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Words: Daniel Bond
Photos: Paul Heartfield
"Every single male trade unionist is now a born-again feminist,” Frances O’Grady announces. “I have ordered it should be!”
The first female general secretary of the TUC is sitting in her Congress House office in Bloomsbury, discussing sexism in the trade union movement past and present. “Clearly, trade unions are made up of ordinary people, in all our glory as human beings,” she continues. “So of course there was and is still sexism in the movement, in the same way there is sexism in public life. But we’re getting there, slowly. There’s more work to do, it’s not fast enough, but we are getting there.”
Her feminist diktat is, of course, tongue in cheek. And in any case, the holders of this office no longer command that level of obedience; gone are the days when the head of the TUC sat at the top table as one of the most powerful figures in the country, striking fear into the hearts of prime ministers and chancellors.
But there’s certainly more than a grain of truth in her joke, too. Gone, also, is the idea of the male-dominated, ‘beer and sandwiches’ labour movement of the last century. A trade unionist in 2014 is just as likely to be a young, degree-educated woman working in a profession as the blue-collar man of stereotype. The proportion of female workers who are members of a union overtook that of men a decade ago, and the gap has grown ever wider since. The latest figures show 55% of union members are female. And while progress towards equality in the top positions has been slow, the TUC’s latest Equality Audit showed 41% of its general council are women, as are three in ten union general secretaries.
“It’s not good enough,” O’Grady adds firmly after listing the figures. “But it’s a lot better than the board room, and especially better than Cabinet. What’s different is we’re taking action to promote equality, not just in our own ranks, but in the world of work. Of course the trade union movement was not and is not perfect. But it is trade unions who campaigned for and won equal pay, and an end to sex discrimination, and things like childcare, like help if you’re looking after elderly parents. You know, this is the real stuff that makes a difference to people’s lives, and in particular gives women more of a fighting chance to get through.”
And Frances O’Grady knows a thing or two about fighting her way through. Born in Oxford in late 1959 and educated at a comprehensive, as a teenager she worked in a kitchen washing dishes at an Oxford University college; an experience which motivated her to challenge what she saw as a system based on privilege and inequality. She read politics at Manchester, then joined the TGWU in the 1980s, at a time when the battles against sexism in the workplace were, she says, “much more wild west” than they are now. “At that time, as trade unionists, we were still campaigning against, for example, pornographic pinups in the workplace. We started a campaign against sexual harassment at a time when it didn’t even have a name, you know.”
After co-authoring a book entitled Women, Work and Maternity: the inside story, and earning a reputation as a successful campaigning trade unionist, she joined the TUC in the mid-1990s and led their New Unionism initiative. In 2003 she made history as the body’s first deputy general secretary, before being elected unopposed to replace her former boss Brendan Barber in January 2013. Articulate, down to earth and rident, O’Grady is at heart a consensus leader and believer in the soft power of persuasion. She has shunned the more confrontational language of some other union leaders and played down talk of general strikes and winters of discontent throughout this parliament, instead arguing that unions need to come up with more imaginative, bolder strategies to advance their aims.
But, as the Government found out last week, she’s certainly not afraid to back mass strike action if she feels it necessary. Up to a million public sector workers across half a dozen unions are estimated to have taken part in the biggest one-day strike this side of the Second World War, angered over changes to pensions and years of real-terms pay cuts; the average public sector worker, O’Grady says, has lost more than £40 a week since 2010.
“So this has a huge impact, and I’m astonished, frankly – maybe I shouldn’t be – by how out of touch this government is in not listening to those workers. There are parts of the press who like to portray trade unions as ‘horny-handed sons of toil’, and mindless militants and so on. Well, these are home-helps, librarians, refuse collectors, school meals workers who don’t fit that stereotype but who simply cannot manage their budgets anymore, and now, as we’ve heard, they’re being told they’re going to have another four years of it, with real pay cuts continuing to 2018.
“Given the Government has refused to engage in real consultation and negotiation and is just imposing these changes, it’s not surprising that they’ve run out of patience and they’re angry and upset – and the only way of protest left to them is to go on strike.”
With the Conservatives committed to £12bn more in public spending cuts in the next parliament, and Labour pledging to match their plans – at least in the first year – are we likely to see more widespread industrial action continuing after 2015? “If the Government is to push ahead with its plans to cut a further £12bn from public spending, then I think it needs to answer the question: where is that money going to come from?” she replies. “We’ve already lost half a million jobs. People are sweating to cover the jobs that have been left vacant or have gone. Ordinary people in communities are asking how much more is going to be taken away in the form of libraries, nurseries, services to old people and the disabled. People on benefits – and of course the majority of people on benefits are in work – are asking how much more of that is going to disappear?
“So I think the Government has got some hard questions to answer. And if they can’t answer them in a way that satisfies, then without doubt there will be trouble ahead.”
The public sector action last week attracted much of the media attention, but there was another strike that day which could have equally far-reaching implications for industrial relations. Staff at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton went on strike for the seventh time in their four-month long campaign to win the London living wage, currently set at £8.80 an hour. This new generation of young workers, struggling on low pay in casualised industries, are “precisely” the people unions need to start “showing we’re relevant to”, O’Grady says. “And we’re beginning to do that.”
Union membership is considerably lower among younger workers, particularly those employed in the private sector. “But that’s not because young people are more individualist, or less friendly towards unions – they support our values,” O’Grady says, pointing to polling from recent years showing almost four in five 18-24-year-olds backed public sector strikes against changes to pensions, compared with a little under half of over-65s. “It’s because of where they work and how they work. They are much more likely to be ghettoised into industries like hotel and catering, where the turnover is very high, where it’s very hard to build sustainable union organisation, and where, frankly, they’re often very afraid that if they were to stick their head above the parapet they would lose their job, or they wouldn’t get promoted, or they’d find the next short-term temporary contract they’re looking for – because of course young people are much more likely to be in insecure contracts – just doesn’t arrive.”
The challenge for unions, then, is to take a much wider approach, building broad alliances and coalitions rooted not just in individual workplaces but across local communities, and backing grassroots campaigns against things like unpaid internships and zero-hours contracts, or encouraging employers to voluntarily sign up to the living wage. There is a “new mood in the country”, she says, with more and more people recognising that “the only way they stand a chance of winning fair pay and decent conditions is by joining together in a union”. “We’re working more with self-organised groups; people are beginning to organise themselves and then seek the support of unions, which I find very exciting. It is a profound challenge, but it’s also an incredibly exciting one, because I’ve seen more inspiration coming up through the grassroots – there’s that sense that trade unions are returning to the communities that gave birth to us, that sense that yes, we are people’s voice at work, but increasingly people in communities are looking for us to be their voice, too."
Membership figures for unions over the course of this parliament are encouraging for O’Grady: the number of members picked up for the first time in a decade in 2012, driven primarily by an increase of tens of thousands of workers in the private sector. But, of course, this follows decades of steep decline since the 1980s, an era which O’Grady says “saw inequality let rip” and the trade union values of solidarity and collective action demolished. “Effectively, it was ‘you’re on your own, pull your socks up, look after yourself and forget about your neighbour’,” she says.
But the unions, too, have to accept their share of the responsibility for struggling to keep pace with the changing environment. “We’ve got to adapt and change to the new pretty brutal world of work for many people, and also to find ways to make our values – of working people looking after each other, of solidarity, decency, dignity at work, fair pay and conditions – we need to make those as important as they’ve ever been.”
“In 21st-century Britain,” she continues, “it seems that young people who work so hard to get their qualifications are, on average, on very low pay, and often in insecure work. And we have to tackle that. There is a real problem with the labour market; it’s becoming a permanent feature. That’s not how a fair Britain should be in the 21st century. So there’s a lot that’s happening, but ultimately we need to tackle the source of the problem.” And above all, she says, the source of the problem is political.
The TUC is not officially affiliated to Labour, but O’Grady concedes she is impressed with the direction of the party under Ed Miliband; a man who, from pledging to take action on low pay to taking on the energy companies over rising fuel bills, has proven that he not only “has a big brain” and “cares passionately about ordinary people”, but that he “has a little bit of steel in the soul as well”.
