Hazel Blears: Action woman

'She's a strong and relentlessly energetic character in the way that Thatcher once was'
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The Independent Online

Up in Salford no one seems terribly bothered about the latest flurry in the Westminster village concerning their MP, Hazel Blears. Ms Blears - for those who have been paying attention to other matters over the festive season - took herself to a picket line outside Hope Hospital just across the other side of the river from Manchester city centre a few days before Christmas. A group of local people was there, protesting against a proposal to close the hospital's maternity unit.

What has caused the silly seasonal stir is that Ms Blears is a member of the Government responsible for the decision to axe the unit and make Salfordians travel to Manchester to have their babies. Indeed, she is not just a member of the Government; she is in the Cabinet that endorsed the plan. Worse still, as Labour party chairman, she is the ultra-loyal Blairite routinely trotted out on the telly to defend such unpopular decisions.

But there is not much sense of paradox around in Salford. People want the maternity unit to stay open. They want to demonstrate their feelings on the streets. And they want their MP to join them. Ms Blears sees no problem; she is in favour of the broad thrust of the NHS reorganisation but thinks that, on the detail of her local hospital, the NHS modernisers have got it wrong.

Hypocrisy, her political opponents have shouted. You can't back a policy on the national stage and then campaign against it in your own constituency, the Lib Dems said. You should either change government policy or get out of the Cabinet, the Tories said, inviting her to join their Stop Brown's NHS Cuts campaign. But the accusation is a pretty limp one, especially since two of her cabinet colleagues, the Home Secretary John Reid and the chief whip Jacqui Smith, have already attended similar protests against hospital cutbacks in their constituencies.

Local people would expect nothing less from Ms Blears, who has a considerable reputation as a feisty fighter for her constituency. After all, this is the woman who has listed this as her proudest achievement in Parliament since 1997: "Securing £25m from the Government to regenerate Seedley and Langworthy, one of the hardest hit communities in Salford, and chairing the regeneration partnership board." Such are the thrills of politics.

And this is the woman who made it plain to her cabinet colleagues that they must not even think about awarding a BBC licence fee that would exclude the corporation moving a massive chunk of its operations from London to Salford over the next two years. She also writes proudly on her website about the city's thriving university, major teaching hospital and multimillion-pound Lowry arts and theatre complex - ending with an endorsement of the city's rugby league team the Salford Reds.

Local loyalty is the sort of thing you might expect from any MP. After all home is where the votes are. But with Hazel Blears there is no mistaking that her enthusiasm is genuine. She is Salford through and through.

For a start she was born there, in 1956, the daughter of a maintenance fitter (and AEU shop steward) and a secretary. She grew up in a Coronation Street-style house there. As a child actress, at the age of five she played a street urchin in the classic Salford film A Taste of Honey.

Salford was the scene of her textbook, upwardly mobile, working-class progress. She was educated locally and got her first job as a trainee solicitor with the City of Salford Council. Her life thereafter ran on two tracks. After a year in private practice as a solicitor she began a succession of jobs in the legal departments of nearby councils, in Rossendale, Wigan and Manchester where she ended up as the city council's principal solicitor at the age of 29. At the same time she became a labour movement activist, learning her politics from the Labour firebrand Barbara Castle whom she used to drive to political meetings.

She developed, she says, "a burning desire to make the world a better place", especially for people from poor communities like her own. In 1984 she was elected as a councillor in Salford, a job she did for eight years. In that time she also contested two parliamentary seats in the north-west.

In those days her activism was Bennite rather than Blairite. She initially opposed Tony Blair's moves to scrap the Labour Party's totemic leftist Clause Four. But it was not enough to prevent her selection as the Labour candidate for Salford when Stan Orme, who had been MP for more than 30 years, retired. Elected in 1997 she was one of the intake of women MPs known as the "Blair babes", and became one of the few real political success stories among them.

From the outset she demonstrated an insatiable appetite for networking. She became vice-president of the Local Government Association, vice-chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, party development co-ordinator, a member of the Health and Culture, Media and Sport backbench committees. She chaired the North West Group of Labour MPs which is the largest political group in Parliament. She was secretary to the Community Health Councils and a member of others including, Sustainable Energy, Homelessness and Housing Needs, Public Health and Primary Care. In all this she was instinctive and impulsive, and ambitious.

