Ep. 97 - Douglas Alexander

Update: 2016-11-17


Douglas Alexander, former British Labour politician and U.K. Cabinet Minister, chats with David Axelrod about how the closure of a car plant ignited his interest in politics, Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election, and more.

Following script is auto-generated by Speech to Text Technology:

the board for the acts files comes from rockin' mortgage my Quicken loans lift the burden of getting a home loan with rockin' mortgage and get a secure transparent home loan approval in minutes skip the bank of the waiting then go completely online at Quicken loans dot com slash X Files This podcast is brought you by sixty DB listen to conversations that go beyond the headlines business sports politics today's news plus all of your favorite podcasts download the free sixty DB at Today the the the and now from the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN The X Files with your host David Axelrod The The The I first met Douglas Alexander When I was consulting on the Labour campaign in Britain in two thousand and fifteen and he was chairman of that campaign a senior member of parliament the shadow foreign minister and he was swept away in the tsunami that overtook labor in that election lost his seat in Scotland but remains a really incisive observer commentator on the politics of Europe and the US where he visited the Institute of Politics this week I sat down with Douglas to talk about the election that was just held here in the context of Breck said and some of the other elections we've seen the kind of play where we are and where were had uh the uh the Douglas Alexander first vote thank you for being at the Institute of Politics and we've known each other now through the Labour campaign in Britain in two thousand and fifteen but you know for all the time that we spent together I never really asked you how you came to be interested in politics and how you grew up and I'm interested in that well for me politics was always about serving a community and serving a cause my father was a minister in the churches schools and for more than forty years most mother was a doctrine the National Health Service so they were not active politically in the sense of standing for elective office but a sense of service enemy to the conversation or in the kitchen table in the months that I grew up in and the had powerful st so I think inspired by the Christian values a powerful sense of service that we get to the children of which I was one what transform that sense of service into an interest in politics though I know your sister also into politics that's right my sister ended up as a member of the Scottish Parliament when I was a member of the British Parliament and for me personally it was the closure of a local car plant the Lynnwood car plant which closed in the early nineteen eighties soul many of the employees made redundant many of them parents of people I was a school with the time so I made the choice in nineteen eighty two to join the Labour Party I didn't have evidence that Lee Burke you'd make the country better because I was in really old enough to remember the last Labour government but I believe that had to be a better way than the policies that market Thatcher was imposing on the whole of the United Kingdom during a new apron I was I was pretty I was fourteen the time I remember the first time my hair den u can it speak was just the Labour Party however after nineteen eighty three but this time he was the Shadow Education spokesman and he arrived to speak in asking and the events of that I represented for eighteen years and he spoke to her jeweled small group of us in our local primary school and elementary school and he said just two days before pulling said Lieber is going to be devastated so for the border will be wiped out and he said I implore you I beg you to any family or friends so for the border England please phone them and tell them how much this community needs a Labour government so my earliest experiences in the labor family were of the term repeated defeats but I had a conviction but still politics could be a sight of progress of improvement stuff with it why why did you feel that way in the face of these repeated defeats Ghana probably we would start the explanation was my appearance you know my my mother and father were very unusual ways and very traditional and other worries my father and nineteen in the late nineteen fifties nineteen fifty nine came here to the United States to study at Union theological Seminary New York she worked in East Harlem Protestant Parish he hear Martin Luther King preached so he always had a Saints hold the temporal world in the spiritual world not being too far apart I remember him telling me that the literal translation of righteousness is right relationships ultimately that's what Paul thinks was but it's about finding common solutions to common problems and in that sense my appearance whether it was my mother's experience in health service during the eighties when many many people in Britain were waiting in circumstances of personal pain for operations in for treatment or the people who ended up at the door of the months to seek support and advice from our father often suffering unemployment convince me that there had to be a better week to organize society into organizer economy and I believe that Lieber represented the better we spent some time studying here in the States and Canada what would you learn from those experiences when I was very young when I was sixteen I won a scholarship from the local comprehensive school acoustic school and sure to attend an International College in Canada it was cold Lester B Pearson College and owner of the former Canadian prime minister won the Nobel Peace Price and the words she spoke when receiving the Nobel Peace Prize were embossed on a sign at the door of the college and its aid how can there be peace if people don't understand each other and how can people understand each other if we don't know each other it was an international college was more than eighty five countries represented in the student cohort hundred students it was full scholarships for all of the students so it was a merit based college but it gives you a deeply human saints that the world was filled with people who if you had the opportunity to meet them you could find common ground here to see Chicago yesterday one of my college friend's son turned up and my office arsed to say that his that sent his regards he was a Norwegian student at the time he's no Bill of a successful life in Korea here in the United States but I think that fairly educational experience gave me a sense of international