But, she adds, there is a “real sense of grievance” across the country that politicians in all the main parties have not done enough to understand. In October, the TUC will hold a march and rally in Hyde Park entitled ‘Britain Needs a Pay Rise’, aimed at highlighting the squeeze in living standards and real wage cuts experienced by working people in both the private and public sectors. “It’s a simple message, but quite a powerful one that politicians from across the spectrum need to hear. This is a deeper problem than one party or another. I think it’s a problem of politics; there is a failure to understand just how tough it is for ordinary people, and that there is a limit to how much people can take.”
As for the Conservatives’ recent pledge to introduce a minimum 50% turnout threshold for strike ballots, O’Grady is clear: such an “out-of-touch” policy would be a big mistake, and “go down very badly” with mainstream voters. “I think most people in this country have a sense of fair play; they understand that unions are an essential feature of any democracy, and that if you’re in a trade union you have democratic rights too,” she says. “And I think they find it very hard to understand why there should be one test of a democratic ballot for trade unions, and an entirely different, easier test for politicians. One rule for politicians, and another rule for everybody else? No, those times have gone.”
If the Government was genuinely interested in encouraging democracy in unions and improving turnout in strike ballots, she continues, ministers would be open to working with the TUC to develop modern voting methods, including secure electronic balloting. “The problem is we’re stuck with these 20th-century forms of balloting imposed on us. Frankly, if you could only vote by post for your local council or in a general election, I suspect that participation would drop significantly too. Any democrat, in whatever party, their first priority should be how can we make it easier and more likely that people will exercise their right to vote? And we know what works; we know how we can improve participation. It’s perfectly possible to do. So let’s find what works and what will boost participation. That should be our first and overriding principle.”
But the threshold policy is just one part of a wider, more worrying shift underway at the top of the Conservative party away from cooperation and towards confrontation, she fears, with some ministers also mooting time limits on strike mandates, reform of the ‘check-off’ system and a crackdown on time off for union reps in the civil service.
“I think they need to rethink their strategy, really. I think it would be a profound mistake for the Conservatives to position themselves as anti-trade union. There are many ordinary, decent people – including, of course, some Conservative members – who are members of trade unions, and who find the language and the politics being proposed for the future very hard to take and out of touch with mainstream opinion in the country.
“I know there are decent people across the parties who are worried about this, and I suspect it’s not the Prime Minister’s natural inclination either. There’s a sense that there is, if you like, a group of Conservative politicians who want to replay the Thatcher era. But I don’t think there’s an appetite in the country for that.”
A consensus leader to the core, the last thing Frances O’Grady wants is a replay of the destructive confrontations of the 1970s and 80s. But she didn’t become the first woman to lead the TUC without being up for a fight.
Words: Paul Waugh and Daniel Bond
Photos: Paul Heartfield
“To defeat a populist party, you defeat them conversation by conversation, doorstep by doorstep, street by street, community by community.”
Douglas Alexander is in his Commons office, talking about UKIP. But as he plots Labour’s course for the momentous year ahead, his message applies equally to the coming street battles against the Scottish National Party, the Tories and the Lib Dems.
Perched on his bookshelf is a placard he brought back from the 2012 Democratic National Convention that preceded Barack Obama’s own final push to the electoral finish line. “Fired Up” is its slogan, and that’s just how Labour’s general election strategy chair appears to feel.
A self-confessed aficionado of American politics, Alexander hopes that his party can mix Obama style passion and know-how with British pavement politics to defeat both David Cameron and Alex Salmond.
But with the Scottish independence referendum less than nine weeks away, his priority this summer is the battle for the Union. With Alistair Darling heading the fight, what will Alexander’s role entail? “I’ll be part of the team that’s trying to bring home the vote on September 18th,” he says. “From the inception of Better Together, Alistair has been keen to work with me and use me in the campaign and I’ve been happy to play a part in that. Whether it was in devising our message at launch around ‘The Best of Both Worlds’ or the message that we are now using, ‘No Thanks’, we are working closely as a team.”
“While I’m not complacent I’m confident we are making our case effectively as we enter the final phase of the campaign. And in just a few weeks time all the shouting will be over. In the quiet of September 18th, it’s not just the future of Scotland but the future of the United Kingdom that will be decided. To build up Britain or to break up Britain. And on the morning of the 19th of September, I don’t want, as Scots or as people in other parts of the UK, for us to wake up as foreigners. So the stakes are high. I don’t want the idea of a multi-cultural, multi-national, multi-ethnic state on these islands to die.”
As polling day gets closer, the importance of the decision grows, he says. “In the closing weeks of the campaign I think we will see a focusing of minds. There will be a new intensity to the campaigning in the weeks following the Commonwealth Games.”
That intensity may make what has been a pretty bitter campaign even worse, some fear. Does the Better Together camp share some responsibility for it? “At times this referendum has been marked by a rancour, a divisiveness, that I would not want as a bitter legacy after Scotland makes its decision,” Alexander replies. “I hope strongly that if Scotland chooses to stay within the United Kingdom, that result will anticipate reconciliation.”
But just why has the referendum debate been so acrimonious, often more so than the usual knock-about between Labour and Conservatives south of the border? “I think the choice we Scots face is deep and deeply personal. It’s not just about what kind of nation we want to be, it’s also about who we are. And it touches very deep emotions in many of us. And all of the pride and the passion and the patriotism and the sentiment isn’t just one one side of this argument. If Scotland were to vote Yes, there would be many torn souls on both sides of the border. Sadly and regrettably some, particularly on the nationalist side, in the wake of people speaking up, have chosen to criticise.”
He’s referring, of course, to the online abuse J.K. Rowling received after she came out against independentce. “It’s hard to think of a public figure more loved and esteemed in Scotland than J.K. Rowling, an extraordinarily gifted writer and somebody any nation worth its salt would be proud to have welcomed to its heart,” he says. “And yet when she had the courage to enter the public square, she was decried and bulled by far too many voices and I think that brought discredit on a debate that should be worthy of this moment in our nation’s history.”
As for Alex Salmond’s response, Alexander says it was too little, too late. “I think Salmond could have been more statesmanlike at various points in speaking up for Scotland. He has subsequently made some remarks but I wish he’d spoken up at an earlier stage.”
He welcomes the Church of Scotland’s plan for a service of reconciliation on the Sunday following the referendum and urges the SNP not to continue fighting guerrilla warfare if they lose. “There will potentially be a painful reckoning for many nationalists. And I sincerely hope if we see a No vote that even those who passionately argued for the other case will see their task as making devolution work, not proving devolution wrong.”
The former Scottish Secretary says that ‘the ground has shifted’ in recent months as Labour, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats all backed ‘devo max’ powers for Scotland. “It’s striking how unwilling the nationalists have been to contemplate what would be their response to a result that opinion polls continue to suggest is the most likely. There has been a deafening sound of silence from the Scottish Government. I hope that that will change if Scotland speaks clearly and decisively.”
And if Scotland votes ‘Yes’, does he see his future as north or south of the border? “I honestly don’t think it will happen. I would take my lead from Johann Lamont who said Scottish Labour is here to stay."
Alexander also thinks that the battle for Scots’ hearts as much as their heads will become the main focus in coming weeks. “My best judgement as to where this campaign will go in the weeks ahead is the nationalists will effectively give up on trying to offer evidence and just go for it on emotion,” he says. “And on the other side of the argument, I think that we need to match them on emotion and pride. Patriotism and a sense of possibility for Scotland will be the fuel in our tank in the weeks between now and Septmber 18th.”
The Commonwealth Games loom, but he warns the First Minister against an attempt to hijack the event for political gain. “Glasgow is the city of my birth and it was Glasgow that won the games. And I think the people deserve these games to be recognised for what they are, an extraordinary celebration of sport. These games belong to the people of Glasgow and anybody who forgets that will pay a price.”
Salmond may now have to speak at the opening ceremony. Does he agree with those in Labour who claim there’s a risk of a ‘George Osborne moment’ with possible boos ringing round the stadium? “Well, there’s a salutary warning for politicians if they forget that these big sporting moments are about the excellence of the athlete, the pride and passion of the crowd. Judy Murray, Andy Murray’s mother made clear the disappointment that was felt when Alex Salmond pulled out a Saltire behind David Cameron at Wimbledon. I think that made him look quite small.”
