The New Statesman Interview - Peter Hain
"We need to spell out to voters that Labour is following a radical socialist programme". Peter Hain
Not surprisingly Peter Hain is feeling battle-weary. His career as a minister for Wales began in the summer of 1997 with the nerve-jangling referendum campaign. Unlike in Scotland the result was close, only just producing a "yes" vote for the Welsh Assembly. Last year, following the traumatic resignation of Ron Davies, he became Alun Michael's campaign manager in the bitter internal contest with Rhodri Morgan. He was plunged into the elections for the assembly last month, when Labour performed unexpectedly badly in some of its traditional strongholds.
Within the government Hain is in a strong position. Whenever he has been called upon to perform for Tony Blair, however difficult the circumstances, he has loyally carried out his duties. When he speaks out he does so as someone who has gone out of his way to help the Blairites. Which brings us to the other effect of his early ministerial experiences. Hain has decided that the time has come to offer some candid advice to the government and the Labour Party leadership.
"We have got ourselves into a dangerous situation where a Labour government appears as if it is being gratuitously offensive to its own natural supporters," Hain warns.
This is one of the lessons he has learnt from the battering Labour took in parts of Wales, largely at the hands of the Welsh nationalists, Plaid Cymru, in the recent elections. The party leadership had problems galvanising members to campaign actively and then to persuade its core supporters to cast their votes. As a minister with further ambitions Hain tends to choose his words very carefully, so what does he mean by the government being "gratuitously offensive"?
"The government wants to give the impression that all its policies are targeted at Middle England - that relatively affluent part of the coalition Tony Blair brilliantly built up before the election. There seems to be an assumption that there is nowhere else for the core voter, Labour's natural supporters, to go. In fact there are several other options for our core support. For a start they can sit at home.
"The turnout was very low in last month's elections, not just in Wales. If our traditional supporters feel neglected by the time of the general election they could stay at home again. What is more, in Scotland and Wales they can go to other parties, the SNP and Plaid Cymru. I have become convinced that we have a big problem with our core vote. At the elections last month they felt ignored as if we, as a government, are not for them. There are real dangers in this relentless pursuit of the Daily Mail Middle England voter."
He stresses that this is not simply a matter of refocusing presentational priorities. "There are issues that worry our voters. I'm not saying, like the Tories in 1992-97, that it is all down to presentation." Throughout the interview, though, he refuses to identify policy areas that need reconsideration.
Instead he calls on the government to spell out its existing policies in a more explicit fashion. "The new deal, the minimum wage, the increased public spending should all appeal to our supporters. But we need to spell it out to them that we are following a radical socialist programme. I know there's a balance to be struck. We don't want to alienate Daily Mail readers unnecessarily. But reform by stealth means our natural supporters quite often don't know what we're doing."
More specifically he calls for an entirely new relationship between the government and its traditional supporters. "Too often our core vote is dismissed as old Labour, when they would actually be quite supportive of what we are doing if they felt more involved. We need to make our supporters feel as if they own the government rather than the other way round. They must feel as if they belong and are genuinely involved in the policy-making process."
I suggest that the notion of Labour Party members "owning" the government would hardly be greeted with delight in Downing Street. Sometimes policy-making seems to be confined to Blair, his trusted advisers and the relevant cabinet minister, if he or she is lucky. The Treasury has its own hold on policy-making as well. But the party members?
"I am suggesting that the party's policy forums should be able to contribute directly to government green papers, and possibly white papers. They must become forums where policy is seen to be made as well as debated."
He proceeds to make a wider point. "There's an irony here. One-member-one-vote can't replace the feeling of being directly involved in the party in a collective way. It's all right to be involved in an individualistic way, which is what one-member-one-vote is all about, but being involved in a collective way is what being a member of the party should be all about. It shouldn't feel like being a member of the AA or RAC."
Hain's comments seem odd when placed against the opinion polls that show Labour is still miles ahead of the Conservatives. But Hain believes that if his warning goes unheeded the next election is wide open: "We mustn't take the next general election for granted."
Hain is also licking his wounds from the battles that preceded the Welsh Assembly elections. All kinds of strings were pulled from the centre to ensure that Blair's candidate, Alun Michael, beat Rhodri Morgan in the contest which followed Davies's resignation. The bitter resentment in the Welsh Labour Party at the control freakery lives on months later. "Let me stress that I thought Alun Michael was the best candidate for the job. I was his campaign manager. But you would have to be a total idiot to imagine that the leadership process was smooth. It was damaging to the Labour Party, it was damaging to Alun Michael and it was damaging to Tony Blair because his popularity has suffered in Wales as a result."
How damaging has it been? "I have to say that Ron Davies, the architect of Welsh devolution, was almost responsible for the implosion of Welsh devolution. The period after his resignation has been traumatic and difficult for everyone in the Welsh Labour Party."
But Hain is not trying to heap all the blame on Davies and his night on Clapham Common. He believes that the subsequent attempts by the national leadership in London to impose its will on the party in Wales caused damage as well. So what are the lessons for Labour's next great battle over who should be its candidate for the London Mayor election? Should the leadership allow Ken Livingstone to stand, rather than block him? Hain does not answer directly, but gives the clearest possible hint. "What I would say to those responsible for selecting our potential candidates in London is 'look what happened to our vote in Wales when the centre appeared to intervene. Look what happens when there is an impression of control freakery'."
He goes even further by implicitly comparing the stance of the more ardent Blairites now with the left in the 1980s. "There is a supreme irony here. In the early 1980s the left was unpopular, but managed to impose its will on the party. Now we may find ourselves in situations where someone from the left is popular, but the party's internal procedures block someone from standing. It becomes counterproductive."
In other words it is almost certainly Hain's view that the leadership in London, and Blair in particular, would be making a big mistake if it blocked Livingstone from putting his name forward as a potential candidate.
Although not in the cabinet, Hain has already established himself as an important figure in the Blair administration, managing to retain close ties with the party rank and file while being a loyal minister. He has been an interesting barometer figure on electoral reform for the Commons. On one occasion soon after the election, for example, he was strongly encouraged by Downing Street to write a newspaper article outlining his long-held support for the alternative vote (AV). Increasingly I get the impression that Blair is losing interest in changing the voting system, so where does Hain stand now? "The only practical way to bring about change would be to accept the alternative vote as a first step. Perhaps later we could make the system more proportional. But if the Liberal Democrats backed AV they would have much more chance of bringing about change." He stresses that this is his own view and has no idea of Blair's latest thinking on the issue.
Hain's critics would argue that he is a vain politician trying to have it both ways, keeping in with the Blairites as a minister but appealing to the disillusioned party faithful at the same time. As one of his critics put it to me, "he always tries to have one foot in and one foot out". No doubt matters of political positioning are in Hain's thoughts. But this is no crime. Most politicians consider their own position when making public comments.
Much more significantly, Hain's comments are based on his own insights as a minister caught in the eye of a storm. They are not the superficial, throwaway comments of an attention-seeking egotist. Perhaps he has a new job in mind for himself in the forthcoming summer reshuffle when he offers this concluding thought.
"I repeat that the most alarming feature of last month's elections was the very low turnout and the lack of activity on the ground. There's more to government than dominating the news agenda. We need to mobilise our activists to campaign enthusiastically. And we need to find a way of doing this very quickly."