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Those of us who love the thrill of a general election would’ve hated the Septennial Act of 1716 which increased the maximum length of parliaments from three to seven years – a period longer than the Second World War, or the time it takes to drive around the M25 when the first snowflake of winter sparks panic in south-east England.
The limit was reduced to five years by a 1911 Parliament Act better remembered for championing the supremacy of the House of Commons by clipping the law-blocking wings of the House of Lords after a titanic struggle decided by the people in a second general election.
We have the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 – when the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government decided five years was to be both the minimum and the maximum – to thank or blame for inking into our diaries 7 May 2015 as the date of the next general election.
Confirming the date so early shackled the Tories and Lib Dems together so neither could easily pull the plug on the other and cut and run for an election. Five years was George Osborne grabbing 60 months job security instead of a shorter term, the crafty Chancellor extending the spell in the Coalition Agreement from the four years pencilled in in the draft.
The tidy part of my brain was always attracted to the idea of fixed terms. Uncertainty over the date of an election is good for journalists who enjoying guessing games. There’s no evidence, however, that it excites voters. Business yearns for political stability, as do foreign governments in dealings with Britain, so I can’t imagine apprehension is good for either commerce or diplomacy.
Giving prime ministers the ability to pick the day of battle to suit themselves always struck me as unfair.
The last two Labour prime ministers to be defeated at the polls, Jim Callaghan and Gordon Brown, made a hash of it. Callaghan was singing about waiting at the church in 1978 when it would’ve been better, under the rules, for him to have gone to the polls, while Brown never recovered from the electoral ball he fumbled in 2007.
Blair judged it right in June 2001 in delaying Destiny Day a month for the foot-and-mouth epidemic to subside, then again in 2005. On both occasions he went to the country after four of the allotted five years.
Margaret Thatcher chose elections after four years in 1983 and 1987. Her Tory successor, John Major, successfully gambled on the full five years of a parliament in 1992 to win before losing to Labour and Blair at a second five-year limit in 1997.
Ed Miliband made clear privately a while back that he’d stick with five years should Labour find itself in government from next May. Labour peer Charlie Falconer argued for the curtain to come down on parliaments after four years when the 2011 Act was debated. Frontbencher Stephen Twigg declared publicly that Labour would, if it won the election, serve the full five years. I suppose no wannabe premier wants to surrender power in advance.
I’m a four-year man to enhance accountability and enjoy more elections, and watched with interest as a cross-party attempt to end fixed terms on principle by Tory MP Sir Edward Leigh and Labour’s Frank Field gathered little support.
Four years would be better than five, but five is better than prime ministers selecting a date after four years – or any other period – to gain an unfair advantage. And I hope we never go back to the future with a Septennial Act.
Kevin Maguire is associate editor (politics) on the Daily Mirror
I know what you think. OK, not every single urge, not every single idea, not every tiny thought, consideration, whim, grand plan, philosophy, micro or macro strategy. It would be foolish – and untrue – to make an outlandish suggestion of clairvoyant-like powers, or indeed to assert that politicians of every hue, heritage, party and credo collide with their every waking thought. And yet.
None of you – yes, you, the readers of this fine journal, our small and joyously, imperfectly formed quorum of politicians – would demur from the fact that we are hurtling towards an election in curious times. As Lord Freud discovered last week, even the walls of obscure fringe events most definitely have ears.
And, if the polygraph is out, few of you would contradict the assertion privately that there are ideas, beliefs and realities that you feel – with the clock counting louder every day – you can’t or just won’t say.
What is worth a moment’s pause, whatever party you are from – Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem, Plaid, SNP, crossbencher or Green – is something rather less obvious: just how much in common you have in private but won’t or don’t dare let on to the public. Despite your differences, you ought to know, you concur on rather a lot.
Nearly every politician you engage on the subject, from whatever party, believes that as a country, we require a proper, frank conversation about how much money we spend on the NHS. Not a mission to hack it to death, not an excuse to sell it off, nor a debate designed to guarantee generous funding for ever. But a decent conversation about how we ought to proceed with this most important national institution.
It’s almost universally believed in private that the universal nature of many benefits for pensioners can’t continue. I’m yet to meet a politician who behind closed doors justifies why a retired accountant on a lavish pension from yesteryear with a villa in the Algarve needs a bung for his bills as much as the former shop assistant with no private pension and a draughty terrace that doesn’t belong to her.
