Ian McCartney: 'No government can survive if it ignores party members'

The Monday Interview: The Labour Party Chairman

Ian McCartney, the Labour Party chairman, paces the floor of his grand Whitehall office. "The house I grew up in was smaller than this," he says. "Come and look at this." He pulls back the net curtains to reveal the Changing of the Guard, and officers in gleaming cuirasses lining up for a mounted salute.

The minister looks mildly embarrassed at the spectacle. He is more comfortable talking about connecting with the Labour Party membership, the working classes and the trade-union rank and file. The 52-year-old former union official is passionate about not losing touch with the Labour members. And he has a salutary warning for the Government if it ignores its roots.

"No government can survive, however good it is, if it has no real connection, real continuing connection and relationship with its membership in the country, " he says.

At this week's party conference, the rockiest in 10 years for Labour, he will play a crucial role in trying to win back disaffected or wavering party members. It will not be easy. They have been stung over Iraq, which most opposed, and they are livid about plans for tuition fees and foundation hospitals which were not in Labour's election manifesto.

But Mr McCartney is optimistic he can win back the doubters and even attract more recruits, by appealing to the "core values" that unite old-fashioned socialists and Blairites. "Despite the difficulties we were in around the country, I don't see a desire from party members unlike in previous years to have such an argument that we end up losing the election," he says. But he warns that members are unsure about Tony Blair's direction, and unless the leadership allows them once again to play a role, they will desert the party, with disastrous results.

"If they don't get a good experience and better involvement, if the leadership fails to engage with them on a regular basis they will leave," he says.

On Mr McCartney's travels around the country talking to local parties, he admits he has found many activists confused about "the journey" the Government is taking them on. But he says he is their voice in the Cabinet, and has not forgotten he is one of them.

"I took this job on as a party member and even though I am in the Cabinet I will continue to speak as a party member, and what I find about party members is a lack of confidence," he says.

Mr McCartney's political career started when he was eight, helping his father, Hugh, then a Scottish town councillor and later a Labour MP, campaign in the 1959 election.

He left school at 16, and became a cabin boy, a chef and one of Labour's youngest officials. He is clear about what will bring people back to the Labour party. "Politics, politics, politics. Not minutes, minutes, minutes," he declares from a huge white armchair. If a table had been in front of him, he would have thumped it.

In a sideswipe at Alan Milburn, the former secretary of state for health, he says foundation hospitals should never have been presented as "an improvement in the management structure of the NHS".

He explains: "There are places to use technocratic language and that is in meetings with stakeholders and civil servants. People should always talk in language that is plain-speaking. That's now happening, but the damage has already been done. People have lost trust."

Last week, Mr Milburn said Mr Blair should stop talking like a "competent administrator". Mr McCartney says: "I am pleased that Alan is on board with what I have been saying for six years."

Mr McCartney is sensitive about people "nicking" his ideas. He is rarely given credit for devising and pushing through the minimum wage, and is frequently dismissed as an organiser rather than the intellectual forward thinker he is. Perhaps it is his rapid Glasgow delivery, which can sound like a pneumatic drill, or his height which at 5ft1in makes him the smallest member of the Cabinet.

But his government colleagues would be foolish to underestimate the member for Makerfield. He may be their best bet for heading off a full-scale revolt among the unions and Labour membership. He may have a government driver and a smart Whitehall office, but he speaks the language of the rank and file, and is not afraid to use the "s" word to describe his ideology.

"What is important to me are the objectives. The objectives are what I as a socialist have been arguing for much of my adult life in the Labour Party," he says. "One of the lasting things this Labour government can do is to modernise the infrastructure of our public services and have an ownership structure that protects it from the attacks that happened in the Thatcherite years. We've done a hell of a job if we can do that."

The MP, who at 14 led a strike by newspaper delivery boys, is also optimistic that the unions, including members of the "awkward squad" who want to tear up Labour's foundation hospital reforms and block tuition fees, can be brought back on board. But for that to happen they must stop public posturing and endless confrontation.

"I want to get into a position, and the unions into a position to have a very proactive relationship," he says.

''In a partnership where there is an open and transparent relationship there will be disagreements, some are fundamental, but if there is a constant disagreement that is not a partnership at all."

Mr McCartney has known most of the union firebrands for decades. "Every 15 to 20 years, you see a wholesale change of trade union leaders, and we are coinciding with one of those patterns. They are all coming forward with their own views to get elected. And some comments made are more worthy than others" he says.

But the chairman says behind the rhetoric there are legitimate concerns which the Government should address. "You have all this fire and brimstone at one level; and some of the issues that are raised are quite legitimate issues by the way, nobody is saying they aren't." He points out that not all union leaders are "in this mood" and attacking the Government. Many are supportive "and want to and will continue to participate".

The former TGWU official has survived more than a few hard knocks, including TB and the death of his only son, Hugh, from a drugs overdose. He has more credibility among working men and women than Labour's Islington A-list. And, unlike some of them, he has not chosen to forget his party roots.

"All ministers should remember they are ministers because they are politicians and they are politicians because they joined the Labour Party because of our ideals and our values," he says pointedly.

In the corridor that leads to Ian McCartney's office is a tiny suit of armour, with a helmet which looks custom-made for the small, round Labour chairman. Years ago, Mr McCartney was known as one of the "Three Musketeers" for his role - along with Jon Crudas, the Dagenham MP, and Pat McFadden, now in No 10 - in making sure party conferences ran smoothly. With his other two comrades in arms occupied in the other roles, it is up to Mr McCartney to duel alone with the unions and the rancorous party membership.

It is a task he takes seriously. But as he considers which of Alexandre Dumas's musketeers he resembles, he chuckles. "Whoever was the fattest," he replies.

THE CV

Born: 25 April, 1951, Lennoxtown, Stirlingshire;

Education: Lenzie Academy, Langside College;

1968: TGWU branch secretary;

1970: shop steward;

1982-87: Wigan councillor;

1979-87: Secretary to Roger Stott MP;

1987-present: MP for Makerfield;

1992-94: Opposition spokesman on the NHS, and education and employment;

1997-99: Minister, Department of Trade and Industry;

1999-2001: Cabinet Office minister;

2001-03: Minister for Pensions;

April 2003-present: Labour Party chairman and minister without portfolio.

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