This article is from the May issue of Total Politics
Eric Pickles loves bins. This cannot be stressed enough.
“Just consider this,” begins the communities secretary. “You come home one night. You’re confused, a little tired, maybe. You eat a strawberry yoghurt, and you’re a decent person so you probably washed out the pot. Then, in a moment of emotion – perhaps euphoria because it was a particularly nice yoghurt – you put it in the wrong bin. The forces of the Talibin – the ‘Binquisition’ – fall upon you and fine you to a greater extent than if you’d gone into the shop and stolen the yoghurt. That strikes me as utterly ludicrous.”
He pauses for dramatic effect. “Now, if you’d had an all-night yoghurt party – let’s say 400 crates of yoghurt were consumed – and you encourage your folks to throw them out onto the pavement, then we would fine you because you would have annoyed your neighbours.”
Pickles recently revealed that almost half of all English councils have bid for a slice of his £250m refuse fund – for ‘binnovation’ on waste (Pickles isn’t the only one who can produce trash puns). But a separate survey for the Sunday Telegraph claimed that of the 184 councils polled, 96 said they would not ask for money – and only one wanted cash to bring back bin rounds.
Pickles admits there has been “a lot of resistance” to his plans. But he has strong words for those who remain unconvinced. “You would have thought that I’d issued some weird pronouncement… that I was suggesting that councils slaughter the first-born. It has become the cult of the experts. We’re daring to say the emperor has actually got no clothes on and that the public wants something different.”
On the day we meet, Pickles, thankfully, is wearing clothes. Indeed, he’s chosen some rather colourful braces, adorned with an ethereal female figure. “They are sort of Art Deco,” he says. “There’s always a slight shock when I take my jacket off.” He’s not lying.
We’re in his large departmental office, near Victoria, a few weeks before May’s elections. The local government secretary has yet fully to hit the campaign trail. (His top election travel tip? “Take a radio with you.” Wonderfully un-modern.) But this tour of the country will have added frisson, for it includes the referendums on elected mayors in Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol, Newcastle, Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham, Coventry, Wakefield and Bradford.
As a former Bradford councillor, is he tempted by the power of an elected mayor? “I’ve often felt that American politics would be great,” Pickles replies. “’Governor’ would be a great thing to do. Mayor of a big city would be an excellent thing to do. Places like Birmingham, Liverpool and Leeds are international players. If we’re going to compete with Chicago, Lyon, Frankfurt – they’ve got mayors – and we’ve got this rather ridiculous position of leader, but nobody knows who the heck they are… it would it be better if we had someone banging the drum. It’s the future.”
Others are not so convinced. Lib Dem Birmingham MP John Hemming is a member of the anti-mayor ‘Vote No to a Power Freak’ campaign. He believes the office places too much power into one person’s hands. “Transparency and accountability – you need those two vital elements,” says Pickles.
It all sounds very responsible. But London, although under a different mayoral system, has not embodied those two principles lately. The Ken-Boris lift altercation was one undignified example. It feels a bit like Groundhog Day, as the three same mayoral candidates as last time partake in the same old vicious exchanges. Pickles is upbeat, nevertheless. “I’m pretty pleased at the prospect of Groundhog Day, because Boris would win,” he replies. It’s a joke, but he doesn’t smile.
“We’ve got to understand that any election in London, no matter how well a candidate is doing, is always going to be tight. The difference between doing really well and losing is a very fine number… Don’t think Boris has it in the bag. He hasn’t. It’s going to require people to come out and vote for him.”
Pickles, unsurprisingly, doesn’t have kind words for Labour’s candidate. “Ken is a throwback to the 1980s,” he says. “I’d be worried about how Ken would play communities off against one another, how he’s surrounded himself with cronies, how people of lesser ability would get pretty good jobs and how he’d pursue a narrow political agenda.”
Pickles often frames his argument along partisan lines. One Conservative MP suggests he is most comfortable with adversarial politics: “He is brilliant at attacking Labour, but one day he’ll have to defend his own record.”
