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Words: Paul Waugh
Photos: Paul Heartfield
“To Turbo Fizzle…best wishes…Charles”.
Greg Clark is holding a signed photo of a Space Shuttle astronaut and beaming at the personal dedication. But the portrait from Commander Charles Bolden has not revealed a mysterious new nickname for the Minister for Higher Education. “My seven-year-old son has taken on an identity for himself, he’s created this character,” he laughs. “I got Charles to sign it for him.”
Meeting Bolden, who now heads NASA, is just part of the day job for one of the busiest members of the Government. And since Clark’s promotion in this year’s reshuffle, those day jobs are growing in number.
His full title, Minister for Universities, Science and Cities, carries a pretty hefty range of cross-government responsibilities. Working with both BIS and the Cabinet Office, he occupies an office in the Treasury. For good measure, he’s also Minister for Space (hence breakfast today with a former astronaut) and Minister for the Met Office.
“It’s the most fantastic portfolio in Government,” he says. “When it was announced, one of my colleagues said ‘ah yes, you are the Minister for the 21st Century’. I think there’s something in that. This is about our future.”
Future funding of higher education has, of course, been one of the most contentious issues in British politics since the Lib Dems’ infamous tuition fees pledge in 2010. Clark is swift to pay tribute to his predecessor for grasping the nettle. “David Willetts is one of my closest friends in politics; in fact, he was the man who signed my application form to be a Conservative candidate,” he says.
“He was kind enough to ring me up within an hour of my being appointed to say that if there was anyone he could nominate to take over from him, it would be me. Which I was incredibly touched by, because David’s reputation is formidable and justifiably so. He worked hard and deployed his famous two brains as well as his personal charm and ability to see people’s point of view to design a higher education system that is now the envy of the world.”
But Clark is less generous about his opposite number, Liam Byrne. “It’s an indication of the chaos and unpreparedness of Labour for government that seven months before the election there is a void where there should be a higher education policy,” he says. “They are still messing around with disastrous notions without any degree of rigour or commitment on one of the most important areas of public policy. It tells you all you need to know about why they are unfit to govern.”
Referring to Ed Miliband’s speech in 2011 floating the idea of cutting tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000, the minister is scathing. “It’s quite a long time to do the sums and to work out that this would mean a £3bn black hole, which would be a disaster for the public finances, it would be a disaster for the universities’ finances, it would be a disaster for students in this country.”
Clark, who went to a state school in his home town of Middlesbrough before going on to Cambridge and the LSE, says wider access is crucial. “When I went to university, only a handful of people from my background made it to higher education. One of the things I am absolutely passionate about is increasing the access to university for people whose backgrounds previously kept them away from university.”
He says “one of the best moments so far in this job” came on A-level results day, when he was at the UCAS centre in Cheltenham as it emerged that record numbers of people were going to university this year. “Half a million young people for the first time; that’s a 4% increase. But there was a big increase, 8%, from people in the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods in the country. That’s a massive leap forward.
“The gap in the best-off and worst-off areas is narrower than it has been before and a big part of that has been the requirement to have access agreements which are funded from the fees. It’s about £750m for access courses, for outreach, for doing what is clearly successful in getting kids from poorer backgrounds into university. That would be lost entirely and it would be a slap in the face for the kind of kids I grew up with.
“So, to scrap that social progress is an appalling thing for Labour to toy with, let alone fiscal irresponsibility – from the man who left the note saying there was no money left. Now he’s toying vaguely with opening another £3bn black hole.”
Clark goes further, suggesting Miliband and Byrne would be repeating the mistakes of François Hollande. “This has shades of the French government. You have got serious reforms which have been undertaken seriously which, after all, have followed directly the approach recommended in a considered, cross-party way. The Browne commission, set up by the previous government to do this in a dispassionate, rigorous way, was followed through.”
Always happiest when he has a graph or a bar chart to hand, Clark then produces a slide from a recent presentation by the OECD’s head of education, Andreas Schleicher. It states: “The UK is one of the few countries that have figured out a sustainable approach to higher education finance.” Clark says that verdict makes clear that the Coalition has created “a system that commands international respect”.
Still, at the recent Liberal Democrat party conference Vince Cable warned that there may be trouble ahead if a Tory-only government goes ahead with its £7bn worth of extra tax cuts. The Business Secretary said that would inevitably mean a hike in tuition fees beyond £9,000.
Clark says the fears are unfounded. “That cap of £9,000 covers the cost of tuition across the board in most universities…I’m confident that we have got it right.” So he doesn’t see higher education affected by the spending pressures that would accompany new tax cuts? “No, to the contrary. I think there is a great recognition right across the Government that investing in higher education and research is how we make our living in the future,” he replies.