One gift that Salmond gladly accepted was when Gordon Brown recently told the Commons Press Gallery that it would be a ‘good idea’ for Cameron to directly debate with the First Minister. Was he irritated by that? “I don’t think he’s the first former Prime Minister to go to the Press Gallery lunch and generate some interesting headlines. I’m clearly of the view that Alex Salmond wants this to be seen as a contest between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom and that’s just not a game I and other Scots are prepared to play. The right person for Alex Salmond to debate is Alistair Darling.”
Did he pass on his thoughts to Brown afterwards? “I don’t think Gordon needs or requires advice on Scotland. He’s making a huge contribution. I was in Glasgow the night he addressed a thousand Labour members and they walked taller after.”
Brown’s failure to stop Cameron from forming a Tory-led Coalition in 2010 has been used by the SNP as proof that Labour can no longer protect Scotland from Conservative rule. But Alexander rejects the premise of the claim. “The nationalists want to posit this choice as between and eternal, inevitable, unending Conservative government at Westminster and Scotland as a progressive beacon as an alternative. Let’s just look at the facts. They’ve give the vote to 16-year-olds. A sixteen year old who casts her vote in this referendum will have lived three quarters of her life under a Labour government. The Conservatives at Westminster haven’t won a majority in a UK general election in more than 20 years. And the opinion polls continue to indicate that the prospects of change at Westminster are real.”
The key moment on the road to a referendum came in 2011 when the SNP routed Labour in the Scottish Parliament elections. How much impact did that defeat have? “One of the truths that’s not recognised often enough outside of Scotland is that the defeat of Scottish Labour in 2011 owed as much to Scottish Labour’s weakness as to the Scottish Nationalists’ strength. Have no doubt, they won a historic victory. In the language of the terraces ‘we were gubbed’. But they won despite the commitment to an independent state not because of it. And that means there has been a necessary period of reflection, sometimes painful reflection, and then rebuilding for Scottish Labour and under Johann Lamont that’s the work that’s now going underway.”
Alexander’s sister Wendy famously called for a snap referendum as long ago as 2008, declaring ‘bring it on’. Gordon Brown was furious and within weeks she was gone as Scottish Labour leader. But wasn’t she right that an earlier poll could have killed off independence for a generation? “I believe we could have won a referendum then and I believe we can and will win a referendum in September. The very fact that Alex Salmond won such a significant victory in 2011 and chose to delay holding the referendum until September 2014 to me indicates that for all of his protestations he was in no rush to put that fundamental choice before the people of Scotland.”
So is there a sense of regret then that, not just for Wendy’s career but the bigger aim, that the party didn’t grasp the nettle back then? “I’m by instinct and inclination someone who looks forward rather than backwards.”
Alexander is certainly looking forward to the UK general election. Tasked with running the party’s campaign by Ed Miliband last October, he scored his first major victory when he secured the appointment of former Obama election guru David Axelrod earlier in the year. The American is a man who “knows how to win tight elections and tough campaigns,” Alexander says. “Whether it’s his experience of campaigning, whether it’s his strength of messaging, or whether it’s his capacity to translate support into votes, we’re very lucky to have him as part of the team.”
The key to Axelrod and Obama’s success in both 2008 and 2012, he muses, was not just the ability to raise funds online, but their breakthrough in taking online activism and using it “as a tool to generate real-world activity” and motivate people on the streets. “2012 combined both online activism, street activism and fundraising to an unparalleled degree,” he says. “When I talk to David Axelrod and others who were central to that campaign, I’m reminded of the question that LBJ was asked: ‘What do you do to win elections?’ LBJ said: ‘Well, you do everything’.
“So the Obama campaign holds many lessons, both in terms of how you use the tools and techniques of community organising, how do you use the internet as an effective means of fundraising, and how do you take people from a fundraising path or an online path to a street and campaigning path. And of course, we’re talking to colleagues and friends in the US about that on a regular basis.”
Westminster strategists are only now beginning to catch up with their American counterparts in this area after a relatively analogue 2010 campaign. The Tories are thought to have won on the online front last time round, and are confident they’ve got the resources and digital team in place to do so again, particularly with the hiring of Jim Messina, another former Obama staffer, who was widely credited with implementing the Democrats’ successful data gathering and targeting techniques in 2012. But, Alexander says, the Tories’ advances in this area mask a wider problem for David Cameron.
“The Conservative party are using money and technology to compensate for a gap left by active members,” he says. “They don’t have enough members, and they certainly don’t have enough members where it matters. I was in Lincoln recently, one of our key seats. The best estimates of the Tory membership are around 100. And not that many of them that active. So of course they’re going to rely on social media – but the reason they’re having to shout so loudly about it is because they’re so quiet on membership and levels of membership activism.
“On occasions like the Newark by-election they can bring in activists from every part of the country. But this election is not going to be decided in one constituency; it’s going to be decided in battleground seat after battleground seat after battleground seat. And we have more organisers in place than we have ever had at this stage before a general election. And the contact rates, the conversations, the levels of activity that we are now both monitoring and measuring and registering reflect that organisation that’s in place.”
It is this fact that Alexander believes is behind his party’s disproportionate success in London earlier this year. Labour bucked the national trend in the capital’s council elections in May, regaining control of a number of town halls from the Tories and holding off the kind of Ukip surge seen in urban areas in the rest of the country. While the success has been attributed in part to demographic shifts in the capital – new analysis this week revealed that two-thirds of non-white voters in London backed Labour – Alexander says this doesn’t give enough credit to the mammoth activist operation underway in the capital.
“Of course there are political differences in London. Many people would immediately recognise that there is a different demographic mix. But there are organisational lessons as well. If you look at a seat like Hornsey and Wood Green, the Labour party has membership above 1,500. If you’ve got more people that’s more conversations, that’s more leaflets, that’s more organisation. And in that sense, a lot of the success that was secured in London can be attributed to the strength of organisation and the strength of local parties. And that’s something that we can and should be replicating in other parts of the country.”
In the current era of “imprisoning cynicism” towards politics and politicians, he continues, this ability to engage with voters face to face will grow ever more important in any campaign. “In a low-trust environment, the most priceless asset in politics is a conversation between two individuals who are trusted. And that largely means having a conversation between a neighbour and a neighbour, a workmate and a colleague. That’s where the Conservatives are so weak, because they simply don’t have the reach into the communities that they will be relying on returning Conservative Members of Parliament.”
David Cameron’s Conservatives, Alexander continues, have failed to keep pace with the tectonic shifts underway in British politics, and have been left exposed as a “Downton Abbey party in a Modern Family world”. “There are very particular problems afflicting a party that has simply failed to modernise itself for many of the challenges of the 21st century. One of the great counterfactual questions in British political history is if the financial crisis hadn’t happened, would David Cameron and Michael Gove and George Osborne have managed to modernise the Tory party? We’ll never know, because they didn’t and they haven’t, and very few people would suggest, eight years into David Cameron’s leadership, that he represents anything other than the same old Tories.”
It’s for this reason that Alexander remains confident about Ed Miliband’s chances when it comes to taking on the Prime Minister next May. Where the Labour leader has succeeded in giving his party a sense of direction and “setting the terms of the debate nationally”, on everything from energy prices to spiralling rents, the Prime Minister, he says, “cuts an increasingly hollow figure” four full years into his term in office.
“Of course people will reach a judgment in terms of all of us as Labour politicians and the offer that we make to the country next May in the General Election. But listen – in terms of leadership, I’d rather have somebody who’s worrying about the choices and challenges facing the country than the choice of camera angle.
“He’s a prime minister whose appeal has narrowed, not broadened in the last four years. And that provides real opportunities for Ed and for Labour as we look to the conferences and we look to the campaign.”
And Alexander is going out of his way to prove his team are heading into that campaign more united than ever. Rumours of a bitter split with Harriet Harman have been swirling since last December, when the party’s deputy leader is reported to have furiously upbraided Alexander over the lack of women involved at the top of the campaign. Do he and Harman now see eye to eye? “I think I last spoke to Harriet yesterday, and we had a cordial, collegial and forward-looking conversation. We’re working together as part of the team, and she’ll have a vital role in the campaign.”
