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13 January 2010

Exclusive: Douglas Alexander interview

Election co-ordinator sets record straight after week of claims and counterclaims

By James Macintyre

The full text of the interview will appear in this week’s magazine.

Douglas Alexander, the election co-ordinator at the heart of intense speculation over his position and alleged comments about colleagues in the past week, has moved to set the record straight in an exclusive interview published in this week’s New Statesman.

Alexander denies reports that he was ready to resign in the middle of last week’s coup attempt, saying: “There are always rumours in politics, and I’m responsible for many things, but not some of the headlines that are written or some of the words that are spoken. I’ve supported Gordon in the past, I offered a statement of support on the day, and I will support him as he leads us into the general election. I don’t know how I can state it more clearly than that.”

He corrects reports that he capitalised on the attempted putsch by gaining concessions from Brown. “I didn’t actually have a meeting with him on Wednesday afternoon, but I’ve never shied away from speaking to Gordon. That may have upset people around him in the past, but after 20 years, we’re still talking.” Alexander points out that he spoke to Brown again after the PLP and says: “I spoke more to the Prime Minister on Sunday than to my wife and kids, as they pointed out repeatedly!”

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Peter Watt allegations

However, Brown did not raise that day’s revelations in the Mail on Sunday, which included a claim by Peter Watt, the former Labour general secretary, that Alexander had told him in 2007: “The truth is, Peter, we have spent ten years working with this guy [Brown], and we don’t actually like him. We have always thought that the longer the British public had to get to know him, the less they would like him as well.”

Responding to the Watt allegations — which were raised by David Cameron at PMQs today — Alexander says his words were “paraphrased” and adds: “I have said that was not my view. It seems that Peter Watt himself does not seem certain what he claims I said. I would just ask you to weigh 20 years of working with Gordon against 20 words that were apparently paraphrased. But listen, he’s got a book to sell. There are bigger and more important issues that we are focused on.”

Election role

Alexander is relaxed about speculation about who’s up and who’s down when it comes to the election team.

“My sense is that titles matter less than team. I was thinking about this after the PLP: I honestly can’t remember what Peter Mandelson’s title, Gordon Brown’s title, Philip Gould’s title, or anybody else’s title was in 1997, or, indeed, in most elections since then. What matters in any campaign is that you have a strategic core that makes the judgements, decides the strategy, and can deliver.”

Coup attempt

Reflecting on last week’s coup attempt, Alexander is frank: “Listen, it hasn’t helped. But my sense and my understanding from the polls that we’ve seen since then is that it came and went in . . . it is already behind us.”

He denies that Brown is now “boxed in”. On the contrary: “However inadvertently, the consequence of last Wednesday is certainty that Gordon will lead us into the next election . . . And that is the foundation on which we can work together as a team, because our generation — a younger generation than Peter Mandelson and Gordon — is not ready to hand over this country to a party that we think has the wrong solutions for the people we came into politics to serve.”

Political cabinet

Speaking straight after this week’s session of the “political cabinet” — which Alexander opened with a presentation on election strategy, followed by Peter Mandelson, and then by Ed Miliband speaking on the manifesto — Alexander said: “I’ve come back from the political cabinet buoyed by not just the quality of the discussion, but the depth of consensus about how we’re going to fight this election.”

The fight ahead

Alexander is in no doubt about the scale of the challenge facing Labour as it seeks an unprecedented fourth term. “Look, we have a tough fight on our hands. The poll averages are the Conservatives on around 40 and we’re on about 30. We made some progress in closing that gap in the autumn, but we’ve got a lot of work to do and not a lot of time in which to do it. And it was with a clear-eyed sense of obligation to the people we came into politics to serve that we engaged in the conversation.”

He dismisses talk of disagreements over “dividing lines” within the cabinet, characterised as being between Mandelson and Ed Balls. “I don’t recognise the characters, either from the internal conversations of which I’ve been part, or from the cartoon characters that have been running around the newspapers.” But he does subtly make the case for an unashamed social-democratic message. “I do think our challenge is to balance credibility and a clear message about how we would reduce the deficit with boldness about the choices that we put before the public.

“It would be wrong for us to offer difference from the Conservative Party at the cost of credibility, but equally it would be wrong to offer credibility at the cost of being clear that there remain very fundamental differences.”