Labour's secret weapon: A revealing audience with Hazel Blears
She's the 'Chirpy, Chirpy, Cheep-Cheep' of the Commons, the ballroom-dancing, motorcycle-riding MP for Salford, and an unabashed fan of New Labour. But does Hazel Blears have what it takes to lead her party? Andy McSmith met her
Saturday 21 March 2009
We need more characters in politics," Hazel Blears says, in that way of speaking she has – staccato sentences, plain language, with only the occasional intrusion of jargon words such as "empowerment". Generally, you don't need an insider's knowledge of the Westminster scene to follow what the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is saying.
Hazel Blears thinks of herself as a complex politician, with more to her than the label "Blairite loyalist" suggests. With her love of motorbikes, her experience on the dance floor, and her family roots in Salford, in Greater Manchester, she is certainly more engaging at the personal level than your average politician. More of a "character", you might say.
There will be an interesting photo-opportunity in the summer, when the Communities Secretary takes delivery of a new motorbike, specially made to suit her height. She will then set off with her solicitor husband on a bike tour of Europe, he on his Ducati 2000, and she – having discarded the Benelli 254 that she now rides – on her new machine. "I'm having one custom-built," she explains. "I'm only four foot eleven – so it'll be kind of bespoke. It's also a very exciting engineering development for British manufacturing, but it's a bit of a secret, so I can't divulge any more for the moment."
However, most people's idea of a political "character" is not someone with interesting hobbies, but someone with an interesting take on politics. A trouble-stirrer, generally speaking; someone unafraid of deviating from the script laid down by the party bosses. Ken Clarke is a character. So is Dennis Skinner, or Clare Short on a good day.
Hazel Blears' role model, whom she holds up as a real example of a political "character", is that fiery northern socialist Barbara Castle, who was the only woman in the Labour cabinet in the 1960s. Mrs Castle knew how to make trouble. She was almost 90 years old when she led one of the last great revolts at the Labour conference over Tony Blair and Gordon Brown's treatment of pensioners.
Barbara Castle gave Blears a piece of advice that has helped her through the stress of high-level politics – that "it's never too late to put on your lipstick". Blears tells me this as we are sitting comfortably in her eighth-floor office in Eland House, a new government building near Victoria Station which now houses the Department for Communities and Local Government. Our meeting started nearly half an hour late and overran, making her later still for the ministerial visit to a "living library" exhibition that followed. But she sails cheerfully from engagement to engagement, never apologising, always well turned out. "Whenever they're hassling me, I just put on my lipstick and let them wait," she says.
However, though she is a bit of a "character" at a personal level, Hazel Blears is not a trouble-maker. She is sternly loyal to the Labour Party, and proud to be so. She is strictly tribal. She is not one of those MPs who mixes freely with colleagues from other political parties, though she admits to a grudging respect for Michael Gove, the Tory education spokesman.
As a backbench MP, having entered Parliament as MP for Salford 12 years ago, her contributions at Prime Minister's Questions were so friendly that the Tory MP-turned-commentator Matthew Parris nicknamed her "Tony's little helper". Last month, she delivered a well-publicised rebuke to cabinet colleagues who have been manoeuvring for position in anticipation that Gordon Brown might resign. It was the first public admission by a cabinet minister that such manoeuvring was under way. She spoke out because she regards intrigue against the Prime Minister as disloyal and defeatist, not out of any attachment to the "Brownite" faction.
The ministers with whom she worked on her way up into the cabinet were all ultra-Blairite ministers – Alan Milburn, David Blunkett, Charles Clarke and John Reid – "all the hard men" as she calls them. "In political terms I probably have most in common with David Blunkett. He comes from a similar background to me, he's been in local government, he cares hugely about communities, and we worked on neighbourhood policing together. That's my proudest achievement."
Hearing her say this prompts this thought: how much does she feel she has in common with Harriet Harman, who is so widely tipped to be Labour's next leader that it is as if her campaign has already started? Blears is not normally thrown by unexpected questions, but this one produces a pronounced hesitation, broken by a loud "um".
