|On The Road With Angie Bray|
Ealing Central and Acton MP is focus in political magazine
Total Politics is a lifestyle magazine for those interested in politics. It's free to MPs and political journalists and also available on subscription.
This month it focuses one of its regular sections 'On the road with...' on one of our local MPs, Angie Bray.
It's an interesting look at the varied work of a constituency MP. We have reproduced the article in full (with permission).
Ealing Central and Acton MP Angie Bray has always done her politics in London.
Jess Bowie spends a day with her, meeting some exceptional 11-year-olds, hearing the woes of disgruntled residents and attending a gathering of the local Somali community (with a cameo from William Hague).
The American comedian and Seinfeld co-creator Larry David has one strict rule for his comedy: ‘no hugging, no learning’. In other words, to be successful, characters must display no emotion, and their experiences should teach them nothing. The rule for a day out with Angie Bray in her constituency is the exact opposite: lots of hugging, lots of learning.
Bray has strong and affectionate relationships with her constituents and during our travels around her Ealing seat, a great many sets of arms are warmly thrown around her shoulders. Among her own criteria for being a good MP are “to make sure you have an open ear, that you are learning, listening, and then doing what you can”.
Larry David might not approve, but to hell with him. Although – incongruously, perhaps – one of Bray’s staffers, Joy, is a glamorous American who once appeared in a few US TV pilots, this is real life, not a sitcom.
Bray, in her own words, has been “knocking round the party for some time”, having variously been head of broadcasting at CCHQ, John Major’s press secretary and a London Assembly member for eight years. When she entered Parliament in 2010 her Ealing Central and Acton seat was the most critical three-way marginal constituency in the country. It remains precarious: “If anything happens to the Lib Dem vote and it goes leftwards, I could get the same vote as I got last time and be beaten,” Bray says.
It is also one of the most diverse seats in the country, incorporating a 2000-strong Somali community, mostly based in South Acton, large Polish and Pakistani populations, and London’s only Japanese school. Housing here ranges across the entire spectrum, too, from run-down council estates to pricey Victorian terraces.
BRIGHT AND BRILLIANT
After arriving at Acton Town and meeting up with the irrepressibly enthusiastic Joy, who describes herself as “Angie’s community outreach person”, we head towards our first appointment of the day: Berrymede Junior School, a state primary on the edge of the South Acton Estate.
Bray has been a governor here since 2007 and raves about the school’s “remarkable” reputation. “If I had kids I’d send them here,” she says.
Soon we are ushered into the office of Lubna Khan, Berrymede’s head. Talk turns to a careers fair that the school is planning. “We thought they should have ideas at a younger age about what the future could look like,” Khan explains. The list of professionals scheduled to attend includes a firefighter and an architect – and two blank spaces next to “journalist” and “photographer”. Joy gives an encouraging wink to me and the Total Politics snapper, Paul.
Around 40 different languages are spoken by Berrymede’s pupils, Khan says, “but if you walk around the playground you will hear English.
When asked if there are any problems with integration Khan says that a few years ago teachers were seeing kids from strict Wahhabi backgrounds blocking their ears in assembly so as not to hear music, and also in RE lessons so as not to hear about Christianity. Khan said she put a Bible, a Koran and a Torah on the stage, and asked the kids if there was anything wrong with any of them. No-one put up their hand, and after that it got better, she says.
The conversation moves on to the school’s other governors, and Bray makes case for a local Somali woman called Bishara to be appointed. Bishara, who has done a lot of anti-FGM work in the community, is very keen to become a governor. “She’s young, gorgeous, and a great representative for her community,” Bray says (“gorgeous” is one of her favourite adjectives).
Throughout the meeting with Khan, a few references have been made to The Brilliant Club – a group comprising 16 of the school’s brightest Year 6 children. Its 10 and 11-year-old members help interview prospective teachers, take philosophy modules with PhD students, and travel to Oxford to receive diplomas. They sound slightly intimidating.
Now we are told that we’re going to meet them. We’re shown into the sports hall and suddenly Bray and I are sitting in front of a semi-circle of a dozen children. It’s unclear who will be questioning whom.
We learn that The Brilliant Club have just written an essay about attitudes towards poverty. Bray talks to them about Victorian philanthropy, describing how the attitude of the day was that people who could help others should. “There then came the recognition that government needed to step in and do things statutorily,” Bray adds. (I ask myself how many 11-year-olds have the word ‘statutorily’ in their vocabulary, and conclude that if any do, it’s likely to be these ones.)
As a general discussion about charity begins to unfold, one boy describes seeing people on his estate try to break into flats – they are homeless and looking for somewhere to sleep.
Bray tells the group that some people argue charities shouldn’t need to exist, because the government should be able to look after everyone, and asks them what they think.
