BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 24.03.02

==================================================================================== NB. THIS TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A TRANSCRIPTION UNIT RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT; BECAUSE OF THE POSSIBILITY OF MIS-HEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY, IN SOME CASES, OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS ACCURACY ==================================================================================== ON THE RECORD RECORDED FROM TRANSMISSION: BBC ONE DATE: 24.03.02 ==================================================================================== JOHN HUMPHRYS: Good afternoon. There is a growing sense of unease among Labour MPs about the direction of the government. We'll be talking to some of THEM - to the Cabinet Minister Helen Liddell ..... AND to Peter Mandelson. Will the Conservatives support higher taxes to pay for the NHS? I'll be talking to the Shadow Chancellor Michael Howard. And what are we letting ourselves in for by sending the marines to fight in Afghanistan? All that after the news read by SOPHIE RAWORTH. NEWS HUMPHRYS: Thanks Sophie. Tony Blair has led a charmed life. He's had the longest honeymoon with the electorate in political history. But are things starting to turn sour? Opinion polls this past week have showed the Tories cutting into the Labour lead, one of them showed a sharp drop in Tony Blair's own popularity. Another worrying sign for the government is the mood among Mr Blair's own backbench MPs. The Guardian - a Labour supporting newspaper - led its front page yesterday with dark rumours of a plot to put up a stalking horse candidate against Mr Blair. Fanciful? Well maybe. There wasn't much evidence for it. But there IS unease on the backbenches at the way the government is running things. I'll be talking to the Peter Mandelson, the former Cabinet Minister and to Helen Liddell, the Scottish Secretary, after this report from Paul Wilenius. PAUL WILENIUS: Legend has it, that someone somewhere is watching every move Labour MPs make. Looking for signs of dissent, opposition, even rebellion. When inflation and employment are at record lows and money's pouring into key public services, it would hardly seem necessary. But it is - because backbench anxieties are growing. Those close to Tony Blair often dismiss Labour backbench critics as "the usual suspects". But the number of suspects lining up to attack the government over issues like Iraq, the Post Office, workers' rights and much more, are growing daily. Although it's not a rebellion yet - it does show a deep and pervasive unease sweeping through the Labour Party in Parliament. Labour leaders couldn't have missed the anxiety sparked off by the threat of an invasion of Iraq. The scale of the undercurrent of concern was shown in a recent survey for On The Record, where Cabinet Minister Clare Short also raised doubts. Now more than one hundred backbenchers have signed an early day motion opposing an attack and those fears are shared by many ministers and former ministers. GLENDA JACKSON MP: If indeed George W Bush is talking about a pre-emptive strike upon Iraq, based on his argument that it is a rogue state with the capacity not only to make but also deliver weapons of mass destruction, then I for one would wish to see the evidence, the irrefutable evidence that that is the case before I would consent to British troops being put on the ground in Iraq. TONY LLOYD MP: At this moment in time there would be enormous unease on the Labour benches about the idea of any kind of intervention within Iraq, because as yet, the case simply is not proven. WILENIUS: What is now proven, is that concerns over Iraq have not been eased by sending at least seventeen hundred more British troops to Afghanistan. Even those who have supported action so far, are now worried. JACKSON: I had absolutely no problems at all with the action that America took after the events of September 11th nor the support that the British government gave to America in that. I am concerned over this particular deployment as to how long are they going to be there, as some one, one of my colleagues said what are the chains of command. IAN DAVIDSON MP: I think there is a great deal of unease in the Labour back benches about troops going in to Afghanistan, because we're not sure what the end purpose is. We don't want British troops just be used as the equivalent of America's Gurkas, there to shed blood in order to avoid the Americans having body bags. We're not also clear what the Americans' overall strategy is, I mean is this the first step and the second step is an attack on Iraq. WILENIUS: Those hunting for evidence of discontent on the Labour backbenches can find it in the number of MPs now willing to sign up to Commons' Early Day Motions, critical of government policy. In 1997, only fifty-eight Labour MPs opposed the government over cuts to lone parent benefits, even though there was widespread anger in the party. Yet now Labour MPs are much more willing to speak out and a hundred and four have declared their opposition to military action against Iraq, while a hundred and thirty-seven want the government to slow down the controversial policy of opening up the Post Office to competition. DAVIDSON: After the '97 election, people were committed to making a success of a Labour government and therefore they were prepared to put up with almost anything. The Lone Parent Benefits was a revolt because we thought that the government had got it wrong. Look how many people like myself didn't vote against the government on that issue because we were prepared to give them the balance of the doubt. Now there's a feeling that it's not just individual decisions that are wrong, but that the whole drift of the government is in the wrong direction and that we're not being listened to at all. WILENIUS: The government's been keeping a close eye protests in recent weeks by teachers, the police and postal workers. In particular anger is growing over the threat to the universal postal service, after the move by the regulator Postcomm to open up the market to competition. There's a threat to thirty thousand jobs, worries the cost of the post could soar and that some areas would get a worse service. JON CRUDDAS MP: I think for a normal back bencher the fear of having ex hundred or a thousand postman in your constituency campaigning against a core element of government strategy or the effects of it in terms of the actions of the regulator is a major concern for back benchers. I think there's a real danger here with the regulator, far exceeding the liberalisation agenda that's being pushed in Europe, that that would push the unions in to a very hostile campaign against the government, which is a very dangerous and serious situation for the government. LLOYDS: There seems to be this hell for leather intent on smashing up what's there and not giving any real possibility that the things that will come out of it will be strong and in the public interests. I think government has got to rein the regulator. WILENIUS: The trade unions are angry that the party's high command is pushing ahead with plans to transfer some public sector workers to private sector companies. Even one of Tony Blair's former advisors is worried that the Prime Minister has not guaranteed that their