BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 06.10.02

Interview: OLIVER LETWIN MP, Shadow Home Secretary.

Do the Conservatives need to do more to show that the Party is changing?

JOHN HUMPHRYS: Oliver Letwin do you accept that you're not changing fast enough? OLIVER LETWIN MP: Well I certainly accept that we have a huge difficulty to overcome and that very large numbers of people in the country are not currently clear about what we stand for, so this conference has got to establish a clear trademark which we've been trying to build up over the last year and I accept that it's extraordinarily important that we achieve that, yes. HUMPHRYS: Do you agree with Archie Norman that slow change is no change? LETWIN: Well, I agree with Archie that it's got to be noticeable change, I think that's the point he's making, you've got to get it across... HUMPHRYS: Otherwise there's no point in it, is there? LETWIN: Precisely. We're in politics and politics exists alas, I think, from your point of view a very good thing, in programmes like this. It doesn't exist in the back room where we're all discussing these things internally. So, we've got to make the new trademark something that people actually notice. I don't think it's...we can do that in a day or a week though. When you say slow and fast, I think it's very important to distinguish between radical change and a radical approach which is necessary and something which has an impact in a second or a minute or a week, we can't just make that... HUMPHRYS: ...or a year? I mean if you haven't done it by the end of this conference will you be starting to worry just a little? LETWIN: Well of course it's important that this conference creates something that people like yourselves who are serious commentators are going to notice. HUMPHRYS: More importantly, people like the focus group made up of former Tories... LETWIN: ...I don't imagine, even in my most optimistic moments that we can get through to the nation as a whole in one conference, or indeed in one month or one year. I think we've got to build it gradually, it's got to be consistent, coherent, repeated. What Mrs Thatcher taught us was that, you know, between '76 and '79 when she was evangelising for a new approach to the economy that's now mainstream, everybody accepts, the Labour Party included broadly accept it, she taught us that you have to say it over and over again from lots of different angles, lots of different ways before the message gets through and that's going to be true with this too. We're now talking about a radical approach to the quality of life issues, the public service issues, the question of whether big government running everything from Whitehall, which is broadly what the Labour Party's been doing, is a good approach, or not as we think. And if we're trying to get that shift across, a shift from concentration on the economy to concentration on public services with a fundamentally and authentically Conservative approach to those things, that's going to take us some time, we shouldn't imagine we can do it overnight. HUMPHRYS: Well let's try and break then down a wee bit. You mention Mrs Thatcher, it's a very long time since she was in power, and she stood in most people's minds for privatisation and lots of other things of course, but privatisation was the big thing in most people's minds. That's what the public thinks you're still about, apparently, which is quite extraordinary after all those years isn't it? And worrying? LETWIN: She - it is worrying of course if people have misapprehensions, it's bound to worry a politician. What she was about was free markets in place of command socialism as a way of running the economy, I parody slightly, but that's roughly what was going on. Now the problem for the Tories is that we won that argument. Our problem is success. The Labour Party broadly bought into that, you remember the '83 election when they were trying to turn Britain into Czechoslovakia, roughly the time when the Czechoslovaks were trying to turn into Britain. It was easy to win election at that time, we just said you know, here look at the Labour Party manifesto, people vote for us. We're not in that situation any more. We're in much more like an American situation where you know Democrats and Republicans have differences, but we all accept that the free market is broadly the way to run our economy. Now we've got the problem that people in Britain have got richer, very much richer, but their quality of life is still very poor. They can't get into a hospital when they want to, their children are not being very well educated. They can't move around the country as the transport system doesn't work. There's crime on their streets. These are the things that people now expect government to deal with. And the Labour Party won the '97 election, and won again last time, just as we saw in your focus group, because people believed that Tony Blair was attending to those issues, and he was right to do that, and they also believed, and this is where I think he's misled them, that he was going to achieve miracles through big government. If you did things right from Whitehall, and you ran everything, top to bottom, schools, loads of paperwork, loads of monitoring, loads of targets, same with the police, same with the National Health Service, run every hospital from Whitehall, it's going to work. Now, the jury's out, we're not far enough advanced after five years for everybody to have concluded it won't work, I think it won't, we've got the period between now and the time the British public wakes up to the fact it isn't working, to establish in their minds, which is what we're beginning to do at this conference, that there's an alternative. We can give people a way out of being run by Whitehall. HUMPHRYS: And the trouble with that answer is that it will lead people to think that we're right, very crudely if we believe they stand for more privatisation, you use the word market forces, and that's fine but I mean when they hear Liam Fox for instance, your Health spokesman talking about the NHS he invariably talks about having to raise