14 May 2001
Sometimes in politics when your opponent is on the ropes you need to show some restraint instead of attacking on instinct.
One such situation is going on in my constituency and the neighbouring one of Brentford and Isleworth, represented in the last Parliament by husband and wife Labour MPs Ann and Alan Keen.
Alan Keen held my seat of Feltham and Heston, an area much in need of regeneration. In Heston, there are plans – popular locally – for a developer to rebuild the library and swimming pool.
In a soap–opera–like twist, the developer turns out to be Mrs Keen’s long–lost son, given up for adoption and reunited with her a few years ago. It seems the Keens suggested he had a look at this borough when in search of new projects.
Since then, Alan Keen’s been saying what a jolly brilliant scheme it is, and how everyone should be pleased to support it. He’s also been reasonably open about his relationship with Mark Lloyd–Fox, the developer. It’s no great secret.
One person who’s only just found out, though, is the Conservative candidate Liz Mammatt, a former Barnet councillor who moved to this constituency a few months ago and is now claiming to be an outraged local.
According to her, it’s Labour sleaze at its worst. Mr Keen should resign. Mrs Keen should resign. Everyone should resign (except her – she wasn’t very impressed when Alan Keen called her despicable and said she should go).
I looked at the story from a different perspective. Like Mark Lloyd–Fox I was put up for adoption as a baby, and like him I traced my birth mother a few years ago. It’s not an easy situation even when it happens in private, and I shudder to imagine the difficulties faced by a birth parent in the spotlight like Ann Keen.
The social workers warn you may bring chaos into your birth mother’s life but they don’t give any helpful tips about what to do if the mother turns out to be an MP, and they don’t warn you that the difficult bit is building a relationship in the years that follow.
The simple truth is the relationship cannot possibly be as close as if the two of you had never been apart. That’s why Mrs Mammatt’s charge of sleaze is preposterous and insulting, and that’s also why I, and my Brentford and Isleworth colleague Gareth Hartwell, have pledged not to make this an election issue. So long as the Heston development remains open and above board, as it has so far, it is simply not our business – and nor is it Liz Mammatt’s.
It was a promise made without thought of electoral gain – but unexpectedly it’s provided some. A local paper has praised us in an editorial, while a voter wrote to say “I thought the Lib Dems’ promise not to make this an election issue was commendable and they will get my vote for making such a mature judgement”.
That’s heartening, but in a way it’s beside the point. Making the pledge was about doing the right thing. Surely that’s what all of us – myself, Gareth, Mrs Mammatt, and the Keens alike – are supposed to be in this game for?