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Last Updated: Saturday, 25 September, 2004, 01:01 GMT 02:01 UK
'No safety first' says Blunkett
Interview
By Ollie Stone-Lee
BBC News Online politics staff

"You can either sit here and take the flak, or you can get out there and do something about it before it hits you," says David Blunkett as he explains his task at the Home Office.

David Blunkett
Blunkett puts great stress on reassurance

So perhaps it's no surprise the home secretary wants a "radical" Labour manifesto for the next election and warns that "safety first" platforms have cost the party power in the past.

He is anxious to use Labour's annual conference, which opens in Brighton on Sunday, to reconnect with voters after the divisions caused by Iraq.

Mr Blunkett says ministers must show they are addressing "bread and butter" concerns, including policing, immigration and tackling terrorism, if they are to quell the public's sense of alienation from politics.

"A different relationship between government and governed" means giving people more influence, he says.

Election platform

With a general election widely expected in May next year, thoughts at conference will be focusing on Labour's campaigning style.

Mr Blunkett is clear about the kind of manifesto Labour needs: "It's got to be a radical, modernising agenda which says to people two things: Firstly, the world is changing rapidly around us - economically, socially, politically.

"We therefore need to work alongside people in supporting them, assisting them, reassuring them through that rapid change.

"Which is why security on all three fronts - the economic front, the domestic/neighbourhood/family front and the international front - is so important."

There's no point telling people that if they feel insecure or they fear in their community or in their own homes
David Blunkett

Newspaper reports have suggested several Cabinet ministers, including Chancellor Gordon Brown, want a cautious approach to the manifesto, fearing their opponents will seize on planned reforms as evidence that Labour has failed.

Is it tempting to fight on a "Labour investment vs Tory cuts" agenda?

Mr Blunkett says: "Some of us have been around a very long time, long enough to remember what happened when we put forward safety first manifestos but not long enough to run out of steam."

Labour tried a "we've done a good job, please reward us" tack in 1970 and 1979 and it failed, he argues. People will vote on plans for the future, not just because they don't like the opposition.

'United'

After seven years in office, he insists the government is not running short of ideas and has a very simple reason for being radical.

"Simply delivering what was acceptable 10, 20 years ago won't do because all the time, this is what happens with private consumption, people's expectation of what will be on offer is changing and it's changing for the better."

Earlier this summer, Mr Blunkett said Labour must "sink or swim together" - but does he think the off-the-record press briefings that supposedly soured this month's reshuffle suggest his warning was not heeded?

John Prescott and Alan Milburn
Blunkett says the reshuffle was only a "blip" in unity`
"We have blips where there is a media frenzy around particular changes and comments that people make," he says.

"My view is that over the next six to 12 months there'll be an absolute demonstration of party unity. We all know there's only one set of people who can deny us a historic third term in government and that is ourselves."

Divisions of course remain, both in Labour and the country at large, over the Iraq war.

Mr Blunkett argues: "It isn't Iraq itself that is the issue but the fact that it appears to have diverted attention from the bread and butter issues that affect people. What we have to do is to make sure that perception is reversed."

'Healing'

It is a message which echoes recent Tony Blair's "I'm back" declaration to the TUC conference.

The home secretary says he can honestly say delivery on domestic issues has been unaffected by attention on Iraq, pointing to his ministers' efforts on security, sentencing and police reform.

But he says the "cacophony of noise" about Iraq on the broadcast media does mean the government needs to find new ways of reaching the public.

US troops in Iraq
Britain must "stick in" Iraq, says Blunkett
Divisive issues need courage, leadership and "sensitivity to the fact that those divisions have to be healed".

That does not mean he thinks Tony Blair should be apologising.

Whether Iraq had ready-to-fire weapons of mass destruction should be separated from the rightness of taking action when Saddam Hussein flouted UN resolutions, he says.

Security scares

Anger about Iraq is likely to simmer on in Brighton, where Labour gathers 20 years after the IRA bombed the Tory conference.

Mr Blunkett says the police response to the recent security scares at Buckingham Palace and Parliament would have been very different had they involved al-Qaeda.

But he says the Commons invasion, by pro-hunt protesters, could give the impression the authorities as a whole have not a strong enough grip.

He understands the Commons authorities are protective of their role and there can be agreement on security reforms despite the initial "defensiveness" they showed.

"Parliamentarians are not voting solely for their own security, they are voting for the security of all those who work in the Palace of Westminster, who are pass holders, and all those who visit," he says.

The Sheffield MP's drive to get people feeling more secure is perhaps strongest on law and order, and he is worried fear of crime is getting worse.

The chances of being a victim have fallen by more than a third (since 1995), he suggests.

"But there's no point telling people that if they feel insecure or they fear in their own community or in their own homes."

'Culture change'

Visible reassurance, from record numbers of police officers and the new community support officers, can help show the government can make a difference, he says.

Police officers making notes
People need reassurance from visible policing, says Blunkett
And his new drive to improve customer relations for policing is aimed not only at reducing fear but persuading more people to be involved, perhaps as witnesses, "so we have a culture of preparedness to stand up and be counted".

Mr Blunkett, who is wearing St George flag cufflinks, says the way communities are "coming alive" everywhere is one of the achievements of which is he is most proud.

Reassurance surfaces again in his thinking on immigration, with Mr Blunkett poised at conference to announce more details of facial recognition technology, which would aim to survey all those coming in and out of Britain's ports and airports.

Tensions

Asked if immigration will be a key election battleground, Mr Blunkett says: "I still hold to the belief that if people actually do know the facts they'll know that this is not a battle, it's about a sensible balance."

Reforming the asylum system and tightening borders has allowed ministers to hail the contribution made by legal economic migrants, he says.

His critics believe his determination to trumpet "tough" policies against illegal immigration has seen community cohesion neglected, to the point where there are violent clashes between ethnic groups, as was seen in Peterborough last month.

Mr Blunkett is unapologetic.

"If I hadn't taken a very tough stance in terms of secure border controls and a balanced policy then those who seek to use race and immigration as a political weapon would have been able to use that weapon much more effectively."

He points to the way people have come together in areas hit by tensions in the past, such as Bradford, although admits there is "a long way still to go".

Private in public?

If Mr Blunkett's job did not attract enough headlines, this summer saw the press crawl over his private life.

With Lord Bragg recently talking of Mr Blair's colossal family and personal pressures, I ask how hard it is for politicians to keep public and private separate.

He replies briefly: "I would say it was beholden on everybody not to talk other people's private lives, including Melvyn...

"It's very difficult if, as I said at the beginning of September, people haven't understood that we take the pry out of private."

The public pronouncements alone of this Cabinet heavyweight will ensure he continues to attract controversy.




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