Arguments over war split my family, says Hain

The Leader of the House reveals to Francis Elliott how Iraq divided those closest to him - and why he loathes Tory election tactics
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When Peter Hain says Iraq is "casting a shadow" across Labour's campaign, he is speaking from personal experience - it is one that has divided his own family.

When Peter Hain says Iraq is "casting a shadow" across Labour's campaign, he is speaking from personal experience ­ it is one that divided his own family.

He admits the war was bitterly opposed by "the closest members of my family you can imagine". His parents, Adelaine and Walter, veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, are understood to be among those who took a "fundamentally different view".

Mr Hain hopes his family can serve as a model for other Labour war critics. Although there were "bitter and heated disagreements", they have decided, on balance, to support it again, he says.

But speaking to The Independent on Sunday, the Leader of the House sounds far from confident that Labour's larger family is ready to kiss and make up.

"I have done more work in marginal seats than any other minister and I think this election is too close to call. A low Labour turnout could produce a completely unexpected result," he says. "Our biggest challenge is to persuade Labour supporters in the marginal seats to turn out.

"There is quite a lot of enthusiasm for us but there are segments of the Labour vote that are very reluctant to come out and vote. Iraq is often mentioned. Iraq is certainly an issue in this election, there is no question about it.

"There is an important section of the electorate that is very alienated."

He does not think, however, that publishing the Attorney General's legal advice would help to draw the sting of voters' anger. "I don't think, two years on, publishing legal advice or apologies or anything else that is symbolic is actually going to cut any ice with the anger that has flowed over Iraq.

"It all comes down to the fundamental question ­ one on which The Independent on Sunday took a different view and that's one I respect ­ on whether we took the right decision and whether it was done on an honest basis or not."

As he speaks MPs are packing up for the Easter break. When they return next week it will be for the formal launch of the election campaign.

The electorate could be forgiven for thinking it has been going on for weeks already. Although showing little sign of achieving a poll breakthrough, the Tories have had the more effective run-in, achieving blanket coverage on a series of issues of their choosing.

Much of the credit has been laid at the door of Michael Howard's Australian election strategist, Lynton Crosby, and pollster Mark Textor. Mr Hain goes as close as any Labour cabinet minister has dared in accusing Mr Howard ­ via Mr Crosby and Mr Textor ­ of playing the race card. "They are coming into the campaign under the cover of darkness like a military operation to conduct under-the-radar attacks on the Government. Then when it's all over they go back home to Australia.

"If they incite community conflict with attacks on travellers or Gypsies, or if they incite community tension by attacking immigrants without providing solutions to either Gypsy sites or the problem of illegal immigration, they can go home and the Tories can disown them when things go wrong. It's quite a clever but sinister and cynical strategy."

Mr Howard's choice of issues, from immigration to travellers and abortion, is "dog-whistle politics".

"You call home your traditional supporters of the party who have drifted away by appealing to their basest instincts and stirring up fear and prejudice and ugly gutter politics. But you do so at a pitch that cannot be heard by others. It's a hit-and-run approach," says Mr Hain.

"If you take abortion, Michael Howard has injected into this general election campaign a matter of conscience. It has always been a non-party matter."

Mr Hain accepts that voters need more reasons to vote Labour than just to keep the Tories out. "The future offer is the chance of establishing a progressive hegemony over British politics, where we have created the foundations for a progressive century in which public spending is not something to be attacked and reviled but a fundamental linchpin of a high-quality society and economy.

"If all we get is two terms in office, a very right-wing administration would demolish all that."