Interview: Hazel Blears

The woman in charge of the Labour Party now says she's a Brownite as well as a Blairite as she makes

On the mantelpiece in Hazel Blears's House of Commons office, alongside the obligatory pictures of constituents visiting parliament, sits the following framed poem:

I am not everybody
I am one
I cannot do everything
I can do some.
That which I can do
God expects me to do
With the help of God and each other.

Blears explains how she came upon it: "When I went to Chicago, I met people there whose hospital had been closed. They'd raised $10m for a 'well-being' centre; it was co-ordinated by a woman who's both a Pentecostal black preacher and a merchant banker, and she's a completely influential character. When I got there, two kids had just been shot on the street, and the people came to a meeting in quite a rough town hall. They put flowers on the table. They wore their best frocks. Before every meeting they say that poem. My credo is that. I believe in ordinary people's power to change their lives."

Hazel Blears does not wear her faith on her sleeve, but she attended Happyland Sunday school as a child and has remained a believer. Although brought up a Methodist, she now attends a Catholic church, St Peter & St Paul's in Salford, to be with her husband, who is a committed Christian. In this as in other matters, it seems, she follows a precedent set by the Prime Minister. Commentators have noted the seemingly unshakeable optimism that has served her well as the chair of the Labour Party during troubled periods. There is something of the born-again Sunday-school teacher about her ebullient personality, which makes her a popular figure with the party faithful.

Blears enjoys talking about the passion for motorbikes that she shares with her husband. As her glossy campaign literature explains, she is a working-class girl from Salford whose father was a fitter and lifelong trade unionist. Her brother Stephen, who is four years older than her, is a bus driver in Manchester. Their career paths diverged at the age of 11 thanks to the grammar-school system. "My brother failed his eleven-plus and now he drives a bus, and he's at least as bright as I am, if not brighter. When I was 18 there were two people in my class who went to university. There were two of us who passed the eleven-plus from my primary school." She was the first person in her family to go on to higher education and she later qualified as a solicitor, working in local government until she was elected as an MP in 1997. She appeared as an extra in A Taste of Honey, that classic of 1960s kitchen-sink cinema, but that is the extent of the glamour. She has always lived in Salford and says she always will.

Are there no stories to compete with those of Blears's rivals for deputy leader? After all, Peter Hain was framed for a bank robbery; Harriet Harman was spied on by MI5; Hilary Benn is part of a political dynasty; and Alan Johnson was orphaned at an early age and brought up by his sister. She thinks for a moment and says: "I had my handbag stolen once, chased the robbers and identified them in a line-up."

The hard way

We ask Blears, as we have asked the five candidates who have preceded her, to make her pitch for the deputy's job. She explains that she has held every post in the party, from branch secretary up, in her 25 years in politics. She can claim with some justification that she has done it the hard way. She was a councillor in Salford and failed as a parliamentary candidate twice before entering parliament (losing by a mere 800 votes in Bury South in 1992). On entering the Commons she became a minister at the Department of Health and then at the Home Office. She claims she is perfectly placed to act as the intermediary between party and leader, one of the key roles of the Labour deputy. She also argues that if she wins the deputy leadership contest she will push for a cabinet post for "manifesto delivery".

Blears believes one of her most important tasks will be to inform the cabinet of the mood of the party, while managing the expectations of party members. "It's important to have someone in there whose specific job it is to say, 'Look, this is how it's playing.' But I actually think it's a two-way street. The person doing the job has to be strong enough and have enough credibility to go back to the party and say: 'Look, these are the constraints of government. This is what we can do, this is what we can't do'." She adds: "I think these days our party understands that they're not in the party of their dreams."

Pressed on where she believes the government has gone wrong, she does not point to the obvious issues of the Iraq adventure or the cash-for-honours scandal. Ever the optimist, she draws a comparison between the Conservatives' current strong showing in the polls and Labour's even bigger lead in the early 1990s, which was suddenly reversed on election night in 1992. She says she does not identify a mood in the country to sweep Labour from power, but does concede a problem with the delivery of public services. "I do think we put an awful lot of money into our public services and people are pleased about that, tripling expenditure and investment in the NHS. I think people acknowledge that, but I still think there is a sense among them of 'are we getting as much value from that investment as we can'?" She suggests - in a more endearing and less dismissive way than Alan Johnson did a few weeks ago - a mismatch between the pol itical priorities of what she might have called middle-class radicals and her voters. "Outside this political world we all inhabit, the difference is amazing. If you took House of Lords reform, I think you would find that the number of people terribly exercised by it in the country would be a lot smaller than it is here in Westminster."

