The Guardian profile: Phil Woolas
The outspoken immigration minister who was pulled from Question Time
Friday October 24 2008
“Dog whistle tactics” has become something of a political cliche, but three years ago, the term – which means campaigning on issues so high-pitched that only certain voters can hear them – was all but unheard-of.
It took Phil Woolas, a one-time TV producer, trade union official and Labour MP, to point out that the mix of immigration and health in Michael Howard's 2005 election campaign had been developed in Australia and had a name. After a few lunches with political journalists, the idea of “dog whistle tactics” entered the political lexicon.
Woolas might have been quick to spot it because he does a good line in whistling. Within 10 days of becoming immigration minister this month, Woolas went on record to say he believed immigration should be limited and the British population capped at 70 million. A little further from his brief, he also floated the possibility that the Church of England would become disestablished.
For these two moments of political candour, Woolas was pulled from appearing on Question Time last night, a rare move that betrayed government alarm at a gaffe-prone minister.
Yet those who know him say these are not gaffes. The former cabinet minister Peter Hain, who has known Woolas since university and whose campaign for the deputy leadership was run by the junior minister, said: “He's astute, savvy, canny and completely aware of the 24-hour media cycle. The idea that he didn't mean his comments is wrong.”
Another Labour MP, John Mann, his best friend, best man and political ally since the first day at Manchester University, said he was “never reckless and never thoughtless”.
Back then, his greatest gaffe was a visual one – appearing on television as the National Union of Students president to push for an ultimately successful boycott of Barclays Bank, always wearing the same green ties. It was not until he was diagnosed as colour blind that he realised he hadn't been wearing the red ties beloved of Labour politicians.
Mann says Woolas has always been a contrarian. “Back in the 80s he took up causes of antisemitism like the campaign for Soviet Jewry. These were so-called fringe activities.”
Tim Gardam, the then editor of BBC's Newsnight, remembers Woolas from his time on the programme as “very clever and very forthright”, and someone “who would clearly become a politician”. Another producer remembers a swot. “He was always sitting on the desk of the editor of the programme that day. A bit too buoyant.”
And then add some stunts. When Woolas went to become communication manager at the GMB union he brought a herd of pigs to London and got Nottinghamshire miners to shepherd them through the streets to decry the excesses of City financiers.
Some of his comments may just be audible stunts: a way of getting heard. A green lobbyist who worked with him when he was climate change minister felt Woolas always had an eye on the story rather than policy – defending genetically modified food against Prince Charles and the green lobby.
But these tactics do not seem to be accidents. The Liberal Democrat MEP Chris Davies, who fought Woolas in a byelection, remembers a man in control. He said: “He was archetypal new Labour – he never expressed anything from the heart. So he has either now escaped the shackles of new Labour or is being calculating to the last punctuation mark.”
The calculation would be that his constituency has a high proportion of white working-class voters alienated by immigration. While ministers have started to raise this problem in the last few years, Woolas said seven years ago that Labour would lose out to the BNP unless it did more to “create a country at ease with itself”. More recently, he has raised the possibility that the Muslim Pakistani community was fuelling birth defects by intermarrying between first cousins.
Mann says his friend is simply more in touch with real voters than the metropolitan elite. “He's the politician who I regard to be most in touch with British people, friend and foe alike. What he was saying was quite clear and he ought to be left to carry on saying these things. What I do know is that this debate will be continued.”
Hain agrees. “There are too many politicians these days who are just technocrats rather than have political experience. But Phil is a real politician.”
Far from being embarrassed by Woolas, Gordon Brown is supposed to have tasked him with humanising the immigration brief. Pulling Woolas from Question Time is probably a sign of a government taking the long view – the drama of the withdrawal will be forgotten more quickly than if the straight-talking minister did some more straight talking.
In the words of one former minister, what they don't want is for Woolas to “say something to distract from the George Osborne story. But I bet you he'll be on Question Time in a few weeks.”
Born December 11 1959
Education University of Manchester, BA (hons) philosophy
Family Married to Tracey Jane Allen, two sons
Career Positions include: National Union of Students president, 1984-86; journalist, Television South, 1987; assistant producer, BBC Newsnight, 1988-90; producer, Channel 4 News, 1990-91; head of communications, GMB, 1991-97; MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, 1997-; lord commissioner of the Treasury, 2002-03; deputy leader of the House of Commons, 2003-05; minister of state, Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs,