Interview: Bill Rammell

By Dan Atkinson

When Labour MP Bill Rammell was swept into power on the surge of Tony Blair’s rise to government in 1997, he scooped a massive 54% of the vote in his constituency of Harlow.

Since those heady days Mr Rammell, now armed forces minister, has seen his party’s and his own popularity wane, to the point where in 2005 he held his seat by just 97 votes.

With his party trailing in every poll, and an unexpected challenge from Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats emerging, Dan Atkinson asks the minister what he feels are the major issues in the general election.

What do you think are going to be the most important issues for voters in this election?

The economy, the need for affordable rented housing, investment in schools and hospitals, help for pensioners, immigration and restoring trust in politics.

Do you think that people will be voting mainly on national or local issues?

A mixture of both. I have found strong support for Labour’s huge investment in schools and hospitals over the last 13 years, and of course economic issues over the last two years have really gained prominence. However, it is clear that people feel strongly about the cuts Tory-controlled Harlow council have made in the last two years.

How easy is it to divide your time between your ministerial and constituency duties?

It helps if you are a workaholic as I am. But Harlow and the villages will always be my number one priority. Every weekend I am out on the doorstep and on the telephone in Harlow talking to residents. I am proud of being a responsive, approachable MP. Since I was elected, I have handled over 18,000 problems raised with me by constituents. Even my political opponents concede that I am a very active, ‘hands on’ constituency MP.

What are your priorities for the next 5 years, should you be re-elected?

I will continue working seven days a week, 365 days a year for Harlow and the villages.
I will campaign for an A414 / M11 link road to reduce unacceptable traffic in Harlow.
I will work to deliver more affordable housing for rent and sale and campaign to keep jobs in Harlow and the villages.
I will work to deliver a new youth facility in the area and continue to work to preserve facilities like the Square in Harlow, which the Conservatives tried to close.
I will continue to fight Tory Harlow and Essex county council cuts at every opportunity.

Do you think the expenses ‘scandal’ has done more damage to the Labour party than your opponents?

I think the expenses issue has done damage to all parties and politics in general. We must all work together to restore trust in politics. We all should have stopped this expenses system before.

Do you think that your party’s plans to tackle ‘sleaze’ go far enough to restore public confidence?

Labour will introduce a power of recall so that where an MP is found guilty of gross financial misconduct, but parliament fails to act, electors will be able to petition for their representative to be recalled and a by-election held. I believe we have acted quickly to clean up politics.

Labour will work to create a new kind of politics which re-engages the public. We fully supported the review of expenses by Sir Thomas Legg as part of the wider effort to draw a line under the expenses episode and strengthen public trust and confidence in the political system. We have ended the discredited old regime of self-regulation, where MPs set and administered their own pay and expenses, and introduced a new system of independent statutory regulation by people independent of MPs. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) will now provide rigorous scrutiny and review of the allowances scheme for Members of Parliament.

How would you rate Labour’s achievements over the last 13 years?

I am very proud of what Labour has achieved in Harlow since 1997. The national minimum wage, Sure Start children’s centres, winter fuel allowance, cutting waiting times at NHS hospitals from two years to under 18 weeks, more than doubling the amount spend per school pupil, improved maternity and paternity pay and extra support for pensioners.

We are not perfect, no-one is. But it is important that people remember that these things just did not exist before 1997 when the Tories left office. Locally, I am very proud that Harlow has seen huge regeneration since 1997 which I have fought for. There is a new sports centre and swimming pool opening this year which will be the envy of the region, a new university campus opening in 2011 and two phases of town centre regeneration, the first of which has been completed and the second of which is set for completion by 2014.

What issues are you personally passionate about?

First and foremost I am passionate about the issues which concern my local constituents. I am also very interested in housing, education, health, foreign and defence policy.

What ambitions do you have for the future – do you intend to remain in ministerial roles or would be content to be a backbencher?

I will work in whatever way I can politically to advance the interests of my constituents and what I believe in.