The Politics interview: Douglas Alexander

“There was clearly briefing against me but the task in those circumstances is not to exacerbate thos

Douglas Alexander has perhaps the noblest job in politics – and the most unenviable. As Secretary of State for International Development, he heads the British government’s charge against global poverty and takes justified pride in leading the country towards meeting the United Nations target for international aid from donors. But in his other role as Labour’s election co-ordinator, he is responsible for masterminding the party’s general election campaign. With Labour so far behind in the polls, it’s not an easy job.

As if that wasn’t enough, he must do all this despite apparently being ruthlessly sidelined by Gordon Brown (whom he loyally served for two decades) in the wake of the “election that never was” in autumn 2007. Brown has never recovered from the debacle of the non-election, and shadowy sources pointed the finger at Alexander as the Brown ally who pushed for a snap poll. This is unfair: others, including the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, were equally keen on an election but have mysteriously escaped blame.

On a warm evening recently, on the House of Commons terrace, Douglas Alexander, sitting in shirtsleeves, is in a sombre and reflective mood. “There was clearly briefing against me,” he says. “But the task in those circumstances is not to exacerbate those briefings but to get on with the job . . . If you look back at the cuttings you won’t find lengthy descriptions of the position I took out of my own mouth because my task was a straightforward one: to prepare the party [for an election] . . . Now that work is often unglamorous and far away from the headlines, but it’s vital if we’re serious about winning a fourth term.”

Throughout our interview, it is striking that Alexander repeatedly refers to Brown rather formally as “the Prime Minister”. His first job in politics, in 1990, was as Brown’s researcher. A fellow son of the manse, from Glasgow, he served as minister for the Cabinet Office, transport secretary and Scottish secretary before being given his present job under Brown in 2007. It is a testament to his devotion to the party he joined in 1982 that, despite his apparent detachment from Brown’s inner circle in recent times, he remains passionate about his brief and his own role in helping Labour win re-election. “I’ve never been interested in self-promotion and that side of politics; and if that means people judge that you’re less prominent than others, that’s a choice I’ve been willing to make.”

We meet Alexander in a week in which Afghanistan has dominated the headlines. With the killing of eight soldiers in 24 hours, the British death toll in that country overtook the total for the Iraq conflict. In his role as the minister responsible for funding Britain’s postwar reconstruction efforts in Iraq, Alexander is preparing for an imminent trip to the United States for high-level discussions with Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s special envoy to the region.

Asked bluntly if the British are winning the fight against the Taliban, he twice ducks the question. “I think we’re making progress, but it’s a challenge not just for the United Kingdom, but for all the coalition members, to support the Afghan government.” What about the polls that suggest a small majority of the British public wants the troops out of Afghanistan? “I’m not com­placent,” he says. “I think we have a job of work to do to continue to explain both the rationale for the mission, why it is in Britain’s national interest that we are part of that 42-country coalition, and why a part of that comprehensive approach, as well as the service and the sacrifice of our troops, is the development effort with which I am charged with responsibility.”

Referring to anger at home over the death toll of UK troops, he ­acknowledges: “Any politician in a democracy has to be mindful of public opinion.” He says that a ­balance must be struck between public opinion and practicality. Asked to define exactly what the mission is, he pauses, not for the first time.

Alexander is enthusiastic about the aid work his department is doing in Afghanistan. “From a development perspective, we’re making very real progress. Afghanistan is one of the five poorest countries on earth, yet we’ve seen five million refugees return to the country in recent years. We’ve seen the numbers of children in school increase from 900,000 boys in 2001 to 6.2 million children today – more than two million of them girls.” He becomes more animated. “We’re put­ting the infrastructure into Helmand. I’ve sat and discussed with the governor his agenda for training midwives, as well as with the local shura. I’ve met midwives who are training as birth assistants in a country which has been without that basic service for many decades.

“So, real progress is being made, but it is a very long-term challenge. In any country that has been mired in conflict and corruption and poverty for that long the task is great; but so, too, has been the progress that has been made in a few short years.”

There have, however, been setbacks along the way. A recent outside audit of Department for International Development aid programmes between 2006 and 2007 in Afghanistan found that more than half of its large projects were doomed to failure, with fewer than one in five considered value for money. Showing that he is one of the realists in the cabinet, Alexander acknowledges that “it is a tougher challenge to work in conflict-affected states such as Afghanistan than it is to deliver aid in more benign environments where there aren’t security challenges . . . it’s a tough and challenging undertaking. I wouldn’t pretend otherwise.”

