|You are in: In Depth: Conferences 2001: Labour|
Friday, 28 September, 2001, 15:29 GMT 16:29 UK
Interview: Chairman Charles
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.
"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".
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."
"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."
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.
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."
"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."
Mr Clarke's post-election appointment to the cabinet in such a central position consolidated his Westminster village status as potential successor to Blair.
"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.
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."
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