Most of you admit freely in conversation that there’s not that much you can do to significantly change the level of energy bills your constituents pay. Even the most self-aggrandizing of Westminster residents knows they can’t control the global oil price. Most accept that for good or for ill, there is no way Generation Rent will ever join their parents in their castles in anything like the same numbers.
On all sides of the House there are politicians who think too many young people go automatically to university; indeed, whisper it, that many apprenticeships aren’t worth the praise heaped on them so often.
Many agree, as we may well be reminded in the coming months, that the big picture of the economy – the recovery – is intensely more dependent on conditions way beyond our shores than any decision made in No 11 or on Threadneedle Street. Present company not excepted, Chancellors are quick to blame international conditions when winds blow ill, quick to claim credit when the climate is kind.
And in the runup to the next election, when push comes to shove, in private, a fair number of our politicians accept that when considering the scale of sorting out the backblast of the global downturn of five years ago, the gap between the parties’ plans to do so exists, but is not wide. And yes, you all agree that there is no way you can give every detail of how you will make it all add up, however much my industry bays for it.
Add all that up, and there is one chunky common manifesto that will never get written.
In a world where every moment, almost every word, is subject to instant scrutiny, it doesn’t fit your individual political narratives to say things considered traditionally to be politically awkward. Certainly, even gingerly edging a pinkie toe over the party line has its risks.
But let’s face it – the current modus operandi of divining dividing lines that mask agreement isn’t exactly driving the public wild. Rather, it’s driving them rapidly into the arms of others. I acknowledge that our vigorous political culture doesn’t always reward honesty. But there is power too in saying what you really think; at the risk of sounding trite, of telling the full truth. Common beliefs – even the current unsayables above – won’t stay secret for ever.
Laura Kuenssberg is chief correspondent and presenter for the BBC’s Newsnight. She tweets as @bbclaurak.
The House: Relations between the UK and China have shown strong positive growth in the last two years. Will the 2015 general election in Britain affect China-UK relations?
Ambassador Liu: China-UK relations have in general maintained a good momentum and entered a new phase of comprehensive growth and inclusive development. A healthy and stable China-UK relationship is China’s long-term commitment. It is also the shared aspiration of Chinese and British people. I believe it represents the consensus of all political parties of Britain. Therefore no matter what the result of next year’s general election in Britain is, I hope it will not affect the momentum and trend of China-UK relations. As a matter of fact, many important exchange and cooperation projects under discussion are cross-party and will go beyond the general election.
Hong Kong has an important role in the global financial and trading system. How do you see ‘Occupy Central’ in Hong Kong? What are China’s comments and expectations on the British government’s response to the developments in Hong Kong?
Since late September, some people in Hong Kong have illegally blocked streets and boycotted law enforcement by police. Their actions have seriously disrupted Hong Kong’s law and order, poisoned Hong Kong’s economic environment and tarnished Hong Kong’s international image. If unchecked, they will only reverse the progress of democracy in Hong Kong, and even destabilise Hong Kong. Dealing with ‘Occupy Central’ in accordance with the law, maintaining Hong Kong’s stability and preserving its economic environment is in tune with the wishes of the majority of Hong Kong’s people and serves the fundamental interests of all countries, including the UK.
Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region of China. Hong Kong affairs are purely China’s internal affairs. Hong Kong’s political reform must follow the Basic Law and the related decisions of the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress. No foreign government or individual has the right to intervene. I hope the British government and parliament will understand and respect China’s position and not interfere in the internal affairs of Hong Kong and China by any means. I hope they will do more to promote Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity as well as the healthy development of China-UK relations.
How would you comment on the current state and prospects of China-UK cooperation in trade, infrastructure, green energy and new and high technology? What is the progress in Chinese investment in British high-speed rail and nuclear power?
China-UK economic cooperation in recent years has seen gratifying progress. In the first three quarters of this year, our bilateral trade reached $59.5bn, up 20.2% year-on-year. Britain has become one of the main overseas destinations for Chinese investment. Since 2012, Chinese investment in Britain in various forms totaled more than $18bn. This represents more than the total volume of investment over the previous three decades. In the first half of 2014, Chinese investment in Britain exceeded $5bn. Moreover, this investment has expanded from trade, transport and telecommunications to advanced manufacturing, infrastructure, internet, R&D, hotels and real estate.
Mutual beneficial cooperation between our two countries has a bright future. We are making steady progress towards the goal of $100bn in bilateral trade by 2015. Chinese companies have shown a strong interest in building British nuclear power plants and high-speed rail. The competent authorities on both sides have signed the MOU on strengthening cooperation in civil nuclear energy and the MOU on cooperation in rail. These two MOUs set out the policy framework for our cooperation in these two sectors. The relevant authorities and industries of our two countries are having intensive consultations aimed at delivering early results.
