PoliticsHome | Only the latest five entries on the PhiWire are visible to non-subscribers
- Sign up to see last 24 hours
Dont have an account?Sign up here
Words: Paul Waugh
Photos: Paul Heartfield
Ed Balls is feeling the pressure. In just a few days, he faces yet another big test of his ability, with huge amounts at stake if he fails. But it’s not the Autumn Statement that appears to worry him most: it’s his Grade 4 piano exam. “I’ve been practicing hard. I’m doing a piece of Mozart, a Latvian folk dance and a piece by the blind jazz pianist Valerie Capers,” he explains. “So I’ve got the stress of the Autumn Statement, but far more stressful is the piano exam a day and half after.”
The Shadow Chancellor knows his Commons performance during last year’s set-piece event didn’t exactly win rave reviews from his critics. Yet with the election looming, he seems more confident than ever that he will win the argument on the Coalition’s economic record. Despite claims that Labour have been ‘deficit deniers’, he believes one of George Osborne’s biggest weakness is his failure to meet his own pledge on the issue. “If you remember, George Osborne in 2009 ridiculed Labour for an objective to halve the deficit in this parliament,” he says. “Balancing the current budget this parliament was a very difficult target from the outset. You could end up with an outcome this parliament which is much weaker, and with higher borrowing than the Darling plan in 2009/10.”
So far this year, the borrowing figures look bad for the Treasury. But Balls is experienced enough to know that “the two months which really matter for public finances are October and January”, and January is obviously unknown. He also suspects the Chancellor will find a way to avoid borrowing looking like it’s heading in the wrong direction.
“They will be looking for anything they can find in terms of spending or tax to try and avoid that trap and they will probably succeed. I guess borrowing will come down but nowhere near as much as he promised in 2010 and at the March Budget.”
Balls says Labour’s plan to have the national debt falling and the current budget back into surplus – “as soon as possible in the next parliament” – depends on a growing economy and a relentless focus on spending discipline. He and Chris Leslie have overseen their party’s ‘Zero-Based Review’ of spending in recent months, the first fruits of which are being seen in savings for frontline services and deficit reduction.
But the tight control won’t be going away, not least because the deficit is higher than predicted. “It would be so much easier if George Osborne had succeeded, but he hasn’t. So the level of deficit is going to be big. We are under no illusions about that,” he says.
“We can go so far in Opposition. When we get to Government, the Treasury and departments will have to go deeper into this. It’s only when you open the books that you can actually see the full detail. This is a big down payment but it’s not the end of the story. And the squeeze on Shadow Cabinet ministers when they become Cabinet ministers will tighten rather than release.
“When we go into Government, in the first few months they will have to justify from the bottom up every pound they currently spend. It’s not the culture of ‘here’s the quantum, let’s spend some more’ or ‘here’s the quantum, let’s get some cuts’; it’s ‘start from zero and justify every pound’. Obviously for the big departments, it’s going to be tough.”
His own talk of ‘tough choices’ centres on his decision to match the Coalition’s plans on 2015/16 spending, extending the 1% cap on public sector pay rises and axeing child benefit and winter fuel allowance for the better off.
“These have all been hard, but they are what we’ve got to do. In my job you can’t be popular. The distinction between us and the Tories is that we’ve shown we will do things in a fairer way.” He adds that from the mansion tax funding more NHS staff to a bank bonus tax funding his jobs guarantee, “there’s nothing uncosted and unpaid for”. “There’s nothing on tick in Labour’s plans,” he says.
Has there been blood on the carpet in the Shadow Cabinet though? “To be fair, when we’ve said no spending commitments when we can’t show how the money will be paid for, no commitments for spending paid for by borrowing, there has been a consensus across the Shadow Cabinet to support that. Even if at times on some issues it’s tough because people want to make announcements and we have to say ‘no, because there’s no money for that’.
Some unions have criticised Balls’s approach, with Len McCluskey even declaring he was in danger of becoming one of the “horsemen of the austerity apocalypse”. But the Shadow Chancellor says Labour’s National Policy Forum this year proved how united the party was, with far fewer amendments and less time spent wrangling than the Warwick equivalent before 2010. ”I think it’s quite deep now in Labour’s DNA that it’s about spending discipline, not about spending money.”
Given the pressure on the NHS and its huge staff costs, some have suggested local pay deals may be a way forward. But that’s one cut too far for Balls. “I think it’s potentially very expensive…I don’t say that the process of pay reform is finished in any part of the public sector. But I think we’ve shown that you can make more progress through the national framework and independent review bodies than you do through a free-for-all.”
