Barry Gardiner: On taking on the media, his cult status and Labour's future
Barry’s Gardiner’s no-nonsense TV appearances made him one of the stars of the election – and left interviewers speechless. What next for Labour’s new cult hero? He talks to Kevin Schofield
If you’re ever bored and in need of some light relief, might I suggest you put in a search for ‘Barry Gardiner’ on YouTube.
The first page of results give you an immediate sense of what’s in store. ‘Barry Gardiner loses it after Tories given easy ride on immigration’ screams one description, alongside a freeze frame of the Labour MP with his eyes wide open and his mouth agape. ‘Barry Gardiner puts Michael Gove in his place!’ says another, while a third declares ‘Piers Morgan clashes with angry Labour MP’. There are plenty of others, but you get the gist.
During the general election, the shadow international trade secretary became a one-man Labour wrecking ball, going into battle on an almost daily basis against any journalist who he believed was traducing his party, or giving the Conservatives an easy ride.
The image, he insists, is entirely misleading. “I’m one of the least aggressive people you will ever meet,” he says as we sit in his cramped, airless office in Norman Shaw South. “I didn’t ever go into a studio for a fight. I always went in there to explain the policy.”
That may not have been the intention, but his pugnacious, no-nonsense style made him an instant hero with Jeremy Corbyn supporters convinced that Labour was unfairly treated by the hated mainstream media.
He first shot to prominence early on in the campaign, when he accused Sky’s Adam Boulton of letting Iain Duncan Smith “off the hook” over the Tories’ failure to hit their net migration target. “This is outrageous, you’re supposed to be holding him to account – you’re gonna do that to me,” said Gardiner as the doyen of political broadcasting struggled to get a word in.
Two months on, the MP for Brent North can look back and see the funny side. Sort of. “I sat there and listened to this and couldn’t believe my ears,” he says. “It was at the end of it, when he turned to me, I was just so astonished and speechless. This was their key manifesto pledge. They completely failed to meet it.
“So that first time was totally unscripted and then there were another couple of choppy ones.”
That’s certainly one way to describe it. His aforementioned tete-a-tete with Michael Gove is a must-watch, and it would be a harsh critic who claimed the Tory came out on top.
Thanks to social media, the clips quickly went viral, affording the softly-spoken Scot with the sort of fame he had never experienced in his 20 years in the Commons.
“I wasn’t aware of it at the beginning, but then I became aware of it because people were showing me clips,” he laughs.
“It made me feel slightly embarrassed. I like policy, I don’t like the cult of personality and that’s why I really disliked the way some of the reporters tried to slant the questioning as an attack on Jeremy personally. You’d be there to talk about Brexit or to talk about social services and suddenly you were talking about Jeremy.
“I never went in there to have an argument with people, I went in there to explain the policy and if they didn’t allow me to explain the policy I would say ‘look, sorry, you’re trivialising things’ because what matters to people out there isn’t this petty ‘who’s up, who’s down’, what matters to people is ‘is this going to affect me, is this going to affect my children’?”
Midway through the election campaign, Gardiner gave an interview to the notorious pro-Corbyn website Sqwawkbox. Often accused of publishing fake news, it is known to have links to the very top of the Labour party, and is viewed with suspicion – to put it mildly – by moderate MPs.
It appeared to be an attempt by Gardiner to redress the balance, to put his and the leadership’s message across on a sympathetic platform. The truth, he reveals, is much simpler.
“I didn’t know who Skwawkbox was,” he says. “Remember, you are talking to one of the people who has been least networked in this place for 20 years. The first I realised that this was in any way contentious was when I got an extremely abusive text message from one of my colleagues who said ‘the PLP will never forgive you for this’. I thought ‘who the hell is this Skwawkbox anyway’ and had to go away and look it up.
“My view is if somebody comes and asks me for my opinion, I’ll tell them honestly what my opinion is.”
Having overturned a 10,000 Tory majority on a swing of nearly 19% – the biggest of the 1997 election – to win the former Tory stronghold of Brent North, Gardiner knows a thing or two about campaigning. That’s one of the reasons why he didn’t buy into the pessimism which was obvious in Labour ranks in the run-up to June 8 – and why the exit poll wasn’t the shock it was for most of his parliamentary colleagues.
He says: “I hadn’t made any projection either publicly or privately and that was because there was something very different happening in this election in lots of different cross-cutting ways which made it impossible to read.
“The referendum and Brexit meant that you had sliced the electorate in a very different way and on top of that fracture in the electorate you also had a fracture which was a very new distinction between the parties. You had a Labour manifesto that was very clearly not traditional centre ground policy, it was a left-of-centre manifesto that was clearly appealing to lots and lots of people. You also had on top of that a disastrous Conservative campaign.
