Mole's marks after first year

Ipswich MP Chris Mole arrived in the House of Commons after winning the by-election on November 22 last year. As the anniversary of the election approaches, Political Editor PAUL GEATER assesses his impact – and compares him with his predecessor Jamie Cann.

By Paul Geater

Ipswich MP Chris Mole arrived in the House of Commons after winning the by-election on November 22 last year. As the anniversary of the election approaches, Political Editor PAUL GEATER assesses his impact – and compares him with his predecessor Jamie Cann.

CHRIS Mole arrived in the House of Commons after winning an election that no one wanted – caused by the untimely death of Jamie Cann.

His performance during the campaign was solid rather than spectacular – as was the result.

Labour's majority was halved, but this was mainly because of the fall in turnout – normal for a by-election – allied to a strong performance by the Liberal Democrats, who always put a lot of effort into such polls.

Since he's arrived at the House of Commons, though, Mr Mole has fitted in well among the ranks of New Labour backbenchers – all anxious to keep their noses clean and catch the eye of ministers who may have to appoint a parliamentary private secretary.

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Mr Mole is a very different creature to his predecessor, although he was seen as the natural heir to Mr Cann in the immediate aftermath of the popular MP's death.

As in all large political groups, there are factions within Ipswich Labour Party. And those closest to Mr Cann blamed some of their colleagues for plotting against him during the last parliament.

Mr Mole had not been one of the plotters and was seen as an "honest broker," someone who could attract support from all local Labour supporters – at least he had no enemies within the organisation.

That was why he was the only local nominee when a shortlist for the Labour candidate in the by-election was drawn up.

It was, however, known that he was a very different character to Mr Cann – and had very different opinions on key policies.

Mr Cann was a Euro-sceptic. Mr Mole is a keen pro-European.

Mr Cann upset many of his party colleagues both inside and outside parliament because of his opposition to equal rights for homosexuals. Mr Mole supports the party line of equal rights.

Mr Cann was not so keen on the term New Labour – "I don't know whether I'm new or old," he once told me. "I'm just Labour!" Mr Mole is a keen advocate of New Labour values.

Since arriving in the House of Commons, Mr Mole has seemed very aware of his status as "new boy" – he's still the second newest MP, only Ogmore MP Huw Irranca-Davies has been elected since his arrival.

He's tried hard to avoid upsetting his colleagues and settling down to life as a backbench MP.

This has sometimes meant that when a controversial issue has raised its head, he hasn't taken a lead on pursuing the issue.

This willingness to keep his head down has possibly been the greatest contrast with his predecessor.

One of the first issues that Jamie Cann took up was the future of Bentwaters air base when supporters of transcendental meditation sought to turn it into their own university.

Mr Cann saw the base as a possible airport for the Ipswich area, and although it was not in his constituency he led the fight against the Maharishi's supporters.

"We want proper flying here, not a load of nutters bouncing around on their backsides," he said in a reference to the meditators' practice of "Yogic Flying."

His intervention irritated Suffolk Coastal MP John Gummer, who has Bentwaters in his constituency, but to Mr Cann that was like a campaign medal – he had clashed swords with Mr Gummer many times as Ipswich council leader and enjoyed annoying the then Environment Secretary.

Mr Cann angered Mr Gummer again after the 1997 election when he joined with The Evening Star to campaign for the saving of the Bartlet Hospital at Felixstowe.

Again it was out of his constituency – but he didn't mind. "My constituents use the Bartlet, of course we must save it," he said.

Mr Mole is much more reluctant to tackle issues outside his constituency – which was borne out by his reaction to last month's gales which left thousands without power.

Ipswich was not as badly affected as rural areas, and Mr Mole did not receive any complaints from constituents.

He even said that the government was "over-reacting" in calling for a public inquiry into the problems faced by customers – although later he said that the inquiry being carried out by Colchester-based BPI was the right level of investigation.

"If Jamie had still been MP, he'd have been marching into 24seven on the Monday morning demanding to know what was going on," one Labour Party member told the Star.

Another difference between the two men is that Mr Mole seems more comfortable in Westminster than Mr Cann was.

