This interview was conducted in October 2008 and appeared in Total Politics magazine.
To her fans she’s a human dynamo, to her enemies she’s an irritating robot. Iain Dale talks to Hazel Blears, the Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government about her life in politics, tap dancing and her penchant for bikes. Big ones.
ID: I’d better start with an apology, because it was me that dubbed you the ‘ginger chipmunk’. It seems to have caught on a bit.
HB: When David Dimbleby mentioned it on Question Time, I had no idea. I thought ‘where’s this come from’? The upside was that a man called Trevor emailed me after the show and said I was cuter than any chipmunk he had ever met.
ID: Chipmunks are cute. They’re also very positive.
HB: But they have pudgy cheeks. I haven’t got pudgy cheeks [she pulls at her cheeks]!
ID: That’s not what I meant. On that programme you seemed very embarrassed at David Dimbleby’s suggestion that you might succeed Gordon Brown as Prime Minister. Politicians always seem embarrassed about ambition, yet they encourage everyone else to have it.
HB: There is something disingenuous about people saying they are not ambitious. I am ambitious. Goodness me, think about where I come from, brought up in a two up two down terraced house, parents left school when they were 14...
ID: Never got change out of a farthing...
HB: Precisely, lived in a shoebox on the motorway, 18 of us! My Mum and Dad told me, Hazel, you can be anything. Now that does something to you as a kid because you believe them. It took me three goes to get into Parliament. I have spent 11 years looking for the next job. I’m now a Secretary of State sitting round the cabinet table and I think, wow. I haven’t had a political upbringing and I haven’t had that much patronage, I have done it on my own.
ID: A bit like your hero, Barbara Castle.
HB: Absolutely. Everything for Barbara was a fight. I tend to pick my battles, though. I don’t think she did. She had guts, she had courage, she was brave
ID: When I told a friend I was interviewing you, he said ‘you’ll be charmed, she’s more normal than most politicians. Do you think of yourself as normal?
HB: Sometimes I think the word normal is a double edged sword because if you are normal you could be really boring. I like to think I am in touch and that I have retained through 30 years of political activity a sense that I am a human being, I am a woman and I experience the same things that everyone else does. I have joy, I have despair, I have laughter, I have sorrow. I am quite an emotional person and I am in touch with my feelings. If that makes me a bit different from most politicians then so be it. [giggles].
ID: Most politicians think showing emotion is a weakness. Have you ever found it a weakness when you have been in a negotiation and felt angry or howling your eyes out with frustration?
HB: I think if you accept the traditional frame of politics then you will worry about your emotions. It’s masculine, macho, tough and the way that you get credit in politics is if you are a tough negotiator and stand your ground. It’s ‘wild west’ stuff. I don’t burst into tears or lose my temper in meetings. I am a good Taurean with a very long fuse. I am patient but when I do lose my temper it’s not pleasant.
ID: What makes you lose your temper?
HB: [pauses]. I hate rudeness. I like good manners. If people are rude that does something to me. My emotions manifest themselves best in passion. Passion is a much maligned thing in politics. What we have lost over the last few years is a sense of people who care so passionately about what they want to do that they are never going to stop, they are never going to go away, they are determined to get where they want to be because they are driven by wanting to make a big difference. It becomes a prize rather than a tough negotiating stance. In order for you to win, you’re winning for someone else. Sometimes I am very, very determined
ID: Do you think you are a tribal politician?
HB: I think I am [roars with laughter]!
ID: Because you’re seen as a Blairite, and they’re much less tribal than most. They seek consensus. You strike me as more tribal than most of your Cabinet colleagues.
HB: I got characterised as a ‘Blairite’ which I think was a convenient label. A lot of commentators and politicians like to think they have defined you, because then you are easier to deal with. I try not to be put in a box and I try to be me. I have been in Labour Party politics since 1979. For quite a long time I didn’t feel at home in the Labour Party with that very traditional Old Labour semi Marxist analysis – that’s not my politics. I am from a working class background, I wanted to get on. I was ambitious and I make no apologies for that. When Tony Blair and Gordon Brown articulated that ambition and aspiration were OK, I thought, ‘at last, this is my home’. It took me 12 years to get into Parliament. I didn’t get a seat three weeks before election. By the time I got in, by God I was going to do it and I went out an advocated passionately what we were doing. People said I was toeing the party line, just being a robot. Actually, I believed it. I have always been who I am, I’m Labour. You cut me in half, it’s like Blackpool rock. I’m Labour, but I am New Labour.