The British government’s achievements on international development and poverty reduction have been far greater, and far more obvious, outside war-torn Afghanistan – and it is difficult to quarrel with the contention that DfID’s record on aid is Labour’s “best-kept secret”. Under Brown and Alexander’s stewardship, the UK is on course to become the next European nation to meet the UN’s long-cherished target of seeing the world’s rich countries devote 0.7 per cent of gross national product to international aid – much to the delight of NGOs and development charities. And of G8 allies such as Italy, which has slashed its aid budget by as much as half, he is surprisingly forthright in his denunciation: “I think it’s wrong for any country not to meet the promises it has made to the world’s poorest people, and it’s particularly wrong at a time when the need has increased.”

Alexander is both ­fluent and convincing when making what he calls the “enlightened self-interest” case for increasing foreign aid, even in an era of belt-tightening. How does he explain spending billions of pounds in aid for faraway lands to his recession-hit constituents in Paisley? “I talk about what is probably the largest private-sector employer we have in Paisley, Chivas Regal, the whisky-bottling plant. I explain that its largest export market is China and the fact that it is employing people in Paisley to export to China is not unrelated to the fact that 400 million people have been lifted out of poverty in China. In essence, the argument I advance for that increase in development expenditure is both that it is morally right to meet our obligations to the world’s poorest people, and that it’s economically wise.”

Alexander, like his boss, has been at the forefront of attempts to reform the international financial system, and he declares unashamedly to us that “the old Washington consensus has failed the developing world”. “What united the food crisis, fuel crisis and the financial crisis that my constituents have lived through over the past couple of years is that any government acting alone can’t adequately deal with any of those challenges. That’s why we took the approach we took at the G20.”

Having promised to ring-fence the international aid budget, the Conservatives publish policy proposals for international development on the day we meet Alexander. The minister is, however, wholly unconvinced by the Tory party’s commitment to the area. “David Cameron can change the branding of the party but he can’t change the beliefs,” he says. “This comes just a week after a poll on the ConservativeHome website showed that 96 per cent of Conservative candidates did not prioritise the protection of the aid budget.”

Referring to the contentious Tory scheme to support private education in developing countries through school vouchers, he dismisses the “failed policies that owe more to Thatcherite ideology than a genuine concern about poverty reduction, which still seems to be the desire of the overwhelming bulk of Tory backbenchers . . . This owes more to the marketing approach of Steve Hilton [the Conservative leader’s director of strategy] than to the political conviction of David Cameron.”

It is about the Tories that Alexander is most effusive. “I’m in agreement with David Miliband when he says our generation of Labour politicians are not willing to hand over the direction of the country without a serious electoral fight. And I believe that colleagues in the cabinet, and colleagues in the Parliamentary Labour Party, want that electoral battle to be between ourselves and the Conservative Party, rather than within the Labour Party, in the months ahead.”

Does he agree with Miliband that the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, is now the “leading contender” (eventually) to replace Brown? Here he has a dig at the Foreign Secretary: “I’m not sure it benefits the cause of winning the next general election to speculate about whoever will lead the Labour Party after Gordon Brown’s reelection at the general election.”

He remains curiously loyal to a leader who, many would argue, froze him out. On the latter point, Alexander seems defensive: “I last spoke privately to the Prime Minister about four hours ago.” He nods, however, when we refer to the turbulent period that Brown faced around the reshuffle in June. At that point, Brown told the party he would change. Has he? There is another long pause. Eventually, he says: “Yes.” He points, by way of explanation, to Brown’s recent tour of the regions and keenness to talk to members of the public.

So, does the party’s election co-ordinator believe the leadership issue is now resolved? “I would expect that we have seen the end of it. But, ultimately, the responsibility as to whether we spend the next few months turning inwards rather than outwards and engaging with the electorate doesn’t simply rest with people responsible for the election, or cabinet ministers, or government ministers.” Instead, it is for the Labour movement as a whole to find “the resolve not to hand over power to a party that I believe remains untested, and which remains outside the mainstream solutions that I believe the country needs”.