working conditions will be protected. CRUDDAS: It seems to me he's got to remove key union concerns around reneging on agreements around the transfer of undertakings and the extension of people's rights when they're contracted out of the public services. That's absolutely key because that is perceived to be bad faith and undermines a general process of dialogue and agenda for change. Outrage has been sparked off recently among normally loyal union leaders back home by the sight at the recent European summit of Tony Blair cosying up to Spain's Right Wing leader Jose Aznar and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi. They're unhappy with their anti-union agenda. Those views are shared by many Labour MPs. DAVIDSON: People don't expect a British Prime Minister, a Labour Prime Minister to have as his closest allies in Europe, a Spanish Conservative and an Italian Neo-fascist and for them to collaborate on a programme of introducing free market proposals and diminishing workers' rights. That's not what back bench Labour MPs want to see and it's not what the movement wants to see. And it's clear that that's what's being spun out by the government quite deliberately and they therefore are reaping the whirl wind of discontent and unhappiness and concern. CRUDDAS: The positioning of the Prime Minister vis-a-vis Berlusconi and the Spanish over the last few days sends out the wrong signals. In effect it's a deregulatory agenda that he is seen to be pushing, despite the fact that over the last five years we've delivered major individual and collective rights for people at work. WILENIUS: But it isn't just the government's policies which are worrying and irritating many Labour backbenchers. Many have told me they feel excluded, ignored and some dismissed as totally unimportant by Number Ten. What agitates many Labour MPs is being ignored by their leaders, while Number Ten is willing to mount a huge operation to try to save a special advisor like Jo Moore. There are now well over forty former Labour Ministers on the backbenches and at least the same number who know they'll never get a government job. This means there are now many more potential rebels. Former Ministers say Downing Street should do more to keep them informed and on side. GEORGE HOWARTH: Part of the problem between the government and its own back benches is that sometimes it's caused by one thing, that they just think well, it's important that we get on with this, and there's no time to start consulting the backbenchers. And in some issues, that's probably right. But sometimes it's simply the process excludes backbenchers altogether and that I think is in the long term the most dangerous of the two, because you know if people feel alienated, particularly if Members of Parliament feel alienated, then that does create tensions and divisions JIM DOWD: I think the processes are there to engage, but as I say it's not just a question of meeting people, it's giving them some reassurance that the ideas that they discuss at the time are taken seriously. You know it's not a question of just patronising them and saying, look I've come to see you, that's it, it's actually listening to what people are saying and responding to their concerns and their worries. WILENIUS: This is a big problem, as many Labour backbenchers feel they have no forum where they can let their worries and concerns come out. According to one Labour MP the government is feeding resentment by taking them for granted. DAVIDSON: There's a feeling in amongst the backbenchers that the mushroom principle is operating, that we're just being kept in the dark, the door gets open, things get flung in on top of us and we're expected just loyally to respond and I think people feel more and more uneasy about some of the decisions that are being taken. WILENIUS: Labour leaders may have to follow the activities of many more of their own MPs in future. The Centre Left Tribune Group which used to represent a large section of the party is about to make a comeback, after an absence of two years. The aim of the group is to deliver a strong message to the leadership on key issues they really care about. DAVIDSON: Quite a number of backbenchers have been saying that we need to have some opportunity for discussion and debate and they've been asking myself as one of the former officers to resurrect the Tribune Group. We'll have various meeting after we come back from a break without having to make decisions but just to air views, to express concerns, to sound out each other, just to see whether or not there are shared views and if a consensus emerges that's expressing concern, then obviously we want to reflect that back to the leadership. CLIVE SOLEY: Although we all want to open up the debate a bit, and I know both the Prime Minister and a number of Members of Cabinet want more open debate, that has to be balanced by a sense of discipline, because if we don't do that, if the government isn't seen to give to the backbenchers and to the party and if the backbenchers don't also respect the difficulty of the government getting you know, seeing to be blowing in the wind, then frankly we end up in opposition again. WILENIUS: Although the prospect of a direct challenge to Tony Blair appears remote at the moment, for the first time there are dark mutterings about his leadership. A respected Labour backbencher told me Blair's lost the plot, and a once loyal former Minister wants Gordon Brown to replace him before the next election. Prime Ministers ignore this sort of whispering at their peril, because it could develop into something much more dangerous. LLOYD: What we need is a Tony Blair who demonstrates that he does care about the message that's coming back and he is prepared to act on that message. When it went wrong with Mrs Thatcher. When it went wrong with John Major was when they said not only do we not listen, it's when they said we don't need to listen because we know better and we can never afford to have a government that says, we know better. DAVIDSON: The danger of isolation for Number Ten and the people in there, is that they start operating in a sort of parallel universe, which is partly constructed themselves, but partly constructed by the things that they spin out in to the press, and which they then read, and then reinforces their impressions and that they find themselves going down a track which nobody else is following, and that they run the risk of cutting away their own support in Parliament and in the country by following policies that people are not happy with. LLOYD: Tony Blair will not be Prime Minister for ever, no doubt he is considering what his future will be but I don't think he's likely to go by the end of the week. WILENIUS: The big question is - will Tony Blair listen to the messages coming from his own troops? Although there's little prospect of a direct challenge, the numbers ready to question his leadership are growing. Blair's strength is that he's the political alchemist, the magician that won two stunning election victories. His weakness is that more Labour MPs are wondering what those victories were for. HUMPHRYS: Paul Wilenius reporting there. JOHN HUMPHRYS: Helen Liddell, there is a problem isn't there, because those weren't a collection of just the usual suspects as we always say on these occasions, serious people, worried about the direction the party's going in, the