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Robin Cook MP, leader of the House of Commons
Robin Cook MP, leader of the House of Commons
BBC BREAKFAST WITH FROST INTERVIEW: ROBIN COOK, MP, Leader of the House of Commons MAY 5th, 2002

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

DAVID FROST: Now maybe you were one of the third of eligible voters who had their say in this week's local elections in England. Some of you may have used new-fangled methods of voting like text messaging, or maybe you posted your preference and found that you were one of a growing number of people who posted their preferences instead of popping along to the local polling station. But whatever it is, one fact remains incontrovertible, the people of Hartlepool chose a man in a monkey suit to be their new mayor.


DAVID FROST: Well interesting developments there in local politics and now for a look at our local politics and the French politics, we're delighted the Leader of the House is back with us again, Robin Cook - who is also President of the Party of European Socialists - top of the morning.

ROBIN COOK: Hello David.

DAVID FROST: Just a first, this headline here, BNP gains scare Labour off city mayor elections. Any truth in that?

ROBIN COOK: Well none at all. I'm glad you asked me about that because I want to make it clear we're not scared of the BNP, and indeed on the evidence of Thursday, nor should we be. In Burnley the Labour vote actually went up. I think if the other parties had campaigned as vigorously as we had we might together have managed to keep the BNP off the council.

DAVID FROST: And the BNP, I mean is not a danger to this country like Mr Le Pen's 17 per cent is in France, is it? I mean people try and link the two but there's no link is there? Or is there?

ROBIN COOK: Well we shouldn't be complacent, David, and indeed we did say at the start of the election campaign our objective was to deny the BNP any toehold in our democracy. Now at the end of the day we've got to keep it in perspective, they only put up candidates in one per cent of all the seats that were being contested on Thursday and they won less than ten per cent of the seats they were contesting, so let's keep that in perspective, it's not a breakthrough by the far right. But equally we want to keep them in their place and their place is off those councils, out of a democratic system which they're not committed to. We do not want racism and fascism getting a toehold in Britain, that's why, at the earliest opportunity, we want to see those councillors out.

DAVID FROST: And Le Pen's success is not, is not entirely unrelated to what's been going on in other parts of Europe, there's been a bit of a trend, whether it was Austria or Italy or wherever, a bit of a trend in this way, hasn't there?

ROBIN COOK: That's true, on the continent there has been an emergence of the far right, not to a majority or substantial position but the position of an established minority in a number of countries. I think it's very important that we do beat them back wherever they appear and I know my colleagues throughout Europe are looking very hard at how we can make sure we don't let them emerge in that way, we do make sure that we cater for those people who are prey to the vote of extremist parties like the far right. One big key issue which actually makes us in a stronger position in Britain is that of course we have tackled unemployment very vigorously over the last five years, we've more or less eliminated long term youth unemployment. Now in France there's been for generations quite a high percentage unemployed among youth and that does enable extremist parties with simple solutions to come forward to gain some credibility that they should not be getting and that's why part of the task of hitting is to stress the importance of multi-racial societies, but also to make sure that people do know that there's social justice, do know there's an opportunity for them, a place in society.

DAVID FROST: And what about the idea of postal votes, which appear in the experiments to have done very well increasing the vote where they were held - would you like to see postal voting for parliament?

ROBIN COOK: Well we've carried out pilot studies last Thursday, we wanted to experiment with it and the Electoral Commission were carrying out a full analysis and only when we've got that advice, David, will we think about where we go from here but my immediate reaction is the response of the postal votes was phenomenal, a number of councils doubled the vote that occurred on Thursday. One like Chorley actually exceeded 60 per cent, which is getting to a general election turnout. Now that does show people are not apathetic, people do value the democracy and if they can be provided with a voting system that is convenient and attractive to them they will turn out and the bigger the vote we can make the less likely it is that extremist parties like the BNP can break through.

