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13 April 2015updated 25 Jul 2021 6:10am

Exclusive: David Blunkett questions “energy and time” Labour puts into traditional campaigning

The Labour MP and former cabinet minister calls for his party to be “robust” on immigration, “radical” on education, and asks if doorknocking “actually wins votes”.

By Anoosh Chakelian

After a week of racing around beneath rainclouds, it’s been a rare sunny morning of canvassing for David Blunkett. This is the first time in 45 years that the Sheffield MP and former Home Secretary isn’t campaigning to be an elected representative. He became a councillor in 1970: the first step in this veteran New Labourite’s long political career that is coming to an end this May.

“It is extremely strange for me to be campaigning but on the outside,” he tells me over the phone. Even though he’s standing down, he is helping out his successor and other candidates and MPs around the north of England and in marginal seats.

“I’m not a member of the shadow cabinet, I’m not at the centre of things in terms of decision-making and planning and the London delivery end,” he says. “So what I’m experiencing is exactly what the foot soldiers experience every election, which is getting out there and just being an ordinary party member, seeking to win votes, either on the doorstep or at meetings . . . It’s putting my feet firmly back down on terra firma.”

A little less conversation

Blunkett is clearly powering through what Westminster tags the ‘ground war’ with gusto – he jokes about the “swings and roundabouts” of grim weather and preaching to the converted versus “being seen and being understood” on the doorstep. He is relishing the chance to reflect on what has changed about campaigning since he began in politics, from the viewpoint of being “back where I started”.

Although he confesses, “I’m not as good at the social media as younger people are”, Blunkett is forthright about the importance of moving campaigning forwards in line with modern media. He’s sceptical about his party’s stalwart focus on traditional methods. Ed Miliband’s big announcement when launching Labour’s general election campaign in January was to hold 4m conversations with voters ahead of May, putting great faith in his party’s doorknocking drive.

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“Whilst I support Ed Miliband’s idea that we have to appear on the doorstep – and I’m doing my bit with that – actually there is a question about just how much energy and time we put in to traditional ways of campaigning and how much of a result we get,” Blunkett says. “And I think after the election, it wouldn’t be a bad idea if Labour reflected on what in the 21st-century actually wins votes, as opposed to reinforcing the vote you already have.”

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He adds: “I’m wholly in favour of knocking on doors, being seen, being understood. But the big challenge for all of us, and in my case I’ve been a party member for over 50 years, is getting people to have the conversation. You can knock on their door, but you’ve got to get them to tell you why it is that they don’t want to vote for you. That’s the crucial thing. It’s not ‘We’re not interested, goodbye’ or ‘We’ve always been Labour, thank you very much’. It’s ‘What is worrying you most?’”

Austerity won’t cut it

One message Blunkett is eager for his party to get across – on the doorstep or otherwise – is that Labour was not responsible for the financial crisis. Blunkett insists it’s not austerity that is helping Britain recover from the global meltdown. His view is that “it’s quantitative easing that’s got growth back on stream”, and a perverse effect of QE being banks paying out payment protection insurance compensation. He would like his party to be clearer about this:

“If we’d had austerity without QE, and without the PPI, I think we’d be in a really terrible mess now. And £20bn handed out in tranches of £2,000, £3,000, £4,000 to families whose incomes have been either held or cut, people who’d lost welfare benefits – that’s actually sustained some of the economy and the employment.

“So I don’t know why we’re not singing about that a bit more. Because I think people could understand that. It’s entirely not austerity that’s got us back on track to growth.”

Blunkett is concerned that people are swallowing the coalition’s austerity-for-prosperity narrative too readily. He sees the media as a factor in this. “Because editors of news programmes, editors of national newspapers, will not on the whole feel the cuts in the next two years for social care, for the disintegration of the library system, for youth services disappearing, for the absolute demolition of what remains of Sure Start.

“On the whole they won’t have relatives whose welfare benefits are going to be decimated, they don’t immediately see that the two years of eye-watering austerity the Tories are promising is really a fundamental issue.”

I interject that many politicians – on all sides – don’t have first-hand experience of the cuts either. “Oh yes!” he cries. “It is absolutely true.”

Blunkett, who lived in poverty when growing up, warns that MPs should always check themselves when dealing with deprived constituents, whatever their own backgrounds. “I was brought up in incredible poverty; it was eye-watering. But of course, over recent years, I’ve been relatively well-off,” he tells me. “And I’ve always had to go back and do the advice surgery, talk to people in the communities, nip myself when I’ve started to think differently in order to be in tune.

“And I don’t think that people always feel we are. To actually be able to empathise in a non-patronising way is a real task in an election where, inevitably, with the socioeconomic changes that have taken place, your candidates will not always reflect the communities they seek to represent.”

Education, education, education

Blunkett entered government as Education Secretary under Tony Blair in 1997, and went on to a have a number of cabinet roles. He has not had a place in Miliband’s shadow cabinet. But he did spend nine months writing a policy paper on education for the party, a great deal of which has been incorporated into its education manifesto, launched by shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt the day I speak to Blunkett.

He is particularly pleased that Hunt has taken on his idea for changes to the careers service (Labour is pledging one on one careers advice for every schoolchild), and sees Hunt as “up for” making “a radical commitment” to education.

“I was the very fortunate recipient of Tony Blair’s commitment to ‘Education, education, education’. I want to see if in the next four weeks all of us can elevate the education debate to a point where people really understand how crucial this is, and what the consequences will be if the Tories renew their ideological agenda,” he says.

“I’m very strongly in favour of the party returning again and again to the education theme, because I think it matters to the nation as a whole and not just to young people and their parents.”

I mention that education has not been high on the agenda this time round, in contrast to being key to the previous government and also as a hot topic in the last general election campaign.

“We’ve tended to talk about higher education funding and apprenticeships,” Blunkett concedes. “And I understand why. Not least because that’s a particular cohort that have the vote – even if historically they’ve not used it.

“And of course Labour’s taken a conscious decision to put the National Health Service upfront. And again, going round the country, you understand why. People’s immediate concerns are about health and social care. So putting that upfront makes absolute logical sense in responding to people . . . I’m hoping that from the announcement [the unveiling of Labour’s education manifesto], we can start to really put flesh on that and we can elevate the debate around education as part of the final phase of the campaign.”

“I’m not keen on mugs”

A subject that has managed to dominate the political agenda, however, is immigration. Something Blunkett, heading up the Home Office in 2001-4, had to grapple with. Despite being seen as a tough Home Secretary, particularly in relation to civil liberties, Blunkett sounds far more positive about immigration than his party has in recent months.

“The one thing that we do need to try and get across is the benefit of having an influx, an infusion, of younger, hardworking people. And on the whole, they are,” he asserts. “They are actually a major contributor to being able to sustain an ageing population . . . I think it would be good to place immigration as part of that social agenda.”

He adds: “I wouldn’t pretend for a minute that it would be sensible to elevate the debate around immigration to the front of the campaign, because there’s so much misunderstanding and so many myths that in the four weeks that are left you can’t possibly deal with them.

“But I do think we should be robust and not too defensive on this, because whilst we all admit we made mistakes and we could’ve been a lot better in preparation in integration, actually there is a big issue for the country in terms of the balance between the working-age population, the skills we need on the one hand, and an ageing population and dependency on the other.”

So what went through his mind when Labour HQ released a souvenir mug boasting “Controls on immigration”?

“Well, I’m sorry, I’m not going to give you a headline. All I’d say is that I’m not keen on mugs,” he says cryptically, with a hearty chuckle.

And with that, I leave the self-proclaimed foot soldier to return to his final battle.