If you're not a Conservative, you don't like that speech. Having said that, I've had lots of Labour people saying “great speech; passionate; that's the sort of person we know - you say what you think, and that's what people like,” and, virtually to a man and woman, every Conservative said “fantastic speech; we've had it on a loop; we've watched it several times; we wish we'd said it at our count, because that's the way we were feeling.”
Where else would an interview with Stewart Jackson start, but with that speech. To those of us suffering from severe caffeine-depletion at 3am on election night, the footage of him lambasting a set of booing Labour acolytes as he accepted his victory was akin to a triple espresso delivered intravenously. If you haven’t had the pleasure, watch this - it’s well worth the one minute and 53 seconds.
We meet in Jackson’s Westminster office. It seems odd to find the impassioned Conservative MP caged up in the bureaucratic hub of Portcullis House - you get the feeling he would much rather be out and about, interacting with constituents and getting things done, rather than being cooped up away from the action.
The first thing that strikes you about Jackson is his frankness. There is a refreshing honesty about him - an openness and willingness to speak his mind. The unbridled passion evident in his now-viral speech is still there, bubbling under the surface, but it is masked with a more refined political tone, thoughtful and measured, a stark contrast to the bullish assertiveness of election night.
As we settle down - he on a sofa, relaxed but alert, I on a chair by his desk - conversation predictably turns to the speech. Half-expecting a brutal diatribe against his local Labour party, it’s a slight surprise to hear Jackson describe the majority of the campaign as being, with the exception of one hustings, “reasonably civilised, and conducted in a friendly way on the basis of mutual respect.” The heckling, he informs me, was the result of a small subset of “Labour supporters who were vitriolic; who had somehow convinced themselves that they had beaten me; that they'd won the seat; and they were working themselves up into a frenzy.”
On modern politics:
I think one of the lessons of politics in recent years is that the age of tribes where...it didn't matter who you were; what you looked like; what your name was - you were going to get elected because of your party label - that's gone. Politics now is much more transactional: “What’s this guy going to do for me? Is he going to get my granny's hip operation? Is he going to get my child into a good school? Is he going to help our community where our post offices are being closed?” Fewer people are voting, but i would say more of them are sophisticated enough to make rational decisions about the contribution you're making as the local MP.
On the electorate:
It's very important for politicians not to infantilise the electorate, or to patronise them, or to assume that they're stupid, because they’re not, and they value authentic people who say what they think, and they repay that honesty by voting for you (generally).
On MP wages:
One of the issues around MPs’ pay is unless you pay people a decent wage you are going to have a parliament of political anoraks, mad people, or people who are super wealthy, or people who are supported almost wholly by the trade unions, and that would not be an accurate reflection of the wider electorate. Do you want a regency parliament, or do you want a modern parliament which attracts good people from right across the income spectrum and from all backgrounds.
On the Labour campaign:
Labour locally - as they did nationally - ran a really downbeat, negative campaign, which was a core vote strategy based around food banks, zero hours contracts, the NHS on its last legs - “only days to save the NHS.”
I'm positive and optimistic - I think the EU referendum will potentially see the demise of UKIP, if the Conservative party can reunite after the referendum around things that people do care about - I'm not saying they don’t care about Europe - but principally people care about their mortgage, about their savings, their pensions, their public services.
On Stewart Jackson:
Maverick. Principled (I hope). Grounded.
Many politicians would have, and indeed many have, simply tried to ignore the boorish behaviour and get through their planned statements, and Jackson had such a speech ready to go: “a quite measured, reasonable victory speech where I thanked the returning officer, the police, my wife, my team.” Then the boos started. “I felt that it was completely unacceptable - their language, their demeanour, their frankly aggressive and obnoxious conduct, and I thought well, I'm going to give them a little bit of a home truth, or some home truths, and I did feel it was necessary to do that.”
It is that inclination to stand up and make some noise, and not sit quietly in the background, that makes Jackson such an interesting politician. It all comes back to his passion - a reoccurring theme throughout our conversation - and its utility in contesting a particularly tough seat: Peterborough. He’s no stranger to adversity, having had his initial advances toward Parliament rejected by the voters of first Brent South (1997), and then Peterborough (2001), before eventually wresting control of the latter from Labour in 2005. He has now held the seat for the a third consecutive term, and, quite rightly, his face lights up with pride when that fact arises.
