I spoke to Dom Morris, the Conservative prospective MP for Exeter, on the upcoming election.
One.// You have had a very interesting career, working with NATO and the Foreign Office in conflict areas across the world. What made you decide to become a Prospective Parliamentary Candidate (PPC)?
Two things – one was a personal feeling. I was in Helmand and I realised that we’d got ourselves into a right mess and a lot of that was about career politicians not understand what life looks like outside Westminster. A classic example there is this sense that John Reed – the Labour secretary of state that marched us into Helmand, in his press released seemed to think that we would go in there without firing a single shot and actually anybody who knows their history – you only have to read one book about Afghanistan and Helmand and the Pashtun tribes to understand that that’s just never going to happen. I just think that this career politician thing has just done democracy a disservice, so that’s my personal take on things. And then I got back and it’s quite difficult to readjust afterwards, the expenses scandal was breaking and all of a sudden I realised that people felt the same way as I did – the distrust in politicians, the disconnect between the West Country and Westminster and all the rest. It wasn’t just me, so I could either just moan or I could do something about it. I got on the candidates list and the rest is history. Paraphrasing my Real People for Parliament, that’s what my campaign is about, and I decided to give up my career and give it a whirl.
Two.// What would you consider your biggest success so far?
Successes – I think it’s quite difficult as a candidate because don’t really have any responsibilities and official powers, so it’s quite difficult to be judged on your achievements in a sense that we’ve just been campaigning for a year. I think trying to challenge this disconnect between Westminster and West Country – we knock on 3000 doors a month, we knock on more doors than any other campaign in the south west, so it’s about reconnecting with voters. Everywhere we go regardless of the reception we get from people, the majority are very happy to talk about politics. So starting that reconnection has been very important. We’ve had a few campaign successes around my war on Weeds which won’t be on student’s radars but there are areas of the city where it looks like Day of the Triffids because the local council and the county council fell out about weed control and we just went out and started chopping them down. People started tweeting us photos and called them ‘rate my weeds’ and took volunteer teams out and got amongst it with a spade and all that sort of stuff, and now the councils are talking again, there was measure of weed control and the city doesn’t look quite so unkempt. I think also a big achievement is sat there [gestures towards sofa] in the form of John Harvey. I think for a while Exeter felt like a Labour City and all of a sudden big names and big decision makers like John have decided to represent the Conservative party and stand for councillors. I think there’s a bit of a shift in politics going on locally. Yeah, and I think lots of small things like we’re starting to challenge the council on their spending and this whole – they’ve been complaining about not having the money for unis and that’s supposedly all down to the conservatives and the devilish conservative government and now they’ve found £20m to build a swimming pool and I don’t think that’s the most important thing, I think part of my 6 point plan is about services.
Three.// You mentioned people tweeting you, would you say that social media has been a big help to your campaign?
I think social media is brilliant. Real people for parliament is all about reconnecting Westminster and the West Country and you do that in several different ways depending on who you’re talking to. And there’s no substitute for door knocking but social media, particularly for young people and younger demographics is where people spend their time and where they get their news from. I don’t think – some candidates go a bit over the top and do all of their campaign on social media – and as long as you run a good campaign and communicate that through social media it can really help. It’s part of, but it shouldn’t be the primary concern of the campaign.
Four.// Should you get elected, what would you like to be able to say is your biggest success in 5 years?
