From the Westminster village to the ad world

Ian Twinn spent 14 years as a Conservative MP and has now clocked up 14 years as director of public affairs at advertising lobby group ISBA

Ian Twinn
Ian Twinn

Aged 13, children usually want to be footballers, policemen or firemen - perhaps astronauts if they’ve heard about the pensions. Few proudly wish to grow up a Tory MP. But Ian Twinn says he was “definitely more Adrian Mole” than Roy of the Rovers.

“I remember somebody in the school playground saying ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ and I said ‘I want to be a Member of Parliament’. They were all a bit gobsmacked.”

Childhood ambitions are not always realised. Wannabe policemen or firemen often end up as accountants or solicitors. But Twinn stuck at it and took a time-honoured route up through the Conservative Party: deputy chairman in his undergraduate town of Aberystwyth, chairman while a PhD student Reading, constituency chairman in Dulwich, until he was handed the candidacy in the safe Labour seat of Edmonton in 1983 and told “you’re not going to win it”.

But with Labour’s fighting on a manifesto subsequently and famously described as the “longest suicide note history” Twinn did win it – and he clung on until 1997.  Had his time as an MP ended sooner, he might have returned to what he considers his proper job - the university lecturing that was his first position. But “time had moved on”.

At home in adland

Twinn says it was by a stroke of luck he ended up at ISBA, which represents some 400 UK advertisers, as its first in-house director of public affairs. Nevertheless, he has remained in situ for a considerable 14 years.

The former MP asserts: “I like advertising – I’m extremely fortunate to have ended up working in what we call ‘adland’”.

Today he describes his role as a protector of the right to advertise responsibly: “I’m out there making the case for advertising. We want the rules to be right, we want to protect consumers, and we want a level playing field for all advertisers.”

He most enjoys the 25% of his role representing advertisers on the bodies which set their codes of conduct. ISBA is the industry’s sole representative on both the UK codes - the Committee of Advertising Practice and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice, but is also involved in setting international rules - the International Chamber of Commerce code - most of which are based on the British system first agreed in 1939.

“That’s great fun, great responsibility. We go off to our meetings in Paris or New York thinking about code changes, and you’ve got to think about totally different cultures and how they are going to use it.”

Among the most vocal campaigners that ISBA squares up against are those who are opposed to the advertising of unhealthy foods during children’s TV and those calling for restrictions on alcohol advertising. For example, the latter group argue that it’s not just ‘kids’ TV’ that should be immune from alcohol adverts - why not ‘family shows’ such as The X Factor which are watched by large numbers of children? The battles rage on but, as ever in public affairs, the challenge for the public affairs director remains persuasion: convincing officials of his position. “Or indeed the wrongness of our opponents’ line”, as Twinn puts it.

Are ministers and officials receptive? In his long service, he notes a change in the tone of relations between government and business, starting under New Labour - a move from “head-banging” government to “a much more grown-up way of carrying on”.

He adds: “They’re democratically elected... It’s not up to us, as business, to turn around and say we don’t agree with you, we’re going to make life difficult.”

The past fours years have been interesting times for his members: “very, very competitive” for agencies, but with strong upsides for many. When firms cut back on their advertising budgets following the recession in 2008, oversupplied media space caused price drops, and allowed more players into the market. Those that survived grew stronger. “It’s been tougher for other people than for advertisers,” he says.

The Westminster Years

In many ways, it is all far cry from a youth and young manhood spent in the bosom of the Conservative Party. Twinn describes being a Member of Parliament as less a job than “a way of life” - as long as you love both the politics and the people.

“Some people get it wrong – they like politics and they don’t like people...if you don’t like that then the job’s miserable,” he says.

Yet as a Public Accounts Commissioner, and PPS across three different departments, why did promotion never come calling? He confesses he would have welcomed it, but as neither a right-wing Tory nor a social liberal “you don’t really have a sponsor in the party, that would be my excuse”. Plus he didn’t have a safe seat.

But he adds: “Getting elected and staying excited for 14 years in what was a safe Labour seat – that was encouraging.”

In 1997 Edmonton was swept away in the Blair landslide and has been in the hands of Andy Love ever since. In the run up to that election, he says, the mood of the country was palpable, but of course there was no looking for a job until the day itself.

“Of course I couldn’t look for a job beforehand, because however obscure a Tory backbencher you are, as soon as someone starts getting job applications from you, you become a respected leading Conservative who’s ready to jump ship.”

He maintained consultancy roles, at the former teachers union NATFHE and various trade associations. “Of course there was a flood” of ex-MPs, he remembers: “After 1997 - or after 2010 if you’re Labour - you’re as common as muck.”

Crossing the Channel

The only interruption to his 14 years at ISBA came in 2003-04, when he went part-time after being elected as a London MEP. He had stood several times, but never made it high enough on the list, until Lord Bethel’s Parkinson’s worsened.

Having been a lobbyist on the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive, he quickly found himself tabling amendments to it on behalf of the European People’s Party, and surprisingly found he had “much more power” as an MEP.

In Westminster, for influence a backbencher must look either to the esoteric or the rebellious, but on asking what the groupings amendments were to be, he was told to decide them – and then persuade his colleagues to back them. It comes in handy, he notes, when arguing the finer points of the Directive with civil servants, that he can point out it was his own amendment.

Not a federalist, he describes himself as “pro-European”, a supporter of the Common and internal markets, and “very happy to give up some sovereignty to make some of that important stuff work”.

If possible he would have continued in the role, and put himself forward again in 2004 and 2009, but today he is around 25th in line, and admits it would require a Kind Hearts and Coronets situation for him to return to Brussels.

The excitement factor

Living in Dulwich, Twinn’s hobbies run to the labour-intensive: bricklaying and antique restoration. But he still “plays politics” and most spare time is spent as vice-chair of the South London Conservatives.

Asked about his party’s chances in 2015, a long silence ensues. A lot of members of both parties don’t understand the difficulties of running a Coalition government, he argues. He sees David Cameron’s problem as appearing too much “the principal spokesman” for the Coalition Government. He adds: “Now as we start to focus on the next election he has to be more of a Tory leader.”

As for himself, Twinn does not envisage taking his foot off the pedal any time soon: “I didn’t know any of us were allowed to retire any more – that’s been deleted I think”.

Even after 14 years, he says the job is still “constant challenges and great fun”. And although it isn’t always quite as engrossing as being an MP, Twinn is still pretty satisfied with the way that life outside the Commons has panned out. “I could easily have ended up as the representative for the grommet manufacturers association – which is important. But it wouldn’t have been quite so exciting.”

8th November 2012 by Richard Welbirg

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