government's going in? HELEN LIDDELL: But the process of government is not easy, it is complex and some of the issues that were raised in that, that film are very serious ones that we do engage with backbenchers on, and indeed, every Wednesday, the parliamentary Labour Party meets, forum for every member of the parliamentary Labour Party to raise concerns, Prime Minister meets with the representatives of the backbenchers every Wednesday afternoon, but the issues are serious ones, the issue of Iraq is an extremely serious one, we do need to have a debate about the, the issues around Saddam Hussein and his failure to ... HUMPHRYS: ...hasn't it happened... LIDDELL: ...well... HUMPHRYS: ...well given that, that the, given that the ... LIDDELL: ...well, this is part of it, this is a part of it, this is part of the process, this, the discussion and debate that takes place within the PLP at Prime Minister, Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have made it absolutely clear decisions are not imminent in relation to Saddam Hussein but there are serious issues about the fact that he is stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, he is not allowing weapons inspectors into Iraq to check what the situation actually is, and I would be disappointed if our backbenchers were not wanting to be part of that debate, and indeed Jack Straw meets them on a regular basis so that their concerns and anxieties can be addressed. HUMPHRYS: Well in that case it's a bit odd, isn't it, that they are saying, so many of them are saying, we are not part of it, we're, you know, the mushroom treatment, we're kept in the dark and they throw, I won't say what the word is, because we both know it, they throw things on us. And then there is that genuine feeling, isn't there, particularly over Iraq, I mean there is a feeling, Tony expressed it there, former Foreign Office Minister himself, he said, there is enormous unease about any kind of invasion, intervention, take the point the point that you made, nothing's been decided but there is this enormous unease. LIDDELL: And I think it is naturally that there should be debate and discussion about it? HUMPHRYS: Do you share it? Yourself? As a Cabinet Minister? LIDDELL: Well I think it is important that we have a full discussion and debate, but at the same time we have to send a clear message to Saddam Hussein, the way this can be ended is by him acceding to the UN Resolutions by allowing weapons inspectors in, because the situation as it exists at the moment is, is not tenable in the long-term. But you know, we've achieved a huge amount as a Labour government. We've been in office now coming up for something like five years. Now in the past you used to criticise us for not having debate. Now we have debate and you criticise us ... HUMPHRYS: ...well no, because it is not us criticising you, it's your own backbench MPs who are criticising you because they do not feel there is this open debate, they feel they are being told things and they're having things sprung upon them, and clearly they're afraid that in the case of Iraq, you will ask Chris Smith himself, he wasn't in that film, he said to a newspaper this morning, 'we are not happy at the prospect that we might be going into this on the coat-tails of the United States' so there is this clear unease that they're being taken in directions that they're not easy with. LIDDELL: And that's why there is a dialogue with the backbenchers, not just in the House of Commons incidentally but in the House of Lords as well. Ministers have gone out of their way to engage the debate on, in relation to Iraq. We have been very open about our anxieties about Saddam Husseim. But you know, frankly, the picture that you paint is not one that I recognise, I do not. HUMPHRYS: ...they, they I insist, they, not us. LIDDELL: ...well, you know, I... HUMPHRYS: ...they are painting it. LIDDELL: Somebody wrote this morning that you cannot call for firm government and then bleat when you get it. I think it may have been you John. But you know, government has to govern, and the government also tries very hard to ensure that we take, not just our MPs, but also the party... HUMPHRYS: that what they're doing? LIDDELL: Well every Cabinet Minister is now going out and talking to the party throughout the country so that they're engaged in the debate as well. But we have to take into account what we have achieved. You know, I listened to Ian Davidson there talking about our Employment Reform agenda. HUMPHRYS: Oh. LIDDELL: We have a very balanced agenda, that's how we've been able to have something like a National Minimum Wage, and at the same time create one-and-a-half million more jobs since we were elected in 1997. HUMPHRYS: But yes, but what, what they don't like is the enthusiasm that they see you, the government showing, for the private sector versus public services, I mean Consignia, the Post Office as we used to call it, is a very good example of that. They don't want you to open up the market in the way that you appear to be prepared to do to the private sector. They want you to intervene...intervene, Jon Cruddas, you saw him there, former adviser to Tony Blair himself, said it's a very dangerous and serious situation for the government, this. LIDDELL: Well let me tell you, you've, there are a number of points with... HUMPHRYS: ...well the crucial thing is whether you would intervene or not, isn't it? LIDDELL: ...well the issue about, that Jon Cruddas was talking about, is this, this issue of transfer of undertakings and the very real anxieties that have been raised by the Trade Union movement about the transfer, for example, of pensions, security of employment... HUMPHRYS: ...yes but this particular thing is about you realising the laws for the Post Office so that there can be competition, that's the crucial thing. LIDDELL: Well, let me, let me take the private sector issue first. HUMPHRYS: Alright. LIDDELL: This is something that, that we do take very seriously indeed. Both Patricia Hewitt and Stephen Byers have made it absolutely clear that we take on board many of the criticisms that the trade unions have on this. We are consulting, we are soon to come to a conclusion. On the issue of Consignia, now people have known for a very long time that Consignia has serious difficulties, now the most telling statistic of all, it takes twenty-eight pence to deliver a twenty-seven pence letter. Now I think all of us can recognise that any company that is facing that does have difficulties and... HUMPHRYS: you won't intervene then to stop the sort of private competition that it's, is being threatened? LIDDELL: I think that, if you bear in mind the debates that have been about the Post Office over the years, the constant pressure for allowing greater commercial freedom for the Post Office, there is no doubt that the issues surrounding Consignia have to be addressed... HUMPHRYS: ...MPs have a lot of doubt about the way it's going. LIDDELL: One of their main concerns is about universal service obligation. We have a bottom line, and our bottom line is protecting the universal service obligation, but we cannot run away from the nature of some of the difficulties, the difficulties that Parcel Force has experienced over something like twenty years, and Consignia has to address these matters, and in relation to the overall issue of competition and post.... consultation and