Can Douglas Alexander really be as nice as he seems? I reckoned that he might have slightly fallen out of love with politics over the last few years so I wanted to find out if the backwaters of lonely opposition had rekindled his political spark. One thing's for sure. If Labour are to get back into power, Douglas Alexander will play a major part in mapping out their strategy for doing so
ID: Everyone thought you were really enjoying shadowing work and pensions (DWP). Were you disappointed to leave that job?
DA: I did it for about four months and enjoyed it because it reflected some of the key issues that the opposition is engaged in. But I’ve had a long-standing interest in international affairs. I served in the Foreign Office (FO) for two years and the Department for International Development (DfID) for three years. I was delighted to get the call from Ed [Miliband], somewhat ironically in the departure lounge of the Eurostar, on my way to Paris. I enjoyed the work that I did in on DWP but I’m delighted to have the foreign policy brief and it’s proved to be even more meaningful than I was anticipating.
Did you have any Margaret Beckett-esque words when you got the phone call from Ed?
No. I think I said: “Thank you very much” – terribly tedious.
How has your previous experience helped you prepare for what you’re doing now?
I was in the Cabinet Office in 2004, when Andrew Marr phoned me at my desk and asked how I felt about Alan Milburn coming back to the department. I said: “Andrew, I haven’t heard anything about it.” He replied: “Oh I’m sorry” and put the phone down very quickly. The next call was from Tony Blair, who asked me to come through and see him in Downing Street. He said he’d decided to bring Alan Milburn back into the Cabinet Office, but added: “You can have any minister of state position across government, because I rate the work that you’re doing very highly.” I explained that I hadn’t quite anticipated this conversation, went back to my office and looked through the list of ministerial positions across government.
And decided on investment, trade and foreign affairs?
I’d been reading the Alan Clark diaries at the time. Alan had aspired to that office and had said it was unquestionably the best minister of state job in government. So, back in 2004 I asked to go the FCO. I had two years there, during that time we dealt with the East Asian tsunami − I was the minister responsible for south-east Asia. I was then transport secretary, working alongside the home secretary, John Reid, at the time of the liquid bomb plot in 2006.
The combined experience of my time dealing with a major consular crisis in the FCO, my experience of dealing with the airlines at the time of the liquid bomb plot, and working in the DfID on humanitarian response has equipped me well to be asking the right questions of the government in recent days [on Libya]. What concerned and surprised me was not simply that ministers didn’t have the answers, but they didn’t seem to have the right questions. And that obliged us to be asking questions publically when there were very real risks to British nationals overseas.
I suppose, from their point of view, it’s still quite a steep learning curve. Is a lack of cabinet experience more of a problem for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats now, than it was for Labour in 1997?
I don’t see this as an issue of inexperience, which is a curable problem, but of ministerial judgment. I was on holiday when my permanent secretary called me in summer 2006, to tell me about the liquid bomb plot. A security official was sent to the Isle of Mull, where I was on holiday, to brief me on the scale of the threat to the UK. He told me that we would have 18 hours between executive action being decided and the event becoming public, so that I should stay on holiday and return to London when executive action commenced.
I ignored that advice, picked up the phone to my permanent secretary and said: “I need to get back to London immediately.” He replied: “I hoped you would say that. 32 Squadron is on standby.” The next morning a RAF helicopter picked me up on the Isle of Mull and had me back at my seat four hours later. Ministers either have that instinct – that they have great privileges of office, but also heavy responsibilities – or they don’t. I knew immediately that my responsibility was to be at my desk, looking at the contingencies, leading the department and ensuring that our preparations were in place for what would follow.
I simply can’t explain why a judgment was not made to convene Cobra at an earlier stage last week. If it doesn’t constitute an emergency when hundreds of your nationals are stranded in a deteriorating situation in Libya, I frankly don’t know what does. I don’t think it can be explained or accounted for simply by inexperience. It also speaks to an instinct about responsibilities of office. Just because people feel they’re born to rule doesn’t mean that they’re ready to.