Although Balls will hammer away at Osborne’s record on balancing the books and the cost of living, the fact remains that jobs and growth have been powering ahead in the UK, in stark contrast to the rest of Europe. What does he make of the revisions to GDP that suggest the recession hasn’t been as bad as was feared?
“There’s two things politicians can say if they want to be really out of touch. One is the financial crisis and the recession afterwards wasn’t as bad as we thought, because most people will say: ‘What?!’
“Or you can say ‘there was a bad financial crisis, but the economy is now fixed’ as Nick Clegg said last week and David Cameron says every week in Prime Minister’s Questions. I think people deal with that with the same incredulity. The reality is the financial crisis and its aftermath is still a reality for many people in this country who still get frustrated at seeing stories about banks and exchange rate scandals when they are still seeing their pay being squeezed.”
However, Balls says there are deeper roots to the current squeeze on incomes. “The financial crisis and its aftermath aren’t the only thing. You also had a sort of underlying squeeze on middle-income jobs and low-income jobs, which began before the financial crisis. You also had the impact of migration over the last 10 years which has also had impacts on terms and conditions. So those three things come together in a very powerful way. The reality is the global financial crisis was a huge event in all of our lifetimes that happened around the world. Even it hadn’t happened there would have been big pressures, but that made it much harder and we are still adjusting to that.”
He says when he was at the Financial Times and Harvard 20 years ago, he did a study on future job trends. Stripping out the effects for different labour markets, he expected technology to have a big role in removing low-skilled jobs. In fact, while low-paid jobs like cleaning and security are feeling the pinch, it’s middle-income jobs that have been really stripped out by technological change, he says. “The question is how do you as a society manage to shift more people to the next range of middle income jobs – that’s proved harder to do.”
All the parties are sharpening their policies on jobs and wages ahead of next May. Balls says “there’s no doubt” that the Coalition’s increases to the personal allowance, as well as a wages squeeze, have been more expensive for the Treasury than forecast. So is he tempted by National Insurance tax cuts instead, which some believe are a more progressive use of funds? He points out that when Labour was elected in 1997, one of the first things the Treasury did was commission the Martin Taylor review of the National Insurance system, which reduced taxes on NI for those on low incomes.
“I was having a meeting with the CBI a couple of days ago; their central argument was [focusing on] National Insurance rather than the personal allowance as a way of making work pay. I understand that argument; I think there’s merit in it,” he says.
“I want to cut tax for people in work and I’d like to start with the 10p [rate], but I also think that minimum wage, tax credits and National Insurance are worth looking at too. If I could cut tax more, I would.”
Taxes for those on higher incomes, however, would rise under Labour. And Balls believes there’s no point in not calling a spade a spade on the vexed topic of Labour’s ‘mansion tax’. Ed Miliband and Balls have themselves often instead used the phrase ‘a tax on properties worth more than £2m’, while Lord Adonis has said that it’s a shame the party is “lumbered with” the ‘mansion tax’ tag, given that so many homes affected aren’t ‘mansions’.
But the Shadow Chancellor is firm. “Every time David Cameron says it’s not the ‘bedroom tax’, it’s a ‘spare room subsidy’, the House of Commons laughs and people watching on television must groan and think: ‘What’s he on about?’ Margaret Thatcher persisted in calling the ‘poll tax’ the Community Charge, but then she had to resign.
“So I think you always have to be careful about these things. The phrase ‘mansion tax’ was never my phrase, it was the Liberal Democrat proposal in their last manifesto. I blame Vince Cable. [But] me now trying to say ‘look over there, it’s not called a mansion tax’ is never going to quite work.”
He points out that in essence his plan is to expand Osborne’s own tax on ‘enveloped dwellings’ worth over £2m, but to include British nationals as well as foreign owners. “Maybe I should change the name to the Non-Enveloped Property Tax – the NEPT?” he jokes. “Or we maybe will just have to keep calling it a mansion tax.”
Changing the name would mean “you’d be ridiculed”, he says. “When the legislation goes through to extend this, will we call it the mansion tax or will it have a Treasury-type name? It will probably have a Treasury-type name. But actually if it’s been called the mansion tax for four years, I don’t want to confuse. I’ve been absolutely out there explaining to people what this is about and why we are doing it. It’s for the NHS.”
Balls wants his party to be just as clear on immigration policy. In 2009, well before the Gillian Duffy ‘bigot’ incident, he wrote to all of his constituents in Morley and Outwood to ask them their concerns. In regular public meetings since, local people have outlined their worries about the impact on wages, housing and public services.
“It’s real; it’s not made up, it’s not a figment. It’s the most out-of-touch, intelligentsia nonsense to say these people have been brainwashed about something which isn’t real. It is absolutely real, in their lived experience in their workplace in the pressure they experience. But actually across all the meetings I’ve had, they say ‘we don’t want to leave Europe, we want it to change’.
