Greasy Pole: Hazel Blears – nuts in May?
The question is not who will be the next Deputy Leader of the Labour Party so much as who would want the job in the first place. None of the hopefuls to succeed the risible John Prescott has felt able to campaign as an exuberant optimist, encouraging the party to look forward to building on ten years of glowingly successful government. Far from it; in almost identical phraseology all of them have argued that what Labour needs now is to undergo some kind of purgative re-assessment of its record and its objectives, raking over the rubble of old controversy in the hope of finding something fresh and voter-seductive, to prove that they are still the party of progressive change. All of them call for a “debate” but only political zombies will be persuaded that this means a free-ranging discussion from which a constructive consensus will emerge. Anyone with a vote to cast in this election – and who is deceived enough to think it worthwhile to cast it – should be more than a little confused; some of them may choose between the candidates by reference to their having some personal eccentricities.
Which brings us to Hazel Blears – the Right Honourable Privy Counsellor, Member of Parliament for Salford, previously Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department of Health and Minister of State at the Home Office, now Labour Party Chair and candidate for the post of Deputy Leader of the Labour Party – who makes a point of being different. To begin with she is not one of your run-of-mill party hack carpet-baggers, forced onto a constituency by party headquarters. She was born, brought up and partly educated in Salford, where her father worked as a maintenance fitter. She was a councillor in Salford, chairing the Community Health Council there for several years and, inescapably, she supports Salford Reds, the local Rugby League team. Among her passions is motor cycling – in appropriately black leathers astride a pedigree, vintage Italian machine.
All of this designed to prove that she is unstuffy, approachable, honest. “I am never,” she announced “complacent” – as if anybody should be, in face of the record of the party she aspires to lead. Her candidacy attracted what might be called a variegated band of support. Apart from MPs like Stephen Pound, who strives never to be taken seriously, there were the likes of Alan Milburn, who sees her as “energetic, innovative, gets things done” and David Blunkett, who thinks she has energy “more…than anyone I have ever come across”. Of course, support from someone like Blunkett may not always be helpful and the same can be said about the endorsement of Tony Booth, Cherie’s father, who applauds the fact that Blears has “come up the hard way herself, she really knows and understands what life is like in working class communities” – as if an understanding of working class life has ever affected how political parties behave towards them. Such unremitting praise for an aspiring politician need not impress anyone who is willing to contrast it with the real experience of how those politicians measure up in their efforts to run capitalism. So what else, in the real world, is there to say about Blears?
Announcing her candidacy, she confessed that the Labour Party is far from being in robust health for while it must “remain the party of success and aspiration” there is a problem about members’ motivation: “after 10 years in office some members feel disengaged… we should recognise that one product of a lengthy period in office is that some party members feel left out. They don’t have a relationship with their Labour government, other than what they read in newspapers”. She did not venture any deeper into why that “disengagement” should have happened, probably because to do so would have confronted her with that government’s abysmal record, which has so often left party members angry at their own impotence. For example there was the refusal – supported by Blears – to allow party members to vote on the matter of renewing Trident before it was voted on in Parliament. There was the allegation that Blears abused her position in the chair to run an undercover campaign for the Deputy Leader’s job. If proved, this would be just one more example of the sleaze which Blair’s government has been so readily and deeply involved in. Then there was the fact that Blears appealed for the votes of party members by selling them cringe-inducing tat like tee shirts ( “Nuts About Hazel” – men £16.80 each, women £10.30), clocks (£15.90) and coffee mugs (£9.90). Questioned about this on Sky News, Blears airily advised the viewers that “in politics you’ve got to be able to campaign” – which leaves nothing to be said about her campaign, her party and the politics of capitalism.
Coming up the hard way as approved by Tony Booth would have taught Hazel Blears something about politics – about back-stabbing, about lies, about betrayal. Like so many other tediously aspirant Labour ministers she started out as an ardent left winger, a devotee of, and driver for, Barbara Castle, the flame-haired rebel who moved from left to right wing in time to be Harold Wilson’s Minister of Labour and help compose the notoriously anti-trade union White Paper In Place of Strife. As an activist, Blears opposed the abolition of Clause Four, so necessary to Blair’s design for New Labour but her time as an MP has been smoothly conformist, as she voted in favour of Control Orders, replacing Trident, Foundation Hospitals, University Top-Up Fees. There was just one rebellious blip in this when, last December, she was exposed picketing against the closure of the maternity unit at Hope Hospital in Manchester. This was embarrassing for Blears because, although some other ministers – John Reid, Jacqui Smith – had joined similar protests in their constituencies, during her time at the Department of Health she had help to draft the plans for such cuts and as a member of the Cabinet she had approved the closure she protested against. Her attempts to excuse herself – that Labour’s overall policy for the NHS is sound but she differed on this particular way in which it was applied – was too feeble even for a wobbling ex-left winger to use. But she survived; perhaps it was all that energy.
But Blears has recently taken to describing her constituents as “the people of Eccles and Salford”. This is not a slip of the tongue; forthcoming boundary changes could cause a run-off for a new, redrawn constituency, with Blears standing against the present Eccles MP Ian Stewart. Perhaps she is already preparing her campaign to hold on to the nomination. When it comes to using a bit of ruthless cunning the woman who likes to be different shows that she is the same as the rest.