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Words: Paul Waugh
Pictures: Paul Heartfield
On Maria Miller’s wall hangs a huge, avant garde photograph of a woman cut in half by an ironing board. On her iPad, she taps at a YouTube video of her son singing Verdi. On her desk, a London 2012 Paralympics relay baton sits proudly.
Culture, media, and sport. That curious melange of which she is Secretary of State (with a side-dish of ‘women and equalities’) are all on display in her newly-created departmental office on Whitehall.
The DCMS has been downsized, housed in the Treasury buildings next to a very watchful Chancellor and brought literally closer to Number 10 and Westminster than ever before. Her suite no longer has grand views over Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery, but more than a year since her elevation to Cabinet, Miller still has a lot on her plate. And with a brief ranging from themulti-billion pound e-commerce economy to the BBC to Premiership football, the message is that this is no longer a ‘fringe’ department.
Only this week, she was with David Cameron in Downing Street at a summit of internet giants Google, Microsoft and others to hail a breakthrough agreement on children’s online safety.
The deal was the result of months of hard work, often behind the scenes, that typifies Miller’s approach to the job. She points out that she led the way with her June summit with ISPs and a trip to Silicon Valley last month to meet Facebook and Google. “We set out that the situation was not acceptable and we had to move rapidly and that was the message we took very clearly to the United States too,” she says.
Despite scepticism about the possibility of a deal, the minister believes this week has proved the doubters wrong. “It’s very plain that the messages that were coming out from the industry were that it was difficult to go any further than they had gone. I think that as a result of the pressure that started with the round-table we had in June that significant change has been made.And we are challenging the status quo. We are challenging the norms that the industry has put forward and I think making significant progress.”
As with energy bills, it’s a combination of consumer power and Government action that is forcing change in online filters, Miller argues. “I think what’s more important than anything is this is what consumers want. We are talking about Facebook and Google – these are products that are important advertising vehicles that are selling products to people up and down the country. I think it’s therefore unsurprising that when the strength of feeling is articulated to these organisations then they will respond positively.”
But the Secretary of State is equally keen to stress that she’s not as ‘nanny state’ in her approach as some fellow MPs. “All of the work we are doing in the Department when it comes to looking to the future of the internet is to make sure we continue to have the internet as a vibrant entity for our economy, but also to make sure that consumer protection is in place as well. All of the work that I’ve been doing on both what’s illegal and on what’s age-inappropriate has been to make the internet a safe environment for people to be in.”
She emphasises that the wider cultural issues behind the way children use the internet are just as important as the technology itself. “The work that we are doing with the providers is only part of the solution. We’ve said right from the beginning that parents have to take a lead on this and parents know that. Most parents realise that they have a responsibility to make sure their children can use the internet in a safe way. We’ve already changed the curriculum in schools to make sure that this is covered in IT and also in parts of PHSE as well. But ultimately it’s about giving our children the confidence to use the internet wisely and making good decisions about their lives.”
Yet with the increasing phenomenon of cyber-bullying and girls sending naked ‘selfies’ to friends and boyfriends, isn’t it simply difficult to police how children use their smartphones?
“It comes down to making sure that children are confident about the waythat they use the internet. The internet is force for good and we should treat it in that way but make sure that children are very careful about the way they use it, not just in the way you’ve described but also in the way that they are using the data that they give out too. That’s something which particularly in my visit to the States, I found to be a great concern.”
Do new apps like Snapchat (which allows users to send messages that disappear once read) concern her? Again, Miller is sanguine. “Technology is always going to give us challenges in how we stay ahead but ultimately we have to make sure that our children understand that, as with their attitudes towards alcohol or their attitude towards drugs, in their attitude towards the internet they need to have a confident way of dealing with it.”
How does she police the way her own children (she has four) use the internet? Does she set limits on screentime, as the Prime Minister does? “I think, as any parent, I want my children to be really fluent in the way that they can use the internet as part of their everyday life. I actually think that it is a great force for good.
“And I think you’ve actually got, personally, rather than setting arbitrary limits, I think you’ve got to let your children work out how they can use the internet in the way that’s most appropriate for them. And it changes depending on how old they are.
