"There’s a great view from up here,” says Graham Dale, bounding up the steps leading to the dome at the top of Westminster Central Hall, two at a time. He doesn’t puff. He doesn’t even sweat a little. I, however, have just walked up 79 steps to get to his office that overlooks Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament and looks out to the Post Office Tower. So, I drag up the full 176 steps behind him for a private tour of the dome.
A sign leading to his office warns “persons suffering from vertigo or breathing disorders” not to “ascend the staircase”. It’s a metaphor for Dale’s life.
He climbs up, when others would happily sit in a comfortable café at the foot of the stairs. The view from the top is amazing. But it requires determination and fitness to see it and Dale has both of these in spades. He runs marathons to relax. And not just any old marathons either. His last was the Karrimor Mountain Marathon, a two-day trek in the pouring rain, which even he describes as “pretty hideous”. To celebrate his 40th birthday next year, Dale plans to climb Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe. “I like a challenge,” he says..
In the last two years, he has run as a Labour candidate in one of the safest Tory seats in the UK, written a book, helped bring up his two sons, Nathan (4) and Joseph (2) and taken on the directorship of the Christian Socialist Movement. He is one of the bright stars in the future of the Labour party, but what motivates him? The answer lies in the chance viewing of a news bulletin in 1984, when mounted police charged protesting miners. “I was shocked. It made me ask hard questions. Who had given the orders for these horses to charge lines of miners? “Any investigation of issues like civil conflict leads back to politics. If you are motivated to ask the questions then you are on an inexorable journey to politics,” says Dale..
That moment caused “a paradigm shift” in his life. He knew he wanted to be “where the power was” in party politics, to make a difference to the television broadcasts that so appalled him. And, it wasn’t just the charging of miners that appalled him. “The greatest obscenity of our day is that, in a world with so much, we lose 19,000 kids a day through hunger-related, preventable diseases,” he says.. He admits to being the archetypal angry young man in his early 20’s, enraged by what he saw as the Tory Party’s failure to address the issue of world poverty. “They cut the size of the aid budget every year for 18 years. It did make me very angry. It helped drive me into a political alternative.”
The issue of 19,000 children dying each day still makes him angry today. He can’t stop talking about it. His anger and concern has grown through fatherhood. “This is what’s driven me into public life, is children dying of starvation. My anger hasn’t diminished, it’s increased, having my own kids. I look at them and think ‘these are kids like those that die’.” The plight of landmine victims also angers him. So why not become an aid worker? Surely that ’s more effective than sitting in a seventh floor office in Westminster? “I didn’t become an aid worker because I think you need to find your own niche in life. We are not all called to become aid workers.”
So what is 39-year-old Dale called to, other than climbing an awful lot of stairs and sporting a Tony Blair mask on the wall of his office? Initially, it was selling cars in Scotland. “Car sales, being a minister and a politician, it’s all about people and understanding them and getting something out of them, knowing how they tick,” he says.. From car sales he became a student of Theology at London Bible College. “Christ’s comments on the poor got through to me.” From there, he joined Youth for Christ as a youth worker, and then worked for a Glasgow church as assistant minister. Social concerns led him to join the development agency Tearfund and take a group of young people to the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992.
This was followed by several years at the Evangelical Alliance, latterly with Martyn Eden, now the Evangelical Alliance’s (EA) Policy Director, in the organisation’s political lobbying unit. “He’s always looking for opportunities not just to blow his own trumpet, but he’s looking to make the world a better place through helping the poor,” says Eden. “He ’s a very driven man. When I first met him I couldn ’t understand what he was saying. His Scottish accent was unintelligible to my southern rounded vowels. “I have a lot of respect and affection for him. He’s so focused on changing the world.
I think he’s a rising star in Labour and I will be disappointed if he doesn’t make the Labour back benches at some stage. They need people like him.”