DAVID FROST: What about state funding of parties, where do you stand on that because obviously you've seen the polls and our people say there's as much sleaze in what's been gathered from industrialists today as there was in the days of the Tories and so on. So everyone has a problem with fundraising, what about state funding to get round that?

ROBIN COOK: Well first of all, on the question of sleaze, you'll not be surprised David if I disagree with that point.

DAVID FROST: No, no, ... I was quoting a poll which ...

ROBIN COOK: I, I - but we've been quite transparent, indeed we've published all the companies and businesses that make donations to us, we've obliged other parties to do the same - that never happened before and that open-ness is one of the best antidotes to any corruption. But on the question of the future funding, the point I would make David, if we want a parliamentary democracy we've got to have political parties. Those political parties have to be funded and the public have got to work out what is the lease unacceptable way of paying for those parties. If state funding is an option then, certainly, that's one we should explore.

DAVID FROST: So it's worked out for them in that case. Did you see the Mo Mowlam documentary last night, by the way?

ROBIN COOK: I didn't David, I must confess I was at the 2000 Guineas yesterday.

DAVID FROST: Oh where you, yes - that was the one that was won by Alex Ferguson.

ROBIN COOK: It was indeed, he was very happy and over the moon, he's had a very successful year.

DAVID FROST: Yes, and so has Arsene Wenger. Anyway, do you suffer from the same sort of thing that she's complaining about at times, a whispering gallery - is she right to fee victimised?

ROBIN COOK: I think we've got to be grown up if we want to survive in politics David and the fact of the matter is not everybody is always going to praise you behind your back. I mean that's the nature of life in politics and I suspect in many other professions - it doesn't necessarily mean that there's any organised whispering campaign going on though.

DAVID FROST: You said this week actually, in a delightful interview you gave to Andrew Bullen and so on, that Gaynor has helped to change your life and your attitude to people.

ROBIN COOK: I think I've gained a lot from her in terms of emotional intelligence, understanding people's feelings. Yes I think it's possibly true, in the past I've relied too much on hard ... and not enough on respect for the feelings and the way in which people respond to ... I would like to think perhaps I've mellowed with age, David.

DAVID FROST: Yes, mellowed with age and with love. What about the five year anniversary? Obviously people are saying the bloom is off the rose and all of that sort of thing but the five year anniversary, are you celebrating it unmixedly?

ROBIN COOK: Oh absolutely, David, but you know we've always been realistic that there's a lot to be done. We've achieved an enormous amount in five years, we've given Britain the strongest economy we can remember, the fastest growth of any of the big industrial countries. We've also made a big investment in public services, more nurses, more teachers, more police than ever before, but we're very much aware there's a lot still to be done and, you know, nobody's saying well five years, that's it, we're going to rest on our laurels, it's only one milestone along a long road and we're determined to carry on until we have given Britain a world class health service and world class education and made sure that we do have a just and fair society.

DAVID FROST: And what's your disappointment at what hasn't been achieved in the last five years?

ROBIN COOK: I would find it difficult to look back on the last five years as one of disappointment. I would hope though that one of the big tasks we've still got to carry through is to convince the British people that Britain's future lies in Europe, and that means we've got to be a full member of Europe.

DAVID FROST: Thank you very much indeed Robin, we'll just get an update on the news and then we'll come back here again.


DAVID FROST: Thank you very much indeed Sian. Well we can't really say goodbye today without paying special tribute and saying a very special goodbye to the grande dame of the Labour Party, Barbara Castle. Just before Christmas, five years ago in fact, I interviewed her alongside that other stalwart of the party, Michael Foot.


DAVID FROST: A giant, wasn't she?

ROBIN COOK: Oh she was a great person. A close friend. I saw her only three months ago and she was as feisty as ever. She'll be remembered for her political achievements but I hope she'll also be remembered as a very warm, courageous, talented person, and yes, she brought a lot of life, joy, inspiration into many lives.

DAVID FROST: Thank you Robin, and thank you Barbara. Good morning.


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