London has become a global RMB trading centre. What is China’s plan to further advance China-UK financial cooperation and support London becoming a global centre for offshore RMB business?
As Chinese Ambassador to the UK, I have witnessed how London’s offshore RMB business has started from scratch and gone from strength to strength. In the three years since the Economic and Financial Dialogue launched the program in 2011, London’s offshore RMB business has come a long way. Britain was the first to sign a bilateral currency swap agreement with China. London was awarded the first RQFII quota outside Asia. The first RMB clearing bank outside Asia was created in London.
London was the first to issue RMB denominated financial products. Notably, the British government has recently issued a 3bn RMB sovereign bond, which has made the UK the first foreign government to issue RMB sovereign debt. It also means RMB has become one of Britain’s reserve currencies. Its significance has gone beyond a bilateral scope. Looking ahead to the future, I am confident that London will become one of the world’s most dynamic offshore RMB markets.
However, we should also be aware that RMB internationalisation cannot be achieved overnight. It should proceed in a step-by-step manner. China will deepen financial reform, follow market rules and create favorable conditions for financial and economic cooperation with other countries. I believe the Chinese and British financial sectors should seize opportunities and make joint efforts to boost RMB business in London, take China-UK financial cooperation to a whole new level and inject vigour and vitality to the China-UK comprehensive strategic partnership.
How important is the UK’s position as a gateway to the European market to Chinese investors? Does Germany have more appeal to them?
Britain and Germany each have their own strengths. It is hard to say which has greater appeal. According to my observations, Chinese investors place importance on Britain’s unique role in Europe. First, Britain is a champion for free trade and market rules. It is open to Chinese investments in infrastructure, telecommunications and water. Second, Britain is an international hub for finance, trade and information. Its connections with the European, North American, Middle Eastern and African markets are wide and mature. Third, Britain is strong in high-end manufacturing. It is a leader in innovation and R&D.
In addition, Britain has accumulated rich experience in many fields such as urbanisation, healthcare, old-age care, energy conservation and environmental protection. China has a lot to learn from Britain’s experience. I believe deeper economic and trade links between China and Britain can make Britain a torchbearer of China-Europe cooperation, an important offshore innovation base for China, a leading developed country to work with China in infrastructure and an all-round partner for building China’s modern services.
Many Chinese companies now have investments in Britain, such as Huawei and Rekoo. What more can be done to help attract such companies to the UK, and why do they find Britain attractive? How can we foster Chinese success stories such as Alibaba in the UK?
Recent years have seen a sharp increase in Chinese investment in the UK. The UK has become one of the top destinations for Chinese investment. According to incomplete statistics, about 500 Chinese companies now operate in the UK and have succeeded to varying standards.
That being said, some challenges remain. Due to lack of information, many Chinese companies willing to make investments in the UK do not have sufficient understanding of the UK market, its operation and business models. More can be done to bring the supply side and demand side together. I hope the UK will do more to promote itself and improve its investment environment. I believe with our joint efforts, Chinese companies could achieve similar success in the UK to that of Alibaba.
The British government has taken some measures to revise visa rules for Chinese businesses and tourists. Is China encouraged by the response? Could they do more?
The visa issue has been highly topical for Chinese and British business, financial, cultural, educational and tourism circles. According to UK figures, between June 2013 and June 2014, the UK side issued 390,000 visas to Chinese citizens, up by 22% on a year-on-year basis. I hope this trend will continue. In terms of working visas, we hope Britain will provide greater facilitation to Chinese staff based in Britain, increase the number of working visas and shorten the processing time. This will help Britain attract overseas investment and boost the consumer market. I am confident that Britain will continue to implement visa policies and measures that benefit both countries and lend support to China-UK people-to-people exchanges and comprehensive growth in bilateral relations.
What do you make of internet social media such as WeChat in China? Many UK ambassadors are on Twitter; do you plan to join them?
The rise of WeChat in China in the past few years has fundamentally changed the way people communicate. The latest 2014 figures show that there are 600m WeChat users in China, posting and reposting over 400m pieces of information every day. A total of 98% of central and local government departments, including the Foreign Ministry, now use social media like WeChat and Weibo to interact with the public.