Islam that was unusual at the time and that I came here to the United States to study the University of Pennsylvania for a year between nineteen ninety eight and nineteen eighty nine and as you remember that was the autumn of the caucus Bush presidential contest it was a bite that time I began to worry that I had a unique ability to lose like this because I arrived in Libor rain Labor Day in nineteen eighty eight Dukakis I think a fourteen point but inside of the Atlanta Convention and I immediately started volunteering for the Democrats in Philadelphia and within a matter of weeks I delivered the White House to Bush forty one to George Herbert Walker Bush but that was a fantastic experience on pulling D in nineteen eighty eight I was standing at a polling station in northern Philadelphia I was the only known African American that I make in five or something at the polling station just a few days before that I traveled to Southern Philadelphia with Mario Cuomo and hair to speak half an English and half Italian to open the back of a flatbed truck actually two huge Italian community so it was it was a fascinating education in Democratic politics for me and even if it wasn't a successful company not share some of the memories from that war we are observations about American politics I guess one of them was the tremendous diversity that you encountered there in Philadelphia absolutely if I'm honest I am I came away with it since the politics was about more than competence it was about ninety years and ideals and I think one of the big mistakes that the CAC is Mead was when he declared that the selection was about competence I remember Kitty the CAC is coming in to the Philadelphia headquarters of the Democrats rarely on polling day as she was on a sweet back up to Boston and we all had to hold signs and the organizers encouraged us to sheer Kitty Dukakis kitty kitty cat as I'd never felt more Scottish in my life was when we're not particularly known for our enthusiasm but I remember thinking the house to be more to politics than either just the resume is or claims of competence politics has to be about our better angels of our ideals and idealism and I'll use values and not bro brought me back to Britain after nineteen eighty nine with but with a deep sense that there needed to be of all use bassist said the politics that Lieber was offering and of course we then moved rapidly to position her liver became a more serious contender for power in the early nineties and you worked with Gordon Brown who went on to become prime minister and Tony Blair was the was ascending at the time you we spoke before this and you said that you there was this sense of possibility the sense of something emerging than what was that was a C I joined the party back in nineteen eighty two when labor was actually devastated many three and and then start of a long march back to relevance into power and force a steamed me on that journey was a sense that the Labour Party was both moving closer towards the concerns of working people in Britain but also frankly closer towards the party that I felt it should be and that process accelerated in the in the air early nineteen nineties just a year after that the cactus defeat I find myself in graduation working with Gordon Brown my senior honors teacher at the University of Edinburgh had supervise Gordon brings PhD and news that Gordon was looking for somebody to work with them and support him he was at the time the shuttle regional affairs spokesman Tony Blair was the shadow Social Security spokesman so by extraordinary good fortune of meeting there in the position they were in their portfolios with their portfolios but when I worked in the office twenty Blair was next or Gordon Brown was in the office I worked in the the the shimmer with a sense of possibility and destiny these were opposition politicians still a number of years away from par seven years away from power but inspiring in many of his sense of confidence that leaders they would come partly because of the date of their thinking in the seriousness of that approach to bringing lever back and they worked very hard and we spent a lot of time thinking and discussing and deliberating holy book again unite values and principles with real power but also just they were inspiring individuals and in that sense that year that I spent working with them then came back to school and studied law and practice lol convince me that Lieber was on its way back you know we think of our countries has sort of independent entities that move on our own pace and you guys kind of sort of in seventeen seventy six as I write exactly exactly want to bring a sore subject but but but in the ye the Labour Party in Britain and the Democratic Party in America in the eighties sort of took the same journey through devastation and then you had the emergence of Blair and Bill Clinton at the same time rallying their party's re defining their parties is that coincidence because we find ourselves in a situation now or the Democratic Party in the Labour Party have just suffered the same kinds of defeats some of the same issues swirling around or is there a commonality between experience and I think is a commonality both in terms of the experience of the countries but also the experience of the parties mean I will remember one occasion when I was working with Gordon Brown and Tony Blair when they travel to the United States and the I think understood very the Clinton's victory anticipated the possibilities for the Labour Party in the United Kingdom and the came back from those visits to the United States not just with many friends and contacts in the Democratic Party but with suitcases full of ideas policies tools and techniques whether that was at that time the importance of being able to distill a message and communicate on broadcast television the use of a sign by whether it was the need for that to be a junction box at the heart of every campaign the idea of a war room kind of techniques are much more substantially is like policy ideas like the ending some tax credit finding its way back into Britain with the working tax credit we can choose from Labour came to power in nineteen ninety seven so there was a huge degree of exchange back in force in the mid nineteen nineties as to what would take for center left parties to be able to win again and then to be able to govern effectively in the interests of the people elect them you're and you talked about being bad luck for those for Carissa for the parties that you or for Dukakis and others but you have you had some misfortune at the at the ballot box yourself you ran a couple of times for parliament before you you were elected