ID: Do you see any redeeming factors in the modern Conservative Party?
HB: Redeeming factors. Hmmmm [giggles]. I am a sceptic about all this stuff about repositioning and compassionate, caring Conservatives, but if I am pushed I think the stuff about well-being and about not just always being concerned about the bottom line is welcome, if it’s true. But I would not be surprised to see the Tories come out with some really strong tax cutting lines. Those on the right who believe in a small state, who believe in the survival of the fittest, devil take the hindmost, get down to your core and put more money in people’s pockets, and don’t invest in public services. They are going to come back because the Tories haven’t fundamentally changed.
ID: How do you remain permanently optimistic? You must have thought in the last six months that the game was up but you go on the media and radiate optimism. How on earth do you do that?
HB: I am not arrogant at all, but it is a bit of a gift. It is something I have got. You used the word radiate. I do feel physical. I have been blessed with a cheerful optimistic, positive temperament. I believe in the power of positive energy to change things. If you wake up in the morning and put the duvet over your head then you’re going to have a bad day. We all do it! But if you wake up and think, right, what are we going to achieve today then you’ll get there. Secondly, I am not unrealistically cheerful. I am not Pollyanna, I am not stupid. I wouldn’t be where I am if I were stupid, and it does annoy me if people caricature you as somehow not clever just because you are cheerful. I have a fundamental belief that in the darkest of times people are capable of the most fantastic things and I believe in people.
ID: You sound like Margaret Thatcher! She used to say that!
HB: Oh my God [laughs]!
ID: [adopts Thatcher voice] Trust the people, Hazel!
HB: But I do! They’re clever, they are bright, they have got common sense, they don’t expect you to change everything.
ID: Do you understand why some people find you quite irritating and your permanent optimism irritating?
HB: [pauses, as if genuinely shocked and slightly hurt]. I don’t know why they find me irritating. It’s sad for them if they can’t deal with optimism. If you find an unusual person and you find that irritating and you set your framework only to respond to certain types of people then that means you are missing out on an awful lot in life. It’s their loss. If people caricature me, who’ve never met me … that’s the bit I really dislike. If you’ve met me and I have really wound you up, and you think ‘God, she’s a pain’, fine, by all means.
ID: People find it odd that I like you as a politician, but I like the fact you’re always so cheerful. But cheerfulness in politics is something many people can’t deal with, isn’t it?
HB: It depends on people’s mindsets. You don’t walk in and go ‘ha ha ha’. People walk in here with difficult issues about hundreds of millions of pounds. I make big decisions, I take my time, I drill into things, I analyse, I test, I challenge but I do it in a polite, courteous and respectful way.
ID: Do you ever feel daunted by the decisions you have to make? I’m thinking of the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings, for example, when you were at the Home Office.
HB: It was almost a physical shock. I will never forget learning about it from Sky News. The only think that saved me was that by sheer coincidence we had had an exercise a couple of months before about ‘what if’ I just thanked God for that. It meant we knew what to do. You just had to take decisions and get on with it. You just do it. Some of the harder decisions you have to take are about the relationships you strike up with people – who you are going to engage with, and how you are going to tackle, particularly in terms of counter terrorism, the biggest threat this country faces, and how you are going to move the country on. It is a big, big responsibility on any politician. I am not daunted, I don’t think ‘I can’t do this’. Every politician has to have ego. You don’t go into politics if you don’t have an ego. The danger is when the ego takes over from the intellect. If you’re frightened then you’re not going to make decisions. The thing I learned in the Home Office is that you have to take decisions. Sometimes you get them right, sometimes you don’t. The world is not going to cave in on you just because you get one decision wrong. The worst thing is prevarication.
ID: What do you think of the accusation that you are the most authoritarian government in living memory?