Rising stars Jon Ashworth, Toby Perkins and Gloria De Piero have since joined the campaign team as Alexander’s deputies, as the party seeks to inject new blood from the 2010 intake. De Piero, in particular, has developed a reputation as an effective campaigner, travelling the country on her ‘Why do people hate me?’ tour in a bid to understand public grievance with the political class. “She’s done important work right around the country, and she will have a key role in the campaign,” Alexander says. “I think if the Tories or the Liberals had a politician of Gloria’s talent they would be lucky. But they don’t.”
As he leads a team of Labour activists street by street in those key seats, the Shadow Foreign Secretary clearly believes that it’s good to talk. But he also knows that his party has to deliver too.
A keen student and admirer of Barack Obama, it seems he’s also adapting the sentiment of another famous American. As Elvis Presley didn't quite put it, the Shadow Foreign Secretary wants a little more conversation and a lot more action. Please.
Words: Paul Waugh
Photos: Paul Heartfield
“All governments contain reformers and resisters,” Francis Maude says. “The reformers favour transparency and the resisters don’t like it. Because transparency always drives reform.” The Minister for the Cabinet Office is talking about the Open Government Partnership, a global campaign he’s helped lead to make countries more accountable and less prone to corruption. But as one of the original Tory ‘modernisers’, his words are also a summary of his personal political credo. They’re also a succinct verdict on his own party, Whitehall and the Coalition itself.
‘Maudernisation’ has been in full swing at the Cabinet Office for more than four years now, ranging across everything from open data and digital services to union relations and cross-government efficiency drives. Sitting in his sumptuous office in 70 Whitehall, Maude is geographically and metaphorically at the heart of government. The fact that this was also the suite of New Labour’s own moderniser, Peter Mandelson (and latterly Nick Clegg) is not lost on him either.
Often working behind the scenes, Maude’s role as the Government’s point man for trade union relations has thrust him into the limelight of late, not least with the national strikes by teachers, firemen and civil servants. The Prime Minister warned of possible changes to industrial relations law last week and strike ballot minimum thresholds seem a live issue once more. During his last interview with The House in 2012, Maude hadn’t ruled out the idea but said the case for change was not “pressing”. So what has changed between now and then?
“I think it’s that if you have unions consistently coming again and again, on the basis of very low turnouts, and deciding to call their members out and precipitating potentially a strike which could cause serious disruption, then actually the case gets stronger. What I’ve always said is that the more this happens, the stronger the case will be.”
As well as minimum thresholds, he’s also looking at putting time limits on how long a ballot can be used to authorise a strike. “You’ve got the NUT calling a strike on the basis of a mandate that’s nearly two years old, it’s September 2012 that they balloted their members. Once you’ve used it, you can then use it forever and that can’t be right. And that’s another thing to look at.” Asked if he would be pleased to see the tougher laws in the Tory manifesto, he replies: “I think at the moment we will go through a process and decide what we want to commit to.” But does he think it is inevitable that there will be a change to the law?
“We are still looking at it. The fact is that if those two changes had been in law now, the mandate lapsing after a certain time and the need for a minimum turnout whatever the threshold – there can be lots of debate about what that threshold should be – definitely by this stage, the NUT would have had to hold a further ballot if they wanted to call people out on strike. And there has to be a question, given the very low turnout in other ballots that have taken place, as to whether they would have got a majority.”
One key factor that prevents any reforms before 2015 is Liberal Democrat resistance. “I think it’s no secret that they are less reform minded than we are on this,” he says. “When we were negotiating public sector pension reforms [in 2012], unions would have been hard put to find any differences between Danny [Alexander] and myself. But when it comes to legal changes…this all sits in BIS’s responsibilities, and it’s no secret where Vince comes from on all of this.” So if there is any change, it will have to now wait for a majority Tory government? “We are well into the session and it’s a short session anyway.”
As for teachers’ strikes, he says the disruption they cause to parents and small businesses means it’s time to look at new ways to let parents and governors keep schools open. “I know the DfE are thinking very carefully about what can be done to enable volunteers to come in. For example, governors – who will all be vetted and have clearance – could go in and act as volunteers to supervise and just to enable the school to stay open, given that this is NUT absolutely out on its own, none of the other teachers’ unions are doing this. So I think there will be a real effort to keep schools open because the damage is very substantial.”
Despite Lib Dem constraints in the Coalition, Maude has, however, cut back on the number of taxpayer-funded, full-time trade union officials. “We discovered there was one full-time union official who was entirely on the taxpayers’ payroll who had been promoted in office in his post twice! Unbelievable!” he says. “Who does the performance management that says you’ve done an exceptionally good job and please accept a pay increase? That’s kind of Alice in Wonderland.” Which department did the individual work in? “NOMS [National Offender Management Service],” he replies.
The whole issue of trade union ‘Pilgrims’ is now being brought back into balance. “This had got completely out of control. No monitoring. I’ve never been one to say ‘no union activity at all’, that’s bonkers. And indeed you are not allowed to – the law says you must give paid time off for union duties, which would be things around a grievance or a real employment dispute.
“But this whole thing of union ‘activities’ which could be everyone going off to the seaside for a trade union conference for a week at the taxpayers’ expense, I think at a time when we are losing jobs, we are trying to protect frontline services, I think that would be really hard to justify.”
Maude is currently trying to audit just how much of the activity goes on. “We are really doing a sweep to find out how much and what. A lot of it is just not measured. ‘Well there‘s the photocopier, you can use the phones’, etc.” He is also determined to crack down on the so-called ‘check-off’ system that means Whitehall collects union levies through its own payroll systems. “I’ve suggested to departments that they review their arrangements for check-off – the system whereby the Civil Service collects the dues on behalf of trade unions,” he reveals. “Under the Civil Service Management Code departments are required to recoup the costs but almost none do. Several secretaries of state are now considering removing this facility.”
Maude points out that overall, the UK’s recent industrial relations record “isn’t bad”, but relations with union leaders are “very mixed”. “What you can’t have is a partnership with a union whose leadership is entirely political, entirely motivated by a desire to pull down the government, indeed the structure. So that’s never going to work,” he says.
“We had this hilarious thing the other day. There was a meeting due to take place of the National Trade Union Committee, which is the forum where the civil service unions come together, and they were due to meet my team. But because the PCS had some action going on they picketed the union so none of the unions could go in, so the meeting had to be cancelled. Where is the sense of irony, apart from anything else, in all of that?”
Another area where Maude has pushed for reform is in the Cabinet Office’s IT contracts. “Everyone moans about it,” he says of the current technology departments have to use. “They are all on different systems, which is insane.” In his previous office overlooking Horse Guards, he had to effectively install his own WiFi to get a decent signal thanks to civil service bureaucracy. Now, for the first time, Apple devices like iPads can be used in the Cabinet Office, and his team has an official WiFi hub, downloading shared weekly look-ahead documents from Google Drive.
“Our view is we should be allowed to provide people at work with technology that is at least as good as what they have at home,” he says. “It shouldn’t be that hard to do.” Maude has overseen a culture change in Whitehall technology, not least through the Government Digital Service, the new GOV.UK website and the shift towards a ‘digital by default’ approach to delivering public services. He took a delegation of around a dozen senior Whitehall officials to California, touring Netflix and Google and other hi-tech firms. They also took part in a ‘speed dating’ exercise with Silicon Valley’s latest start-ups. “One of the venture capitalists hosted us for a day and they had about 30 of their portfolio companies come in and do a 20-minute pitch. It was absolutely fascinating,” he says.
“Part of the benefit is when we talked about how we do things in Britain now and a lot of them said ‘my God, I wish our government was doing things that way’, so they were really excited. And as a result of it some of them are now looking to set themselves up with an operation in Britain as their European base which is great for building our digital footprint.” But, aptly for a blue-sky thinker, there was lots of looking at clouds, at least of the digital kind. “We were all pretty persuaded that doing things in the cloud can be at least as secure as doing things in our own data centres and actually arguably more secure because the cloud providers live or die by providing real security. We all came back convinced that cloud is the answer.”
