Interview: Mrs Pritchard aims for the Deputy Leadership
Hazel Blears is a Marmite politician. Many are impressed and enthused by the indomitable energy of the Labour Party Chair. Others find her drive and organisational zeal irritating.
She provokes love or hate from members of her party, but never apathy.
For my money, it is always good to see an enthusiastic politician – but boy has she got high hopes.
A few minutes into our meeting, at her office in the House of Commons, she is talking about winning back seats the party lost in 2005.
Optimism is certainly something 51-year-old Hazel possesses.
The first thing that you notice, of course, is how petite she is, a fact vividly exposed earlier this week on Newsnight when, during a debate between all six candidates for the Deputy Leadership, she looked like an interloper in a land of giants.
Her small stature – she is 4′ 11″ – led some to comment that under Blair, Labour Party Chairs are like Russian dolls.
We have gone from the bull-like Charles Clarke down to Hazel.
Her size is often commented on, with phrases like Tiny Blairite used to mock her.
She says of her reputation for being loyal and on-message:
“I have spent six years in government doing some of the toughest jobs, three years at the Home Office doing crime and counter terrorism.
“I think loyalty is much undervalued quality in politics.
“I think the next couple of years are going to be really tough for us fighting the Tories and the Lib Dems, and the new Prime Minister will need the most loyal team you can get.”
The jibes about her size do not seem to get to her. She describes herself as an optimistic, easy going person.
“I was going to say I don’t stand on my dignity but it would be quite hard to stand on my dignity.
“The only time it annoys me is when it is used as a metaphor for your politics, that if you are a small person somehow you are not serious.
“I would not have come from my very working class background in Salford end up as a member of the British Cabinet if there wasn’t something about me so I think the fact of being small as a woman I don’t mind at all. I think that its more difficult for small men.
“As a small woman sometimes people want to protect you or look after you so I don’t say no to that!”
She is one of two women candidates for Deputy Leader in a field of six.
Harriet Harman entered the race saying that Labour needs a woman at the top of the party.
Ms Blears but does not back that position but says it “would be nice” to have a female deputy leader.
Much has been made of her apparently new image. Ms Blears denies she has consulted the style gurus:
“I have got a lovely hairdresser called Richard who works in Manchester – he is gorgeous – and he said to me last year, ‘you always have this short hair, why don’t you grow it a bit,’ so I did, and the only thing I have changed is my hair. It has taken me a year.”
In such a crowded field, it is the little things that get noticed, such as Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly’s support for the Blears campaign.
I was told that Hazel was minded to give Roman Catholic adoption agencies an exemption to the Sexual Orientation Regulations, a discussion in Cabinet that enraged gay rights activists. She flatly denies it.
“I am against discrimination in any way, shape or form.
“I fundamentally believe in equality before the law for everybody – it’s a basic human right, it’s actually a Labour party value.”
She does defend Ruth Kelly, often seen as having a problem with voting for gay rights.
The appointment of this strongly Catholic minister to the equality portfolio in 2006 caused dismay among the gay community, not helped by the fact that Ms Kelly failed to vote for any of the gay rights legislation the government has introduced since 1997.
Her first pro-gay vote was earlier this year, opposing a Tory backbench attempt to block the SORs.
Ms Blears denies that her Catholic colleague is homophobic:
“First of all if you look at my voting record on gay rights it is impeccable.
“Second I am glad to have the support of a range of Cabinet members including Ruth Kelly. She is actually one of my neighbouring MPs and I work very closely with her in the region.
“I have a faith, I go to church, but I do not think these things have to be in opposition at all.
“One of the foundations of faith is that you treat people equally you value every human being you believe in their worth and their contribution and those are deeply held values for people of all faith backgrounds.
“I genuinely do not think for a moment that Ruth … certainly she is not homophobic, she shares Labour’s values, I think there is a role, a moral and ethical basis for politics as well.”
When pressed, she answers the gay critics with an accusation:
“I don’t want this interview to be me defending Ruth Kelly I don’t think she needs defending, she is a very good minister.
“I think that is an example of intolerance. I think that our politics – mine and Ruth’s – are about tolerance, respect and understanding other people’s points of view.”
Ms Blears pitch for the Deputy Leadership focuses on the party she currently chairs, with some good old-fashioned Tory-bashing as a side dish.
She says the deputy should be the party’s “campaigner in chief and the voice of the party at the Cabinet table,” and supports the abolition of her current role as Party Chair appointed by the leader.
“I think the coalition that helped us win the elections is fundamental to our success we have got to keep that,” she says.
“This does not mean, as Alan Johnson’s camp posits it, heartlands versus newer voters.
“I actually think that a very similar message is appealing to a broad coalition of people.
“That message is about helping people to succeed in their lives, to get on, get a decent job, make sure your kids get a decent education, make sure your neighbourhood improves, make sure you are safe on the streets and that the NHS provides services that are personal to you and accessible.
“I do not think that is a message that is a heartland message or a middle class message.
“The challenge for us as a political party is to ensure that we continue to have appeal.
“I do not see why we can’t be more ambitious and try to win back some of the seats lost in 2005.”
A very Blears-like moment of optimism, but the Tories are ahead in the polls and their leader David Cameron has certainly caught the public mood.
She is unimpressed with their political repositioning of the ‘new’ Conservatives.
“I think that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It’s a serious political point – I think we have changed the values of this country over the last ten years, I think we have shifted people a little bit to the left.
