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banner Friday, 28 September, 2001, 15:29 GMT 16:29 UK
Interview: Chairman Charles
Charles Clarke
Nyta Mann

Despite reservations from some Labour voices, Charles Clarke is not expecting any outbreaks of protest at the impending US-led war to disturb his party's annual conference.

If you're saying to me if there were a vacancy would I consider running for it ... the answer is not a yes, nor is it a no

Charles Clarke on Labour leadership ambitions
"I think the subject will be debated fully," he says of the action - whatever form it takes - aimed at the Taleban regime in Afghanistan.

"I've spoken to a lot of Labour Party meetings up and down the country over the last two-and-a-half weeks and the debate and response there has been very mature indeed."

"I don't think there will be any disunity."

Mr Clarke's job as Labour Party chairman with a seat in the cabinet - a position invented by Tony Blair, to some controversy within the party - requires him to be attuned to gathering dissonance between the rank and file and government ministers.

Better dialogue promised

He describes his role as "firstly, to strengthen the relationship between the party and the government in a whole variety of ways".

Sponsorship from McDonald's has led to McLabour accusations
"Secondly, to strengthen the relationship between the party and the people, most notably defined by the very poor turnout in the general election."

Which of those takes precedence, telling ministers of the party's concerns or vice versa?

Neither, he insists.

"The single most important thing that has to be highlighted is proper, strong dialogue between government ministers, including cabinet members, and the party," he says.

"And I have to encourage and facilitate that."

There was more substance in the feeling that Peter and I didn't have a relationship that was very powerful... I've been very keen to repair that and he has too

Charles Clarke on Peter Mandelson
Mr Clarke admits that grassroots-leadership relations are in need of improvement; he intends to repair some of the neglect felt by party members.

"People are sceptical about that, and in a sense justifiably so," he says. But "if at the end of a year people are saying that it hasn't changed, then I will regard myself as having failed."

McLabour accusations

An oft-raised accusation from Labour activists and trade unionists is that there has been a wholesale corporate take-over of their party.

The latest row came last month following the news that the party had taken money from McDonald's - which refuses to recognise trade unions and just this summer was fined for employing under-age workers - to sponsor a conference event this year.

Tony Blair unilaterally invented the cabinet post he gave to Charles Clarke in June
Mr Clarke insists the furore has been blown out of all proportion: "I well understand the concerns about McDonald's - the question of pay, of environmental and a range of issues. But those arise too for many other major organisations which sponsor political parties' events."

Is there any firm Labour would say no to?

"The criteria is organisations which are in breach of the law in a frequent way [would not be acceptable]," he says.

"I think that's the in principle issue, as to where organisations stand in relation to the law of the land and in terms of acknowledging it or not."

Gordon Brown: "Cordial" conversations
In other words, all-comers appear to be welcome so long as they stump up the money and are not persistent law-breakers.

"What I will say is I think the whole issue of funding of political parties, and finding ways of funding political activity which minimise the need to go to external sources, remains high on the agenda," he adds.

Mr Clarke will, once the conference season is over, investigate the subject himself.

"I will certainly be looking at the question of what is the best way of funding political activity so that the issues which arise about perceived lack of propriety in various ways can be dealt with properly."

Party funding to be examined

It is not state funding of political parties (which he opposes) that he has in mind, but "areas such as stimulating political education, policy research, international contacts, where there is already a degree of state funding - for example through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy".

"I think the bigger issue is how you find a proper locus for politics within the body politics of the country.

"There's a whole series of areas - the media and civil service are classic - which tends to have a low view of politics and politicians, and that we have to turn around over time."

Political gossip

Mr Clarke's post-election appointment to the cabinet in such a central position consolidated his Westminster village status as potential successor to Blair.

Peter Mandelson: Onetime close allies, he and Clarke fell out badly
He sweeps aside such speculation as nothing more than "political gossip".

"It's a completely non-trivial point to say that I have not the slightest idea when or if or how - all of those are important - Tony Blair would no longer be leader of the Labour Party," he says.

"And the when, if or how would influence very significantly whoever was to succeed Tony."

But he knows he is probably lumbered with being seen as a future leadership contender. Nor does he rule himself out.

"If you're saying to me if there were a vacancy would I consider running for it," he says, "the answer is not a yes, nor is it a no. It would depend on the circumstances at the time."

Getting on with Gordon

Mr Clarke's Whitehall base is the Cabinet Office - increasingly a de facto prime minister's department. His posting there makes him something of a counterweight to Blair's ally-cum-rival Gordon Brown, who still tops the list of would-be successors.

There is history between the chancellor and the chairman.

When Neil Kinnock was Labour leader, Charles Clarke was his chief henchman
Most notably, the fact that Mr Clarke - who in 1994 backed Blair for Labour leader following John Smith's death - suggested that Mr Brown's inability to reconcile himself to his former protege's seizing of the crown might only be resolved by the prime minister dispensing with the chancellor's services.

Despite the "crap written about this relationship", Mr Clarke insists he gets on "pretty well" with Mr Brown.

"I don't think there is a hostility there. I've worked very hard since I've been appointed to this job to work very closely with Gordon. We've had two or three very good, cordial, positive and friendly conversations."

Falling out with Peter

Things have not been so simple with Peter Mandelson. The two were once close colleagues: when Mr Clarke was former Labour leader Neil Kinnock's chief of staff, Mr Mandelson was his spinner-in-chief.

They were a close band of allies but fell out badly after Mr Mandelson decided to break up Kinnock's "kitchen cabinet" before the 1992 election by going for a seat.

Clarke concedes that "there was more substance in the feeling that Peter and I didn't have a relationship that was very powerful - though at times in our life we had very close, even intimate relations."

"But that hasn't been the case in recent years - and again, I've been very keen to repair that and he has too."

See also:

30 Aug 01 | UK Politics
McDonald's Labour deal sparks row
04 Jul 01 | UK Politics
Labour's chairman defends new role
22 Jun 01 | UK Politics
More power for Downing Street
28 Feb 00 | UK Politics
Old Labour's silent witness
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