“The government doesn’t have all of the money,” says one boy. “It can’t give the money to every single problem.” His Brilliant Club colleague, who sports a pudding bowl haircut, disagrees. “If it was an ideal world we wouldn’t need charities because the government would do everything,” he says.
I ask the children what they think of the current government, which lands me a stern look from Bray. “Naughty! I never usually talk to them about politics,” she tells me. But realising the can of worms has been opened, Bray then asks if anyone knows which party she belongs to.
“Labour?” they chorus.
She tells them she’s a Conservative and asks if that makes a difference.
“Yes,” a voice pipes up softly, “Because I’m very left-wing.”
It belongs to the boy who said that in an ideal world we wouldn’t need charities. Ed Miliband had better watch his back.
After piling into Bray’s Mini to drive to our next appointment – a meeting of the Somali diaspora in Ealing Town Hall, at which I’m told, the foreign secretary William Hague will be present, Bray offers some background about London’s Somali community. She talks incredibly fast and fluently, and her grasp of the issues affecting the Somalis – here and in Somalia – is impressive. The meeting will be hosted by the Anti-Tribalism Movement, which was set up to try and ensure Britain’s Somali community leave their tribal emnities behind, and integrate in the local community. (The group still has its work cut out: I hear later on that members of the diaspora often won’t set foot in certain Somali-run, South London cafes because of pre-existing tribal loyalties.)
Adam Matan is a figurehead of the community and leads the Anti-Tribalism Movement. “He’s a young chap, very charismatic and gorgeous looking,” says Bray, who has been working with Matan and others in the community on issues like money transfers. Bray describes how Barclays, one of the few banks which facilitates accounts for small companies who operate money transfers, is now on the verge of stopping the service. For Somalis in Britain sending money back home, “it’s been an absolute trauma”.
“The Somali diaspora worldwide send in something like a billion pounds worth of money a year, which is seriously important for a very, very poor country. If that money flow stops, it’ll have a serious effect on the economy. I’ve taken Adam to meet Treasury ministers and I’m doing everything I can,” Bray says. The only assurance: “the UK government really recognises the problem”.
A few minutes later, in the Victorian grandeur of the town hall, I meet Bashara, the anti-FGM campaigner whose praises Bray was singing earlier. As we wait for WIlliam Hague to arrive, Bashara has only kind words for her MP. “Angie always helps the Somali community, and she’s the only one... the other ones who want to be candidates haven’t been to see us,” she says.
Soon the foreign secretary arrives sweeps in, surrounded by minders in suits, and the room falls silent. As he stands and speaks under a wrought-iron chandelier at the back of the room, he exudes an almost presidential air. Bray gazes at him adoringly.
From 2010, onwards, Hague says, he and the prime minister decided that Somalia had been neglected in international affairs and that it was here that Britain could make the biggest difference. “I’m also the first ever British foreign secretary to visit Somalia twice,” he adds with a smile. He gets a big clap.
Over the next hour a huge range of issues are discussed, including piracy, the herbal stimulant khat, Al-Shabab and the critical issue of money transfers. On the latter topic Hague says a solution must be found, and that he will give the issue additional attention.
One woman makes an impassioned plea for Britain to do more to help Somalia. “We have a better situation here in Britain. No one can kill us,” she says. “But when I go back to Mogadishu, I’m scared.”
Hague gestures to Bray, and says, “Don’t underestimate speaking to MPs, who have a direct line to ministers.” Few do: many who have questions for Hague begin by thanking Bray for her work championing their community. “Next year at the general election, I somehow feel like we’ll have to vote for you!” one man says to her. Everyone laughs. “Yes, you will!” Hague says.
Back in the Mini, we head to a cafe near Ealing Studios for lunch. I ask Bray if her party is doing enough to demonstrate that it understands the demands of diverse, urban areas like this one, as well as those of its home-county heartlands.
“Urban politics is different, there’s no doubt about it, and maybe the Conservatives have come to the new urban politics a little bit late, but I think we’re catching up quite fast,” she says, pointing out that the creation of the London Assembly – on which she was Conservative group leader from 2006-2008 – brought a renewed London orientation for a new tranche of the party.
“As for taking an interest in the concerns of diaspora communities, why wouldn’t you be interested? I don’t embrace issues like remittances because I think it’s going to garner me votes. So it’s just a no brainer for me – it’s not a calculated decision.
“To me, urban issues are very interesting challenges. That may be partly because I worked at LBC radio for a long time and found myself reporting on every imaginable aspect of London life. But I think a modern day politician of any stripe in an urban seat… is going to do better if they’re genuinely interested in the issues affecting their constituents.”
Over lunch, conversation turns to Bray’s Labour opponent in 2015, Rupa Huq, whose sister is the former Blue Peter presenter Konnie Huq. “She’s nice. We get on well actually,” Bray says. She goes on to describe how Rupa, a lecturer in Sociology at Kingston University, had written a book about suburbia in which she had used a quote from Bray about regeneration in Acton. Huq invited Bray to her book launch and Bray, who had expected to find “a little tea thing, with everyone moving around” suddenly found herself walking into what felt like a “massive bloody great meeting of the Labour Party, including lots of senior figures”. To Bray’s surprise, Huq then said “ladies and gentlemen, that’s my local MP Angie Bray, just wanted you to know she’s made an effort to come this afternoon”.
“I thought what a friendly, nice thing to do,” Bray says. “It gives me confidence that it will be a clean, reasonable fight, which is all you can ask for.”
ELECTRICTY IN THE AIR
Our next appointment is of a more practical nature: to hear the woes of some disgruntled South Ealing residents whose lives are being blighted by a nearby electricity substation. The vast industrial complex sits on a leafy, residential street, and its hum is audible as soon as we open the car door. We meet a local Tory councillor, Roz Reece, a genteel woman in pearls who has been listening to The Archers in her car, and head into someone’s living room, where a group of unhappy neighbours are having tea and biscuits. A tapestry on the wall reads: Christ is the head of this house; the unseen host at every meal; the silent listener to every conversation.
The power station is jointly used by SSE and the National Grid, but owned by SSE – who, according to Reece, “haven’t got it right since 1964”. Upon hearing about the hum – and the construction dust that sometimes flies over from the substation, Bray went straight to the SSE chairman, and has her third meeting with the firm scheduled for September. She asks the residents whether SSE’s communications have got any better. No-one raises a hand. “We’ve had letters from them saying ‘we’re going to do this’, but they don’t say how it will affect us”.
Out in the road, with the hum ringing in our ears, Bray points to the transformers. “Yes, those are the big noisy boys there,” she says, before asking couple of men in hard hats on the other side of the metal fence to put in a good word with their bosses about some screens that will help prevent noise and dust.
Back in the car, Bray tells me about our final appointment. Last November, she says, a family approached her with a truly awful story. Without their knowledge, a friend of the family – the husband of the mother’s best friend – started sending obscene sex texts to their 13-year-old daughter. The daughter didn’t say anything because she realised it would upset her mother’s best friend, instead becoming depressed and withdrawn. Her grades suffered at school and eventually, unable to bear it any longer, she broke down and told her parents what the family friend had been doing. By this stage he had sent her over 2,000 texts, sometimes 30 in one day.
The family alerted the police, Bray says, and “the CPS decided that because it was such an egregious example of grooming, they wanted to throw the book at him.” But because of a gap in the law on grooming, whereby evidence is required that a meeting has been arranged, the family had to go down another route, prosecuting for an attempted criminal act. This was ultimately thrown out by the judge, again because a meeting hadn’t been arranged. The man ended up walking free from court.
Devastated by the verdict, the family came to see Bray. Bray immediately went about trying to get the law changed. After numerous meetings with the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, the NSPCC and the attorney general, she got herself on the bill committee for the malicious communications act, and with cross-party support, proposed an amendment which would ensure tougher sentences for crimes of this nature – and indeed for similar forms of cyber-bullying and stalking.
This afternoon, Bray wants to visit the family to give them the Hansard containing her speech on the amendment and a copy of the Evening Standard, which covered the change in the law on its front page.
In the family’s living room, they relive how they felt when the court case collapsed. Bray then tells them that the bill is progressing through Parliament and that she predicts no problem with “our” amendment. “You look great,” Bray says to the daughter, who dropped out of school during the ordeal but plans to return in September.
Because the law cannot be changed retrospectively, the man’s not guilty verdict still stands. But he no longer lives in Ealing, having been bankrupted by the court costs. “The only way we can get anything positive out of it is to make sure it doesn’t happen to other people,” the mum says.
“We’ve really come to say congratulations to you,” Bray tells the young girl. “Thanks to your bravery, we’re changing what’ll happen in the future.”
“Thank you to you,” the girl says softly. “You’re the one who’s made this happen.”
As we gather our things, the mum, dad and the girl see us to the door. Before Bray leaves, each gives her a big hug.
Bray on... whether the Boris obsession is good for the Tories:
Do you know what, I think it’s a bit like the weather: you can’t necessarily switch it on and off as you wish. Boris is Boris, he’s as big as the weather, frankly, and I’m not sure whether I think it’s a good thing or a bad thing is going to make any difference.
Bray on… female MPs:
You want more women in parliament but you want more of the right women in parliament. Women who are absolutely able to take it on and deal with it, and love it and who’ve got the energy and the rhinoceros skin. It’s therefore not just about having a lot of a type of person, it’s about getting the right people. I have a problem with all quota type lists.
Bray on... rebelling over Lords reform, for which she was sacked as Francis Maude’s PPS:
I have no regrets. I think it was constitutional vandalism of the worst possible sort, and the most ill-thought-out, cobbled together piece of legislative nonsense.
This article first appeared in the June issue of Total Politics, reproduced with permission
12th June 2014