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The NS Interview: Helen Clark, head of the UN Development Programme

“I had more power before but I’ve got more influence now”

You served as a Labour prime minister for three terms. Is that where the similarities with Tony Blair begin and end?
Our major dissimilarities were in foreign policy. As you know, New Zealand did not support the invasion of Iraq. I think that was prescient.

Was there no collaboration?
In the years that I was prime minister and Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown were prime ministers, there was quite a lot of policy discussion. But we were much more inclined not to look for market mechanisms in the public sector.

The economist Peter Bauer once described aid as an excellent means of transporting money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries. Does that hold true?
I don't think it holds true, because we are very much focused on systemic change, with a strong emphasis on equality.

You have described the role of the UNDP as providing "the software". What do you mean?
We are not a bank. If someone wants to build a bridge from A to B, there's no point in coming to us; we don't have that sort of money. On the other hand, the planning that goes into a bridge might well be informed by work that the UNDP did to support a country.

Do you think that right-of-centre governments are less inclined to engage with development than left-of-centre governments?
It probably hasn't made a huge difference to the spend: the issue is how big a mess countries are in economically. The size of Spain's economic shock is pretty great so it's cutting back. Britain's problems are considerable, but it has made a deliberate choice under a Conservative-Liberal government to keep the spend up.

Is there a danger that the security agenda could skew where development money goes?
If you neglect those who are currently poor and stable, you may create more poor and unstable people. There has been a tremendous concentration of donor interest in countries that are seen as particularly fragile - but it becomes harder to mobilise money for sub-Saharan, plain poor countries.

It's a difficult sell when governments are preoccupied with Afghanistan.
In sheer development terms, of course fragile countries are very deserving. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries on earth. Security issue or no security issue, there would need to be a focus on it.

Are the Millennium Development Goals, which have a target date of 2015, going to be missed?
A lot of moons would have to come into alignment for every target to be met but, at a global level, progress is quite promising. We need to speed up. The poverty goal is certainly within reach; the hunger one isn't. In terms of universal primary education enrolment, we are tantalisingly close. One more heave and we could do it.

What happens after 2015?
There's a debate to be had about whether there's Daughter of MDGs or a case for being bold.

What's your preference?
To be bold and go for eradication of poverty and hunger. I mean, that is the essence of development: you eradicate extreme, absolute poverty and you eradicate hunger.

Only 18 per cent of the world's legislators are women. How should that be changed?
There's no option but to look at affirmative-action measures. We've been involved in supporting countries to draft legislation to achieve that. For example, in Papua New Guinea, we have helped Dame Carol Kidu, who's the only woman member of parliament and the only female minister, to draft legislation for a reserve number of seats.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?
No. "Never look back" is my philosophy.

Does religion play a part in your life?
Absolutely not. I have no beliefs of a religious kind.

Is there a plan?
I'm 60 years old, so you could say that more than half of my life has gone by. I'm very happy with it and I regret nothing. The plan is to keep using the talents and leadership skills I have to do some good for the world.

Is there another job after this one?
I love this one. I think I've got the best job in the UN. I was asked: "Did you have more power in your previous position as prime minister or in this one?" I said: "I had more power before; I've got more influence now."

Do you vote?
Yes. I exercise my vote. I'm in New Zealand often enough to keep my registration and I will certainly be voting Labour at the next general election.

Are we all doomed?
No, life's too short to be pessimistic.

Defining Moments

1950 Born in Hamilton, New Zealand
1981 Enters parliament as a Labour MP
1987 Elected to cabinet
1989 Becomes deputy prime minister
1993 Appointed leader of the Labour Party
1999 Becomes first woman to be elected prime minister of New Zealand
2008 Becomes longest-serving Labour leader. Loses general election
2009 Appointed administrator of the United Nations Development Programme

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Here comes the squeeze

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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