Life in her area before 1997 consisted of male unemployment of 50 per cent, of schools with outside toilets, and of GCSE pass rates of 32 per cent. Now she points to the Salford Quays development as a major employer, to a three-star hospital, to cuts in joblessness and improvements in exam grades. Her peroration: "Wow! Just to say that to you is fantastic!" So what are people's main concerns now? She lists them as health, education, immigration, crime and Blears's own pet subject, antisocial behaviour. She says that a recent "citizens' summit" at Downing Street confirmed her in the view that the public is concerned with these bread-and-butter issues.

Factional vision

As party chair, Blears was informed in advance of the decision by the former cabinet ministers Alan Milburn and Charles Clarke to launch their website 2020 Vision to provoke debate on Labour's future. One person who works with her describes that meeting as an attempt to repeat the Limehouse Declaration, the meeting of four senior Labour figures in the early 1980s that gave rise to the SDP. Though that might seem an exaggeration, there is considerable concern in Gordon Brown's camp that some of the diehards around Tony Blair may have adopted a scorched-earth policy - to undermine the likely next prime minister at every turn.

Blears does not necessarily dispute this theory, and suggests that Milburn and Clarke should clarify their motives. "A political party in the middle of its third term, facing some pretty complex challenges out there in a very different world, should have a responsibility . . . to be exploring new policy solutions," she says, but adds ominously: "If there is any sense of it being about factions and divisions, then that's wrong. We have all learned the lesson that divided parties lose elections. The overwhelming desire in the Labour Party is for unity. Let's get out there; let's fight the elections. We've got elections in the next eight weeks in Scotland, in Wales, in local government. There are 33 million people in this country going to the polls."

We press her to help us interpret Milburn and Clarke's intention: was it debate, or division, or both? "If it's about new ideas, great, but if it's about faction fighting, then we have been down that road before, and it was deeply damaging." Asked what her advice would be to colleagues of the ultra-Blairite tendency who prefer to indulge in attacks on the Chancellor, she says: "They'd better get out there and knock on some doors and use some shoe leather." Does she then have a specific message for Milburn and Clarke? "My message to them is that having a debate around ideas is good for a political party. You need to refresh, you need to renew yourself, and sometimes you have to be a bit challenging on some of that. And I think that is a fine thing to do. But what I don't think is right for anybody to do in the Labour Party - and I think this is shared by 100 per cent of party members - is for us to get into any kind of factions."

Blears smiles one of her broad smiles when we point out that she has never rebelled against her party. Not once. But she did show a degree of independence in backing the campaign at the end of last year to save the specialist maternity unit at Hope Hospital in Salford. The Tories used her support for that campaign to suggest Labour cabinet splits over health service cuts, but she claims she was merely objecting to the local clinical decision to move the unit from her constituency. She has not protested since.

Could it be that Blears is finally distancing herself from Blair after a decade of faithful service? There is no picture of him in her "Hazel for Deputy" leaflet, in which she prefers to show herself consorting with Gordon Brown (big photo) and John Reid (smaller photo). "Loyalty is an underestimated quality," she says. "I've been loyal to the Prime Minister for ten years and I'm proud of what we've done. When we get a new Labour prime minister, then I will be loyal to our new prime minister and then I'll be called a Brownite loyalist."

Late in the day, Blears is seeking, in her effervescent manner, to bustle in on the already crowded list of prospective deputy leaders. She started at the back of the field, but has quickly gathered some influential backers. If the job were confined to jollying along the tribe, she would be a safe bet. Yet such is the fragile state of the party, that the search is still on for a more substantial foil and adjunct to Gordon Brown.

Hazel Blears: the CV

Born 14 May 1956 in Salford, daughter of a maintenance fitter

1961 Appears as a street urchin in A Taste of Honey

1966 Enters Wardley Grammar School, Swinton. Later moves to Eccles Sixth Form College

1977-78 Graduates from Trent Polytechnic and Chester College of Law. Joins Salford City Council as trainee solicitor

1980 Goes into private practice

1984 Elected a Salford councillor

1985 Principal solicitor, Manchester City Council

1989 Marries Michael Halsall, who introduces her to the world of motorcycling

1997 Elected Labour MP for Salford

1998 Becomes parliamentary private secretary to Alan Milburn at the Department of Health and the following year at the Treasury

June 2001 Promoted to junior minister at DoH. Launches the "5 a day" campaign to get people to eat more fruit and vegetables

2003 Appointed minister of state at Home Office, responsible for policing. Elected to Labour's National Executive Committee

May 2006 Appointed party chair

February 2007 Declares her candidacy for deputy leadership, calling for renewal of "big-tent" coalition and declaring: "My socialism is a product . . . of my experience, from the streets and estates of the inner city"

Research by Mosaroff Hussain