“It was George Osborne as Chancellor who took the cap off student places. That was an historic moment. The Robbins Report is 50 years old and its chief recommendation was that universities should be open to all. Successive governments have nodded towards that principle, but they haven’t implemented it because there’s always been a cap on student numbers.
“Even in the difficult economic times we’ve had, a Conservative chancellor has actually made Robbins a reality and made it possible to say now, truthfully, that any student who is qualified to go to university will get a place.” But can he envisage putting up the fees cap again at some point in the future? “I see no persuasive case for increasing fees. The fees are at the right level.”
Another area where Cable has been scathing recently is on the Tory net migration target and the impact it has had on attracting overseas students. Again, Clark has a graph to hand, this time showing that the number of foreign students at UK universities rose by 4.6% in the year to June 2014 and is up 8% since June 2012. He has another bar chart showing that the UK is now second only to the US in attracting overseas students and that America’s numbers are dropping. “The US share is declining; we are increasing and are going on increasing. It is within our grasp to be the world’s leading destination for overseas students. That is something that I very much want to promote.”
Clark recently met the Indian High Commissioner to discuss further university links, and is due to visit the country. “I’m going to India to spread the word to make sure people there and around the world know what a fantastic place this is to study.
“The policy that is required is that there should be no cap on overseas student numbers at UK universities, and there isn’t. It’s extremely important that people understand that. That’s the policy that bites, as it were. That’s what people need to understand.”
Labour has now vowed to remove students from the migration figures. Does Clark defend their inclusion in the overall target? “It’s not a choice of the Government – there’s an internationally agreed definition of what is immigration. I’m proud that we are a government that hasn’t played around with statistical definitions. That was the definition we inherited. It would be wrong to tinker with definitions. Quite rightly, people would be critical of that.”
Clark also wants to ensure the Government does more on widening access to postgraduate places at university. The coming Autumn Statement will have more details on how to get more postgrads from poorer backgrounds, he says. “It’s a cross-government approach, so I and my officials and Treasury officials are looking at the options. It’s not straightforward – these things aren’t – but we have a shared ambition to put the possibility of postgraduate education on a footing that makes it more widely available for the good of the country as well as individuals.” Will there be a new pot of cash? “We will share our thinking at the Autumn Statement. But we want to do it in a serious way.”
David Willetts fought hard to protect science spending over the last few years, despite the wider cuts. Like ‘two brains’ Willetts, ‘three briefs’ Clark says science is just as important to him as his universities and cities roles. He will unveil the UK’s new, 10-year Science and Innovation Strategy alongside the Autumn Statement. “I hope that this will be something that commands attention and respect across all parties and none. The Chancellor has a demonstrated track record on science previously as well.
“We have not only a protected cash budget for research but actually an increasing budget for capital in science… [In] the Science and Innovation Strategy, one of the functions of that is to allocate what is a growing capital budget.”
A former head of policy for the Tory party, Clark is proud of his reputation as a wonk’s wonk. “I’m relishing working on this strategy,” he says. “Whatever the briefs I’ve had, I’ve always enjoyed getting to grips with the fundamentals of policy. In opposition, I wrote the energy white paper that led to the party changing its policy on nuclear power from being against it to in favour of it; I wrote a report on decentralisation that has resulted in the devolution proposals that now have real momentum. The planning reforms that were made, I wrote personally the National Planning Policy Framework. So the opportunity to work with our best scientists within government and without is something that I’m hugely enjoying.”
Shortly after this interview with The House, Clark had a meeting with the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Mark Walport, to discuss just that. The minister says that among the strategy’s key themes will be more collaboration, a faster pace on some research and getting more women and ethnic minorities into leadership positions in higher education.
“Increasingly, the best scientific work is done between different institutions working together, often between different disciplines working together, and sometimes – as in the case of CERN and others – different countries working together. So we want to reflect and ensure the importance of that,” he says.
“The second thing is pace. While you need long-term stability in major research programmes and the infrastructure, there’s a huge imperative to get new discoveries making a difference to people’s lives as quickly as possible, so I want to make sure our arrangements have the agility and the alacrity we need. Graphene [a new research centre was opened after the Government mobilised to help the Manchester team who discovered it] is a good example of that.”
Thirdly, he says he wants more universities acting like “talent scouts” for women and ethnic minorities. “It’s not sufficient just to be, as it were, without prejudice and make sure that the advertisement says that all applicants are to be considered. Sometimes you need to roll up your sleeves and go out and find people and say: ‘You will be brilliant at this, why don’t you apply for this?’ If you have a personal approach, you can make a real difference.”