Maude has used G-Cloud – a government data catalogue – to help more than 1,000 suppliers get access to Whitehall contracts, many of them SMEs. He says that this has in turn helped the ten or so digital clusters around the UK, including cities like Edinburgh, Bristol, Cambridge and Brighton. “We are getting much better value. Of the £200m or so the public sector is buying though the cloud store today, that would have been buying at the old way the best part of a billion. We are not only giving business to UK-based suppliers but actually cutting costs a lot.”
Maude is also keen to see more civil servants embedding skills that used to only be bought in from outside, at great expense. “We don’t take the view that the only answer is to hire lots of people in from outside. Bright civil servants like getting new skills, and it’s been massively under-invested in in the past.”
As an evangelist for open data, Maude is also proud of his role in the past year as the UK headed the global Open Government Partnership. Countries like Germany, France and Japan all now look like they’ll sign up, as well as scores of developing nations keen to combat corruption. “It’s very rare for there to be a government that’s corrupt. What there are are corrupt people. And there will be people in the government who are fiercely anti-corruption and you want to strengthen their hand. And transparency strengthens them; it gives them power.”
Of course, since the Edward Snowden leaks, civil liberties campaigners fear that the UK and US are not so transparent when it comes to spying on their own citizens’ data. But Maude is robust about the affair, stressing that British intelligence officials work within the law. He’s visited GCHQ twice to show his support and intends to do so again soon. “GCHQ is an amazing place and they are some of the best crown servants I’ve ever come across. Real solid expertise and they get on and do difficult stuff. And they felt really beleaguered when all this stuff was going on. They felt quite unsupported by some parts of the political environment.
“They are not used to being in the public eye and they do what they do really well and within the law. The lack of support in some parts of the political spectrum was de-motivating for them.”
Some EU allies had worries over the NSA and Snowden affair, but European neighbours are very much interested in the other key elements of Maude’s work – going digital and cutting costs across government. At a seminar in Madrid this year, he was feted by counterparts fascinated by the fact that the Efficiency and Reform Group saved over £10bn last year alone. They were also interested in the 100 or so ‘mutuals’ set up by public sector workers to carry out services. “It has the real potential to be a real driver of how public services get delivered over the next 20 years,” he says.
On the efficiency drive, he sounds a cautionary note, however. “There is a danger that with the economy growing again and strongly that people think ‘oh well, problem solved’, but it isn’t, because we still have a significant structural deficit which has to be addressed by cost savings.
“But actually, the exciting thing is what we have definitively shown over the last four years is that the old myth – the old fallacy that you can’t get more for less, that if you want better public services you have to put more money in – that’s absolutely gone. We’ve totally disproved that.”
Maude also wants to disprove the idea that Tory party modernisation has run into the sand. Unusually, Maude is wearing a tie today – “I went onto the frontbench earlier to support Theresa [May]” – but he’s normally the tieless, white-shirted embodiment of the modern Tory party. A ‘moderniser’ long before David Cameron was even an MP, he was one of the ministers who famously told Margaret Thatcher in 1990 that she’d lost the support of the party. Later, as party chairman he oversaw the A-List for candidate selection as the Conservatives tried to change their image.
But will party modernisation end the day Cameron ceases to be leader, as some suspect? “There is an analogy with what we do with the Civil Service, when people sometimes say ‘when is reform coming to an end?’. Answer: ‘never’. It’s always a work in progress; all great organisations are constantly refreshing, constantly renewing, constantly updating and you don’t reach a state of perfection where you kind of sit back and say ‘let’s just run at steady state for a while’. People sometimes used to say ‘when is modernisation finished?’. Never. Because time isn’t going to finish, the world isn’t going to come to a halt.”
He says that the demographic challenges facing the Conservatives make constant reform an imperative. And he’s proud of his role as one of those who started to expand the party’s reach. “It was all about how do we make ourselves a party that is sustainably a party that is genuinely a national party. What was it Disraeli said? ‘We are a national party or we are nothing’.
“He didn’t mean just geographically or socially. It’s about every part of the country – socially, ethnically, everything really; our reach needs to be broadened always, and so no one would say that we are there. But we will never be there, it’s always a journey.” Being a minister is often a journey rather than a final destination, but Maude has been parked in the Cabinet Office since 2010 and shows no sign of wanting to leave. He laughs as he recalls a civil service note, written last year in anticipation of him being reshuffled out of the department. It celebrated his departure “in the hope that I’d gone.”
But does he still intend to stay to the next election? “Yeah, I love doing this job,” he replies. “It’s always been a job that people have done either on the way up or on the way out and generally the typical tenure in this job has been a year or so. I’ve now done it for four years and happy to carry on for quite a long time yet.”
MAUDE ON… CHANGING STRIKE LAWS
“This isn’t suddenly ‘light bulb gone on’; it’s been around as a possible idea for a long time.”
MAUDE ON… THE CARR REVIEW OF ‘LEVERAGE’
“We’ve invited the TUC to participate and put in their evidence and I hope they will. Is it against the criminal law or civil law, and if it isn’t, should it be?”
MAUDE ON… THE OPEN GOVERNMENT PARTNERSHIP
“It’s been amazing, it’s taken on a real life of its own, a real momentum. It’s rather inspiring and uplifting”.
MAUDE ON… PUBLIC SERVICE REFORM
“It’s about empowering the front line, getting out of their hair.”
Words: Paul Waugh
Photos: Paul Heartfield
"I think it’s appropriate that George Osborne is dieting,” Nigel Lawson says, with a knowing smile.“Controlling public expenditure is about saying ‘No’ and sticking to it. And dieting is exactly the same.”
As a former chancellor of the exchequer and the author of his own best-selling diet book, Lord Lawson of Blaby knows whereof he speaks on the issue of belt-tightening. And with a sprightliness and energy that belie his 82 years, one of the Tory party’s biggest of big beasts is relishing his role as a troublesome éminence grise.
The recipient of The House magazine’s Lifetime Achievement Award earlier this year, he’s helped redraft the UK’s banking regulation, runs a thinktank on climate change and is a constant critic of HS2 and the EU. A regular attendee in the House of Lords, Lord Lawson appears to be more politically active than at any time since his departure from Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet 25 years ago. Far from resting on his laurels, he’s as focused on the future as any new intake MP.
Energy policy is one of his chief passions, not least since the creation of his own Global Warming Policy Foundation in 2009. But his keen interest in the issue stretches back to the early 1980s, when he was Margaret Thatcher’s energy secretary. With the coal strike looming, Lawson sought to redefine the way the UK bought and sold energy. Given the way the subject has soared up the political agenda of late, does he think he was ahead of the game?
“I do, if I may say so,” he says. “If you want an impartial witness, the leading energy economist in this country is Professor Dieter Helm, who has written the definitive account of British energy policy since the war. He says that the 1982 speech which I made to a meeting of the International Association of Energy Economists in Cambridge was the most important speech ever made by an energy secretary and it defined the whole of our energy policy for a long time to come.”
The main thrust of that speech was to say there is no reason to treat energy any differently from any other area of policy, despite the habit of British governments to interfere in the largely state-owned industry. “A sensible energy policy should be part and parcel of our economic policy,” Lawson says. “And just as our economic policy was to give the state a reduced role and to give market forces a greater role, so that should apply to energy as well.” Crucially, he prepared the ground for the gas and electricity privatisations to come.
The former chancellor has long defied the conventional wisdom on climate change too. When the world was congratulating itself on the Kyoto Treaty in 2004, Lawson was among those who wrote a letter to the Times warning of uncertainties in the science. Last year, he won a bet with Oliver Letwin that Kyoto would expire without any successor in place.
“I was not the first, but I think that certainly I realised very early on that this had been accepted as gospel by people who had not done any proper analysis,” he says. “It’s a new religion. That is why it is so difficult to change people’s minds, because they are not interested in the facts – it’s a belief system.” The Treasury still strong in his bones, he says the real issue is not so much the science as the policy response and a proper cost-benefit analysis. “What is the extent of the damage? And how does it compare with the benefits from warming? Because there undoubtedly are benefits, even the IPCC [International Panel on Climate Change] accepts that; it’s where does the balance lie?
“Then there is also the political issue that because it’s an extremely costly policy, it means we go from relatively cheap and reliable energy to relatively expensive and unreliable energy. And you’re not getting any benefit on the climate front because there isn’t a global agreement.”