Entering his office, I remark about a couple of wilting plants in the hallway. Pickles explains that cancelling the plant maintenance contract was one of his first acts as secretary of state. John Prescott set up a deal that cost taxpayers £40,000 just to water and prune Whitehall’s foliage. “They’re a living monument to the great man,” Pickles booms. “We haven’t found the Prescott plant yet. No doubt, when we do, it will be magnificent.”
But Pickles hasn’t always been so tribally Conservative. He has admitted that, as a boy, he was “massively inclined” towards Communism. What appealed? “Collectivism and central control,” he says. “Everything that I don’t believe in now, I passionately believed in then. But my reasonable excuse was I was 14. At that age, I read all three volumes of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. I still have it. I tried to read it again and it is completely incomprehensible. I also read Das Kapital. I was a serious young man.”
Behind Pickles’ head is a picture of Che Guevara. In an interview with Total Politics in 2010, he said the portrait was there to remind him that “cigar-chomping Commies are not going to take over on my watch”.
He looks pleased when reminded of this. “We’re at a time where the half-mad schemes that Labour rejected can sometimes be rebadged and brought to us as a solution to a particular problem. I’m sure it’s meant in good nature, but constant vigilance is necessary.”
Arguably, the bigger threat to Pickles’ party at the moment does not come from the left, but from the right. UKIP claims to be the fastest growing political party in Britain today. What does the former Conservative Party chairman propose his party does about the threat of Nigel Farage’s small army of Middle Englanders? “UKIP is a threat to Lib Dems and Labour as well as the Conservative Party,” Pickles argues. “It will always be a point of unhappiness for all of the three main parties. But when it comes to an election that matters, [UKIP-friendly] thoughts tend to dissipate.”
Pickles was chairman of the Conservative Party from January 2009 until the May 2010 general election. He became a favourite with the Tory grassroots – trotting out his “Hello, chums” catchphrase with a smile and a wave. “I will confess, particularly when I was party chairman, I hammed that up a little bit,” he says now.
Certainly he is more serious than his public image. “Yes, that’s probably right,” he agrees. He’s also a little sharper than his Thomas the Tank Engine, jolly ‘Fat Controller’ persona – he rebukes me during the interview with a snappy, “Can you just hang on a minute?” and a sarcastic, “I thought it was actually self-explanatory” – but he does understand what makes him appealing, and isn’t afraid to play on it. For example, just ask what he did for his stag do. “I finished writing the half-yearly report of the Yorkshire area provincial council,” he laughs. “I kid you not. I remember saying to myself, ‘What am I doing here? Why am I doing this?’”
And what would he tell his 16-year-old self if he could? “You’re going to have a lot of fun and to meet a lot of interesting people.” His voice becomes a stage whisper. “And, listen carefully, the night before you get married don’t be writing a report on the Yorkshire area provincial council.” He chuckles – and suddenly he’s the charming Fat Controller again.
Born in Keighley, Yorkshire, Pickles grew up in a Labour-supporting family – his great-grandfather was one of the founders of the Independent Labour Party – but he joined the Conservatives in 1968 after the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia. One fellow MP describes Pickles as the “anti-posh Conservative MP”. The communities secretary nods approvingly: “I’ll probably wallow in happiness with that description,” he says. “I suppose my looks, my accent, my size, are very different from most people’s perception of a Conservative MP.”
The perception of Conservative MPs is a contentious issue at the moment. A recent ComRes poll found that 72 per cent of voters believe the government is “out of touch with ordinary voters”, and Conservative MPs have warned the prime minister about his upper-class image. Cameron endured a series of climbdowns, from jerry cans, to ‘kitchen suppers’, to pasties. So what are Pickles’ pasty credentials? He ponders it. “Does a sausage roll count?” No, it does not.
And although Pickles might be the antithesis of posh MPs, he’s still suffering with his party’s current main headache – allegations of donors buying access to ministers.
