In the first of our Election 2015 special interviews, we speak to Iain Dale, the Drivetime show presenter on LBC Radio, on the importance of broadcast during the campaign, the dangers of ad hominem attacks on politicians and why PRs should avoid a scattergun approach when pitching to the station.
By way of background, tell us about your role at LBC and the remit of your show.
I have been presenting LBC’s Drivetime show for two years now. It’s a four hour show from 4-8pm every weekday. Our remit is to cover the big news stories of the day, and take phone calls from listeners on those stories. We interrogate those in power, and like to think we make the news as well as report it.
Is there anything you can tell us about the kind of content you will be running over the course of the General Election campaign?
I can’t reveal too much at the moment, but LBC has made its name on its political coverage in the last two years so you can be sure that we will be at the very centre of the election campaign. We also have very big plans for election night itself and will give the BBC a run for their money!
How can PRs be of help during this time?
We’ll always be looking for something different, that no one else will be covering. Don’t scattergun us with releases. Respect our format and respect the fact that although we are a newstalk station all the daytime shows have their clear differences.
We are told that the electorate is more disengaged than ever, and yet LBC – with a very political slant – has made a big impact since becoming a national broadcaster in January 2014. What do you put this down to?
It is true that voters seem to be disengaged from party politics, but not politics in general. They relate to issues rather than parties. They are fed up with the way party politicians present themselves and their beliefs. They see them as all the same, even if that accusation is rather unfair. Politicians seem remote from people’s daily lives, but our phone-ins give people the opportunity to give their views and put politicians on the spot.
How have communications around politics changed since the last General Election?
Social media is far more important than in 2010. Twitter will matter in a way it didn’t in 2010. This won’t be the ‘internet’ election – TV will still be far more important, but the internet will help UKIP and the Greens in a way that it won’t the other parties.
In the age of social media, what kind of role can radio broadcasting play in a General Election campaign?
People turn to the radio for breaking news. But our role goes far wider than that. We’re best equipped to do the reaction to the debates. We can be far more nimble than TV and especially on LBC we’re quite willing to throw out plans and start again if the need demands it. Radio is a far more intimate medium and politicians can easily be lulled into a false sense of security. They have longer to explain themselves, especially on LBC and that can lead to the unexpected happening.
What do you see as being the defining issues during the upcoming campaign?
Elections usually come down to the economy, but I think in this election Labour will try to make the future of the NHS the centrepiece of its campaign. I think general dissatisfaction with politicians and the political process will come to the fore during the campaign and any party leader who manages to tap into that is likely to be successful.
How prominent and effective do you think negative campaigning will be?
I think this will be the dirtiest campaign in living memory between the main two parties. Subtle negative campaigning can work but the voter has to buy into it. The Tory Demon Eyes campaign didn’t work in 1997 because no one really saw Blair as the devil. The Tories will portray Miliband as Neil Kinnock reincarnated and Labour will concentrate on a class based campaign. The electorate will be appalled and that’s where the three other parties may well gain support as the campaign progresses.
Is there a danger that increased and ad hominem media scrutiny on politicians dehumanises them and homogenises the political message?
The media really needs to examine its own role in the continuing decline of respect for politicians. Clearly it is the politicians who are mostly to blame but interviewers who go into interviews with the attitude of “why is this bastard lying to me” do themselves and the whole body politic a real disservice. Scrutiny is important but good manners cost nothing in an interviewer.
There’s every likelihood that should there be a decisive winner at the election, they will have in and around 35% of the total vote. Is it time to change the voting system to better reflect our splintered politics?
I think the result of the election will indeed lead to calls for electoral reform, but the trouble is no one has yet come up with a system of PR that really maintains the same kind of constituency relationship MPs and their constituents currently have. But if Labour and the LibDems form a coalition, that may be the LibDem price.
Will fixed-term parliaments remain? Are you in favour of them?
I used to run the Campaign for Fixed Term Parliaments so in principle, yes. However, I think they should be for 4, not 5 years. I don’t think it is democratic for a Prime Minister to call an election at a time of his own choosing, which inevitably means at the point he is most likely to win.
Do you think broadcasters should be able to nail their colours to the mast – as in US – or is it important during an election campaign to be balanced?
I think balance in public service broadcasters is important, but I see no problem at all with commercial broadcasters taking an editorial line, just as newspapers do. However, current Ofcom rules prevent this, so you’ll find LBC adhering strictly to a non partisan stance!
What outcome do you think the country will wake-up to on May 8?
It’s incredibly difficult to predict, but I’ll put my neck on the line and predict that neither of the two largest parties will be able to form a coalition unless they can persuade two other parties to take part. Labour’s biggest nightmare is losing a shed load of seats to the SNP in Scotland and the Tories nightmare is that UKIP hold the balance of power with 5-10 seats. At the moment I think Labour and the Tories will both be on around 280-290 seats, with the LibDems on 20-25. Polls predict the SNP may have up to 45 seats (up from 6!) but I would treat these predictions with extreme caution.
Looking ahead, who are your MPs to watch for the 2020 General Election?
My five Labour stars of the next five years are Chuka Umunna, Stella Creasey, Liz Kendall, Lucy Powell and Owen Smith. On the Tory side I’d pick Nicky Morgan, Sajid Javid, Esther McVey (if she holds on to her seat), Zac Goldsmith and Claire Perry. On the LibDem side, well it depends how many of them are left, but expect Norman Lamb and Julian Huppert to be key players.
Iain was speaking to Gorkana’s Ronan George