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Last Updated: Sunday, 5 March 2006, 10:40 GMT
New Labour troubles
On Sunday 05 March 2006 Andrew Marr interviewed David Miliband MP, Cabinet Minister for Local Government and Communities

Please note "BBC Sunday AM" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

David Miliband MP
David Miliband MP, Cabinet Minister for Local Government and Communities

ANDREW MARR: Now I'm joined by the Cabinet Minister David Miliband. We have a great deal to talk about -

DAVID MILIBAND: Good morning Andrew.

ANDREW MARR: Good morning. Thank you for coming in. Let's start with the obvious story, Tessa Jowell. Do you think, first of all, that she is going to survive as a member of your Cabinet?

DAVID MILIBAND: Well I do. The best and biggest test for any Cabinet Minister is whether they're good at their job, and what's remarkable about the last three or four weeks is that no one at any stage has said anything other than that she's doing an astounding job.

Anyone who thinks about the world of sport, the Olympics, or what she's doing in the arts, can only believe that she is one of the best Sport & Culture Secretaries that we've had.

And I think anyone who knows Tessa Jowell and her husband will know that they are a devoted couple, with a family that anyone would be proud of, and one can only imagine the anguish, really, that they have been going through that's led them to the decision that they took yesterday and the further pain that will be associated with it. But I think that is a private affair, her responsibilities as a colleague of mine are responsibilities that she's been discharging to an outstandingly high level.

ANDREW MARR: And do you think now that they've gone through that extremely sad and difficult decision, no doubt, that that's it, that she can then put it behind her and move on?

DAVID MILIBAND: Well I think that the public and private obviously intersect but she's a highly professional person. And I think it's also important to remember that she is standing by her husband in the allegations that are being made against him and he is mortified by the effect it's having on her - and I think it's very important to remember, he is innocent until proven guilty, and she shouldn't be charged with guilt by association. She's got a job to do and as long as she is doing it to a high standard, I think she should carry on with it.

ANDREW MARR: There have been suggestions in the paper, all over the papers this morning, that this is some kind of Alastair Campbell stunt, that there is a, this is a fix.

DAVID MILIBAND: Well I just think that's rubbish. I mean anyone who knows Tessa Jowell and her husband would know that the family comes first. This must have been an incredibly painful decision.

ANDREW MARR: You don't think that there's a sort of political thing being played here? That Alastair Campbell was involved in?

DAVID MILIBAND: I think that is a grotesque suggestion, frankly, and the love and commitment that they've had to each other, I think, is deep and the anguish that they must be going through is dreadful and I think that that private side of their lives should be left to them.

The test for Tessa Jowell in public life and, if you like, the national interest - I don't want to sound too pompous about this - but the interests of the country, are whether or not she's good as Secretary of State for Sport and Culture, and, as I say, it is important that she's done very well in that.

ANDREW MARR: And do you think that any minister can survive day after day after day of this? Because it, there comes a point, doesn't there, where the newspaper stories are so relentless, more stuff comes out, and it just gets too much.

DAVID MILIBAND: We have elections in this country to decide who the government is and it's elections that set the constitutional settlement. She's been asked by the Prime Minister - Tessa Jowell - to do a very important job; she's doing it very, very well, but are politicians human?

Of course they are, even journalists are human as well, and we all have to balance our public and private lives and Tessa Jowell is someone who has done that outstandingly well, I believe. And I hope that the private side of her life can be resolved but obviously in terms of her public profile, she should carry on doing the outstanding job that she has.

ANDREW MARR: Right. Let's turn to what you are going to be launching next week, which is a big initiative on British cities. What is, what is the problem with British cities at the moment?

DAVID MILIBAND: Well the good thing is that if we were having this conversation 20 years ago, we'd only have been talking about problems - problems of economic decline, problems of population leaving, problems of services getting worse.

And the report that we're publishing on Tuesday, a really monumental study of English cities, of 56 towns and cities - not just the Londons and the Manchesters, but also the Warringtons, the Norwiches, the Southamptons - the 56 largest urban areas, what it shows is that we have the best opportunity for a hundred years to make them really at the top of the European champions league, if you like, of cities. They have become new places where people want to live, work and play, and that is a very, very exciting prospect, I think.

ANDREW MARR: There's an awful lot of dreadful tower blocks, concrete jungles, still left around the country. I've been round the middle of places like Birmingham and Leeds and Manchester recently, and they're lovely in the middle of those cities, there's been a huge amount of regeneration, but there's an awful lot of people living in pretty appalling situation.

DAVID MILIBAND: That's a good point. I mean our cities are places of real economic dynamism but also of poverty. They're also places of great quality of life and also places where people struggle with their quality of life. And I think that we have got a challenge - because there's no point in pretending.

Yes, we've made huge strides in the last 10, 20 years in urban Britain, but we lag behind the European and American leaders when it comes to the quality of the environment, when it comes to the quality of life and, in some aspects, when it comes to the quality of the economy. So we've got work to do and what the report on Tuesday shows is it sets out a policy agenda that I think is genuinely exciting for the future of the country. Because remember 75 per cent of the population live within the travel to work area of those 56 areas. So this is a really major issue, I think, for the whole country.

ANDREW MARR: But you want to knock down some of the Sixties tower blocks, you think we got it wrong in the Sixties, in that regard.

DAVID MILIBAND: I think we lost the human scale.


DAVID MILIBAND: ... and cities have got to be on a human scale -

ANDREW MARR: And John Prescott wants to knock down the terraces, so there'll be nothing left at all.

