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Interview With Charlie Whelan

Aired April 6, 2010 - 00:00:00   ET



BECKY ANDERSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): On the surface, Charlie Whelan is the political director of Unite, Britain's largest trade union. Dig a little deeper and you'll discover that he's been one of the British prime minister's closest confidantes.

Whelan rose to prominence as Gordon Brown's spokesman in the 1990s, when the now P.M. was chancellor of the Exchequer. Since resigning that post in 1999, he has forged himself a career in media, writing regularly for "The Guardian" newspaper.

A man who knows what goes on behind the famous black door of Number Ten Downing Street, Charlie Whelan will almost certainly be close to the heart of the Labor Party's current campaign, making him our Connector of the Day.


ANDERSON: Well, Charlie Whelan is a Labor man from way back when, instrumental in helping bring the party to government 13 years ago, back in 1997. And he openly admits that as political director of Unite, which is Britain's biggest trade union, he directs millions of pounds for the Labor campaigns.

If there's anyone who can give us some insight to the importance of this election, it is Charlie Whelan.

I spoke to him earlier and began by asking what it feels like to be part of the whole thing once again.

This is what he said.


CHARLIE WHELAN, POLITICAL DIRECTOR, UNITE: This is going to be a very close election. The polls have got closer and closer the nearer we've gotten to the election. And as you can see behind me, there's huge excitement here at Westminster about this election, because no one really knows what the result is going to be.

ANDERSON: There is the possibility of a hung parliament in the U.K. for the first time in many years.

What does that mean for British politics and British society?

WHELAN: Well, we'll have to wait and see, really. I mean they're -- the commentators are talking about a hung parliament because -- because the polls are close. They're close. But previously, people talked about a hung parliament and it hasn't happened.

Because of the quirks of our electoral system, actually, Labor can win the election and have more seats than the Tories, even if they're 3 or 4 percentage points be -- behind the Conservatives, because it's what happens in a first partial post (ph) of each constituency.

So it could be a hung parliament, but I'm not so sure. I think Labor is just going to sneak it.

But I would say that, wouldn't I?

ANDERSON: Well, of course you would say that.

All right, lets go on to some of the viewer questions today.

Lily has written in. She says: "Why do you think Labor has sunk so much recently in the polls? And what do they have to do in the next month to really stand a chance?"

I know you're going to say the polls have tightened. Some polls suggesting, actually, that the Conservatives, the opposition party, still have a big lead.

WHELAN: Yes. Well, I mean not so long ago, the Conservative Party, I think they were 25 points ahead in the polls. And, of course, this is no longer a referendum on Labor. This is a clear choice between two political parties. And as people begin to make that choice, as Gordon Brown said, you know, take a second look at us, that slow party (ph), and take a long, long look at the Conservatives.

And as people have done that, they -- the polls have closed. And that's -- that's why they're closing. I think they'll close -- they'll get even closer as we get toward election day.

ANDERSON: A question from Jason Lu from London. He says: "It's all about Iraq and Blair's role in the way Labor lost credibility."

What's your response to that?

WHELAN: Well, I don't think Iraq is going to be an issue. It was a bit of an issue in the last election, but, of course, it was an issue and Labor won quite easily. So it's not an issue this time. So I think that people are really going to be focusing on the economy, not Iraq, which was some time ago. And, of course, there are no troops there -- British troops, anyway -- left in Iraq.

ANDERSON: Harrison asks: "Why should the rest of the world care about this election, Charlie?" And asks whether either candidate would do anything different when it comes to Britain's role in the world?

WHELAN: Yes. Well, I mean certainly we got the sense here in Britain that Gordon Brown was, if you like, leading the world when it came to what to do when we had the world economic crisis. And it particularly hit America. And, of course, I suspect that Labor will be putting forward proposals on world banking reform so that we don't fall into the same traps again.

So very much Gordon Brown is leading the way on this. And -- and I think that's why the world will be interested in what's happening.

ANDERSON: What are you most looking forward to in the next four weeks, sir?

WHELAN: Well, I think what I'm looking forward to, actually, is the debate, because we've never had them before in Britain here. And I -- I was in America for the American elections and -- and I -- I enjoyed going into bars in Washington and just seeing the sheer enthusiasm for -- for the electoral process over there. And I hope that the debates here will -- will have the same result. Because we have had low turnouts here in Britain. And hopefully the debates will add a bit of sparkle and we'll get a higher turnout.

ANDERSON: The debates are often style over substance. We all know that. Your man, Gordon Brown, doesn't do a lot of style. He might do substance.

Are you worried about that?

WHELAN: No, not at all. I mean I -- I saw today, David Cameron come out and he just came out with some ridiculous sound bites. That isn't -- people aren't fooled anymore. People want more substance. The days of the sound bite, that was the '80s and the '90s. People do want more substance and they will certainly get that with Gordon Brown. They won't get that with David Cameron.


ANDERSON: Those were coming from the spinmeister extraordinaire.

That was clearly the Labor perspective.

We're going to have a Connector of the Day from the Tory Party -- that's the opposition here in the U.K. -- in the next coming weeks. Four weeks to go, of course.

Remember, you can ask our Connectors questions at It is your part of the show. Get involved tonight.