The feedback has been very positive. The website of the Chinese Embassy in the UK has received wide attention from home and abroad. We place much importance on the huge influence of social media such as Twitter and Facebook in the UK. We have been exploring various platforms, including social media, to tell stories about developments and changes in China and are delighted to interact with Chinese and foreign friends who follow China and care about China-UK relations. I myself use internet a lot, including Twitter, Facebook and WeChat.
What is your favourite place to visit in London and why?
London is a charming international metropolis, and has left an indelible imprint on my diplomatic career of 40 years. It has impressed me in many ways. Museums are the places I frequent the most, so if I had to pick one place, it would be a museum. The British Museum, Science Museum, V&A Museum, National Gallery, Tate Britain, Natural History Museum, Imperial War Museum, National Maritime Museum, the Wallace Collection – the list goes on and on. London deserves to be called a city of museums. They are the epitome of Britain’s history and a symbol of British culture. When people ask me what to see in London, I always recommend museums.
Words: Daniel Bond
Photos: Paul Heartfield
“I’ve hugged bears promoting Hamleys in Kuala Lumpur, I’ve been on GREAT-branded tuk-tuks in Phnom Penh, I’ve promoted Lush cosmetics in Mexico, I’ve supported engineering companies making widgets for railways in Mongolia. I’ve been round the world.
“My daughter said all I do is shake hands with people. I looked at my Twitter feed and thought, ‘she’s right’…”
Hugo Swire is perched on the edge of his seat in the Foreign Office’s King Charles Street HQ, breathlessly recounting his trips abroad promoting British business as part of the Government’s recent GREAT publicity campaign. With ministerial responsibility for Britain’s relations with two-thirds of the world’s population, and a brief that stretches from South and Central America in the west to China, South Korea and Japan in the east via India, Sri Lanka, Burma and Nepal, Swire has spent the past two-and-a-bit years leading his very own ‘global race’.
The minister has played a leading role in the FCO’s drive, under both William Hague and Philip Hammond, to shift focus towards what he calls “economic diplomacy” – using the department’s expertise and reach to deepen global trade links, help thousands more British firms establish themselves as successful exporters, and encourage inward investment.
In the past four-and-a-half years more than 800 FCO staff have been given additional commercial training, 20 new embassies, consulates and trade offices have opened, and dozens of new positions have been created in 20 emerging markets – including over 100 new jobs in China and India alone, making Britain’s diplomatic network in the latter the largest of any country in the world. Last year, the FCO and UK Trade & Investment together helped around 48,000 more businesses export – a 50% increase on the previous year. Swire’s globetrotting message is clear: Britain is open for business, and the Foreign Office is back in business.
After reeling off these stats to The House, the minister pauses to relay an anecdote illustrating just how far the culture change in the UK’s diplomatic service has come. “I always remember Ken Clarke told me once that as a junior minister he’d gone to Seoul at the same time as a trade delegation,” he explains. “There was a reception, and he asked the UK Ambassador ‘is there any chance of bringing the delegation to reception?’, to which the reply was ‘certainly not!’. The idea of mixing diplomacy with such vulgar commerce was just complete anathema to him.
“Well, I think if the current ambassador to Seoul made that same call today, he’d be quickly relocated to Pyongyang…
“So what’s happened, and what has been dramatically accelerated over the past four years, has been the very close alignment between diplomacy and economic diplomacy. And I think if you go out there now and ask British businesses ‘is the Foreign Office supporting what you’re trying to do?’, the answer would be ‘yes’.”
William Hague has moved on, but Swire’s global tour continues next week when he visits two very different countries both undergoing transformative and contested economic reforms: Mexico and Cuba. Swire will become the first UK minister in over a decade to visit the Caribbean island on his trip to “assess” the perestroika under Raul Castro’s government, and to support nascent British investment. From there, the minister will travel to Mexico to accompany a royal visit by the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall. The trip will serve as a curtain raiser for a high-profile campaign of greater engagement with the Central American country, ahead of a series of cultural and trade events in 2015 – including a state visit from president Enrique Peña Nieto – dubbed ‘The year of Mexico in the UK and the UK in Mexico’.
In particular, the Foreign Office has been working closely with Peña Nieto’s government on its efforts to open up the country’s huge telecommunications industry, which for years has been dominated by the “near monopoly” of Carlos Slim’s América Móvil empire. “They’ve broken up that monopoly and allowed British companies in there,” Swire says. “It’s an example of how the Foreign Office effort can help unlock an entry point for British businesses.”
