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

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the hidden cost of the war

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Brothers in blood: how Putin has helped Assad tear Syria apart

The Syrian catastrophe has created the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War. And the world watches helplessly as Putin and Assad commit war crimes.

Sometimes we know the names. We know Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old boy who, covered in mud and dust, was pictured on the back seat of an ambulance in the aftermath of an air attack. We know his name because pictures and a video of him were released on social media and travelled around the world. The outrage that followed was widespread and sincere, the image of the dazed little boy seeming to symbolise the greater plight of the beleaguered residents of Aleppo. But then the moment passed. Few will know that a few days later doctors announced that Omran’s elder brother Ali, who was injured in the same air strike, had died from his injuries. He was ten.

Sometimes we know the names of the babies pulled from the rubble of collapsed buildings – occasionally alive, but often dead; or the names of the children weeping over lost parents; or the women grieving over lost husbands and children; or the elderly simply waiting (and sometimes wanting) to die.

We know Bana Alabed, the seven-year-old girl trapped inside Aleppo whose Twitter account has gone viral in recent weeks. “Hi I’m Bana I’m 7 years old girl in Aleppo [sic],” reads the on-page description. “I & my mom want to tell about the bombing here. Thank you.”

A series of pictures depicts Alabed and her mother, Fatemah, struggling to live as normal a life as possible, one showing the little girl sitting at an MDF desk with a book. Behind her, in the corner, is a doll. “Good afternoon from #Aleppo,” says the caption in English. “I’m reading to forget the war.”

The conflict, however, is never far away. Alabed, whose mother taught her English, has repeatedly tweeted her own fears about dying, followed by stoic messages of defiance whenever the immediate threat of an impending air strike passes. On the morning of 3 October, her words were simply: “Hello world we are still alive.” On 17 October, Fatemah tweeted: “The airstrikes ended in the morning, all the last night was raining bombs.”

But in most cases we never know the names of the victims of air assaults led by Presidents Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin. One of the most haunting images to emerge in recent weeks was that of a mother and child, killed while sleeping in the same bed. The scene had an eerily preserved-in-amber feel to it: a snapshot of snatched lives, frozen in the act of dying. Pictures of ruined buildings and distraught civilians have become routine now, holding our attention briefly – if at all.

As many as 500,000 people are believed to have been killed since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in early 2011. According to a report released in February this year by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research, a further 1.9 million have been wounded. Taken together, those figures alone account for 11.5 per cent of Syria’s pre-revolutionary population. Combine that with the number of Syrians who have been displaced – more than ten million (almost 50 per cent of the population) – and the sheer scale of the disaster becomes apparent.

The conflict has become the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Today it centres on Aleppo, in north-west Syria, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and a cradle of human civilisation. Various conquerors from the Mongols to the French have fought battles there but none, so it would seem, has been quite as ruthless or committed to the city’s annihilation as Bashar al-Assad.

Aleppo remains the most significant urban centre to have been captured by the anti-Assad rebels, most of whom will (by now) be strongly influenced by an Islamist world-view. Indeed, the most prominent fighting groups on the rebel side are overwhelmingly Islamist in their troop composition and beliefs, a sad marker of Western failures to support secular forces that led the anti-regime resistance in the incipient phases of the uprising.

Yet Aleppo remains too important to fail. Although rebel forces succeeded in capturing only half of the city – the western side remained firmly in the control of the regime – the symbolism of anti-Assad forces holding ground in Syria’s second city (which also served as the country’s economic hub) has buoyed the rebel movement.

Assad is more brazen and bullish than at any other point since eastern Aleppo fell into rebel hands in July 2012. That optimism is born of a strategy that has already worked in other parts of the country where the regime’s troops have slowly encircled rebel-held areas and then sealed them off. Nothing can leave, and nothing can enter. Once the ground forces seal off an area, an aerial campaign of barrel bombs and missile attacks from both Syrian and Russian fighter jets inevitably follows.

To get a sense of just how terrible the aerial campaign has been, consider that the United States accused the Russian air force of potential war crimes when a UN aid convoy was bombed just west of Aleppo last month. It was carrying food and medicines when it was hit. Since then, the UK and France have said that Russia’s bombardment of Aleppo amounts to a war crime.

Putin’s support has come as a boon to Assad ever since Russia formally entered the conflict in September 2015. Despite his administration already using Iranian forces and aligned groups such as the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah, rebels had continued to make significant gains throughout the early months of 2015. The most important of these was the capture of Idlib city, 40 miles from Aleppo, which presented Assad with two problems. The first was that it dented the official narrative of revanchist military successes by his forces. The ­second was that it handed the rebels power in a province adjoining Latakia Governorate in the west, where Syria’s Alawites are largely concentrated (Russia has an airbase in an area south-east of the city of Latakia). The Alawites are a heterodox Shia sect to which the Assad family belongs, and which forms the core of their support base.

