The TV presenter Esther Rantzen is trying to get elected as MP for Luton South during the next general election. I well remember her TV programme "That's Life!" from when I was growing up as a kid and after she started following me on Twitter I thought I would try and find out a bit more about her campaign and what is motivating her and she very kindly granted me an interview.
My questions are in bold and Esther's answers are in italics:
You expressed an interest in running as an independent anti-sleaze candidate in Luton South earlier this year after Margaret Moran, the Labour MP found herself embroiled in the MPs expenses scandal. Initially you suggested that you would stand against Margaret if she decided to stand again but she has announced she is standing down. Why are you still standing given that your initial reason for doing so is no longer applicable?
I was outraged when I heard about the abuse of expenses. Especially Margaret Moran's. When I said I'd stand against her at the General Election, there was a great deal of support among the people of Luton who encouraged me to stand. I heard their complaints, her absence from the constituency for long periods of time, the lack of response to constituents when they called on her for assistance. I was greatly saddened that so many people felt utterly unrepresented and I realised I had fallen in love with Luton, and Lutonians, their warmth, their energy and the unfairness they had suffered. People in Luton South felt abandoned by their MP and had lost confidence in our democratic processes. They told me they need someone they can trust and I hope to be that person: someone who can carry their constituents' issues forward rather than a party-formulated agenda, someone who can listen to reasoned argument and form an opinion, someone with the life experience to take a view on matters of national importance, like child protection and who will serve the interests of Lutonians.
You have spoken out about professional politicians and questioned why people from a non-political background cannot become MPs. Why do you think this rarely happens these days and given your views on this, do you think it is right that it often seems to be people who are famous for other reasons (e.g. Martin Bell, yourself) and also who are relatively well off from these previous careers who are in a position to be able to run as independents and have a realistic chance? What would you do to change this?
The idea that career politicians know best and that people from all walks of life don't or can't understand what is best for their community seems high-handed, pompous, arrogant and out of touch. Martin Bell and I might attract the most publicity because we are already known to the electorate but financial status should not and does not have anything to do with our standing as Independent candidates. For us both it has been a matter of principle.
This Election may surprise people who believe that politics should be reserved only for politicians. I hope a number of well-qualified Independents are elected. If we want apathy to be transformed into active participation, that is one of a number of things that can be done to encourage more people to vote and take a role in local and national politics. Transparency is another long overdue reform. Parliament should never have become a club whose members made up the rules, a system that permitted people to submit fraudulent expense claims without any apparent safeguard or accountability. The House of Lords should be a wholly elected chamber, with plenty of cross-benchers with a strong track record in public life. And yes, Parliamentarians should be paid a decent but not overly generous salary, set by an Independent body.
I believe in the party system, but I also believe Independent MPs and peers would act as a constant reminder that they cannot be used as lobby fodder, that debates are impotant, that issues should be considered carefully on their merits, and that good judgement is more important than unquestioning party loyalty.
You say: "Martin Bell and I might attract the most publicity because we are already known to the electorate but financial status should not and does not have anything to do with our standing as Independent candidates." but realistically the ability to garner publicity and a sound financial basis are things that go very strongly in favour of an independent candidate who would not have the backup of a party machine to fall back on. Given that you evidently would like to see more independent MPs, what would you do to improve their chances? For example, do you favour any sort of electoral reform to our system for Westminster?
Of all the Independent candidates who stood at the last Election, Richard Taylor was the one with the greatest success but he was neither well-known previously nor especially well-backed financially. He captured the imagination of the constituents by being aware of the local, as well as national issues, gaining the trust of local people by being visible and seen to care. These qualities are much more important than notoriety or money in establishing a successful campaign and so they should be.
You have been maintaining a blog about your experiences as a candidate but it only seems to be updated relatively infrequently (e.g. only 4 posts in the last 2 months). How are you finding blogging and will you be upping the rate of posting as the election moves closer?
I have been experimenting with a number of communication tools, most recently with Twitter (@Esther4Luton). My blog is really my diary of events in Luton and my experiences with the electorate, but more recently the concise and interactive nature of Twitter has caught my attention as a way of getting across who I am and what I think. Certainly in the couple of weeks or so that I have been using Twitter, I have attracted over 600 followers and many of them have engaged me in lively debate online. Most definitely, once the election has been called, there will be much more on which to report and I will be looking at a number of ways in which to get my message across.
Twitter was the mechanism through which I got in touch with you in the first place and you seem quite active on it. Do you know roughly what proportion of your followers are within the Luton South constituency?
Twitter is a global phenomenon and represents a worldwide community, so it is only natural that those from the Luton South constituency would make up a very small percentage of the total. What I find interesting is that comments made to me on Twitter are remarkably consistent, regardless of where the sender is located.
As a long standing high-profile figure at the BBC and given your initial reasons for getting involved in this campaign, would you be happy to see the expenses and remuneration of BBC employees subjected to the same level of scrutiny as MPs? Some would argue after all that BBC employees are also paid from the public purse. Also, would you be happy for your own expenses and remuneration from years gone by to be released into the public domain?
I didn't claim expenses while I worked at the BBC and the salary they paid me was always far less that I was offered by ITV. The BBC do now seem to have started the process of greater transparency, which is right and proper. However, unlike Westminster, there are private sector equivalent markets so they argue that commercial sensitivity might mean they lost out and talented artists would desert them for commercial TV stations.
If you were elected and came top of the ballot to introduce a Private Members’ Bill what would you want to do?
What to choose? I’d like to make so many changes in child protection legislation. For instance, I would increase the maximum sentence for dangerous murderers like the killers of Baby Peter. I’d like Parliament to create a new Commission into the treatment of child witnesses in our courts, at the moment children are not protected adequately in our adversarial system and far too many abusers walk free. I would legalise assisted suicide, with careful legal protection for the vulnerable. I would deal with crazy awards of compensation in negligence cases, by creating a legal defense of acting in the best interests of a patient or a client. I would make it a legal obligation for local authorities to provide sufficient safe play areas for children. I would make it illegal to prevent adult taking photographs unless there was evidence that it would cause harm, (why shouldn’t Granny take a picture of her grandchild in the Nativity play?). I could go on…
Have your experiences of campaigning so far and the work that candidates/MPs do made you any more sympathetic to them?
I have enormous respect for the work many MPs do and the demands upon an elected MP. Anyone who believes otherwise does not understand my intentions at all. I have friends in Parliament, I have met and worked alongside a number of MPs who deserved the utmost respect. But we have heard of way too many MPs over the past 20 years or so, who have seen the role as a free ride on a gravy train. And they have disgraced Parliament and the standing of MPs generally. But there are many who work hard for their constituents and I don't have to look too far to find someone like Kelvin Hopkins, who has represented Luton North since 1997, to know that there are some who are exemplary, regardless of their political affiliations. As an Independent MP, I would hope to follow their example.
If elected, it is traditional for a new MP to pay tribute to their predecessor in their maiden speech. What nice things are you planning to say about Margaret Moran?
During her time as MP for Luton South, Ms Moran commissioned a useful report on domestic violence. She also had very good taste in hats - though Luton did provide her with excellent options from which to choose!