The New Statesman Interview - Ian McCartney

He wears corduroy trousers but can make old and new Labour nod simultaneously. Ian McCartney intervi

Ian McCartney does not look like a new Labour moderniser. At last year's Trades Union Congress conference his yellow shirt, red tie, blue jumper and battered black corduroy trousers made even some of the more traditional delegates seem like followers of fashion. He was the only minister to spend the entire week at the conference in Blackpool, enjoying an easy rapport with trade union leaders. His sartorial inelegance was recently on display in Durham, where party activists gathered for a meeting of the National Policy Forum. Some ministers do not rush to potentially troublesome conferences of activists or trade unionists. McCartney not only attends them, he positively enjoys them.

McCartney, who has been a trade and industry minister for the last two years, describes one of his recreations in Who's Who as "head of McCartney family, a family of proud working-class stock". His only other recreation highlighted is as a "fanatical follower" of Wigan rugby league. This is hardly Blairite terrain. Indeed, in appearance, manner and background he is the caricature of an old Labour activist. Yet when you listen carefully to his message, it is Blairite to the core. Not surprising, then, that at a time when Labour's traditional supporters are uneasy, McCartney, the loyalist with deep roots in the party, is being talked of as Secretary of State for the Core Vote.

His reflections on the government and its core voters show why he is well placed. They will have Blairites and core voters nodding simultaneously. He is one of the few ministers who has the knack of showing a passionate concern for the Blairite message that the new Labour coalition should not be undermined. "Let me give you the example of the minimum wage. To achieve that we did not go around talking to low-paid workers to convince them that they needed a minimum wage. Talking to them was irrelevant. Every week they got a pay packet. They already knew what poverty meant. What we had to do was convince workers who had no idea about poverty wages, and business leaders and managers. We needed to do something to break the cycle. That's the importance of the coalition, building support outside the core areas."

Therein lies the secret of McCartney's success: his ability to reconcile the often conflicting aspirations of new Labour and the trade unions without betraying either of them or losing their respect. He has also won some impressive plaudits from business leaders, who admire his genuine belief in social partnership in industry.

Does he recognise that there is a disillusioned core vote within the vast new Labour coalition? Typically he gives a Blairite response, but from the perspective of impoverished communities. "The issue is one of motivation. If you live in a community which has been decimated through economic activity and environmental degradation, don't be surprised if voters switch off. We're making up for decades of the Conservatives' withdrawing investment in these communities. It's not an overnight job reviving them. We've made a start. But as we help regenerate communities and encourage them to regenerate themselves, local Labour parties must be regenerated too . . . and engaged in their communities."

This seems to be the opening for an attack on what Blairites regard as some very old Labour local parties. But at this point McCartney abandons his balancing act to leap to the defence of the activist. "Some local parties are excellent. We must never forget that the Labour Party is a volunteer army. Since 1994 the Labour Party has been constantly campaigning in elections. It's also completely transformed itself as a party, its campaigning techniques, the culture, changes at national and regional level. It has been an unprecedented period of activity and our volunteers get tired."

So does McCartney blame recent electoral setbacks on activists' fatigue? "There is a fatigue element . . . There are real lessons about campaigning and how we give people ownership of the campaign as well."

He adds that Margaret Beckett is reviewing the lessons from the campaigns. Margaret Beckett? According to some Labour sources she is partly to blame for the European election result and is about to lose her job in the cabinet. When I raise this, McCartney launches a passionate defence. Evidently he is a huge admirer of Beckett, who was his first boss at the Department of Trade and Industry. Peter Mandelson was his second. "The attacks on Margaret Beckett from inside the party have been absolutely outrageous, to be frank. She can take these things as she is remarkably resilient. But let me say this. Margaret Beckett has sustained this party in good times and bad. She has incredible support among party members and she is respected not just as a party figure, it goes well beyond that. Whoever spreads these rumours I should tell them that blaming her is irrelevant. Instead we must listen to our members to find out what went wrong. You know nine out of ten of them are broadly supportive and they are very good at sussing out what went wrong."

What about the comments of the Welsh minister, Peter Hain, in an interview with me before the Euro elections, in which he warned that the core voter was becoming disillusioned with the government? McCartney is less supportive. "How can I put this? Peter and I are very good friends politically, but the difference between a good minister and one who just performs is that you have to make difficult choices. Sometimes you have to make decisions which disappoint people, but I don't think this government has made a single decision which was malevolent. Every one has been taken for the right reasons and we are really making a difference to people's lives. I get lots of letters from people saying 'Thank God I'm getting the minimum wage', and then there are the child benefit and pension gains and all our other reforms which take time to work through."

McCartney sets great store by the new policy forums. He is adamant that they "empower" (a favourite word of his), rather than marginalise, members. "We have opened up the party in a way that no one has tried before, empowering members to participate in policy making. It has been a huge cultural change."

In particular he stresses the importance of dialogue with groups outside the party, some of whom attended the meeting in Durham. "Party members must engage with other stakeholders, the community groups, workers in the public and private sector. People were sceptical at first about these forums, to be honest I was sceptical as well, but now people come along crammed full of ideas."

Can he name any government policies that have been initiated or revised by the forums? "The introduction of NHS Direct, where the NHS has a sophisticated communications system so people can approach it directly, came from the policy forums. A lot of the ideas for crime prevention strategies have come from forums. As for welfare reform, the forums will inform that policy, in the longer as well as the short term."

He accepts the perception of control freakery at the Millbank headquarters. "To deny it would be mad, like saying there are no pigeons in Trafalgar Square. It's out there, this view of control freakery. But it's not true. There is a better dialogue between the party headquarters and the party than when I was a national organiser at the age of 21, when the culture was much more negative. Now people are more committed and want a more transparent, open relationship with the party. But you have to counter remoteness. Remoteness is almost a part of life, but you have to counter it."

One solution being contemplated is the establishment of a party chairman in the cabinet. There has been speculation that McCartney himself might be offered the post. Indeed there were reports that he had already been given new responsibilities for the core vote after the Euro elections. Obviously McCartney wants a promotion but he is too astute a politician to make a blatant bid for a job in advance. "The Prime Minister must make a decision about party organisation this summer. You hear rumours that I might be made chairman, that Mo Mowlam might be made chairman, but it's up to the Prime Minister. I remember what happened a few years ago when I first was asked to go on to the front bench. I got a call, heard this Scottish voice and thought it was my father. 'What's up?' I asked. In a mega-second I realised it was not my father, but John Smith. That was me on the front bench. I would take up any job to help the party."

You could describe McCartney as a junior version of John Prescott. Like the Deputy Prime Minister, he was a seaman and a leading trade unionist before becoming a Labour Party organiser. As a trade and industry minister he has been more involved than even Prescott in reassuring trade union leaders about the minimum wage, fairness at work and Post Office reforms.

Crucially, he has reassured while delivering the compromises that Tony Blair has sought. Almost certainly when Blair announces his reshuffle this avowedly working-class moderniser will be one of those moving upwards.

This article first appeared in the 12 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Were chimps the first socialists?