As for his three portfolios of universities, science and cities, just how does he do it? “They complement each other fantastically well,” he replies. He already knows many university vice-chancellors because they have been involved in supporting bids for City Deals. On a recent tour of the West Country, he signed two new regional growth deals at university campuses and opened the new Space Weather Operations Centre (tasked with detecting solar storms) at the Met Office HQ. The trip underlined the importance of the UK’s science base, but also how growth is driven by a sense of local place.
“It was prescient of the Prime Minister, if that doesn’t sound presumptuous, to see the increasing connections between place and science and education. After all, universities are among the few institutions that are synonymous with place. The connection between places and their universities can be and is incredibly important.”
He may not be a Space Shuttle commander, but Greg Clark wants to boldly go where no minister has gone before, delivering real localism while boosting our science and innovation. Between now and May, he’s certainly hoping he can cross that final frontier.
CLARK ON… RAISING TUITION FEES
“People in future generations will invest the Coalition with credit. It took a difficult decision but the right one and we are seeing the benefits of it.”
CLARK ON… UNIVERSITIES
“We have record numbers of poor people going to university… In the world rankings, four of the top six universities were in the UK. They are one of our proudest national assets.”
CLARK ON…UNIVERSITY WOMEN/BME LEADERS
“They don’t have the representation of the most talented women and people from ethnic minorities that reflects the contribution they are making.”
CLARK ON… OVERSEAS STUDENTS
“It’s one of our biggest export earners. And in terms of the cultural ties and affinity and affection for the UK which it engenders, it lasts a lifetime.”
Douglas Carswell is a fan of Oliver Cromwell’s early work. The Conservative Member for Clacton – sorry, the Ukip Member for Clacton – admires the insurgent leader of the parliamentary forces in the English Civil War to such an extent that he quoted him approvingly in The Plan, his 2008 treatise on how Britain might be saved in a mere 12 months. All that was required, apparently, was a programme of radical decentralisation designed by Carswell and his friend Dan Hannan, the Conservative MEP.
“I find the country bleeding, nay, almost dying,” Cromwell told MPs in 1644. “The people are dissatisfied in every corner of the nation, all men laying at our doors the non-performance of those things that had been promised.”
In The Plan, Carswell used that quote to draw a parallel with the anger felt in the early 21st century at the alleged failures of Westminster. Radical change was required in the 1640s to address popular concerns, and it is needed now, he suggested.
Carswell was certainly prescient. During the six years since he and Hannan published their radical manifesto, the pace of deterioration in the reputation of Parliament has, if anything, accelerated markedly. The financial crisis, in which Westminster was judged complicit, was followed by the expenses crisis and a deep recession, all of which further eroded trust in established institutions.
The traditional players in the Commons were never going to be immune from the effects of this transformation, and so it is proving as the party system fragments. Carswell is now a Ukip MP after resigning his seat and thumping his old party in a by-election. After that result in Clacton and Labour’s narrow escape in Heywood and Middleton, both of the major parties find their assumptions about the next general election being stress-tested.
With only seven months to go, Labour risks leaking core votes to Ukip and the Tories fear that large numbers of their former voters are, for now, unmoved by warnings that voting for Farage means putting Ed Miliband in No 10. The Lib Dems are melting down and the SNP in Scotland is surging after the referendum.
Carswell – who now grins almost as much as Nigel Farage – is loving all this, of course. Like any revolutionary he enjoys chaos and disruption, believing it to be a sign that the old system is dying and something better is about to emerge.
The creative destruction which he believes is necessary in economics is being applied to the electoral map of the UK. In this way, Carswell has long been a radical rather than a conventional Tory. Typically, Tories tend to be interested at least to some degree in order, stability and evolutionary change rather than unpredictable upheaval.
But will Carswell and Farage’s revolution end any more happily than that of the 1640s? They are united in wanting the UK out of the European Union, although the Ukip surge could easily alienate undecided voters on that question by tarnishing Euroscepticism as noisy, screechy populism. That approach seems to appeal to anywhere between 10-20% of a deeply disaffected electorate, which is only enough to cause chaos in 2015 but not to build a winning majority for a ‘better off out’ position.
For now, Carswell and Farage are singing the same tune, although those who know this usually independent-minded MP are amused to see him ‘taking the line’ faithfully from his leader and so far parroting a holding position on policies such as immigration, where the pair have very different instincts. Carswell is a huge enthusiast for immigration, while Farage is not.