Which coalition ministers have displayed an instinct for government?
William Hague is an intelligent, thoughtful and experienced politician. David Cameron carries the office of prime minister quite lightly, and really has a sense of confidence in the role. But it seems to me that neither of them acquitted themselves very well with the flights fiasco, or with the failure to convene Cobra.
How can you possibly blame William Hague for the fact that there was a mechanical failure on the first plane organised to evacuate British citizens?
William Hague and the FCO presumed, for the entirety of the Monday, that scheduled carriers – British Airways and Bmi – would continue flying to Tripoli. If he’d asked the right question – how likely is it that scheduled carriers will continue to fly into a deteriorating security situation? – and he’d asked the DfT at a Cobra meeting, those officials would have said the insurance premiums rocket, and so even if Willie Walsh had wanted to carry on flying, it would suddenly become too expensive for him.
The effect was that in capitals around Europe on Monday, they were organising military and charter aircraft to be on the ground in Tripoli on Tuesday morning. Our FCO spent Tuesday trying to source an aircraft. Like trying to hire a car on a bank holiday weekend when all the other cars are already gone and you’re left with the banger in the corner of the parking lot, they ended up with a private charter aircraft on the Wednesday that broke down for ten hours. Why didn’t William Hague pick up the phone to Liam Fox at any point on Monday or Tuesday, and say: “Listen Liam. Can we have two or three Hercules put forward from RAF Lyneham into our forward operating position?
Do you find it difficult at all to have made the adjustment from government to opposition?
The first question is personal: what’s the transition like moving from government to opposition? I miss government and want to be back soon. In opposition you can ask questions, make speeches, do press releases and give interviews. In government you can change lives. I came into politics to change lives.
Government equips you and allows you to make fundamental changes. My wife jokes that a year ago I was the UK governor to the World Bank, and now I’m a governor of my son’s primary school, so there are some quite significant personal changes involved in moving from almost 10 years in government to being an opposition spokesman.
In the shadow foreign affairs role it’s quite easy to come across as being disloyal to the country. Yet if you don’t go slightly over the top in the criticism, the media’s not interested. And really, in opposition, the media is the most important game in town.
I have never believed that opposition should be a holiday from responsibility. I inevitably reflect on my own experience from watching the last time Labour was in opposition. I started work with Gordon Brown in 1990 for a year, then worked very closely with Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and others in the early and mid-1990s. They were opposition politicians at the very top of their game. They took the responsibility of re-establishing Labour’s economic credibility immensely seriously, and securing office not simply by amplifying criticism of the government, but by being seen as a genuine alternative − that’s the real test for a party that want to come back into government.
We’re working and aiming to try and come back in one term, not after four. Can we make people feel comfortable with the idea, again, of living in Labour Britain? Prior to 1997, we were, at various stages in the 1980s to early 90s, well ahead in the opinion polls, but never crossed that threshold. It is a grave indictment of David Cameron that he never managed to convince enough people to be really comfortable with living in a Conservative Britain ahead of the general election last May.
We lost the election badly, but actually David Cameron didn’t win the election anything like as convincingly as all the polls indicated was likely, even a few months before polling day. That’s because he failed to meet that threshold of making enough people comfortable again with the idea of living in a Conservative Britain.
I’m at one with his new director of strategy Andrew Cooper. My sense is Andrew will be a formidable opponent for the Labour Party. He has a deeper understanding of quite how tarnished the Conservative brand was, and continues to be. He has a determination to try and fight the next general election unequivocally on the centre ground. I am determined that we contest that ground, because my sense is that Andrew’s basic plan is to try and win the next election the way that New Labour won several elections in the past. To say essentially, the Conservatives offer a combination of competence and fairness. That’s quite an attractive proposition for the British people.