yes that's right I mean I I I stood for Parliament for same in nineteen ninety five in a by election in Scotland where Labour were of a distant third and frankly if there had been any possibility of Labor winning that seat would not have been but that was just a couple of years before a historic victory in nineteen ninety seven anticipated that kind of mood and change that was underway in Britain at the time so we came from of a distant third to a relative a close second so that was my first blogging if you like as a believer candidate I give a commitment to that concessions that I would go back and stand in nineteen ninety seven so in fact I returned but with an ace in P M P A Scottish National Party MP anticipating honestly if that was a known conservative incumbent in the sea then in all likelihood I wouldn't win the seat but I felt the people of the Labour Party gave me the chance I'll get to them to return in the general election so in fact in the great historic victory of nineteen ninety seven I was a losing candidate in school and I then worked in the Treasury in the months immediately following that gentle action I remember I was working as a lawyer and at the time I had promised them on the basis of what just described to you that I would be back in my office on after the general election because there was no possibility that I would win the seat and true to my ward I was back in the office on Monday morning but on the Saturday I received a phone call from Gordon Brown who said listen doesn't need you to come and help work on the budget can you be released from your law firm to come and work in the treasury and having been appointed the Chancellor the sake of the finance minister the day before so I said listen the problem is a promise model form that I would be back at the desk Monday morning together we hatched a plan and on that Monday morning at eight o'clock in the morning Gordon Brown raised interest rates for his only time actually as Chancellor the Exchequer because at eleven o'clock that morning he announced the operational independence of the Bank of England the establishment of an independent central bank in the United Kingdom in between those two events I was sitting at my desk in a bra on my senior partner of the Law from Boston to my office and say you have no idea who's just phoned me and I said no no tell me his phone he said probably the second most important man in the country Gordon Brown has just for me and told me that he needs you to come and work in the budget you must lie said if the country need to do was go so in fact I ended up working for two months helping write the first budget labor delivered in Gordon delivered in July the second of nineteen ninety seven and then return back home school and worked as a lawyer and just a month after my return in August of nineteen ninety seven my predecessor in the seat that I came to represent in redfish MP called gort maths or committed suicide and I received a phone call it that seemed aches from the chief whip of the Labour Party seeing this terrible news had broken and asked whether Tony Blair had asked if I would consider something in that seat so I recount that story no because time and chance play a huge part in and the life of politics that was an aplomb that was new organization not fully anticipated I would be but representing working people as a lawyer by November nineteen ninety seven I find myself elected in Russia for a seat held until two thousand and fifteen I have asked you this in sequence but Tony Blair and Bill Clinton are often thought of not just because they revive their parties but just in terms of style the same way did you see it that way did you see the similarities and talk to me about Blair and Brown the two prime ministers of that Labour government I think first of all the comparison between Clinton and leaders is well taken and important to understand not only did the achieve great success for the parties in the nineteen nineties and bring their party's back but the where probably the most effective communicators in British politics in American politics at the time and I think the we had a genuinely close probably still to this day have a close relationship but certainly when they were in office they work very closely together I remember one occasion when I was was twenty we're helping him prepare his remarks for the Scottish Labour Conference in Glasgow and two coal from the then President Clinton and Kim might of the bedroom we take in the coal laughing saying that the president just to clear that he was up to his ass in alligators which was not a phrase that either to him later I'd had for the fun cool but not since they were genuinely close when they were in office and the the both had transcendent political skills in taking their parties and to and to power in terms of the twenty of Lynn Gordon Brown relationship or really at the difference between them is personalities espresso is that Gordon Brown was very much you know a brilliant guy into the details but not with the same level of political dexterity of a love of Tony Blair listen to the booth individuals of tiring strengths and in that sense they were vey different politicians in the sense that you're right Gordon had an extraordinary ability to think deeply in terms of policy and their base they were an unbeatable combination actually I think the broad based in each other you know back in nineteen ninety that year that I sold them work so closely together I'm literally the final paps and Tony Blair would ask to speak to before repeating on the Today programme repeating a news link the main shows and television in the United Kingdom would be Gordon Brown and vice versa actually the cleavage that happened when in nineteen ninety four John Smith a labor leader of the time died and twenty Blair stepped up to become Labour leader and the rancor and division that that caused amongst some supporters on either side of that choice I was detached from because having seen them work so closely together I was at that point back in Edinburgh studying lol and soul I think one of the reasons that I had a good working relationship with both of them actually was I had I sold them at the base than understood that they were both deeply committed to the project of modernizing the Labour Party and that stood me in good stead in the years the full but in retrospect a lot of time and energy was wasted on what we called the T G P's the attentions on the disagreements that at times characterize the relationship at its base that creative tension was extraordinary creative and the government was better for it and it has forced the blade a low energy that could have been directed