more private money, encouraging people to take up private health insurance and all that sort of thing, so they're actually quite right to think that you haven't changed very much and you do not intend to change very much. LETWIN: Well hold on, because one of the things that Liam has announced in just the last twenty-four hours is that apart from possibly charging people when they abuse the system by failing unnecessarily to turn up for an appointment, we've ruled out charging the NHS. Now a lot of people were afraid... HUMPHRYS: ...ruled out charged for GP visits? LETWIN: The Labour Party has been trying to suggest that we were going to introduce new charges and what Liam has released is the fact that we are not going to do that. We are not going to introduce new charges in the NHS... HUMPHRYS: there will be no GP visits specifically and I mention that of course because your own leader has talked about it, no charges for GP visits, absolutely full stop. LETWIN: That's included in what's been announced. Now that means that people don't, I am not saying everybody will immediately understand that, but if we keep at it and make it clear, we're not about trying to charge people for things, we're about trying to liberate people from a system that doesn't work well, and which the Labour Party is trying to make better by working from on top the whole time, and try and find other routes, now we've... HUMPHRYS: ...and one of those other routes is to encourage people to go private, more people to go private? LETWIN: ...well when you say go private, look... HUMPHRYS: ...take out private health insurance. LETWIN ...well look at what's been announced about Education. What we've said is that it would be right for people to have the chance to take some of the money and establish their own schools if there is stuck.....if, the, all the failures of these public services most affect the people who can least defend themselves at the moment. If you're in an inner city you'll stand a much better chance, so to speak, a much worse chance if you like, of having a bad school than you do if you're in a nice rural area like mine in West Dorset and so you have people who don't have a loud voice, they don't have much effect on bureaucracy, they're trapped in a bad inner city school, what can they do? We're suggesting that we should liberate them. We should let them do what they do in Denmark, Holland, where they can establish, voluntary bodies can establish, church groups can establish, parents can establish a school and take the money and use it there. Now this is not privatisation... HUMPHRYS: Oh, it's private sector solution. LETWIN: Well, if you like, like the Prime Minister was talking about at the last Labour Conference a week ago. Why should people be any more scared of what we are suggesting, than what he was talking about. The difference is we mean it and he doesn't. HUMPHRYS: Ah, well, I can't answer on why people should be more scared or less scared. But the fact is they are, most people...if you look at the..different area of course, but Railtrack, most people - sixty-one per cent I think - say that they want to see Railtrack taken back into public ownership. They are nervous about, distinctly nervous about private sector solutions. LETWIN: But, the Prime Minister clearly believes that he can sing a good song and persuade a lot of people that the melody is a lovely one if he talks about trying to provide the best possible service, turning the NHS into a service rather than a structure, except that's not what he's doing. What he is doing is running this thing from on top, what we are suggesting is actually making these things a service, actually providing people, neighbourhoods, communities, the ability to escape from something which is a rigid structure, use the service, not privatise it, enable them to get something better for themselves. Now, I agree that at the moment people don't know that's what we are saying, they are not aware that what we are stressing is that government doesn't have to run everything in order to have collective effort, it can have liberty and collective effort without big government and it can work better. HUMPHRYS: So, if they believe, as they appear to believe, that you are for the market, more market solutions rather than public... LETWIN: But these aren't market solutions because they are coming, they are publicly funded solutions. HUMPHRYS: Sounds very much like it don't they. LETWIN: Well, no, because they are publicly funded.... HUMPHRYS: You are giving people public money as it were, or giving them back their own money if you like, in your terms, but then, but then, to take that money to the market. In other words, put it into private solutions. LETWIN: If you like to put it as a market, you can, you can talk about the word if you want to.... HUMPHRYS: Well, that's what we're talking about, certainly in the case of schools for instance. LETWIN: Well you can use the word if you want you, but I don't think, let's go to Liverpool. There's a school there, called The Belvedere School, it's run by a charitable trust, it operates on a basis which costs, I think, about six hundred pounds less per pupil, per year, on average than the Liverpool maintained schools do. Now, I wouldn't call that a market. HUMPHRYS: No, on the other hand, they might as well go to an independent school organisation and say, can you set up an independent school in our area and would be absolutely fine by you. That clearly is the market. LETWIN: Except that you see in, in Holland and Denmark and Sweden and places, people don't think in these terms, they recognise that education's something different from the market in the sense of something that you trade as a commodity, they recognise they are not talking about profits here, and you're not talking about private people paying private money, you're talking about public funds, supporting a service, to give people excellence, by enabling them both individually to make choices and collectively in civil society to get on and provide themselves with things that are excellent. Now that's the shift we're trying to