competition, well frankly I think Consignia and the Regulator need to sit and talk about that. HUMPHRYS: What about worker's rights? We're seeing, let me quote you Ian Davidson, you saw him on that film there, "we don't expect a Labour Prime Minister to have as a closest, as his closest ally, a Spanish Conservative and an Italian neo-fascist", it's why you are reaping a whirlwind of discontent, and what they see is a limit to the extension of workers right. Okay, some workers rights have been improved since you've been in power, nobody disputes that, but what you are now saying is 'thus far, and no further' and they're deeply worried about that, particularly when they look at some of his closest allies on this. LIDDELL: Well, I think if the picture was being presented to them like that, I can fully appreciate why they're worried, but you have to remember that the Prime Minister also deals with Germany, with Sweden, both left of centre governments, and we are full players in the European Union and must work and deal with democratically elected governments right across... HUMPHRYS: But Berlusconi? LIDDELL: ...well he's the democratically elected Prime Minister. But let me address this economic reform agenda. We are going to have to create between ten and twenty million jobs right across Europe over the next decade. We can only do that by reforming how our labour market operates, and we are the government that was prepared to sign the Social Chapter, we're the government that introduced the national minimum wage... HUMPHRYS: ...acknowledged that. LIDDELL: ....and because of that we have managed to create one and a half million jobs in the economy. HUMPHRYS: Yes, but now they see you siding with the right wing, that's what's worrying them and they're deeply puzzled by it. Can't you imagine that you'd have been a bit puzzled by it if you were sitting on the backbenches as a Labour MP, and you'd seen him cosying up with people like Berlusconi. LIDDELL: Well, we are driving the economic reform agenda right across Europe and rather than us following the economic policies of the Italians or the Spanish it's really in many respects the other way around, they are following our economic policies. We are one of the strongest economies in the world, the fourth strongest economy in the world. Both the OECD and the IMF say that we will go faster than the other G-Seven nations in 2OO1-2OO2. Part of the reason for that is the economic reform agenda and the fact that we have been modernising our laws to bring fairness but also to bring flexibility to the future. HUMPHRYS: Well, and as far as fairness is concerned they are worried that you are not guaranteeing that workers who have transferred to the private sector do not keep exactly the same rights and working conditions as they had in the public sector. Your don't seem able to give them that guarantee. LIDDELL: Well, as I said a couple of minutes ago both Patricia Hewitt and Stephen Byers are very much in the front line of this issue, and have made clear statements. We've been consulting on the changes, the rights of trade unionists, particularly in relation to pensions. We will be coming to a conclusion on that shortly. But we cannot pickle the British economy in aspic. You know we are a reforming government, we want to create jobs and opportunities for everyone and that means we must all move ahead. HUMPHRYS: But either you are listening to your backbenchers, taking on board their concerns and saying, okay we'll bear all that in mind and we will maybe nudge in a slightly different direction, or you're not, because clearly a very large number of them want you to travel in a different direction LIDDELL: We are listening to our backbenchers and you know, you and I have been around a long time John. We know that in the past Labour governments have lost touch with their core support. We have never done that and we will not do that, because it is important that everyone is engaged in the debate. But when we engage in the debate it is important that it's a rational debate, that it's an open debate and that everyone is fully informed within it. That is our intention, we will deliver on that. HUMPHRYS: Helen, Liddell, thanks very much indeed for joining us this morning. JOHN HUMPHRYS: At the root of all this discontent is the suspicion of New Labour. Until now, old Labour has been prepared to give Tony Blair the benefit of the doubt because he's done what they failed to do - win two elections with thumping majorities. But now it seems they're saying: New Labour must become more like Old Labour. So what should Mr Blair do given that? Should he continue to govern the country as New Labour or will he have to change direction. The man who's regarded as the architect, the godfather of New Labour is Peter Mandelson and he's with me now. Good morning Mr Mandelson. PETER MANDELSON: Good morning Mr Humphrys. HUMPHRYS: Good to see you. Something must be done, mustn't it? MANDELSON: Yes, but can I just make a point about your package of interviews. I hadn't realised before I viewed it, that as a government grows older and older, five years now, this government, it collects a stream of Exs, ex-ministers, ex-Downing Street advisors... HUMPHRYS: hadn't realised that. I don't believe you! MANDELSON: No, I hadn't realised it to this extent. I just want to say as a serial ex myself, ex-minister, it is not a club I am going to join of those critics. But I do think the package illustrates something else. HUMPHRYS: Before you move on to the next bit, you're not just dismissing them as a bunch of malcontents are you. They are serious people with serious concerns aren't they. MANDELSON: No, for this reason I want to add. I think that what the interviews showed and I think it was a serious and substantial piece of journalism incidentally, is the difference between real issues on the one hand, I mean real policy dilemmas on which the different and sometimes conflicting views of Labour Members of Parliament, can and should be heard on the one hand, and froth on the other - all the chatter and the other stuff that occupies people within the Westminster bubble. And I think what the government has got to do, and what the Party has got to do is to concentrate on the real issues which do involve, as I say, real policy dilemmas for us to address. We have to navigate all sorts of hurdles and bumps in the road, that's what government is about, as Helen Liddell was saying, I thought most persuasively and cogently, but let's forget the froth and concentrate on the hard issues. HUMPHRYS: But might it be, might some of this discontent be clearly there are worries about specific issues. But what's happened in the Labour Party and you, as I say, was the architect of New Labour in many ways, a lot of Labour MPs, as you hardly need me telling you, a lot of Members of the Labour Party, never took to New Labour, Tony Blair himself acknowledged that, you have acknowledged that. So, in some ways, you don't have the deep roots in the Party that you need when times get difficult - is that a worry? MANDELSON: I don't think it's true, if it were true it would be a worry, but I don't think it is true. HUMPHRYS: You don't think that ... film illustrated that that's what's beginning to happen now? MANDELSON: No, I don't think there are people questioning you know the principles, or the model of New Labour. I think what they are doing is addressing, you know difficult issues where of course it will be more comfortable for example, you know, you to side with the Post Office unions, you know, for the short term security of their members, but we all know that the problems of the Post Office, as Helen Liddell was saying, are rather more complex than that. It would be more comfortable, you know, to say to workers: we will give you all the rights that you want. But, we know that the realities of economics and business life and particularly for small and medium sized businesses are more complex than that. It would be more comfortable for example, you know, to side with the anti-Americanism that is popular at the moment, but that wouldn't provide you with a solution to what to do about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. So, you know, you can retreat into these sort of comfortable nostrums and these comfortable positions, but they don't actually give you the answer to resolving these difficult policy dilemmas and I think most people would believe that New Labour does provide the model, or the framework of policy within which we can resolve these dilemmas, without, as I say, retreating into these sort of nostrums and slogans of the past. HUMPHRYS: Ian Davidson, you heard him there say it's the whole drift of the government that's wrong. MANDELSON: Yes, well Ian Davidson's entitled to his opinion but I don't think you should necessarily assume that Ian Davidson speaks for a majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party. But one thing I am sure about, if I can just say this, if there is a problem, I think that New Labour has to address it, really in two ways. First of all I think New Labour has got to be much more intellectually self-confident about what it is, where it comes from. We have re-configured our politics in this country, the way in which people look at it and talk about economics, the Welfare State, the balance of rights and responsibilities in our society, the decentralisation of government, our country's relationship with Europe and the new internationalism. Now, that re-configuration of politics is recognised, you know, across the country and outside this country, I think we should be more intellectually and politically self-confident and assertive in setting out what we have done and where we have come from. HUMPHRYS: In what sense are you not self-confident then? MANDELSON: I think there are some people who are easily knocked back. I think there are people who when they encounter a sort of bump in the road, or a hurdle, or an obstacle, you know, shrink back away from it rather than, you know discussing in a calm way and keeping their nerve... HUMPHRYS: Government, you would say... MANDELSON: No, I think possibility some people in the Government and some people in the Parliamentary Labour Party, but I think there's another issue as well and I think it relates to this. I feel that sometimes when ministers and others of us in the Parliamentary Party, and I speak as a backbencher now like all the others on your film, when we talk about these issues and address these policy dilemmas we are too technocratic and insufficiently political. I think we need to be more political, I think we need to be more direct, more convincing and possibly more honest in the way in which we, you know, bring out the difficulties and the complexities in some of these issues that we are wrestling with and I think that whereas the government has and it is right to have done so, to a very large extent put that sort of age of spin behind it, I think it now has to consolidate that. HUMPHRYS: So there's still too much spin. MANDELSON: Well, I mean you ask that question without a smile on your face to me, and I would say that there is not too much spin, I would say that the emphasis of our communications has to be altogether more political, more articulate, more convincing. We've got to bring out the different shades and the complexities of the policy areas we're dealing with, but if we do that and I think that the government should, I hope that that will elicit a different response from the media. I would like to see a different sense of balance, of perspective introduced by the media when treating some of these complex political issues, and I think that if the government in a sense, you know, convincingly puts that sort of age of spin behind it, which I believe the government should do, and from the media we elicit a response which is, which has greater perspective, is more responsible and accurate, reporting of these complex political issues. Then I think we have a basis of a new and different settlement if you like between the government and the media, from the government greater openness, and from the media a greater sense of proportion in reporting and analysing politics. HUMPHRYS: It may be obviously that the media responds the way it does if your characterisation of it is accurate, because there has in the past been so much spin, and there is now a degree of suspicion that there might not otherwise have been, if you'd been to use a word that you used in that answer, more honest in the past. MANDELSON: Well, it may or may not be. I think that the government is absolutely right to have introduced the professionalism and discipline in its communications that it has. I think it's right that you introduce from the outset, from the beginning of a policy-making process and its presentation, how you're going to engage the public, how you're going to communicate with the public some of the shades and complexities of the issues you're dealing with, but if in the process of doing that, what you get from the media is a sort of synthetic anger and a sort of hysteria, a sort of you know, going completely over the top as if you can treat these issues in a completely and purely black and white way. HUMPHRYS: Yeah, but the trouble is.... MANDELSON: ....what happens then is that the government then sort of retreats and puts its defences up, the media then becomes all the more irritated and annoyed that they're sort of not getting at the real people and the real issues. You then have this sort of stand-off and sort of stalemate which I think characterises the relationship between the government and the media at the moment. HUMPHRYS: If you're told that the solutions are simple and straightforward and relatively easy and will be delivered, and then those answers are not there, the problems are not solved, then it's understandable that people become frustrated isn't it? MANDELSON: Yes, but I don't think the government are saying things are simple and straightforward. I mean on the contrary, the way in which we are bringing investment and reform to public services, you know is not simple and straightforward, nor is it achieved overnight. They way in which the government is tackling poverty, the way in which the government is creating a new internationalism in the world order, that's not something which achieved overnight, and so people have to remain yes calm, yes patient, yes debate these issues, but above all keep their nerve because these things take time to deliver. HUMPHRYS: There are signs and only signs, freely acknowledge that, that Tony Blair's star is waning a bit, popularity seems to be disappearing a bit if we are to believe the recent polls anyway and some of the things that are being said in Westminster. You may say that's Westminster