POLITICS

Steve Hilton Didn't See David Cameron's Victory Coming, And Warns Labour Not To Rush Leadership Election

22/05/2015 14:32 BST | Updated 26/05/2015 21:00 BST

Steve Hilton (left) and then leader of the Opposition, David Cameron, at Oslo Airport during their visit to the Arctic, April 2006.

Steve Hilton asks to sit in the sun. David Cameron's former director of strategy and policy guru is back in Britain to promote his new book, having left Downing Street for San Francisco in 2012. It is a warm day in London - but not by Californian standards.

Hilton gained a reputation for padding around No.10 in socks, jeans and a t-shirt. That dress code, now complete with shoes, suits the small garden of the Shoreditch café where he is sitting, on the non-shady side of the table, speaking to The Huffington Post.

Five years ago, Hilton helped Cameron into power as leader of the largest party in a hung parliament. Two weeks ago, the prime minister went one better, winning an over majority. Hilton freely admits he did not see it coming. "No, I didn’t expect that. I don’t think anyone expected it," he says.

"I think it was because they were so consistent for so long, we all just sort of absorbed the message of the opinion polls. We took them at face value."

Hilton says he long believed the outcome of the 2015 election would not be "anything other" than a second term in power for Cameron – but not with an overall majority.

Voters, he says, "tend to deliver" what feels like the national mood. "In 1992 they didn't want Neil Kinnock but they weren’t mad about the Tories, but gave us a majority. In 1997 they had enough, they wanted Tony Blair with a big majority. Then they wanted smaller majorities. In 2010 they definitely wanted to get rid of Gordon Brown but they weren’t quite convinced about the Conservatives."

The polls, which showed the UK was heading for a second hung parliament, now infamously, were proved wrong on the night. Cameron and his campaign team of Lynton Crosby and Jim Messina achieved the majority that Hilton, the architect of the 2010 Big Society manifesto, fell short of five years ago.

What did they get right that the Tory team of 2010 got wrong? "It’s very clear to me. They fought a really professional disciplined campaign with a very clear strategy and a very clear message," he says.

"It's completely wonderful that this most unexpected outcome happened."

But the "real reason" Cameron now has 330 MPs, a Commons majority of 12, was, Hilton says, because the last government "delivered what they promised".

Hilton observes: "The government actually did what it said it would do. Cameron said he was going to put together a government, a strong government, a coalition government that will last five years. We will focus on turning the economy around, rescuing it from the brink. That’s basically what happened. It makes complete sense you would be rewarded for that."

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David Cameron and George Osborne, attended the launch party of the book More Human: Designing A World Where People Come First by Hilton ( Dafydd Jones/Rex).

Hilton, whose unconventional policy ideas earned him a parody Twitter account, @SteveHiltonGuru, and inspired the Thick Of It's satirical modernising Tory Stewart Pearson character, insists that Cameron's radicalism is underestimated.

"He is radical. He came in to politics because has a real passion for helping to improve peoples lives. He is not ideological. But he does really, really want to change things that makes a difference in peoples lives. At the same time, he is a very kind of responsible politician. He really has a strong sense of what is in the national interest, what is his duty, what has to come first," Hilton says of his former boss.

Some radical reforms were achieved, Hilton says, pointing to Michael Gove's education programme and Francis Maude's work on government data. "But, at the same time, his priority was keeping the coalition together as a strong stable government so you could do the economic rescue job. That had to come first. If you don’t get a strong economy nothing else really matters."

As for Labour, the former Tory strategist, who was behind the party's 1997 'New Labour, New Danger' campaign poster is reticent to offer too many thoughts on how the Opposition should deal with its overwhelming defeat. It is, he says, not his place. However he does some advice for how Labour should handle its election post mortem. Slow down.

"It feels to me like they are rushing it a little bit," Hilton says. With Ed Miliband's boxes barely packed, the battle to succeed him has already been narrowed down to just four names. And many in the party fear Andy Burnham all but has victory sewn up. "They are jumping in with these quick pronouncements about what went wrong. And I don’t know, it feels to me it’s all a bit of a rush."

"I do think, having gone through this, they should take their time actually and not rush into things and think hard about the deep questions," he says.

"What do they think is wrong with the country? What is their approach to putting it right? What are the broad themes? How do you then apply them in a modern world that is changing very fast? Then, how does that relate to people’s lives and your ability to convey to them how their lives are going to be improved. You almost do the politics second I think."

Hilton is widely seen as the inspiration for the modernising Tory strategist in satirical TV show The Thick Of It

Hilton's new book, More Human: Designing a World in Which People Come First, makes the case for a radical transformation of corporate and political structures. At its core, he wants more people have more power in their hands.

In an intervention in The Sunday Times, Hilton put his case succinctly: “Regardless of who’s in office, the same people are in power. It is a democracy in name only, operating on behalf of a tiny elite no matter the electoral outcome.”

And speaking to HuffPost, fittingly just a short walk from East London's TechCity 'Silicon Roundabout', the policy guru-turned tech entrepreneur explains: "One of the reasons people are frustrated with politics and government, and in fact everything else, is this sense of a lack of control. Someone else is making the decisions and they can't quite figure out who it is and how they can change them."