The ministerial career ladder seemed inevitable. She took on the unpaid role of parliamentary private secretary to Health Minister Alan Milburn, then was PPS to the chief secretary to the Treasury, then a junior health minister, then the Home Office minister responsible for crime reduction, policing and counterterrorism. David Blunkett, for whom she worked there, said of her: "She's very able and articulate. She has more energy than anyone I have ever come across."

In addition to all her parliamentary activities she has an extensive list of hobbies (though no children). She and her husband Michael Halsall ride classic motorbikes (his a Ducati, hers a Benelli) which has earned Ms Blears the status of a leather-clad cover girl on Street Biker magazine. She is also a theatre and cinema buff (and advocate of the arts as a instrument of inner-city regeneration), a fell-walker and a tap dancer (performing with several other women MPs at an charity do in Westminster each year).

Tony Blair became a fan. "He likes the fact that she is energetic, innovative and gets a lot done," Alan Milburn has said.

She was also a Blair ultra-loyalist, voting for the war in Iraq, student tuition fees, foundation hospitals, identity cards, 90-day terrorist detention, an all-appointed House of Lords, and all the rest. On radio and TV she was a combative defender of government policy. Critics accused her of being a mere parrot or mouthpiece. Her remorselessly upbeat tone led Matthew Parris to dub her "Tony Blair's little ray of sunshine; her special responsibilities are joy, optimism and compassion".

But she was one of the few ministers who could get the better of tough interviewers such as John Humphrys because, as one Today insider put it, "she was always highly in command of her brief, and absolutely up to speed across the board".

For all her loyalty to the leader she took care to keep onside with the party. In 2003 she was elected to the National Executive Committee. In 2004 she published a pamphlet entitled The Politics of Decency, which took care to quote a wide range of progressive thinkers: William Morris and R H Tawney, the Christian socialist John Macmurray, Barbara Castle and George Orwell, whose favourite word for the best qualities of the English working class was "decency". It was about "the bottom-up empowerment of quietly normal people", like the people of Salford.

In the 2006 cabinet reshuffle she was the obvious candidate to take over as party chairman. She is widely thought to have done a good job - by both supporters of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who is said to have a "high regard for her work in the party in recent months". She is expected to stand for Labour's deputy leadership when John Prescott officially announces his departure date - and many have seen her as the ideal Blairite to balance a Brown leadership.

Some commentators have suggested that her visit to the picket line at Hope Hospital may have been a strategy to win support for that. Others see a different agenda. The local paper has noted her recent tendency to refer to her constituents not as "the people of Salford" but as "the people of Eccles and Salford" - noting that boundary changes mean that Ms Blears may face a run-off with Ian Stewart, MP for Eccles, for a redrawn parliamentary seat at the next election.

But Hazel Blears has always sedulously courted her constituents; her website currently asks them to send her their opinion on "Should Government raise taxes to tackle climate change?" and "Do you think the NHS should carry out tattoo removal?". Her fans in Salford seem unruffled by the latest squall.

"She's frightened of no one," said one constituent yesterday, recalling that the MP recently she gave chase to a thief - who was caught and convicted - who had snatched her handbag. "She likes people and people like her," said another. "She's sharp, she's as focused and smart as any of the men but less self-regarding," said a third. "And she's as honest and outspoken as Clare Short but not as self-important or self-indulgent."

One of them mentioned another female politician. "She's a strong and steely and relentlessly energetic character in the way Thatcher was. She could easily lead the Labour Party one day." Stranger things have happened.

A Life in Brief

BORN 14 May 1956, in Salford, to Arthur Blears (a factory fitter) and Dorothy Blears (a secretary).

EDUCATION Wardley Grammar School, Swinton; Eccles Sixth Form College; Nottingham Trent University, and Chester College of Law.

FAMILY Married Michael Halsal, a solicitor, 1989; no children.

CAREER 1960, aged five, played a street urchin in the film 'A Taste of Honey'; 1981-85, branch secretary, Unison; 1985-97, principal solicitor, Manchester City Council; 1984-92, councillor, Salford City Council; 1992-1996, chair of the Salford Community Health Council; May 1997-, MP for Salford; 1998-1999, PPS to Alan Milburn; 2002-2003, Minister for Public Health; 2003-2006, Home Office Minister; 2006-, chairman of the Labour Party.

SHE SAYS "At 14 I got angry that people did not get the chances they should have if they come from a poor community."

THEY SAY "When I'm with her I either feel energised by her sheer vitality or rather old. She's driven by a desire to do good." - David Blunkett, former Home Secretary

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