BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 19.05.02


Would Tony Blair really be wise to listen to his friend's ideas for a NEW New Labour?

JOHN HUMPHRYS: So, Mr Mandelson, some of things you may or may not want to see happen to the party. Why should Tony Blair listen to you now at this stage when, by your own admission, some of those things that you recommended in the past turned out to have been a mistake? You're associated with spin, in particular. PETER MANDELSON: Because some of the things that I recommended in the past and the things that I contributed to as one of the architects of New Labour have helped provide the most successful political model in Europe. I think New Labour has been remarkably successful in the blend of policies, the way in which it's embarked on some very major transformations in our country. Now the public would seem to agree with the direction in which we're taking the country and I think that, you know, whilst we are not perfect and we have made mistakes, and as somebody who is now out of government and can stand back and reflect on those and discuss them very openly, it doesn't mean to say that fundamentally we are not successful, we are, and I think that's manifest. HUMPHRYS: But one of the areas the public is concerned about clearly is too much spin, you've acknowledged this yourself, we see another example of it in the newspapers, in The Observer this morning... MANDELSON: The Observer says... HUMPHRYS: The Observer says, exaggerated claims of the number of doctors in the Health Service, I mean it appears that it's still going on, still up to the old tricks... MANDELSON: Look, I can't comment on that story, I don't know anything about that story, but I just make a general observation. We should rely on our achievements, our policy strengths, in our relationship with the media we need to be absolutely factual. That doesn't mean to say that we are going to be given an easy ride by the British media, far, far from it. But we will have a better and more constructive relationship if we are open and frank with people and the media and if in return, you know the media see things in you know a sensible balanced proportion and that is reflected in their reporting and if we can get that sort of relationship going, I think the people who will benefit from that are the voters or the general public. HUMPHRYS: Another area where you may have got it wrong is 'tax and spend' or rather not tax in some cases and not spend in some cases,thinking about education in particular. You now seem to be agreeing with people like John Edmonds that there is an argument for higher taxing if it is spent on the right things? MANDELSON: I don't agree with John Edmonds no. John Edmonds is somebody who supports in my view, or creates the impression of supporting higher taxes for their own sake, regardless of what those taxes are used for... HUMPHRYS: ...I did specifically say 'for certain things' and education is one of them. MANDELSON: Well for certain things. Well let's decide what the certain things are, let's decide our goals, our programmes, the radical reform that we're going to introduce and the way in which we are going to spend taxpayers' money before we start ratcheting up income tax and other tax rates so as to create a higher tax burden almost for the sake of it, which is the impression that some people in the Labour Party used to give, but equally I think that we can draw a great deal of confidence from the way in which the public has responded to the recent Budget. I mean there was a modest but clearly stated tax increase for a purpose, to finance a five year programme of modernisation and rebuilding of the National Health Service. People knew what the money was being taken for, what it was going to be spent on, it was in the context of a fiscal prudence, of economic stability and in the context rising personal living standards as well. Now if, and it's not inevitable that we will have to do this, but if taxes have to go up in the future, those should be the conditions that we continue to observe if we are clearly going to put a proposition to the public of further tax increases in the future. But that I stress is not inevitable and let's talk about the policies and the purpose of our spending before we get on to the discussion of taxing. HUMPHRYS: You for instance want to see more money, at least as I understand it, you want to see more money spent, investment I think is the word we use nowadays, in education... MANDELSON: I think there are two areas where I would identify. One is crime, anti-social behaviour and the social consequences of migration of people. We have seen how other governments in continental European countries have, have suffered from ignoring those issues and not responding to people's legitimate fears and concerns about crime and population.... HUMPHRYS: ...and the other is education... MANDELSON: Now we are approaching the most radical overhaul of the criminal justice system this country has seen, nothing is for free. But secondly, and for me, personally and more passionately, education is the essence of our social democratic programme and moral mission. If we're serious about transforming people's life chances and creating opportunities for all, then we've got to give them, every one, the first class, world class education, which will enable them to escape from those limitations of birth and background that still today hold too many people back like the people in my constituency of Hartlepool. Therefore, I do not want to see that priority of education, education, education being elbowed aside by other necessary commitments of public spending and priorities in government. HUMPHRYS: And that means therefore, more money has to be spent on it and on crime as you say, and that means higher taxes. And the worry, unless there's some magical way of doing it and we've not found it yet, and the worry therefore is that you will be offering the left the chance to say, ah well you see, we were right all the time and if you give them an inch, they will take a mile, that's the worry, there is a political danger here, isn't there? MANDELSON: Spending on education in this country is growing to I think about five per cent of national income. I would like to see by the end of the decade that moving up towards six per cent which is the OECD average. Now that must be for a purpose, I want to see, I want to see young people