“People don’t want to shut ourselves off. They are not voting for autarchy or Albania. What they want is controls which are in force at the borders and rules of the game which are tough and fair, and contribution is at the heart of it.”
So what was his reaction to Emily Thornberry’s tweeted photo of a Rochester house decked out in St George’s flags with a white van in the drive?
“I thought it was a bit ridiculous really. Most people I know would see that as being a totally normal part of the communities they live in,” he says. “My first reaction if I’d seen that house would have been to think ‘who are England playing this week?’.”
Balls says the wider move to reclaim the St George’s flag from extremists (Morley had the largest BNP membership in the country in 2008) “started with Euro 96” and pride in the England football team.
“In my constituency, every year the whole town comes out on St George’s Day, we have a huge parade, there are those flags everywhere. Because we have said we are proud of our town and our country, we are really patriotic and we are not letting anybody take our flag or any part of Englishness away from us.”
While Labour is fending off Ukip in some of its working-class seats, the party is of course facing a possibly more daunting challenge from the SNP next May. This week Balls’s former Shadow Cabinet colleague Jim Murphy came out firmly for devolution of 100% of income tax powers to Scotland. The move was a defiant response to warnings from Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling, but it was also a form of UDI from Labour HQ in London. Refusing to give them any notice of his move, Murphy even said that Balls and Miliband “can read about it in the papers like everybody else”.
When asked what he thinks of the idea of the Murphy plan, the Shadow Chancellor adopts a steely tone. “There’s going to be a UK income tax system,” he says. “I’ve always had concerns that if we get this wrong it could be damaging to the Union and the future of all the constituent parts of the Union. And it’s important that people in Scotland voted to keep the Union; that’s what we’ve got to do.
“There is also a really strong desire in Scotland to have more powers for Scotland and to fulfil the vow the leaders made. People want a consensus about the way forward, but it’s really important that the way this works strengthens and doesn’t weaken the Union and the pooling and sharing of risks.”
He says “the devil is in the detail” yet to be worked out by the Smith Commission, “but I will do my bit to make it work”. So what level of income tax does he think could be devolved? “I think the test for Smith in the future is whether we can reserve the things we need to reserve in a way that is coherent and fair to all, but at the same time devolve where that makes sense. There’s no secret it’s my job to be concerned about these things.”
Murphy is, like Balls, a marathon man. Both have run the London race in recent years and the Shadow Chancellor has raised thousands for charities Whizz-Kidz and Action for Stammering Children. But Balls has an announcement to make. “I’m going to have to have a fallow year on the marathon,” he says.
“I’ve done it for the last three years. The London Marathon is ten days before the general election, and the view in my office is it would be remiss. The truth is, the training, it’s seven days a week.
“I thought that when I started this marathon thing that I’d lose weight. But actually I never lost any weight in all three years. I was basically a Labour marathon runner in that it was a redistribution: things moved, your legs become heavier, so though you thin out a little bit, your weight never went down.”
And the impact of his decision, taken this summer, was swiftly felt on his waistline. “So I didn’t do the training in August like I usually would. I came back the first week of September, probably heavier than I’ve been. And there was a diary story in the Telegraph the next morning after Treasury Questions, which said: ‘Have you noticed MPs are coming back looking more portly than when they went away?’ And the three they highlighted were Eric Pickles, Ken Clarke and me.
“I came back and said to Yvette [Cooper]: ‘I’ve got to go on a diet!’ I’ve now lost over a stone on the ‘Pickles diet’: reading that diary story every day. It motivates me to stick with it.”
So Balls has been cutting the carbs, though not quite as dramatically as George Osborne. But when it comes to the Chancellor’s milk-drinking habits, what does he think of Danny Alexander’s revelation that there is a padlock on the Treasury fridge?
“I only drink black coffee, so I didn’t have to go to the fridge,” he smiles, recalling his own years in the building. Yet he has another secret to reveal about Treasury thrift, courtesy of his office secretary. Julie, who now works for him in the Commons, was Balls’s secretary throughout the seven years he worked for Gordon Brown.
“On the day I was leaving in 2004 [to stand as an MP], she said to me: ‘There’s something I’ve got to tell you. It’s difficult, but I’m going to have to tell you this. You know for the last seven years you’ve had meetings in that office? And you know every day you’ve had a little tray on it which has got glasses and two bottles of Malvern water? Every morning I’d go down the corridor, fill the bottles up from the tap, screw the caps on and put them on the table. I had to tell you before you went.’”
“Tap water in a Malvern bottle!” he laughs. “If the question is ‘is saving money and efficiency core to the being of my office?’, the answer is ‘it starts with the bottled water’.”
With Christmas looming large, Balls is again set to do his turn as Santa for the Commons staff party. His own children are alive to his own present needs these days, not least in the form of box sets bought online.
He’s a big fan of the US adaptation of House of Cards. “I loved it enough to go back – on Sunday I saw the first part of the original. Actually, it’s very good, and compared to some things I’ve seen it really captures the House of Commons very well. You can smell the atmosphere.”
But his ‘box set of the year’ is The Walking Dead, the huge US hit drama about zombie killers. “The problem with it is it’s part of the norm that you have to basically continually kill zombies; it’s quite matter of fact. So I’m lying in bed or sitting on the sofa watching it on the iPad; Yvette will come in and I’m watching this. And you hear blood-curdling screams and she’ll say: ‘What are you watching?’ She’s now become immune to it. But it’s the most anti-social programme to watch.”
Not that the Shadow Chancellor is anti-social about his choice of Christmas TV adverts. Rather than the John Lewis or Sainsbury’s specials, he prefers the Boots ad which, naturally, has an NHS theme. “My favourite is Boots, the one where the nurse who’s a mum comes home on Boxing Day [after spending Christmas Day at work]; they are all waiting for her and they’ve all arrived from around the world. It brought a tear to my eye.”
Balls swiftly adds that he’s aware of just how teary he sounds. “People will think ‘God, he’s done One Man and his Dog, Antiques Roadshow, Sound of Music and now the Boots advert!’,” he laughs. “I cry a lot…[but] only at the right things.”
With the twin tests of the Autumn Statement and his piano exam days away, just who will have the last laugh – and who’ll be tearing up – remains to be seen.
BALLS ON… SPENDING DISCIPLINE
“It’s the nature of the times, as well as the learning we’ve had. We’ve been more disciplined on spending than any opposition party in the last 30, 40, 50 years.”
BALLS ON… HONOURING THE 1% NHS PAY RISE
“Independent pay review bodies have proved over decades to be a better way of controlling costs and delivering reform in a fair way than a sort of free-for-all.”
BALLS ON… IMMIGRATION
“The one thing that nobody will ever say to me in my constituency is ‘you won’t talk about immigration’. I don’t wait for them to come to me, I go to them.”
BALLS ON… THAT THORNBERRY TWEET
“To me, the idea that picture symbolised anything other than normal British life – that’s why it’s frustrating.”
BALLS ON… ERIC PICKLES AS A DIET INCENTIVE
“My view is Eric should write a book; it could just be a compendium of pictures with a caption underneath saying ‘stick with the programme’.”
BALLS ON… WATCHING I’M A CELEBRITY…
“We record it and watch it at 7.30 to 8.30 every morning before the kids go to school. So I’m watching it every morning over breakfast.”
BALLS ON… OSBORNE’S BORROWING
“Whatever happens, he’s going to be revising up his borrowing this year compared to his plans.”
Words: Tony Grew
Photos: Paul Heartfield
Matt Hancock’s Commons office is hard to locate. He is not on the ministerial corridor, but off in one of the Palace’s many rabbit warrens. A special key is needed to unlock the door to Hancock’s domain. It used to be John Prescott’s office when he ruled over a vast fiefdom in the days of Blair. Today, Hancock has a similarly wide brief. At 36, he is the youngest person to attend Cabinet. Hancock is Minister of State at BIS and DECC, Minister of State for Portsmouth, and last month he was given yet another role: government ‘anti-corruption champion’.
On his four roles, Hancock says: “I regard myself as having one job – to ensure that Britain is the best place in the world to start and grow a business.” In fact, like Michael Fallon before him, a key part of his role is keeping tabs on two departments headed by the junior partners in the Coalition. Isn’t his actual job to keep an eye on the Liberal Democrats? He laughs at that suggestion, but concedes: “I would say that that is part of doing the job.”
Hancock suffered a rare setback earlier this month when the Government lost a vote on its own legislation on pubs. The Financial Times reported that Hancock was seen “apologising” to the Prime Minister after the defeat. The Guardian claimed he was “reportedly seen grovelling to the PM”. Hancock, asked why he pushed ahead seeking a ‘no’ vote on a clearly popular amendment that gives pub landlords in ‘tied’ premises more freedom to buy their beer from other breweries, says the issue “was Jo Swinson’s area of policy”.
“It is an unusual area of policy as it has both a Lib Dem junior minister and a Lib Dem secretary of state, but given that a concession had been made, we hoped that would peel off more backbenchers than it did.” He adds that he was surprised at the defeat, but concedes: “We thought going into it that we might lose”.