The incompetence that the government showed on Libya is not just wrong – most importantly, for British people – but is also politically dangerous for them
However, it also should put us on notice that they will be determined to contest the centre ground vigorously. Opposition obliges you, if you’re serious about coming back into power quickly, to continue to accept the responsibilities of doing more than simply criticising. Can you give voice to the grievance that people feel? Ultimately people will vote against a government as well as for an alternative.
Secondly, can you establish sufficient credibility so you are a realistic alternative? Thirdly, can you develop a policy offer that answers the question that people are asking at the time of the next election? Can you become again a repository for people’s hopes and aspirations for themselves and for their family? In a nutshell that’s Labour’s challenge.
Are many people in the party, including the shadow cabinet, still struggling to get that balance right between accepting what went wrong in the past and looking ahead? Too many apologies and people just see you as weak, and not standing by your record in government. But if you don’t acknowledge it, people just say it’s the same-old, same-old.
Andrew Cooper has taken to describing himself…
You’re obsessed with Andrew Cooper!
As a pitiless empiricist. The empirical evidence should lead us in our analysis of both where we went wrong, and what lessons we need to learn. While I think it is hugely to our credit that the leadership contest and the months that followed have been marked by civility rather than factionalism and conflict.
There is always a risk with a long leadership contest that the reasons for you losing simply become weapons wielded in a conversation about the future. We need to continue to reflect on the scale of the challenge that we face, not just electorally, but politically. In policy terms, it seems to me, part of our challenge is to be clear what a social democratic offer looks like in a time of fiscal constraints. Despite our concerns on the misjudgements on George Osborne, if the economy is growing in 3-4 years, there will still be real questions we have to confront in our policy review in terms of what a centre-left offer should look like.
My instinct is for at least the next couple of years there will be huge controversy around the politics of distribution – how these cuts are going to impact on people? Is the burden being shared equitably, exposing the nonsense of the Conservatives claiming that “we are all in this together”? In addition, people will be asking in 3-4 years’ time about the politics of production. How does Britain earn its living and pay its way in an increasingly competitive world?
It is also a political and electoral challenge. How do we build a new a coalition capable of delivering a majority for Labour? We were losing white working class votes and also losing liberal metropolitan votes.
We have to undertake a task equivalent to that of modernisers in the 1990s in re-imagining and securing the coalition for a Labour majority
How can you present this Labour team as new when you, Ed Balls, and Ed Miliband were three leading lights supporting Gordon Brown? Isn’t it just Son of Brown?
I worked for Gordon Brown back in the early 1990s. Tony Blair appointed me to the cabinet. I helped run David Miliband’s leadership campaign. The lazy shorthand of Brownites and Blairites was always less categoric than journalists presumed.
Whether it was my longstanding friendship with David Miliband, who I’d met before Brown or Blair, or my friendship with James Purnell and Ed Miliband, the relationships with our generation were far more nuanced and warm than you’d imagine from some newspaper reports. There is a shared understanding among that generation of politicians coming to public prominence for the first time − we must never return to that kind of factionalism and division
During the leadership campaign and since the election, Ed Balls has transformed himself. Is that something you’ve seen?
Partly, it is how we learn from the generation preceding us, and how do we unlearn some of their weaknesses. I used to stand behind Gordon Brown in the early 1990s, when he was the shadow chancellor, giving interviews about Labour’s fiscal policy. You could tell he was considering and editing every phrase that he uttered with the aim of strengthening Labour’s credibility and not imperilling it. That did lead to a style of conversation that often became a barrier rather than a bridge to understanding and engaging with him.
The past generation of Labour politicians picked up a whole suite of tools and techniques from the US Democrats – the use of the soundbite, the idea of rapid rebuttal, the establishment of war rooms to coordinate. That whole approach to communication and campaigning, receiving messages every 10 minutes telling people what to say, was vital for its time given the sometimes chaotic and incoherent Labour response prior to that period.