Eventually she hits upon this response: "I'm a woman." Then comes a loud laugh – not, one assumes, because reference to her gender is inherently funny, but to cover her awkwardness. At last, she recovers her flow, and adds: "Yeah, I'm in Labour and, you know, we're all fighting to make sure people get a fair deal. I think whoever you are in the Labour Party, there are fundamental truths about why we're in the Labour Party, which is fighting for justice, tackling poverty, and making sure people can get on in life. Politicians will always have different nuances, different policy approaches, but at your core, in the Labour Party, you are about trying to make sure people get a fair deal."
It is not the warmest tribute ever paid by one cabinet minister to another, but it is honest.
The first person to spot something unusual in the young Hazel Blears was Tony Richardson, one of the leading British film directors of the 1960s. He was preparing a movie version of Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey, set in Salford, and on location spotted two small children playing in the streets, looking like happy working-class street urchins. This was Hazel Blears, aged five, and her older brother. Richardson asked their parents for permission to film them, but the experiment almost went wrong because their proud mother smartened them up and put them in their best clothes for the cameras – which, of course, was not at all what the director had wanted.
Another popular work inspired by post-war Salford was the song "Dirty Old Town", made famous in the 1980s by the Pogues, though it was written in the 1940s. I thought I'd test her knowledge of Salford cultural references by asking if she knew "that song by Ewan MacColl". Like a true Salford girl, she comes straight out with the opening line: "I met my love by the gas works wall". I dare say she would have sung all three verses, if asked.
These images of Salford are part of the tapestry of her childhood memories. "I grew up in a two-up, two-down terraced house stuck at the end of the street. My dad worked in the gas works. There are still parts of Salford that look a bit like that, though the place has changed. And even in this difficult economic time people are still very strong, and they know how to value the important things in life. I think Ewan MacColl would really have approved."
The whole of her childhood and most of her teen years were spent in the city, where she was born in 1956. Her father, Arthur, was a maintenance fitter and shop steward in the engineering union. Her mother, Dorothy, was a secretary. She was evidently a hard-working child, who passed her 11-plus, securing a place in Wardley Grammar School – whereas her brother went to the local secondary modern and became a bus driver. The first time she left Salford was to study law at Trent Polytechnic – now known as Nottingham Trent University – from which she emerged with a 2:1, returning to Salford to practice as a solicitor.
She got through those years away from parental supervision without doing anything so foolish as to experiment with illegal drugs – but when she was back in Salford, with a worthwhile career that she would not have wanted to throw away, somebody suggested that she try cannabis, and she did.
A curious thing about politicians is that many will admit to having tried illegal drugs when they were young, but very few will ever say that they enjoyed it, or even that it had any effect on them at all – as if there is a species of dealer in the criminal underworld specialising in selling duff dope to future MPs. For the record, Hazel Blears says: "I tried it at home, just the once, when I was 22 or 23, something like that. It didn't do anything. It wasn't exactly good quality. There's more ways of having fun, I reckon."
Another childhood memory is seeing her mother and father whirling around the ballroom floor. She rivals the Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable as Parliament's most famous dancer, the founder and leader of the Division Belles, the Commons all-female tap-dancing team. Sadly, nothing has been heard of the "Belles" since they did a charity gig two years ago. They are "resting", because with Blears in the cabinet and another member of the troupe, Caroline Flint, in the Foreign Office, there has not been time in their diaries when they could come together.
Last Christmas's Radio Times showed Blears dressed in gorgeous blue, taking a dancing lesson from Len Goodman, one of the judges on TV's Strictly Come Dancing. "She's a natural. And she looks fantastic," Goodman told the magazine as the lesson ended.
"My mum and dad are really good ballroom dancers," she says. "They got medals and really did very well. They have always ballroom danced. Dad's now 80 and mum's 76, and they still go dancing once a week. So I grew up dancing with my dad, really – and my mum; so I can do the men's part and the women's part.
