Farage versus Clegg, an open invitation to phone Ed and intimations of mortality

Iain Dale's Diary.

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It was a privilege to attend Tony Benn’s funeral. Bearing in mind there were 750 people inside St Margaret’s, Westminster, it was still an intensely personal and intimate event. I was one of the first to arrive and decided to sit on my own, in the back row, off to the right-hand side of the church. From that vantage point I was amused to watch the various VIPs arrive and pretend they didn’t want to sit at the front. Much has been written about the wonderful tributes paid by three of Tony Benn’s children. I feel uncomfortable when people applaud in a church, even though I’m an agnostic, but on this occasion it was appropriate. I delivered the eulogy at my mother’s funeral two years ago and thought I had done her justice, but it was nothing compared to the tributes given by Stephen, Hilary and Melissa. They ensured that we all emulated their father’s famous tendency to become lachrymose.

At that moment I thought of Ruth Winstone, his dear friend and editor of all eight volumes of the Benn diaries. When I interviewed her on the day of Tony’s death, she ended the interview by telling me: “Tony really liked you, Iain. He thought you were a brilliant entrepreneur.” Like Tony, I’m a bit of a blubber, but I just about managed to compose myself and bid her farewell.

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Tony would have enjoyed the Clegg v Farage EU debate hosted by LBC last week. Why? Because it really seemed to engage people in politics. I hosted the pre-match build-up and post-match commentary and we were deluged with people tweeting and texting message such as this one from Chris in Hastings: “These live debates are great. I’m a youngish voter and politics has always been stale in my eyes. However, the live debating really brings it into the limelight and gives it energy.”

Can there be any doubt that there will be TV debates before and during the next general election campaign? If Ukip tops the polls in the European election (as I expect it to) the case for excluding Nigel Farage from the 2015 debates will become ever weaker. The Conservatives say the participants should be those who could become prime minister. This is an argument that holds little water: we operate not a presidential, but a parliamentary democracy.

My preference would be for one debate during the campaign, between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, and another one featuring the leaders of any party standing candidates in 95 per cent of the seats throughout the United Kingdom. And, after the success of the second Clegg-Farage debate this week, I am sure that LBC would be delighted to host both events!

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When you get to my ripe old age of 51, you start attending more funerals than weddings. Having been to Tony Benn’s on Thursday, I was in Brighton a day later to attend the funeral of a dear friend, Corinne de Souza. Streaming with a cold, I sat in the chapel contemplating the horrible unfairness of her being taken at the age of 58.

Every detail of her funeral was planned, Corinne having had six months to do so since being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. She was a woman of decidedly left-of-centre views, which led to some vigorous debates between the two of us. As the coffin was carried out of the chapel to the strains of the Gipsy Kings singing “Volare”, I felt a profound sense of my own mortality.

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The theory goes that we all get more right-wing as we get older. Not in my case, it seems. I was at Attitude magazine’s 20th-anniversary party on Saturday 29 March when I was told by someone I hadn’t met before: “I couldn’t believe it when I was told you had been a Tory candidate. You’re so left-wing on the radio!” My producer, Matt Harris, keeps telling me he thinks I am inexorably moving towards being a fellow Blairite. Well, all I can say is, it’s news to me. All I can think is it must be because I’m fairly liberal on most social issues.

On prison reform, for instance, I am as wet as a lettuce. I incurred Chris Grayling’s wrath for signing the Howard League for Penal Reform’s letter on books in prisons, for instance. Call me a raving lefty but I happen to believe that prison ought to be as much about rehabilitation as punishment. I have become critical of the police. Does that make me left-wing? I don’t think so. I think people should be allowed a spare room without being penalised financially: I must be a commie.

In fact, terms such as “left-wing” and “right-wing” have started to lose their meaning. Just as more and more people fail to identify with conventional political parties, they are also moving away from political labels.

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Hosting a four-hour phone-in show every day inevitably makes you question some long-held views. I would defy anyone to sit in front of a microphone and not be affected by a stream of devastatingly emotional stories. This is why the phone-ins we do with politicians on LBC – Call Clegg, Phone Farage, Ask Boris, Balls Calls, Call Chuka, Tickle Pickles, Harangue Harriet (OK, we haven’t quite got the right names for the last two) – are so successful. They allow people to interact with politicians and to engage with them. Even when I do shows with relatively unknown junior ministers the lines are very busy. Clegg makes headlines with his phone-in with Nick Ferrari every week.

Perhaps it is time for Ed Miliband to take up the open invitation he’s had for the past year to do the same with me. He needs to show his human side to an electorate which, according to focus groups, views him as a bit “weird”. Those who know him know something rather different.

Come on, Ed. You know you want to. You never know, you might even persuade me to vote for you. But then again . . .

Iain Dale hosts “Drive” on LBC Radio every weekday (4pm-8pm)

This article appears in the 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

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