The New Statesman Interview - Margaret Macdonagh

She's been blamed for the Labour Party's disastrous showing at the mayoral election. How sorry is sh

Margaret Macdonagh is in an apologetic mood. The word "sorry" recurs several times in the interview. Labour's general secretary is sorry that Londoners did not elect Frank Dobson as their mayor. She is sorry for Dobson, himself. Everyone, she suggests, has been on a huge learning curve, and mistakes were made.

But the apology is a qualified one. Macdonagh does not accept that Labour's selection process for the London mayor was a stitch-up, nor that the outcome was an unmitigated disaster. In a rare interview, the only one she has given since the mayoral election, she places the recent farcical events in a much wider context. "We have been going through a period of huge constitutional change. Now that we have had the experience in Scotland, Wales and London, we're going to review how we deal with devolution as a party. What is essential, and this is the main lesson from London, is that we agree the process for selecting our candidates a long time before the actual selection takes place."

In her view, this was the cause of all the problems in London and elsewhere. "We got ourselves into a position where the candidacy of Frank Dobson - and, of course, Alun Michael in Wales - became completely mixed up in the process of how they were selected. Discussing the selection process at the same time as the candidates started their campaigns was very damaging for Frank Dobson. No candidate must be ever put in that position again."

We are talking in a small office in Millbank, where the "Ken problem" has been an issue for more than a year. Macdonagh succeeded Tom Sawyer as general secretary two years ago. She is not only the youngest holder yet of that office (at 38), but also the first woman. The Labour Party is her life: she often arrives at the office at 7.30 in the morning and can still be there late at night. At weekends, she is often out canvassing in elections or attending party functions. More than anyone else, Macdonagh has been in the eye of the storm, attempting to devise a credible "Stop Ken" policy, and then getting the blame, in some quarters, for the pantomime that followed. She is determined not to go through such an experience again. "In the future, the party conference needs to decide a long time in advance of any election how we are to select candidates. We can then make the decisions without reference to particular candidates and in the context of constitutional changes."

She defends the electoral college chosen to select Labour's candidate in London. "I am genuinely comfortable with the system where politicians, trade unionists and members all have a say. It has a lot of strengths. As a party, we now have to decide what type of election is best handled by an electoral college, and which should be decided by one-member-one-vote. I respect the members' right to make that decision, and they will." Curiously, she sees the outcome of Labour's internal contest in London as a sign of the party's maturity. "I think the Labour Party has come of age. It made the right decision, rather than the popular one, to select Frank Dobson. Sometimes Labour is accused of being focus-group-orientated, always doing the popular thing rather than the principled thing. Here it did the principled thing in selecting Frank. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to do a short-term fix and to have voted for Ken."

I point out that most party members did vote for Ken, and suggest that it was the Labour machine that carried out a short-term fix in ensuring that he lost. "That is not the case. London MPs and GLA candidates were genuinely worried about what Ken Livingstone would do to Labour and to London. They were proved to be right. Some of the things he said during the campaign would have been extremely damaging had he been our candidate. The best outcome would have been a Dobson victory. But it is better that Livingstone won as an independent than as Labour's official candidate."

Why didn't the so-called control freaks stop the Livingstone bandwagon earlier? The view of some at Millbank is that Blair should have intervened at least a year ago. After a very long pause, Macdonagh puts it differently. "I'm not sure . . . Maybe because we're not the control freaks people say we are."

She is especially keen to praise the main victim of the muddle. Her words contrast greatly with those of Dobson, who has spent a great deal of the past few months attacking Millbank for what he saw as its clumsy interventions in his campaign. But as the compliments pour out, Macdonagh manages also to convey some intriguing information. She suggests that Dobson's decision to stand was his alone. "Frank has been brilliant throughout all of this . . . He made a conscious political decision to run for mayor for two reasons. He loves London and wanted to oppose Livingstone."

I put to Macdonagh that a growing number of Labour MPs are worried that the government and the party are in the grip of a small bunch of control freaks. She smiles fleetingly. "Yes, and I'm meant to be one of them. I am not a control freak. I do admit to being an obsessive."

What does she mean by this alternative description? "I am a party activist, first and foremost. This whole control-freakery argument is part of a Tory trap. The Conservatives are worried that Labour has got an effective party machine and are trying to undermine it by convincing everyone that we are control freaks. Virtually everyone in this building is a party activist. I am an obsessive in that I am driven to make the party better.

"We can do greater things, but we need the confidence, and the government's got to take the lead on this. This week, I have spoken to party members at a meeting in Harrogate and had a telephone conference with 50 constituencies. The feedback I am getting is that we should stop being so bloody defensive. Ministers are always telling the party that it should get out and tell people the good things the government is doing. The ministers should get out more and do it themselves."

Her critics accuse her of being too loyal to her leader at times, rather than representing the interests of her party. "I listen to members all the time. There are always suspicions about head office. I had them when I worked locally."

Would she take a decision without consulting Tony Blair? "I enjoy talking to Tony Blair. I enjoy discussing things with him. The Labour Party is never far away from his thoughts. His greatest ambition is to leave the Labour Party stronger. Would I want to talk things through with him? Yes, of course, and I value his opinion. But do I have problems being forthright with him? No, I don't."

Is it her forthright nature that accounts for what some insiders report as her stormy relationship with Sally Morgan, who has responsibility for party matters based in Downing Street? Some have even blamed the relationship for the shambolic events of recent months. I ask her how she gets on with Morgan. "I get on with her brilliantly."

Is there no problem at all? "I think guys have a problem with women who get on well. Both of us are strong-minded individuals. We discuss, argue, joke, disagree . . . Women behave differently to guys. We think differently. We're more emotional. We talk about things more openly, whereas men bottle it all up."

She is a firm opponent of electoral reform for the Commons. "People must feel ownership of an election process; and for that to happen, they must understand it and relate to it. First-past-the-post is simple and places MPs in defined geographical areas. Voters can bang on their door and complain about what is happening."

She believes that William Hague's weakness as a leader has made it harder for Labour to define itself in government and that, ironically, his recent success at setting a right-wing agenda will help her recruit more members. She is especially passionate about the range of support it attracted at the last election, and does not accept the argument that Labour must focus more on the core vote. "This argument misunderstands the type of new voters we attracted last time. They were not multimillionaires in the City. Quite a lot of them were the skilled working class from London, the north-west and the Midlands, and also a lot of young people. The other myth is that our so-called core vote skipped and danced to the polling station in 1983 before all the reforms. Anyway, why can't we as a party have a broad appeal? To suggest otherwise is to fall into another Tory trap."

I suggest that, while she sounded quite contrite earlier on, the tone of the apology did not quite equate with the scale of the cock-up in London. " I am sorry Labour didn't win on Thursday," she replies. "Of course I am. I am sorry that the process impinged on the selection. I will do my utmost to make sure it does not happen again."