Keen to reverse these gains – and others made elsewhere – Assad enlisted Putin, given Russia’s long-standing interests in, and ties to, Syria. The Kremlin has long regarded Syria as an important ally, and has served as the country’s main arms supplier for the past decade. There are important assets to preserve, too, such as the Russian naval base in the port city of Tartus on the Mediterranean, which was first established during the Soviet era.

For his part, Putin has felt emboldened by events. The world is changing – not just in the Middle East and North Africa, where the
contours of power continue to be recast, but also closer to home in Ukraine, where the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown in 2014.

The West is still haunted by the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has been reluctant to be drawn too deeply into the Syrian War. In 2013, the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people. This was a violation of President Barack Obama’s so-called red line against the use of chemical weapons, but no retaliatory action came and there was nothing to prevent the Kremlin from using force to shape events in Syria – as it had done in Ukraine.

All of this has marked a new phase of brutality in a conflict already noted for its barbarism. Civilians who avoid death from combined Russo-Syrian air assaults suffer under Assad’s strategy of “starve or submit”, in which supplies are withheld from besieged areas, slowly choking off those ­inside. It has been used to devastating effect against civilians in towns such as Madaya and in Daraya, on the outskirts of Damascus, both of which fell to government control after being sealed off from the outside world for several years. Such a strategy is not designed to deliver quick victories, however. Consider how the residents of Daraya defied Assad’s forces for four years before capitulating in August 2016.

Assad and his allies (Putin, Iran, Hezbollah) have decided to punish and brutalise, deliberately, civilian populations in rebel-held areas. To invert the famous aphorism attributed to Chairman Mao, they hope to dredge the sea in which the revolutionaries swim. And so, it is the 300,000 residents of eastern Aleppo who must suffer now.




It’s easy to lose track of precisely what is happening in the Syrian War as parcels of land swap hands between rebels and the regime. Assad’s forces first began encircling Aleppo at the start of July this year and succeeded in imposing a siege by the middle of that month, after cutting off the last of two rebel-controlled supply routes into the city. The first was the Castello Road, which leads from the town of Handarat into the north-western part of ­rebel-controlled territory. The second route, via the Ramouseh district (which led into the south-western end of the city), had already been sealed off.

The closure lasted for roughly four to five weeks before the rebels re-established access. Aleppo is too important for them, and the siege has forced various groups to work together in breaking it. The effort was led by Jaish al-Fateh (JaF, the “Army of Conquest”), an umbrella group and command structure for several of the most prominent jihadist and Islamist groups operating in northern Syria. JaF also co-ordinated the Idlib military campaigns. One of its key members is Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS, “the Syrian Conquest Front”), which was previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN or “the Supporters’ Front”) and was recognised as al-Qaeda’s official chapter in Syria.

Several months before the regime began its assault on Aleppo, rebel groups in the north recognised the deteriorating situation there, stemming principally from Russian air strikes. As a result, al-Qaeda urged the various factions to merge and work together to counteract not just Assad, but also Putin. Even the global leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued a speech last May titled “Go Forth to Syria”, in which he called on all fighting groups to unite in order to consolidate their control across the north. This opened the way at the end of July for Jabhat al-Nusra to declare that it was formally severing its links with al-Qaeda. It “rebranded” as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

There are two reasons for doing this. The first is to erode partisanship among the Islamist groups, forcing them to set aside differences and narrow their ambitions in favour of the greater goal – in this case, the breaking of the siege of Aleppo, while also deepening rebel control across the north. The second aim of rebranding is to win popular support by portraying themselves as fighting in the service of ordinary civilians.

Groups such as JFS and others are succeeding in both of these goals. Responding to the abandoned and assaulted residents of Aleppo, they have repeatedly demonstrated their commitment to alleviating the humanitarian crisis. Much of their messaging echoes this theme. The group’s English-language spokesman is Mostafa Mahamed, an Egyptian who previously lived in Australia. “[JFS] is deeply embedded in society, made up from the average Syrian people,” he explained on Twitter, after the group decoupled from al-Qaeda. “We will gladly lay down our lives before being forced into a situation that does not serve the people we are fighting for . . . jihad today is bigger than us, bigger than our differences.”

It is indisputable that this ethos of “fighting for the people” has endeared the group to civilians living in besieged areas – even when those civilians don’t necessarily agree with the full spectrum of its religious beliefs or political positions. That goodwill was only reinforced when the group helped break the siege of Aleppo (in which approximately 500 rebels were killed) in August, if only for a few days. Assad reasserted control within a week, and entrapped the residents again in the middle of that month. The rebels are now planning how to break the siege decisively, but have not yet launched a major counteroffensive.