After a decades-long “retreat” from Latin America, he says, the FCO is finally re-engaging with the region’s emerging powerhouses. “It’s worth remembering that until the Second World War, the UK was Latin America’s largest trading partner. After that we had the Marshall Plan, and we were getting into the European Union and all that. And we took our eyes off Latin America. We’ve re-engaged in that area, we’ve opened a consulate in Recife in Brazil, I’ve opened an embassy in Asunción in Paraguay, we’ve opened an embassy in El Salvador, we’ve even opened an embassy in Port au Prince in Haiti. We’ve had more ministerial visits to Brazil in the past three years than in the previous 13 years. So we’re getting up and going. We are wholly engaged in Latin America, and there’s huge room for growth in our relationship with that part of the world.”
Swire is also excited about opportunities for British business in another emerging economy currently undergoing fundamental reform. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration in India has pledged wide-ranging changes to the country’s labour laws, as well as moves to cut red tape and clamp down on harassment of business by government inspectors in a bid to make the country more ‘investor-friendly’, and repeat the success he enjoyed in turning around the economy during his time as chief minister in the state of Gujarat.
“Clearly the momentum is with him,” Swire says. “He’s got these incredibly good directives, which sound as if they’re straight out of Wharton Business School, in terms of ‘there shouldn’t be more than four layers of decision making’, ‘people should put memos on one page’. This is his attempt to actually get the place moving. But like anyone coming in like that, you’ve got to move very, very fast and do what you want to do in 100 days, otherwise you’ll get bogged down by the realities of government.
“I think he’s got a huge challenge. But if he can export to the other Indian states what he has achieved for Gujarat, then India is going to be a hugely rewarding place in which to do business,” he adds, pointing out that Britain’s Commonwealth links with India make UK firms ideally placed to play a significant role.
He's confident that the new Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council, set up this summer under the auspices of Lord Marland, will “go great guns” in promoting new trade avenues between Britain, India and all Commonwealth members. “It’s a huge resource. 54 countries, on the whole united by a common legal system, a common language often. It’s proven that intra-Commonwealth trade is cheaper than trading outside the Commonwealth. So it’s a huge area of potential growth.”
But he is also clear that while the Commonwealth offers opportunities which are currently “under-exploited”, it should not be seen “as a replacement for any other trading bloc”, and he plays down suggestions that the UK should leave the EU in favour of closer Commonwealth engagement.
“We are trying to expand our global economy to reach other parts of the world, as we used to do traditionally, because we shouldn’t have all our eggs in the same basket. Exports have increased by 2% this year, which is positive. But it’s not where we want to be, and one of the reasons is the uncertainty of the eurozone. That’s held us back a bit. So we do need to up our game globally,” he says. “But from where I’m sitting the EU is still a huge market to the UK, both in terms of inward investment and in terms of the export market.”
It’s been a tough week for the already strained relationship between Swire’s party and the EU, with Conservative MPs and European officials exchanging increasingly bitter words over David Cameron’s plans to renegotiate the UK’s membership. Even the Foreign Office itself was dragged in to the row at the weekend, when Philip Hammond’s claim that his party was “lighting a fire” under the EU led to accusations from Jose Manuel Barroso that the Foreign Secretary was using language unbefitting of his post.
On the day we meet, the outgoing president of the European Commission has just given his valedictory address at Chatham House in London, warning that Britain will find itself marginalised on the world stage if it quits the EU, and accusing the Prime Minister of running an increasingly “negative” campaign which could leave Britain isolated from potential allies.
But Swire rejects Barroso’s charge of negativity, and insists it is Cameron’s government, more than any other in the EU, which is presenting a positive vision of an open, prosperous and outward-looking single market.
“We make no bones about it. I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant, but we would like the EU to reflect more closely what we’re trying to do here in the UK, which is to reduce the cost of government, reduce the size of government, reduce taxation, encourage and grow our businesses, build up apprenticeships,” he says.
“Look at our youth unemployment compared to the EU. Look at how we are getting considerable praise from international organisations like the IMF for what we’re doing. All economies globally are vulnerable, we live in very uncertain times. But I think on the whole our long-term economic plan – perhaps a phrase you’ve heard before – is beginning to work. That is because of deregulation, reduction in taxes, encouraging the private sector to up its game.
“Other European countries could look at the UK model and look at what our priorities are in terms of what the EU should be: a deeper single market, less regulation, better concentration on these huge EU free trade agreements – TTIP, for example. This is a hugely important piece of legislation, which the UK is leading the way on. So to say the UK is not promoting its view of where the EU should be going – well, there is an example where the UK, perhaps more than any other European government, is championing what we think is a fundamental economic win-win to the EU.
