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Thursday, 7 December, 2000, 19:10 GMT
Hunting a second term
Margaret Beckett
Margaret Beckett explains the timing of the hunting bill
By BBC News Online's Ben Davies

As the government moves to get the great foxhunting debate underway in the Commons, Leader of the House Margaret Beckett is expecting a rocky ride in the Lords.

Margaret Beckett: A life in politics
1974 - Elected MP for Lincoln
1976 - Education minister
1979 - Loses seat at general election
1983 - Returns to Commons as MP for Derby South
1984 - Shadow social security spokeswoman
1989 - Shadow chief secretary to the Treasury
1992 - Shadow leader of the House
1992 - Deputy Labour leader
May 1994 - Acting Labour leader
July 1994 - Shadow health secretary
1995 - Shadow trade & industry secretary
1997 - Trade & industry secretary
1998 - Leader of the House
Ahead of an election, it may seem to some that introducing a bill as controversial as the one that offers the choice of banning the bloodsport will do the government no favours - especially when Mrs Beckett admits herself that it "isn't something that makes much difference to people's day to day lives".

It's a decision she explains by saying that the government is attempting to strike a balance "between doing the things we think are right and which people want to see done".

"This is something that people want to see Parliament decide."

Nevertheless what the government risks, with an election predicted for May, are images of hundreds of people taking to the streets in protest against a potential hunting ban - not to mention the extreme resistance on the issue Labour can expect in the Lords.

"It will be very interesting to see what happens [in the Lords] because there is, I think, a very strong view [against foxhunting] in the Commons, reflecting the view among the public, as far as we understand it, but there's also a very strong view in the Lords," Mrs Beckett said.

"It's been said that the Lords hate the reform of foxhunting even more than they hated the reform of the House of Lords and if that's true perhaps that's an indication of why we need to keep reforming."

Does she then regret not being more radical in the government's reform of the Lords, abolishing the voting rights there of most hereditary peers - especially given the resistance a whole raft of Labour measures have since received?

No regret over reform

"No I don't and I'll tell you why - because the only way to be more radical would have been to try and do it all in one fell swoop."

People, she argues, have been attempting reform of the Lords "for a 100 years" but they failed because they tried in one go.

It's been said that the Lords hate the reform of foxhunting even more than they hated the reform of the House of Lords

Margaret Beckett
The only sensible solution is to reform the Lords in two stages, she says.

Mrs Beckett's apparent impatience with the upper house is reminiscent of the old days when she called for its abolition - although her comments now are cloaked in the language of New Labour.

"You are bound as a Labour government to face obstruction in the Lords even when they can hardly argue that the verdict of the election supports that because this is a Labour government with the biggest majority in modern history."

Mrs Beckett, who was a member of the last Labour administration in the 1970s, adds: "Don't take my word for it, look at the statistics produced by the House of Common's library, the House of Lords library, any independent commentator.

"They defeat a Labour government more and they take longer to consider legislation under a Labour government."

Spin or communication?

An accusation this government has repeatedly faced relates to its style of communicating.

"Spin doctoring" and New Labour have, for many, become synonymous.

We have always been the listening government

Margaret Beckett
It's a point that clearly irritates Mrs Beckett, who argues that the government has always been listening.

Accusations that Labour reannounces the same spending plans time after time are not disingenuous but rather an attempt to let taxpayers know exactly where their money is being spent.

"We have always been the listening government."

'Hostile' press

"If I were to be a bit unkind I would say that this Labour government, like any Labour government, faces a press that is naturally relatively hostile to it and the latest excuse is that we can't put anything you say in because it's all spin. This is nonsense."

She adds: "I rather cynically take the view that saying it's all spin is just the latest excuse for not reporting the good things the Labour government is saying."

One possibility Mrs Beckett is constantly aware of is that no matter the good she feels the government has done, there is always the chance that people will choose not to vote them back again.

Unsurprising, perhaps, in someone who spent so many years on the opposition benches in the 1980s and '90s.

"Oh it always worries me, I have always had a marginal seat and consequently I never take any election for granted and I never take opinion polls at face value.

Saying it's all spin is just the latest excuse for not reporting the good things the Labour government is saying

Margaret Beckett
"What I would say is that this government has done a huge amount to turn things around and a lot of the investment we are making, the changes we are making, will only bear fruit in three, five, 10 years.

Benefits will be seen

"What we have to hope is that people will give us that breathing space so that we can continue to make that investment in the long term and see those benefits come through."

Frustration over those years in opposition also surfaces when Mrs Beckett discusses her time in politics prior to 1979, when Labour fell from power and she lost her Lincoln seat.

Re-elected in 1983 to the Derby South constituency, she had to endure every politician's nightmare of being in Parliament in opposition unable to effect any change or implement any policy.

Asked to draw a comparison between the dying days of the Wilson/Callaghan administration of the '70s and this Labour government, Mrs Beckett immediately refers to the economy they took over from Ted Heath's government with soaring world oil prices and inherited problems with inflation.

She is still angry over what she sees as the squandered opportunities of the Tory years.

She argues that the Conservatives failed to invest the equivalent of 35m "every single day of the week for a solid 17 years" in revenues derived from North Sea oil.

"They had an opportunity to invest in Britain that no Labour government, actually that no previous government, has ever had or ever will again," she said.

The result is the underinvestment that has seen much of Britain's infrastructure in decline, the health service without enough nurses and schools crumbling, she argues.

Hostile environment

On the similarities between those opposition days and her time in power now, she says: "I think what is similar is that you are operating always in a hostile environment.

"What is different is the scale of our opportunities is much better and that's at least in part because of what we did in the past to create a better environment.

"But it's also because we learned a lot of lessons from the things that went wrong over those years."

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See also:

07 Dec 00 | UK Politics
Foxhunting debate in days
07 Dec 00 | Talking Politics
Hunting ban may fail
19 Oct 00 | UK Politics
Countryside to march again?
06 Dec 00 | UK Politics
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