The Ukip leader is also notoriously intolerant of internal rivals while Carswell is – as David Cameron knows – difficult to please and pretty much unbiddable if he gets fixed on an idea. In the end, Carswell regards even the regicidal Cromwell as being insufficiently radical. Cromwell, who became a practitioner of power politics, outflanked the Levellers who wanted to go further towards full democracy. Carswell thinks that when he got into power he was a big letdown.
Iain Martin is a political commentator
From: David Willetts
Sent: 09 October 2014 11:42
Going to university is a fantastic experience and worthwhile in its own right. But young people are also considering what their job prospects might be. I think we agree that this is legitimate and understandable. At the moment universities have little incentive to focus on this. And currently legislation actually forbids the Student Loans Company from giving them information to universities about their graduates, even with the graduate’s consent.
If universities actually held some of the outstanding student debt they would have an incentive to boost the earnings of their graduates. They would want to stay in touch with their graduates who were out of work and help them to refresh their skills and get back into work. No university would be forced to do this, but I think they should have the option when the stock of student debt is being sold.
The critics say this penalises courses or universities where graduates earn less. I value the wide range of different courses that are studied, including of course the humanities and social sciences. I also recognise that universities that take more students from tougher backgrounds will find it harder to get them into well paid jobs. The point is that the debt of those students can be bought at a lower price as the assumption may be that they will earn less. But then the incentives are to invest in and help those graduates so they earn more and pay back more. It is improvement on current performance that matters, not where you started.
The biggest gainers from this policy would be students and graduates, and so I hope that as someone who cares about their interests you will support it.
Very best wishes
From: Wes Streeting
Sent: 13 October 2014 09:00
You’re absolutely right that students are concerned about their employment prospects after graduation. I have been concerned for some time that universities – and the Government – are selling degrees on the promise of greater financial reward in the workplace without sufficient support to help students to plan for their future careers.
Your plan has some superficial appeal, not just because it would incentivise universities to focus on employability in the way you describe, but I’m worried that your proposal also creates some dangerous incentives with detrimental consequences. It would reward universities that take ‘low-risk students’ – those from wealthier backgrounds who already dominate our elite universities. These students are more likely to graduate into higher paid jobs and are more likely to repay their debts. Conversely, it would penalise those universities that are most successful in recruiting students from working class and other non-traditional backgrounds. These students benefit from higher education, but they are more likely to study locally and more likely to go into lower paid jobs. Higher education is an important engine for our economy, but it should also be an engine for social mobility.
Finally, higher education is about so much more than cashing in a degree for higher earnings. While some will go on to lucrative roles in the highest paid professions, many graduates choose to follow their dreams in lower paid roles, particularly in the public and voluntary sectors. Graduates and universities shouldn’t be penalised for this.
All the best,
From: David Willetts
Sent: 13 October 2014 12:07
Thanks for your response. I completely agree with you that universities and their students come in all shapes and sizes and a good thing too. It is also a great strength of our system that people study such a wide range of courses. I think you have just misunderstood how my scheme would work.
Of course there will be different repayment rates depending on the course and the university. That will be reflected in the value of the debt. If a university has highly employable graduates it will have to pay more for its debt than a university whose graduates have historically done less well in the jobs market. What really matters is improving on previous expectations – not the absolute performance. So you are not penalised if you have students doing courses with poorer employment prospects: you are rewarded if you do better than market expectations.
We are talking about selling existing debt which has already been accumulated. So you don't gain by changing what or who you teach. To caricature the point, if you close down your sociology department and do more law to improve your employment outcomes then when it comes to buying the loan book for those graduates you will find that the higher employability is reflected in a higher price you pay for that graduate debt. The rewards are only for doing better than is expected for that type of student on that type of course.
Hope that helps.
From: Wes Streeting
Sent: 13 October 2014 18:53
Thanks for sharing the detail. I can see how your proposal seeks, in principle, to mitigate against the risks I spelled out, but I fear you may still see negative consequences in practice.
You note that this scheme would be voluntary. Which universities have both the desire and the capacity to participate in this scheme? The initial response from the majority of the higher education sector seemed at best lukewarm and at worst critical. I think we both know that there are a small handful of universities that are already talking to banks about running their own student loan schemes in order to go private. Beyond those, there is little capacity for universities to invest in student loans in this way. Where there is capacity through budget surpluses or additional borrowing, universities are understandably investing in estates and ICT to cater for students who want more bang for their buck with fees at £9,000.
I worry that those that would have the desire and the capacity to participate would be those academically elite institutions that remain far too socially elite for their own good and the good of the country. Their employability outcomes are generally excellent, but we need a world class higher education system, not simply a handful of world class universities. How would we improve the lot of those students studying on courses that proclaim to be widening participation success stories, but in reality are selling students from disadvantaged backgrounds short by charging full fees for poor graduate outcomes?