Before becoming MP he was leader of Suffolk County Council and deputy chairman of the East of England Development Agency (EEDA), a role involving a lot of talking with government ministers.

Although Mr Cann was respected by many leading Labour figures, this was because of his independence of thought and his willingness to put his constituency ahead of political loyalties.

Mr Mole is much more in tune with the thinking at Labour headquarters and is more comfortable working in and around Westminster.

"We don't see him as much as we did Jamie," another Labour worker told me. "But of course that doesn't mean to say he isn't doing as much – it's just that he's more comfortable down in London."

Certainly Mr Mole is no more difficult to get hold of than his predecessor.

Mr Cann had a distrust of modern technology that amounted almost to technophobia.

He had a mobile phone, but the only person who knew the number was his wife and secretary Rosie. He didn't like computers and didn't have a website or e-mail address.

"I don't want Californian nutters (clearly one of his favourite words) bombarding me with their wacky ideas," he once told me.

Mr Mole has all of these – and his mobile phone number is often sent out in his parliamentary letters.

So far as the press is concerned, he's always happy to talk to us – even if his comments aren't as snappy or as controversial as his predecessor's.

At the end of his first year, Mr Mole has clearly been working hard in Westminster and settling into his new job.

He can easily be contacted by his constituents, and he certainly isn't a remote figure unlike some parliamentarians.

But he hasn't yet really made a mark on Westminster. He hasn't upset anyone or really caused any major ripples – and in the tough world of parliament, if you want to make an appetising political omelette, you have to crack a few eggs!

How do they compare:

Chris Mole:

Loyalty to government: New Labour loyalist. Only slight doubts over war on Iraq (believes we should only join action under UN mandate) and was initially critical of a public inquiry over electricity problem although later accepted government line. 8/10

Constituency profile: Has had a high profile among community leaders in Suffolk for several years as county council leader, but still making his name known in the constituency. Attends a number of events and is approachable, but not yet a household name. 5/10.

Fighting for the area: Still finding his feet in Westminster, but has been busy with constituency work since his election – albeit more quietly than Mr Cann did. 6/10.

Overall verdict: 19/30. Solid start, hasn't yet set the House of Commons alight – but has avoided making any dreadful gaffes. Needs to build up his profile in the constituency.

Jamie Cann:

Loyalty to government: Passionate Socialist, but had doubts about some aspects of New Labour. First MP to defy government whips after 1997 election – over proportional representation in Europe. Respected as a rebel with principles. 6/10.

Constituency Profile: Love him or hate him, everyone in Ipswich knew Jamie Cann from his years on the council as well as his years in Parliament. 10/10.

Fighting for the area: Never let his political masters in Westminster – or constituency boundaries – get in the way if there was an issue to be fought. 8/10.

Overall verdict: 24/30. He may not have been born in the town, but to all intents and purposes Jamie Cann was Mr Ipswich. When he died we said he'd be a hard act to follow. That comment still applies today.

RELAXED and back in his home constituency, Chris Mole has been preparing for his second parliamentary session as MP for Ipswich.

But he acknowledges that he still has much to learn as he navigates his way around the Palace of Westminster.

"Some of the old hands say it takes at least two years before you find your way around this place," he said.

"In a sense I am still finding my feet – but it has been a busy time learning the ropes."

Since his election Mr Mole has found himself a small flat near Westminster – and he's had three separate offices in London.

"I think my office is settled now, in the former Old Scotland Yard building," he said.

And since his elections, he's been busy with constituency matters.

"I've had 1,300 cases to deal with so far – they vary from long-running matters which take several months to deal with to just a postcard from someone asking you to vote against hunting," he explained.

Mr Mole has two offices – he took over Jamie Cann's former office in Silent Street in Ipswich and he has his office in Westminster.

"I'm in London from Monday lunchtime until Thursday evening most weeks – and that won't change when parliamentary times alter in the new year," he said.

"It isn't practical to commute from Ipswich – although I would be able to return to the constituency if there was an important evening meeting," Mr Mole added.

He was aware he did not share some of Mr Cann's personal beliefs, and felt comfortable as a Labour backbencher.

"There is a bit of a generation difference there, of course, and the style may be different – but I am still a Labour MP representing Ipswich, like Jamie," he said.

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