NS Interview - David Triesman

<em>Labour Party Conference</em> - He wants transparency and debate, and welcomes the word "socialis

He calls it "the second phase". The hyper-control that accompanied Labour's journey out of opposition and continued throughout its first term of office is, David Triesman tries to assure me, a thing of the past. His Labour Party will be different. It will welcome open debate - from the constituencies to the cabinet, to the conference now starting in Blackpool.

I sit down with him after being given a tour of 16 Old Queen Street, Labour's new headquarters, a grand, listed building overlooking St James's Park. Everywhere I go, I am reminded that this is not the Millbank Tower of Margaret McDonagh, his draconian predecessor as general secretary. Instead of a giant open-plan operation, this is an old five-storey town house, with small rooms scattered around a large lift shaft, newly painted bright red.

Millbank, Triesman says, was a "response to a particular historical phase", in which the leadership believed the only way to overcome media hostility was to snuff out any dissenting voices. "Everybody was very disciplined in that period . . . Maybe too many discussions got closed off before they could be ventilated. We are a party of government. We have a considerable majority. We've got good grounds for confidence . . . so we've got to be bold enough to have the debates."

Is that message getting through to Downing Street? Tony Blair tried as long as he could to keep the House of Commons from debating the crisis with Iraq. And when MPs were finally given the chance, on 24 September, he ensured they didn't have a substantive vote on the issue.

What does Triesman make of the dissenting noises from Clare Short and Robin Cook? Both were briefed against by Downing Street operatives for expressing their reservations, in Short's case on the principle of an attack, in Cook's on the government's sidelining of parliament. "We live in a grown-up democracy," says Triesman, "and major politicians are not going to be silent on issues they regard as having huge ethical impact."

His support for any future military action, and British participation in it, is strictly defined. "There are very, very strong reasons for making sure that international law and institutions responsible for international law have genuine strength and are respected - respected by Iraq, others in the Middle East, respected by us. It's very hard to argue that they should be respected by anyone if we're not prepared to respect them. We have argued for the maintenance of international law and for the UN as the vehicle for it." What if the Americans decide to attack Baghdad before the UN process has been completed?

Triesman suggests it won't come to that. He provides a further caveat for military action: "I am cautious about the issue of regime change. I am principally concerned that we deal with issues of weapons of mass destruction. We have an international obligation to deal with non-proliferation."

In the Commons, Blair said that while it wasn't the goal, getting rid of Saddam's regime would be a "wonderful thing". Triesman says Europe should learn the lessons of the 1930s, but when it comes to the current threat: "People are inevitably anxious that you could have major forces like the US deciding, nation by nation, who you want in power."

A former youth footballer with Spurs, Triesman made his name as a student firebrand in the protests of the late 1960s. He was particularly involved in trying to stop the biological warfare research centre at Porton Down. After various academic posts, he became a leading light in education trade unions. It was from his post as head of the Association of University Teachers that he was plucked by Labour in July last year.

The Iraq crisis couldn't have come at a worse time for the new regime. The momentum that built up after the Budget and the comprehensive spending review, with the huge injection of cash into public services, has been displaced by concerns over military action and Blair's close alliance with George Bush. Triesman admits that if Bill Clinton had still been in power "the discussion would have been much more sympathetic here". Party organisers are hoping that Clinton's address in Blackpool at the end of the conference will send them home in better heart.

The conference was supposed to focus on the investment in schools and hospitals, but all sides concede that Iraq will dominate. The idea is to get the problem out of the way as soon as possible, on 30 September, ahead of Blair's speech. The size of the parliamentary rebellion - 53 Labour MPs voting against the government on Iraq - presages a rough ride for Blair. "The party will want to talk about it. They won't welcome being asked to wait through the week to do it. Whichever way round it's put, this conference is bound to have all the dimensions - tough, less tough - thoroughly debated and be in a position to take a decision," he says. But therein lies the catch. The decision about which of the resolutions are put to the delegates is in the hands of the arrangements committee. That is made up of loyal MPs and mainly loyal unions, so - for all the talk of openness - many delegates are bracing themselves for the usual procedural tricks. Already, ministers have been asked to submit their speeches - not just on the main podium, as is normal, but even to fringe meetings - to both Downing Street and the Treasury for "checking".

The unions, however, are much more worried about the government's public-private partnership plans and are preparing a motion calling for a moratorium on the scheme. If they press it, they are likely to defeat the leadership. But the conspiracy theorists suggest that, as a gesture of "comradeship", they will at the same time fall into line on Iraq, just as they did at the TUC conference two weeks ago.

I ask Triesman about Blair's new-found enthusiasm for the "r" word - redistribution. "I think we've embraced it the whole way through. There's been scarcely a budget when Gordon Brown didn't achieve a measure of helping the poorest people in society by virtue of changes in the exchequer's revenue streams." By that, he means taxing the better-off to help the worse-off. So why not go the whole hog and use the "s" word - socialism? "There are days I think: 'Oh God, why don't we?'" He talks of helping "poorer families live with dignity", treating pensioners better, changing the health service. "I wouldn't mind it being applied, don't get me wrong, but even if the label isn't applied, I think people will understand the profound social values involved."

So is he going out on a limb, or is it all part of a bigger ploy? Certainly, Triesman has been seen by unions, MPs and party workers alike as the "good cop" playing alongside the "bad cop" of the bruiser and party chairman, Charles Clarke. The worse the press gets for Clarke, the more important it is for Triesman to keep the party sweet.

In some ways he has no choice. Labour's finances are so dire that the general secretary's first task every day is to check that the party is afloat. For the past few months, he has been holding secret meetings with the big unions in an attempt to find a new funding formula, but it is proving heavy going. The idea is to ring-fence union donations, on which Labour increasingly depends, from criticism of government action. In the first year of Blair's second term, the big unions incurred the wrath of Downing Street by withholding money in protest at PPP and other policies. "We're talking about trying to keep income from unions at, roughly speaking, historical levels," says Triesman. "We're all aiming for a degree of stability. Unplanned juddering makes it hard to run anything."

It is extremely hard to get that stability. The party is hugely overdrawn - he says its debt has been cut very slightly to just under £5m - and membership is hovering around a low 270,000. The high-value donor unit, now situated on the first floor of the new headquarters, is trying to get wealthy backers to cough up.

It is a tall order. He has to sort out the finances, banish the old Millbank image, get more people involved in the party by encouraging debate, but at the same time not lose control. If he fails on the final part, the briefings against him are likely to begin.

Perhaps Triesman has no choice but to embrace a more open approach. Under McDonagh the party was run as a quasi-Stalinist delivery system, producing secret cheques from the very rich and policy pronouncements that echoed Blair's every word. Now voters and potential members no longer feel tribal loyalties but take views on individual policies, Triesman says. "That is a style of work which is miles more intelligible to people in the electorate who feel turned off politics."

He offers a rhetorical question: "Will vigorous discussion and the emergence of new ideas, and new balances that emerge as a result, be celebrated? Absolutely. I don't think the leadership of the party in government is resistant to this."

You can almost feel Blair's joy at having to account to his party for the military conflict he is preparing to commit it to.