froth and the Westminster bubble and all that, but nonetheless obviously every politician's time comes eventually. Tony Blair has achieved wonderful things for the Labour Party, nobody can dispute that. Margaret Thatcher made the mistake didn't she, it turned out to be a great mistake of saying "I'll go on and on and on" and in the end she was thrown out. The time does come doesn't it when a leader, however successful he may have been, has to say well maybe, I'd better start thinking about it. MANDELSON: I'm sure that will be the case with this Prime Minister like every other, but Tony Blair is a long way off from that point which Mrs Thatcher reached - what ten years down the line when everyone was just sort of hoping that she would go, and go quietly and quickly. I think that all this stuff about Tony Blair is a gigantic great wind-up and we shouldn't be seduced by it. HUMPHRYS: Peter Mandelson, thanks very much indeed. HUMPHRYS: A little later I'll be talking to the Shadow Chancellor, Michael Howard, about the Conservative's plans for the National Health Service. But now as Paul Wilenius reported earlier, many Labour MPs are worried at Tony Blair's decision to send the marines into Afghanistan - the first time British troops have been sent to fight abroad since the Gulf War in 1991. And they're not the only ones to be worried. The opinion polls suggest most members of the public are uneasy. David Grossman has been trying to find out what we may be letting ourselves in for. DAVID GROSSMAN: The training is over, this is no longer an exercise. Seventeen-hundred Royal Marines are about to put themselves in harms way, in what is Britain's most hazardous military operation since the Gulf war. They're going to join American troops fighting in the Afghan mountains. As the Royal Marines prepare to leave for Afghanistan there are real concerns about what it is they may getting themselves into. There are fears that their role - searching the hills and caves for al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters could become an open-ended mission that could drag on for years - that what starts off as 'mopping up' could easily get bogged down. And there are also fears that this aggressive deployment could compromise the safety of British Peacekeepers who elsewhere in Afghanistan are working hard to try to make friends. This is all very different to the picture we had before Christmas, when it seemed the war was all but over and won. TONY BLAIR: It is clear that support for the Taliban is evaporating. Though there may be pockets of resistance, the idea that this has been some kind of tactical retreat is just the latest Taliban lie. They are in total collapse. MENZIES CAMPBELL MP: I think governments here and in Washington got carried away by the early military success of the Northern Alliance and as a consequence of that, some rather optimistic predictions were made to the effect that all that was left was some kind of 'mopping up' operation. Well, subsequent events have demonstrated that that judgement was wrong. GROSSMAN: American units have been fighting al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in the mountains to the south of Kabul since the beginning of March. This is the kind of work the Royal Marines will take on once they arrive. It is difficult and it's dangerous. SIR TIM GARDEN: The Defence Secretary has made it clear that the troops are going into a hostile environment in which we must be prepared for casualties, but on the other hand these are small engagements against pockets of resistance and I don't think it's going to be casualties in the sense of big wars where two armies meet each other, but we must expect that there will be unfortunate accidents where somebody gets lucky with a shot and the Americans have already suffered this. GROSSMAN: At present there are eighteen-hundred British Troops in Afghanistan but doing a very different job, they're leading the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul that's there to support the new civilian government. Britain had hoped to have handed over responsibility for peacekeeping, but there doesn't seem to be any prospect of that happening soon. The US State Department estimates it would need twenty-five thousand troops to stabilise whole country. At the moment there are just five-thousand international troops supporting the interim government of which eighteen-hundred are British. But plans to train Afghans to do the job are falling behind. According to a US military assessment only four-thousand will have been trained by September this year and only twelve-thousand by the following September. GARDEN: We said that when we put in our Headquarters Force and the soldiers to do the peace keeping that we would take the lead initially, set it up because we've got lots of expertise in that and we would do it for three months and then hand over to another nation. I would be surprised if all the British forces in the peace keeping side were withdrawn then, because their expertise really is very important to ensure that the Kabul government can continue to operate. GROSSMAN: But of course the Royal Marines aren't going to Afghanistan as peacekeepers, they're going to fight. But some fear that introducing them in the same uniform and under the same flag as the peacekeepers could create confusion in the minds of the Afghan population as to what it is those friendly looking patrols on the streets of Kabul are there to do. Some military analysts believe the dangers of this duel role are all too obvious. CAMPBELL: The risk is that in the eye of people in Afghanistan, this will seem to be part of the same operation, and so when a policeman is supported by a member of the British forces in Kabul, assumptions may be made that the British forces are there for some aggressive purpose. GARDEN: The Afghan people may get a bit confused as to what the British role is. Is it a, a combat role or is it a peace support role? And that's why there are concerns just to make sure that the peace keepers don't become an easy target for the guerilla fighters to come and attack and there's undoubtedly likely to be more danger to them as a result of taking part of both operations. GROSSMAN: Not only does the introduction of fighting troops cause concern about how the peacekeepers are going to be treated by their Afghan hosts, it also raises serious questions about what military planners call the exit strategy - in simple terms - how you know it's time to come home. Because if the military objective becomes to rid Afghanistan of every single last Taliban and al-Qaeda fighter it becomes, it's argues, almost impossible ever to say that objective has been realised. PROFESSOR TONY MASON: It's going to be very, very difficult to decide when you've won because the actual fighters can melt away and remain quiet for a long time, and then when they think conditions are right, they can strike again. PROFESSOR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: You're not going to be able just to walk away from it. And Blair has said we're not going to walk away from it, Bush has said we're not going to walk away from it, and that means you've got to accept that one way or the other, there's going to be military presence in Afghanistan for some time to come. GROSSMAN: This leads to fears of an endless escalating conflict and for America's top military that's a nightmare with a name - Vietnam. Then what started as small-scale support for the South Vietnamese ended in a humiliating American retreat . During a dozen dreadful years, fifty-eight thousand American troops were killed. The fear of stumbling into such carnage again has terrified US presidents ever since. MASON: There is a parallel here with Vietnam in that the current operating region, the Pashtu region, there are undoubtedly tribal sympathies between the local inhabitants and the fighters. That was exactly the same in Vietnam. The big difference of course is that in addition to local sympathy, the Vietcong had a secure sanctuary in North Vietnam and secure supply lines. Peasant support would allow them survive, to survive and evade. It was the constant reinforcement and re-supply which allowed them to keep on fighting. So here in Afghanistan. Yes, the Taliban and al-Qaeda can evade, but sooner or later they will run out of resources. GROSSMAN: And without an enemy that can re-supply itself it's argued, the American experience in Afghanistan, and for the British forces supporting them will be quite unlike the slaughter of Vietnam. FREEDMAN: They'd get stuck in Afghanistan, I'm sure of that. But I don't think they're going to get stuck in such a way as they're bleeding men in the way that they did in Vietnam. It's just a long-term frustrating operation that isn't the sort of thing that appeals to military men who like decisive victories and then going home. GROSSMAN: British troops are already stretched, some would say over-stretched. We've got soldiers in the Balkans, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, Sierra Leone the Falklands, Cyprus, Brunei and Belize. Of the army's strength of just over one-hundred-and-one thousand, twenty-thousand are already overseas and another ten-thousand are either about to go or just returned. And that doesn't include the twelve-and-a-half-thousand troops on active service in Northern Ireland. But it's in the specialists that the pinch is really being felt. For example, of our four-thousand elite spearhead forces, that's the Marines and the Para's, practically all are committed to operations. GARDEN: I think the major worry is that this is yet another commitment and we're also still in the process of trying to solve the Balkans and we're not yet out of Northern Ireland, and as always, these things are about priorities and if Afghanistan becomes the major priority for a long time, then all the good work that we've done in the Balkans might start to unravel. CAMPBELL: Words like over-stretch are tossed about in this argument but the truth is that we are engaged in quite a lot of places, doing quite difficult and dangerous jobs and part of the problem is, not so much that we lack infantry, but that we lack specialists, specialists like signallers, people of that kind and there's no doubt that within the armed forces themselves, at the very highest level, there is an anxiety that an operation like this, a theatre of activity like Afghanistan, does have within it, the capacity to drain away a very substantial amount of the United Kingdom's resources. GROSSMAN: With melting snow, Spring is the traditional time for war in Afghanistan. For both British fighters and peacekeepers it will undoubtedly be a tense time. The question no one can yet answer is for how many more Springs our soldiers will have to stay. HUMPHRYS: David Grossman reporting there. JOHN HUMPHRYS: Conservative Party Conferences have been more like wakes for the past few years. Endless reflections on what's going wrong and why aren't the opinion polls shifting and will they ever get back into power, assuming they survive at all. Well, they're all in Harrogate this weekend for their Spring conference and (whisper it quietly) there are some stirrings of optimism. Tender little shoots, to be sure at the moment, and maybe they'll soon be nipped off by a late frost. But there's a bit more confidence out there, enough even, to challenge the government on what has always been seen as Labour's own ground, the protection of the vulnerable and the NHS. The Shadow Chancellor, Michael Howard, is in Harrogate, Mr Howard, good afternoon. MICHAEL HOWARD MP: Good afternoon John. HUMPHRYS: Good, you're hearing me. You're worried, or you want to persuade us that you're deeply concerned about vulnerable, the vulnerable people in our society, but it might be difficult to persuade the voters of that if they believe that you want to scrap the NHS as we know it and that is what you want to do isn't it? I emphasise as we know it. HOWARD: What we want to...what we want to do is to find the best way of providing world class health care to the people of this country. That's what we want to do. And in doing that, unlike Gordon Brown, we think there are lessons that can be learned from abroad. We don't have a closed mind. Gordon Brown said last week, there's nothing we can learn from abroad, we don't have to look elsewhere. Now we know that healthcare is delivered more effectively in some other countries than it is here. We know for example that there are hardly any waiting lists in countries in Europe. I know because some of my own constituents are benefiting from the moment, from the fact that they can go to France for operations which they'd have to wait ages for in this country. So we know they do things better in some other countries, we're looking to see what lessons can be learned and when we've completed that exercise, but not before, we will come up with a solution which we believe, will deliver to the people of this country, the world class healthcare that they need and they deserve. Why should people in our country suffer in circumstances when they wouldn't if they lived elsewhere. Why should they die from conditions and illnesses from which they wouldn't die if they lived elsewhere? HUMPHRYS: Well, we don't know yet exactly what you're going to do because you presumably haven't decided in detail yet what you're going to do but we do know because of things your leader has said, amongst other things, that you do expect us ultimately to be paying, or many of us, I should say many of us, to be paying more for our health care than we are at the moment, paying it directly perhaps in GPs fees, or whatever it may be. Now if that is the case, then we will end up, and some of your people have been critical about what you call a two-tier health service over these past few days, we'll have an even greater disparity between one tier and the other tier in the health service. HOWARD: We're not ruling things in and out so I'm not going to speculate on what our solution might ultimately be. But last year alone, there were two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand people in this country, a quarter of a million people, who paid for operations, not through some insurance scheme, but out of their own pockets because they were so appalled at how long they would have to wait if those operations were to be carried out on the health service. We do already have a two-tier system and our people are suffering. I've referred before, I referred in my speech this morning, to my eighty-three-year old constituent, who was told that he would have to wait eighty-three weeks for an appointment with a neurologist, not for an operation, but for an appointment with a neurologist. How can the Chancellor of the Exchequer say in those