BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 29.09.02

Interview: JOHN REID, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

On whether New Labour is being forced to its Old Labour roots.

JOHN HUMPHRYS: John Reid, has the notion of New Labour - emphasis on the "New" obviously - reached the end of its useful life? JOHN REID MP: No, I don't think it has and if you recognise what the new approach was and is, then it shows you that it was actually quite a silly question because what was new in the approach was to take the values, the permanent values of the Labour Party and the decent values of people in this country about solidarity, rights and responsibilities, community, opportunity and so on, and to find a way of applying them, a new way of applying them in today's circumstances. And since the only thing that is constant is change, the world will keep changing, then you have to keep finding new ways of applying them and thus, that new approach never becomes redundant because it's constantly a matter of applying your values to these circumstances. And one other thing is, when we have done that and we have found new bold ways of doing it and we've been very radical, we've done things that previous Labour governments have promised for a century, like the minimum wage and didn't do it. But when we've been bold on the Bank of England, on PFI, on great constitutional change, on the New Deal, we've been most successful. So what we have to continue to try and do is to battle with ideas and find new ways of applying those values as the world changes. HUMPHRYS: Yes, some things are constants, as you say change is a constant. But, as Neil Kinnock himself said, "new" is a word that by definition gets old, you can't use it indefinitely and what New Labour was, the two words stuck together instead of the Labour Party, we had New Labour, it was a marketing tool and as Neil Kinnock said, marketing tools have limited shelf life, that has a limited shelf life. REID: I'm afraid it wasn't a marketing tool. The..if we want a new approach and if the world constantly changes, it follows that any sensible party has to continually find new ways of doing things, that's why we're looking now at rights and responsibilities, it's why we have policy discussions. So that newness is both an eternal thing, it is permanent revision and secondly, you know the idea that somehow New Labour was only a marketing tool which did not denote an underlying change from the way the Labour Party had been applying its values for twenty-five years... HUMPHRYS: No, I didn't say that, I didn't say that. REID: know is a fundamental misunderstanding... HUMPHRYS: Yes, but I didn't say that. REID: ...just how profound the change was. HUMPHRYS: No, I didn't say that. What I was suggesting to you was that New Labour as a marketing tool, it maybe other things as well, of course, I'm not disputing that for a moment, clearly it was about other things, I want to get onto those other things. But, it was also, along with the red rose and all the other bits and pieces, it was a marketing device, quite clearly and that's what I am suggesting to you, as Neil Kinnock was suggesting there, although I saw you nodding in agreement with most of what he had to say. But he was suggesting that that particular device has - he'd never used the word New Labour himself, neither had many other people in the party - it's had its day, that's all I'm suggesting to you. REID: If you're saying yes there was a profound and fundamental change in Labour's approach, that it was philosophically based, it was value based and in addition, it was one of the ways in which we related to the modern electorate fine. We can have a discussion on marketing tools... HUMPHRYS: Because you can't be new forever can you, that's the point that Neil Kinnock made, by definition you can't be new forever. REID: Well, but if you have a new approach, which is based on constantly revising and analysing the world in finding new ideas, then that approach does not become redundant, that's what I am saying and therefore we will have, year on year, year in, year out, we will have not only the right line, the Conservatives who criticise us to battle with, but of course we will have the extreme left as well, who will tell us that, you know, somehow the policies that we adopt today have to be tablets of stone, or even better, the ones we adopted fifty years ago. I said recently, sometimes when I used to come to Labour Conferences, I thought that Mount Sinai would be a more appropriate place to have them than Blackpool because the same prophets would come down the same mountains, with the same tablets of stone which are to be venerated. Now, that's why we lost for twenty-five years, we lost contact with today's working families and modern people and the modern electorate and we put that approach aside and we are adopting a new approach and that is continually relevant. Now, if you say, well, don't call yourself New Labour, call yourself even newer Labour or new red Labour, the name doesn't matter. HUMPHRYS: It doesn't matter then? Because in fifty years' time you could hardly be New Labour still could you? If you were New Labour in 2000 and... REID: The name doesn't matter, but do I believe that there are permanent values which we have to apply and that we have to permanently revise and find new means of applying them. The answer is yes. That approach is not only relevant today, it will be relevant in five, ten or fifteen years' time and we have to be ultra critical of ourselves and to discuss new ideas, because quite frankly we have a value system, which at the moment is not contrasted with the value system the Conservatives, because they are at such a loss to produce anything that we have to have that discussion internally. HUMPHRYS: They are contrasted with what you once were, or were once perceived as being and the real point here - put aside the question of the image of New Labour, is that