Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Sally Hamwee rocks!

Alright, this might not be the headline that leaps most readily to mind when you think about the noble Baroness Hamwee of Richmond upon Thames, but I think that it’s high time for a re-evaluation.

Like many people, even those whose interest in politics is somewhat above the norm, I have traditionally paid little heed to what goes on in either the London Assembly or the House of Lords. The media are where they believe the action to be, and that place is the House of Commons. Meanwhile, work of equal, or more likely, greater value is going on down the corridor and down the river.

Sally Hamwee has served the electors of Richmond upon Thames and London for some years (courtesy causes me not to say how many, but if you’re interested, why not look it up…), as a councillor, as Leader of the council, as a member of the London Assembly – including chairing the Assembly itself – and has a wider brief as a key member of the Communities and Local Government team in the Lords. Until recently, this had little significance to me, and I perceived Sally (as much as I thought of her at all) to be a rather distant, slightly daunting senior figure within our ranks. That is, until I actually met her.

Our paths had crossed in the past, although in mostly glancing terms, but as a colleague of Ros’s, we’ve had occasional conversations in recent months. However, her ‘elevation’ to the position of president of London Liberal Democrats has brought us into closer contact. Apart from being a source of wise counsel, one of the roles of the President is to open our regional conferences and chair the Annual General Meeting. As Chair of the Regional Conference, I therefore have to work with her to ensure that her contribution is properly organised.

On this occasion, however, it was decided that we should honour her for her work as a member of the London Assembly, particularly important given that she did not stand for re-selection and is therefore retiring (a word I use with caution), along with (Lord) Graham Tope. Tasked with organising a suitable gift, I employed my contacts to ascertain what this might be and arranged for purchase.

The agenda was set so as allow Sally time to make a speech on any subject she cared to pick, and she chose to review her eight years on the Assembly, acknowledging the efforts of her colleagues, celebrating the good times, and the not so good ones, bringing events at the Assembly to life and leaving no doubt as to how proud she was to have served London and the Liberal Democrats. She struck just the right tone of outrage at the antics of Mayor Livingstone, and commended Brian Paddick as the best choice for London.

I admit that, as the applause died down, I was impressed. I had never really considered Sally to be the emotional type, more a calm, level-headed technocrat than a warm and witty speaker, but I was clearly wrong.

Indeed, Sally isn’t retiring, far from it. Once the elections are out of the way, she will return to the Lords to lead for the Liberal Democrats on the new Housing and Planning Bills, where her sharp analytical mind, and close command of her brief will doubtless cause the Labour frontbenchers much angst as the summer approaches. It would be nice if she found time to enjoy her gift though…

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