Hancock denies that the Government’s stance was one of standing up for big business. “I don’t think that is true – for a start we have taken all those pub companies with fewer than 500 tied pubs out of the legislation altogether, and the question is how do you make sure that the future of pubs is safe and secure? I come from a position of wanting to support pubs, not least in their role in local communities. That was an important part of how we thought about it. Especially in rural communities, that the last pub in the village remains open is vitally important because the pub is the hub.
“They have more of an impact than just the direct business impact, they have a wider social and community impact. So I don’t want to see pub closures, and that weighed on my mind.”
Will the actions of the Lib Dem and Tory rebels mean more pubs will close? “Well, I hope not, and certainly some of the pub companies said they would not be able to sustain as many pubs if this went through. We have got to make sure that local communities are able to take those over and run them. If this isn’t unwound then we have got to make sure we support the local pub.”
Hancock is the sort of politician who can spot where a question is going almost before it is finished. When it is suggested that moving from his life in London as an adviser to George Osborne to a rural village of 200 people when he won selection for West Suffolk was a “change of pace”, he replies: “It was like returning home; very similar to the village I grew up in in rural Cheshire, where I went to the village school. Similar size, similarly 10 minutes from the nearest medium-sized town. In a sense it was returning to what I grew up with.”
And Thurlow, the Suffolk village in question, has a pub called The Cock, where Hancock is a regular. “I was there on Thursday night as it happens; after the Small Business Bill went through I went to Thurlow, where I was at the meeting to save the village hall. Then after we had saved the village hall we went to the pub for a drink – an absolute classic of village life.”
He also loves the urban life, he proclaims. When challenged that that is a politician’s answer, he replies: “But I do! But I will tell you what I like, I also like the variety, I like the change; one of the things in life I love is arriving at one of the big railway stations and the pure sense of energy and movement. Another thing I love almost as much is driving up the A11. So you come up the M11, you turn off at the A11 and then I turn right at Six Mile Bottom and go from a dual carriageway on to a very small rural road. You drive up through Brinkley and up towards Thurlow and over the boundary with Cambridgeshire, up in to Suffolk. I often open the window; the sense of release that you get and just that after a week down here in Westminster, high pressure and very fast pace, to be able to get just the space and the air. And the air is different and that is a great sense of release.”
Hancock’s wife Martha and three small children make the journey from town to country with him. His seat is safe, with the Lib Dems coming second in 2010 and Ukip a distant fourth, behind Labour. At his selection meeting for West Suffolk, he beat fellow Tory MP Charlie Elphicke’s wife Natalie in a closely fought contest. “And Sam Gyimah came third! We were all put in a squash court together for four hours, while one at a time the six people in the final went out to do their performance. We had our mobile phones taken away from us at the start of this process so we couldn’t contact anyone in the audience, so I spent four very pressurised hours with Sam and Natalie and three others and I got to know them pretty well.”
Hancock says the Lib Dems in his West Suffolk seat “won’t be coming second next time round”. “The Lib Dem vote in my constituency was largely a ‘none-of-the-above’ vote, and looking at local council results there is no prospect of the Lib Dems coming second next time; far from it. A lot of that vote has moved towards Ukip and what this shows you is the reality of the point that you should never be complacent.”
As for the Lib Dems in government, he straddles two departments run by the junior coalition partners, and admits to “a good working relationship” with Vince Cable – with the emphasis firmly on ‘working’.
Hancock denies his partners are getting ‘cold feet’ about fracking. “It has been a coalition project and we are doing it in a reasonable and straight way, making sure the regulations are straightforward and safe and robust,” he says. “That would be policy in a Conservative-only administration as well.”
He also rejects claims that neither he nor the Lib Dems is winning the PR war over fracking – Tory MPs have spoken out about concerns environmental and financial. “Firstly, on public perception, the latest reports show that public perceptions are about as much support as opposition. There is a large proportion of the population that is undecided. I think that is understandable, especially before the first gas flows, but I think that the potential and opportunities are very clear.
“Now, realising that potential is difficult and important, but there is increasing public engagement, especially close to the areas where the planning applications are in. One of my first decisions in this job was to increase the protections on national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, because I want to make sure that we take advantage of this national resource but we do it in a way that protects the natural environment.”
Hancock compares the potential benefits of fracking to North Sea oil 50 years ago, and cites energy security as a key reason for pressing ahead. The sceptics should “look at the science”. “We had the Royal Academy look at this in great detail, and the science is very clear that there is a potential here deep beneath the ground.”
But the minister demurs when asked for a personal assurance that there will be no water pollution or earthquakes. “What I am saying is that all of the science shows that properly regulated and carefully done, these concerns can be taken account of.”