Jackson is swift to point out that “it's not an easy, leafy, home counties seat” - it’s anything but - and he backs that up with the rather surprising revelation that he has “fewer white British constituents - who are the bedrock of the Conservative support - than they do in Derby South, in Nottingham South, in Dewsbury, in Halifax, in Huddersfield - all strong labour seats.” No wonder he’s proud, then, of his political record there. He happily defers praise, though, to his “brilliant and hardworking, dedicated campaign team,” who had to contend with a Labour effort that had spent £100,000 in the three years leading up to the General Election, as well as an Ashcroft poll that had him losing his seat the week before the vote. It’s a testament to the man’s character that, rather than dampening his spirits, he speaks of how those kicks in the teeth “concentrated [his] mind…allowed [him] to refocus and do things in a slightly different way - principally getting the UKIP voters back on board - and it worked.”
Whilst the passion is ubiquitous, there’s much more to Stewart Jackson as a politician. It takes a fair amount of political wit and historical acumen to seamlessly weave century-old anecdotes (the Liberal MP who won Peterborough in 1906 having “his carriage set on fire outside the Angel Hotel in Peterborough by a baying mob - and he'd won the seat!”), references to Maastricht, thoughts on Blair, and a list of the previous jobs of Tory MPs into the dialogue of a half hour interview.
It is passion, however, that returns to the fore as we discuss the Tory campaign, and what the Conservatives have to achieve in order to succeed in 2020 and beyond. Whilst Jackson speaks of being “independently-minded” and of having “a brand,” it is clear that this is a man who bleeds blue. His pace quickens and tone rises as he discusses “the irony” of Labour characterising the Conservatives “as being out of touch,” and he triumphantly asserts that it was the Tories who were the ones “talking to businesses” and talking to “voters who were seeing their pay rises going through” and “seeing more jobs” and “infrastructure coming on stream”.
After their “relentlessly negative campaign”, he argues, Labour are “in a mess in terms of personnel, their leadership, their policies, their whole sense of who they are,” and because of that the Conservatives have “an opportunity to move onto the ground that the Labour party are bequeathing” with groups previously unsympathetic to the Tory cause, specifically the traditional problem areas of 16-24 year olds, and ethnic minority voters (he points out that the polls show that although “the Conservatives are doing better with hindu and sikh voters…we’re still doing badly amongst muslim voters”). The Conservatives can do this, he opines, through genuinely engaging those groups without condescension or political fluff, as “people are many things, but they are not stupid, and they can see through inauthentic politicians and phonies.” If Labour continue to “retreat into their comfort zone…saying 'the electorate got it wrong, and we should change the electorate because we got it right'” then that shows a “lack of respect” and if they fail to challenge “their pre-conceptions, they're going to be losing the next general election as well.”
Before our time expires and Jackson hustles off to a media appearance (the first of a long list of afternoon appointments), we manage to briefly discuss Europe. He is a vocal Eurosceptic, and when questioned about the atmosphere within the party it is interesting to hear him maintain that “there is still a lot of good will” and that Cameron “has a lot of political capital in the bank, and the vast bulk of members of the parliamentary party want his negotiations to succeed.” This isn’t the Conservatives of 2012-13, when “there was a real sense of fractiousness and disunity in the parliamentary party” as the Prime Minister pushed through gay marriage, or 1992 and Maastricht, where “the party was almost split right in half between europhiles and eurosceptics” - the Tories are now, “more or less, a wholly eurosceptic party, that’s the settled consensus.” He is, however, concerned about the issue of purdah (he voted against the government the previous week to “put a marker in the sand”), “because if the ‘Yes’ side wins by say 56% to 44%, it wouldn’t do anyone any good if we have a Scotland style situation where people said it wasn’t a level playing field; there was cheating; the government was misusing taxpayers' money.” With those (reasonably) positive statements on the referendum hanging in the air, we finish. There's just enough time for a quick check-in with his enthusiastic staff, and once the afternoon's diary has been relayed to him he strolls out of Portcullis House into the June sunshine.
In the interests of symmetry, I’ll leave you with a quote from the man himself, emphasising his political approach:
Politics is about passion. I'm not some vanilla, careerist greaser. I think it's important that you have a moral imperative in politics - it’s great to hear the Prime Minister and Iain Duncan Smith talking about the moral imperative of tackling welfare dependency and getting people into work, because the lesson of ’97 - the reason that we ceased to be a viable political party then - is because we gave up on that passion; on changing our country; on making peoples' lives better; on having a moral imperative for everything we did; and we just became bean-counters and glorified civil servants.