All the best,
From: David Willetts
Sent: 14 October 2014 09:24
Thanks for your response. I agree with you that it is a good thing that we have a diverse higher education system with great regional universities and universities focussed on teaching as well as the prestigious research-intensives. You worry that only those prestigious universities will participate in a voluntary scheme. I think that is based on a misunderstanding as I tried to explain in my previous note. But here are two more points.
First you are assuming that universities have to find all the funding themselves. That would be a serious constraint even for the richest universities. But my scheme would be much more flexible than that. A university would find a commercial partner – a pension fund or a bank – who would fund the purchase of that university's student loan book and they would share the gains if the earnings of their graduates could be improved.
Secondly I think you are still not grasping what this could do for social justice. There is no big gain from a university with high earning graduates owning the loan book – most will be repaid anyway and this will be reflected in the price it pays for the loans. The real prize is when a university with low graduate earnings and employment rates has the funding and the incentive to help them. Imagine a university which found that 50% of its graduates were out of the work force or on low pay and invested in refresher courses and return to work programmes to help them. Too many universities lose contact with all but their most affluent graduates when I want them to have a real incentive to help the low earners. This would require a change in the law which at the moment prohibits any information about graduates being passed to universities by the Student Loans Company. Provided the individual consents I think universities should be able to access that information. A university careers service should be for life not just for your years as an undergraduate. In fact I think we should work together on a proposal which we should take to the universities whose graduates don't do so well at present. Imagine designing a programme to help their life chances with the funding and the incentives to make it happen!
From: Wes Streeting
Sent: 15 October 2014 00:15
Thanks for the clarification about the financing arrangements. I still have some concerns about this. Clearly there would need to be incentives for the bank or pension fund involved. I’m not sure that the carrot on offer for the universities you describe would have the same appeal to potential investors. Under existing arrangements, we’re in a position where 45% of student debts will need to be written off, and the Government had to abandon plans to sell off student debt because of over-optimistic assumptions about receipts for the Treasury.
After more than a decade of political knockabout on higher education funding, we need to reach a cross-party consensus about how we fund higher education in the longer term. I fear we’re left with an unsustainable system that fails universities, students and the taxpayer that needs a more fundamental rethink than this debate has allowed.
But your idea is characteristically thoughtful and I hope we continue to benefit from your contributions to debates about higher education beyond your departure from the Commons in May. I think we are agreed that we need to improve outcomes for graduates from the most disadvantaged backgrounds and think creatively about how we incentivise universities to do so and I’d be happy to work with you further on this to achieve the outcomes we both want to see.
Very best wishes,
David Willetts is Conservative MP for Havant and was Universities and Science Minister from 2010-14
Wes Streeting is Labour PPC Ilford North and was President of the NUS, 2008-2010
When I was a wee lad, my dad – who was one of the first to bring his kids to work – brought me and my twin brother Kyle to Parliament. In those days – in the early 70s – Parliament was an all-night affair. I have vivid memories of sitting there very, very late at night in the special strangers’ box under the gallery on the opposition side. Some Members were sleeping; others had their feet up on the benches. My brother followed the honourable members’ example and fell asleep; he was soon snoring. One of the doorkeepers came over and woke him, telling him he couldn’t sleep in Parliament. Kyle pointed at the MPs and said in his defence that they were sleeping. The doorkeeper kindly informed him: “Yes son – they are Members; you are a stranger.” It’s an experience that stuck with me and egged me on to one day try to be a Member of this mother of parliaments.
In 2010, in my first week as the new Member of Parliament for North Antrim, succeeding my father after his 40 years of service, I was walking down the corridor with dad from the library towards the Speaker’s office. We were going to nip down the little staircase and out into New Palace Yard to get to dad’s car. As we walked along, I was brimming with pride to be an MP with my dad, who was about to be elevated to the Lords. I said to him ‘dad, you know until you’re elevated you’re a stranger here and I’m the Member’. We both stopped and had a real laugh. Dad told me it was the first time since his retirement that it had struck him that he was no longer an MP. He had walked that corridor for four decades and was no longer a Member; it was a page-turning moment.
I loved watching my dad perform in Parliament, and it was always a performance. From his maiden speech until his farewell, he made his presence felt. With his commanding stature, powerful voice and eloquent oratory, he made the job look so easy.
I remember in 1985 when he spoke from the upper galleries denouncing the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, for signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement. It made headlines, and he came home to rapturous applause. I also remember him being ejected for telling John Major during his premiership that he’d uttered falsehoods to the House.