those values, those policies that made New Labour and were accepted, reluctantly in many cases admittedly, but quietly reluctantly, they are now beginning to run into trouble and people are getting concerned, audibly, volubly, concerned about them. REID: Well, let me take two things. First of all in the real world are those policies running into trouble? I was fascinated by the advert, the political advert that you showed with the Conservatives saying there will be higher mortgages. My goodness, half and a third of the rate of mortgages people are paying under the Tories. There will be more job loses, we've created a million and a half jobs, you know if you go through literacy, if you go through the great constitutional changes where we have empowered people. If you look at the minimum wage, you know the abolition of hereditary privilege in the House of Lords, things this movement has waited a hundred years for... HUMPHRYS: And nobody argues with things like the minimum wage, it's been done and they wanted it, but there are other things that you are doing that they are less than enthusiastic about, they are not afraid to say so. REID: Now, John, you had two contentions and I'm addressing both, the first was that we had not been successful, what I am saying is we have been successful. HUMPHRYS: I don't think I actually said that. Go on. REID: Your second contention was that there are people on the extreme left of the party in particular who are arguing that we ought to go back to the old ways, well nothing changes. They have been quiet because they were the very people who fought for twenty years against change on the basis that not only would we not get elected if we changed. But having got elected, we'd never be successful and they have been bewildered by the two landslides and the success we've had and now what they are asking us to do, in some cases, is to go back to the old ways. Well, we're not going back to the old ways. HUMPHRYS: Well, you say you're not going back to the old ways, that's arguable and incidentally I didn't say the extreme left, I doubt you'd put people like Bill Morris on the extreme left would you? But what I'm talking about is the areas where they are actually winning the argument... REID: ...alright, give me an area. HUMPHRYS: Okay, let's take a couple of the areas, tax, tax and spend. You were not going to be the party of tax and spend, you weren't going to be the party of redistribution, it wasn't an expression that was used or, what we have seen, is that you have effectively conceded the case on tax. Gordon Brown has put a penny on tax, effectively on tax although it's painted in slightly different colours, but that's what it amounts to be, and that is to pay for public spending. Now an awful lot of people, I'm not suggesting for a moment that is a bad policy, that's a matter of judgement, but the fact is, it is what Old Labour wanted and you've conceded the point. REID: Let me just take those two aspects that you mention again. First of all the vast majority of the money and there's huge investment going into the public services, has not come from taxation, it has come from reducing the waste that the Conservatives used to spend on mass unemployment and mass of national debt, the debt repayment, something like seven or eight thousand million pounds a year which we've saved. Put simply, the Tories used to spend almost fifty pence in every pound of taxpayers' money on the dole queues and debt repayment... HUMPHRYS: Right, but that was then and this is now and I'm trying to move ahead of it. REID: I'm talking about now. The vast bulk of what we are putting in does not come from taxation. And the second contention is that we were not committed to redistribute in the Prime Minister's words, power and wealth and opportunity. We have always been committed to redistribute... HUMPHRYS: ...oh... REID: ...let me, let me finish the question. From the beginnings of this New Labour government, we've redistributed power, we've done it to the nations through the most radical constitutional change, we have done it in other ways by giving power direct to schools, by putting the money there. We have redistributed income by giving guaranteed minimum income to the old age pensioners, we've given a minimum wage in there. We have given power down through the 'Sure Start' programme to help people in the localities, we've given them money and we have redistributed opportunity. That has always been a part of what we wanted to do... HUMPHRYS: But, I.... REID: ...but, and this the important point, but part of our ability to do with that is in a strong economy and we will not raise taxation to the level where that economy, which is where we produce the surplus wealth, to give people opportunity, to give people a real sense of power, we will not put taxation to the level it is in some other countries, which will damage that strong economy which is the platform on which... HUMPHRYS: ...even if that meant, even if that meant cutting some of your spending pledges... REID: ...well we don't have to... HUMPHRYS: ...because it might. REID: ...because we're running the economy... HUMPHRYS: ...we are in the middle of what looks like being a very nasty recession and the world is not going to help us. REID: And what is the strongest economy in the world in terms of being able to exist in that? It is this economy. That is because we have destroyed the myth under New Labour, we destroyed the myth that if you wanted social justice and compassion you voted Labour and if you wanted a competent management of the economy you voted Tory... HUMPHRYS: ...but if you're... REID: ...that is gone forever... HUMPHRYS: ...but if you're really telling me that redistribution has been a part of what you have been perceived to be about for these past five years, I'd have to say that's absolute non... I mean the number of times that I've interviewed Gordon Brown, probably as many times as I've interviewed you, I've not