“What parents need to do is to make sure their children are technology-literate and that’s really important. As with many other aspects of childhood, the best way to try and make sure that your children can deal with these things is to let them make their own decisions, but on an informed basis.”
There has been a vigorous debate recently about the impact of too much screen time on children’s brains. Does she agree with neuroscientist Susan Greenfield that it can be damaging or with people like Ben Goldacre who feel there’s insufficient evidence of harm. Again, although she’s diplomatic, it’s clear that Miller is not among those who throw their hands up in horror. “It’s like many things, you have to give a balance to childhood. I think that if there’s one thing that’s for certain, it’s that the online world is something that’s going to be an ever growing part of our lives. Britain now is doing more online e-commerce than any other western nation so this is not something which you can exclude from children’s lives. But as with many other things as a parent you have to help them use it responsibly.”
That stress on the benefits of the internet for the UK is certainly high on the DCMS priority list. Britain’s creative industries are worth £36bn and account for around 10% of our exports. From filmmaking to the Silicon Roundabout in East London, Miller wants to prove hers is a ‘department for growth’ as much as others in Whitehall. Just recently, she visited the twins behind the teenage YouTube sensation Jack’s Gap.
“It’s part of Britain and what makes Britain the trading nation we are today. Within the creative industries the role of the internet is significant. So, whether it is for the music industry, now music is increasingly traded online, or it’s our cultural and arts sectors who are using the internet to be able to take that great British creativity and ensure that it is seen further afield, the internet is at the heart of the way the creative industries work.
Tax credits from the Chancellor certainly help in attracting business, she says. “One thing that struck me when I was in Hollywood last month was when one of the studios said to me ‘it’s so clear that Britain’s open for business – the attitude that you have towards the film industry and the support you are giving to ensuring that more film and more TV production is in the UK.’”
From homegrown James Bond and Harry Potter to US sci-fi, Britain has become a leading hub for film production. “We’ve seen that translated into investment from Warner Brothers up at Leavesden, and also through Lucasfilms and the commitment to making Star Wars films in the UK. And the tax credit schemes we have put in place are clearly important. But what’s even more important I think is our talent and just the fact that international artists want to come and live in Britain to film their wares here.”
Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales recently pointed out that he moved to London because Silicon Valley was “incredibly boring” compared to the vibrant arts and culture of the UK.
Miller says that British culture is “absolutely” a draw for investment. “Here in the UK, our appeal and our desirability as a place to do business and a place to come and live, and as a place to come and visit as a tourist, is rooted in our culture and in our arts and in our heritage.
“I don’t think you should see that as a London-only discussion, that’s a UK-wide discussion. I was up in Manchester recently talking to the leader of the Halle orchestra about the work that they have done to secure the agreement with the Chinese government around Manchester Airport and links into China. The Halle Orchestra was part of that deal.”
She cites Bristol’s cultural renaissance and points to attractions like the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Media City in Salford. Only this week, she revealed that Hull had won the competition to become the UK’s City of Culture, complete with the economic benefits that will bring to the city.
But it’s not just inward investment that matters. Exporting our arts brings benefits too, she argues. “Increasingly, I think as a result of the work that I’ve been doing working with the British Council and other organisations, we are using our arts and culture as a calling card, as a foot in the door when we are trying to land trade deals abroad.”
She points out that she will be going with the Prime Minister on his trip to China at the beginning of December “with exactly that in mind”. The priority for DCMS is to make sure British cultural value is being recognised “in full in terms of its contribution to our trade deals of the future.”
“We also make sure we try to export our culture. When I was in San Francisco last month I went to the de Young [gallery] and saw the most incredible exhibition of Hockney, which was his most recent work. We are trying to take our culture abroad. Not only because it is the right thing to do – and America adores British culture – but also it gives us a foot in the door for people when they are thinking about Britain, making sure they are kept up to date and they have the right image of our country as a creative place and as a creative trading partner.”
