Chris Pond interview: I would not want to be an MP now
Kreab’s partner and head of public affairs talks lobbying, Labour and long distance running.
Politicians have various methods of coping with crushing defeats. A common response is to grow a beard. Or to go on Strictly Come Dancing.
Since losing his Commons seat in 2005, Chris Pond has resisted sprouting facial hair or demonstrating his dancing prowess. But the former Labour minister has been running marathons - and now has 19 under his belt.
What is his personal best? “I couldn’t tell you precisely, but it’s somewhere around three hours, seven minutes and two seconds,” he smiles over lunch at Shepherd’s restaurant in Westminster.
Pond has also entered the public affairs world with Kreab Worldwide. As partner and head of public affairs, he has a somewhat different remit to his time in parliament – when he served as parliamentary private secretary in the Treasury and then as a minister in the Department for Work and Pensions. However, Pond is certain that his time as an MP helps him in his current job.
“I think it does help because it gives you an understanding of the way the machinery works, whether that’s Whitehall or Westminster at the parliamentary end of things,” he says.
“When companies are to understand the way the system works, to be able to explain the mechanisms and the timescales, which are the right buttons to push and which are the right levers to pull, that’s very helpful.”
Pond spent eight years as Labour MP for Gravesend before losing his seat to the Tories in the 2005 election (by just 654 votes). Asked if he misses that time, Pond enthuses about the “heady days” when Tony Blair was at the peak of his powers and New Labour could do no wrong. But that does not mean he would like to be in parliament now.
“I really enjoyed the parliamentary stuff, I enjoyed the department work because there was a feeling you could change some things and I thoroughly enjoyed the constituency stuff, being considered to be a member of a community...
“I think a lot has changed since I left. Politics is very different now and since the expenses scandal you can see the disdain and contempt that many people have for politicians. And I think that is reflected in what’s been happening in recent elections…
“And so, would I want to be in parliament now? No I wouldn’t. It’s a very different world nowadays and I’m full of admiration for people who are continuing to keep up that struggle.”
Kreab was set up in Stockholm in the 1970s and now operates in 25 countries. Having joined in 2013, Pond heads up public affairs in UK, running a team of five in the 30-strong London office.
But he stresses integration between the public affairs, corporate and financial arms. “We don’t have necessarily a distinction between the public affairs team and the rest of the organisation…. We’ll hunt in packs, really.”
Asked whether he sees himself as a lobbyist, Pond is quick to respond in the negative.
“No. We don’t do lobbying. I would describe our job as to help business understand better the way that policy is made, and perhaps help policy makers understand better the way that business operates. And if we can act as an intermediary between those two and improve the understanding of both then I think we’ve done a worthwhile job.
“It is about improving that understanding. Much less so than lobbying and trying to change policy. Been there, done that. That’s the job of parliamentarians.”
Like many other Labour-supporting public affairs operators, the former MP is “deeply saddened” by what is happening in his party these days.
“I would like to see the party focused on changing the way the country is governed and having aspirations for government itself and the leadership of the party doesn’t seem to have those aspirations,” he says.
Pond is slightly more sanguine about Brexit. He makes it clear that he does not believe that quitting the European Union is a good idea. But it could be good news for firms such as his, he says.
“But it’s also the case that there are very good opportunities for organisations like our own, especially because we have such a large international client base, because clients need to understand what the implications of Brexit are, what measures they need to take to mitigate the impact or indeed to reach out to the new opportunities that it might bring.”
The changing political terrain also presents the opportunity for public affairs firms to snare former Downing Street advisers. And Pond makes it clear that he will be looking carefully at any CVs that pass his desk.
“People who were working in Number 10 clearly have a very good view about the whole policy landscape and they will be very valuable additions to any agency – and certainly to an agency like Kreab,” he claims.
Looking further ahead, Pond is optimistic that his own party might be able to get its act together before the next general election.
He says: “My belief in the longer term in that whatever happens in the immediate election in September, within a couple of years’ time things will change and as we get closer to the next election – and on the assumption that Theresa May doesn’t call a snap election – then the party will come to its sense and we will see the party in the country and the party in Westminster coming together again.”
Alas, he is somewhat less optimistic about his chances of completing yet another marathon.
“I’ve absolutely got to do number 20. Even if it kills me. Which it probably will.”