Political Promise

Iain Dale Interview: Part 2

In Charlie Edwards, Interviews on April 19, 2011 at 8:00 am


In the second part of his exclusive interview with Political Promise, Iain Dale chats with Charlie Edwards about coalitions and campaigns, mouthpieces and Milibands…

Let’s turn to the coalition. What was your view in May?

I was a big cheerleader of the Coalition. It was an interesting few days, I spent most of it camped out on College Green because Conservative MPs weren’t really allowed to say anything, and I didn’t get Andy Coulson or anyone asking me to take a particular line or say this that or the other. I was completely left to my own devices, which was good.

When it became clear there was not going to be a majority, it was decision time for the Liberal Democrats, either they are a political party or a pressure group, make your mind up. To be fair to them, they did. I always thought there was more in common with most Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives than the conventional wisdom which was they were a left-of-centre party, more naturally-aligned with Labour.

Have they lived up to expectations?

I think the Lib Dems haven’t quite got to grips with being in government, they don’t particularly understand the concept of collective responsibility in the way Labour and the Conservatives do. They can’t pick their issues. They are either Government ministers or they are not, and if they are then they have to defend the entire Government programme, that is what collective responsibility means, and they are too many of them that don’t quite seem to get that. It has been a bumpy path, but it was always going to be. There was always going to be policies that not everyone would agree with.

Don’t forget all parties are coalitions within themselves. David Cameron probably doesn’t agree with 100% of his policy platform. It’s probably about 98%, but if you or I can agree with about 85% we are doing pretty well. The question then is, what do you do with the other 15%? If you’re an elected politician, that’s quite a challenge. If you are seen to be firing on a scattergun approach and criticising every single policy, you have no influence at all. David Davis has gone too far in that direction, for example. He has almost been seen as a “one man opposition”. You cannot wield influence in that way. Whereas someone like me, on the outside, I have no political ambitions any more. It’s completely liberating for me to do a radio show every night where I genuinely can give my own views. I am not actually a member of the Conservative Party anymore, because when I thought whether it was appropriate to renew my party membership when I’m doing a national radio show, it would be easy to accuse me of being a Tory mouthpiece, although I’ve never regarded myself as such, it gives people the ammunition to say that.

With nearly 200 new MPs, all vying for Ministerial jobs in the future, are there too many ‘mouthpieces’?

Part of the problem of the youthification of politics, if that’s a word, is that if you aren’t an MP by the age of 40, you’re past it. One of the results is you don’t get many older guys coming in, who are not actually interested in career advancement, but just want to get elected as a backbench MP. At the moment, you have got a whole generation of Conservative MPs in their 30s and 40s, who all want to be Ministers, clearly worrying about being too rebellious and I think that wouldn’t necessarily have been the same in years gone by. On the other hand, Phillip Cowley, who does all the academic research into these things will tell you that this Parliament has been the most rebellious than any other.

Back to Clegg, his saving grace for his core vote is the Alternative Vote system. Losing the referendum could lose him a lot of credibility.

Well, you say core vote, but what is that? The Liberal Democrat core vote is about 10% and he’s polling down there at the moment. Clegg said himself, it is a “miserable little compromise”. Who is going to get excited about a “miserable little compromise”? Are Lib Dem voters going to get excited about that? I don’t think so. I think what will happen over the next few weeks is he will dampen down expectations, I think he will lose the referendum. It will be written up as a ‘blow for Nick Clegg’, ‘end of his career’ and all the rest of it, he’ll get through it. Then the next big thing for him is House of Lords reform, another issue the electorate couldn’t give a monkey’s ass about, and his problem is under his remit falls a lot of subjects the electorate do not care about. He’s not going to be able to stand at the next election and say “Well, this is what I have achieved for you.” He will have failed on AV, he will probably fail on House of Lords reform, I don’t know what he will stand up and tell the public. Danny Alexander will say “Yeah, I helped with the cuts.” Vince Cable will say “Yeah, I was really angry with the bankers, but actually didn’t do very much about it.” I find it difficult to see what the Liberal Democrats personally and individually will be able to say what they have actually done.

David Cameron’s suits always look quite clean, that’s one for Nick I suppose… What is your take on the goings-on in the Middle East? Started in Tunisia, and has worked its way through the region.

In some ways it is exciting, this is the first time a lot of these people have tasted freedom. Once you have freedom, you want more of it. It is hard to see where it is going to end. I am not particularly in favour with intervening in every single country where there is a problem, but I do think where you have got a dictator who has a track record of murder, who is now doing it to his own people on a scale that I don’t think we actually understand. I think we have a responsibility to the people who take up arms to fight a murderous dictator who look around, having heard all these nice words about being supported, and nothing happens. This happened a few years ago in Iran. Protesters on the streets were given every encouragement by the international community, and when they looked around for support it wasn’t there. This could be a repeat of that.

Has this wave of revolutions been accelerated by the internet?

I think that had been the case in Egypt definitely. For all campaigns it has become so much easier to communicate and co-operate with each other with Facebook and Twitter than could ever have been achieved 20 years ago. You look at Iran, who has the highest use of Twitter in the world. Why is that? Because they don’t have a free press or media. The internet is used far more widely than we might think. If you want to co-ordinate a protest rally in Tehran High Street how else would you do it?