“When the exit poll came through I just said ‘OK, that’s good’. At the beginning of the campaign we were very much in defensive mode. I think people now feel that if we had been in more of an attack mode and been more confident, we could have got those extra seats that we needed.”
Many Labour supporters agree with the assessment of the political situation which Jeremy Corbyn made for Glastonbury founder Michael Eavis last weekend – that their leader will be prime minister by the end of the year.
But Gardiner is cautious. He refuses to speculate on when the next election will come, and insists Labour have much more work to do before they can start preparing for government.
He says: “What we need to do as a party is find out why in the East Midlands we didn’t get that swing back, and yet in other places like down in the south-west – places like Stroud for God’s sake – we saw those Leave voters coming back to us.
“The huge danger for Labour now is that we think that next time they’re going to run as bad a campaign as last time. The idea that they will not learn lessons from the disaster that was the Theresa May Party is inconceivable. They will be much tougher opponents next time.”
Given Labour’s better-than-expected election performance, it’s perhaps no surprise that Gardiner admits to “enjoying” his politics. It’s all a far cry from 12 months ago, when his fellow frontbenchers were quitting and a motion of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn was overwhelmingly passed by the PLP.
Looking back on those tumultuous days in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit referendum, Gardiner explains why he did not go along with the attempted coup.
“I just thought strategically it made no sense,” he says. “Here we had a Conservative prime minister who had called a referendum to bail out his own party, who had then lost that referendum and been forced to resign.
“The Conservative Party were in complete chaos that weekend, they were fighting like rats in a sack over who would succeed Cameron, the pound was at a 20-year low, the bottom had fallen out the stock market and yet some of our colleagues felt that the most important thing to do at that point was to start attacking each other.
“There was no way I could go along with that. We just weren’t doing our job as an opposition.”
The 60-year-old, who admits he never voted for Corbyn to become leader in 2015 but has never revealed who he did back, adds: “My loyalty is to the party. I wasn’t a Blairite, I wasn’t a Brownite, I wasn’t a Milibandista and I wasn’t a Corbynite.”
The sense of being a political outsider comes from his background, which he freely admits was not the “usual route” to becoming a Labour MP.
As a young man, Gardiner had planned to become an Episcopal priest, and was secretary of the Scottish Christian Movement. That took him and his wife to Pilton in Edinburgh – one of the locations which inspired Irvine Welsh to write Trainspotting – and while there, he helped lead council tenants’ protests against the Conservative-run local council.
After completing a degree in philosophy at St Andrews University, Gardiner went to Harvard for a year and from there moved to Cambridge to pursue a career in academia. Government cuts in the mid-1980s meant jobs were scarce, so he set up a business in the “niche” field of marine arbitration.
In 1988, he became a Labour councillor on Cambridge council, eventually becoming chair of its finance committee as well as its youngest ever mayor.
With the 1997 election on the horizon, he started looking for a seat and was chosen in Brent North – a seat Labour had not held, and had largely ignored, for 46 years. He became a minister in the Northern Ireland Office in 2004, moving to the Department for Trade and Industry after the 2005 election and DEFRA in 2006. Gordon Brown famously made Gardiner his special representative on forestry after becoming prime minister in 2007, but he left “by mutual consent” the following year after going public with his concerns about his fellow Scot’s leadership.
Ed Miliband brought him back onto the Labour frontbench, but it is under Jeremy Corbyn that his star has really risen. As well as the shadow international trade portfolio, Gardiner is also shadow climate change secretary. Despite Donald Trump resiling from the Paris Accord, he remains upbeat about the future of the planet, insisting that the rest of the world – and indeed US business – will effectively ignore the isolationist occupant of the White House.
On Brexit, he says Philip Hammond making the case for the economy and jobs to be put first as the UK seeks to strike a deal is vindication of the arguments Labour made during the election.
Gardiner believes there is a lesson there for his party as it tries to chart a course for power at the next election, whenever it may be.
“Right from the beginning we have had to think about how we bring the 52% and the 48% together,” he says. “The Lib Dems said very clearly ‘our electoral advantage lies with the 48%’, they were hoping for great things and they flopped. The Conservatives thought that by going for the 52% and hard Brexit all the way they would carry the election and get a majority of between 120 and 150. They actually lost seats.
“The lesson from that is don’t take people for granted, try to construct policy that you think is right for the whole country.”
After an election which made fools of every political pundit, who would bet against Barry Gardiner’s journey eventually taking him all the way to the Cabinet table?