On the Politics Show, Sunday 17 September 2006, Jon Sopel interviewed Hazel Blears, Chair of the Labour Party and Simon Hughes, President of the Liberal Democrat Party.
Interview with Hazel Blears, Chair of the Labour Party
JON SOPEL: I'm joined now from Manchester by the Labour Party Chair, Hazel Blears. Hazel Blears, welcome to the Politics Show. Sorry to compare you to a snail there in that film. Are you in this marathon race?
HAZEL BLEARS: No, there's no contest and I know it's fascinating to have a look at the snails and see who crosses the finishing line, but to be honest with you, you know John Prescott hasn't even said he's going yet.
My top priority is to make sure that we have a really good conference, here in Manchester.
First time we've done it in a kind of urban setting and really thinking about the kind of regeneration and transformation that's happened in many of our cities across the country, which reflects the kind of change that the Labour Party has gone through, but also that sense that although we've done a huge amount, there's still an awful lot more for us to do.
So that sense of energy at our conference I think is going to be really important.
JON SOPEL: Okay, and let me just try and drag you back to where we started because you say there isn't a contest, well there is.
Peter Hain has announced that he's running, you were sitting next to him when he declared that he was going to be running for the Deputy Leadership. So has Harriet Harman.
Were they wrong to do that?
HAZEL BLEARS: No, what they've said is that if and when there's a contest they intend their names to go forward and this is some time in the future.
What I'm actually really interested in is now, today, having a good conference. Also having some really exciting policies to meet some of the challenges that are coming upon us. You know, the world is changing very fast indeed.
JON SOPEL: Okay.
HAZEL BLEARS: If you think about migration, security, terrorism, the re-structuring of industry, particularly manufacturing industry, these are the real pressures on people.
I was at a Party meeting on Saturday morning, when my members actually raised with me the brand new academy that we've got in the city. They also talked to me about the maternity services in the hospital and they talked about the Lebanon.
So these were really big, important issues to our party members. But the strongest message was, for goodness sake, let's get on with that agenda and all this squabbling is actually really quite disturbing Party members and the public and I think that's a very strong message to us.
JON SOPEL: Sure. On the Peter Hain and Harriet Harman, you pointed out and you said, that they said, if and when there's a contest they will allow their names to go forward.
So let me just ask that question to you. If and when there's a contest, will you allow your name to go forward?
HAZEL BLEARS: Look, as I've said, there, there isn't a contest. I'm Chair of the Party. It's really important and (overlap)
JON SOPEL: Don't you fancy it?
HAZEL BLEARS: It's really important that I help to make sure that we use whatever election happens as an opportunity to bring the Party together and to have a debate around policy, as Kevin Barron was saying, you shouldn't be afraid of that.
I don't believe there's an ideological split in the Party at all. But there are new challenges for which we will need new ideas and Party members, you know, we're a democratic party, Party members should have a say in formulating those policies as well, together with colleagues in the trade unions.
And that's going to be me my absolute top priority.
JON SOPEL: Okay. And on the point that Kevin Baron was making then, that you agreed with in the film, he said, there should be a contest not a coronation. Do you agree with that as well?
HAZEL BLEARS: Well again, you know, when we have the election, candidates will come forward. I don't think anybody if afraid of debate and I think that you know, that we will end up with an excellent leader of the Party, an excellent Prime Minister, who ever that might be.
We have to be a confident Party, that's in touch with the public, because that's how we've won three election campaigns. Never forget, in the past, the Labour Party wasn't seen as relevant to the concerns of the public.
Now we are and we have to continue to occupy that ground.
JON SOPEL: How well would you say the truce is holding in the Party?
HAZEL BLEARS: I wouldn't say it's a truce because I don't think we're at war. What we have got now is people who've been through some pretty turbulent times in the last few weeks.
I think have realized that that damages us all, enormously; particularly colleagues in marginal seats who I feel very strongly about and we've got to make sure that we are a united party.
The public is very unforgiving of politicians who spend more time talking about their own jobs and futures, rather than being concerned with the jobs of (overlap) .
JON SOPEL: Well, let's just talk about the timetable. Let's just talk about the timetable because I mean the Prime Minister has said that he'll be gone within a year.
Geoff Hoon has come back from holiday and said that frankly, it's inconceivable that he's going to be still there by next May, or should go earlier. What's your view on that?
HAZEL BLEARS: Well, Party members ring me up, they email me, er they get on the telephone, all the time, literally hundreds of them and what Party members are saying to me is first of all, we've had a very successful Prime Minister, who's led us to three election victories.
He should be entitled to go at a time that he decides and in the proper, dignified way and that process should be well managed and I think that you know, all my colleagues are conscious of this.
That the Party out there wants us to do this in a proper way and so does the public and ¿ (overlaps) ¿.
JON SOPEL: So was it unhelpful, so was it unhelpful after all the pleas for calm for Geoff Hoon to come out and say what he did?