in the most deprived areas getting access to first class secondary education... HUMPHRYS: ...which needs more money, as I say, and therefore higher taxes... MANDELSON: ...and I want to see too, our brightest graduates being recruited to the teaching profession and that means an income and performance package for teachers. I want to see the government implementing its target of fifty per cent of under thirty year olds gaining access to higher education, and yes it will cost. Now what the implications are for taxes depends on the state of the economy and other expenditure commitments but one thing I do feel sure of is that we have to deepen and strengthen New Labour and our programmes and I think if we continue to approach these things in the sensible convincing way that we have been doing, certainly in the case of our recent Budget then the public will go with us on that. HUMPHRYS: So you've shifted a bit to the left in that regard but you have not shifted at all to the left, it seems on the provision of public services. You want greater involvement by private organisations in the provision of public services. Now that's going to upset a lot of people, is upsetting a lot of people already, particularly the Trade Unions, maybe you think that's not a bad thing. MANDELSON: It will upset them if we continue to get wrong what we did a year ago, I think we rather tripped ourselves up by our own spin a year ago when we gave the impression that there was some sort of headlong rush towards involving the private sector in public services, which allow people like John Edmonds, mischievously and wrongly to present our policies as ones of privatisation. They were not and they are not. But what I do believe is, that there is public sector capital, expertise, management skill, construction, for example through the private finance initiative, which has already shown great gains and advantages for the public sector and the delivery of public services and I think that should continue. I think also we need to decentralise our public services and the way in which they are managed and delivered and some people within those public services might not like that, but also and this is going to, you know come up, bring us up against some very difficult decisions, where management fails in the public sector, then those public service, public sector managers have either got to put themselves right, or face challenge and possible replacement by others and that will not be easy but that, but the point of all this is to get the best possible public services and the highest possible standards and consumer choice for the people who matter, who are the general public. HUMPHRYS: And if it means another fight with the Trade Unions, then so be it. MANDELSON: I would not like to see it being seen... HUMPHRYS: But nonetheless, if that's the result of it then it's worth having that fight. MANDELSON: That investment in our public services must be linked to reform and change. HUMPHRYS: Right, okay. The Liberal Democrats, we saw Charles Kennedy in Iain Watson's film there. You have hung on to your, I was going to say affection for the Liberal Democrats.... MANDELSON:'s not easy... HUMPHRYS: Well, just, you want to co-operate with the...what's the point? I mean the backbenchers absolutely hate it, you seem to be getting nowhere anyway, you don't need them. MANDELSON: I tell you what the point is and it's true most of our backbenchers do dislike it for now but then they see Labour as so strong, it's this great sort of huge majority and great sort of hegemonic force. HUMPHRYS: ...but this is...they really don't like the Liberal Democrats. MANDELSON: The reason for that is because we are competitors with the Liberal Democrats but at the same time we do share a progressive policy vision for our country and society and we do have a common enemy - the Conservatives - who as a result of our division between the Liberals and Social Democrats in the last century, were allowed to dominate the politics of the last century with all the consequences for our country and for our economy that we sought. But it's not going to be easy, I mean when Paddy Ashdown was leader, I mean it was difficult and it was sometimes painful because of his obsession with electoral reform. HUMPHRYS: Which hasn't gone away. MANDELSON: It hasn't gone away and nor should it because it's a legitimate issue for Liberal Democrats to raise. HUMPHRYS: But why should Tony Blair get hung up on that at a stage like this when he got so badly burned on it last time. I mean what's in it for him? MANDELSON: Because I think it depends on whether the Liberal Democrats are going to be serious partners in a progressive alliance in this country or whether they are going to continue as they seem to have been doing, frankly since Charles Kennedy took over, in a sort of exercise of lap dancing, dancing, flitting from one lap to the next issue, taking advantage on the fringes of politics, rather than constructing a strategy which I think they need to do, which is to subscribe and join with us in certain progressive goals to bring about the transformation of this country that we both want to see. HUMPHRYS: Just a very quick thought, thirty seconds, about the euro. We seem to have seen a lot happening over the last week, we've now seen Gordon Brown, apparently, rowing in beside Tony Blair, he's enthusiastic. Do you think we are going to have a Referendum in the Spring and please don't tell me about the five economic tests, we'll take that as red. MANDELSON: I will not mention the five economic tests I promise, whatever they are. (Laughter) I think the divisions, alleged divisions, between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair on the euro have always been exaggerated by different people for different reasons, mainly the euro-sceptic press. I think we may well see a Referendum next year but I think the economic jury is still out. I think it's right that the politics, ironically it used to be the economic advantages which people could see but the politics firmly against. We are now seeing the politics moving in favour of the euro but the economic convergence still troubling and I think that we have to take a rain check on that, continue to assess it, visit it possibly early next year and make our judgement then. HUMPHRYS: Peter Mandelson, many thanks. MANDELSON: Thank you very much.
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.