"I really strongly believe local mayors, I mean really local. The mayor of London is the perfect place to organise and run, in a democratically accountable way, things like transport. But then there are things that are much more local in nature. Let's take licensing. That to me is a perfect example of something that has very local impact. Here we are sitting in Shoreditch. I think there should be a mayor of Shoreditch."

He enthuses: "What I would like to see is a real debate over what are the functions of government that are best handled at which level. Let's shift those powers to those places and let's make those powers democratically accountable. "

One obvious example of distant power is the European Union. Brussels, Hilton says in his book, is home to a "cesspit" of corporate corruption. Will he vote to leave the union in Cameron's upcoming in/out referendum? "I don’t know because David Cameron is literally just starting the negotiation process," he says. "There is going to be a referendum on the basis of a change in the relationship. I don’t think it makes any sense to talk about my view. We need to see what he comes back with, I think I'll wait until then to express a view."

But he is clearly unimpressed with the EU's claim to favour localism. "They have this term, subsidiarity, which is a bit of jargon that means power should be exercised at the lowest possible level. That's clearly nonsense. That’s not how the EU works. It's not even how this country works."

Speaking of referendums, what about Scottish independence? How would he have voted if he could have"That was not about devolution of power it was separation. I think the consequence is however going to be more devolution. I totally support that," Hilton says.

Hilton tried and failed to get selected to be a Conservative parliamentary candidate in 2005. He lost out to Michael Gove. Would he run for office in the future? "I have no plans to. I am running a tech company in California. I love that. I’m really excited about that," he says. But adds honestly: "I don’t want to mislead people and say I’ll never do it. I’m very interested in these issues. Right now it's not part of the next few years. Maybe one day."

Maybe as mayor of Shoreditch? He laughs: “Maybe. I don’t know. I think there are many, many people better qualified than me."

Hilton also admits to being more focused on American politics than British politics at the moment. As the 2016 presidential race gets underway, his firm, Crowdpac, hopes to help "end the stranglehold of big money donors and special interests on the political system".

"The way that a tiny, tiny number of rich people and big business literally buy the outcomes they want from the political system, its total corruption," he says of the US political scene.

Hilton wants to emphasise that his firm is strictly non-partisan. But he expresses approval for one candidate in the presidential race. "I think tis great that Bernie Sanders, who is challenging Hilary Clinton, has said he is not going to take Super PAC money."

"When you see someone like Bernie Sanders, who chooses to even within the system to say, 'I am not taking money from these outside groups, I am going to raise all my money myself and everyone can see where it comes from and how it is spent', I think that is great."

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Steve Hilton and David Cameron as they plot the 2010 general election campaign that resulted in a hung parliament

Now in San Fransciso with his Google executive wife, Rachel Whetstone, and family, Hilton's life experience clearly informs some of his more controversial policy proposals – including that children should be banned from having smart phones.

"It would be helpful if we set a social norm that it was not ok, it was not acceptable, for children to view the Internet unsupervised. That’s why we need to focus on mobile Internet enabled devices and ban them for children," he says.

His worry is the proliferation of pornography and how that affects young people. "Watching it can be really violent, really degrading to women, it’s terrible. It’s changing sexual relationships between young children in dark and disturbing ways.

"It is causing a real change in attitudes to women to girls. The really damaging thing long term is all the advances we have seen long term culturally in terms of gender equality, are actually being rolled back."

He adds: "I ask people why do you want children to access the Internet? Tell my why you want that before you challenge my idea. My idea might not be the right way of achieving it, but you’ve got to put something forward. What I am trying to show, is there is something we can do about it. We just have to choose to take the action.

This is applied in the Hilton home. "We have two young children. We work very hard to minimise the intrusion of technology on our family life. The children don’t have any devices themselves. We don’t have much screen time or TV time and we make a real effort to be fully present with them when we are with them."

The political strategist-era Hilton was an urban creature. But his move to California, he says, has made him more open to nature.

"We do things I would never have done here, like go camping. We never did it before, never put up a tent before, except at Glastonbury, not very successfully. But now we go all the time. We go with the children they are never happier that when they are outdoors.

It might seem counter-intuitive for the CEO of a tech-start up in Silicon Valley, but Hilton's move also helped him detach from technology slightly.

"It's something that started accidentally when I moved over from the UK three years ago," he says.

"I never liked smart phones. I always found them very fiddly and annoying to use. So when I was in government I had an old fashioned Nokia phone, I used to communicate by text, I was very into texting. But never had emails, I never had a smart phone.

"When I got the US my old phone didn’t work and I tried various things to get it fixed. It was very hard to buy anything that wasn’t a smart phone in Silicon Valley. We went to the beach and the charger then got jammed with sand. I thought: 'I've had enough of this. I’m sick of trying to make this phone work'. I just gave up. And found after a week, 'wow, that’s a whole week I haven’t had a phone'. And the sky didn’t fall in. Life went on. It was perfectly fine. So I thought, I’ll see how that goes. And carried on with it as an experiment. And months went by. And after that, it really became a choice."

Hilton adds: "I find it incredibly liberating, it gives you time to think, to enjoy where you are. To experience where you are. The people you are with."