achieve and I think it's important, particularly commentators such as yourself are actually capable of making these distinctions, and we distinguish between three things. There's state socialism run from on top, which is what Tony Blair gave up on the economy but is still doing in the public services, there's a free market everywhere with everything turned into profits, we don't believe in that, we're not advocating that, and then there's, if I can use the word, a middle way. There's a way of trying to have public funds, yes, taxpayers money, yes, support for communities and collective effort, yes, but not all run from on top by Whitehall and that's what we're aiming at. HUMPHRYS: Right, right, or the third way. LETWIN: The third way, we'll have to call it, I suppose. HUMPHRYS: ...yes, quite so. Tax then? And this is all part of the same theme clearly. People see you as tax cutters, still - at least that's what our focus groups and the polls tell us. Is that because you haven't done enough to persuade them otherwise or is that because you want to see, be seen as that? LETWIN: Well, some of each I suppose that's to say. Well let me explain exactly what I mean. There's no doubt that the Conservative Party has been, is and always will be, if given the choice between two alternatives with no reason to go one way or the other, in favour of reduced rather than increased tax as a part of GDP. We think it's good if people have more of their own money to spend, that's our general background, but we recognise that the current situation of this county is such that the public services are not working very well, in fact we've been saying for a year that we've come to this realisation, alright you may say very late, but we've come to it and we really understand that point, we understand that's what people think about them and we understand objective studies which we've been doing for the last year prove it. And we know that we've got to reform them, but we also know that until we've reformed them or at any right got the plan straight for reforming, we will not know how much it will cost and we don't know what the fiscal arithmetic will look like, what the tax and spend of the government will look like when we get to the next election, now when we get there, and we have our plans for reform in proper detail, we know what it will cost to fund those plans so we can actually provide excellent services and the way I describe it, not all run by Whitehall, but publicly funded, when we know the costs of that, we know what the arithmetic looks like, then we'll say as we go into that election, with at that moment in Britain's history and against that background, the need to provide excellent public services we can or we cannot afford to have any tax cuts. We may well say we can't afford it. HUMPHRYS: And you might even say tax rises? LETWIN: We might even say that, we don't know where we're going to get to until we get there, we accept that, and that's why there's been a change, now I accept it's going to take time for people like ........ to understand, the change is that instead of saying we're going to have tax cuts and then as an afterthought we'll try and do the best with the public services, we're saying we're going to make the public services excellent and we'll work out against a background of desiring tax cuts if ..... .get them, whether that is feasible or not feasible at that time. HUMPHRYS: I think it might take quite a, many of us, quite a while to get used to the idea, that the Tory party as a tax rising, or a tax increasing party. LETWIN: ...well it's not... HUMPHRYS: ...that's what you're saying is a possibility. LETWIN: Tory governments have from time to time raised taxes... HUMPHRYS: ...indeed they have. LETWIN: ...from time to time reduced taxes. You do whatever is sensible under the circumstances. The question is, what is the basis which you're starting with, the background. Are you aiming, as I think from time to time anyway Gordon Brown is aiming, to raise taxes because he thinks it's somehow morally good, or an excellent... HUMPHRYS: ...well because he wants to redistribute wealth which is now what you are yourself coming towards. LETWIN: The problem is that he is not redistributing wealth properly because when he, it came out in the film, when he spends a huge amount without reforming the public services he wastes a huge amount. Do you know we've got to the point where the National Health Service has just slightly more administrators than beds. Now this is an absurdity. HUMPHRYS: Well I can remember the same sort of conversation with people like you many years ago when you were in power we then had more administrators than nurses and all that sort of thing. But let's look at the state of the public services as they are at the moment and, of course you don't have all the books open in front of you and maybe you haven't seen all the figures but you've seen an awful lot of them. As things stand, do you think more needs to be spent on, putting aside the efficiency argument of course you will say we must include efficiencies of course everybody, again ever Opposition says that. Is there, as things stand an argument for raising more money in taxation for better public services? LETWIN: Well the first thing I'd say is we're not just talking about improving efficiencies within the current regime, we're talking about a different approach of public services... HUMPHRYS: Ok. LETWIN: ...and I don't know is the clear answer. HUMPHRYS: There might be, therefore? LETWIN: There might be. There may not be. I don't know what our reform plans are going to cost. I'm not spinning a line, I genuinely don't know, because we know the direction in which we want to move, we want to liberate people and communities to provide things which are better, rather than having it run from on top, we have not worked out all the details of that, and until you do, it would be crazy to speculate about exactly how much it will cost. The government is currently adding a vast amount to spending on public services, so by the time we get to the next election vastly more than is currently