Remarkably, dad always got on well even with his political adversaries and opponents; it was his nature. I share a corridor office today with Nick Hurd. His father, the distinguished Douglas Hurd, had come under dad’s wrath at one time. Some time ago Nick and I shared a laugh about our fathers' run-in.
Something dad has passed on to all his children is a drive to do everything to the full. If you are going to have a sense of humour, make sure it’s outrageous. If you’re going to speak out, be outspoken. And if you’re going to be outspoken, be heard! I suppose that’s what was so attractive about him as a politician – he was both rebellious and clever. He also knew where the limits were and was incredibly self-aware.
The weekend before recess I had been with dad. His condition had deteriorated, and while he had miraculously bounced back in the past, I didn’t think that would be the case now. I carried out my duties in the select committee and asked the Speaker if he would be kind enough to call me early on the Tuesday to question the Northern Ireland Secretary so I could get home early and spend some time with dad.
Mr Speaker was so obliging and very kind. Without fault, anytime I have met John he has always asked after both my father and mother. I got home and spent Wednesday and Thursday with dad. On Friday morning, I kissed him farewell and went to my constituency office. Dad’s advice was always ‘put the people first, look after them and they will look after you’. During my constituency surgery, I got a call from my sister to get home. I spoke to dad on the phone and told him again I loved him. He passed away a short time later, surrounded by my mum and family.
Dad was a great man of faith, and his faith never failed him. It was his life, and it served him in a remarkably peaceful passing. Throughout the last eight months of illness and deterioration, dad never once required as much as a painkiller. That is so comforting to us now.
When I made my maiden speech, nerve-wracking enough as that moment is for any Member, I looked up into the Speaker’s gallery and my father and mother were both sitting there. Now, given that I had to mention the previous Member, it was great to see him. I felt his own pride in his broad, beaming smile as I spoke.
Dad was one of the great parliamentary orators, and one of the few who could really command the House and seize its attention. That’s because he had a cause, a belief and a purpose. When we chatted, he often asked: ‘What are we going to change? What are the things that need to be done?’ He always had a mission. It’s a lesson to anyone in public life to have a purpose – don’t just be a Member for the sake of it.
I believe his legacy after years of championing his cause has been to do the right deal at the right time to achieve a lasting peace in his beloved Ulster.
He has certainly ensured that the combination of weak Unionism and IRA terrorism has not prevailed, and today Unionism is in a strong and dominant position in our country. Last month, as I carried his remains to the open grave and lowered him into his beloved soil of Ulster, I hoped that a seed had been planted afresh in our country, and that this peace will continue to grow and progress.
Ian Paisley Jr is the Democratic Unionist Party MP for North Antrim
Words: Paul Waugh
Photos: Paul Heartfield
“You’ve got an awesome, kick-arse woman like Martha Lane Fox in there. And then you’ve got some of the oldest, most experienced politicians who you frankly last saw on Spitting Image – and actually thought were dead.”
Olly Grender’s views on the House of Lords are nothing if not candid. Nearly a year after she was ennobled, no one could claim that she’s been seduced by the traditions of the red benches.
“Everyone describes it as a very polite place and individuals within it are polite. But then if you stand up as I did and speak out against Betty Boothroyd’s ‘constitutional outrage’ of Tina Stowell being ‘in attendance’ at Cabinet, then it’s a lot of people baying, basically. You just have to be quite thick skinned,” she says.
“What I would say is that it desperately needs to be elected and it should be elected. You almost want to say ‘right, so we are really angry that everyone around the Cabinet table is now elected, is that what we are angry about? We are angry because an unelected body doesn’t have representation there?’ Sometimes I sit in the chamber and when I see it is described by many others as [Parliament] ‘at its best’, I struggle to understand that phrase.”
In a political career spent both behind the scenes and on the media, Baroness Grender of Kingston-Upon-Thames has never been afraid of speaking her mind. And as the General Election looms, her frank advice will certainly be heard loud and clear by the Lib Dems in coming months.
Reunited with Paddy Ashdown, her former boss and fellow Lords sceptic, Grender has been appointed ‘Political Co-ordinator and Director for Special Projects’ as her party gears up for one of the toughest electoral campaigns in its history. Ashdown and his loyal lieutenant want their army of volunteers to dig in deep in their current 56 seats, while taking the fight to other key targets.
Her multitasking will be stretched to the limit as she juggles her election post with her duties as a full-time working peer. But although her frustration with the Lords is palpable, she points out that the Upper House (which she prefers to call the ‘Second Chamber’) can effect change in a way the Commons simply can’t.