counted, but I could never get him to use the word redistribution, he would not use that word redistribution, flatly refused to, this isn't what it's about, that's not what the point of it all is. Then Tony Blair pops up and says at the Labour Party, he says right, that's what we've got, now we'll want a bit more of it. REID: Well they're the two different things... HUMPHRYS: ...the trade unions... REID: ...there's two different things there. One is, has the redistribution of power, this is not just a matter of... HUMPHRYS:, no, but I'm talking specifically at wealth, I notice you turning it into power all the time, but I'm trying to stick on the issue of wealth. REID: No I'm not turning into, I'm using the words the Prime Minister used... HUMPHRYS: ...he used the three: power, wealth and opportunity and I'm sticking on the wealth bit. REID: ...right, so you're asking me about what the Prime Minister said, I'm telling you the words he used and if you look at the redistribution of power, wealth and opportunity since the first day this Labour Government came in, and the huge radical changes we made about power, I mean giving power back to Scotland, giving power back to Wales... HUMPHRYS:'ve mentioned, you made that point, yes. REID: ...all of those things have been in the grain of what we have done... HUMPHRYS: explicit. REID: ...if you are saying, well you didn't articulate those values throughout, although they were there you didn't... HUMPHRYS: certainly didn't articulate the value of redistributing wealth, absolutely you didn't, now you are. REID: ...perhaps we didn't. HUMPHRYS: Okay. REID: Perhaps we were overcautious about the experience of the past twenty-five years where people used rhetoric and slogans and pretended it was somehow a value system... HUMPHRYS: ...right. REID: ...or perhaps we're coming to recognise now that the values which have been in everything we've done should be articulated more... HUMPHRYS: ...fine, and what I'm what suggesting to you is that the reason you are now making this concession, adapting if you like, your vocabulary, your terms of expressions, is because you have no choice, because the unions, not the extreme left, but the unions, are beginning to feel their feet again. They were quiescent for a very long time. Now they're saying, look we're maybe not going to get back into the driving seat in quite the way that they used to talk about exercising power, but they're saying, you know we financed this party. This party is in financial trouble. We make it possible, we want them to do things that are in our interest. And I'm suggesting to you, that you are giving in, inevitably, because you've very little choice to those pressures. REID: Well, again there's two things, I'm sorry, you're asking complicated questions, allow me to give a complicated answer, but it's.... I think gets to the nub of the problem. First of all the myth that somehow there is huge union strikes I heard... HUMPHRYS:, no I didn't suggest that. REID: No, no, but your introduction did, that we were at, you know, a level of the Winter of Discontent. We, we, we lost last year three hundred and fifty thousand days.... HUMPHRYS: needn't even deal with the issue, I didn't raise it, I don't want to raise it and I fully accept that we're nowhere near the Winter of Discontent. REID: Absolutely, no, we're nowhere near it. Three hundred and fifty thousand days lost through strike, twenty-seven million lost under the Conservative... HUMPHRYS: ...alright, but we are seeing a potentially nasty strike coming up with the Fire Brigade and all that, but anyway, okay, we're not at the Winter of Discontent, I accept that, yes. REID: ...well let's get rid of the idea that the trade unions are running about rampaging about here in an attempt to impose their political will... HUMPHRYS:, but they're imposing their will through the fact that they are the paymasters, that's the point I'm trying to get to. REID: But, but times have changed John. The reason that our relationship with the trade unions has evolved is not a marketing tool, not a reason just to, to go out and re-advertise. It is because the world has changed over the past century. When we were .......the trade unions, who are the organisers of the producers could have a huge influence in our manifesto to the electorate, precisely because the electorate we were appealing to were nothing more than producers. They had no more, a worker had no more money than would keep him as a producer. And it was quite appropriate then that they would have a dominating influence as producers organise the trade unions in our platform when we appeal to the working families of the country. A hundred years later, workers are for the most part not just producers, they are consumers... HUMPHRYS: ...sure. REID: ...and therefore they want more choice. Now it is the job of the trade unions to argue their case, as they do, for the protection of their workers as producers. It is the job of the government to act on behalf of the country as a whole... HUMPHRYS: ...of course. REID: ...and all those working families who are also now consumers who want the best quality of education... HUMPHRYS: ...sure. REID: ...the best quality in health, and we do that through the public services, not through the government services, or the trade union services, but the public services... HUMPHRYS: ...but you see... REID: ...and the ultimate arbiter of what is right and good there is the public, not any of the people... HUMPHRYS: Alright, but you see when, but when people like Dave Prentis uses the kind of language he used in that film, he says we're reviewing, we have reviewed our links with the trade unions. The implied threat of course, is that they give you a great deal of money, it is the most powerful public service union that there is, and we're reviewing it in the light of and this is a very important phrase 'whether we get value for money for that link'. Now it appears to many people when they