“You are never going to shift the British people far to the left but I think we have created a more tolerant community. I think people are much less tolerant of discrimination and prejudice.
“These days if you heard the phrase from (former Tory minister) George Young that homeless people are the people you step over on your way out from the opera, I think people would be scandalised.
“We genuinely made the values of this country much more about inclusion and caring for people who are vulnerable.
“If you had had another ten years of Tory government I hate to think where the values of this country would have been.
“Equally I am not complacent about David Cameron. I think that for the first time in 20 years you have got a Tory party that is resurgent, it no longer embarrassing to be a Tory and I take them very seriously.”
Outsider Deputy Leadership candidate Jon Cruddas points to the collapse in membership of the party as a sign that New Labour has lost its way.
Ms Blears accepts that numbers have fallen, but she has a string of ideas about how to re-engage with a voting public she concedes have fallen out of love with Labour.
“In terms of the ‘crisis of membership’ the truth is that in 1995/6 we had a huge influx, 100,000 extra people joined the party,” she says.
“That was because they wanted to get rid of the Tories – everybody had had enough.
“They mainly joined through national adverts and party political broadcasts, they did not get involved in the local party and they left after we elected a Labour government.
“We did have a drop around Iraq but it was nothing like as significant.”
She is strongest when talking about root and branch reform of the moribund party structure on the ground.
“Labour as a party is pretty boring,” she admits.
“You go to party meetings, there are groups of small individuals – or small groups, rather than groups of small individuals! – discussing the same issues and talking to themselves.
“Bless our party members, they go despite all of that.
“There is a big challenge of party reform and if I was elected Deputy Leader I would put forward a programme of significant change to turn us from an inward focused party into a party that is much more connected with local communities.
“It means supporters networks, it means an easier entry into the party – at the moment you have to join, you have to pay your full subs and people feel that they then have to agree with 100% of what the Labour party stands for.
“If you look at NGOs, the entry point could be a postcard campaign, it could be a text alert to something that is going on.
“I would like to see more political education.
“If you have not come up through a party or trade union background how do you know what our values are, why are we an internationalist party, all of that.
“I would like to involve the community in looking at candidates, not necessarily full primaries, I think there is a role for members in voting, but involving the community in policy discussions.”
The community in her own constituency of Salford is changing, as are the boundaries of her seat.
The town where she was born and raised is mentioned often in our conversation, and her links there are strong – her brother works as a bus driver in the town and her parents live there.
“Boundary changes are always difficult because you sometimes end up having to compete with colleagues but I want to stay as Salford’s MP.
“It’s where I live and where I go home to and I can’t ever imagine representing somewhere else.”
“I can tell you no, no, no,” she says when I ask if she will be parachuted into a safe seat at the other end of the country.
She clearly has great affection for the town, where as a child she appeared as a street urchin in the gritty British film A Taste Of Honey.
“Salford is changing – ten years ago we had 50% male unemployment in two wards, now we have the BBC moving in and we have a new community.
“The challenge for us in Labour locally is to make sure those new people see our agenda as relevant to them.
“I am probably at the heart of new Labour at the moment because I have a heartland core vote being joined by an increasingly aspirational and successful community moving in, lots of gay people too as its so close to Manchester.
“I have got to make sure my Labour message is relevant to all the community.”
What more has Labour got to offer those new gay constituents?
“We have got a manifesto commitment to come forward with a single Equality Act.
“I am at the heart of that. I think it’s very important to give people rights, but also make the most of the talents of skills of people from all backgrounds.
“We have done it because it is the right thing to do but also because it contributes to our economy or communities.
“I used to be the police minister – our police service does not look like the community it serves in terms of race gender or sexual orientation.
“We could not take positive action, even when the police wanted to take on more people from a specific group, you wouldn’t be allowed to do that.
“We are preparing a green paper to cover all these issues and we shall bring it forward legislation in the lifetime of this parliament.”
The six-way race for Deputy Leader is unprecedented in the history of the Labour party. It is almost impossible to predict the outcome.
“It makes it a completely open contest. It could well be decided on second and third preferences,” she comments.
It is not the closest in her political experience however:
“In 1992 when I was candidate in Bury South a marginal seat I lost it after three recounts,” she explains.
“I had been a candidate for three years, I had to give up my job, everybody thought I would win, the Tory came to the count with a losing speech.
“It was 4am. When you have lost you are still a leader, so you can’t cry, you have to be really strong.
“There was a party organised for after and my mum was with me. I wanted to cry and she said to me, ‘never forget how steel is tempered. It has to be heated to a great temperature and then plunged into icy cold water when you do that it has an edge and it makes it a lot sharper.’
“That was a metaphor for how I felt and nothing could ever feel like that, so it toughened me up a bit.”
A comparison is often made, both in humour and in criticism, that Hazel Blears most resembles a fictional character.
BBC1 last year made a drama starring Jane Horrocks called The Amazing Mrs Pritchard, about an ordinary woman who becomes Prime Minister.
She was Northern, tiny, fiesty, a little bit annoying, and driven with a zeal to change politics. Ms Blears does not resile from the comparison:
“I think I am Mrs Pritchard with politics; she was the voice of common sense but she didn’t understand how politics works.
“I am the voice of common sense but I have got thirty years in politics, so maybe I will survive longer than her.”
Come to think of it, if they ever make a movie about Hazel Blears, Jane Horrocks would be perfect casting.