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David Blunkett: “Labour needs to be radical but not scary”

The former home secretary on how Keir Starmer can convince voters and what Rachel Reeves is getting right.

By Zoë Grünewald

It is very warm when David Blunkett and I meander through the House of Lords to his office. When we arrive, his liquorice-coloured guide dog, Barley, rests behind me. But despite the heat there is a lot to talk about: his beloved Labour Party are seemingly on the path to power.

Blunkett, a former home secretary, education secretary and work and pensions secretary, is now an established Labour peer. The 76-year-old also advocates for the disabled and is a professor of politics in practice at my old university in Sheffield. When I tell him I’ve wanted to interview him for a long time, he smiles bashfully. “You’re very kind,” he says, traces of his Sheffield accent still evident.

Blunkett’s story is extraordinary. After being born blind and growing up in poverty in Sheffield, he fought hard for his education. He got his A-levels by attending evening and day-release classes, which secured a place at Sheffield University. At 22, he entered local politics. “I’m still deeply involved in education at every level,” Blunkett tells me. “My [schooling] experience was poor and the experience of the people I grew up with was poor. When I became leader of the [Sheffield] council, and then an MP, I was horrified at what we were offering to those in the most disadvantaged circumstances.”

This is why Blunkett was Tony Blair’s perfect candidate to implement education reform, a cornerstone of the New Labour government. Blair said in 1997 that “education is the key not just to how we as individuals succeed and prosper, but to the future of this country”. From then until 2001, Blunkett spearheaded Labour’s 21-point plan for education, which included reducing class sizes and the introduction of numeracy and literacy targets for pupils. He also brought in Sure Start, a programme that provided education, childcare and healthcare services for children and their families. The scheme was later abolished under the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, among a raft of other public spending cutbacks. 

Blunkett considers Sure Start one of the proudest achievements of his time in office. Through it, Labour funded programmes for children in deprived areas, with each project allowed to develop its own set of priorities. “Community was part of the answer, as well as part of the benefactor,” Blunkett explains, with a wistful tone. It is clear he sees Sure Start as the central New Labour achievement. “I’ve long argued that [Labour] need a clear, simple, but compelling narrative about what social democracy has to offer in a massively, radically changing world,” he says. “Social democrats will be working with people, not on them. They’ll be working alongside them to prepare for that rapid change and to eliminate the dangers that that change will bring.”

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He is still heavily involved in the Labour Party’s bid for government, helping the shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson to mould Labour’s education offer to voters. Last week she launched the party’s fifth mission for government, opportunity. Those five missions will form the backbone of Labour’s election drive. Blunkett lavishes praise on his would-be successor, and explains that Phillipson’s journey into politics, having been raised in a deprived part of Sunderland, has given her a “massive driving force” to get things done.

“It is quite possible for people who have never had children to be very good education secretaries or prime ministers. But the reality is that when you talk to Bridget, she’s living it,” he says of the mother-of-two. “I think that’s very important. I also think that where she comes from geographically and socially is a crucial learning curve about what we’ll need to do, because there are parts of the UK… where the gap in terms of quality education is enormous compared with London and the south-east. That gap has got to be dealt with rapidly.”

Last October, Blunkett wrote a report on learning for Labour’s Council of Skills Advisers, at the request of Keir Starmer. It set out the former education secretary’s perspective in no uncertain terms: that adequate investment in skills was an “imperative” and an “investment in our future”. He also recommended that Labour create: a National Skills Taskforce; a “substantially enhanced role for further education” with progression across people’s working lives; greater collaboration with the private sector to raise the standard of skills teaching; and a “complete shakeup” of the career service, from school through to careers guidance.

Blunkett explains to me that skills should be embedded throughout Labour policy. “I like to hear all the shadow cabinet acknowledge that, whether it’s on social care or net zero, housing, or on AI – technology can’t do any of it unless you have a skilled population.”

Is this reheated Blairism? Blunkett reassures me it’s the same but different. “It’s almost going back without treading old ground, because we’ve moved on from 1997.” He describes it as “a radical change in what young adults will need to learn… how we teach, as well as what we teach. How we prepare people, not just for employment, but for seminal changes in their employment life, and that’s about artificial intelligence or robotics, which I’ve been banging on about and it’s certainly become fashionable. But it’s a reality and we need to prepare for that.” For Blunkett, this is a journey for every stage of a person’s life, and therefore commands the cooperation of business, educators and individuals: “The employer has to be committed, the individual has to be prepared to take some responsibility and to make a contribution, and the government nationally and locally.”

Labour is moving cautiously towards the next election. The shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves has implored the shadow cabinet not to commit to any unfunded spending promises ahead of it. The leadership is extolling the virtues of financial restraint in a sticky economic climate, but critics are concerned this may leave voters wanting more. In early June, a row broke out among the Labour front bench about the future of the party’s £28bn-a-year climate change investment pledge, the largest funding promise announced so far. Reeves diluted the policy because of the UK’s poor economic condition, saying Labour would “ramp up” to this amount instead.

“I think we’ve got to be imaginative about how we persuade those of a certain age that there is a an intergenerational discussion to be had,” Blunkett says in response. “Why should people of [retirement] age stop paying National Insurance, even though they’re working? Why should people over the 40 per cent tax threshold have a much lower rate of National Insurance contribution than people on a basic rate of tax?

“Those conversations need to be had but very, very carefully because the reason that Rachel Reeves is correct in being cautious and asking all colleagues on the front bench to be cautious is because [Labour’s] fingers have been burned time and time again. And the Conservatives will pull no punches, and make up spurious figures and frighten people to death. Of course, that comes on the back of the 2019 debacle.”

I ask Blunkett what he thinks about the plea of Paul Nowak, the Trades Union Congress general secretary, for Labour to “face down” businesses and increase their taxes to support crumbling public services. Many within the party are fearful that a commitment to rising taxes could be electoral suicide in a stagnant cost-of-living crisis. Blunkett’s response is typical of Labour’s hesitation on taxation: “I think we would be wise not to close down every possible area of raising revenue in the future, but of course taxation is toxic – the word is toxic.” The bigger challenge for Labour, he explains, is to make a convincing case for investment. “We’ve got to demonstrate that the people we want to win over will benefit from what we’re doing. It’s not a cash transfer; it’s an investment in themselves, in their family. And therefore, it’s about that mutuality and reciprocity.”

I wonder whether Labour is selling this message clearly enough. Many voters are still unclear what Starmer stands for. Nor are many sure about what Labour is offering. Party sources say they are still working through the details of the manifesto.

Starmer set out his five missions at the beginning of the year. They commit to sustained economic growth, clean energy, future-proofing the NHS, making Britain’s streets safe and breaking down the barriers to opportunity at “every stage”. But detail has been lacking, and references to the missions by the shadow cabinet have been few and far between.

I sense Blunkett has similar reservations. “The missions are a start,” he says. “The policy forum process, I hope, will coalesce around some radical but not scary policies that will be affordable over a long period of time.” What do “radical but not scary policies” look like? “We’ve got to establish that this will be a government that works with people. That it’s an enabling government. You can’t simply elect a government that’ll wave a magic wand and all the problems will be resolved. You’ve got to get across the message that this is a partnership with people, with business and with the trade unions. We can do it, but we’re going to be doing it together.”

Is Starmer the man for the job? “Keir has been fortunate,” Blunkett tells me. “He’s been able to contrast himself against what came before.” He points to Boris Johnson and Liz Truss’s impact that “paraded the Conservative Party at their worst”, as well as Nicola Sturgeon’s demise. But he urges caution. “People are still not yet totally convinced,” he admits. “And we’ve got to convince them in the next year.” 

[See also: What’s the point of Labour when there’s less money to spend?]

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