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banner Friday, 22 September, 2000, 14:44 GMT 15:44 UK
Hain: Searching for enthusiasm

By BBC News Online's Nyta Mann

This year's Labour conference is a crucial one, says Peter Hain.

"It is absolutely imperative that we go into the next election with the maximum enthusiasm of party members," says the Neath MP and Foreign Office minister.

"Frankly, that hasn't been there since we've been in government. And no party can go into an election in a confident state when you don't have your members enthusiastically raring to go."

We have to pay as much if not more attention to the Daily Mirror readers and the Guardian readers as we do to the Daily Mail readers

I don't think the one should be at the expense of the other

Peter Hain
Hain believes they should be by the end of the coming week.

The effects of a stirring pre-election conference will combine with members' appreciation of Labour's still new-ish national policy forum process, the public spending boost in Gordon Brown's Comprehensive Spending Review and a new, "more tolerant stance" from the leadership towards the wider party.

Licenced critic?

Hain has gained a reputation for being something of a licensed critic of the government in which he serves.

After Labour's poor performance at last year's Welsh Assembly elections, he warned the party against coming over as "gratuitously offensive" to its own core supporters.

He has called for a widening of New Labour's focus on Middle England. He also warned his ministerial colleagues of the danger of appearing to be "uninspiring automatons".

But what does Peter Hain the Foreign Office minister think that Peter Hain the young, radical agitator and direct protester would make of him now?

"It isn't about that - it's about operating within a team, and you support the team. But I don't object to criticism because some of it is warranted and I may well, if I'd been outside government, have been contributing to that debate.

"As somebody who's been a radical protester and campaigner, proud to call myself a socialist, I'd say I'm proud and privileged to be a member of this government," he adds.

"That doesn't mean I've sold out. It doesn't mean anybody's betraying anything. It means you're doing an honest job pushing forward the frontiers, making a difference wherever you can."

Arms attacks

The greatest criticism Hain has faced as a Foreign Office minister is over the "ethical dimension" to foreign policy promised by Robin Cook soon after New Labour won office in 1997.

Campaigning organisations and the government's opponents have combined to pour scorn on the claim with just about every arms export since.

A recent example was the government's decision earlier this year to give the go-ahead for spare Hawk jet parts to be sent to Zimbabwe, despite its involvement in the war in the Congo.

In that instance, as with several others, the foreign secretary is understood to have been overruled by Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"We've got to get this in perspective," says Hain. "If you take the particular controversy there was about the spare parts for Hawk jets for Zimbabwe, these were eight spares for two serviceable aircraft in the Congo. And that decision was reversed anyway.

"I won't attempt to say that we [Hain and Cook] recommended the decision in the first place. But, you know, you're part of a collective decision-making process. And compare that incident, which is pretty isolated and unique, with the fact that we have introduced an arms export policy which is as night to day to the Tories'."

He points to the increased, albeit still incomplete, arms sales information the government is prepared to release - including an annual report - compared to previous administrations.

Home and away

As with the introduction of a national minimum wage and the working families tax credit, Hain believes the government deserves more credit than it has received.

"People say foreign policy doesn't win votes," he says. "But I think there's an important constituency of progressive opinion there - sort of Guardian readers."

Isn't the Guardian-reading, liberal constituency the same one Hain had in mind when, earlier this month, he challenged its "endemic culture of betrayal"?

"Well indeed, and that's why we need to persuade them of our achievements," he says.

"There's this great disjunction which I find extremely ironic. Whenever I go abroad, Britain is seen as a genuinely progressive force. We have a challenge to achieve that standing domestically and some of the reason why we haven't done that is our own fault."

Does Hain believe New Labour strategists made the mistake of focusing too narrowly on the kind of agenda followed by the Daily Mail, widely seen as Middle England's newspaper of choice?

"We have to pay as much if not more attention to the Daily Mirror readers and the Guardian readers as we do to the Daily Mail readers," says Hain. "I don't think the one should be at the expense of the other."

Searching for enthusiasm

"I'm a great admirer of the broad coalition that Tony Blair assembled behind us at the last election because we wouldn't have got elected otherwise.

"Equally, however, I think we can over-do the extent to which we had a huge positive vote for New Labour at the last election as opposed to a contemptuous rejection of the Tories.

"We would be making a big mistake if we over-interpreted the 1997 landslide as being fantastic enthusiasm for us.

"I think that we wouldn't have had that landslide without Tony Blair as leader, but it was born out of the desire for change and wanting to get rid of the Tories. And we haven't done enough to build on that to inspire enthusiasm for ourselves."

This week will, Hain hopes, change that.

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See also:

13 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Ministers seen as 'automatons' - Hain
12 Jul 00 | UK
The 'ethical' dimension
21 Apr 00 | UK Politics
Peter Hain: Son of Africa
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