HB: It doesn’t irritate me but I find it a bit schizophrenic from Tories. The Tory Party has a real problem with liberty at the moment. It’s trying to be on the side of a liberal, libertarian analysis. That forgets that everybody’s liberty impinges on other people’s freedoms. You need to get to a proper balance of individual and collective freedoms and that if you simply say you want to err on the side of individual liberty in every single choice you make, then there will be an awful lot of people who become vulnerable and exposed. It is a fundamental fault line between our parties.
ID: What do you think of the political media? Do we get the political media we deserve?
HB: Twenty four hour news is really difficult. It’s boring and repetitive so it devalues news. It then inevitably deteriorates into comment. We should be clearer about what is news and what is comment in this country. The commentariat – and there are some great columnists – has stepped over the edge of exercising political power. They are not elected. They’ve never even considered it. In many cases they seem to have more power, certainly than backbenchers and probably as much as Cabinet Ministers. I am uncomfortable with that.
ID: Isn’t that partly the fault of politicians? Sky News doesn’t want to interview a backbencher who will toe the party line, they’d rather have a pundit with an opinion.
HB: I don’t know. Ten years in we haven’t got many of that sort of backbencher anymore! The days of the pager message and the line to take are long gone [laughs]!
ID: What effect is the new media having on the old media?
HB: I think it’s having a big effect, bigger than traditional media give it credit for because they feel a bit threatened. Newspapers are doing much more online. I loved seeing Guardian print journalists struggling with podcast machines at the Labour conference. In a way I wish the new media had more influence because it is a way of reaching a younger, more diverse audience, people who are not engaged with politics. But there is a danger in blogging that you have always got to be against something. We were in opposition for 18 years and when you are making tough decisions, some of our Labour Party members would rather be there. There’s a corrosiveness to it, if you’re not careful. The beauty of new media is that it is much more subversive, more challenging, you can be more informal, but the downside of that is that it can degenerate into just being ‘anti’. As you say, I am a positive person. The challenge is to get the new media to be more positive.
ID: Do you swear much?
HB: Very rarely actually.
ID: What makes you swear? A phone call from Gordon Brown?
HB: Certainly not! I’d be purring [makings a rather erotic purring noise]!
ID: What a shame this is a written interview! You recently said that if you weren’t in politics, you’d be running a local authority. Doesn’t that display a lack of ambition?
HB: [roars with laughter] If I wasn’t in politics and I wanted to be a manager I could be chief executive of a local authority. I was a principal solicitor in local government for 15 years and without being immodest I am sure I could do it. That’s probably where my career path would have taken me, but I always wanted to do politics.
ID: You are now in a position where you could devolve a huge amount of power down to local government. Every local councillor I meet complains that they have no real power and it’s all decided centrally. Why haven’t you done a bit more of that?
HB: I’d say to you that quite a lot of local councillors who say that lack ambition. If you look at the framework they have got now they have got a huge amount of power. You’ve got the framework I set up through local area agreements, which allow councils to prioritise locally, but in the end it’s taxpayers money and I make no apology for wanting to know how it is being spent. We’ve also un-ringfenced £5 billion. It’s partly our fault because we created a culture where people had to ask permission and that’s deep in the psyche of local government now the challenge is to persuade people to think big. They’ve got the powers to do things if they want to.
ID: What about the idea of local referendums, which the Our Say campaign is advocating? They do it in other countries, why not here?
HB: We don’t do it because it’s never been in our culture. Some people will say you have a representative democracy and therefore you elect people to do it on your behalf. I think that is a strong argument. I personally think you shouldn’t just elect people every four years and shut up shop. I think you should be able to take more power yourself but I don’t think that’s just through referendums. Parish councils, of course, have the power to call a poll. But it’s a bigger challenge to get involved with, for example, participatory budgeting where local people get to decide on street repair priorities, for example, or which projects are priorities for community punishment teams, dressed in their ‘high vis’ Jackets...
ID: You got into trouble over them, didn’t you?
HB: Well, do you know, they are wearing them now. You see, I’m a prophet in my own time!
ID Are there too many one party states in local government? Don’t they breed corruption?
HB: Well there are less of them now [laughs]! Having someone challenging you is quite important in formulating ideas and getting things to happen but it’s too broad to say they are corrupt. Manchester is a Tory free zone but the leadership of the Council there has transformed the City. It’s got ambition, it’s got aspiration and it’s incredibly well led. That isn’t the case in some areas which are dominated by one party and they can be as dull as ditch water.