I was thinking about this. My plan for Exeter from here is all about making Exeter extraordinary, and I think what that’s about is – when we came in in 2010 there was a government – the wheels were falling off the economy nationally and locally, so in the last 6 months of the Labour government in Exeter there were 2000 people made unemployed. It wasn’t going particularly well. Since then, nationally we’ve set the conditions for the economy to recover, the country is creating more new jobs than the rest of Europe put together and what that looks like in Exeter is that unemployment has come down by 62%. I think there’s more that could be done, I think there need to be more and better paid jobs than there are in Exeter, and I think that’s probably how I’d see making Exeter extraordinary; raising the average wage, making more professional jobs, bringing more businesses in, and encouraging companies to come from other areas of the country… and I think that other bits of my Plan for Exeter is 6 points – managing and growing things right. So I think Exeter is going to do quite well over the next five years but with that comes challenges, and challenges around infrastructure, so with growth comes more traffic, more pressure on our creaking infrastructure which is very Victorian so we need to do something about that. Housing – jobs being created, people moving here and business moving here, it all means we need more housing. Houses need to be managed in the right place and they also need to have the company infrastructure with it and the basic service provision. Where you have more houses, you need more school places, for example. I think where we set ourselves aside as different is that the city council has built a lot of houses here and they get a new homes bonus for each house which is going to be 18m over 6 years, and a substantial part of that new homes bonus is going on the city council’s swimming pool. I’m sorry, but a swimming pool is not going to help this city absorb the new houses and new people that need a growing infrastructure.
Five.// What are you doing locally to support small retailers and local businesses?
I think the first thing is that we as a city – in the city council the conservatives are not in power so we have a very limited ability to do things to support local businesses. Nationally, of course there’s a conservative-led government and we’ve set the conditions for business to thrive. The conservatives believe that it’s as much about letting people, entrepreneurs and businesses get on doing business and the government stepping back and taking away barriers so things like the changes to national insurance and encouraging people to employ. I think we spend £2000 in Exeter getting rid of red tape and then locally, I’ve had my photos taken with the Exeter pound keeping money in the community and with small businesses, then our local city council manifesto which is out is pro-business, pro-jobs et cetera.
Six.// How can we encourage more business growth and essential services to local communities?
Most of my answer for this is the same as above; set the national conditions then follow through locally, but one issue is with business rates. There is an issue with business rates in the city. [If you got elected, what would you do to combat that?] My understanding is that national recognition that business rates need to be re-evaluated, need to on a national level, and that that’s going to happen after the election and I’d champion that, because rates need to come down.
Seven.// Now, onto a hot topic for the electorate: what’s your opinion on the UK’s relationship with the European Union?
My take on our relationship with the EU is that our relationship is broken. It needs to be fundamentally redefined, I’m a farmer’s son and I look at politics in a very cynical way. It’s about accountability and when politicians make decisions I want to know where their houses are, so I can spread my muck on it. The point about Europe is we don’t know who’s making these decisions, nobody knows who their MEPs are, nobody knows who the European Commission is… there’s a fundamental lack of accountability and a real democratic deficit, and nobody under the age of 56 has had a say on Europe and I think that’s wrong. We’re one of the oldest, most successful parliaments in the world and Labour gave away our sovereignty and they gave away our borders. [Do you think it would be sensible in the current international political climate, with the threat of Putin and things like that, to change our position in Europe, or even leave?] I don’t see the two as directly connected. One is about our sovereignty and the way decisions are made in this country, and the other is about Russian expansionism. I don’t see the two as linked. If you’re going to ask me about NATO membership and NATO commitment then that’s a different discussion. Right, I think if I’m understanding your question right, it’s the Labour argument that the Conservatives are creating uncertainty about Europe, I think it’s really important to make it clear that the Conservatives aren’t capable of creating discontent with Europe. The discontent exists, and we’re representing the public’s genuine concern with Europe. I mean, people are frustrated! We hear genuine concern on the doorstep all the time. And countering this idea that the Conservatives are creating uncertainty, the Eurozone is creating its own uncertainty, and it’s having a pretty existential crisis. Look at what’s happening in Greece, you’ve got a German sphere of influence going down to the Mediterranean, the Greeks don’t like it very much, and it’s tearing itself apart because you can’t have monetary union without fiscal union. It’s just not possible, so this whole ‘you started it’ thing is just nonsense. People are frustrated with Europe full stop, and we’re the only mainstream party that are offering people a say, and renegotiating and redefining our relationship.