circumstances, we've got nothing to learn from abroad, our system is much the best in the world. It patently, manifestly isn't. And where there are lessons to be learned, we are determined to learn them. HUMPHRYS: You're not backing away from the idea of paying more are you, of some people paying more? Because Iain Duncan Smith was as I say, was quite clear on this very programme, he said yes, more people would be prepared to pay, he even suggested that we might perhaps pay to see our GPs. You're not abandoning all that are you? HOWARD: No he didn't suggest it. He wasn't prepared to rule it out. And I'm not prepared to rule anything out either. But we will come forward with our proposal. I promise you this John, because it is very important, we will produce very detailed, carefully thought through, and worked out proposals, well in advance of the next General Election, because unlike Gordon Brown, I want there to be a proper debate about this. Unlike him, I don't say I want a debate and then close it down in the same speech five minutes later as he did when he delivered his pre-Budget Report. There should be a proper, well-informed public debate about it, if there is to be that kind of debate, I fully accept that we need to bring forward our proposals in detail, so that people can chew over them, and look at their advantages and disadvantages, in good time before the next election, but we're only nine months away from the last election, and if our exercise in trying to find out the best way of providing health care for Britain is to be a real exercise and not a sham, then we've got to have the time to take over it, to do what is necessary, to see what is best for the people of this country. HUMPHRYS: I take that point, but we can say here and now can't we that if we want a better service it is going to cost more. It is going to cost more public money, it is a National Health Service, it'll cost more. You talked earlier about France and Germany and countries like that, well they spend a hugely greater proportion of their national wealth on the health service than we do. HOWARD: Right, well there are two points to be made there. They, the other countries do spend a greater proportion of their national income on health than we do. But in many cases, it's not the bit that comes from taxes that is bigger, it's the bit that comes from other resources. So that's one point to be borne in mind. Another is this. And this is, at least as important, money alone won't do it. If you, you don't have to look very far away to see that. If you look at Scotland, in Scotland spending on health is twenty-two per cent a head higher than it is in England. They are already spending at European levels. They're spending at well above what the government say should be the government's target for the whole of the UK. And in Scotland, waiting times are getting longer, and the proportion of people who die from heart disease and lung disease is much higher than it is in England, so money alone, without reform, won't do the trick. We've got to have proper reform of the way in which we deliver health care in this country. The government have been talking about reform for years, ever since they came to office, but they haven't delivered it. We will deliver it, we are undertaking a, a sensible process. We're looking to see what the best system is, then we'll see how much money it takes to deliver that system, then we'll see how we can best find that money, where those resources can come from, that is a sensible sequence, that's what we're engaged on, and when we've completed it, we come forward with a ..... worked-out scheme, and then I want you to question me as, and Liam Fox, and everyone else involved, as rigorously as you normally do about all its implications. HUMPHRYS: Well we'll certainly do that. But, but you are saying quite clearly that we do need more money as well as the reforms that you would like to see brought in. HOWARD: There may well be a need for more resources. It won't necessarily be sensible for all those resources to be provided through taxation, that's something we'll be much clearer about when we've completed this very serious and rigorous exercise that we're engaged in. HUMPHRYS: So if Gordon Brown as we all expect him to, pushes up let us say National Insurance in the next Budget, and he tells us, as he's already telling us, that we're going to need that money for a better National Health Service, you would say, we will support you in that Mr. Brown, as opposed to opposing you. HOWARD: No, I'm not going to say what my attitude to the Budget will be because Gordon Brown won't tell us what's in the Budget, so I don't think it's reasonable for me to say what my attitude's going to be. What I do say is this, it will not make sense just to pour more money into the National Health Service as it exists at the present, without reforming it. Now in saying that, I want to make one thing absolutely clear. I am not criticising the doctors and the nurses and the many other people who deliver such dedicated and selfless service, the trouble is the system. Instead of working within a system which is helping them to work effectively and to help people get better, they're working in a system that hampers them, and some cases stops them. It's not their fault, it's the system's fault. And until you really reform the system and put that right, putting extra money into the Health Service won't deliver the goods, won't give us what we all want to see, and you've only got to look to see what's happening in Scotland for proof of that. HUMPHRYS: But if you were to oppose the government, saying we're going to put a load more money into the NHS and in order to do that, we're going to put up taxes. If you as the Conservative Opposition were to oppose that, the public would be right to thing, hmmn, I wonder what they meant about improving services? About improving public services, wouldn't they? HOWARD: No, I think the public are much more sensible than that John, and I think they will look and see what happens in Scotland, I think there's an opinion poll out this morning which shows a majority of people very sceptical about the proposition that you can simply improve health in this country by increasing taxes. The, the key task is to carry out the reform to make sure that we have the right system. You, you've just had the most astonishing interview with Peter Mandelson, the great guru of New Labour, someone we're told Tony Blair listens to, talks to every day on the telephone, what was he recommending for this crisis that we have in our public services, with the Health Service, and Transport and Law and Order is such disarray? He was giving you a lecture on spin, and ticking off the media for the way in which they report what the government does. That shows you how far this government has got its priorities wrong. Instead of concentrating on how it can spin better, it should be concentrating on how it can deliver to our country the public services we so desperately need. HUMPHRYS: Michael Howard, thanks very much indeed for joining us. HUMPHRYS: And that's it for this week. We won't be back next week, it's Easter of course, so see you in three weeks, we're taking a wee bit of a break, don't forget about our web-site in the meantime, enjoy the holiday if you're getting one. Good afternoon. 24 FoLdEd
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.