He also declines to set a timescale on when the cash bonanza – whether for individual property owners or in some form of sovereign wealth fund – will start flowing. “It will take time. The first thing we have to do is see gas flow out of the ground from some of the exploratory wells; then we will be in a better position to say. “It is too early to say how fast; it is not going to be in the next year or two. I am not implying any date. I imagine we will see a gradual pick-up, so you can’t give a specific date. That would describe it inaccurately.”
On his newest appointment as anti-corruption champion, Hancock stops short of calling for a boycott of the Qatar World Cup after the revelations about questionable bidding practices by the host nation. “Fifa have clearly got questions to answer about how that review was conducted and the outcome that it came to, and we need to ask more questions before coming to a view about a boycott. There is still time for them to sort things out.”
A lack of corruption here at home is “one of the biggest benefits to business” and it will be his job to “spread that culture internationally”, he adds. “You don’t want legitimate businesses who conduct themselves with integrity undercut by those who don’t.”
Hancock got into a bit of Twitter trouble earlier this year when he retweeted a comment that the Labour party is “full of queers”, but he has little time for comparisons with the social media site’s latest Westminster scalp. “There is a difference – I was trying to be lighthearted and didn’t read the tweet I was retweeting properly. Emily Thornberry actively sneered at a vast proportion of the population. I think there is a difference in scale.”
So what does Matt Hancock think when he sees a white van man? “They are exactly the sort of people we have to make life easier for.”
It might be pathetic, but around this time of year I start to feel rather twinkly, a smile comes to my face when I hear department store Muzak belting out those familiar tunes, and for once the crush in Westminster or the West End doesn’t bother me.
As long as I can smugly get most of my shopping done online and in a single frenzied assault on one large well-known shop, it’s Christmas! I am delighted! I’m just as happy as when I was six, as long as it’s not just a tangerine in my stocking.
Except, as I confess to perhaps a little bit of frazzle creeping in around the edges this year (must be the extra late nights on Newsnight), the thought strikes me: isn’t it in fact a rather good idea if we don’t get stuck in the same groove, but look again at things and – more to the point – examine our own early instincts too?
As the ever-excellent Paul Johnson from the IFS points out this week, pensioners are not a poor group any more. Of course there are pensioners who live in poverty. But the real people who are the demographic, not the cliche, are doing comparatively well.
They are not – repeat, not – the same group they were when politicians of this generation were growing up. That fixed image in their minds – voters who must be protected and never crossed – perhaps has to change if political choices are to be properly made.
In the formative years of the current ruling class, runaway interest rates caused appalling damage. The political horrors then of raising rates forged a lasting imprint.
But now, when rates have been on the floor for five years, the reality has changed, and maybe the psychology around policy decisions should too. Not least because the army of homeowners is being depleted by the march of the renter, who is entitled to being protected too. And what about savers?
We speak glowingly of running your own business. But wasn’t the glossy image of the swashbuckling entrepreneur painted for the current ruling class in the bold strokes of 80s big hair and big phones?
Decades later – for it is decades – the reality of running your own firm is different for many. There are countless success stories as the economy changes fundamentally with more and more startups in business. But for many, it is a hard choice – often involuntary – with an accompanying drop in income.
Are politicians making decisions based on their own experiences of a family doctor, when in fact swaths of patients now have never seen the same GP more than once? Are they trying to rebuild banking based on a nostalgic notion of the bank manager when it’s a service fewer of us actually want, let alone something the banks will feasibly want to provide?
How can we make decent decisions about how to make the country better unless our own perceptions are left at the door? Surely we must all look at life as it now is, not as it shaped us.
I still reserve the right to be unfeasibly excited about Christmas, but maybe the best present for our politics would be for leaders to aspire to be products, but not prisoners, of their pasts.
Laura Kuenssberg is chief correspondent and presenter for the BBC’s Newsnight. She tweets as @bbclaurak.
“I was born in London in 1966 – a good football year, though I’m only a vague Aston Villa fan. My constituency is only 30 miles from where my parents live in Berkshire.
My father is a recently retired stockbroker and my mother was a magistrate – good Tory stock. My mother’s grandparents were both politicians as well.
I have the most corny CV possible. It goes: Eton, Oxford, Conservative Research Department, Treasury, Home Office, Carlton TV and then Conservative Member of Parliament! It happened somewhat by chance, as I was always interested without ever being particularly active in politics at school or at university.
I enjoyed Eton – because you didn’t have to be particularly good at sport or brilliant academically, but could find a variety of outlets in music, drama or the fantastic art department. It was a big enough school for you to find your own niche, even if that was seeing your friends and misbehaving – though what I got up to is for me to know. Anyway, I wasn’t quite expelled and it’s all long in the past.
