The New Statesman Interview - Patricia Hewitt

The e-minister, once Kinnock's aide, now shudders at memories of the bad old days. Patricia Hewitt i

In all the speculation about who will get which job after the election, one thing is taken as certain: Patricia Hewitt, an MP for just four years, will win a place in the Cabinet. In one sense, this is no surprise: with Mo Mowlam and Margaret Jay departing, there will inevitably be promotion for a few women at least. But what puts Hewitt at the top of the list?

For a start, she is bright and articulate. Second, forget the mere four years in the Commons; Hewitt is a party veteran, a Labour insider for nearly two decades and a civil liberties campaigner long before that. More importantly, however, she is an unswerving moderniser, one of the few people urging Tony Blair to go further and faster in driving change through the Labour Party. In fact, Hewitt doesn't seem to have very much time for the party at all - or at least the party of old, when she was one of Neil Kinnock's most trusted advisers.

Hewitt first came to prominence as general secretary of the National Council for Civil Liberties in 1974, but in 1983 was appointed press secretary to the new leader of the Labour Party, Neil Kinnock. It was a grim time and she shudders at the memory: her conversation is peppered with references to the bad old days, when "the old machine politics" was "very, very damaging to the Labour Party".

According to Hewitt, one of the great attractions of Blair was that "he was seen to be different from the old party machine". She is not afraid to admit there have been mistakes when the party has fallen back into its old ways, as it did in trying to impose its own candidates on the newly devolved assemblies: "We devolved power from the centre as a government, but then we tried to hang on to power in the centre as a party . . . I think trying to ensure that Labour Party members in London didn't get the candidate that they wanted was a huge mistake, and we paid the price for it."

Unlike some of Hewitt's fellow junior ministers, she is not afraid to speak her mind. She is one of the few Labour MPs to have spoken up for Keith Vaz, who holds the neighbouring constituency to hers in Leicester. She blames his troubles on vicious Labour Party infighting: "It's been obvious to anyone who's seen what's happened to poor Keith that there's a very embedded history of factional politics in the city." She condemns the dragging out of allegations "that were made and dealt with years and years ago - dragged out by political opponents within the party". She argues that it is such searing internal feuding, where opponents in the party are targeted far more than the Tories, which has been responsible for "a very steep decline in support for Labour" at the local level.

Yet at the same time, the minister is a keen supporter of devolving power downwards: "it seems to me central to what new Labour is about that we want to devolve power, we want to give people much more control, much more choice about the things that really affect their lives". When I ask how that fits with new Labour's centralising, controlling tendencies, her answer suggests a desire to bypass some of the reactionary forces at work in the party at local level: her work in tackling social exclusion has involved "challenging the power of the town hall" - one of the reasons, she believes, why some local councillors think Labour is hostile to them. "We're not hostile to them, but we do want them to work in a way that is going to promote bottom-up neighbourhood regeneration, rather than trying to throttle it; and that's very challenging to some parts of local government."

In Hewitt's eyes, ministers should look beyond the Labour Party once in government. Along with the ministerial cars and large offices, she believes ministers take on responsibility for pushing the country's interests more than the party's. Although she doesn't write off the party completely - it has an important role in "structuring the debate" - she insists that ministers have to "operate well beyond party boundaries" and not be seen to be "putting the party machine first and the people second". Putting the party first, she thinks, works against progress. "When it comes to securing real change on the ground, tribal politics don't do what you want," she says.

There is no sentiment here for the party of which she has been a member for more than 20 years. But then again, she witnessed at first hand those appalling defeats in 1983, 1987 and 1992. That is what drives her desire to modernise. But doesn't she, I ask, at least understand the frustrations of long-standing Labour Party members who see the Daily Mail and the Sun dictating their party's agenda? Hewitt is unapologetic. Though admitting that there are some party members who "feel too much notice is taken of the sensitivities of Middle England", she is certainly not one to romanticise the past: "It comes down to remembering the days when we completely lost sight of Middle England, we regarded Middle England as the enemy, and, as a result, for 18 years we couldn't do anything at all for the communities from whom our members came."

Hewitt stood as a candidate in Leicester East in the 1983 election: she found that people there, who had voted Labour all their lives, "just thought we'd taken leave of our senses and gone to another planet". In any case, Hewitt shares the Prime Minister's view that there is no great divergence between the aims and values of Labour "grass roots" and those of Middle England: "It's easy to accept caricatures about public opinion and to assume that there's some great gulf in attitude between Labour's heartlands and suburban and Middle Britain; and, actually, there are common aspirations."

She believes that all of them share a view that there is "a minority who are simply not going to accept their responsibilities and who are not bringing their children up as decent, respectable young people, and who may not be paying their taxes either, even though they're claiming benefit".

As the minister responsible for e-commerce, Hewitt is far more e-literate than most of her colleagues, and sees the changes that new technology is making to our lives and to political communication in fairly apocalyptic terms. The nature of political activity has been "fundamentally changed", she says, through mobile phones and e-mail, which are encouraging "one-to-one communication" rather than the "one-to-many" style of the old mass meetings and then the television era. Politicians were left "behind the curve", she thinks, and exposed by events such as the fuel protests as well as public reactions against paedophiles. They hadn't understood that they had to be part of the network: "In the case of the fuel protests, it took us quite some time to figure out what was going on because we weren't part of the e-mail and the text-message chain, and we hadn't learnt to monitor the newsgroups."

All that is starting to be put right now, Hewitt claims, with the government tuning in to the new technology in a sensible way. The battle for flat-rate internet charges was a major one for Hewitt - and she believes this has put Britain way out in front as one of the world leaders in the take-up of the internet. There is still a digital divide, with the poorest families finding it hard to get access to computers. But she sees the way ahead as being through digital television: "One in three families now has digital television; of families with children, it's one in two . . . not everyone is yet using digital television for internet access, but of course you can do it."

Hewitt's ease with the new technology - she uses the internet all the time - comes from the two years she spent with Andersen Consulting.

The question of how far government moves ahead with the new technology may be one for someone else to pursue. Because Hewitt is tipped to move upwards into a new role, perhaps taking over Social Security from Alistair Darling, a job for which her five years at the Institute for Public Policy Research would stand her in good stead.

She is quite clear that "another shove" will be needed to restore all-women shortlists in the next parliament: without them, "the parties are going back to their old ways" - in other words, selecting men. She says that a more certain way of increasing the number of women in public life would be to adopt proportional representation - though it would have to be a form of PR that retained the constituency link for MPs.

Is Hewitt's rise unstoppable? There are certainly a number of older-style male politicians who do not want to believe that. "Patricia's very bright and all that," said a ministerial colleague, "but the trouble is she just talks e-speak these days and no one can understand her." Hewitt is also much mocked by the sketchwriters for her choice of pastel jackets and her Australian vowels. But she has an air of assurance and self-confidence which matches that of most men. She is heading higher, there is no question about that. She will doubtless suffer the fate of almost all new Labour's leading women, which is to quickly become a magnet for the misogyny of left and right. But she's a tough one. This is one moderniser who has been waiting to get her hands on power even longer than Tony Blair.

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