Eight.// We are committed to spending billions on replacing Trident – looking back on the changing style of conflict after the end of the Cold War, do you feel that maintaining this expensive deterrent is justified or do you think that money would better be spend on equipping our armed forces to deal with today’s threats such as extremism, as well as ensuring our troops have the proper equipment for the theatre of operations they find themselves in?
The way the left approach things is they decide how much to spend on something and that determines their success. We’ve spend x billion on welfare this year, therefore we’re a good Labour Conservative government. The Conservatives look at spending a totally different way – what do we want to do, what’s our strategy and how much do we want to spend. In 2010 we grabbed our defence portfolio, said we’re going to have a strategic and defence review, what the world looks like, what we want to do, how much we need money and troops wise to get it done. I can’t second guess the 2016 defence review, I’m not smart enough to know what it will say, but my take on it is that we’ll probably need both Trident, troops, but also slightly different or more heavily resourced cyber capability. So you’ve got an expansionist Russia which is old symmetrical warfare which needs Trident and deterrent. You’ve then got Islamic State which is at the other end of the warfare spectrum, very much counter insurgency, very much a political operation with troops in support. And that’s an argument for having a breadth of security spending in the portfolio. I think it’s really interesting that 75% of Labour candidates selected this year are against Trident, I think that says it all about where the Labour Party are at the moment in terms of their lurch to the left. The entirety of the security view of Europe is underlined by NATO and the nuclear deterrent, pro-Europeans will tell you that Europe hasn’t been at war in 60 years because of the EU – nonsense. It’s because of the deterrent of the NATO article 5 treaties, and Trident underpins all of that. You see the Americans becoming more nervous about the Europeans and their ability to underwrite their collective agreement, and I think you need Trident and the troops.
Nine.// The under-24 group was the lowest demographic turnout in the 2010 General Election with only 44% voting. How do you propose to tackle this political apathy and disillusionment among young people?
I think it’s really interesting because nationally you look at the numbers and they tell you young people aren’t engaged, but all of my experience in Exeter says we have 5 or 6 interns coming in every day, most of them are under 22, on the doorstep young people want to talk politics, at the university young people want to talk politics, my campaign, the backbone of it is a very young demographic. So, nationally I get the argument, but all of my experience in the city says young people love politics and want to engage, and you see that on Facebook, on campus, on the doorstep. So I’d be very surprised if only 44% of young people voted in Exeter. My campaign is massively engaging young people so I’m at the university 2 to 3 times a week. [I was there for your debate on ISIS, the deb soc one.] Oh dear! How did I do? You’ve got to be honest. [The other team was abysmal, for a start. I thought it was quite good, it got quite interesting and hard to follow lines of argument, but I liked the fact that you were actually participating.] How would you score me out of 10? [8, there’s always room for improvement!]
Ten.// There are still young people who aren’t engaged, such as my flatmates, so what do you propose to do to engage them? It seems as though they’ve just given up on the entire system.