He states plainly that, “yeah, sure”, he does dine with donors, “but whether you’ve paid for a £5 bangers-and-mash supper or you’ve paid rather a lot of money to hear me speak, it’s a similar sort of speech you’re going to get.” (He still calls it ‘supper’, though…)
For Pickles, the latest scandal is nothing to get excited about. “I’ve never felt uncomfortable raising money for the party,” he states. “I’m the former party chairman, so I know a bit about big donations. There wasn’t any question of people turning a blind eye or making cursory remarks. The compliance department we had was rigorous beyond the point of annoyance.”
So, does he feel the Sunday Times exclusive about former Tory Treasurer Peter Cruddas and cash for access was an exception?
“I read what Cruddas said, and it didn’t bear any relationship to what I know is the reality,” he insists. “We’re continuously nervous to make sure money is coming from a legitimate donor, not from outside, or using a third party to get in. Not only is it not worth the risk, it’s also outside the law.” Pickles favours a cap on donations at £50,000.
Given his party’s ‘out of touch’ problem, would Pickles like to be…
“No,” he retorts, before I can ask the question.
… leader of the Conservative Party? I finish. “To quote PG Wodehouse, ‘Wild horses, on their bended knees, at their most persuasive, would never make me even think about it’.” He is unsmiling again.
The Department for Communities and Local Government recently revealed proposals to pay local councils that succeed in tackling problem families up to £4,000 per household. Pickles believes the payment-by-results scheme could save the taxpayer money. Currently £9bn a year is spent on the 120,000 most troubled families in England.
“I’m very pleased to say we’ve got every authority lined up to accept,” he says. “We’ve captured the imagination of politicians because of guilt. There was something about this a generation ago, but it was all a little bit too hard. Now it’s a chance for us to make a big change.”
Pickles remembers talking to a young father with a nine-month-old at a mother-and-baby class. “I was saying, ‘It’s a wonderful thing to be able to read and talk to your kid,’ and he said, ‘I don’t talk to him. He can’t speak English.’ His child is not going to learn until there’s that interchange. It’s been harrowing, but we’re in a position to make a change.”
How do you judge results when the problem is so varied in its causes? “There’s a wonderful mathematical formula,” says Pickles. “A set of protocols that we’re very happy for you to see. I’ve read it and I’m rather glad the clever people put it together… Local authorities have taken to that like a duck to water.”
Pickles is cautious on this subject, though. He got into hot water after he decreed that immigrants face life as members of an unemployable “sub-class”, living in ghettoes unless they are taught to speak English “like a native”.
He defends his stance: “We’re a very tolerant country. We’ve always managed to rub up against one another. But my worry was about an educated sub-class…
“I was chatting to some kids up in Manchester, who were talking about being famous. So I asked, ‘Famous for what?’
“They replied, ‘Being famous, being like a celebrity.’ My dear constituency is the home of The Only Way is Essex, so I understand this phenomenon. I replied, ‘But why is that important?’ They can’t understand that if they study hard, get a skill, they can earn a good living, have a happy life. Not everybody can enjoy the Warhol experience of being famous for 15 minutes.” Talking about TOWIE, has Pickles met the cast yet? “Not as a whole unit. I’ve met some members. They seem very charming.”
The Conservative MP for TOWIE is a bit of a polymath, actually. He loves flags. “We use flags to communally express our support for one another,” he claims. “And a young Muslim kid in Bradford should regard that flag [Union Jack] as the flag of their country, and it should never be allowed to be captured by the far-right.”
And he adores opera. “I watched a production of Così fan Tutte, directed by Jonathan Miller, and it changed my life. I’ve been star-struck with opera ever since. I can lose myself in it.”
But of his many hobbies, there’s one political hinterland that has a special place in his heart. David Cameron had the big society, Justine Greening had HS2 – Eric Pickles has the chicken tikka masala test.
“It’s the right of every person to have the nation’s favourite dish, which is chicken tikka masala – and when they put it in the bin, for it not to fester for two weeks,” he declares. “It seems to be not beyond the wit of man to devise a scheme where people can have it taken away.”
When it comes to history’s footnotes, Eric Pickles will be remembered for his trash. And, chums, he’s proud as punch.