When I told my Lib Dem friends that I was going for dinner with Iain Dale, they were slightly underwhelmed. A certain blogger (who shall remain nameless) suggested I slip something in his drink, and I’m not entirely sure he was joking. For my part, I was quite excited. It’s always fascinating to pick the brains of an experienced political commentator, and arguably even more useful if it’s someone you disagree with.
I arrived at the Union at 7pm, and met the other guests, who turned out to be the committee of the student Conservatives, almost in its entirety. I was feeling a little outnumbered. I made small talk for a few minutes, reassured myself that they were real, warm-blooded human beings, took a deep breath, and outed myself as a Liberal Democrat. We made our way up to the Poetry Room – a cosy little annexe to the Union’s library, which had been neatly laid out for dinner – and started on the wine.
Iain Dale turned up around a quarter of an hour late. Apparently, he’d been driving around in circles, trying to find somewhere to put his car. Oxford is, to be fair, a complete nightmare to navigate. It’s a mess of one-way systems, most sat navs don’t have a clue which roads are accessible, and parking spaces are like gold dust.
After a round of hand-shaking and introductions, we sat down and tucked into our starter. The conversation quickly turned to the London mayoral elections, and more specifically, Boris Johnson’s campaign. Most people round the table seemed to feel that Boris was much more intelligent than the buffoon he’s often portrayed as, but that his policy platform wasn’t yet eyecatching enough, and that his campaign hadn’t really stepped into gear.
Iain identified one serious threat to Boris’s campaign: another terrorist attack. Ask most Londoners who they would most like to have in charge, if the capital were attacked, and it probably wouldn’t be Mr Johnson. Ken Livingstone was in charge last time, and held his nerve. Brian Paddick spent much of 7/7 on TV in his police uniform, staying calm and keeping the public informed. It’s a horrible thought, but if there were another attack on British soil, it would seriously sway the vote.
Over main course, the conversation drifted towards Nick Clegg, and his recent comments about being prepared, perhaps, to go into coalition with the Tories. It’s odd how many Lib Dems see it as an act of betrayal to even think about the idea. To my mind, the tribal anti-Tory reaction is extremely unhelpful. I think Clegg’s absolutely right – there’s no particular reason to favour one over the other, and it would be political suicide to indicate a preference.
Iain identified two possible dealbreakers that could sink a blue-orange coalition: Europe and electoral reform. I don’t think a political debate between a Tory and a Lib Dem would be complete without an argument about PR, and that’s exactly what we launched into. Iain thinks it’s undemocratic for a third party to become kingmakers, and to wield disproportionate power. I can’t see how it’s any fairer for a party to have almost unconstrained legislative power on the basis of 35% of the vote.
We nibbled down the last of the fruit salad and ice cream, and headed down to the Union’s beautiful library for a quick photoshoot, and for Iain to sign the Union’s guestbook. Then we headed across to the room where Iain would be speaking. There was a reasonable crowd; nicely mixed between Tories and other interested students. A round of applause as Iain and Ed walked in, and then we began.
Iain started off with his experiences of the selection procedure for parliamentary candidates. He spoke about the different sorts of interviews he’d been to, and the different styles of questioning he’d been subjected to. He also told us that he probably wouldn’t seek selection as a PPC again.
He took a look at the three party leaders in turn, starting with Gordon Brown and the week where it all went wrong. At the start of the Tory conference, Brown went to Iraq. Not only did it look like a stunt to take the spotlight off Cameron, but by taking only broadcast journalists with him, he managed to alienate the newspapers. Shortly after that, he managed to alienate everyone else as well, by cancelling the general election and by giving only one interview: to Andrew Marr.
Iain then turned to the Lib Dems. He claimed that ditching Ming was the right thing to do. In his view, there was a period, about two months before his resignation, where we had almost become an irrelevance. He was generally quite reasonable towards both Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne – he told us that either would have made a good leader for the party, and that we were lucky to have two heavyweights like that in our
(We had a slight argument about the term “Shadow Cabinet” in the library, during the photo session before the talk. Iain apparently thinks that “Shadow Cabinet” is a formal term with a specific meaning, rather than simply a useful way for any opposition party to organise its frontbench. I don’t know where he gets these ideas from …)
Looking at David Cameron, Iain argued that there were supposed to be three stages to the Cameron strategy: an initial “detoxification” process to make the Tories palatable once more, then a long process of “constructing a narrative” and giving people an idea of what they stand for, followed by a much shorter process, in the run-up to the general election, of putting out concrete policy proposals. The stillborn election campaign of 2007 had badly interrupted that process, and the sense of narrative was still not quite there. That would be the main challenge for the Conservatives over the next year and a half.
The talk drew to a close, and Iain opened it up to the audience. Things kicked off with. a question about the relationship between bloggers and the mainstream media. Iain’s answer: they mainly do different things, rather than compete with each other. If he’d wanted to be a journalist by profession, there would have been nothing to stop him. The blog was more of a way for him to get his opinions of his chest. Having said that, bloggers are becoming far more influential and important than they were a couple of years ago; the US TV coverage of the primaries devoted 15-minute slots to blog roundups.
That led into a question about the US elections, to which Iain’s response was that none of the candidates was really a danger to the UK, and that Britain could work with any of the frontrunners. He was still backing McCain, but had been very impressed by Obama. He made one extremely telling comment: Obama is rather like David Cameron, in the sense that he’s got an awful long way without having many actual policies!
There were a number of other questions about the London mayoral election; I won’t go over all the material again. Iain’s opinions didn’t change very much between dinner and the talk!
The Q&A session finished off with a question about the BBC, its role as a public service broadcaster, and allegations of bias by the political parties. Iain argued that some parts of the BBC deserve to be thought of as public services – the list included BBC1 and 2, Radio 4 and 5 – but that other parts of the organisation have no business being in the public sector – Radio 1, as well as BBC3 and 4, came into this category. As far as bias is concerned, Iain asserted that there are most definitely conservative-minded people in prominent positions in the BBC, but that in general, journalists were more likely to be centre-left than centre-right. All parties claim that the BBC is biased against them, and the BBC usually use that as evidence that they’re getting it right; according to Iain, this is a very lazy response to a genuine problem. He singled out the Today Programme for particular criticism, and asked where there were never any credible eurosceptics on there.
That’s where the talk ended. Another loud round of applause, Iain slunk off to retrieve his Audi, and most of the rest of us slunk off to the pub to carry on the argument. A good night, I’d call it.