you don’t achieve all of it.
No. There’s a debate in the Labour party about it, the same as there is in other parties. But I’m a product of [Catholic] faith schools. I do think they’re a good thing. I don’t think it is accidental that an education rooted in the faith ethos does produce very very good results.
There are hundreds and hundreds of Catholic and Protestant schools in the country. Why shouldn’t there be the equivalent for newer communities? The starting premise from people who don’t like faith schools, that they are by definition divisive, I don’t accept at all. It’s an issue that causes debate within all parties. I don’t get the notion that Liberal Democrats or Conservatives are more pro faith schools than Labour.
Over my term, we’ve had the first Hindu school, the first couple of Sikh schools, the first Jewish school in Harrow. You need to look at it not just through the prism of party politics but are faith schools good in and of themselves and actually can contribute towards community cohesion? I absolutely believe that they can.
Do you think there should be more faith schools?
I say the work starts for a Hindu high school, and I hope it’s in Harrow.
Is campaigning more about the internet now?
We need to work out as political parties quite what the role of the internet is, but it does have a role.
At the time of writing, Harrow Labour’s website is not live, despite a promise it would be by January. Why not?
I do take the point. Online is about information, networking and getting the message to people, all of which does go with what you say about the website. I will look into it.
What about Twitter?
I’ve only just started a couple of weeks back. I’m not active. I’ve just been watching it with interest, weighing up the pros and cons of it and decided it is probably worth looking at.
What about blogging? Rachel Joyce (PPC for Harrow West) is very active in the blogosphere.
It’s quite a tedious blog though isn’t it.
So why aren’t you doing better?
It’s something I will consider. Like a lot of politicians you’re a bit nervy about it. If I think I’ve had an interesting day that people might want to know about, I’ll do a status thing on Facebook. So going from there to Tweeting to Blogging, I may well do. It’s an interesting area that I probably will go into.
Isn’t it a way to inform people?
It is. There is a massive debate about whether blogging is better done from an opposition perspective than a government perspective. [Glasgow South MP] Tom Harris’s blog is very good. I’m not sure he could be as good if he was still a transport minister. Some of the other Labour blogs have gone through fairly painful early starts. The best of them, and I follow them religiously, are very critical and always looking for the next scoop. Which is great fun, but as a politician is there a role for the positive as part of the campaign tool? It’s easier to be an online campaigner if you’re in opposition to something. The better blogs, the most well read blogs, are still opposing things and holding people to account rather than campaigning, like Guido [Fawkes]. And they’re good, I read them all the time. It’s about ways to do it. Just creating a blog in a real kind of wooden way listing what you’ve done and not done doesn’t work.
Has campaigning changed a lot since you started out, with tools like the internet?
In lots of ways it hasn’t. Which I think is a bit of a drag on political parties behind the rest of society. I think blogging will become more important.
Given your impressive collection of US election posters, who is your favourite American President.
It’s complex, if I had to choose only one it would be [Franklin] Roosevelt. Because of what he did both in terms of foreign affairs and nationally in terms of dragging America out of Depression with the New Deal. If I was allowed to cheat a little bit, Lyndon Johnson. For his domestic agenda, not for what he did in Vietnam. He put into fruition what John Kennedy dreamed about. It all got swept up by Vietnam sadly.
Is that what has happened with Labour in the last few years?
Some detractors say Afghanistan is our Vietnam. What’s going on on the Afghani-Pakistani borders does have a resonance here. People generally pooh-pooh that now but I still firmly believe that. Afghanistan is a place that we should be and good work is being done there. It could be done in different ways. Development and growth of the Afghan government with a degree of legitimacy is as important as anything else.