One Cabinet minister who was brave enough to voice claims that there could actually be benefits from global warming was Owen Paterson. The Environment Secretary’s remarks to a Tory conference fringe last year caused uproar among some green groups. But Lawson is a big fan and says Paterson should not be moved in the coming reshuffle.
“I would be disappointed to see him moved out of government, not just because of this issue but because I think he’s one of the best ministers in the Government. I think he did a very good job in Northern Ireland and I think that he understands the countryside and farming very well, but he also has a very good mind. It would be a great loss to the Government, which needs all the talent it can get.”
He points out that conservation is a key Conservative belief. “Owen Paterson is very conscious of that. The green issue is not just one issue. If you get hung up on the evils of fossil fuel and as a result you litter the countryside with wind farms, not only is that economic nonsense in energy terms, but it is not environmentally friendly either. Solar farms, too, they are appalling environmentally. Wind turbines kill really serious numbers of birds.”
Of course, one of David Cameron’s first acts as Tory leader was to underline his ‘green’ credentials with his infamous trip to the polar ice cap. Lawson understands why David Cameron felt the need to ‘rebrand’ the Conservatives, but clearly feels it was misguided. “Margaret Thatcher, even though she was a really great prime minister, I think the country had got tired of her, as it gets tired of almost anybody after a long period of government,” he says. “But it was largely about her manner, not her policies. So there was no need to get a whole new raft of different policies in a great rebranding exercise. But the ‘hugging huskies’ and all that was part of the rebranding and of ‘going green’ in general.
“I think it was a great mistake. I think that, without really admitting it, I think they are trying quite hard to row back from that. But of course it’s always hard to row back from anything you’ve made a big splash about, but it’s all the harder because of the Coalition.”
Given his own enthusiastic backing for the expansion of the City during the Thatcher years, it’s perhaps not surprising that the former chancellor is not over-keen on the Coalition’s rhetoric about “rebalancing the economy” at the expense of financial services. “I think that is foolish and unwise,” he says. “The only sort of rebalancing I would like is to see the north of England share more in the economic success. But the way to do that is not by building this absurdly expensive High Speed 2, for which there is no sensible case at all.
“The way to do it is by developing shale gas resources in the north of England, particularly in the north-west,” he adds. “We need to go for that. If you look at what’s happened in the United States, it has completely transformed the economies of some of the poorest parts of the United States. We could have that here.”
George Osborne is resolutely behind HS2, but he does appear to have listened to people like Lawson and others who strongly support fracking. How often do the pair of them talk? “I do see him from time to time, but George sees quite a lot of people so I have no special locus,” he explains. The informal ‘council of former chancellors’ (Howe, Lawson and Lamont) no longer meets Osborne, however. “When I see him, which is only infrequently, I see him just à deux.”
A key area where the Coalition has been largely in agreement is on tax cuts. But as a reforming chancellor himself, Lawson believes his party will be able to do much more on personal taxation if it governs alone. “There is in the short term a conflict between cutting taxes and cutting borrowing. In the medium term, you can do both. When I was Chancellor, I abolished the budget deficit altogether and even got a surplus and at the same time I cut tax rates. So it can be done. But it takes a little time,” he says.
As someone who has written party manifestos in the past, he adds that “what you need to do is indicate very clearly the direction of travel” in 2015, rather than any pledges on specific rates. Crucially, he’s content with Osborne’s current thinking about the need to cut income taxes. “I think the present chancellor is very much taking this on board.” Lawson’s tax cuts, not least his slashing of the top 40p rate in 1988, famously sparked rapid economic growth. Does the current consumer boom, coupled with a similar house price spike, feel anything like the late 1980s and early 1990s?
“I don’t see a problem now. I think all these things need to be watched very carefully. I do think that the time has come for two things, because the economy is going well. The first thing is to wind back this rather artificial scheme of Help to Buy. The ceiling should be cut back to £300,000. And I also do think that the present interest rate of half a per cent, that is basically a crisis rate. It came in because of the economic and banking crisis, and now we are coming out of it we need to move to more normal rates. The sooner we make the first move, which would only be to go from half a percent to three quarters of a per cent, the better.”
Interest rates soared under his successor Norman Lamont, but he says that was “because they joined the ERM at the worst possible time”. By contrast, he’s remembered for the ‘Lawson boom’. Is that now a phrase with which he’s comfortable? “I’ve got used to it. And booms are certainly better than busts!” he replies. “But I think there’s a lot of nonsense spoken about it.” He rejects the idea that it was the inflationary pressures of the Lawson boom that forced him to shadow the Deutschmark. “That’s totally misguided. We had an inflationary problem in this country before we got into office,” he points out, referring to the record 26% under Labour in the 1970s. “When we got into office, it was still in double figures and the Treasury forecast was that it was due to rise.”
Lawson says that it was because “inflationary expectations were embedded in people’s minds” that he decided to allow sterling to shadow the Deutschmark. “We tried various ways to get inflationary expectations out of the system. It worked, but it worked very slowly and I was anxious that we should make more progress. And at that time, the country where they had no inflationary expectations at all – because they absolutely had a paranoia about inflation – was Germany, with their history during the Weimar period and all of that and also the inflation that happened after the war that’s often forgotten.
“They had a Bundesbank which had only one aim, which was to stop any hint of inflation coming. So I took the view that if for a time we piggy-backed on the Bundesbank, that would help; if that could be credible, that would help eradicate inflationary expectations in this country.”
Does he have any regrets about that, not least because some Eurosceptics say it was the move that foreshadowed the later disastrous ERM decision? “There was nothing political about it; it was entirely a means of trying to bear down on inflation. That’s all it was,” he says. The birth of the single currency was another matter entirely, Lawson stresses. “How you handle your own currency and abandoning your currency, they are two completely different things.”
It was another former Spectator editor-turned-MP, Boris Johnson, who urged David Cameron to go for an in/out EU referendum, long before No 10 was committed to the idea. Does he think it would be a good idea for Boris to return to Parliament? “Yes, I do. I think that Boris has a very special appeal to all sorts of voters who otherwise might not find the Conservative party very appealing, and therefore I think it would be excellent to have him on the team,” he says.
“Nobody’s perfect. It’s possible to point to aspects of Boris which you would perhaps feel uneasy about, but overall he’s a great plus.” And does he feel that the Mayor could even one day become PM? “I think that’s a big unknown. But anyhow it doesn’t arise. My goodness, 2020 – we don’t even know what’s going on in 2015, do we? Let’s see what happens in 2015, that’s the next election. I do think that if we are the largest single party, we should not try and form another coalition, but we should form a minority government as Stephen Harper did in Canada very successfully.”
If they can govern alone or in coalition, many Tories see a 2017 EU referendum as the key event of the next parliament. But is there a danger of an historic split in the party if the Prime Minister ends up recommending an ‘in’ vote after securing minor changes in Brussels?
“I think in the short run, David Cameron’s referendum pledge has united the party enormously, and I think it is the right thing to do. In terms of party management it has helped a great deal. We will just have to see when the time comes. There are two things which have to be assessed. First of all, what reforms – if any – he has been able to secure either of the European Union as a whole or of Britain’s position within the Union. And, in the light of that, does he have a case for recommending an ‘in’ vote or not? He will have to make his own judgement on that and the Cabinet will have to discuss it and make their judgement. I am convinced that – I may be wrong, but from my knowledge of the European Union – that nothing of any significance is negotiable. Not least because anything of significance requires treaty changes and treaty changes have to be agreed unanimously, so it’s no good just getting one or two countries on side, so I don’t think it’s on. But we shall see.”
And Lawson stresses that it won’t just be up to the PM or the Cabinet to decide the party’s line. Asked about the risk of the party rejecting a weak set of agreements and preferring a ‘Better Off Out’ position, he says: “I think he will take that into account.”
“Although as of now his position is that he’s firmly committed to recommending an ‘in’ vote, he’s a great optimist and he thinks he can negotiate all these changes. But I think he will have to reconsider his position in the light of what he is able to secure. He will know too that he has either got to persuade the parliamentary party overwhelmingly (there will always be dissent)…or else he’s got to reconsider his own position on this issue.
