Esther Rantzen: You Ask The Questions
Esther Rantzen answers your questions, including: Why do you want to be an MP? And be honest: have you ever had plastic surgery?
Monday 03 August 2009
What's the point in standing as a protest candidate if your target is standing down?
Firstly, since I am going to stand as an independent candidate, that will offer voters the choice of demonstrating their revulsion with the existing party machines. Which is a far better alternative, I think, than giving them no choice, so that all voters can do is stay at home to show their anger at the allowance scandal.
I believe they are right still to feel enraged. It's the cover-up that gets me, even more than outrageous claims by individual MPs. Rotten apples exist in every barrel. But in this case it looks as if the barrel itself was rotten. They told us they would make public all their claims, but in fact they ducked, and weaved, and went to the High Court, and tried to conceal crucial details, like their addresses. I was horrified that Margaret Moran's local Labour party in Luton South instantly and unanimously supported her when it was revealed that her dry-rot treatment cost us tax-payers £22,500. What contempt that showed for the voters in Luton South.
Margaret is on sick leave now, so Luton South has not been represented in Parliament for months. But at least she has announced that she will stand down.
So of course I take your point. I could now pick a different constituency, where a candidate has not been shamed into standing down. The New Forest East, for instance, Julian Lewis's constituency – he who fought the hardest to keep the truth about the claims out of the public eye, on the grounds of "security". Or Bournemouth West, where Sir John Butterfill got confused as to whether he had claimed for staff quarters or servants' quarters. Either would be convenient, since I have a cottage in the New Forest. (For some reason some commentators think I live in Southampton. I don't. I live in North West London, half an hour away from Luton South).
But geography isn't the reason I still want to stand in Luton. It's simply because I have learned in the last two months to love the place. Because (in spite of what some Lutonians believe) it's a very easy town to fall in love with.
I have found it to be a fascinating, welcoming town, with a diverse, vibrant community. I have spoken to young people and heard why they feel there is a stigma attached to their town, and why they resent people sneering when they say they come from Luton. I have spoken to older people who have lived there all their lives, and, like me, love the place. I have met hat-makers, (the traditional industry there) and civic planners.
Yes, of course there are problems that need solving in Luton South: the car industry in the balance, unemployment, a shortage of housing, fragile confidence. But trying to help solve at least some of these problems would be the most rewarding challenge. What could possibly be more worthwhile?
What can you say to convince me that my voting for you would be a worthwhile political act rather than feeding a self-promoting, attention-seeking stunt?
Look at my record. Sure, I have enjoyed my adventures in showbusiness. But some of these adventures have resulted in real positive changes. Through working in popular television, I have been able to draw the attention to injustices and swindles, and brought about major reforms in consumer law. We strengthened credit legislation, we helped to outlaw unscrupulous door-to-door salesmen, we publicised small-claims procedures, all using "attention-seeking stunts" like hidden cameras to capture dishonest practices. The story of two-year-old Ben Hardwick, watched by 15 million viewers of That's Life!, had the effect of doubling the number of organ transplants. We attracted huge audiences by showing some of the beloved eccentricities of British life, like talking dogs and farmers who played tunes on their milking machines, and at the same time we were able to show them the dangers of wide-spread over-prescription of benzodiazepines, highlight the dangers of unsafe riding helmets, demonstrate the neglect suffered by mentally ill patients.
Not all our campaigns worked. Twenty years ago we showed the dangers of mixed wards; they still exist. My most recent programme revealed the inadequacy of palliative care; though it has improved, it still has a long way to go if we are to achieve good, dignified deaths. I intend to continue campaigning, in or out of Parliament, using every means to get the message across. Good politics depend on effective communication, and that means telling it the way it is (and sometimes using humour to deliver the message) with accessible, well-argued reporting.
One man's "attention-seeking stunt" is another man's Live 8, or another woman's reversal of a stupid law imposed on the Gurkhas. It can be the most effective way to get a point across, and make a positive difference.
If you get in, what do you hope to achieve in Parliament?
I would like to represent the constituents in Luton South. At the moment they are completely unrepresented in Parliament. In addition, there are causes I would like to support, and reforms I would like to take forward. Protecting children, and enhancing their lives would be a priority. At the moment the law can be remarkably abusive. Did you see how the four-year-old rape victim of Baby P's "stepfather" was cross-examined and asked to define "truth"? Is that really a process that creates justice for children? And promoting opportunities and care for older people, and disabled people. And attacking political correctness.
So, Esther, what are you going to do for the people of Luton that an MP belonging to a political party can't do?
I am not an opponent of the party system. However, the reason I am standing as an independent is that I want to be able to make my mind up having listened to debates; deciding on the issues, rather than obeying a party whip. And like all MPs I can rely on my professional experience, working as an investigative journalist and a campaigner for 40 years.
Will you be inviting anti-sleaze candidates to come forward in other constituencies?
I hope they will. And I hope they will come with a real proven track record outside Parliament.
Is it right that MPs can have such a long break, while us drones are lucky to get two weeks for summer?
I take your point. But this time I think they need a break from us, and us from them.
By the end of the next Parliament you will be 75. Aren't you too old to get into politics now?
