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Labour Party Chairman Charles Clarke MP
Labour Party Chairman Charles Clarke MP

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

DAVID FROST: And now we switch the location by the wonders of satellite television or something to the Labour Party's spring conference, under way down there in Cardiff. Also under way we hear there's a row between trade union leaders and the party upset at being called wreckers for resisting the government's agenda for reform of the public services and the Prime Minister is supposed to have, when he addresses the conference later on this morning at 11.45, he's going to be planning to defuse that row, we assume. Anyway I'm joined now from Cardiff by the Chairman of the Labour Party Charles Clarke, Charles good morning.

CHARLES CLARKE: Good morning David.

DAVID FROST: I mean presumably you're sticking to the, the point made by Stephen Byers that he meant trade union people as well as others as wreckers?

CHARLES CLARKE: Well I know what the Prime Minister's going to say this morning, is to identify the Conservatives as the people who are trying to wreck our public services, that's what he's been saying over a considerable period of time and it's part of their strategy about promoting a cynicism and concern about the level of public services. There are debates as you say within our movement with the trade union colleagues about the best way in which to address reform but I don't think that's an unnatural or a bad thing in any way.

DAVID FROST: Did Stephen Byers make a mistake in identifying the trades union leaders among the wreckers? CHARLES CLARKE: No he didn't and I don't think he was specifically trying to do that. Anybody who's been looking at the SWT dispute has to say are the strikes in the best interest of the travelling public and the conclusion the government comes to and Steve very firmly comes to is no and I think that's right. I think the question of how we debate the private finance initiative and so on is very important but if I may say so David, that very interesting interview you had with Francis Maude just now in which I agreed with a lot of what he had to say, illustrates the wide gap there is between the Conservative leadership and ourselves on these matters which is why the Prime Minister will address that later on this morning.

DAVID FROST: Well I mean, yes Dave Prentis, after the Prime Minister did his pro-public sector worker speech Dave Prentis of Unison said let us hear no more, he was high after this because of the praise, let us hear no more about any quick fix ideas, that private companies have the answer, they do not, don't throw away good will for reform by gambling with the private sector. But I mean you don't agree with that?

CHARLES CLARKE: Well he also said that he agrees with 90 per cent of the government's reform agenda and that's our central slogan here, invest in public services and reform them to improve the quality of service to the consumer. Now there are arguments, it's quite true to say, about how we should run private sector involvement without the private finance initiative and so on. But we're determined to carry that through and to have constructive dialogue which we do do with Dave Prentice and others about the way in which we go forward to actually put that into effect.

DAVID FROST: What about this news that really surprised me yesterday when I read it in detail, that from the IFS, that Labour has invested less in public investment in new hospitals, schools, roads etc, during its first term in power than any government since the second world war and certainly than under the Tories. Public investment, that part of spending devoted to capital projects, the infrastructure that it's lower investment than almost ever before, that, that was a shock to me, was it a shock to you?

CHARLES CLARKE: Well it wasn't, no David, because the fact is that the first two years of our first term we very consciously decided not to increase public spending because of the situation we'd inherited and so to set our public finances onto a very secure footing which in my opinion has led to our strong position on employment, inflation and now public spending. But the stronger increases in public spending only came through at the last part of our first Parliament and are coming through now very strongly indeed. But if you take the first Parliament as a whole it's not surprising that they reflect those first two years where we maintained the Conservative spending limits which we'd inherited.

DAVID FROST: Yes but obviously you were making plans for the, for the later three years we've had since the and surely Gordon Brown's golden rule Charles, you were able to borrow to invest without breaking your own rules at any time?

CHARLES CLARKE: Yes there was a lot of argument David, you recall it, you presided over it in many ways, about whether the government was right in those first two years, '97 to '99, to maintain the Conservative spending limits for exactly the reason you've just said. I would argue that events have shown that the government was right to do that, both in the very strong reductions in unemployment, in the low inflation we've got and in the increase in public spending which is now coming through very strongly indeed. You're quite right to say the first two years, there wasn't a significant increase in public spending and that's what leads to those kind of aggregate figures you've just described.

DAVID FROST: Talking about money, let's talk for a moment about your bank account, it says in the Sunday Times today that in fact there's an overdraft of six million that's probably nearer ten million in terms of the Labour Party's fund at the moment, is that true?

CHARLES CLARKE: I'm not going to confirm the details to you but the general thrust of it is right, that we have a significant overdraft position and we put in place a business plan to address that and I'm glad to say that business plan was agreed by our National Executive Committee this week and I'm confident we'll be able to carry it through. It's important to have properly financed political parties for our democracy and we have to manage our money properly which is what we're doing.

DAVID FROST: House of Lords, there are two sort of, at least two or maybe more views in the Cabinet, there's Robin Cook among the views that there should be more elected members of the House of Lords and there's Derry Irving who thinks there shouldn't be more elected members in the House of Lords, whose side are you on?

CHARLES CLARKE: I generally argue publicly for more, higher numbers of elected people in the House of Lords and I'm on record in that. But you're right to, it's not just two views, in fact if you go through Parliament there are probably 650 different views about the relationship between the chambers, going from those who think we shouldn't have a second chamber at all to those who think we should have a totally elected chamber with just about every variety in between. Plenty of room for legitimate discussion between those extremes, I think what everybody agrees is that we need to modernise our parliamentary system and modernisation of the Lords is a pretty important element of doing that.

DAVID FROST: Does it seem odd getting donations from the RMT at the same time you're having to attack them publicly, should you put a freeze on, a freeze on gifts from the RMT until this strike is over?

CHARLES CLARKE: I don't think so, what the RMT decides to do is a matter for them, what's absolutely certain is that whoever gives us money in whatever form whether it's the RMT or any other trade union, any other donor, we won't change our policies to deal with that. The historic links between Labour and the trade union movement is important but it's because of shared values of the social justice and economic efficiency which we've had over the decades and which the Labour Party try to put into effect, it's not a payment for a particular appraisal, service in any particular regard and that includes the RMT in relation to this particular dispute. There is discussion in the trade union movements about this, there will be political fund balances there always are, where individual members decide whether they want to continue supporting the Labour Party, I hope they will but I don't think we'll be giving into threats of any kind on this from anybody.

DAVID FROST: And in terms of, as we, as we look at the situation today why is it that with the tremendous majority you've got in the House of Commons and so on, it would appear that the Conservative Party has more members over 300,000 than you have under 300,000. Now that seems odd given the distribution of votes and so on, is that because Tony Blair as leader tends to go out for the general rather than the loyalist vote?

CHARLES CLARKE: Not at all in fact Tony himself has been very strongly committed to increasing the membership of the Labour Party, it was under his leadership it did increase before 1997 in his own constituency. He pioneered new means of getting new members into the party, so he's very strongly committed to membership. What we've done is we've tried to report accurately what our membership figures are and I think if you took scrutiny to the Conservatives you'd find that their figures weren't quite as they described. But the fact is membership of political parties, including ours, is not as high as it should be and one of the reasons for that is what Francis Maude was describing, cynicism about politics and politicians. It's our job to change that and that's what we're determined to do, we've had a lot of discussion about membership during this conference in Cardiff this, this weekend and I hope we'll be able to put a lot of that into effect because it's not good for democracy as a whole when political parties whether ourselves, the Conservatives or as anybody else don't have substantial individual membership.

DAVID FROST: In terms of, in terms of the view of politicians and so on, I suppose that's one way in which the Enron business is, is relevant in terms of respect for politicians, are you, can you put your hand on your heart and say there's not going to be nothing that comes out about the Labour government that will embarrass you over Enron?

CHARLES CLARKE: Well I can, I mean the fact is that we haven't taken cash for favours or anything of that kind in the whole approach and it's worth reminding ourselves David that the reason why the Enron donations are in the public arena is because of the legislation that we passed against the opposition of the Conservatives to make all our donations public and to have a transparent situation. I think that was a good thing to do, at the same time we put spending limits on political campaigns which had never been done before. The Conservatives always opposed that and we put a far more transparent regime into place. Now as we do that of course there'll be public debate about particular donations in whatever form and that's as it should be, but if you're asking me do I believe there was any impropriety, do I think there's any issue that will arise out of it I certainly don't, I think that it's something that will of course be debated but I think the whole process was entirely proper.

DAVID FROST: Thank you very much Charles, we'll come back to after the news if there's a moment, but thank you very much.


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