Maybe the old ladies from the “Save Guildford Library” needed to have got on Facebook. In my local Association, there has been a real push for social networking. I get people come up to me and say “You’re a young person… go!” You have proved harnessing some of this new technology is not the preserve of a new generation. You say politics is becoming too “youthificated” to use the new Iain Dale terminology. Should more people be making an effort to connect with today?

A lot of people in the Conservative Party, particularly in local associations, think that if you have a website or a Facebook group, then you are trying to oust them in some way. I had this when I was a candidate in North Norfolk, I put a lot of effort into that and there was some resentment there, they thought I was trying to usurp what they were doing. If only they could see I was complementing what they were doing. I found myself constantly trying to explain and did get through in the end. Nobody should see the internet as the panacea for all campaigning. Yes, you will be able to reach some people on the internet that you would not be able to otherwise. Some people oversell the influence of the internet in politics, but if I was a local councillor, I would make sure I would use it to consult with my local ward electorate and let them know what I am doing. I wouldn’t need to kill hundreds of trees to constantly put leaflets through their door. A good local representative should be able to build up a substantial email list over the years. In fact, email is far more important than blogs, websites and everything else, and if you are a ward councillor with 5,000 in your ward, you want to get about 25% of them on your email list and get yourself known to them in that way and actually have a dialogue with them, which is the trouble with a leaflet, it is a one-way communication. There may be a feedback form, but you will only get a handful back. An email is something people could respond to quickly. If I was in charge of the Conservative Party’s internet strategy, of course I would advise every association to have a good website, or at least improve the standards because some of the ones at the moment are just awful. I would encourage them all have Facebook, Twitter, but the way to get votes is to get down and dirty locally, email them as much as you can and actually have this two-way communication with them. That is not happening enough, partly because most councillors don’t quite get the scale of the power from it. Some do, and reap the electoral benefits from it, but it would be good if they encouraged their colleagues to do it.

It’s time for a change. On the doorsteps before May, one of the driving issues was the obscene amount of political literature people got through their doors.

People get sick of it in the end. You are not going to encourage a high percentage of voters to go on a party political website, it should be there if people want it, but you will never replace door knocking. The problem is nowadays so few people are willing to do it. People start to say “We haven’t seen you round here in a long time” and people know you can’t be bothered to get off your fat arse and deliver a few leaflets up yours street. It’s only when you point out that then they realise what a difference they can make simply by delivering leaflets down their street. I would much rather that than have them join a political party. When you join a political party these days all you get is further requests for money. There is no benefit, apart from supporting the party to get them elected, but there is no membership benefit that you really get from a political party. Compare it to the RSPB or a charity, what is the offer? Apart from the fact they will contact you again in three months time to ask for another donation. I think that is where all political parties have got to changed their attitudes. They are going to have to raise more money online, because it is not going to come from big donations in the future. So they have got to have an online offer for people and they haven’t got that at the moment. You have got to let people pay what the want, but there has got to be some sort of quid pro quo. It is no good to simply say “Well, we use your money to get back into government”, it has got to be wider than that.

ON… Ed Miliband?

I think he has been disappointing so far, especially for those who wished him well, and I kind of wished him well as I was the first to predict he would be leader after Brown, in a GQ column I wrote a few years ago. His trouble is he comes across like a twelve year old schoolboy. And the funny thing is, he is a really good, inspirational speaker, but no-one has really seen that side of him. Labour MPs are just going to want him to develop a coherent policy platform. One of the key indicators to his leadership will be whether he and Ed Balls can form a proper working relationship. They made a good start by merging their offices. Perhaps it’s largely symbolic, but I’m sure they have learned from the Osborne-Cameron relationship. I think Ed Balls has developed into a serious politician – I never thought I’d hear myself say that. In the last six months he has developed a bit of substance, there’s a bit of humanity.

ON… The Liberal Democrats?

I think they are fucked. I cannot see any way out of this for them, I’m afraid. I feel quite sorry for them, although I think they’ve probably got their comeuppance. The key question for them is how do you differentiate themselves from the Conservatives? I can’t see how they can do that. They can’t just say, “We’ve ameliorated wicked Conservative cuts”, nobody is going to thank them for that. They can’t talk about their achievements, they don’t have any. What can they do? Nick Clegg seems to have based his whole strategy on the electoral reform being successful, that the electorate will somehow be grateful. They never vote for you because they’re grateful for it. And that is where Clegg has made a fundamental strategic error, and I don’t seem to think he realises.

ON… Deficit Reduction?

You cannot run the size of deficit that we have been running for very long without incurring serious problems. In the end, the market will lose confidence in the economy, so whoever won the last election would have had to implement a deficit reduction programme. Labour have kind of got away with saying ‘it’s got nothing to do with us’. I think everyone knows it is not quite as simple as that, there were huge failures in the end where Labour were spending far too much money in the good times let alone the bad. I totally agree with the coalition agenda, I kind of wish it was going further and faster, because I do think that the quicker it can be resolved, the quicker we can get back to normal economic stability.

ON… Taxes?

I don’t like the way that entrepreneurs are discouraged from setting up new businesses, there is far too much regulation, the 50p tax rate, whatever anybody says, is a complete joke. It was only introduced as a sop to the people who think the rich are getting richer, and all the rest of it. I don’t frankly care how rich someone is, if they are providing jobs for other people, taking a risk with their money, then they deserve all the reward they can get and to penalise someone 50%, plus national insurance, so 62%, that is too much money. If you have a choice of setting up a business in Germany, Dubai or Britain, the tax rate is going to be one of the deciding factors.

Missed the first part of the interview? Read it here.

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