Another key area of British cultural life is, of course, the BBC. Within days of her appointment last year, Miller was writing to Lord Patten to warn that public trust in the Corporation was under threat in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal. Patten didn’t take kindly to Government ‘interference’. Just recently, Patten hit back at Grant Shapps for suggesting the licence fee could be up for grabs unless the BBC got its house in order. When asked about Patten’s remark that the BBC gets ‘bashed’ more than Syrian leader Bashar Assad, the minister smiles.
“The thing that I’ve learned in the last year, and probably knew it before as well, is that people tend to have entrenched views of the BBC… I have got a very entrenched view: I think it is an extremely good institution, but it is clear that in the last year they have identified and encountered enormous problems with the governance of their organisation.
“And so I’m really pleased that this is now being taken seriously. I perhaps would have hoped it would have been resolved before now. But it is being taken seriously and there is a root and branch review. And rather than fog the issue with all of these other noises off, I think what we have to dois we have to make sure that the BBC remains focused on that issue… When they solve that issue I’ll start to think about the other things that people want to raise.”
But does she back Shapps’ threat on the licence fee or hold it in reserve? “The immediate priority is that the BBC gets its house in order. Obviously the charter review is in 2016 and all of these other issues I’m sure will be part of that. But we should not distract away from the most important thing at the moment and we should not let other things get in the way.”
And when asked about Theresa May’s recent warning that BBC local websites were wiping out local newspapers and ‘killing democracy’, Miller sounds sceptical.
“I think these things are distractions away from the main issue, which is getting governance in place. And when it comes to the BBC we already have a public value test which I think back in 2009 looked at local news provision and has already had an impact on the way that the BBC is dealing with this. Clearly the BBC keep these things under review through the public value test.”
As for the ‘sport’ section of her brief, that Paralympic baton on her desk is deliberately placed. Miller attended the games several times last year when she was Minister for Disabled People, long before she was tipped for her current role. Yet sport and media are intimately linked, not least through the latest £1bn deal to grant BT Sport the rights to the Champions League. The telecoms giant is proving it has more muscle even than BSkyB, and could even clinch Premiership rights soon. Does she worry that football fans may soon lose any ‘free to air’ access to football?
“There are obviously a list already of sporting events that are available for free to members of the public. We are always keeping these things under review…Britain is a nation of sports lovers and we want to make sure that people can still have access to the sporting events that they want.”
That startling photo on the minister’s wall, of a woman being bisected by an ironing board, is an apt reminder of her other duty as Minister for Women and Equalities. The black and white image, by Mel Brimfield, is a neat riposte to those who see the Secretary of State as a bit too dour and safety-first. Miller, who has the pick of the Government Art Collection, says of the picture: “It just made me laugh, given that it is every woman’s nightmare!”
Other pictures in her office are of women or by women. Charles Ginner’s‘The Blouse Factory’ shows female workers in 1917, while Dame Laura Knight’s ‘Sowing Potatoes on a Windy Day’ portrays women in the fields in the 1950s.
Miller has tried to speak up for women in public life, urging more female representation on company boards and expressing disappointment when the Church of England Synod rejected women bishops last year. “What I see when I go into the churches in my constituency is that women have an enormous role to play and it would seem sensible to me that Synod is really carefully reflecting on the role of women at the highest level of the church. What was clear last time was that there actually was a majority of people who were in favour of an increased role for women in the most senior positions in the church. And clearly the fact that they’ve come forward with further recommendations I think is a good sign.”
But Miller has little time for those who suggest that the Tory party itself, or David Cameron individually, has a ‘women problem’ with voters. Miller says: “I think it’s a clear myth. When you look at the programme that we have in place for this country to put it on track economically, we are seeing now we are starting to turn a corner in terms of the economic indicators. But ultimately what we are doing is making sure that our country has got a secure future and I think that’s a very strong message for women voters.”
She says the Coalition has proved its worth to women by raising tax thresholds, ensuring good childcare, modernising the workplace and “doing the things that Labour talked about with regards to flexible working, sharing parental leave, but never actually followed through on”. “All of these things to me are exactly the issues that women raise with me, whether it’s in London or in Manchester or beyond. That is the package of reforms that we have put in place and I think that’s a very strong package for female voters.”
She does accept that there is a need for more women in Government. “Ultimately, as with many parliaments in the Western world, we are still trying to get more women to come into Parliament. And inevitably whilst we are going through that it’s going to be tough to get as many people into the higher, more prominent jobs.”
Miller is keen to point out that things have moved on even since she became an MP just seven years ago. And as a comprehensive educated Conservative, she is robust about the party’s recent record in looking more like the Britain it represents, adding there are “quite a lot of us”. “I think I’m right in saying that all of the women in the Cabinet went to state schools,” she smiles.
Yet does she think that it is easier or harder for a girl from a council estate like hers to become a Cabinet minister as she has? Miller replies: “I think this nation has always been a nation of opportunity and giving people opportunity. The reason I’m in the Conservative Party is because the Conservative Party is all about giving people opportunity.
“We always have been and we always will be the party that enables people to be the best that they can. I think that with the reforms that Michael Gove is putting in place in education, for me that is the most important reform this Government is doing, to give children the opportunity to be the best they can be in the future, with the best education we can give them and they are able to flourish. And I think one of the biggest travesties of Labour is the way that they failed to put that good education system in place.”
Firmly on message, but prepared to surprise her critics, Maria Miller is proving unflappable at the DCMS and impeccably loyal to the PM and Chancellor. And that arresting photo in her office has the perfect title: ‘On Board’.
MILLER ON…INTERNET FILTERS
“We will be monitoring that closely to make sure the changes are effective. And if the changes are not effective then there options to reform legislation.”
MILLER ON…CHILDREN ONLINE
“I think you’ve got to let your children work out how they can use the internet in the way that’s most appropriate for them.”
MILLER ON..MOBILE PHONE CHARGES
“One thing we want to make sure of is that people don’t have shock bills when it comes to mobile phone charges. And we are working on how we can lift roaming charges, particularly when people are on the continent.”
MILLER ON…THE NAO’S BROADBAND REPORT
“They recognised that the approach that we have taken has reduced the cost to the taxpayer and it has reduced the risk in terms of delivery.”
“Friends, Romans, Countrywomen, lend me your ears.” Phyllida Lloyd’s production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, set in a maximum-security women’s prison with an all-female cast, opened in New York last month to widespread acclaim. The British production, originally performed at the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden, has been praised by American critics as a radical and gripping new take on Shakespeare’s most macho of plays.
Among the audience on that opening night, marshalled to his seat by uniformed and stony-faced prison guards, was Parry Mitchell. It was a night he will never forget.
“I saw it at the Donmar last year and thought it was brilliant,” the Labour peer explains. “My wife and I met the executive director afterwards, standing round the bar in our normal position, and we said ‘it’s so good, have you ever thought of taking it to New York?’ They said ‘well it’s passed through our minds, but it’s going to cost too much money’.
“But, you know, you can look at this in a positive or negative way. I said [to her] ‘why don’t we do it? And we will make a contribution to the cost. And they did it. We went across to New York to see its opening in Brooklyn, and it’s just got rave reviews in the New York Times. I mean rave reviews – ‘Do not miss this’. I’ve never done anything like that before; it was so exciting.”
The impulsive decision is typical of the industrious, enterprising ethos which has seen the Londoner emerge as one of the most successful IT entrepreneurs of his generation. In 2006 Mitchell parted with his stake in Syscap Plc, the third international company he’d founded, expanded and subsequently sold, over a 40-year career straddling both sides of the Atlantic. He is a firm believer that men (and women) are masters of their own fate.
But there was nothing inevitable about the Finchley-born Mitchell’s upward trajectory. After failing his mock O-levels, he left school with no qualifications, and, aged 16, went out to work. “I was a disaster, a total and complete disaster,” he says as we sit down in his House of Lords office. “I sold vacuum cleaners, door to door, for two years, working for Hoover. And believe me, if you’ve done that, in the rain, you’ve seen an awful lot of life.” That was until one particularly grim day, as Mitchell stood looking down the full length of a seemingly never-ending road in Wood Green, he made a life-changing decision. For the next five years he studied four nights a week, while working full time, to earn his O Levels, followed by a degree in Economics from London University. He then headed to New York City for the first time, where he earned his MBA in Finance and Marketing from Columbia University. In just six years he’d gone from being a door-to-door salesman, with little hope and no qualifications, to an Ivy League postgraduate.
“There was a game that people used to play, it was a few years ago now, but it still applies to me. It was ‘sum up your life in six words’. Mine was: written off young, proved them wrong.
“It may sound a bit arrogant, but it’s true. I go round to lots of schools and I always say to them: all of you who’ve done very well that’s great and fantastic, but I want to address what I’m saying to those sitting at the back wondering why the bloody hell you’re sitting here listening to this old geezer when you could be out playing football. I was you, and you were me. That’s where I come from. Just because you’re not good at school, or just because somebody writes you off, you can either accept it or not accept it. If you want to go for it you can go for it no matter what happens. There’s nothing to stop you.”
After spending 40 years at the top of business, Mitchell became one of the most experienced members of Ed Miliband’s team when he was brought in as a Shadow Business, Innovation and Skills minister in 2012. His tenure on the frontbench was short-lived, however; while Mitchell says he loved “giving the Government hell”, he felt unsuited to the life of a shadow minister, particularly the late House of Lords nights and the “convoluted legislation”.
This summer he was offered the chance to leave the gruelling parliamentary schedules behind and keep “the good bits” – as Labour’s business ambassador and enterprise adviser. The new job, he says, is much more him. “I would rather be taking the day out, going to Cambridge or Milton Keynes or Middlesbrough or wherever, and talking to businesses, helping them understand Labour’s policies, than I would be stuck here at 11:30 at night with a thick document in front of me.”
The businesses Mitchell encounters around the country have become markedly more upbeat in recent months, he says, as the recovery begins to take hold and consumers begin to spend more. But many firms, and particularly SMEs, are still finding it far too difficult to secure finance to expand their operations.
“The inability of small businesses to get funding is the major barrier. If you speak to small businesses they still say it [the finance] is absolutely not there. And you cannot get productive growth, you can’t get all the things you need to take your company forward, unless you’ve got the funding to enable you to do it. Especially if you’re a new company or a knowledge based company, all the areas we need to develop.
“I’d like to see a huge amount more in business investment and business spending. That’s the recovery I’d like to see. I’d like to see more productivity in this country, more investment, more skills training so that we can become an economy like Germany, that’s not necessarily just based on consumer spending but on exports and productive growth.”
There remain “very, very strong reasons” for foreign investment in Britain, Mitchell explains, with “almost everything” in our favour, including our language, our location, and our “unbelievably productive” workforce. But if he was representing an overseas firm looking to invest, he adds, one factor would force him to think twice: Europe.
The current debate over the UK’s future in the EU is “totally damaging” the country’s reputation abroad, he warns. “Just put yourself in the position of a Japanese company, or somebody who’s never invested in this country before. To suddenly say ‘well, in 2017 we might not be members of the EU’, I think it’s very scary, and if I was sitting outside, and you have all your criteria for making an investment, that would be one that I’d have a big red mark against.”
But with James Wharton’s Private Members’ Bill set to return to the Commons, and European elections on the horizon, the issue is not going away. Labour remain officially opposed to a vote, but the conventional Westminster wisdom holds that their position is untenable – to go into the 2015 election without the promise of a referendum would leave them open to the accusation that they don’t trust the British public to have their say. To avoid four more years of uncertainty, Mitchell says, Labour must move to offer a vote as soon as possible.
“I would say if a decision is being taken for a referendum it should have been taken quickly. But to stick it out still for another four years I think is highly damaging and wrong,” he says.
“Everybody now seems to be committed to a referendum, and if there is going to be a referendum then I think it should be as soon as possible. Before the election, frankly.
“I think it’s very difficult to get up and say ‘we’re not going to have a referendum’. Ed’s said they think 2017 is too far away, and indeed it is. Would they make it sooner? I don’t know. If it was my decision I would have it sooner.”
Mitchell’s appointment as a business ambassador came at a difficult time for Labour, with business groups, including the CBI, accusing the party of shifting left and engaging in anti-enterprise rhetoric, particularly following Ed Miliband’s conference speech in the Autumn. Last month CBI director John Cridland said the Labour leader’s pledges to freeze energy prices and increase corporation tax “raised the hairs on the back of [his] neck”.