Times have changed. The real prizes for the coming generation of politicians are those who can speak with authenticity and credibility. Who can acknowledge doubt and complexity and engage in serious conversations about serious issues? It’s about recognising how together we find shared solutions to shared problems. On something like the welfare state, we have to recognise that we, as a society, must do better than condemning a generation to a life in unemployment or on benefits. It would do a disservice to the seriousness of that issue to think politics is simply about dividing lines.
Some Labour politicians have had a go at David Cameron by questioning how he can relate to ordinary people. But should you not at least acknowledge that you have been immersed in politics since university, so how can you relate to normal people?
His judgements are going to have a huge impact on the life chances on the people in my constituency. My view of David Cameron has changed. If we’d done this a year or even 6 months ago, I would have thought the great threat Cameron posed to Labour was his dogmatism.
He’s one of the least dogmatic politicians I can think of
He is more right-wing than he suggests. He is a Conservative who is genuinely socially liberal on race and sexuality and different to previous Conservatives in that regard. However, he is deeply Conservative in his sense of entitlement. He has absolute conviction that he has right to be prime minister.
You say entitlement, I could easily say he fits the job like a hand in a glove. He is comfortable in the job and very few prime ministers ever are.
Confidence matched by a lack of competence is a scary combination. I don’t doubt that David Cameron is confident in his own abilities and comfortable in the job. I think that whether it is the ease with which Andrew Lansley was out of the traps on his NHS White Paper, whether it was allowing the debacle over forestry to engulf him, or whether it’s what we’ve seen recently on foreign affairs, there’s accumulating evidence that confidence is not always matched by competence.
Cameron made a speech to the Kuwaiti national assembly which had echoes of Robin Cook’s ethical foreign policy. I thought that was quite surprising as a few weeks before he was talking about muscular liberalism. Did you think that was a slightly naive thing for him to say, or did you think it was quite refreshing that the PM can still have some idealism?
There were elements of that speech, of course, that I supported. One of the truths of foreign policy is that, in an advanced democracy like Britain, there’s always going to be common ground between the opposition and the government. That being said, the speech was strikingly incoherent as a compass by which to navigate the seismic events that we are witnessing in the Middle East. The trip and the speech were anchored in the politics of the past. It reflected an attempt to catch up with events. Until the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, there seemed to have been two drivers of David Cameron's foreign policy – on one hand, mercantilism and trade, and on the other, bilateralism.
Of course, it is important to support British exports. But it's not itself adequate to navigate the complexities and challenges of a difficult and dangerous world. And of course, it is important we have bilateral relations with emerging economies like China and India. But it seems to me that the lessons from events that are sweeping away old orthodoxies and old assumptions is the need for a networked foreign policy that anticipates and can address what are networked revolutions. You can overstate the role of Facebook or social media in the events that we've seen in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. What I find striking about British foreign policy in recent days has been that the FCO is not very well networked with the Ministry of Defence or the DfT or even the Cabinet Office and Downing Street last week.
On a much more profound level, our foreign policy doesn't seem to recognise the extent to which if we are going to find shared solutions to shared problems. We need to be working with multilateral institutions, imperfect though they are, whether it’s the European Union, the United Nations or other international organisations. The weakness of the Kuwait speech was that many of the intellectual building blocks had not been in place prior to the events.
What is your favourite view?
The Treshnish Isles, from the Isle of Mull in the Hebrides.
What's your main hobby?
Oh god. What book are you reading at the moment?
On Identityby Amin Maalouf.
I'll come back to you.
Isle of Mull.
Biggest difference with Wendy [sister]?
When did you last cry?
Why or when? Last month.
What music gets you dancing?
Cheesy dad rock from the 1980s.
Most formidable political opponent?
Which period in history would you like to have lived through?
Hmm, the 1940s.
Something you have in common with Iain Duncan Smith. That's what he said too.