“Because you don’t have guillotines, because it’s a committee of the whole House, because anyone and everyone can get involved, because you can spend a good proportion of time on each amendment, that is where I think the Second Chamber is superb,” she says. “I’m conscious that our dirty laundry gets sent through to the Lords and then it gets starched and pressed and returned in a good condition.”
Typically, however, she has a caveat. “I think where it doesn’t necessarily work is with some of those set-piece grandstanding speeches. Sometimes my heart sinks a little bit if I’m hearing someone talking about how the economy worked in the 1970s – partly because I’m not entirely sure why we need a 30th speech on why the economy did or didn’t work in the 1970s.”
One area where she’s trying to drag the law, if not the Lords, into the 21st century is on the issue of ‘revenge porn’. Acting on a campaign launched by party member Hannah Thompson, she is currently trying to amend the Justice Bill to make the publication of private sexual images a criminal offence.
“It’s a generational issue, a lot of people won’t understand. But in the world of instant [communication] and smartphones, a lot of people own a lot of images. There are terrible websites like MyEx.com where people publish photos and say ‘this woman is a slag’ and stuff like that. It’s really, really nasty stuff. And it’s out there and it means that your friends, employer, can see. It’s a very brutal thing to happen.”
The Ministry of Justice is looking at the proposal. “There’s some debate about how you can ensure that it’s seen as a criminal act, and of course in the House of Lords for every peer there are 17 lawyers. So that will be much debated,” she says.
But the Baroness hopes the practice can become law in the next few months. “And it should, because it is on the increase. And it is a form of abuse. It’s not even that it’s a form of sexual abuse, it’s abuse against an individual.”
Grender is undoubtedly one of the strongest female voices the party has. But she’s more aware than most that the Lib Dems’ image among women has been undermined over the past year by the Lord Rennard controversy.
“Will it have a long-lasting impact? I’m not entirely sure. I think it’s been damaging and divisive in the party but I think we are where we are and we all need to just move on.”
As someone who’s known him for years, was she shocked by the claims? “Yes, I was shocked,” she says. She has not spoken to Rennard about the allegations and has said nothing publicly until now. Does she agree that the party could have done more to listen to the women who made the complaints?
“Oh yeah. Here’s the thing. I think that politics is going through a transition and I see it as a really good transition. And the silver lining out of what is no doubt a dark cloud for our party is that no woman will put up with any kind of behaviour that is inappropriate and will know that there are now all sorts of structures in place,” she says. The new anonymous helpline and support staff at Lib Dem HQ, plus heightened awareness, will all make a difference.
“I think that all institutions are going through turmoil and I’m glad they are. Is it fast enough for me? No. But am I delighted that it’s happening? Yes.”
Did she ever suffer from harassment herself? “Yes, from an MP. Who’s now dead,” she reveals. “When I first started working in Parliament in my early 20s, I would say that I had no idea I could complain that I was being sexually harassed by somebody who was a Member of Parliament. It just didn’t even occur to me. And I’m really pleased it now occurs to people.
“And by the way one of the most sexist places I thought at the time was the Press Gallery. I was a person going round as a young female and I’m delighted that the Press Gallery has changed as well.
“I wouldn’t say that it in any way held me back from anything that I wanted to do, and I would say that in contrast, for that one person there have been 200 people who have promoted and supported me in an amazing career that my party has given me. I’ve just had an extraordinary career.”
That career began when Grender was a young activist in Kingston, acting as agent, leafleter, occasional candidate. Christened Rosalind, she tried to say her own name but the word came out as ‘Olly’. “I’ve been called that ever since,” she explains.
“I could have changed it back, but it just stuck.” Ever the party hack, she also points out that when she first got involved in campaigning, a shorter forename came in useful. “It was less Letraset on leaflets for letterboxes. ‘Rosalind’ – too many letters!”
She didn’t go to university, opting instead to become a party researcher, and within a couple of years her talents were spotted by Paddy Ashdown. First as his speechwriter and then as his communications director, she fought alongside him in the trenches at the 1992 general election. After working for Shelter and public affairs firm LLM, she became the Lib Dem pundit of choice for Newsnight, alongside Tory Danny Finkelstein and Labour’s Peter Hyman. When Nick Clegg needed maternity cover for his deputy comms director in Downing Street, Grender was the natural choice.
“I would say that the work-life balance in No 10 was much, much harder than it is being a peer,” she says. “That was very, very demanding and I really didn’t see my little boy at all.”
In parenthood, as in her politics, she again defied the odds. After repeated miscarriages, she gave birth at the age of 43. “I had IVF and a 7% chance of success, according to the HFEA figures at the time,” she explains. “I did do everything I could to make sure it was successful, no alcohol for two years, no caffeine.” She adds swiftly: “Don’t worry, I’m back on the booze again.”