I went to work in Hong Kong during my year off in 1985 and travelled on the Trans-Siberian railway, all through Russia, Romania and Hungary. It was before the Gorbachev and Glasnost era of course, so it was an interesting time. I was mostly on my own and it was quite scary at times, especially in Russia. It was unforgettable to see a society that was so frighteningly controlled and repressed.
I studied PPE at Brasenose College, Oxford. I love my free time and can be quite idle – but I did work pretty hard as I loved my subject and had fantastic tutors.
I started off at CCO writing briefs for parliamentary debates on trade and industry and ended up as head of the political section which was doing research and speechwriting for the Chairman. I was then moved to 10 Downing Street to work for John Major on PMQs.
I worked for Major from '90-'92 and then went to the Treasury as a special adviser to Norman Lamont. Working there was a high point for me as the Treasury was full of fantastically bright and dedicated people, and I really enjoyed it.
The low point was being there on Black Wednesday, which was a hugely formative experience in my life. It wasn’t sheer panic but it taught me a lesson that I’ll never forget – that you must not have interest rates imposed on you that don’t fit your economy for any great length of time. We tried everything we could to make that policy work, but it wasn’t going to work. We should never let that happen again and never join the single currency.
I left with Lamont in '93 and went to work for Michael Howard at the Home Office. My main job was writing speeches, but even as a relatively junior advisor it was a great way of learning the system of government. The thing about politicians is that very often the ones the media thinks are the least friendly are often the nicest ones – like Michael Howard. He was one of the kindest, easiest people to work with – a really genuine nice guy.
After being a special adviser I thought it was time to have a real job and hopefully make some real money. So I went off to Carlton Communications where I started off doing government affairs. I ended up doing a whole range of stuff, including investor relations. I can’t say I learnt how to run a company, but I think I did get a good grounding in big business.
I fought the '97 election in Stafford and lost it – I went out with the tide. After another four years at Carlton, I fought and won Witney in 2001. I always dreamed of having the seat. My wife and I were both brought up nearby and I knew the area well. Shaun Woodward, with whom I’d worked briefly at Central Office, had been elected there in 97 and then crossed the floor in 99. The local party that I inherited, therefore, were feeling very let down. But once he went off to St Helens, the media interest calmed down and the campaign was reasonably ordinary. I put the majority up by about 1,000, which I was pleased by. I have really enjoyed every moment here, and have enjoyed the constituency work much more than I thought I would.
I have been married for five years and we have a 10-month-old baby, Ivan. He hasn’t been very well – he has epilepsy and so it’s been a very difficult year. He was diagnosed when he was about three days old, and hearing news like that is such an awful shock. You just have to take every day at a time.
The practicalities of having a sick baby and juggling life here are tough, but the whips have been very good and allowed me a lot of time off, mostly spent in different London and Oxford hospitals.
Obviously becoming a father changes you anyway, but I think becoming the father of a handicapped child changes you even more. You have to learn as you go along, but it helps to open your eyes to what other people are going through. I have learned so much from the people I’ve met through this job as well. We don’t yet know quite what effect the epilepsy is going to have on Ivan – but he will have developmental problems for sure.
Samantha is a designer at Smythsons, and we’re very excited about the new handbag she’s designed and is about to launch. It’ll give Prada and Gucci a run for their money!
I have almost come full circle as I now help prepare Iain Duncan Smith for PMQs – as I did for John Major. But of course it’s very different sitting in 10 Downing Street trying to come up with the answers to everything you could be asked, compared to trying to come up with the ‘killer questions’ at 7:30am on a Wednesday.”
David Cameron was speaking to Daisy Sampson. This interview first appeared in The House in February 2003
“What I would like on my gravestone is: ‘Tony Benn. He encouraged us.’ I’ve tried to understand what’s happening. In a way, I am a student. We are all born into a world we don’t understand, because it’s new, and we all die in a world we don’t understand, because it’s changed. I spend more time trying to understand now than I did as a kid, and then to explain, and then to encourage. Political history is not made by individuals, it’s made by a lot of people working together, so if you can encourage them and assist them you are doing a useful job.
I do think we are now in a political society where we’re managed, when democracy really is about being represented. There’s all the difference in the world between being a representative of your constituency and your convictions and being a sub-agent of the Millbank Tower Corporation, whose job it is to pass the message on to the faithful and tell people what to do.
As I’ve got older, the thing that has really come home to me is the democratic question. Are people spectators of their fate or participants in their future? And that’s an argument that goes well beyond the left or the Labour party. A lot of people now feel they’re being managed, and threatened, and told what to do all the time. That has the effect of discouraging people from doing things for themselves. I think democracy is what we do for ourselves where we live and work, and not what somebody will do for us. That’s my core political faith.