Last year Dale courted controversy, with the publication of his first book God’s Politicians. Its cover depicted Keir Hardie, the founder of the Labour movement, as Christ, at the Last Supper. Flanking him are his disciples, including Tony Blair, Sir Harold Wilson, John Smith, Sir Stafford Cripps and Arthur Henderson. Sir Brian Mawhinney slammed it as being ‘upsetting to all right-minded Christians’. ‘Our Lord is above politics and should be kept out of it,’ he said at the time. John Gummer, a convert to Roman Catholicism, told the Sunday Telegraph that the book’s cover was “yet another example” of the vulgarity of New Labour. Faith and politics however, are inextricably linked for Dale. He has worked for Stephen Timms MP and also for Simon Hughes MP. This year, he went a step further, standing for Labour as the Labour Party candidate for South West Herts, one of the safest Tory seats in the country.
It’s still Tory, though Dale took 30 per cent of the vote. And that makes him angry too. “More folk in my constituency didn’t vote for the Conservative than did. I have irrepressible enthusiasm, but I found it extremely difficult to fight a seat that there was no chance of winning. “I had a problem, not with not winning – I worked my butt off – but because of the system, the votes didn’t count unless I got to such a stage that I was first past the post and then all the other people’s votes wouldn ’t have counted. The system’s not right.”
Electoral reform–making everyone’s vote count – is, not surprisingly, high on Dale’s agenda. It’s the injustice of the present system that irks him. And while we’re on the subject of political injustice, let’s not forget the House of Lords. “The thing that annoys me the most is unaccountable privilege.
“Power and wealth that exists completely disregarding the social injustices of the world is morally wrong. Let’s be honest about it. It’s wrong. Hereditary peers were an anachronism if there ever was one. It was absurd.” What’s his view of a system that makes Jeffrey Archer a life peer after a life in politics? Can he understand why today’s angry young men take to the streets in anti-globalisation riots rather than joining party politics?
“Politicians have brought themselves into disrepute,” he says. “But there is no alternative to politicians."
“Young people see contradictions [between policy and reality] strikingly and are impatient for change. They live in a more black and white world and they find it difficult to reconcile saying ‘we want to abolish child poverty’ but still seeing the poverty. It’s one of the reasons that Blair wanted to make promises he could keep. “Sadly, the very real issues of globalisation of the anti-capitalists have been disregarded by the virtue of the fact that a few of them are violent. It’s extremely counter-productive.” But you’re angry too, I say. You’ve been angry for years. Yes, he says, but, “the journey has also been from black and white to grey.”
Dale grew up in a distinctly black and white world. Born into a Brethren family in Scotland, he attended church five times on a Sunday. “There was not time to play outside,” he says.. Taking a role in church is still important to him. He was, until recently, the secretary of his local Baptist Church in Rickmansworth. But he doesn’t go five times on a Sunday. “There’s still some value in having a day when you don’t do all that normal stuff,” he says. But the infighting in his home church dismayed him. How could people fall out over “petty theological, cultural things” when there were “so many children dying of hunger-related diseases?” he says..
And this is where we get to another rather grey issue – abortion. If Dale is opposed to the death of children, then why not stand on an anti-abortion ticket? “I think we've probably lost touch with the value of life,” he says. “It’s important to protect life wherever it is vulnerable and in need of protection. “Any termination is a tragedy. The problem is that it is not an issue that should be sorted out in Parliament or through the criminal justice system.”
Dale spends one day a week at home looking after his children, Nathan and Joseph. His wife,Gillian, is a GP. “She has her own demanding career. I can’t let what I do squash her freedom.” It’s been “a great privilege” to help bring up the boys, he says. It also sounds very busy. Running CSM, helping bring up two small boys, being a leader in his church, running for Parliament. It sounds as if the Brethren upbringing with no “time to play outside” still exists for Dale. How does he relax? He looks at me blankly. “I wrote the book. I run marathons. I love running marathons. That’s what I do to relax.” And he loves climbing. “You don ’t think about anything else when you climb a wall,” he says. And anyway, his favourite Bible verse is John 10:10, when Jesus says, ‘I have come in order that you might have life – life in all its fullness ’. “I like the idea of squeezing the most out of life,” he says.