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The World at One - 10 April 1997
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Wednesday, 29 November, 2000, 17:16 GMT
Election 97 - Labour's privatisation mystery
Air traffic controllers
NATS - the centre of controversy
Privatisation dogged Labour throughout its 1997 Election campaign.

In particular, the privatisation of the National Air Traffic service, NATS.

Indeed, it was never proposed in the party manifesto nor discussed as a policy by the party leaders until they absolutely had to.

It was in his interview with The World at One at the beginning of April that the Shadow Chancellor, Gordon Brown, conceded that Labour's spending plans could not be met without first filling a 1.5bn gap - and of that, 0.5 was pencilled in from the sale of NATS.

Dragged

Over successive days, journalists tried to extract from the Labour leadership exactly when it was that they policy was changed from that at the previous autumn's party conference when the Transport spokesman, Andrew Smith, roused delegates with his declaration: "our air is not for sale."

Evasion

Until 10 April, Mr Smith managed to evade the attentions of journalists who wanted to know whether he even knew the policy had been changed - and if he did, when did he know it.

In fact, the policy was changed in an interview on BBC 2's On the Record on 23 February when Margaret Beckett - then the Shadow Trade Secretary - conceded that Labour was "considering" privatising NATS as an option.

Somehow, other party spokesman and officials remained ignorant of the change - and as late as March 21, one civil service union was assuring its air traffic controller members that no privatisation would happen: it would be reviewed and quietly dropped, those union leaders believed.

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