Today I have an interview with Ali Gunn in the Guardian. She is the literary agent who now advises the Tories on lifestyle and women's issues. We met up a few weeks ago, and although I was expecting her to be very scary, she actually wasn't! I think that might be because she was worried about how she came across. She told me a few times that she didn't like talking about herself. "I like talking about other people," she said. "That's what I do."
Anyway, here is the interview...(or to see it online, cut and paste this link:
One of London's leading literary agents, Ali Gunn has been advising the Conservative party on 'lifestyle' issues for the past year. Sarah Ebner hears her views on class, Cameron and the women's vote
Wednesday June 6, 2007
Ali Gunn is a reluctant interviewee. It has taken months of cajoling to persuade the Tories' first "Head of lifestyle and features" to talk, and she is visibly uncomfortable. "This whole thing is terrifying me," she says, with only a half smile. "In 20 years of dealing with the media, I have only ever done one other interview, and that was for Publishing News. Now I won't give one for another 20 years."
Gunn has long been known in the publishing world as a tough literary agent, noted for the huge advances she negotiates for her clients. She represents celebrities such as Nancy Dell'Olio and Carol Thatcher, as well as best-selling novelists including Jenny Colgan (who recently landed a £1m advance to write two new novels).
Almost a year ago, Gunn was asked to lend her expertise to the Conservative party, after a mutual acquaintance set up a meeting between her and David Cameron's closest adviser, Steve Hilton. She is now an important part of Cameron's coterie, working for the party "at least" one day a week.
It has been said that her key responsibility is to persuade women to vote Tory, but Gunn says her remit is wider than that, explaining, "What I'm actually doing is looking, overall, at what we're doing with all our people in all our areas. It's much more about engaging the media and the electorate in our key personalities and our policies and not just about women. It never has been."
But it is also true that now, more than ever, the Conservative Party is frantically reaching out to women. The Tories' dismal electoral outings over the past 10 years haven't been helped by their dearth of women MPs (at the last election, just 9% of Tory MPs were women, compared to Labour's 27.5%). Cameron has therefore been making changes, with women now accounting for around 33% of the Tory candidates selected for the next election. Whether they are in winnable seats remains to be seen. They certainly need to be - as Theresa May has pointed out, there are fewer women in the shadow cabinet than men with the name of David.
While her remit may extend beyond the women's vote, Gunn notes that she is "working on a big new campaign about equal pay ... It's a cause that's very close to my heart, having worked over the years for many organisations where, not necessarily me, but other women were woefully underpaid. It all goes back to being a working mother as well. It is very hard to juggle your life and get childcare at the right times. What do you do in school holidays and at half-term? Your life is a constant negotiation.
"David and his team believe in women. He knows that women make up over half the workforce. He is not a traditionalist. He believes in flexible working hours. He believes that if you want to stay at home, that's fine, but if you want to go to work, that's absolutely fine as well. I think he is probably the most modern leader the Tories have had in 30 years."
Warming to her theme, Gunn dismisses the Lib Dems as being a "busted flush" and is openly hostile to Labour's new leader. "I think life under Gordon Brown is going to be pretty miserable," she says, and, when I ask if Cameron is better for women than Brown, she nods vigorously. "Sans doute," she says, "for women and men."
She is married to Nick Pople, head of an investment fund involved with environmental technology businesses and the couple have a four-year-old son, Jack. Gunn says, strikingly, that she suffers from none of the guilt that consumes many working mothers. "For me - and this is purely for me - I believe I am a better example for my son, as a mother and as a woman who works incredibly hard and wants to be there for him as much as I can. That's my choice."
Indeed, her personal philosophy appears to be perfect for the Cameron-led Tories. She insists that, although she had a private education, she doesn't believe in class. "I was brought up to believe in meritocracy, I wasn't brought up to believe in class," she says. "I was brought up to believe that if you work hard, hopefully you will get to be where you want to be and what you want to be."
Now 38, Gunn grew up in London's Notting Hill and attended Haberdashers' Aske's School for Girls, then boarded at Repton. But she won't be drawn on the current grammar school debate ("I'm not going to comment on that, because it's not my area of expertise"). However, she says she has always been interested in politics, and turned down a place to read law at Cambridge in order to read politics at Bristol.
Her father, John, is one of Britain's leading investors in smaller businesses, but she says her parents were not interested in politics. She notes, though, that her mother's experience of growing up in and leaving communist East Germany was a major influence in her decision to vote Conservative. "My mother escaped from the Berlin wall three days before it was finished, and left her whole family behind. We used to go through Checkpoint Charlie like other people go to Bognor Regis on holiday, and we used to try and help them as much as we could, emotionally and fiscally.
"With what my mother went through, under the thumb of communism, it would have been very strange for me not to have believed in the free market economy and the right of free speech. I always used to call myself a Whig actually. I believed in being strong on law and order without being fascistic, but also liberal on the social agenda, women's rights, that sort of thing."
Gunn made her name in publishing while working at the big literary agency Curtis Brown. She admits that being a Tory in the traditionally left-of-centre publishing world has not always been easy. "You absolutely did not declare your political affiliation," she says of the early days of her career.
When she left Curtis Brown to set up on her own 18 months ago, rumours abounded. Gunn initially insists that it was to "pursue my own opportunities". Later, however, she explains that "one of the major reasons for leaving a big agency which was run by men ... was to get more control over my life. I can take my son to school, and sometimes pick him up, and that makes me happier than anything."
She is also extremely happy to have become involved with the Busoga Trust (busogatrust.co.uk), a charity which seeks to provide clean water in rural Uganda. "What attracted me," she says, "was that in some small way it was helping to empower women in Uganda, whose lives were hitherto spent fetching and carrying water. Women are the mainstay of family society in Uganda, and if, through water, we can help them to help themselves, that has to be good, right?"
Gunn says she "decided what my priorities were in my life a couple of years ago. Trying to get the Tories elected would be one of them, definitely, and trying to get our message across, not just to women, but to everybody. Another would obviously be looking after my son, and also Chelsea winning the league next season. I am driven - yes, very - by the fact that I don't want to fail," she adds. "And also by the fact that I want to provide a good future for Jack."
Gunn is something of a contradiction. She is articulate but appears hesitant; and while she is clearly tough, she appears worried about how she is going to come across during the interview - she has a crib sheet with her, and ponders each answer carefully. Although she has a reputation for negotiating the biggest possible deals for her clients, she is charging the Tories far less than her usual rate. "Sometimes you have to do things because you really believe in them," she says firmly, "not for the money."