Now, I know you're all on tenterhooks, dying to know how my little confab with the local MP, Paul Uppal went. Well, I can assure you that it lived down to my expectations to the tiniest detail.
The occasion was a meeting of local residents in a solidly Conservative-voting suburb. It was called by Mr Uppal in a pub, to discuss a planning application for a 13-metre (45ft) mobile phone mast on the pavement outside the listed, elegant building. At least 40 people attended - all-white, 50+, Tory-voting, concerned citizens.
Now, on the substance of their anger, I'm neutral. They were convinced that a mobile phone mast would cause cancers and pointed out that there's a school and a hospice for the terminally ill close by (I wondered how many of them had mobile phones and where they thought the masts should go). They also felt that the mast would be a huge eyesore and (a few said afterwards), it would reduce property values by 15%. I'm in total agreement that the mast would be another disfiguring attack on pleasant suburbia, but I can't comment on the cancer claims, though my instinct (and this British Medical Journal paper) suggests that it's not a problem, but there's also plenty of research which at least hints at health risks. I don't care about property prices either - they need to come down to a sane level - but these citizens have a perfect right to make their points and I respected their feeling that the council has been playing fast and loose with the planning process. They are good people and they're feeling aggrieved.
So that's the crowd: perhaps not fully informed but justifiably annoyed. Now to the star turn, Mr Paul Uppal MP. Did he have an informed view of the science? No, of course he didn't. With considerable political skill, he collected everybody's name and addresses (his little aide didn't like me declining to give mine), promised his support and offered to be a conduit as a good elected representative should. I toyed with asking whether there were any mobile phone masts erected on any of his buildings, and whether he'd helped non-Tory ward residents agitate against masts when it was a Tory council, but it wasn't my meeting. My sense is that Uppal doesn't personally give a damn, but he's intelligent enough to spot a cause and a group of solid Conservative voters when he meets one, and that's enough. Certainly he didn't object to speakers' suggestions that the Council is 'trying to make the Hospice worse', which is pretty cynical.
So that's the substance of the event. But what of our little romance? Well, I have to say that it remains a love-hate relationship. My first brush with the party machine was when I produced my camera and took a couple of innocuous shots of the illustrious Member. Over came a little painted doll who must still be in sixth-form, demanding to know who I was, why I was there, and why I was taking photographs, which were forbidden.
My friends, my tender heart was pained at the sight of the fair bloom of youth working for a Conservative. What pain, what suffering has to have been endured to turn a sweet child into the face of a party intent on attacking the poor, the sick, the young and the old? I declined her demand for my personal details unless she reciprocated, but my offer was refused, which is a shame because she certainly needed some missionary outreach to show her the error of her ways. Ah well, another soul lost to Satan.
Having failed in her quest, the pretty minion returned to her master with the sad tidings that some reptile was refusing to fall into line, and I received a personal audience with Mr. Paul Uppal, MP. Did he greet me as an old friend, or as a valued constituent, or even a potential voter? He did not. None of the famous charm was wasted on your correspondent. The principle tenor of our exchange was paranoia and aggression: by the end of it I was actually shaking and blushing. Brusquely, he demanded to know
whether I was from the press (clearly this public meeting was actually a secret meeting, though the residents had informed the local paper).
- Who was I? (I gave him my real name because I have nothing to hide).
- Why did I want to take photographs? (At this point I suggested that most politicians were rather keen on publicity, and repeated my point about being a constituent). He seemed rather upset by this, and got more upset when I took notes of our conversation.
- Why am I writing things down?
- What's it for?
I explained that people took notes at meetings, and that other people present would be doing the same thing, a suggestion that seemed to horrify the eminent representative. We goggled at each other angrily, then he retreated to start the meeting, which I've already summarised.
One interesting other aspect of the event was the behaviour of Wendy Thompson, a Tory councillor. She explained that, as she was on the planning committee which would eventually vote on the proposal if the professional officers felt it was controversial, 'the council's solicitor's wouldn't be happy that I'm even here', because she was legally forbidden to express an opinion. Despite this, she still managed to refer to rejection as the 'right' and 'appropriate' decision, and gave the residents a list of objections they should use: she and Uppal are fully aware that the health claims are weak, and encouraged everyone to 'sing from the same hymn sheet': Cllr Thompson's repeated use of 'we' and her warm messages of support from the other Tory ward councillors didn't make me confident of her neutrality in any way: I may just find time to draft a complaint…
So that was the meeting: a classic of grass-roots political operation - a multimillionaire cynically using local distress for political gain. It had one final sting: the sweet little aide trotted over with a new tactic. She informed me that she couldn't stop me taking photographs, but I'd have to have the permission of every person at the meeting. I pointed out to her that every crowd scene photograph and CCTV image would be automatically illegal if that were the case, but she didn't see my point. I could have snapped pics of everybody there, legally, but as it happened. I simply wanted a souvenir of my MP in action, and I got them. Feast your eyes on The Photos He Tried To Ban.
So was this meeting enough? Have I had my Uppal fill? In one sense, yes: my suspicions that he's a slippery, paranoiac Tory bastard were more than fulfilled. But in another sense, his paranoia has reinforced my desire to hold him to account, especially in the absence of any local journalism worthy of the name.
If you want to meet the great man, get down to the Civic Centre on Friday at 2, where he's on the panel to discuss Climate Change (cue platitudes hiding actual attacks on the environment). Sadly, I can't be there: I'm being interviewed to find me something to do at the Olympics, because I Am The Big Society.