Mitchell admits there are concerns among business groups about the energy price freeze, but rejects any claim that the policy represents a return to “1970s style socialism”.
“You do hear it mentioned quite a lot. There’s a worry out there that Labour suddenly has taken a turn to the Left. I absolutely do not see it that way at all.
“Everything I’ve seen is that Labour totally recognises that additional employment is going to come from new businesses. New businesses have to be stimulated. It’s not going to come from government, and I don’t think it’s going to come from big business. Increases in employmentwill come from new fast growing companies and they absolutely have to be supported. And Labour, as long as I’ve got anything to do with it, will be in that camp.
“I think it’s fair to say to these energy companies who operate an oligopoly between them, it’s a cartel, to basically say ‘it’s not going to continue like this’. It doesn’t mean we don’t want you to prosper, it doesn’t mean we don’t want you to succeed, but it does mean we want to give ourselves a little bit of breathing space if we come into power to see how we address this whole issue.
“But to say that means we’re anti-business, or we want to go back to the era of prices and wages freezes and all that sortof stuff, absolutely not. I don’t see that this is a return to the 1970s at all. I do see it as a chance to stand up for the consumer.”
Miliband’s decision to focus on the cost of living as the totemic political issue was given a boost earlier this month with the election of Bill de Blasio as Mayor of New York City. De Blasio, who becomes the first Democrat to sit in City Hall in over 20 years, won a thumping 72% of the vote after a populist campaign focusing on unemployment, rents and spiralling the cost of living. Accusing his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, of presiding over widening inequality, de Blasio has pledged to tackle the “tale of two cities”, with tax rises on the wealthiest to fund a number of schemes, including a universal pre-school care programme.
The New Yorker’s success, and the similarities between his campaign and Ed Miliband’s One Nation theme, has also set pulses racing among the centre-left on this side of the Atlantic. Stewart Wood, Labour’s Shadow Minister Without Portfolio and one of Miliband’s most senior advisers, said the result was proof that “a different kind of progressive politics can capture the imagination of a public ground down by economic crisis.” Diane Abbott went even further, claiming de Blasio won by “breaking every rule in the New Labour playbook”, and challenging the Right of her party to follow suit.
Mitchell, who describes New York as his “second home”, remains a huge fan of outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg, praising him for the “fantastic” job he’s done over the past dozen years.
But the Labour peer says de Blasio is now the “man of the moment”, and has been able to capture the public’s mood despite being written off by the political establishment. The result, he says, should give fresh impetus to Ed Miliband’s bid to do the same thing on these shores.
“He wasn’t given a chance. He wasn’t given a chance of even getting the Democrat selection. He’s talked in terms of a tale of two cities, the rich part and the not so rich part. He wants to do something about it, and I hope he does. There are very, very, very rich people in New York, and there are also some very, very, very poor people. We’ve got to find a balance,” Mitchell says.
“I think from a Labour point of view, just seeing what he’s been able to do, I think there are some lessons for what Ed Miliband is doing here – that you can indeed take that position and win, even in a city like that. I think he must have taken great heart by what’s happened in New York. I’m sure we will go along the same path.”
That de Blasio scored such a resounding victory in the face of ferocious criticism from some in the media should also give hope to Labour. The mayor-elect was regularly accused of being anti-business or anti-free market, with the New York Post even labelling him ‘Comrade Bill’.
But like Comrade Bill, ‘Red Ed’ must not be cowed from pursuing a centre-left programme which stands up for the consumer, Mitchell says, despite the taunts from the Right.
“I’ve got friends of mine that are pretty right-wing, and every comment they immediately go light-years ahead of where you are and go ‘ah, told you’,” he says.
“I think there are certain people who would jump on any statement that’s made and turn it to suit their own regards. We have an uphill battle because people readily want to think that we’re anti-business; that’s how they think, andwe have to work hard to make sure we get the message across that we support business. We know that’s where growth and jobs are going to come from.”
