Polish Londoner

These are the thoughts and moods of a born Londoner who is proud of his Polish roots.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Congrats Tom Levitt; Farewell Phil Woolas

Very enjoyable evening on Friday night (incidentally wettest bonfire night ever) at a theatre in Camden. I went to see my old friend Tom Levitt put on his one man show - "Expenses".
"Oh no, not THAT subject again," you may think.
Yet it was fascinating to see one of the supposedly despised victims ("Nobody was asking me to leave: but nobody was urging me to stay") caught in the headlights by the MPs' expenses scandal, bite back. Basically innocent, not only by "the rules" of yesteryear, but even by today's supposedly new improved ethical standards, Tom had been left to weave in and out of a welter of accusations over wreaths, replacement kitchens, John Lewis chairs and mortgage repayments, without having a proper forum in which to clear his name. All he would be facing would be inquiry after inquiry after inquiry. And if he had chosen to offer compensatory restitution for something that had been quite legal and proper, where would it end? It would never be enough for the hunters. The mud was being thrown and was sticking because the hunt was on and political blood was in the air. One immediately thought of Kafka facing his nightmare.
It was a bit like the French Revolution. The ancien regime itself had to be overthrown, so individual aristos went under the guillotne, whether individually blameless or not. Even scientists like Lavoisier or poets like Chenier could not be saved from the blood lust. Personally innocent, but guilty until proven otherwise, Tom could find nothing that could bounce him back. As I pointed out to a "Politics Today" broadcasting team that came to see the play, the only way he could have diverted attention away would have been with something drastic, like suddenly saving a child from drowning or becoming a cabinet minister.
So a year after his declaration that he would no longer stand for parliament again, Tom has been able to give his answer and take quiet and subtle revenge on the mixture of reactionary and plebian accusers who hounded him so mercilessly then. Will his voice be heard? It was an enjoyable spectacle in a small little theatre, with knowing laughter and sympathy from a sophisticated audience, but it could work as a radio play too. The underdog could have his day at last.
Two lovely touches in the play: First, when he told his wife Teresa (a childhood friend of mine incidentally - Polish of course) that he had decided to resign, her reply was a quiet "Thank you", even though she had not once counselled him to go; secondly, when his raison d'etre for being a politician, namely, to help constituents like "Mrs Benson" with their day to day problems, was reduced to mockery by the discovery that this mythical lady whom he had helped had been imprisoned for defrauding the benefit system.

And now one of the Labour attack dogs has been kicked out the kennel by a court of law.
Talking of Tom being "caught in the headlights" is exactly the impression that Phil Woolas, former Immigration Minister, made all the time, especially when he was minister. He seemed to be like a confused hatchet man trying to run around putting out fires that were the result of his own party's neglect. One remembers when he had been ambushed by Joanna Lumley over the rights of ex-Ghurka soldiers to settle in Britain. He was the one who had to interpret the extraordinary laid back Labour approach to the cultural impact of immigration and to take on the leather skin of an anti-immigration toughie. Too little; too late.
In particular I remember meeting him at an MP's office in the Commons a year ago. I asked him when he was going to abolish the Worker Registration Scheme for Poles and other Central Europeans. Or else reduce the cost, which had gone up to £90 recently. He shook his head and said that for the moment abolishing WRS was not a political option and the scheme gave the government vital staistical information and prevented benefit fraud. I gave examples of where the WRS statistics were totally misleading. "Well," he answered with a shrug, "we all know it's a load of bollocks anyway".
Now he has been caught out using inflammatory and false accusations against a Lib Dem candidate in the last election. In racially volatile Oldham, Phil had accused his opponent of working with Muslim extremists and had supposedly not condemned their threats to kill the minister. All the accusations were untrue of course. But Phil had survived the election with a majority of only 103 and was now seeking to make a comeback in Ed Miliband's new shadow cabinet. Oh dear!
Well the courts have struck down Phil Woolas to the shrill condemnation of others, Labour, Lib Dem and Tory alike. He has lost not only his seat, but his right to stand again for parliament or even to vote. The criminals will now get the vote, but not Phil Woolas!
Yet it is often the Lib Dems who have the worst record for dirty politics at elections. Unlike Tories and Labour who throw mud at each other composed of their ideological prejudices, the Lib Dems are famous for their vicious peronal insinuations. One remembers the horrendous anti-gay campaign against Peter Tatchell in Bermondsey which started the political career of closet gay Simon Hughes.
Now there will be a by election, but somehow I don't see the Lib Dems winning it.
But whither Phil Woolas? What of his future? Best advice. Wait a couple of months and write a play about it!

1 comment:

  1. Agreed, an excellent play which definitely deserves wider currency. "Making Allowances" to give it its full title chronicled the human impact on MPs of their expenses system coming under the media spotlight. As someone who has known Tom possibly longer than Wiktor, I recognised many of the key figures in the Westminster drama, all of the vignettes acted out by the ex-MP himself. No splashing around of cash on an expensive production here. Tom played every role, adopting a variety of accents and demeanours as the story progressed, including Scottish, Geordie,Tory toff, blunt Derbyshire and a shocked falsetto for the secretary taking notes during his inquisition by a Daily Telegraph reporter.
    There was a terrible irony about the huge error made by the investigating authorities who wrote demanding that he repay £20,000 for allegedly over claiming on the mortgage for his London flat. They had muddled up two claim totals, one of which was 40% allowable, and one 100%. By reversing the percentages on a spread sheet, some junior clerk in the investigator's office - evidently unable to total a column on an Excel spreadsheet correctly - had wrongly accused Tom of overclaiming. Once the error by the investigator was discovered, it was clear that Tom's housing claims were totally correct. Down to the very last penny.

    Just imagine how the media (of which I am a member) reacts when the boot is on the other foot. Shock horror! Buxton couple get fright of their lives after 'out-of-the-blue' demand for £20,000..... Bill for £20K turns out to be 'clerical error'. Heartless bureacrats condemned for subjecting Derbyshire family to months of worry. "We simply could not pay it," said Mrs L of Buxton. "We were terrified the bailiffs would turn up any moment." You get my drift......

    In the play we never heard whether Tom and his wife received any apology for the investigator's mistake. Nor did we find out if the pen-pusher who made such a simple error and caused such stress was invited to apply for the bureacratic version of the Chiltern Hundreds.

    Today I caught sight of a tabloid headline detailing Phil Woolas's misdemeanours. Shameless, it screeched.

    What a pity that such adjectives seemed to be reserved for only some of those who devote their careers to public service while others hide behind anonymity. Well done Tom, for a brave effort in telling another side to the story!