HAZEL BLEARS: Well, I, I think that you know the vast majority of us have learnt in the last few weeks that fuelling the speculation helps no one other than our enemies.
When Labour is divided, the people who benefit are Cameron and the Tories. And I'm delighted this morning, that in the polls that the Tory lead has actually been halved and we've got to make sure that we continue in that way, we continue to, to address the policy issues of jobs and pensions and some of the international matters like Darfur you know, the Prime Minister this morning call for UN troops to be able to be in Darfur to prevent that humanitarian disaster.
These are the real issues that we know, we squabble at our peril. I do not want to see another Tory government in this country. I know what it did to my community and I know what it did to, to the economy as a whole and we should just have that in our minds as we go through the next few weeks and months.
JON SOPEL: And when you talk about the squabbling and you talk about the people in marginal seats feeling worried, and then you have Clare Short saying, well actually, what would be the best outcome of, of a General Election would be a hung parliament.
Now what action has been taken, will be taken, where are you on this?
HAZEL BLEARS: Well first of all, I think what Clare Short has said is extremely serious. Calling for a hung parliament inevitably means that we will have fewer Labour MPs.
The fundamental aim of the Labour Party is to elect Labour people in councils and to parliament, and therefore I think this is a very serious matter indeed.
The General Secretary has written to Clare Short and the matter will be discussed at the National Executive Committee on Wednesday, but I think this is a really really serious matter, I genuinely do.
JON SOPEL: Possible expulsion issue?
HAZEL BLEARS: That's not for me for to pre-judge, but as I say, I think about my colleagues in seats where they've perhaps got a majority of a thousand or a couple of thousand.
They're campaigning incredibly hard for Labour and I think that for Clare Short to, to call for a hung parliament, er, a hung parliament that may not be able to deliver the manifesto pledges that we've got to tackle poverty, inequality, improved schools and hospitals.
That's the priority of the Labour Party and I think for Clare Short to call for a hung parliament that would not be able to deliver a Labour manifesto, is one of the most serious situations that I think we face.
JON SOPEL: Okay, all right, you talk about hospitals and closures and all the rest of it and the need to reorganise. You were at a key meeting in July to decide which units should close. You're the Party Chair - what were you doing there?
HAZEL BLEARS: Well let me first of all correct you. I wasn't at a meeting to decide which units should close. I was at a meeting, one of a, a whole series of meetings that I hold with my colleagues right across government to think about what are the political implication of our policies.
Part of my job is to advise the Prime Minister on policies right across government er and these meetings are as I say, a matter of routine. There was absolutely no question of me taking part in decisions which will be made on clinical evidence, they'll be made after extensive consultation. They'll be considered by the Overview and Scrutiny Committees of Local Authorities and (overlaps)
JON SOPEL: But very briefly, do you
HAZEL BLEARS: and we also have in independent Review Panel. So I think that your allegation is absolutely, fundamentally wrong.
JON SOPEL: Very briefly, do you understand why people were suspicious though about the idea that the Labour Party Chair, should be at a meeting where Health Service reorganisation is being discussed?
HAZEL BLEARS: No, I think people recognise the reality. You know, you've, you've elected a government on a manifesto, you have to see that that manifesto gets implemented and people do understand that.
I think there's, there's a bit here that somehow says that you know, if you're political, some how that that's a kind of, not a respectable thing to do. People understand the realities of politics, but as I say, absolutely no question of making those decisions on a political basis.
But any government that wasn't aware of the implications, of all of its policy, would not actually be, be doing the job that we're there to do.
JON SOPEL: Okay. Hazel Blears. Thanks very much indeed for being with us.
END OF INTERVIEW WITH HAZEL BLEARS
Interview with Simon Hughes, President of the Liberal Democrat Party
JON SOPEL: I'm joined now from Brighton by the President of the Liberal Democrats, Simon Hughes. Simon Hughes, welcome to the Politics Show.
SIMON HUGHES: Thank you very much.
JON SOPEL: Where do you stand on abolishing the 50% tax rate for those earning over a hundred thousand pounds?
SIMON HUGHES: I believe that the new policy put forward would meet the same strategic objectives, which is that we want a fairer Britain, where the well-off pay more into the kitty and we help those on lower incomes, or lower means.
And there are two alternative ways of doing it. We have had a good policy, we've all signed up to it. But the work has been done to provide an alternative and I think the Party would be very very comfortable with the alternative.
The only question is to make sure we can sell it as clearly and effectively as we've sold the 50p rate in the past.
JON SOPEL: It's just that when we spoke to you this time last year on the Politics Show, you said you were still supportive of the 50p tax rate.
SIMON HUGHES: No. No, I said and Ming said, Ming Campbell said this time last year too to you that he went out and campaigned for the 50p tax rate at the election. I think it's important.
The key message is the question. What's the message. The message should be that people who do well, who earn more, whose assets are greater, pay more in to the kitty and I'm satisfied that the proposals which Vince Cable has led, give a package that will achieve that greater redistribution of wealth. It's actually more radical than the 50p proposal, so it does that job.
