I have almost certainly written more letters and emails as Vince Cable than I have as myself. Back in late 2006/early 2007, I spent four months of my gap year as an intern in his Westminster office. My main job was to draft replies to correspondence for him. Me and another intern would print out our drafts, so there was a big pile of them for him to either sign or make amendments to when he came into the office.
That does not make me a close confidant of his or anything approaching it.
Dozens of other people will have filled the same role since I did. I have spoken to him
So what did I learn from working for the new Lib Dem leader?
His public persona is pretty close to the one he presents in a professional setting
If you are expecting anything shocking from this post, you are going to be disappointed. Basically, nothing I saw him do or say jarred with the impression I’d formed from seeing him on the telly.
If you ‘judge a man by how he treats his waiter’ then the judgement on the new Lib Dem leader is positive.
Researchers, interns and caseworkers are the proverbial waiters of Westminster. I heard stories of them being yelled at, given impossible instructions and expected to do strange things unrelated to their job description. Indeed, the waiter comparison is not entirely figurative: one researcher apparently had to wait their boss’ dinner party.
However, none of these stories were about Vince. The people who worked for all seemed to like and respect him, and felt in turn that he respected them. I’d be lying if I said his employees never griped about him – that’s what employees do about their employers – however, the tone of these complaints tended to be affectionate rather than seriously aggrieved, more like pointing out a foible than anything else.
Having a rather distant relationship with technology does not prevent you becoming the Cabinet minister responsible for it
Of those foibles, the one that stands out in my memory is his relationship to technology. I recall another member of staff saying with mild exasperation that ‘he theoretically understands what you can do with computers, but not how’.
The best symbol of this attitude was probably his mobile phone, which he’d kept despite it being several years old, and having a cracked screen, because ‘he knew how to use it’.
This seems rather ironic given that he went on to be Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills which had responsibility for science and technology. He was by all accounts pretty good at that aspect of the job, so maybe specific subject knowledge isn’t all that important a quality in a minister.
Delegation is the heart of good management
His attitude to both his Westminster and Twickenham offices seemed to be to pick people he liked and trusted to run them, and let them get on with it.
Politicians should emphasise common ground (even with people they disagree with)
As an awkward but ‘intellectually self-assured’ teenager my inclination was to reply to emails expressing illiberal views with a forthright explanation of why the correspondent was mistaken. When Vince rewrote these letters, he’d not only tone them down, but also look for points on which he and letter writer did agree, and put them up top. This seemed to make our correspondents less defensive and more open to changing their minds.
It turns out that ‘to tell someone they’re wrong, first tell them how they’re right’ is a well-established approach that’s been discussed since at the 17th century, when the philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote about it, and is now backed up by psychological research.
When I later read that Vince had met his second wife when she asked him a critical question about his views on farm subsidies at a Lib Dem event that didn’t surprise me all that much.
It is really hard to explain things to voters without talking down to them
Because Vince was at the time Shadow Chancellor, a lot of the messages I drafted were to do with economics. I had done an A-level in the subject and was going to study it at uni, so I had been reading an awful lot about it. Thus many of my answers, incorporated the kind of “imagine we both have three burgers and four bananas…” metaphors that are a staple of popular economics writing. Vince would invariably take them out again because they come across as patronising. Explaining positions on complicated issues like economic policy with clarity but without seeming like you are lecturing voters is really tough. Vince has that ability. Not many other people do.
I may still have a career as a ghost writer ahead of me
When I started my internship, the drafts I was writing would have been equally applicable to any Lib Dem MP. They would often come back with a note from Vince outlining a personal touch he wanted added to the final message.
By the end of the internship, I had seen hundreds of such notes, and more often than not I could add these ‘personal’ touches myself before Vince ever saw a draft. The example that springs to mind was beginning an email on the ivory trade with something like: ‘Having lived in Kenya for a number of years, I have a deep respect for these magnificent animals…’
Even if you ignore Vince’s political career, his life has been genuinely eventful
There was a lot of material for these personal asides. He came from a working-class family, he was the father of three children, his father disowned him for marrying someone who wasn’t white and it was years before they were reconciled, he lost his first wife to cancer, he was in the Ibrox stadium during the deadly stampede that killed 66 people, he worked for the Kenyan government, he was chief economist at Shell, and that was all before he was a contestant on Strictly!
The impact of your email to your MP has will be proportionate to the time you put into producing it
Most of the emails Vince received were the product of campaigns by pressure groups and charities. These generally involved getting people to put their name and email address into an online form that would then automatically generate an email to their MP. The result was that we got many identical emails. I remember one email, the sender of which had neglected to delete a line saying ‘<Add details of your personal experience here. It will make more impact on your MP if you do>’. Another came in with a note saying, ‘apologises for sending a standard email, I hope you won’t mind’. I was tempted to start the reply with ‘Not at all. I trust you will not mind receiving a standard reply’.
And that’s the problem with sending an MP the same email as a dozen other people. You will all get the same reply. Each additional message requires very little from the MP who receives it and its impact will be limited.
If you really care about an issue, compose your own unique email. It shows far more commitment than does typing your name and email into a website. Furthermore, it is very possible that your MP and his/her staff will produce a reply specifically your message. That involves them spending additional time thinking about the issue you raised. It’s obviously harder, but there’s a payoff to doing it.
There is a definite pre/post ‘Stalin to Mr Bean’ switch in how well-known Vince was
Before, during and for a few months after I did my internship, if people asked me which MP I had worked for, my answer would leave them blank. Then came Vince’s stint as interim Lib Dem leader and the PMQs that included his jibe that in just a few weeks, Gordon Brown had gone ‘from Stalin to Mr. Bean, creating chaos out of order, rather than order out of chaos.’*
Suddenly not only did anyone who read a broadsheet paper know who he was, but I enjoyed (unearned) kudos from my association. Strangely, the fury over the tuition fees hike – for which he was the Cabinet member responsible – only partially dented this.
Vince was a remarkably diligent correspondent
I don’t know what the situation is like now, but in 2006/07 if you wrote Vince an email you would get a reply even if:
1) You didn’t live in Twickenham;
2) You were writing about something he couldn’t really help you with and in which he’d never taken a particular interest;
3) You weren’t clear about what you wanted; and
4) You weren’t polite about it.
Indeed, if you replied to that reply, you could find yourself exchanging multiple emails.
At the time, I didn’t understand why he devoted so much effort to randomers. My answer came a few years later, when Susan Kramer, then MP for a constituency that bordered Vince’s, came to speak to my university Lib Dem society. She recounted Vince telling her that shortly after he was first elected, a Labour MP who had been in parliament for ages, warned him against replying to letters because ‘it only encourages the bastards’. I now interpret Vince’s studious replying as the sign of a determination to be a very different kind of MP.
*Despite the brutality of that put down, my impression is that he actually respected and liked Brown.