DAVID MILIBAND: No, that's really nonsense. I mean John Prescott has got a programme to refurbish more than twice as many of our urban housing as he has to demolish it. In some areas where the housing market is simply too cold, no one wants to live there, there may be no alternative, but actually he's got a massive programme of renovation, rather than demolition.

ANDREW MARR: Cities like Birmingham or Manchester became great originally because they had independent political leadership - they had big local figures, the Chamberlains and so on - is there any chance of going back to that? I suppose we have in London a big figure in Ken Livingstone, whatever you think about him, would you like to see Ken Livingstones, as it were, scattered around the rest of the country?

DAVID MILIBAND: Well I think it's hard to say in the case of Manchester that they're suffering from a lack of Ken Livingston. Richard Leese, the council leader in Manchester - his team are doing an outstanding job. However, if you look at Birmingham, I think a lot of people would say that it's a city, Britain's second city, and it needs a stronger voice and I think the mayoral debate in places like Birmingham is one that should happen, because, as you say, whatever one believes about Ken Livingstone - he's in my party, I think he's done an outstanding job - but whatever you think about him, I think London has a quality of leadership and a strength of leadership that it wouldn't have without the reforms that we introduced in 1998.

ANDREW MARR: And do you think we should go to single tier local government? Get rid of the double tier that we've got in England?

DAVID MILIBAND: Well in our urban areas we already have unitary - what's called unitary - local government. There's an issue in the 34 shire areas about whether the current balance between district councils and county councils is right - that's something we're discussing with people. I'm going to be in Ipswich on -

ANDREW MARR: You haven't got settled views on this ...

DAVID MILIBAND: The Government will be setting out its views in the summer. I think it's a debate worth having because I believe that we have to get government closer to people. And the question for district councils is, are they too big for the small problems and too small for the big problems?

ANDREW MARR: I mean the problem is politicians often say we must get power down to the people and yet there's such an array of directives and orders and financial controls at the centre, very few governments, if any, have actually let go of all of that. I think we've had ten years now of council tax rising above inflation, and all governments are worried about the effect of the tax base on their own popularity, are you really prepared to let go at all?

DAVID MILIBAND: Well I think that's a fair and a good point. I think that in '97 when the Government was elected, the biggest test for us was an economic test. Could a Labour government run a modern economy successfully - and I think we've done reasonably well on that. On the, in 2001, people were saying can you improve public services.

And what's interesting is that the polls show that in terms of local services, the local schools, the local GP, people are persuaded there's improvement. But our challenge now is to show we can give people more control over their own lives. It is an agenda of, if you like, double devolution: devolution from London to the town hall or county hall, to match, if you like, the devolution that happened in Scotland and Wales that you've written about. But also, let's remember, the town hall or the county hall can be seen as a source of bureaucracy. We've got to get power right down into neighbourhoods and I think we can do that.

ANDREW MARR: Yes but you've got to persuade them to do it, which might be difficult. This all sounds very different from the original vision of English regional government that John Prescott set out. Is it simply the case that that was defeated at the ballot box and this is the next stage?

DAVID MILIBAND: There is no question it was defeated, that's a simple statement of fact. The people of the north east were absolutely clear that they didn't want a regional tier of government. I think the devolution that we're talking about, which is down for more choice for individuals but also more say for neighbourhoods in the sort of services they get, does try and tackle that power gap; that sense that politics is very, very distant and remote from people. And I think as such it's a very exciting agenda.

ANDREW MARR: How important is this in the wider context? We've got a new Liberal-Democrat leader, we've got a new direction for the Conservative Party - a lot of people saying really where is Labour going to go - do you just sit on the centre ground and try and fend people off in each direction or what?

DAVID MILIBAND: I don't think you just sit anywhere in politics. If you ask people to say thank you for what you've done, if you ask them to express gratitude, then they'll get rid of you.

ANDREW MARR: I think you can forget that, yes.

DAVID MILIBAND: The test of any government is one, do you govern well - and I'm encouraged that this is a stronger, ideologically, intellectually stronger Labour Party than it was ten years ago. The programme in 2005 was fuller and richer than the one in 1997 but we've got to carry on going forward because at the next election we'll have a new leader and we'll also have to make sure that we've got a programme that's ready for the five years ahead.

ANDREW MARR: Now there are people who would like to see you as a new leader before too long. On a scale of one to ten, how much does it irritate you that people keep talking about you as Labour's next leader but one?

DAVID MILIBAND: Well it doesn't irritate me but I don't take it seriously because I think that we've got an outstanding leader-in-waiting in Gordon Brown. I don't think anyone can have been better prepared and better qualified to lead the country, never mind to lead the party.

So I'm the most junior member of the Cabinet, I don't really take too much of the gossip too seriously and I think that the important thing is that in the Labour Party you've got younger people coming through, even younger than I am actually - and who are coming through and I think that makes our, that gives me a lot of confidence. You've got a team of people with a sense of values but also policies that can take the party as well as the country forward.

ANDREW MARR: And finally, back to the main story, Tessa Jowell is going to lead the local government campaign for the Labour Party, she's going to be in the Cabinet in a year's time.

DAVID MILIBAND: I think so, yes.

ANDREW MARR: You're pretty sure about that?

DAVID MILIBAND: I believe so, yes.

ANDREW MARR: All right. David Miliband, thank you very much indeed.


NB: this transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy

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