The Party will judge as Ming has said, it's a democratic party, it's the only really democratic party. The party will decide on Tuesday whether it's the right mix of personal taxation, wealth taxation and green taxation, and whether we approve it and that, in a democratic party is something nobody can accurately predict till after the vote.
JON SOPEL: But wasn't the great beauty for the Liberal Democrats of the 50p tax rate, was that it was very clear, very distinctive, very easy to understand. What you're offering now is much more complex, to sort of just delivering a quick sound bite about what you're proposing.
SIMON HUGHES: That's why I made to you, exactly that point. I agree, the present policy, which we still have, unless we change it on Tuesday, is very clear, is very simple and sends the straight message like the policy we had, to say a penny extra on tax to education.
So if we agree the new policy, we need to make sure we refine it in to that simple message, that makes people understand that if you vote for the Liberal Democrats you get a green economic approach, but you also get a redistributive economic approach and you'll get a fairer Britain.
The message to this conference is trust the people for a fairer Britain. We are now the only party who can deliver a fairer Britain.
JON SOPEL: So we heard Gareth Epps in our film there, just making precisely that point about the loss of distinctiveness. We've also seen that Evan Harris is saying, look, I'm fine with the bulk of what you're proposing, but why not have the 50p tax rate as well, because that is so clear.
SIMON HUGHES: Well, that's the debate we're going to have. And it's a - I mean there are two things aren't there. Ming has made the case that we want to be a party of substance not spin and style.
The difference between us and the Tories now is that we have now and we will have up to the Election and we will sustain our reputation for doing so - have clear policies, nothing will be hidden, it will all be costed. The Tories have style, they've introduced a new style approach to politics, but the substance isn't there.
So we need the substance, but yes, we need the various simple messages, and one of the simple messages if you want real Green politics, vote for Liberal Democrats. The second is, if you want a really fair Britain, which actually is not being delivered by Gordon Brown, which was why Ming was so right to have a go at him yesterday, let alone by the Tories, who we never believed would deliver that.
Then you have to support Liberal Democrats, and that's why we're confident that this sort of approach can deliver increasing success.
JON SOPEL: Fine. So how important a test of Ming Campbell's leadership is this?
SIMON HUGHES: Well, the answer is, it's important but it's not fundamental. Erm, the leader was elected er, clearly elected in March. He has asserted his authority, he has done that very well. He has the party organisation (overlaps)
JON SOPEL: And then you undermined his authority. You undermined (overlap)
SIMON HUGHES: No, no I didn't at all.
JON SOPEL: Well, you tweaked his tail, essentially saying he was on probation.
SIMON HUGHES: No, no, no. If you actually look at the script - I said what is (overlaps)
JON SOPEL: "I think we need to judge him when it comes to conference after six months, rather than after a few weeks." (quoting Hughes)
SIMON HUGHES: Because all, because all new leaders should be allowed to get in to their stride and Ming has got in to his stride, and he's striding very purposefully.
And I have supported him from day one in doing that. But he said, there will be difficult moments and in a democratic party, you put forward policies, er proposed by the Policy Committee, supported by the Shadow Cabinet, and he may or may not win the vote. If he doesn't win, if we don't win, then we go back to the drawing board on that issue, but I can assure that the authority of Ming won't be fundamentally changed by that.
It's not the great crisis. We have a democratic party, I'm glad you're reporting it as such, but democratic parties make decisions on policy, and the difference between us and Labour, next week in Manchester, is that whereas we're having real arguments about policy, there won't be any policy debates in the Tory conference, the Labour Party will be having debates about personality, that's the difference.
JON SOPEL: Hang on. Vince Cable says that these proposals are extremely important. Chris Huhne says we will be extremely damaged as a party if conference decides to try and unpick elements of this policy. They clearly think it's pretty critical.
SIMON HUGHES: Well of course, because we're all, all the Shadow Cabinet has just signed up to putting it through. Of course it's important. It's a worked through package.
But, the democratic, sovereign rights are in this Party - are at conference, and that's where everybody has to be persuaded by the argument. My judgement is that it will go through. My judgement is that the proposals will be agreed and so the story of the first two days, building up - in journalist's eyes- for a fall, will not be achieved, and so there the question will be we'll turn to another bit of the agenda, you'll see Charles Kennedy speak, that won't be a problem, the Party loves him but it's not a challenge to anybody, it's revelling in the fact we have many people of talent and then Ming will speak on Thursday, setting out the fact that we are absolutely determined that if you want a country which has law and order and civil liberties, if you want an international policy that is ethical and doesn't tell untruths, and if you want a domestic Britain that is fair and green, then we are ready to do that and we'll do it increasingly successfully.
JON SOPEL: Okay, Simon Hughes, you managed to cover every policy there. Thanks very much indeed. Thank you.
SIMON HUGHES: Thank you Jon.
END OF INTERVIEW WITH SIMON HUGHES
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