ID: But with annual elections it is sometimes difficult to remove an incompetent and corrupt council in one fell swoop. Why not abolish annual elections?
HB: There are arguments on both sides, but local authorities now have the power to do it if they want to. My personal view is that if you have an all out election there is a clearer choice. There’s a clearer mandate, there’s a platform, a manifesto. But equally, all the evidence is that if you do that, the parties stop campaigning in the intervening years so you have less political engagement.
ID: Some people thought you were behind some of the moves to destabilise Gordon Brown over the summer.
HB: The things you read in the paper that come from briefings are often a complete and utter surprise to you. It’s not something I do, I have never done it and I am not sure it’s effective. The people who do it don’t achieve what they set out to and I think what they do is even more damaging so I have very little patience with it.
ID: There must have been a time over the summer when you thought to yourself, is he [Gordon Brown] going to be able to pull it off.
HB: [pauses] What I was concerned about was that there was a time when I don’t think we were as decisive and focussed as we needed to be. What you have seen in the last few months is a recognition of that and an absolute determination to lead from the front, make decisions, get on with it and address the fears and anxieties of the British people. There has been a major shift in the last few months about where we are. My overriding desire is to win for Labour, right? I have seen what a Tory government does and I remember what it was like. I want to keep a Labour government in power for as long as I possibly can. That’s why I wanted us to get a sense of energy out there.
ID: What’s it like having Peter Mandelson round the Cabinet table?
HB: It’s more fun! There’s a bit of banter. When people have a relationship that goes back a long time they will have been through experiences with you, they’ve seen how you respond, they’ll wind you up a bit and make you laugh. Peter also brings a great stillness at the centre of him, an anchor, and I think that’s partly because of what he has been through in politics. He’s recognised what’s dross and what’s important. He has a real centre to him.
ID: A little bird tells me you subscribe to a magazine called ‘Ride’. My mind is working overtime. What kind of magazine is it exactly?
HB: It’s a motorbike magazine! There’s another one called ‘Bike’ which we take as well. It’s full of stories, brilliant writing. Some of it’s written by a guy called Dan Walsh who by pure coincidence lives in a flat 100 yards from us. So my hero lives almost next door!
ID: What do you get out of riding a motorbike?
HB: Freedom, a bit of anti-authoritarianism, a bit of thank God I’ve got home and I am still alive, and if I am honest, it’s a bit of posing. I do like to look in the window of the shop as you go past. You’ve got your leathers on, you bike’s glinting a bit and you think, hmmm, not bad.
ID: I hear you are taking dancing lessons? Is this because you want to be on Strictly Come Dancing with Vince Cable?
HB: I’d love to do it. I can’t do it in while I am in government – you have to take seven weeks out. Vince Cable is keen to do it but they won’t do it unless there’s political balance so Vince and I may well be up there one day. I watch it every week. We’re also reforming the Division Belles [a tap dance troupe of female MPs] and we’re having lessons every Monday night doing songs from the shows [collapses in a fit of giggles].
ID: Isn’t tap dancing one of the most pointless forms of dance?
HB: No! You get to move around and make a lot of noise [giggles].
ID: It’s not exactly Riverdance is it? Riverdance was phenomenal.
HB: It’s better than Riverdance! At least you move your arms in tap. Have you never danced? Why not? There is an inner dancer in you that needs to be liberated. I’m going to get Brucie to talk to you!
ID: You said recently that you rather fancy Gene Hunt from the Life on Mars programme. You like real men, don’t you and think David Cameron is a bit of a wuss.
HB: [giggles] That’s interesting. My husband’s not very tall and he’s clever than me. He’s a man’s man and not given to great emotional flourishes. I have more than enough for the both of us. He is a lawyer now but was a physicist so he has a very enquiring mind. He doesn’t really do a lot of ‘feelings’. There’s a bit of me with Gene Hunt that well, I know it’s terribly politically incorrect but I just love the ‘let’s go out them and get ‘em’ approach. One of my first boyfriends had a Lotus Cortina – basically a Ford with a Lotus engine. It went like stink.
ID: He wasn’t from Essex was he?