I once asked the ex-Commons speaker, Viscount Tonypandy, George Thomas, when he was a vigorous 90-year-old, "How old is old?" He said, "About 10 years older than you are yourself." So perhaps when I am 79 I may be getting a little elderly. But a couple of months ago one of my dear friends celebrated his 100th birthday by taking a trip in a Microlight. So as 60 is the new 40, and 100 is clearly the new 60, I think your assumptions are very old-fashioned.
Although you have specialised in the area of Children's Rights with ChildLine, do you recognise there is now a desperate need for a champion devoted to the needs of the elderly?
Yes indeed. Just look at the prejudice in the last question. Above all, the elderly need respect and the freedom to choose whether to carry on working. Thank heavens that so many of us work as hard as ever; the voluntary sector would grind to a halt without us.
It is appalling that you do commercials for the "ambulance chasers". How could we have any faith in a person like that?
It's a myth that we live in a compensation culture; quite the reverse. On That's Life we were horrified by the difficulty that many people face trying to claim the compensation they need, when lives are destroyed by other people's negligence. Knowing that, I took on my current role. The company I represent, Accident Advice Helpline, whom I investigated for a year before I agreed to work with them, works ethically, properly, and has never been an "ambulance chaser". I have met some of their customers who would have faced total ruin without the help they received, and the compensation they deserved.
There are some swindlers in this trade, as in all trades, and perhaps you yourself have suffered from their crimes. Most recently, criminal gangs have provoked dangerous car accidents by braking suddenly, and suing the driver of the car behind for inflated damages. I am delighted, as are all the honest and competent professionals in this field, that the police are successfully prosecuting them. But I am also appalled that you should condemn every company, no matter how ethical they are, and well run.
Do you believe we should pull our troops out of Afghanistan?
Yes of course. But the crucial question is, when? When we have lost heart, lost too many lives, seen far too many people, soldiers and civilians, maimed? Or when we are confident that the Afghan people no longer need or want us to support their fight against Taliban extremists? Obviously the solution has to be political, not military. I certainly think we should try to negotiate with moderate Taliban supporters, but military experts who have experience of trying to negotiate in Afghanistan say it is simply not possible while the Taliban believe they can win by force of arms. And that is why, the military say, it is not yet time to pull out.
Do you think we should legalise drugs? Have you ever taken any illegal drug?
No, and no.
Do you really believe that the people of Northern Ireland are all "addicted to evil" – as you said when commenting about attacks on Romanian immigrants in Northern Ireland?
I didn't say it; I don't believe it. What I did say was that Northern Ireland offers a gleam of hope, in a world torn apart by religious, tribal, racial hatred. And, I said, when women and children have to take refuge in a Belfast church, terrified for their lives, it demonstrates that for some people violence can become addictive. I am surprised and saddened that I should have been misquoted in this way, but that, I suppose, is an everyday experience in politics.
As a resident of Luton South I am extremely angry that you will attempt to exchange my chance of having effective and competent political representation for a pension and publicity for yourself. Since Margaret Moran announced that she was standing down weeks ago, why haven't you gone away?
Calm down dear. We live in a democracy. Vote. But just for the record, I'm certainly not in it for the pension, nor for the publicity, but because it's the most important, fascinating, and challenging job in Britain.
Do you believe assisted suicide should be legal in the UK? And would you contemplate it if you had an incurable degenerative disease?
Yes, within a careful legal framework. I met the Turner family, and listened to their view – which is that their mother died far earlier than she need have – because she had to be sure she was fit enough to travel to the Dignitas clinic. [Dr Anne Turner killed herself in Switzerland three years ago after calling for a change in the law. She had the rare degenerative condition progressive supranuclear palsy.] And yes, I would do anything to avoid my children having agonising memories of final days with them.
Who have you voted for in past general elections?
The three main parties. I have always been a floating voter. It's my right. And a responsibility that I treasure.
If you have the casting vote in a hung Parliament, would you go into government with David Cameron or Gordon Brown? And what are the issues that would help you decide?
In a hung Parliament, I would cast my vote with whichever party could convince me by argument and evidence. I would go into government with whichever party offered me a role in improving the lives of children, especially vulnerable children.
How much should an MP get paid and will you be taking the full amount if elected?
Probably the same as the head teacher of a moderately-sized school. Yes, I will take the salary I earn.
What was the most you claimed on expenses at the BBC? And do you think the current executives there are over-paid fat cats?
I didn't claim expenses. Some of the executives are certainly overpaid, given that they have enviable jobs with the BBC, and no market value outside it. A machismo seems to have grown up over the past 10 or 15 years, which meant the BBC felt they had to pay over the odds. So some salaries and pensions now seem to be wildly out of step with the commercial sector.
I think honesty is vital in an MP. Have you ever had any plastic surgery?
I too think honesty is vital in an MP. So I would say, in all honesty, that my medical history and my sex life are my own business, unless I choose to discuss them with you. I have certainly been photo-shopped. And although I complained at the time that the resulting totally unwrinkled picture is unrecognisable, I find I am complaining less and less about it as the years go by.
Could you tell me something about yourself that we don't know?
I have recently been persuaded to try hold-up stockings, only to find that they fall down, especially when I run for a train. (Where is That's Life! when you need it?)
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