The Institute for Government is housed in an original Nash Grade I listed building overlooking St James’ Park. It isn’t hard to imagine that these calm and elegant surroundings would be a welcome break for any politician who had worked tirelessly up and down Whitehall throughout Labour’s time in government. Andrew Adonis, however, is no ordinary politician.
Adonis is eager to discuss all the work his think tank is producing, and, of course, the next general election. When asked about his new role, his relentless enthusiasm for all things policy takes over – though it becomes clear quite quickly that his move into the world of the think tank is unlikely to be a permanent one. “Did I enjoy government and being there making decisions? Yes, but my party’s out of government and there’s no point in crying over spilt milk. In four years’ time there’ll be another election and I shall be fighting jolly hard to get Labour back into power. While were in opposition, being able to play this charitable role is wholly worthwhile. We are the big society at the heart of Whitehall,” he jokes, in a rather shrewd reference to David Cameron’s flagship policy.
Having completed something of a political odyssey, from the Social Democrats to the Liberal Democrats to the Labour party, Lord Adonis was hauled into the policy unit of Number 10 back in 1998 as an education advisor. After being handed a peerage in 2005 to become a junior education minister without any experience, there were suspicions he might just become another of ‘Tony’s Cronies’. But, to the surprise of many, he outlived Blair into Brown’s cabinet as Secretary of State for Transport and was said to be one of Labour’s key negotiators during the five days of coalition talks and media flurry.
Despite his new non-partisan role, Adonis doesn’t hesitate to criticise the present government, calling it a ‘pact of the unprincipled’. In his book, ex-Lib Dem minister David Laws claims that the current coalition as it stands was actually prompted by a divide in the Labour camp over what it wanted. Andrew sees things rather differently. “My own view is that if the Lib Dems had wanted to go in with the Labour party we could have negotiated a perfectly credible programme. What they can’t do, as David tries to do in his book, is somehow blame it on the Labour part. He can’t blame Labour for the fact that they chose to go in with the Tories.’ I can’t be sure whether his assertion that Labour was united in their readiness to form a coalition was a careful way of avoiding the question. However, what seems obvious is that many feel the future will work to Labour’s advantage. Adonis explains that it will mean Labour can now ‘sweep up’ alienated Liberal Democrat voters. He quickly corrects himself for using such a pejorative term, replacing it with ‘appeal to’, but it seems he can hardly contain his optimism at such a prospect for his party.
Debating the future of the House of Lords is where he really gets going, however. Condemning the current system for its lack of accountability, he despairs how, as a minister in the House of Lords, he was never once called to give evidence before a House of Lords Committee. Though Labour removed all the hereditary peers from the Lords, many felt that they should have gone further. I remind him of a suggestion he made in The Guardian some years ago to relocate the House of Lords to Manchester. Expecting to be met with reluctance, or a cunning political side step, the former journalist grins and outlines his proposal in some detail.
“It’s perfectly doable and it should happen. It would have a transformational effect on the whole of our political culture”. The idea of shipping peers off to Salford Quays and selling the old office space in Westminster to pay for it might leave Lords and Ladies spluttering into their afternoon tea, but one has to admire his determination. “Idealism, that’s how you make change happen,” he says. “You know a hundred years ago giving votes for women was thought to be a ridiculous and impossible proposition…well it didn’t take long for that to become the law of the land.” This is the kind of audacious move that seems to characterise his career. Looking back at his policy record with Labour, he is clearly capable of using his influence to push through significant pieces of legislation; civil servants at the Department of Education referred to him as ‘muscles’.
He takes his idealism from his hero Roy Jenkins, one of the ‘gang of four’ who founded the Social Democratic Party in 1981 when Labour moved to what Adonis calls the ‘loony undemocratic left’. Adonis himself was a member of the SDP when Labour was in the pockets of big trade union leaders. Interestingly, he has faced some of the same criticisms that Jenkins did in his career; with a liberal approach to market involvement in certain areas of public policy, some have struggled to differentiate Adonis’ beliefs from those of the Conservative party. Indeed, his two flagship policy successes, high speed rail and academies are both being continued under the coalition government. What’s more, few people today realise that Adonis was one the key players in the introduction of tuition fees back in 2000. A supporter of a student contribution to the cost of university education, he sees the new coalition policy as a fundamental distortion, not a fulfilment, of the one he helped forge six years ago.
Such a ‘distortion’ might cause him to rethink the introduction of the policy in the first place, but Adonis is not one for such regrets. “You should never not do the right thing because somebody might do the wrong thing in future,” he explains. “Look at the health service reforms, they’re turning the NHS upside down at the moment from a standing start, you know, a government that wants to engage in radical policies can do so, it doesn’t need to have precedent to justify it.” He may have a point, but the current Tory mantra seems to be ‘anything we do, Labour started it’ (privatisation of parts of the NHS, academies, tuition fees). Surely Labour has to take some responsibility for what can sometimes seem to be logical extensions of the arguments they provided for their initial policy proposals? This issue is particularly pertinent to Lord Adonis, who was even offered a place in Conservative government under Cameron.
Perhaps the reason for Adonis’ remarkable cross-party appeal, though, is his highly pragmatic approach to policy making. During his time at the Department for Education he visited more schools than any education minister ever, as Secretary of State for Transport he conducted a nationwide rail tour and in his new role he undertook a nationwide tour of cities due for referendums on having an elected mayor. His approach is telling of his journalistic background, placing great weight on first hand knowledge of a problem from people on the ground. In fact, he tells me that he doesn’t believe policy should be “unnecessarily ideological”, and herein lies the crux of the puzzle; is he just a policy nerd, an opportunist or a pragmatist informed by ideology? “Part of my style of politics has been to constantly engage with those who make government work on the front line and who deliver services on the front line so that policy is practical and not theoretical or unnecessarily ideological.”
There seems no doubt that Adonis will continue well into the future – at just 48 he is certainly at the younger end of the House of Lords. One question asked time and time again is whether he would ever stand for election as a Member of Parliament. I imagine it’s a challenge he would find difficult to resist. Indeed, few political pundits would put their money on where Andrew Adonis might be in ten years time. In his own words: “I’m a political animal – and I doubt that you’ve heard the last of me.”