Lunch with… Emily Wallace

Written by Francis Ingham on 16 December 2015 in Features

PRCA director general Francis Ingham lunches with GK Strategy managing director Emily Wallace at Shepherd's restaurant.

After a hefty 15 years plus at Connect Communications, Emily Wallace moved to GK Strategy last year. Some 12 months later and GK has been named consultancy of the year the 2015 Public Affairs Awards. But our interviews falls a few days before the awards, so we begin elsewhere.

Having been in a place for a long time, regardless of the fact that you loved it, moving offers a great chance to refresh yourself. To think about what you do, and what you’ve learned, and who you are. And to apply that somewhere different.

Which all sounds terribly encouraging. If somebody who didn’t know GK Strategy, what would she tell them?

“It’s gone from a start-up six years ago, with two people working out of their kitchen, to a significant player, bigger than many of the other independent agencies. There are 30-odd retained clients, and 27 people.

“And it’s a very different model. It hasn’t come out of the PR-comms tradition; it’s come out of an in-depth understanding of policy and what drives investment decisions. So I guess that means the culture is very commercial. There’s no sense in which we’re happy to sit back. It’s all about growth. It’s all about the next thing.”

I challenge Emily that surely every company would say the same?

“Most companies would like to think that’s what they’re like, but I think it does take a certain combination of people to make it actually happen.””

We turn to Emily’s other role, in Vauxhall CLP. How’s life under the new Leader?

“It’s quite refreshing, Francis. In Vauxhall, we’ve got 900 new members, doubling our membership. And on top of that there are several hundred supporters.”

And how would she rate Mr Corbyn’s performance? Emily answers with consummate political skills.

“It depends what the objective is. If it’s to be Prime Minister, you might question his strategy. If it’s to reinvigorate the Labour Party, remind us about who the Labour Party is and what we they stand for, then he’s been really successful at all levels.

“The Labour Party’s on a learning curve. Some would say it’s self-indulgent. Some would say that it’s necessary. It is definitely refreshing, and it is definitely challenging.”

I ask Emily a rather cheeky question: If Corbyn were tomorrow to fall under his collection of Marxist textbooks, who would replace him?

“In the current climate, Tom Watson would have a fairly good chance. I can’t see anybody else. A Chukka-Watson contest would be interesting of course.

“What was clear from the leadership contest was that Jeremy Corbyn had a clear agenda. You had mixed messages from Burnham and Cooper. There was lots of pressure for one of them to withdraw, but they both thought they could win. There were times when both looked as though they might, and it kept them both in the fight.”

A quick segway via movies (I suggest that she might care to watch ‘A Very British Coup’; we agree that Spectre sounds awesome), and then it’s back to politics. Osborne Supremacy a done deal?

“He’s clearly positioning himself as a statesman, and doing so with Cameron’s support. He’s a good strategist, but whether he connects well enough to people I don’t know. Although Boris has taken a bit of a back step, his clever positioning around tax credits gives the impression he’s waiting for Osborne to falter.”

On the tax credit point, I draw the link with the 10P tax rate fiasco. She hits back:

“This is worse. The kindest thing you can say is that the Tories didn’t realise that it was going to impact like that. It’s either incompetent or heartless. And actually, I think there are a few other areas they’re getting really wrong.”

And Emily names housing. Surely, I venture, *nobody* has got housing right? And here you see her real passion….

“Yes, you’ve got various housing schemes to help buyers, but in high cost areas like London, you’ve still got to earn huge amounts of money to get on the ladder. Their answer is right to buy. But all that does is force authorities and housing associations to get rid of their decent stock.

“You’re decreasing the amount of housing that’s affordable. Rather than allowing people to buy their houses, you ought to be helping them move out and into the private sector, freeing up houses for people in need.”

I ask Emily how she first got into public affairs. She explains that her first job was working for David Blunkett.

“I was president of my student union, and he visited the university. This was back in 1995 and he’d just been his new brief as shadow education. The Vice Chancellor asked me to show him around, and at the end of the day he just said ‘do you want a job?’

“He’s a lovely, lovely man and he’ll make a great Peer. I’m very, very fond of him. Committed, decent, principled, great person to work for. He used to phone us up at 6, and if we were still there, he’d tell us to go home or go out.”

Is politics better or worse than it was then I ask? It has completely transformed, she says.

“When I first started in public affairs, we were selling our knowledge of what was going on. Now we don’t sell information. There’s way too much information. What you do is cut through the information. We tell clients what’s important, what’s not important. We give analysis and advice.”

I suggest that maybe we needed a government lobbying register then but not now?

“All I will say is that everything that we said would happen has happened. The register isn’t self-financing because it doesn’t cover enough people. The registrar shouldn’t be penalising people for over-registration. She should be getting more people to sign up. I’d say that to her face.”

To finish, I ask her to tell me something that readers wouldn’t know about her.

“I’ve got two children. A nine year old called Owen. And a seven year old called Bear. He’s actually Edward, but he got nicknamed Teddy Bear when he was little, and he’s now Bear and refuses to be called anything else.”

On which note of knowing your own mind, we turn to lunch...


We ate:

Mallard liver pate and venison haunch; steamed cockles and shepherd’s pie.

We drank:


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