Charles Clarke: You Ask The Questions

The MP for Norwich South answers your questions, such as 'Will the PM resign before the election?' and 'Why aren't faith schools closed?'
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The Independent Online

Who would you most like to succeed Gordon Brown: James Purnell, David Miliband, Ed Miliband or Alan Johnson? Jeremy Shepherd, Brighton

A leadership election would be politically refreshing. I'll determine my own preference at the time and according to the circumstances. A short, well-conducted campaign will bring much-needed positive life into Labour politics and give millions of people an opportunity for a direct say in our future.

Of the people you mention, all four would do an excellent job, both as Prime Minister and the party leader. They would all do much better for Labour in the general election than the current incumbent.

Do you think Gordon Brown will resign before the election, on medical or other grounds? Fiona Wallis, London

I hope so. I also think it's likely. It would be in his own interest, as well as that of the Labour Party and the country.

Why do you spend most of your time attacking the Prime Minister rather than David Cameron? Clare Caribon, Reading

Unsurprisingly, my long-standing concerns about our party's direction attract a lot more attention than my many criticisms of the Conservatives. David Cameron lacks substance and coherence, particularly on economic policy, green issues, Europe and his unreadiness to face up to the challenges around security and liberty. I argue that he is far less prepared for office than Labour was in either 1997 or 1992.

Regrettably, there is a media prism which means that just about everything I say is seen in the context of our party's leadership. Complete silence would be one way to go but I am not prepared to respond to that media reality by saying nothing about anything.

Is Norwich the most boring place in England? If not, where else? Jo Samuel, Huddersfield

Visit Norwich and find out just how wrong you are. How does it compare with Huddersfield? Norwich has a 1,000-year history encompassing Nelson and Edith Cavell. Its modern achievements range from Booker prize-winning authors to its 2,500 world-leading researchers in food, health and climate change.

Were you a bigger failure as Home or Education Secretary? Gordon Dewar, Arbroath

As it happens I'm proud of my record in both. I only regret that I wasn't permitted to spend more time in either job. Issues like police re-organisation, cannabis classification and A-levels seem to keep on coming round. I dislike the fast-revolving ministerial door as I think that most posts need at least two years to make change and make it stick.

If faith schools promote segregation and (in most non-Christian cases) are bad at delivering quality education, why aren't they closed? They're causing gang wars in huge swathes of Britain. Charlotte Cleethorpe, Oxford

Almost every aspect of your question is wrong. They don't generally promote segregation; they are by and large amongst the best at achieving quality education; the idea that they are "promoting gang wars in huge swathes of Britain" is about as historically accurate as the virgin birth. Perhaps you should move away from Oxford and get to see a bit of the real world.

Do you now accept that the target of 50 per cent into higher education was a catastrophic error? And that Ed Balls' belief that poor people don't deserve an academic education is shameful? Michael Timms, Chichester

No. The 50 per cent target is a good one, and one many other countries have already achieved in a world in which education is increasingly important for success. Most people who oppose the target are individuals who have already received the benefits of higher education and want to deny them to others who they consider less worthy. They often seem to assume that they or their families won't be affected by any reduction in university numbers. Of course, universities that seek to educate 50 per cent of the population are, and will be, very different from those which educated less than 10 per cent of the population 50 years ago.

I'll leave Ed Balls to defend his own views. Aren't you misrepresenting him a bit?

Why do you think that it is defensible that we are deporting people to Iraq, Afghanistan and Zimbabwe? If you don't, why haven't you used your powers to do anything about this? Paul Roberts, Ely

The ability of the Government to deport to particular countries is ultimately determined by the courts, through their interpretation of the European Convention of Human Rights. The morality of any deportation depends principally upon the safeness of the destination. The courts have decided there are currently safe destinations in parts of all of Iraq, Afghanistan and Zimbabwe.

When I did have powers in this area, as Home Secretary, I believed, as I do now, that deportation is sometimes sadly necessary when people have come to this country illegally. It's intellectually dishonest to oppose deportations altogether unless you believe countries like Britain should abandon the right to control which foreign nationals can come to our country and the conditions under which they do so.

The legal framework under which this happens is difficult and controversial, and certainly the British Government has made many mistakes. However, decisions have to be taken and the most important thing is that they are made and enforced under a proper legal framework.

Do you think your lack of dress-sense has damaged your political career, given that "style" seems to matter over substance these days? The sight of you walking along with your hands disappearing inside your sleeves did make you look somewhat gauche at times. Rosie Davies, by email

I tend to subscribe to the "what-you-see-is-what-you-get" school of politics. We do need a bit more substance and a bit less style in politics, but I don't think my political successes and failures result from the way I dress.

Do you agree that the biggest threat to Labour's future is not the Tories but the Liberal Democrats, who, if they perform credibly, could relegate you to oblivion? Bridget Nathu, Swansea

No. The biggest threat to Labour's future is Labour. If we wake up to the risks we face, and address them properly, we will win again. If we don't, we won't. The very real possibility of another 18 years of the Tories should be treated as a potentially lethal threat to Labour's future.

Do you still get bullied for your big ears? I never understood why you didn't shave your beard, given how heartily it accentuated their effect. Lionel Cross, Northampton

Earlier this year I presented an award for political cartoonists who expressed sincere gratitude for my ears. No bullying in sight! As for the beard, I've shaved it off a couple of times but when I do my wife threatens to disown me.

What's your objection to [Andrew] Marr asking Brown about anti-depressants? Doesn't the public have a right to know about the Prime Minister's health? Olivia Pughe, Dudley

Personal questions happen all the time (see above!). They can (and usually should) just be dismissed. I do dislike the focus some of the media give solely to personality in politics.

Who were your biggest influences as an undergraduate? And which politician that you've worked with has had the biggest impact on your intellectual outlook? Fiona Baber, Cambridge

Keynesian thinking was the biggest intellectual stimulus as it said that we don't have to sit and watch events happen but can make a difference. That was reinforced by the political impact of international events like the US wars in South-east Asia and the struggle to end apartheid. My political thinking was influenced, particularly in the 1980s, by the great European social democrats, in particular Willy Brandt, Olaf Palme, Felipe González and, in a rather different way, Mikhael Gorbachev.

Do MPs have any spare time? What did you last see at the cinema? Matthew Day, Saffron Walden

I'm glad your question recognises an MP's life is a full one, but I do have spare time. Most recently I have seen Defiance, with Daniel Craig, and The Reader.

Which musician of the 1960s are you most like in temperament? Val Doonican? Chris Crosby, Mansfield

Val Doonican? Great jumpers, but not so sure about the music. I preferred Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez and Tom Paxton. I think by nature I'm nearer Paxton than Cohen.

What would be on your favourite plate of food? (I get the impression you've thought about this before.) Mandeep Kohli, Wolverhampton

It's got to be fish and chips on a blowy day by the beach in Cromer.