“Those are the sorts of things we should be concentrating on to make the EU work in the interests not of the bureaucrats or the Europoliticians, but in the interests of the individuals in the EU.”
But it’s the row over changes to freedom of movement within the EU which looks set to prove the biggest stumbling block to Cameron’s plans for reform. In a blow to the Prime Minister’s hopes of reaching a deal on migration, Barroso insisted this week that any “arbitrary cap” would “never be accepted” by the other 27 members, and may even be illegal. Despite the increasingly hard-nosed language, Swire remains certain a deal on the issue is possible.
“I’ve seen the remarks of Barroso. The fact is, I’m very comfortable with where we are on all this,” he says. “It seems to me that if you are a founder member of a club, a major player in that club, and your constituent members – in this case the UK population – feel that actually the rules have been changed or have migrated in some way over the period, it seems to me you have a right to say to your club ‘hang on, we don’t agree with some of the directions you’re taking this club in’. Now that would have to cover all kinds of things, like EU migration, inward population migration, EU accession countries, and quotas, whether people have to earn a certain amount before they get certain benefits. All that seems to me to be in the mix. There will be a whole list of things we wish to negotiate; I think everything should be in the mix.”
He says the Prime Minister will always come up against opponents of reform “noising off and saying ‘we can’t do this, we can’t do that’”.
“I just don’t believe that. People say the Prime Minister won’t achieve it. Well, the Prime Minister achieved a rebate; he’s done things, he’s got form on this. Ultimately, it will be the politicians and the Government who try to renegotiate these things and present, if you like, the menu to the British people. But it will be the British people who have the choice at the end of the day.”
And if a deal can’t be reached on these issues, does he still think Britain’s future interests will lie within the EU?
“Britain has huge interests in the EU,” he cryptically replies. It’s not quite an unflinching endorsement of the UK’s continued membership.
“I think you need a sophisticated approach,” he continues. “This will be the most fundamental decision that anyone in my generation makes in our lifetime – whether to stay in the EU, or whether to come out of the EU. This does not need to be done tomorrow as a kneejerk reaction based on some salacious headlines. This needs to be done in a cold, calculated way.
“I don’t think we should be frightened of coming out of the EU, and I don’t think we should be frightened of staying in the EU. I think at the end of the day it will be the people who decide. That is, in a sense, pure democracy.”
Words: Paul Waugh and Daniel Bond
Photos: Paul Heartfield
Liam Byrne’s desk is groaning under the weight of a tottering, Jenga-like tower of books. From Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men to tomes on the life of Matthew Boulton, the twin themes are Birmingham’s industrial roots and Britain’s scientific innovators. Characteristically, the Shadow Higher Education Minister is braining up, not dumbing down. The hefty reading list is ostensibly research for Byrne’s new book on 10 great British entrepreneurs, due out after the election. But it’s also informing his wider thinking on Labour’s policies to boost the ‘knowledge economy’ in the 21st century and avoid the low-skill, low-wage threat facing much of the West.
“We’ve been doing this invention stuff for a long time,” he says. “We’ve been burying our scientists with our sovereigns since the death of Isaac Newton in 1727. Boulton helped make Britain great. When Bill Gates went to the Science Museum, the only thing he wanted to look at was James Watt’s lab. We are a country that is brilliant at science, innovation and enterprise, and that’s actually how we will work our way out of this hole we are in right now.”
Having been handed his current brief by Ed Miliband last year, Byrne’s mission has since been to draft science and higher education policy to help Britons win the jobs of the future. He says he’s been “bowled over” by the science community’s response to his green paper on science and technology, and a white paper is due in “the next couple of months”. This summer, he and Miliband unveiled a plan for ‘technical degrees’ – new high-status qualifications aimed at putting vocational subjects on an equal footing with traditional academic ones.
On higher education, the main clue to policy lies in another mini-book on Byrne’s groaning table. His own Robbins Rebooted pamphlet is a review of how to move on more than 50 years after the landmark Robbins Report paved the way for a huge expansion of universities.
But with just seven months to go till the General Election, Labour still lacks a policy on tuition fees and university funding. In 2011, Miliband talked of cutting tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000. Back in March, the Labour leader revealed the party would be making a “radical offer”, leading to speculation he was paving the way for a major move towards a graduate tax. But while many expected a high-profile unveiling of the policy at conference, Byrne says an announcement was never on the table, particularly at a time when the university system’s finances are so uncertain.