A freelance American journalist and film-maker, Bilal Abdul Kareem, who has reported on rebel movements inside Syria more intimately than most, has found himself among those trapped inside eastern Aleppo since the siege was restored seven weeks ago. “We came here expecting a two- or three-day trip,” he told me during an interview over Skype.

Life inside is becoming insufferable for civilians, Abdul Kareem said; every building is potted and scarred by shrapnel damage. Those whose homes remain standing are the lucky ones. “Your day consists of nothing,” he said. “There’s no work, there’s no fuel, no industrial zone, no food to sell. ­People sit around and chit-chat, drink tea, and that’s all they do.”

Food supplies are already running low, with most people limiting themselves to basics of chickpeas and groats – crushed grains such as oats or wheat. Sealed off from the rest of the world, those inside preoccupy themselves with survival and wait for the next wave of attacks.

It is tempting to ask why the inhabitants of Aleppo did not flee when they had the chance. Indeed, the Assad regime routinely accuses the rebels of preventing civilians from leaving besieged areas, though there is no evidence to support this view. On 17 October Russia and the Syrian regime said they would halt their bombardment for eight hours on 20 October to allow rebels and civilians to evacuate the city.

In truth, what choice do the civilians have? Most do not trust Assad and they are therefore unwilling to move into regime-administered areas. The alternative is to become refugees, with all the uncertainties and trials associated with that. For instance, refugees have found themselves subject to sectarian violence in Lebanon, and they have few opportunities to find employment in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan, the three countries where most of the fleeing Syrians have found shelter.

For them, merely to exist in rebel territory is an act of defiance, which is precisely why Assad’s forces make no effort to distinguish between combatants and civilians in rebel areas. To be present is a crime.

The effects of this have been devastating. A spokesman for the Syrian American Medical Society told Middle East Eye, an online news portal, that in July, Syrian and Russian jets had hit medical facilities in rebel-held territory every 17 hours.

Only a few hospitals and medical staff remain. The physical conditions are primitive and perilous. Doctors work in makeshift facilities – a former flat, a commercial garage – which makes them unable to provide anything beyond basic emergency care. In-patient facilities are non-existent, not just because of high demand from those newly injured in fresh attacks, but also from fear that the facility itself will be targeted. “People are literally shuffled out of the hospital with IV [intravenous drips] in their arms,” Abdul Kareem says.

The West’s indifference to all this – coupled with its occasional pious pronouncements and diplomatic dithering – has squandered any goodwill Washington might once have had among Syria’s beleaguered civilians. When Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, and John Kerry, the US secretary of state, agreed a ceasefire in September it lasted barely two days because they overlooked the fears of those trapped inside eastern Aleppo.

The deal had stated that no party would try to capture any new territory. That might seem reasonable enough but given that the ceasefire came into effect just days after Assad re-established the siege of Aleppo, those on the inside were being asked, in effect, to acquiesce to their own starvation.

Deprived of food and medication, no one trusted Assad to negotiate access in good faith, especially after he thwarted UN efforts to deliver aid. “People saw it as a conspiracy,” Abdul Kareem told me. Moreover, there were no significant groups inside eastern Aleppo that claimed to have accepted the terms of the ceasefire in the first place. Kerry had negotiated on their behalf without approval and without securing any humanitarian concessions.

“What planet are these people on?” Abdul Kareem asked. “[Do] they think people will turn on their protectors, for people who didn’t do them any good? They look to JFS and Ahrar [Ahrar al-Sham is one of the Islamist groups fighting in JAF]. Western intervention is pie in the sky.”

The rise of these reactionary rebels is a direct result of liberal elements not being strongly supported at any stage in the conflict. Left to fend for themselves, many have deserted their cause. Those who have persisted not only risk the constant threat of being killed by Russo-Syrian bombs, but are also at threat from jihadist elements operating in rebel areas. That much was clear when remnants of the secular opposition protested against the leader of JFS, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, in the southern Idlib town of Maarat al-Nouman earlier this year. Many of those who did were arrested by jihadists and intimidated into silence.

Whereas liberals are fragmented and frayed, the Islamist rebels continue to coalesce into an ever more coherent unit. The overwhelming might of Russian airpower has convinced them of the need to form a united front in order to pool their resources and co-ordinate their efforts. That is one of the reasons why a jihadist group called Jund al-Aqsa (“Soldiers of al-Aqsa”) announced early this month that it was disbanding and being absorbed into JFS.

Herein lies the real story of how Aleppo – and, indeed, Syria itself – has been delivered to the jihadists. A conspiracy of all the external parties has forged a menacing millenarian movement that is embedded in civil society and communities across the north. Whether Aleppo falls or not, the jihadists will endure.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a member of the war studies department at King’s College London

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood