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Hamish Falconer: “We will be forming a government under much harder conditions than 1997”

The Labour rising star on growing up with a father in Blair’s cabinet and his years as chief negotiator with the Taliban.

By Ailbhe Rea

On Monday 10 June, Labour campaigners in the East Midlands seat of Lincoln had a new volunteer in their midst. A well-spoken man of a certain age, he dutifully posted leaflets and knocked on doors, giving nothing away. As he was leaving, he handed his card to a Labour councillor. “Could you just let Hamish know that I was here?”

When Hamish Falconer, the Labour candidate for the constituency (and son of Charlie Falconer, Tony Blair’s close friend and justice secretary), saw the name on the card, he “practically fell off [his] chair” with shock. Peter Jouvenal was one of five British hostages taken by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2021, and Falconer was the man who secured his release.

During the six months it took to negotiate the freeing of the hostages from detention in Kabul, Falconer, then the UK’s chief negotiator with the Taliban, tried to strong-arm the group’s officials into putting Jouvenal and others on the phone for snatched conversations. It only worked a handful of times, but “that voice on the phone became very important”, Jouvenal told me when I spoke to the two men over video call in late-June. The former war journalist was held underground in a cell with no toilet, and with just a small window in the ceiling to let in air. Falconer’s voice was his only contact with the outside world, the “light at the end of the tunnel”.

Now Jouvenal, a lifelong Conservative member, is endorsing Falconer as the next MP for Lincoln, and campaigning on his behalf. I first saw Falconer on the campaign trail the day before they were due to be reunited, the Labour candidate visibly affected by the prospect. It was an unexpected “collision of worlds”, he said, that made him feel “very moved”; for Jouvenal, it was like “seeing an old friend”. The two have been out door-knocking together in Lincoln ever since.

Jouvenal, a British army veteran, bats away the idea that it might be hard for him to be reminded of his time in captivity: “I went to an English boarding school when I was seven,” he said with a wry grin of his experience as a hostage, “so I was back in a comfortable environment.” He never believed it was in the Afghans’ interests to kill him, he said, and he insists the food was good, too.

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Jouvenal has a long list of reasons why the Tories have lost his vote: NHS waiting lists; Rishi Sunak’s D-Day blunder; partygate; a failure to invest in British manufacturing (he offers to send me the full list after our conversation), but mainly, he wants to “pay back” Falconer for freeing him. In a video Jouvenal recorded to endorse Falconer, he says: “Hamish came through for me, and he’ll come through for the people of Lincoln.”

Hamish Falconer is seen by fellow candidates and Labour MPs as one of the party’s rising stars. I first heard Labour officials discussing a talented diplomat considering standing for the party in late-2020, when the Labour leadership was desperate to attract strong candidates, but an anticipated defeat at the next general election made the party a poor prospect. Falconer had then been serving in the Foreign Office for a decade, mostly in Afghanistan, leading the terrorism response team, as well as in South Sudan, and investigating human trafficking at the National Crime Agency. But under Boris Johnson’s government, Falconer began to weary of the Foreign Office. “I just didn’t think the ministers that I was working with were serving the public very well,” he said, while at home he could see “things getting so much harder for people”.

He did not wait, as some whispered that he should, until a general election was called to be parachuted into a safe seat. Instead, in December 2022, Falconer contested a selection in Lincoln. Despite hailing from north London, he made his case and won the support of the local Labour membership by 82 per cent of the vote.

In 1997 his father, the leading barrister Charlie Falconer, applied to be the party’s candidate in the Labour safe seat of Dudley North. But having refused during his interview to say he would take his children out of private school, he failed to win the nomination. Falconer was appointed as a peer when Blair won, and went on to serve on Blair’s front bench.

Twenty-five years later, Hamish Falconer, whose Westminster School education prevented his father from becoming an MP, won a Labour selection process. He quit his job at the Foreign Office and moved to Lincoln, a seat he is expected to win comfortably on 4 July. His work on national security, foreign policy and industrial strategy is rated by key members of the shadow cabinet, and he is touted as a future foreign secretary or defence secretary.

He will “of course, be interested in foreign policy” if he is elected, he told me, but he is more preoccupied by questions of industrial strategy, and the places economics and geopolitics intersect. “What on Earth are we going to do about a deluge of far cheaper Chinese electric vehicles or the domination of Huawei in some of the telecommunications fields, or the extreme concentration of critical minerals or semiconductors? These are foreign policy questions. But they are also profound questions about our economic model, and it’s why I think Rachel Reeves talking about securonomics is absolutely right, and I think will be at the crux of so much of what drives a future Labour government.”

Falconer is in the unusual position among his Labour peers of having grown up with a cabinet member for a father. What did the experience teach him? “I’m close to my dad and we talk all the time,” he said. They often discuss “the difference between 1997 and 2024. I am so incredibly proud of what he and his colleagues did in that period. The remains of that investment are everywhere in Lincoln. But I think if we are lucky enough to form the government, we will be doing it under much harder conditions than Tony Blair and Dad and everybody else in 1997.”

Is he a Blairite? “No, I don’t think so. Obviously, my dad was in a Blair government. But that was a long time ago, and I think the challenges facing the country are so profoundly different. I also think Blairism, for obvious reasons, wasn’t very focused on these kinds of industrial questions in the same way.” But Charlie Falconer has bequeathed him with what you might call a Blairite approach to political decision-making: “Dad will always be pushing me to think as hard as possible from first principles about what the problems are and then how we can make the politics work around [the answer] to make the changes that are necessary.”

Of his fellow Labour candidates vying to be elected as MPs for the first time, he said: “I think we’re going to be a really interesting, varied and talented cohort, full of people who are, I think, like me, restless about the state of public services, with a wide range of different professional backgrounds.” He notes in particular the economists Torsten Bell and Miatta Fahnbulleh, and the trade unionist Anneliese Midgley. Labour’s next generation is, he said, “post-factional” and less tribal than some of their histories as advisers under previous Labour leaders might suggest.

Jouvenal hopes that Falconer represents a new kind of politician. “It’s quite difficult to find people in government that really do things for people,” he said, recalling how Falconer helped not just him but his family.

“It was the anniversary five days ago,” Jouvenal reminded Falconer towards the end of our conversation: two years since they met for the first time at Heathrow Airport, when Jouvenal returned home from Afghanistan. He was greeted by his wife and daughters, and the man he only knew by voice.

[See more: The end of Tory England]

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This article appears in the 02 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Labour’s Britain