Grender’s main task from now to May is to help the Lib Dems fight their key seats against a combined onslaught of Labour, Tory and UKIP, all seizing on voter disillusionment with Clegg and his party.
With a string of experienced MPs standing down, from Alan Beith to Malcolm Bruce to Don Foster, is there a danger that the party is losing its crucial incumbency factor?
“There are some great models for MPs standing down as incumbents and someone coming in and taking over their seat,” she smiles. “Just one I’ll pluck out of the air randomly: Sheffield Hallam maybe?”
Yet the Lib Dems have again come under fire for the lack of women in their ranks. She says the ‘Leadership Programme’ has worked in getting women candidates selected in winnable seats, but stresses there’s a bigger problem. “The critical issue, and this is where we struggled in 2010, is getting them elected. And that requires money,” she says.
All-women shortlists have been avoided by the party, though “both Nick and Paddy are minded to have a look at this” after 2015, Grender says. But is she personally keen on the idea? “It’s not that I’m not keen, it’s that I would need to see the science and be persuaded that that’s the issue. I think the issue is money, money, money.
“It’s about proper decent funding of female candidates. Because to stand for Parliament you give up so much, it costs you personally, it costs you in terms of your kids, it costs you in terms of your salary. What Labour have always had is a way of bumping up salaries via trade union funding to help people overcome this.
“If you want loads of people to get involved in politics, somehow you have to find ways of ensuring that people on very low incomes feel engaged and involved and that is wider than us.”
In the absence of state funding of political parties, an idea which she says seems “almost impossible” given government austerity, wealthy donors are the only solution.
Lack of funding prevents diversity among not just MPs but peers, she adds. “What you don’t get is a hairdresser, what you don’t get is a bus driver. And why don’t you get those people? Because it’s unaffordable for most people to do this kind of thing unless you are relying on a partner.
“A salary in the Lords alone, a bank won’t accept it as payment for a mortgage. It varies dramatically because you clock on when you sit because it’s an allowance rather than a salary.”
Grender’s Lords allowance is supplemented by her major role working at Lib Dem HQ alongside Ashdown. And it’s clear she’s happy to be back in partnership with the former party leader.
“It’s a riot, we share an office. Paddy and I get along very, very well. You just have to read his acknowledgment to me in his latest book to understand. It’s so funny, it says something like ‘I am sure that Olly has not read a single word of this book however she was kind enough to put up with my rantings and ravings while writing it and lent me her red pen!’ I think almost every acknowledgement of almost every book Paddy has ever written, somewhere there’s a reference to me that makes me sound like a complete dweeb.”
Grender insists all of the trials and tribulations of Coalition have been worth it. “While we’ve had ups and downs in Government and we’ve had trust issues, we’ve stuck to our word on tax threshold, we have delivered something that has been dramatic in terms of the value you place on work rather than the value you place on personal wealth. I think that’s been transformative. As has the pupil premium. I sit on a board of governors and I know how significant it has been.”
But given the state of the polls at the moment, does she have a sense of cold realism about the months ahead, or a dogged optimism?
“There are very few Liberal Democrats I know who are pessimists,” she replies. “I think if you believe in Liberalism there’s such a streak of optimism about you anyway. And also we are real grafters. If you’ve grown up through the grassroots as I did in Kingston or Paddy did fighting again and again and finally winning the seat after so many goes, there’s just this sense of the fight in you. And we all have that.”
“People say ‘isn’t it grim at the moment?’ And you think ‘pfft!’ We are in government right now, in government. Ed Davey, Vince, Nick, these people get to pull the levers of power. I talk to Labour Members who have lost power and they feel it. What you want in politics is to deliver things.”
And as for the task ahead, Grender is irrepressible. “There’s the question ‘do you want to be involved in the next general election, isn’t it going to be a real rollercoaster?’ To which the answer is ‘oh, you bet! You bet!’ I think that reflects almost everyone I know in the party.”
GRENDER ON...LORDS ETIQUETTE
“It’s no more or less polite than the Commons. I think it’s overblown, this business about politeness.”
GRENDER ON....LORDS REBELLIONS
‘There are some times when you know you are going to enhance negotiations and other times when you are going to damage it.”
GRENDER ON ...BEING A PEER
”It’s easier being a peer than an MP. I’m still slightly surprised I'm in the House of Lords. I’m a kind of backroom person."
“A little confession, I normally watch Newsnight while I’m washing up and filling the dishwasher, it’s an efficient use of time."
GRENDER ON...HER PARTY JOB
"I've worked in Government, and at HQ and in the Commons. So I’m the person who can cross all divides. That’s really important."