He is one of the select few still in British politics who was in on the beginning of the Labour Party's long march to electability - long before, for example, Blair himself.
He had been a moderniser before the word had ever been invented. He was the architect of the policy review process through which Neil Kinnock saw off the stances on defence, Europe and party organisation that had plunged the party into its nadir in the early Eighties. Yet he came on to the National Executive Committee in 1981, having enthusiastically helped in the deputy leadership campaign of Tony Benn and remained a reliable member of the left grouping until well after the 1983 election.
Several factors gradually conspired to turn this thoughtful, quiet-spoken man off the Bennites. First, "there'd be left caucuses forming at the NEC and Dennis Skinner told everybody what to do and I didn't find that very comfortable". This reached a low point for Sawyer when in 1984 the left called for a general strike in support of the miners - which Sawyer regarded as "cloud-cuckoo-land".
Of the two "Skinner was the most powerful, I think. I used to think that Tony Benn articulated in middle-class language what Dennis had already said in street language. When he was in full flow he was terrifying. He's not much like that now, he's much more benign. But then he was very difficult to stand up to in argument, especially if you were on the left."
But if Sawyer had a Damascus, it was Militant-run Liverpool. Jane Kennedy, now a Labour MP, was the branch secretary of Nupe in the city and Sawyer had been told that she had bad relations with the Labour council, then in open conflict with the Tory government. He remembers going to meet her. "This was a defining moment for me, because I just could not believe what I heard. I went to Liverpool to give Jane Kennedy a bollocking and I came back completely turned round and ready to do something about Militant.
"I sat round in a room with about 25 decent people, gardeners, refuse collectors, school caretakers. And I was told about a group of gangsters who were running the council for their own ends, really. And this played out in very real terms for these people because if they wouldn't join the GMB branch 5, which was controlled by Militant, then they were put on onerous duties."
While Benn, Skinner and their supporters were defending Militant's right to function in the party, Sawyer proposed in the NEC the resolution that eventually led to the purge of Derek Hatton and his allies. It was a highly uncomfortable time for him as he faced charges of betrayal by the Bennite left. "I went out on a limb and I did it because of what I'd seen and I felt I could stand it up. So a lot of people would crudely characterise that as a move to the right but in fact it wasn't. It was a move to honesty and decency, away from political corruption."
But it was two years later that he drew up the formal proposal for a far-reaching policy review, which Kinnock approved. "We had to make ourselves electable, we had to build ourselves anew." What of the other key modernising figure from that period still playing a big part in British politics? Sawyer had his own line to Kinnock. Peter Mandelson, as the party's director of communications, had his. They were working on essentially parallel tracks.
Sawyer emphatically does not believe in all the mystical qualities routinely attributed to Mandelson. But he says that he was a "brilliant, brilliant, operator" with the press and - more controversially - as a "ruthless hit man for the leadership". He also suggests that Gordon Brown and Mandelson were probably the best "political thinkers about where we should head".
In the end Kinnock did not win the 1992 election - but Sawyer says: "Despite all his shortcomings, Neil was the man who saved the Labour Party. He was a giant. The man who took on all those people, Arthur Scargill, the London loony councils, Militant in Liverpool. He fought it tooth and nail, line by line. It wasn't the `Tony Blair big picture' stuff.Blair's leadership from the party point of view has been a honeymoon compared with Kinnock. I think Blair would accept that."
Sawyer's final act as general secretary has been "Partnership in Power", a trans- formation of the policy-making process through continuous forums of party members. He is irritated by the left's caricature of the new- look conference, on show for the first time at the end of the month.
"Tony Benn was on television again recently, saying that we are turning the Labour Party into a Democratic convention and that it will be all balloons and so on. In fact we are creating an extremely complex, deep and serious policy-making process." Yes, composite resolutions are a thing of the past. But the conference is still free to vote a policy down if it wants.
"Tony Blair is being quite brave. He's opening the policy-making process up to an enormous number of party members, and eventually when we get to the later conferences in the parliamentary cycle there will be real debates. The delegates will decide party policy. So I think it's the opposite to what Tony Benn thinks."
A noticeable gap has opened up between the party and all previous Labour governments - Attlee's, Wilson's, Callaghan's - which Partnership in Power is designed to close.
Sawyer acknowledges there is a perception that the party has become "a bit detached". He adds: "Tony Blair has got to use his conference speech to address that. He's got to explain to the party ... how they've got a role to play in partnership with the Government. All the things that have happened that have given an image that the Government isn't listening, `Drapergate', lobbyists and all that kind of thing.... I don't think they're things of Tony Blair's making but ... they affect the way party members think and therefore they have to be addressed.
"When somebody comes up with the 17 most important people in the Labour Party and there's hardly any MPs or cabinet members among them, they want to be reassured that the most important people in the party are its elected representatives, people who the rank-and-file members put their trust in to work with Tony Blair and support Tony Blair. They don't want to see a range of hangers-on who, it is alleged, have more influence than the elected representatives."
Partnership works both ways. Sawyer is careful, as the party's returning officer, not to comment on an NEC ballot that could yet see the ultra-leftist Liz Davies elected. But he is especially well qualified to remember the days when an NEC at war with the party leadership cost it elections. He sees the NEC's real job as one of management - overseeing the party's growth, financial strength and the quality of its representatives.
"NEC members are not expected to be rubber stamps or sycophantic about the leadership but they are supposed to be generally supportive of what the party's trying to do and not create the impression that we're a divided party."
But ministers also have a duty. "The Government goes off and does big macro things like Northern Ireland or whatever, but the party is stuck at home facing down-to-earth economic issues like paying the mortgage and keeping the job going. What government has to do is to make sure it talks to the party and keeps it up to date on the progress it's making, and listens to the party on any issues the party feels strongly about.
"The trick that previous Labour governments haven't been able to pull off is to keep that open dialogue with the party at the same time as keeping the big picture intact."Reuse content