PODCAST: True colours

By Heather Jameson | 26 April 2017
  • Heather Jameson

There are many things which spark off a political career, but for Gary Porter – later Lord Porter, the chairman of the Local Government Association (LGA) – it all began in the 1970s, when he was, by his own admission, a bolshie school kid, organising a playground strike in defence of a fellow pupil.

Perhaps it is not the most obvious place to start for a Conservative peer, but the rest of his career has been equally unconventional, as he told the first Public Intelligence/MJ podcast.

Lord Porter first became a councillor in 2001, before rising to leader of South Holland DC in 2003. He led the LGA Conservative group from 2011, before becoming chairman of the association in June 2015 and being made a peer later that year.

Following his early playground rebellion, his political journey continued in a characteristically unusual way for a man of his political leanings when he became a shop steward with the Transport and General Workers Union in the early part of his career, while working in a warehouse. He claims it was not a political move, but a reaction to the poor conditions and a realisation that he would do a better job of it than the alternative candidates.

‘The next time I got anywhere near politics was when the Referendum Party was set up,’ he says. ‘I went to see Jimmy Goldsmith speak in Northampton. It was the first and only time I have ever heard anyone speak for more than 10 minutes and thought “I wish you spoke for even longer”.’

He didn’t join the Referendum Party, but it did lead him to the Conservative Party and becoming involved in his local council. The journey is a testament to his complex political philosophy, from shop steward to libertarian.

‘Good luck trying to get into my head,’ he quips. ‘I know for some Conservatives I’m too liberal and for some Liberals I’m too conservative. I don’t generally fit into other people’s mould, but that’s life. Why should I have to?’

Despite his success, Lord Porter never set out to rise up the political ranks.

He never wanted to be a politician. ‘I always wanted to be more like Alistair Campbell than any of the others, because you could do all the stuff without being out in front. I never wanted to be in the front.’

Rather like his shop steward role, he took on leadership roles because he didn’t trust the alternatives to do what he wanted them to do.

‘I am a megalomaniac generally, so I like to keep a close grip on everything.’ It is only latterly he has learned to surround himself with good people and to delegate.

While he doesn’t have political heroes – because politicians ‘have too many faults’ – he says: ‘I like people who do brave things.’

He cites David Cameron’s decision to push through gay marriage, even though it was unpopular with the Party.

‘That was Cameron nailing his colours to the mast on something he thought was the right thing to do against a backdrop of knowing the vast majority of his party would not support that happening. And he still did it.’

Lord Porter claims he was sorry to see the former prime minister step down over the referendum – for essentially delivering on a manifesto commitment. ‘That’s the bit I don’t like about politics,’ he says.

He describes the LGA as ‘like a dysfunctional 1970s council run by committees’. As its chairman, he says: ‘You have no command power’.

‘It’s cross-party so you have to bring a coalition of people to any decision you want to make. And because you have lots of people who lead their place...you are dealing with a very clever gene pool of people.’

‘Because you have no command power, you can only win by persuading people and that takes a lot of work which is why I like to surround myself with lots of really good people. It makes decision-making sometimes take longer than it needs to be because you have to bring a coalition to a decision.’

However, he is full of praise for the Group leaders, claiming they ‘think as one on most issues’.

‘You can see from a national level how we have more in common with each other than we do with the Government, regardless of what colour the Government is.

‘Even if people are misguided for political reasons, their hearts are generally in the right place. They do what they do because they believe in the place they are doing it for.’

He adds: ‘The difference between people who care about local and people who care about national is stark.’

He describes local government as a ‘merry-go-round’, with issues coming back every few years.

‘I don’t think there is a great deal of change. People change and the weather changes, but the things we do stays the stuff we do. Even if the thing you love isn’t on the table this week, if you wait, sooner or later it will come round again.’

He has every faith in the ‘fantastic people in the sector’.

‘It’s our job to make it right,’ he says. ‘If central government gets off our back, we will be able to make the world better.’

You can download the podcast here


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