Parliament is a mirror, and at the moment we are in a country which is being deliberately depoliticised, in a party that’s being deliberately demoralised. So people are encouraged to see the Prime Minister as the captain of a fairly successful football team that might do well in the World Cup. There is no role for them whatsoever. Now that is changing.
Looking back, I think perhaps what I am most pleased about is where I identified an issue before others did. For example I spoke in Trafalgar Square – and was bitterly criticised – in support of a well-known terrorist in 1964, and the next time I saw him he had the Nobel Peace Prize and was president of South Africa. I campaigned on the Lords all my life, and now we have some change. I campaigned for a Scottish Parliament years ago. And there was Freedom of Information, and lowering the age of consent. So I’ve planted a few little acorns and there are a few pleasing trees growing. That is a reflection of the way I try to see politics, to look ahead and to plant an idea.
I’ve made many mistakes – the idea that nuclear power was “cheap, safe and peaceful”. The only thing I would like to think is that I never said anything at the time that I didn’t believe, for preferment. I don’t mind at all being proved wrong, as long as when I said it, I believed it, and that’s what I tried to do.
My diaries reflect the non-conformist element in my life. My father had a book by Arnold Bennett called How to make 24 hours out of every day. Everyone is born equal because everyone has 24 hours in the day. My father felt he had to keep a record of what he had done. He kept an account book, which I had to do as a child. I got a penny a week pocket money and another penny if I kept an account of how I had spent the first one. He had a time chart of how he had spent his day. He took the view that work and sleep should equal 24, which ruled out conversation, meals, holidays and everything else. And he kept a diary, which I took on from him. It is the feeling that you have an obligation to account for how you have spent your life.
Then I discovered it not only gave you several bites at your experience, which is the only teacher, but also that while the media tell you what to think about today, and historians tell you what to think about the day before yesterday, yesterday is open for re-examination. My diaries have turned out to be columns of tanks rolling over the one undefended frontier of the recent past. Nobody defends the recent past. It’s been for me my university, really. Of course I don’t write for publication, and I don’t consider the impact. I’m so tired at night, I just put it down as it is. Truth is many sided, and you are entitled to keep you own record.
If I have any regrets, I did put my job first. I’m a political lifer, and my wife, who’s a teacher and writer, carried the burden of the children. How it could have been done differently, I don’t know. Caroline hasn’t been very well, and I’m a carer now, and in a strange way transforming yourself is very satisfying and she is marvellous about it.
I can’t say what I would be like if I was starting out in politics now. My views are entirely based on my own experiences. I was in the war; I was in London during the Blitz; I remember Hitler coming to power; I remember how terrifying war was. There is a funny thing about the Benns – they all move left as they get older. My father was a Liberal and ended up on the left of the Labour party; my grandfather was a Liberal who was well to the left of New Labour; my other grandfather was rather a conservative Liberal. My son Hilary worked for MSF for 25 years, was a councillor for 20 and then an adviser to David Blunkett. He’s come here with as much experience as I had as a cabinet minister. Five members of the family in four generations in three centuries now have been MPs, and we’ve all worked on the basis of our own experience. The first time I went to Number 10 was 70 years ago this year, as a five-year-old to see the Trooping of the Colour.
I was elected on 4 December 1950. I’ve fought and won four by-elections, which compares only with Gladstone and Churchill. That’s why I call myself the Great Uncle of the House.
It’s the teachers I remember. Galileo, Marx and Freud, they were teachers. Whereas people who held high office very quickly fade into the background. Fenner Brockway, Dick Crossman, they were teachers. Mrs Thatcher was a teacher. The real danger was not what she did, but the ideas she implanted in the public mind. She saw power as a pulpit for education, not just as a key to the executive. I’ve always tried to explain and to listen. It’s not legislation that I introduced that I would want to be remembered by, but maybe that I’d illuminated by my argument the territory through which we were going so that people could make choices about which road they wanted to follow. Politics is about life itself.
On my 50th anniversary as an MP, I want a party for everyone who works here – the cleaners and the security people and the secretaries and everyone, as a way of saying ‘thank you’. It would have to be a tea party, for all the people who inhabit this place, who’ve been so kind to me. If I had known what fun it was to be 75 I would have done it years ago. So for this birthday, I would like ‘the gift of eternal age’.
I didn’t realise it, but there is still a last temptation: to be a kindly, harmless old gentleman. I am kindly, I am old, and I could be a gentleman. But I’m jolly well not harmless.”
Tony Benn was talking to Ann Perkins. This interview first appeared in The House in April 2000