The NS Interview - Peter Hain

The Leader of the Commons says Blair has done better than Attlee, and we can still vote Labour even

You read it here first. A third Labour term will be about "liveability". Peter Hain is talking about quality-of-life issues such as antisocial behaviour, community policing, public health, housing and childcare. "If the first term focused on economic stability and the second was about public investment, this time our job is to leave a liveability legacy." The Leader of the Commons is planning seven "big reform bills" for straight after the election: "I want us to hit the ground running and have a first session which is really full of momentum and dynamism, unlike 2001 when we didn't come in prepared and spent a lot of time treading water." He adds hastily: "If we win the election . . . I don't think it's in the bag."

His other main priority is reviving the plans for Lords reform that were unceremoniously dumped at the prompting of Tony Blair and his then lord chancellor, Derry Irvine. "There are many around the cabinet table who are wary," he admits. "It has been difficult to assemble a consensus." The message is more important than the detail it contains. Hain says some of his colleagues will agree to a change in the composition of the Lords only if its powers are formally circumscribed relative to the Commons. He now supports the option of offering the public two votes on the same day - one for the lower house and one for an upper house elected by proportional representation. It so happens that this idea has recently been embraced by Gordon Brown, although Hain quickly adds that it was first mooted by Robin Cook.

He laughs when I suggest he has taken on board the Chancellor's conversion to pluralism. "Opinion has started to shift. I'm just pleased that Gordon is looking at the whole constitutional agenda more thoroughly than he has had time to do up to now. It's not a question of getting on anyone's bandwagon. It's a question of where the discussion is going."

The issue is hardly likely to set the electorate's pulse racing. Constitutional reform, I suggest, remains an obsession of the chattering class. Hain disagrees. "We need to leave a democratic legacy. The idea of going into the general election where the Tories, for opportunistic reasons, and the Lib Dems, for long-standing policy reasons, have got a commitment to democratic reform of the Lords and we haven't is not conceivable. The progressive vote is interested in democratic reform."

So where exactly is the progressive vote heading? We get straight into Iraq and the Liberal Democrats. "A large chunk of it is with us, but a chunk of it is also disenchanted. I'm very concerned about that." He talks about arguments with friends and family who are passionately opposed to the war. Whatever the anger, he says, "You can't opt out of the difficult choice at the next election - you're either going to get a Tory government through the back door or you're going to get a Labour government." He goes on: "The big picture is that we have the chance to change the whole character of British politics. For the Tories to lose three times would open the prospect of a progressive consensus being established." Spot another term used by Brown.

Hain has a message for the disenchanted army - he calls them "progressive voters" - thinking of backing the Lib Dems: choose your constituency carefully. He points to roughly 150 seats where Labour's main challenge comes from the Conservatives. They were won in 1997 and 2001 "because the progressive majority came behind us, otherwise there would be a Tory MP and a continuation of Tory rule". And he suggests that "if the Lib Dems continue to make inroads into the Tories where they have the opportunity to do so, that's good for progressive politics as well".

Hain reflects a fear among Labour strategists that the anti-Tory tactical voting that served Labour so well in the past two elections may be breaking down. He warns those planning to vote Lib Dem on the assumption that their Labour MP will get re-elected anyway to think again. "You could wake up with a lot of surprises on the day after the election and find yourselves with a Tory MP you don't want - pro hanging, playing the race card, cutting public services, driving unemployment up . . . That's what people have to confront." He comes to the point: "You can still disagree with what we did on Iraq and vote Labour at the next election."

And what of the war? "I don't think there's any point in revisiting all of that." I have the impression that it is all a bit painful for Hain, but he stands by the military action. "The intelligence that came across my desk, that I was briefed on, was crystal clear. I really did believe that he [Saddam Hussein] had that capacity to strike with chemical and biological weapons and, left to his own devices, with nuclear weapons." And was it a just war? "The reasons for going to war were justified at the time . . . and over the course of history will be seen to be justified. You don't have the luxury of hindsight. I believed at the time it was a just war. The fact that the intelligence proved not to be accurate is deeply troubling. There's no point in denying it." I wonder whether he regrets not joining Cook, his ally, in resigning over the intervention. I wonder whether in the past two years, as the remaining reasons for war have evaporated and the situation on the ground deteriorated, Hain has ever cried into his pillow. "I'm too busy to do that," he replies.

He is more vigorous in challenging those who criticise the holding of Iraq's elections. "I find it very odd that there are some on the left who question whether democracy is an admirable aim or not [in Iraq]. I've even had arguments with friends who took the most specious position of all: that democracy has no place in countries in the Middle or Far East. I find this completely indefensible. I came into politics as part of the struggle for democracy in South Africa."

So what is the difference between the agendas of liberal interventionists who supported Tony Blair's other wars in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan and the neoconservatives in the United States, with their "democratising" agenda? "I believe democracy should come to every corner of the world," Hain says. "I believed that when the Americans were propping up dictators in Latin America, in Africa, when they were on the side of pro-apartheid forces in South Africa. The Americans have got a pretty shabby history on that."

The issue is not who owns the agenda, but what the agenda is. "Whoever says it, George Bush or anybody else, the idea that democracy should come to all corners of the world - that's something Nelson Mandela spent 10,000 days of his life for, and my parents were jailed for, and that inspired my whole involvement in politics." And the differences? "The neoconservatives are not bothered about poverty; they're not bothered about social justice, debt; they're not bothered about free trading rules except for them - they want access to poorer markets, but not to open up their markets to poorer countries."

How uncomfortable is he about the prospect of military action against Iran? "That's not on the agenda." Not as far as we're concerned? "Yes. When I first went into the Foreign Office as Middle East minister, I was involved in some of those early contacts with the Iranians. Robin Cook was forward-looking and courageous on that. He's been proved right. Jack Straw has picked up the baton and taken it forward very successfully. That's the way you engage." He accepts that Iran still has to prove its compliance with International Atomic Energy Agency standards, to "call off the dogs in terms of giving a nod and wink to terrorist groups in Israel and to make sure it's a supportive neighbour of Iraq, not a meddlesome one. There are a lot of issues there, but sabre-rattling over military action is not the right way." Straw said it was inconceivable? "I don't think it is going to happen." The Americans won't do it? "I don't think so." And if they do, we won't be with them? "No." He quickly qualifies that by saying that if there were a "coup and the Iranians went on a nuclear weap- ons spree", that would change things. "That's one extreme. Pre-emptive military action is another extreme. What we ought to do is find a way through these."

I ask Hain about the Labour leadership and life after Blair. "I've said all along that Gordon Brown is way out in front in terms of any other contenders." Does that mean Hain no longer has ambitions? "I've never mentioned myself as a contender. Other people have. That's for them. I certainly haven't."

The plaudits for the future boss are balanced with praise for the incumbent. The last time I interviewed Hain, in September 2003, he spoke of "the brilliance of Blairism", meaning the introduction of "radical change without frightening the horses". He stands by that. "Progressive voters and progressive opinion underestimate the difficulty of change in this country. You've really got to work at it. Tony Blair deserves a lot of credit, which he is rarely given by progressive opinion. He will be seen to be one of the most successful prime ministers we've ever had." Hain compares him with Clement Attlee, but even he governed for a "relatively short period of time in the unique circumstances of postwar reconstruction. What Tony has done is to have led us into a position where the Tories are marginalised, where we are in a dominating but not impregnable position. Whatever else anybody says, you've got to recognise that." So is Blair more successful than the great Clem? "Yes, in the sense that Attlee won two elections and then lost. He didn't get two full terms. If you beat the Tories three times in a row that's pretty damned impressive, isn't it?"

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