being spent will already be spent, I think it's about forty-thousand-million pounds a year more will be spent at the time of the next election than currently is being spent if I remember the figure correctly. Now against that background and looking at our reforms, we are going to have to ask ourselves the question - will that level of funding, fund through our reforms real excellence in provision. HUMPHRYS: Let's look at another area in which people are worried and how you have to persuade them that you are changing and that's the selection of candidates. We read in The Mail this morning that there is a plan, that there was a plan that passed across Iain Duncan Smith's desk, to, were discriminate against white male heterosexual candidates. Mr Duncan Smith told us this morning that he had seen that plan and had dismissed it. Now isn't your problem precisely that. He seemed to be quite pleased that he dismissed it because he killed a story that The Mail maybe would not have liked. But perhaps he should have said - quite sensible, we do have to do a bit of positive discrimination to get more women and more Asians and so on into the party, into our candidates. LETWIN: There are two things to separate here, there are methods and there are achievements. The method, incidentally I have never seen this piece of paper so I don't know what it recommended, but the method is clearly something we need to go on discussing, we need to find a way which balances two things. We don't want to turn the Tory Party into a kind of Stalinist apparatus which I'm afraid sometimes the Labour Party comes too close to being... HUMPHRYS: ...neither do you want it to be an old club of white males? LETWIN:, no I was just going to say, and the other side is that we want to try to stop having an arrangement which is frankly just weird, it's not, it's not that, that I believe in sort of absolute quotas of one kind of person or another but in every other occupation nowadays, I mean my wife is a senior civil servant, she works, she's been educated, she expects to be part of a world, there are other women like her working in similar positions around her and there are men and we don't expect to walk into a doctors' surgery or into a lawyers' office these days and find just men, so it's very odd when you look at the Tory benches and they are not of course just men, I have some very sterling women colleagues, I mean Theresa May is the Chairman of our party at the moment, Caroline Spelman is one of our leading front bench spokesmen, member of the Shadow Cabinet, but nevertheless, the fact is you look round the benches, it's still white males largely, and clearly we want to do something to change that, just to be like everything else that's all, we, this isn't a sort of great drive to have particular numbers of this or that but simply to be normal and we want to achieve that without, as I say, doing something which I think is really very closer to democracy in the long run which the Labour Party has done too much of, which is running absolutely its own party like it's trying to run the public services from on top... HUMPHRYS All right, final thought about where you are now, and where you would perhaps like to have been at this position in your history. We've got people like Ken Clarke, Steven Norris, Malcolm Rifkind, John Major all offering their criticisms in one way or another, quite severe criticisms in some cases, particularly of the leadership of Iain Duncan Smith himself and some of the approaches that he's been taking. This is not just froth and bubble is it? This is serious stuff isn't it at this stage? LETWIN: Evidently it's serious that we've just come out to a Party Conference, and a lot of things from our past have come to hit us. If you expect me to tell you..... HUMPHRYS Come on it's not that. I'm not talking about John Major's affair or whatever. I'm talking about serious criticism of where the Party has been where it's going under Iain Duncan Smith's leadership and that's the point and we have Michael Haseltine, telling people apparently though ....they didn't manage to get a comment from him but neither did he deny it as I understand it, his view was that it's time for a change. Time for a change of leadership LETWIN I think it is an extraordinary idea that when you have been working for a year to try to get together a fundamental shift in a political Party's attention and a fundamental change in the way it goes about dealing with an issue as big as the public services and quality of life. I think it's a very strange idea that the person you have selected as your leader who's been doing that work who is for the first time at this Party Conference going to be laying out the first products of it, which is where it is going to take us two, three, four years may be more than that to get to the end of and show people that in a way that works. It's a very strange idea that you should say: Well he hasn't achieved a miracle in a year.. HUMPHRYS No, they're saying he's made no impact, that's what they are saying, he hasn't made an impact. LETWIN Yes, but you see I think this idea of impact at an early stage in the Parliament is not only illusory but really dangerous. When we were at this stage..... HUMPHRYS: The leader shouldn't make an impact? LETWIN But Mrs T, Mrs Thatcher you must admit in the end did make an impact - good or bad she made an impact , I happen to believe it was good, but even those who think it was bad agree she made an impact. At this stage of her ten year as leader of the opposition people were saying she is invisible she's not making a .. HUMPHRYS Alright, how long has he got then to make an impact? LETWIN He's got as long as it takes, because this is a long... HUMPHRYS He has .... LETWIN: Yes.... HUMPHRYS: Well, he gave himself eighteen months.....and it's a year now. LETWIN He'll have my support until we're finished with it, because I know that this isn't an easy thing, if it was an easy thing we would all have done it long ago. HUMPHRYS Oliver Letwin, thank you very much indeed LETWIN Thank you.
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.