“Because the logic of his position is clear. He has said the European Union as it exists at present is seriously unsatisfactory, therefore some major changes need to be made. The logic of that position is that if you don’t secure these major changes, you leave the European Union. Not in any hostile frame of mind. As you know, I live in France and I have nothing against Europe as such.
“But you just have to say it is not in Britain’s interest to remain there. And of course it is made all the more likely by the creation of the eurozone, and they are also changing the qualified majority voting rules. We will find ourselves outside the eurozone…our influence on European Union law is bound to be less than it has in the past. There will be a solid eurozone bloc vote. If we oppose anything we will be overridden.”
So, does he envisage the PM consulting the parliamentary party on the in/out decision in 2017, just as it appears the 1922 Committee will be consulted in 2015 in the event of any plans for another coalition? “I think you’re right to draw parallels between the two,” he replies. “I think he will. Whether he does it through formal consultation or informally, I think he will need to do that.”
As he freely admits, Lord Lawson has no problem with European culture, as opposed to its institutions. He spends Monday to Thursday in the Lords and the rest of the week at his home in rural France. “It’s a complete contrast, and very deliberately so,” he explains. “It is a double life. I live in a particularly peaceful, tranquil area. I can relax, I can recharge the batteries, I can think and sometimes write. I’m in the middle of nowhere.” And far from being a Little Englander, he likes the fact that there aren’t many fellow English speakers nearby. “When I moved there 12 years ago, there weren’t very many Brits there. They have increased, but it’s not like the Dordogne or the south of France where there are lots of Brits or nationalities of other kinds.”
With a weekly airline commute to France, the long trek in and out of departure and arrivals lounges keeps him fit. “I have to go backwards and forwards travelling and the walking at airports is the exercise I take.” Despite the temptations of vintage wines and fine Gallic cuisine, his trim figure also proves he practices what he preaches on the dietary front, though he confesses not to know anything about the 5:2 diet adhered to by George Osborne. “Dieting is all about self-discipline, and you want to find a form of self-discipline which you can live with. What it’s all about is eating less and drinking less, it’s as simple as that.” And the economic metaphor is never far away.
“It’s appropriate that George Osborne is dieting, not because he needs to diet more than other people, but because one of the most important jobs of the Chancellor is to control public expenditure, particularly now that you have this enormous deficit, but at all times. It’s always been part of the Treasury’s DNA.”
His own appetite for controversy seems unsated, however. And in his ninth decade, he shows no signs of easing up. “For a very old man I’ve got, if anything, too much on my plate.” And despite his Protestant work ethic, Lord Lawson is certainly no puritan. “I do obviously have a private life as well,” he adds, with a mischievous smile. “I don’t want you to think that I’m just some Stakhanovite.”
Words: Daniel Bond
Photos: Paul Heartfield
“I’m not evil!” Caroline Lucas declares. We’re sitting in an independent coffee shop in the middle of the Lanes, the sprawling labyrinth of narrow alleyways and small boutiques which make up the heart of her Brighton Pavilion constituency. On the door of the café hangs a sign warning that racists, homophobes, sexists and bigots are not welcome here. But it’s not an accusation of any of these vices which has riled the local MP. A fifth category hand-scribbled at the bottom reads ‘No UKIP voters’. But it’s not that, either.
The spark behind her pantomime exclamation is Russell Brand. “The people that work in there, it’s not like they’re inherently evil,” the comedian turned radical provocateur told thousands of anti-austerity protesters gathered under the shadow of the Palace of Westminster late last month. “I’ve met Caroline Lucas, and she’s alright, isn’t she?” he generously added.
The observation was not one of Brand’s most artful as he sashayed about the stage on that June afternoon; he went on to rally the assembled trade unionists and leftists with the articulate but boyish and self-deprecating rhetorical style in which he’s preached revolution and antagonised almost the entire political class by telling millions of his fans: “I will never vote and I don’t think you should either.”
But it was telling that he should single out the Green MP, who joined him at the People’s Assembly rally, as the last hope of Parliament. The pair, Lucas says, have worked together “very effectively” on drug law reform, with Brand’s widely publicised support – and his eight million-strong Twitter following – “certainly helping” her recent petition calling for a Commons debate on the subject to easily surpass the required 100,000 signatures.
Needless to say, she doesn’t agree with his controversial exhortation to abandon the ballot box. “But it was interesting just how resonant what he said was,” she adds. “It really caught people’s imagination and just struck such a chord, I think. What he’s saying is people don’t vote because they don’t think their vote makes a difference. And they’re probably right, in some senses, that it doesn’t make a difference. We shouldn’t think that politics is just something that’s done by white men in grey suits behind closed doors in Westminster. Politics is much bigger than that. And politicians should be listening, not slagging off Russell Brand because he’s suggesting that people shouldn’t vote for them – but actually looking at why there is such a disengagement still between them and the people they’re supposed to represent.”
Coming from an elected politician, this sentiment may sound strange. But then Caroline Lucas is not your typical MP ‘in a grey suit’. In a Westminster landscape whose inhabitants increasingly retreat into caution and circumspection, the country’s first and only Green MP offers something radically and refreshingly different. She’s softly spoken and meticulous in her process; almost every answer is preceded by a considered pause. But the arguments, when they come, are anything but soft. She’s forthright, articulate, impatient and angry: about austerity, about the state of British politics, about the advance of a bland and impotent centrism, about an ineffective Labour party, and above all about the lack of action to tackle climate change and the relentless advance of a new shale gas industry.
And she’s also not afraid to, in her own words, “put my body where my mouth is”. In April this year she stood trial – and was cleared – over a charge of obstruction, after being arrested taking part in a road blockade at an anti-fracking protest. Neither is this her first activism-related arrest; she’s previously been charged with breaching the peace during an anti-nuclear sit-in at Faslane naval base, and had a run-in with police during a Whitehall protest against the impending invasion of Iraq.
While she insists “peaceful direct action” is never something she “would do lightly”, she’s also defiantly unapologetic about the right, and duty, to take a stand if she feels the official channels have been found wanting. “It was after having arranged debates in the House of Commons, put down questions, Early Day Motions, gone through all of the parliamentary processes that I’m in a privileged position to have access to,” she says of her fracking arrest. “But at the end of the day, it felt like the Government wasn’t listening. And when so many of my own constituents were raising this with me, and indeed many of them were involved in it as well, then it felt important to be offering them support by going along and sitting next to them.
“I’m hoping that sooner or later the Government will get the message, because I think they’re going to find similar kinds of protests wherever they try to go ahead with fracking. I think people don’t want it, they’re deeply concerned about it, and rightly so.”
But while many of the concerns about fracking centre around fear of earthquakes or contaminated water and soil, Lucas’s opposition is much more profound. Even with “the best regulation in the world” protecting against these risks, she says, the fundamental problem with fracking would remain: “a whole new fossil fuel industry will be embedded in Britain at exactly the time we need to be shifting towards renewables.”
She says she accepts the need for “transitional fuel” to tide the UK over while renewables infrastructure is developed, but would prefer the Government to look to import from Norway – “at least then the tap can be turned off” – rather than deliberately incentivise an entire new industry which is “not simply going to pack up their bags and leave” in a few years. It’s also a myth, she continues, that the nascent shale gas industry will lead to lower fuel bills. “The head of Cuadrilla himself has said he doesn’t think it’s going to lead to lower prices. [Climate economist] Lord Stern has called it baseless economics. The experience of the US is simply not replicable – you can’t transfer that across. Quite apart from the fact that the geology and the population density is different, we’re locked here into European and global markets. Fossil fuel that’s fracked in Balcombe doesn’t get used in Balcombe – it gets sold in European markets at the going European price. If we really do want lower prices and energy security then actually it’s through measures on renewables, decentralised energy, community energy, mass energy efficiency. Those are the ways we achieve those ends.”