I think you have to be the change you want to see, and that’s all about engagement. People see you and have to see that you’re a real person, so you have to work on engagement, you have to be part of the solution, and be anywhere and everywhere. I mean I’m going to two college next week to talk to young people, and it’s all about challenging conceptions. At a National Union of Teachers debate I turned round and said my mum brought me up to say I don’t know what I don’t know, and the thing that annoys me the most about career politicians is when they don’t know the answer but they give out the spiel and the corporate language to save their backs, when actually we’re only human beings, we’re asked and expected to know a huge amount about a vast array of subjects, and sometimes you just don’t know the answer to the question. And I think what turns young people off is career politicians giving policy line tribal answers or not answering the question. So I think my campaign, Real People for Parliament, and my Policy for Exeter, is about putting the city first regardless of tribal politics, trying to set out your vision of what you want to do and trying to refrain from the negative stuff, sometimes I get drawn into it but I try not to, and trying to be straight with people and not speaking in Blairite spin stuff, just giving an honest answer whether people like it or not. And then volunteering in the community, I think it’s a great way to meet and engage with people, and always being available. I do think, on the other side of things, there is a responsibility of the public to get involved. We can do so much, we knock on 3000 doors a month, we’re on social media, so if ever anybody tweets me or messages me they always get something back, but you know in Afghanistan and Pakistan you spend so much time with people who are so desperate to have that right, they would take it quite seriously as a responsibility to engage publically. I do think young people may be disillusioned but if they drop me a line they get something back. A lady wrote to us the other day saying ‘you called me Mrs not Miss Smith’ and we wrote back to her and she replied saying thank you so much I never thought I’d get anything back. I think a lot of the time people are surprised when they find that this campaign is pretty engaged, and bearing in mind this campaign is all volunteers, the MP at the moment has an office, he gets a budget to afford workers here and in Parliament, but this is all volunteers. We did over two hundred correspondence pieces last week, all done by a volunteer. We just have to engage and prove people wrong, and it takes time.
Eleven.// Are you in favour of lowering the voting age to 16, and do you believe that, if this were to happen, that the Conservatives would change policy on student fees once those most closely affected to them get the chance to vote?
No, because the majority of 16 year olds are still in education, which means they are still recipients of the state rather than contributors. For me, your relationship with the government is about what you get and what you give, and how you feel about that relationship and the value of that, and until you start earning, you don’t see both sides of the equation. In terms of majority in numbers, that’s my take on it. I understand that there are quite passionate arguments on both sides of it, but I think the balance of majority, having that two-way relationship with the state, debating that is probably reasonable. It’s not a popular answer but I think it’s fair, I think people are more engaged with government and politics when they’re giving and taking, rather than when they experience it one way.
Twelve.// Ben Bradshaw has been Exeter’s MP since 1997. How confident are you in your ability to win the seat against someone who is evidently such a big player in the community?
First of all, it’s not about confidence in my ability, it’s about what the people of Exeter choose. It’s got nothing to do with my confidence and everything to do with the choice of people on May 7th. Our campaign has shown that on a voluntary basis we perform at or above the level of a constituent MP, we knock on more doors than the MP, and our job is to give people a choice and they’ll do so on May 7th. I think they’re going to get a hard working MP if they choose me, and a hard-working team, and I think more broadly it’s not about me versus Ben, it’s about a choice between do you want Cameron and the long-term economic plan, or do you want Ed Miliband propped up by Alex Salmond as deputy Prime Minister? We’re talking about the most left-leaning government this country has seen for over a generation and personally that fills me with quite a lot of fear, so I mean I know there’s a temptation to make it Dom versus Ben but in reality it’s much bigger. The choice we have as a nation and as a city is much bigger. It’s about the direction of our government and our country. Someone recently said Competence or Chaos! I think it is that serious. First of all, I don’t think he has the statesmanship, his behaviour on Syria when he defeated Cameron was petty domestic politics rather than statesmanship, which showed he’s lacking in statesmanship, but then the idea that he’ll be held to ransom by the SNP is absolutely terrifying. The deputy PM being someone who wants to tear down the union and destroy everything we have is pretty terrifying. And Ed Miliband had his chance to rule that out when he went to Scotland and he chose not to rule it out. That’s what the numbers are saying at the moment.
Twelve.// What are you most looking forward to in the run up to May 7?
The debates! I love debating, I love robust discussions. I’m quite an old-fashioned politician. The left has made ideology a dirty word, and for me politics is about ideas, it’s about setting out where you want to go as a party and a government, and that’s something to be proud of. Ideas shape our world, ideas are what make us, and they make conflict, democracy, freedom of speech. Ideas are really something to be proud of, they give us the unity to make those discussions. I really look forward to the debates, and the best part of my day is knocking on doors. And my tagline is Real People for Parliament.
Thank you to Dom and his team, and the very best of luck!