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Last Updated: Monday, 5 March 2007, 15:25 GMT
Interview: Hazel Blears
By Justin Parkinson
BBC News politics reporter

Hazel Blears
Ms Blears says the Labour deputy leader should be in the Cabinet

Tony Blair once famously stated he lacked "a reverse gear".

Labour chairman Hazel Blears, one of the prime minister's closest supporters, says she shares this attitude.

But she takes the motoring metaphor further.

The 50-year-old MP for Salford thinks the changes ahead for the government will be like "transferring from a Ferrari to a Toyota Prius".

Ms Blears, one of six contenders to be Labour's next deputy leader, said: "You have a hybrid engine. You run on electric sometimes and sometimes you use other fuel."

In other words Mr Blair's successor, probably Gordon Brown, is likely to do things differently. But the aims should be largely the same.

'Never complacent'

Ms Blears says she is "proud" of Labour's 10 years in government, of low interest rates, getting 2.5 million more people into work and increasing university admissions.

But with unemployment figures rising, house prices soaring and tuition fees of £3,000 a year, might some voters find this analysis a little self-satisfied?

CONTENDER QUESTIONNAIRE
Age: 50
Family: Married
School: Wardley Grammar, Eccles Sixth Form
University: Trent Polytechnic
Political hero: Barbara Castle
Good night out/in: Going to cinema/watching DVD with husband
Hobbies: Dancing, motorcycling, gardening
Favourite film: Ronin
Favourite book: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Best thing on TV: Life on Mars
Bad habits: Talking too quickly
Something we don't know about you: I used to play the trumpet

Rival deputy leadership contender Jon Cruddas accuses New Labour of losing touch and ministers of becoming too remote.

But Ms Blears said: "I'm never, ever complacent. I don't think anybody could accuse me of that."

She admits the next general election will be "tougher than the last three" and wants Labour's deputy leader's main role to be "campaigner-in-chief".

"The deputy leader should also be the voice of the party and the whole movement at the Cabinet table - I do think it should be at the Cabinet table - making sure that our decisions are informed properly, not dictated, by the views of the party.

"There's also a Cabinet-level role for what I call a minister for delivery and that is you go to the country on a manifesto and you actually deliver that manifesto. That's absolutely key."

Hazel Blears and Gordon Brown
Ms Blears promises to make Gordon Brown 'fully aware' of the party's views if he becomes prime minister

Ms Blears has said Mr Brown should not necessarily face a challenge for the leadership unless a serious contender comes along.

So, would she, as the voice of the party in government - not to mention "minister for delivery" - confront and cajole him in office, if she felt it necessary?

"I think it would be a responsibility as deputy leader of the Labour Party to make sure that the prime minister was fully aware of the views of the party, the movement as a whole.

"That's part of the job. When you characterise it as standing up to him and confronting him, actually I think the party, after 10 years in government, well understands that sometimes issues are difficult.

"You have to have compromises and don't always get 100% of what you want but you have to have someone in there who says 'look, this is how the party feels about it'."

Asked if she would accept the job of deputy prime minister, she replied: "Yeah, yeah, but it's a matter obviously for the prime minister to decide.

The Tories have made it just about respectable to talk about being a Tory. That's the mountain they had to climb
Hazel Blears

"As far as I'm concerned, this job is deputy leader of the Labour Party."

Ms Blears, a former Home Office minister, was in charge of implementing the "respect" agenda, to cut anti-social behaviour, which involved eight government departments.

Such "complex" issues will become more prominent in the next few years and demand more ministerial co-operation, she says.

Property shortages will be a problem taking the political centre-stage, according to Ms Blears, who is currently Labour Party chairwoman.

"I think housing is probably as important an issue now as it was in 1945 and that's not just in London, it's across the country.

"We need to build more housing. More people are living on their own, family structures are changing and I think housing will be one of the biggest issues in the next couple of years and into the next general election.

"It's beginning to be a much more resonant issue with people. Ordinary families are quite aspirational.

"They want to own their own home and it is becoming more difficult for people.

"If you look at the number of first-time buyers who can actually get on the property ladder, it's gone down quite a lot in the last few years.

"Being more imaginative about shared equity, shared ownership, and staying on the side of those people who want to do well, is where the Labour Party has got to completely anchor itself."

Opinion polls

Recent opinion polls have suggested David Cameron's Conservatives have a lead over Labour.

Ms Blears said: "The Tories have made it just about respectable to talk about being a Tory. That's the mountain they had to climb. Nobody ever owned up to being a Tory and they've certainly got that far.

"The polls will be all over the place. They are nowhere near where they have to be to have that sense of sweeping us out of office and sweeping in.

"We were ahead in the polls in 1992 by 20 to 25 points for a period of 18 weeks. They are nowhere near that and I actually think they are in trouble in terms of getting that kind of momentum."

She added: "It's all about policy. David Cameron said this year would be when he put flesh on the bones of his policy-making process.

"Since Christmas he's come up with four policies: no targets in the NHS, getting rid of the new European Union social chapter, getting rid of road humps and street signs, and only votes for English people on English issues in Parliament.

"The last two are less serious, but the first two are not.

"No targets in the NHS - you go back to coronary heart disease, cancer, the poorest people getting the poorest services, a free-for-all basically. I see that as disastrous.

"The European Union social chapter underpins every bit of employment protection legislation we have got.

"These would be massive changes. The Tories are in quite a lot of difficulties.

"What I bring is an absolutely determined and focused ability to attack them, expose them, scrutinise them and put them under enormous pressure. And when you put them under pressure, they start to falter."

Membership decline

Ms Blears promises to bring "experience, energy, enthusiasm and authenticity" to the role of deputy leader, at a time when critics say the government is losing the latter three qualities.

The Labour Party has lost half its members since 1997.

But Ms Blears, its chairman since last May, said: "We put on 100,000 in 1995 to 1997 who were totally consumed with getting rid of the Tories. That was their big motivation.

"Most of them joined through national adverts, party political broadcasts. Most of them didn't get embedded in the party's structure and, as soon as we got rid of the Tories, there was a massive downturn.

"By the time the Tories had been in for 18 years people had had enough. They really had."

Critics argue that the clear messages on the economy, health and education which Labour made in 1997 are now being lost on voters

Ms Blears said: "I think this is the next stage. The underlying analysis in '97 was that an efficient and vibrant economy was not counterpoised to social justice.

"In fact it was an integral whole and you could only do the things you wanted if the economy was successful.

"The key thing is that we don't lose that message."

Labour, under Ms Blears' chairmanship, has set up a database with 100,000 names on it, allowing MPs, councillors and party members to discuss policy.

Ms Blears insists this will be vital to the next "stage" of the New Labour project.

She said: "Every Labour person I have ever known has wanted their kids to do better.

"There was a period we went through in the Eighties when somehow ambition wasn't a Labour thing.

"Ambition has always been a Labour thing, but not at the expense of other people, because you take them with you.

"That's absolutely everything that I'm about."

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