For some Labour will always be seen as anti-businesses, he says. And those who have made it in business will be seen as Conservative.
“People always say to me ’well, you’re a capitalist, you’ve made money, you’ve done this, you’ve done that, you’re a natural Tory’. But I’m not,” Mitchell says. “I have two conflicting beliefs: I believe that people left alone are capable of amazing things, and any company I’ve ever run I’ve seen individuals, young people, blossom and take on amazing responsibilities and do well. But I’ve also seen people who have no hope in life, who I believe need to be protected.
“I’m not a natural Tory because even though I believe in free enterprise and the benefits of business, I really do believe there is this other sector of our society who have to be really helped. Labour does that better than the Conservatives ever would. This Labour, today, is my home, and I like being here.”
HS2 isn’t going to be finished until 2033 at best. Just think what the world’s going to look like in 20 years’ time. It’s going to be dramatically different. HS2 really is about better communication. Maybe people won’t be travelling as much as they used to, because there will be no need for it.
MITCHELL ON…HIS POLITICAL HERO
I’m sorry to have to say this, because people don’t like it, but I thought Tony Blair was amazing. Actually – I’m not sorry to say it. I’m pleased to say it! I’m a supporter of Tony Blair. He won elections, he got Labour into power, and he did some amazing things.
“When you get to this age you’re seeing people you know just popping off. Everything’s a numbers game. You just have to try to change the odds a bit more in your favour. I don’t know if I’m obsessive, but I do take the fitness thing seriously.”
Serai Hann has never voted, and until pretty recently didn’t even know what an MP was. Now, the 23-year-old from Swansea is a passionate Labour supporter and might even consider standing for parliament.
Ms Hann’s damascene conversion offers a lesson for all three parties in how to engage a public weary and mistrustful of politicians.
Mitchell Theaker, a Labour councillor in Swansea, came across Ms Hann and her friends at a local family centre. He’d gone to talk about access to further education but soon discovered the women were prevented by bad debts from securing the training they needed to get a job. They say they were repeatedly harassed by unscrupulous doorstep lenders, but felt powerless to do anything about it. They’d never thought of calling their local MP because they had no idea who he or she was, or what they did.
Mr Theaker raised their problems with Stewart Owadally, a community organiser with Movement for Change. Mr Owadally then got together with the Swansea mums and crafted a campaign to take on the doorstep lenders. That culminated in a question being asked at the Welsh Assembly, an appearance at the Labour conference and a pledge from the party to put a cap on the cost of credit.
If the mums’ aims are a little bit vague, the real power of their campaign is the sense that they’re taking control of their lives – and using local politics to do it.
This is just one of many grassroots campaigns which prove if proof were needed that community organising has really arrived.
But the Conservatives should be feeling a tad worried. Because it’s the left which appears to be making all the running.
Community organising began in America in the 1930s – Saul Alinsky started working with people in rundown areas of Chicago. His theories and methods inspired the young Barack Obama, who spent three years as an organiser after graduating from Harvard.
Decades later, the Living Wage campaign was dreamt up by Citizens UK, founded by the man who brought community organising to the UK, Neil Jameson. And when he was running for Labour leader, David Miliband realised the potential, setting up Movement for Change, the group behind the Swansea campaign. His brother Ed has enthusiastically jumped on the bandwagon, hiring Arnie Graf, the Chicago community campaigner, to reinvigorate Labour’s grassroots.
The beauty of all this is that many people who aren’t interested in voting and profess themselves turned off by politics (Ms Hann told me she used to think “it was a load of rubbish”) suddenly see that politicians both local and national aren’t just in it for themselves, but can make things happen in their community. Better still, the people themselves are in the driving seat.
But where are the Conservatives in all this? David Cameron was an early adopter, with his Big Society initiative,but that now seems to be a dirty phrase among many Tory MPs.
Government types will tell you that the Big Society is in fact alive and well in the Cabinet Office. When was the last time you heard the PM talk about it though?
He may be well-advised to start enthusing once again about the project his erstwhile adviser Steve Hilton brought into being. Bear in mind that Tory membership has nearly halved – to 134,000 – since Mr Cameron took power. Footsoldiers like the Swansea mums could be invaluable to a party in urgent need of replenishing the blue rinse brigade who could once be relied upon to stuff envelopes and pound the pavements come polling day.
