“I want to stop Brexit. Fix Britain. And then I want to reform the things that are wrong with the EU,” says Gavin Esler. He has a lot on.
The 66-year-old former BBC Newsnight presenter is standing to be an MEP in London for Change UK - the new pro-Remain party formed by The Independent Group of ex-Labour and Tory MPs.
Esler is speaking to HuffPost UK less than 48-hours after he was unveiled as an election candidate at his new party’s campaign launch in Bristol. “It’s all a bit hazy,” he laughs at the whirlwind.
“We are trying to get up an organisation. We are trying to get each other’s telephone numbers and emails. And we have four weeks until the election.”
The party has had a rocky introduction to electoral politics, with several of its candidates being exposed for making offensive comments online. One stepped down after it was revealed he once said “black women scare me”. Not ideal for a party that brands itself as the sensible centre. Heidi Allen, the interim leader, has admitted its vetting process was “not good enough”.
SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW POLITICS
Esler agrees Change UK needs to “learn very fast” in terms of how to organise. “We absolutely will make mistakes,” he says. But adds: “In terms of the basic principles and message, we are great.”
“We really appeal anybody Britain who is fed up with Brexit,” he says.
And his “gut feeling” is that this year’s poll will see the biggest turnout in Britain for election to the European parliament ever. This, he hopes, will see not “so many strange characters” becoming MEPs as in the past.
This might prove to be true. But that does not mean the pro-Remain parties will be the main beneficiaries.
A YouGov poll of the elections released after this interview put Change UK on 10% of the vote. Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party holds a commanding lead on 28%.
“Nigel Farage has got some strengths,” Esler freely admits. “He really connects with people. He is a very good talker. I find him very affable. I would very happily buy him a beer. And I am sure he would be happy with it to.”
But Esler add of the Brexit Party leader: “He is a talker not a doer. He couldn’t even organise a march from Sunderland to London. He literally talks the talk and doesn’t walk the walk. He is a formidable campaigner. But the message he sends out is essentially hollow. It’s bankrupt.”
And he warns that while Farage is “more honest on that than many other politicians who support Brexit”, his approach is reminiscent of Nazism.
“The word ‘betrayal’ was used in German from 1919 onwards and throughout the 1920s with terrible results. I am not doing some some sort of scary thing here. That kind of rhetoric, ‘saboteurs’, all those kinds of words used about fellow British citizens who happen to disagree is really bad,” Esler says.
For Esler, the jump from journalism to professional politician was “really hard”. As perhaps could be expected of a veteran reporter, he had “always been sceptical about people in power”.
“I have enjoyed meeting Angela Merkel and Bill Clinton and Margaret Thatcher and all the rest, but I have always done that as an observer. I never wanted to do it,” he says.
The trigger, unsurprisingly for anyone who follows him on Twitter, was Brexit. “This is about Britain. This is about the country I love. People who have stolen our patriotism on the far-right and I want that back,” he says.
And while the former BBC man believes British broadcasting remains “fundamentally strong”, he has a “fierce criticism” of TV and radio news.
“Balance in politics has been easy in Britain because we have all fallen into the 20th century idea if you have a Tory on you get a Labour Party person. If you have the left you have the right. That’s not what politics is like anymore,” he says.
“Brexit is not only not just about left and right. Brexit is about expertise. You cannot and should not have someone who really knows what they are talking about balanced by someone who is essentially the village idiot.”
He bristles at the suggestion Change UK candidates, including himself, are too metropolitan. Too London. And too media elite. “I am the typical British aspiring working class,” he says. “To be called ‘elite’ by people who have inherited wealth and run hedge funds or worked in the City of London, I don’t criticise them for it, but the idea is frankly laughable. Just ridiculous.”
Esler was born in Glasgow and brought up in Edinburgh. “There were five other people in that council house,” he recalls. “Now if I am suddenly the elite, I don’t know where that puts Jacob-Rees Mogg.”
Trailing slightly behind Change UK in the polls are the Lib Dems on 7%. Vince Cable has said he would have liked a Remain alliance to have been formed for the European elections. But instead the pro-EU forces remain divided.
“The Lib Dems were in power from 2010. They have had two years of an open goal on Brexit because the government is in a mess and the Labour Party at the top is not showing any leadership. And they haven’t really broken through,” Elser says.
“The Lib Dems, who are good people, but their voice has not been heard and they have not achieved very much.”
The ex-Tory and ex-Labour MPs that make up Change UK’s parliamentary contingent all agree on one thing - there should be another EU referendum. But it is not entirely clear what else they agree on.
But Esler bats away questions about whether he is more comfortable with the Labour or Tory traditions of his party’s founding MPs.
“The idea you’re either left or right is sort of like which leg do you prefer. Your left leg or your right leg. I actually think we need both legs but we need them to be broadly moving in the same direction which is to maker things better for the country,” he says.
“The reason I have never joined political party before is I have never wanted to sign on essentially to a list of things, some of which i will disagree with.
“I have got a chance now - I’m not looking for a job - But I do see a chance to have a voice in forging something big and new that will change Britain for the better.”