“We’ve got to see the Chancellor’s figures,” he says. “[George] Osborne announced a big expansion of university places and said it would be paid for by selling the loan book. In July, Vince Cable then says he’s decided not to sell the loan book. So what on earth is going on? Nobody knows; it’s a mystery. That’s never going to be cleared up until the Autumn Statement. So we’re not going to play fantasy finances with Britain’s universities, because that’s what this government gave us. And look where it’s got us.”
He says an announcement on fees will come “when it’s ready”, explaining: “I know that’s a really simple answer, but the Lib Dems were punished so badly for lying and breaking their word, and we’re just not going to make that mistake. We’re not going to go off half-cocked on university finances – we’re going to get this absolutely right.”
He does hint, however, that the party has set out “a direction of travel” towards lower fees. “We’d love to bring the cost down. But students and their parents, as well as the university community, will ask us how we’re going to pay for it. So until we’ve dotted every ‘i’ and crossed every ‘t’…”
Byrne says it’s clear a Conservative government after 2015 would increase fees further, as part of their wider plans to allow universities to buy up students’ loan debts. The plan has been publicly championed by former universities minister David Willetts, but his successor, Greg Clark, has refused to be drawn on Conservative policy post-2015. “I think David Willetts wanted to do it, and I think that’s one of the reasons he’s no longer the minister,” Byrne says. “Greg Clark has tried to dead-ball this and basically smother it as an argument. But look – the truth is, that’s what they would do if they were in office.”
Shortly after taking over in this role, Byrne said Labour’s “long-term” aim was for a graduate tax, with a cut in fees expected as a stop on the way. Is that still the case? “We’re going to nail that down for the manifesto,” he replies, pointing out that he has been an advocate of a graduate tax since his days as leader of the Manchester Students’ Union in the early 1990s.
“We became the first students’ union in the country to publish proposals and an argument for a graduate tax, so I’ve long been a supporter of the idea. Turning it into action is complex, especially when your debt-to-GDP ratio is nearly 80%. So this is an idea with many virtues, but actually what people want is a plan.”
Lib Dem election coordinator Lord Ashdown has recently sounded more bullish about his party’s chances of winning back a large chunk of that student vote, and even said in an interview that students approach him to express their gratitude for the new £9,000 fee system introduced by the Coalition. Byrne laughs off the claims and says while he is an “admirer” of the former Lib Dem leader, on this occasion Ashdown is simply “out of touch”.
“What most young people and students and sixth formers say to me is today’s labour market is so grim we face Hobson’s choice – as in, no choice at all. ‘If we don’t go to university, we don’t stand a hope in hell of getting a decent job in the years to come. We’re forced into this system which means we won’t pay back our debts until we’re in our 50s, and we still only stand a 50/50 chance of getting a graduate job.’ That isn’t a proposition that people are organising street parties for,” he says.
“This is a forced choice, not a free choice. So for many people, they would love an ‘earn-while-you-learn’ route to get a degree. That’s why technical degrees will be our priority for expansion, because we want to radically expand the ways in which people can get to a degree, which is still the key to unlocking a middle-class lifestyle in this country.”
But it’s not just the Government’s funding model which is holding back Britain’s university sector, Byrne continues. The Coalition’s net migration cap, and the negative publicity around it, is doing “catastrophic” damage, he warns. “Universities are now sitting on a sea of debt, borrowing is up £2bn, you’ve got £80bn of debt write-off programmes into the student finance system – and now you’re cutting universities off from the world’s best talent,” he says, describing a trip to India earlier this year as “one of the most shocking experiences” of his career.
“I spoke with a group of a couple of hundred Indian students at one of the best colleges at Delhi University, and I was just horrified at the number of questions that came from students saying: ‘Why do you not want us to come to Britain to study anymore?’ It’s really threatening the strength of British universities, and it’s something they should be ashamed of. It’s going to take a long time to fix.”
With countries like Canada and Australia looking to take advantage and relaxing their rules on student visas, Byrne fears ministers are aware of the vital need to change, but have found themselves “trapped by their own rhetoric” on migration. Last week’s by-elections in Clacton and Heywood and Middleton proved just how potent a weapon immigration has become for Ukip. Byrne, who first squeezed into Parliament on a by-election majority of just 460 votes (in Birmingham Hodge Hill in 2004), knows more than most how tight such contests can be.
He says he had “huge admiration” for Labour’s organisation in Heywood and that the NHS message worked well during the campaign, but the big issue was immigration. “People want to hear more from Labour about issues like immigration,” he says. “And our policy is actually in the right place on immigration, because it’s very easy to win an argument about immigration on the doorstep. I think we can quite safely put it higher up the list of things that we prioritise in some of our messaging.