more useful elsewhere will win take a quick break and we'll be back with Douglas Alexander rocket mortgage by Quicken loans proudly supports the X Files when it comes to the big decision of choosing a mortgage lender it's important to work with someone you can trust leisure best interests in mind with rockin' mortgage you'll get a transparent online process that gives you the confidence you need to make an informed decision skip the bank of the waiting and go completely online at Quicken loans dot com slash X Files equal Housing lender license in all fifty states and MLS consumer access dot org Number thirty thirty assists let's move forward to the election night you and I experienced and a couple of other elections breaks and the one we just experienced here in the US because it seems as if they're of a piece in certain ways labor of lost badly in two thousand fifteen Ed Miliband was the leader of the party of and lost him in a way that nobody anticipated no polling anticipated how much is that part of the thread that we've seen through breaks it through Donald Trump selection how much of it is that these sort of deep divides between the City of London and rural and working class communities in Britain certainly we saw that between the metropolitan areas in rural and working class communities here in the U S What you're a student of of economics year student of the of of this country in Europe what's what's going on out there I think you're right that there is a threat if you like that connects the recent electoral politics on both sides of the Atlantic if I try and make sense of horror the commonalities I think there are three forces that have converged to create such disruption and two of the most established democracies on Afton the United States and in the United Kingdom I think it's the coming together of economic anger cultural anxiety and politically leaning sian I think as we reflect we will understand the financial crisis as profoundly disruptive not just to our economies but to our politics is will it try his best yet two thousand and eight I think I think indeed probably will win back in two thousand and eight as one of those years where people sense of how the world war changed you know it's up there with nineteen forty find with nineteen eighty nine more recently maybe back to nineteen twenty six is the hinge year when things change profoundly I think as well as the immense economic turbulence in effect that's had on people's living standards and economic security it trashed people's confidence in the powerful in banker certainly in regulators are also in politicians and pundits and experts and trash their confidence not just on the issue of competence but also on the issue of their motives and a lot of what's come to pass since then has its roots in the claps and trust that we've witnessed since the financial crisis so I think undoubtedly if you look at the Trump victory here in the United States so you look at the bricks result back on the twenty third of June in Britain you need to understand each of those forces first of all the real and genuine economic anger that a significant section of the population few who feel that they are working harder but still falling further behind the economy is rigged the rules are set by others who do play by those rules if you know we should talk about that before you move on to shut the I mean there are to this the financial crisis exacerbated that for sure but we live in these revolutionary times you know in technology is churning faster and faster for facilitating automation of jobs that once paid facilitating globalization that also costs jobs in some sectors creating us as strata of winners in a lot of folks who was pedaling faster and faster to keep to keep their place of business driving a lot of what we see absolutely I mean listen through history there's been fierce the technological innovation would lead to mass unemployment actually we've been incredibly innovative over the centuries in coming up with new forms of work my feeder the moment is that the pace of technological change is faster than the rate of human transition or societal transition so I don't buy the argument that sais is going to be new work in the future but I think many of the advanced economies are feeling to make the transition quickly enough to make sure that there is meaningful purposeful work and reasonable incomes for all of society rather than just some insight another big challenge there's kind of in the paradox is that it probably takes the catalytic power of government to to affect the kinds of changes that are necessary and as it comes at a time when confidence in government and all institutions as you point out are at historic lows so we need that but there's not the political the political momentum behind behind government to get big things done that race is one of the changes I think we've we've witnessed on both sides the Atlantic in recent years is ascendancy of a politics of anger you know I grew up with a politics where we had competing answers but it was incumbent on all sides of the political debate to offer answers for those answers to be tasted and scrutinize the debate and discourse I think one of the most worrying developments with the rise of xenophobia in populism and nationalism is we're seeing it to be is that we're seeing politicians women who aren't even really trying to offer answers they're trying to do is to amplify and channel the anger and actively as they are and that many people feel as a result the kind of economic changes that you've described that's why I think it's it's vital for progressive politicians to be addressing the need for policy but also securing permission to speak it needs to post the answers but also needs a sense of affinity a sense of authenticity in order of the progressive politics can can defeat the politics of anger that is certainly proving popular but I worry when actually improve the livelihoods of many of the people are supporting it to this day you know of pundits and I have graduated to the pundit class and took a beating in this election and I include myself in that group because there was this assumption that Hillary Clinton would win and you actually wrote a piece this summer in which you you raised warning signs about whether that was the case in your own part in recent weeks Hillary has maintained a lead of around four points in national polls however some individual state polls suggest Trump is edging ahead and after the two thousand and fifteen British general election in last month's referendum mean
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Ep. 97 - Douglas Alexander

The Axe Files with David Axelrod