But is there something more insidious behind the sit-ins and protests? Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen raised eyebrows last month when he claimed that Russian agents were covertly stirring up and backing anti-fracking sentiment in order to maintain European dependence on its gas. Lucas scoffs at the “preposterous claim”, taking it as evidence that her fellow campaigners “are being quite successful” if they’re getting under the skin of such establishment figures. But while the claim is laughable, she says, it is also worryingly dangerous. “It’s deeply irresponsible. To suggest that sincere people who are protesting in good faith are somehow being stirred up by the Russians is just ludicrous! And I think it raises questions about the judgement of somebody in a very powerful position as the head of the nuclear alliance in the Western world, that they would come up with a suggestion like that.” In fact, she jokes, given the Government’s reluctance to pursue a more rigorous renewables agenda and the UK’s growing dependence on imports, she often wonders if the Department of Energy and Climate Change itself has not been infiltrated by foreign agents. “They seem to have been quite successful at turning the Government off the very things that actually would deliver them energy independence and security…”
At the time of the widespread flooding across southern England last winter, Lucas expressed her wish that – while one set of floods could not definitely be linked with climate change – the increasing frequency of such disasters would serve as a “wake-up call” on the need to act. Five months later, and with fracking set to continue apace, she is less optimistic. “At the time, there was a real outcry. And yet the media agenda moves on,” she says. “People have short memories. It’s so dispiriting to feel that we’ll have to wait for the next set of floods before politicians will make that connection.”
That thought may sound like enough to push any environmentalist towards despair, but Lucas is remaining unwaveringly positive. Despite her scepticism about the state of Westminster politics – a system, she says, whose adversarial nature and short-term inclinations make it “almost uniquely” ill-designed to tackle problems as huge and complex as climate change – she's certain politicians can get their heads together and act, provided they continue to be put under strong public pressure from campaigners.
But there’s more underpinning Lucas’s optimism than a cheerful disposition. The green movement, she says, has been pessimistic and doom-mongering for too long, and has learned the hard way that issuing apocalyptic warnings about the scale of destruction climate change could cause is not the most effective way to inspire people to bring about change. “I think we assumed the green message was something we had to persuade people to do against their own better interests, as it were. It’s been framed as sacrifice. And that’s not only unhelpful, it’s also untrue,” she says, pointing out that, aside from tackling climate change, a green economy would bring with it a host of other positive outcomes: new labour-intensive industries sustaining more jobs; insulated homes and the eradication of fuel poverty; affordable and reliable public transport; stronger local food markets; cleaner air; even more “kids playing in the street”. To illustrate her point she describes her favourite cartoon, depicting a professor at a climate summit outlining all the benefits of a green, zero-carbon economy. In the audience, someone has their hand raised, asking: ‘but what if climate change is a hoax and we create a better world for nothing?’
“And that’s exactly it,” Lucas says. “We can create a better world, it would be a better world, and the fact that it would enable us to live more in harmony with our environment and not exceed our climate limits is all to the good as well. But the two things are part of the same project.”
The next crunch point in the tug of war over shale gas will come with the Government’s attempt to relax trespass laws to allow fracking firms to drill under people’s homes without their permission. The proposals are likely to be brought forward later in the year, subject to the ongoing consultation, and ministers claim Labour have offered their backing. Lucas is “amazed” that the Opposition appears willing to support the move, “even from just a narrow electoral perspective”. “I think they’ve massively underestimated the scale of popular opposition to this. It’s deeply unpopular around the country; there are polls that show that.”
But Labour’s position on fracking is just one example of a wider cautious tendency holding the party back, she says, describing her “disappointment” at the lack of a “robust progressive opposition” to the Government and its austerity programme coming from Ed Miliband. The Labour leader, she fears, has been more interested in genuflecting to the agenda set by the Conservatives, and appeasing his party’s re-emerging Blairite wing, than following the arrow of his own principles. By way of example, she cites Miliband’s response to the IPPR’s recent Condition of Britain report, and his pledge to reform Jobseeker’s Allowance for 18-21 year-olds.
“There were some good ideas in that report, and yet the thing Miliband picked out of it was something that ended up reinforcing the idea that young people are at fault themselves if they don’t have jobs,” she says, her voice straining with frustration. “That just seemed like such an own goal. To boil it all down to that one policy, and then to frame it – and this is the crucial thing – to frame it within the language of punishing the poor, or young people without jobs, was just such a desperately missed opportunity. I don’t understand why they allowed that to happen. On so many issues, it feels as if Labour just doesn’t have the courage of its convictions it used to have.”
Growing more animated, she continues: “The first thing Rachel Reeves said when she got her [Shadow Work and Pensions] post was that she was going to be ‘tougher on welfare spending than the Tories’. Why go into that language? You can never out-Tory the Tories. Why try?
“They’ve accepted the premise of the Tory framing, rather than having the courage of actually saying ‘hang on a minute, these austerity measures have been counterproductive’. Austerity policies have completely failed. But I’ve been on Question Time, and on panels everywhere else, and it’s been down to me to defend Labour against the charge that the economic crisis was caused by their rash overspending in a previous administration.
“It’s not my job to fight it,” she adds, bashing her fist on the table. “Come on, fight it yourself!”
Despite her frustration, Lucas clearly retains a residual respect for the Labour leader, with whom she’s shared “several cups of tea”. But rather than engaging in an axe-sharpening contest with the Conservatives, she says, he should be bringing forward a radical programme to change Britain, from the renationalisation of the railways – “I’m amazed they haven’t adopted it, it’s hugely popular” – to an ambitious house-by-house insulation programme funded by carbon taxes – “it would create hundreds of thousands of jobs, get fuel bills down and get carbon emissions down. There aren’t many win-wins in politics, but there’s one staring people in the face” – to the building of social housing and tougher action on rents.
One advantage of having a Green presence in the House of Commons, she continues, is to pressure Labour to go further in these areas and, just as importantly, to “keep their feet to the fire” to ensure they deliver on the pledges they have made. During Labour’s Opposition Day debate on introducing mandatory three-year tenancies in the private rented sector, she tabled an amendment attempting to push the party further, to offer five-year tenancies and tougher rent controls. Clearly those types of amendments “are not going to get passed” in this parliament, she admits, but they do “put down some markers, give us somewhere to be in that debate and show what we would like the debate to be about”.
But Lucas’s presence as the sole Green in the Commons is more than just symbolic. She says she’s been surprised and “heartened” by the scope for collaborative work across party and ideological lines, having linked up with backbench Lib Dems over their shared opposition to nuclear power, and even Conservatives like Douglas Carswell over democratic reform. She’s currently working closely with Lib Dem MP Julian Huppert to draw up a motion – which she hopes can rally widespread support – calling for an independent cost-benefit analysis and impact assessment of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act.
And she also has no shortage of friends on the left of Labour who share her frustration with their party’s direction. She shared a stage at the People’s Assembly with left-wing stalwarts Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn, who both used their speeches to criticise the Labour leadership. In moments like that, does Lucas ever give them a nudge and remind them that there is another party opposed to austerity that they could join?
“Those conversations happen often. Certainly with Jeremy: ‘come on, you agree more with us than you do with them, come on!’” she says. “But there are different strategies out there to bring about change. We need people inside the Labour party who are challenging from within, as well as people outside challenging from without. I think the knack is to get the coordination, so you’ve got strong public pressure at the door, you’ve got people inside Parliament who are really challenging and lobbying for change, but also having some of those voices inside those other parties. That’s got to be a good thing as well.”
“Which isn’t to say,” she mischievously adds, “that if Jeremy would like to join the Green Party there isn’t a door open to him…”
But the polls – and the bookmakers – suggest Labour will emerge as the largest party in a tight election in 2015. In this spirit of cross-party collaboration, would she be prepared to work alongside a minority Labour government under either a formal or informal agreement? After a pause to think, the familiar smile spreads across her face. “It’s not something I’ve thought about,” she tentatively replies. “My focus right now is on keeping Brighton Pavilion, and I’ll answer all of those questions about what might happen if I do win Brighton Pavilion if and when I do.”
It’s not a ‘no’. But Lucas has clearly relished the freedom her almost independent status has afforded her, to pick her battles, to hold the mainstream parties’ feet to the fire, to, as she puts it, “be that radical voice and yet also be constructive and work with others too to get things done”. “But I would certainly like it even better if we had some more Greens in here, that’s for sure,” she continues. “There’s so much to be done, there are so many priorities. You feel like you’re chasing your tail to some extent because there are just so many demands.
“But having said that, I think we have been able to demonstrate that even one MP on their own can make a difference.”