But her love of dancing is not shared by her husband, Michael Halsall, who generally keeps himself out of the public eye. "Unfortunately my husband's not a great dancer," she admits. "I made him take lessons before we got married so that he could actually get around the dance floor, but that's as far as it goes."
Blears is now hatching a plan to set off with him to Buenos Aires for a week, so that she can learn to tango. She knows a few phrases of Spanish, having had four lessons last year while she was preparing for an inter-governmental conference in Valencia on devolution. The Conservatives made a fuss about the £183 cost of the lessons, which were charged to the taxpayer; she defends them on the grounds that she simply wanted to show a bit of courtesy to her hosts.
hat, then, is Hazel Blears – keen to learn, always ready to try something new, always full of energy and good cheer. "Chirpy, Chirpy, Cheep-Cheep" is one of the less kind nicknames her female colleagues have given her. In common with her heroine, Barbara Castle, she is short, red-haired, feisty, she hails from a town north of Watford, she is pragmatic and devoted to the Labour Party.
But Castle made her reputation by fighting ferociously for a number of causes which were highly controversial at the time, including laws against drinking and driving and an early attempt at reforming trade union law. The political causes closest to Hazel Blears' heart are admirable, but hardly controversial. Foremost among them is her favourite jargon word "empowerment".
This covers ideas like turning the ownership of public assets such as parks or swimming baths over from the local council to viable local associations. She is convinced that not only will they be better run, but they will entice people who have not had paid employment for a long time to become involved, as a first step towards getting them back to work.
Her last known act of political rebellion occurred 14 years ago, before she was an MP, when she opposed Blair's proposal to remove from the party constitution the old clause that referred to common ownership of the means of production. And even that last act of defiance was not born of any great difference between her beliefs and New Labour.
"I had never believed in nationalising the commanding heights of the economy. In fact, I have spent most of my political life fighting for the principles of New Labour, because it's where I feel comfortable. New Labour is about aspiration and ambition, which is absolutely how I come to be doing what I do, because my parents were ambitious and aspirational for me."
This does not bode well for that small but dedicated band who think that Hazel Blears ought to be the next Labour Prime Minister, the new Red Queen. Her campaign in the deputy leadership contest two years ago was more memorable for its memorabilia than its message. She offered a fine range of merchandise, including "Hazel for Deputy" beer mats, Hazel clocks, Hazel bags, mouse mats featuring Blears in biker leather and the slogan "Deputy Leader of the Pack", red Hazel hoodies, and "Nuts About Hazel" T-shirts.
The range of political ideas on offer was less of a sensation. "The slogan for my campaign was 'Building On Our Success'. I'm very proud of what the Labour government achieved over the past 10 to 12 years, and what I didn't want is for people to rubbish what we had achieved. I was proud of my campaign. I'm absolutely delighted that I did it," she says.
Unfortunately, the Labour Party members who took part in the vote were not so impressed. They placed her sixth out of six candidates. "I don't think it was necessarily the most popular platform," she admits.
Looking into the future, she refuses to countenance the notion that the next general election is already lost. She doesn't believe there has been the seismic shift in public opinion that preceded the elections of 1979 and 1997, but she thinks the party needs to offer a "convincing" picture of what life would be like under Labour post-recession.
"Alistair Darling called for humility – that's one word," she says. "There is a need to acknowledge that not everything has been 100 per cent perfect, but without rubbishing what you've done. You can recognise your achievements without being arrogant.
"But I'm damned if I'm going to be faced with people who think they're going to wipe out everything we have done over the years. If that happens, it will be a very, very big mistake – though clearly, I am not contemplating it, because we are not going to lose."
And even if they do, and the Labour Party goes through another period of destructive in-fighting as it did after the 1979 defeat, you can be sure Hazel Blears will be there, always cheerful, always trying to buck everyone up – until the pressure gets unbearable. Then she will go to one side and do her lipstick.
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