look at what is happening that they are beginning to get value for money because they are seeing concessions being made by you now and potentially promised for the future, that have not been made in the past REID: First of all, the trade unions give the Labour Party about thirty per cent of our money, if anyone thinks and anyone is under any delusions that by contributing towards us, they will somehow buy that money direct what we do, rather than us being directed for what is good for the country, then they better get rid of that delusion, it isn't going to happen. The second thing is, yes we have done a great deal for trade unions, we have not done it because the trade unions, like many others contributor to us, but because it is right, it is right that there should be a minimum wage to combat poverty wages. It is right that people should have a statuary right to holidays and a maximum working week. It is right that part-time workers should have the same equality when it comes to hourly rates. It is right that GCHQ trade unionists should have their rights given back or they should now for the first time be a legal member of .... HUMPHRYS: ...but the point is, and all of those things, absolutely, all of those things they went along with, because you were giving them things both the public and they wanted, but now you see they want more. Okay, you'll say nothing new in that, they always want more, but they are going to start making life very, very difficult for you if they say we will have no more PFI projects for instance or we want to moratoria them, I mean we're going to have a vote now aren't we? This weekend whether it's going to happen or not, whether the vote's going to happen in the way we expect it, it's not quite clear at the moment, but it's going to make life very difficult for you if Conference says we're ain't going to wear this PFI thing, we hate it. REID: Well, first of all you say the trade unions want more, who doesn't want more. Now, if the job of government was just saying yes to everybody who wants more, it would be a much easier job than I certainly have found it to be, so it isn't a case of just saying well the trade unions want more, they're going to have it. On PFI for instance, what is the starting point we have because of the values we inherit. It is to say that every child in this country has the right to reach their potential through education, everyone who's in pain has the right to have first class Health Service and we are therefore as a government are putting in a huge amounts of public money, but in addition to that if we can lever in private money which gives us a hospital today more people treated today than would otherwise been, better schools for the kids today we're going to do that ... HUMPHRYS: Yes, but you have not persuaded the unions that that is the right way to go about it for all sorts of reasons which we don't have time to argue about now, we could go on for another twenty-five minutes on that alone as you well know, and what they're saying is we are not going to wear it and what I'm suggesting to you is that this sort of argument is inevitably going to do damage to the whole old idea, if old idea it is of New Labour, and you risk being seen as the old party again, because here you are locked in battle with the unions who are still the paymasters, as you say thirty per cent, but you're ten million down the tube at the moment, you need another ten million pounds to cover your debts, and they're saying we're not going to give you that money unless we get what we want, now this is looking very much like a battle between Old Labour and New Labour isn't it? REID: No it isn't a battle between New Labour and Old Labour. It is trade unions trying to protect, to the best of their ability, the rights of their workers, and it is the government saying we will govern on behalf of the whole country. Now as far a moratorium is concerned, we're not going to stop building schools and hospitals. HUMPHRYS: No, they've not even suggested that and you know they haven't . REID: Well, you raised the question... HUMPHRYS: No I didn't, they've not suggested that, they haven't suggested stopping building schools. They've said, we don't want anymore new ones, that's what they are saying. REID: Yes, well a moratorium actually means that you stop what you're doing by definition. HUMPHRYS: Moratorium of new projects is what we're talking about. REID We're not going to stop doing that, when you go to the, you know the four hundred and fifty schools that are being modernised and the sixty-eight hospitals that are either being built or are going to be built. This means a real change in life for people. I mean nobody tells someone that they have to suffer pain longer or that their child can't be educated as well as they might be because people have an ideological objection to the way the money is raised. That's not going to happen. Therefore people should be under no doubt that the approach that we have taken all along, which is to get the values, educate people, take people out of pain. That approach in applying in today's circumstances, our permanent values will continue HUMPHRYS: And a final very quick thought then, it's this isn't it. You're saying we are still New Labour, we're not wedded to the 'new' word in front of Labour, one day that may go, but you're saying quite clearly to the trade unions you want to fight, you've got one. REID: No, I'm not, I'm saying quite clearly to everyone that if anyone thinks that there is a future for the Labour Party of this country in the past by clinging to the old ways where we were out in the desert, in the wilderness for twenty-five years. They are badly mistaken on both counts. Change will never finish, we have to continually reapply our old values in today's context and that is something that will continue indefinitely HUMPHRYS: John Reid, thank you very much REID: Thank you John.
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.