“You need to talk about stronger controls, you need to talk about the obligations on people who want to make Britain their home, and third, you make a tougher argument about enforcing the rules on employers who try and use immigration to undercut British workers.”
Just as important, he says, is that Britons of all races tend to agree. This summer he embarked on a fact-finding exercise with voters from each part of his constituency, using town hall meetings, local polling and other research. “What’s interesting is that this is not one group of voters who think this, but all voters. I serve one of the most diverse communities in Britain, and all of our work revealed how people from all backgrounds are basically in the same place on this. The Pakistani, Somali, Bangladeshi communities as well as the white working-class community basically all said the same thing. This is not an issue that Labour needs to be afraid of. This is not a divisive issue; this is an issue around which we can build common cause for the future.”
All the groups agreed that properly managed migration could be a good thing. “People in this country respect hard work, and they respect people who want to work hard and advance their families and in so doing build a better, stronger country. And so people recognise that instinct in people who’ve moved hundreds or thousands of miles to build a better life. We respect hard work and enterprise and energy in this country.
“People want a realistic conversation; people are sophisticated on this question and I’ve known that from my days as Immigration Minister. Actually, many of the immigration reforms I drove through – bringing in a points system, developing earned citizenship, creating the UK Border Agency – these were ideas not made up by me; they drew heavily on the conversations I had had in the multi-ethnic community that is my constituency.
“There’s a new consensus in Britain about immigration reform; Labour needs to be the standard-bearer for that consensus. It’s an issue on which Labour can win and on which Labour needs to be self-confident, and it’s an issue which people expect political leaders to lead a conversation on.”
With the Rochester and Strood by-election coming up, he says “the dynamics are similar to a lot of others of our seats”, with the cost-of-living crisis, NHS worries and immigration all featuring. “But crucially, they want to know where their kids are going to work,” he adds, which brings us back to his own programme for better-paid jobs. “There’s a big market for an optimistic, bullish account of how Britain builds a bigger knowledge economy and prosecutes this race to the top.”
But in seats in Kent and Essex, like Rochester and Clacton, isn’t there a danger that Labour is just not visible anymore? “I grew up in Harlow in Essex,” he smiles. “You can take the boy out of Essex, but not the Essex out of the boy! I wear red socks now rather than white socks…”
“When I go back to see my dad in Harlow, Labour is very visible – we’ve got great candidates like Suzy Stride who are really doing the business on the doorstep. My impression is we are fighting those seats hard.”
Byrne makes clear that for him, the personal is the political. His mother Ruth, who died from cancer at the age of just 52, sparked his lifelong interest in science: she was a biologist and then a teacher at the Harlow comprehensive he attended. And it was Labour’s own modernisation under Harold Wilson in the 1960s that gave his and other families in the south the opportunities they seized. The parallels with today are obvious, Byrne says.
“Labour was worried about deindustrialisation and worried about the loss of its traditional working-class base; it was looking for a way to develop its offer to technical and scientific workers in the south-east of England.”
Wilson’s famous 1963 speech on the “white heat of the technological revolution” presaged a government that symbolised change. “Labour then wins the election because it epitomises this sense of change, but crucially a sense of optimism about how Britain can build a bigger knowledge economy that offers new jobs for people but also new ladders for people,” he recounts. “In office, Wilson delivers the Robbins revolution, creates scientific advisers, puts science centre stage, he creates that revolution in social mobility which meant that my parents crept into the middle class at the end of the ‘60s.
“So Labour has done this before. And my argument is that this is a ‘white heat’ moment, where we need to sweep out that sense of fear that people feel about the future and replace it with a sense of bullish optimism about how this incredible, inventive country can win once again.”
BYRNE ON… THE STUDENT VOTE
“Labour is the natural party of students and students’ parents. We’re determined, and I’m determined, to give them an offer that moves their vote to us.”
BYRNE ON… JAGUAR LAND ROVER
“For many people they would love an ‘earn-while-you-learn’ route. But Jaguar Land Rover is now more competitive to get into than Oxford.”
BYRNE ON… IMMIGRATION
“Labour is in the right place on the argument; people want us to make a bit more noise about it. It is a vote winner, no question.”
BYRNE ON… WILSON’S ‘WHITE HEAT’ SPEECH
“He has a blank sheet of paper the night before, writes through the night, finishes it at dawn…and then goes and delivers this knockout speech.”