Labour’s membership has declined too, but it’s still higher than the Tories at 187,537.
And even if the likes of Serai Hann don’t become party members, let alone MPs, she’ll still vote Labour, and can now be counted on to spread the word to her friends.
“I’m trying to tell everybody I see now – ‘vote Labour’,” she tells me.
As we look forward to beginning the centenary commemorations of WW1 next year, there will be those who say we should seek to understand the fundamental question of why Britain went to war in the first instance.
Some might conclude that, aside from the strategic rationale, Britain’s motives for entering WW1 demonstrated a conscientious effort to uphold international law and a desire to defend smaller, more vulnerable nations. There will be those who will quite legitimately seek to have this informed debate; but regardless of the history, none of us should be in any doubt about the profound impact the war had on the country.
So it is important that we remember WW1 for more than just the industrialisation of death that it brought with it. The war paved the way for numerous world events – events that have ultimately gone on to shape the world we live in today – including, of course, the outbreak of WW2. The war had a profound impact on Britain too and it’s important that we seek to understand, reflect upon and learn from the wider social change that occurred over this tumultuous period in our history.
In light of that it is essential to ensure that the right tone is struck when we seek to commemorate and remember that period. I believe we are all clear that this is not a celebration; it is a commemoration. War should never be celebrated; but it should be remembered, understood, and we should seek to learn from it. It was once famously said about a previous Government that “we don’t do God...” Whether we ‘do history’ remains to be seen, but what is clear is that getting the tone right is vital and potentially not without controversy.
My view is that there should be no flag-waving, no glorification, an absolute right to remember those whose opinions did and do differ, and no rigid Government narrative. It is right for people to be given the facts, but that they be free to conduct their own analyses and form their own judgments.
Therefore, the commemoration provides a unique opportunity for people to come together collectively and better understand the profound impact the war had on the country – the changing role of women and universal suffrage are two obvious examples. If we’re really smart, we’ll do it a way which provides a relevant focus on our lives today and in the future.
As part of this process, it is important that we do not shy away from addressing some of the war’s complications. There is a strong public perception of what the war was actually like, formed partly by the war poets and reinforced by the 1960s production of “Oh! What a Lovely War” and TV programmes such as “Blackadder Goes Forth”. Those cultural representations stand as powerful and eloquent testimonies to the savagery of WW1, but if they are all that we know of the war, they are poor history.
In order to ensure that WW1 is remembered and commemorated appropriately and its complications are addressed, those of us involved in the centenary events should be mindful that there will be debates about the history. Some will say that we should address the gap between the “pointless futility” narrative and what soldiers actually believed that they were fighting for, both during and after the war.
During those years, soldiers fought for much. They fought because of a belief that their country was threatened, but ultimately, when it came down to it, they fought for their regiments, and for the man standing next to them in the trench. If we want to pay proper tribute to the war dead and also to those who came through the war, we need to remember that.
Around the country, I have been privileged to see the coming together of people and communities as they begin their preparations for the commemoration. I have seen the passion and the interest that the commemoration has already invoked. I join with Andrew Murrison in urging colleagues from across the House and from around the country to continue to encourage debate in their own constituencies, to support local groups in the work they are doing to commemorate local experiences and ensure that their communities come together to commemorate the war.
There is no doubt that the importance of WW1 cannot be counted in terms just of battlefield casualties or military innovation. By dint of its influence and its timing, and the wider social change it brought about, it is the single most significant event of the 20th century.
As such, it is something we must commemorate, we must learn from and we must educate our children about, but above all we must remember, because it is only through remembering that we will truly understand the impact that World War One has had on British society and, in so doing, better understand what it means to be British.
Senior UK lobbyists have drawn up a number of proposals aimed at boosting the future standing of the UK public affairs industry. The recommendations, outlined in a new report commissioned by the PRCA and Public Affairs News magazine, are aimed at ensuring the industry continues to attract a bright, skilled workforce that is dedicated to public affairs as a career.