A man for all seasons: Dan Hodges interviews Peter Hain

Hain. A signature surname. No introductions necessary.

Some politicians travel on a journey. Peter Hain streaks like a comet.

Anti-apartheid insurgency. Letter bombs. Arrest. Conspiracy. Sensational acquittal. Liberal activism. Labour defection. Left wing standard bearer. Moderniser. Cabinet minister.

It’s a biography most politicians would die for. And those are just the highlights. Where, Uncut wonders, can Peter Hain possibly be heading next.

“Chairman of the national policy forum”.

Oh. Er, that’s a bit prosaic isn’t it? What about policy guru? Or supremo? Ed Miliband personally selected you for this role. Surely it must come with some grand honorific?

“I’m also Ed’s representative on the national executive”. Representative? Not capo? Consigliere? We’ll work on it.

“What I want to say to followers of Labour Uncut is – ‘I’m interested in your ideas. If you’ve got a new ideas or policies, I’d like to hear them’”.

Brilliant. Uncut’s followers – we do like to think of ourselves as something of a cult – are all ears. This is fresh. Innovative. Hain – the Peter Hain – is reaching out to us. The doors of the policy forum, the inner-sanctum where Blairite alchemists concocted their heady third-way brew, are to be thrown open. How will it work, Peter? Tell us. Bring us within the fold.

“Well, at the moment, you know, I’ve only just been recommended for this post. I’m just interested in new ideas basically”.

Ideas. Well, I’m sure we can come up with some. Maybe need a little steer though. Bit of guidance. Know it’s a fresh dawn and everything. New politics. Inclusivity. But after all those years of visionary leadership and iron discipline, perhaps a little nudge?

“It’s my job to act as funnel for Ed Miliband’s vision and strategic objectives to be channelled through. And then for the party to be engaged in that”.

So what is Ed Miliband’s big vision?

“Well, you know, he set that all out in his conference speech. To refound Labour as the only progressive party in British politics that is able to popularise our appeal to the point we win back the five million votes we lost when we were in government. That’s what our mission is”.

Something’s not right with Hain. At least, not our Hain. All right, his rugby pitch defiling, civil disobedience igniting, direct action days are well behind him. But there’s always been an edge to his politics. Some bite.

Not at the moment. This isn’t Hain. It’s just another guy called Peter. Safe. Wary.

Where does Peter stand on deficit reduction?

“Where Ed is”.

And where is Ed?

“He will explain that next week”.

Hain once wrote a book called “Ayes to the Left”. That was in 1995. It set out to demonstrate how a genuinely radical left of centre agenda could be both progressive and popular. Nobody did things like that in 1995. Nobody dared write or say anything that hadn’t been approved by Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson. Hain dared. We’re not letting that boy go without a fight.

Peter, tell us about Alan Johnson’s appointment. Does that really mean Ed’s going to join the ranks of the deficit conservatives?

“Look Alan will be a very able shadow chancellor, and he’s shown in all the jobs he’s done that he can pick up a brief and sprint with it. But what people forget is Ed is an economist. He’s not a party leader who’s going to chair a range of views and attract a synthesis. He’s got a very clear idea of where he wants to go on the economy and the deficit and we’ll set that out. We’ll both be offering a serious alternative”.

A stirring. Peter has sharp elbows. Alan Johnson must know his place. Ed will chart his own course. And when he does, Peter will have a steely hand on the tiller.

Hain was never the leader’s consort. He was always the outsider. Even when he was on the inside. Downing Street regarded him as a talented minister. But they watched him like a hawk.

The leadership campaign changed everything. Ed was the underdog. The no hoper. Hain had a new cause.

“I always thought he could win. But compared to David’s campaign, and it’s not a criticism, we had nothing. No finances. No supporters”.

But he had Hain.

“We started from ground zero in a sense. But it was clear from the very first PLP hustings that he spoke at a lot of younger members who didn’t go into that room expecting to support him decided they were going to. Some of them who naturally might have gravitated to David immediately backed Ed because they thought ‘yeah, here’s somebody who’s going to have a different style of leadership. He’s going to listen more. Be more inclusive’. That was a big moment”.

Here, as we step back onto the campaign trail, dull Peter begins to come alive. The struggle. Against the odds. A struggle the old Hain would recognise. Relish.

“We set upon a strategy, and I remembered it from my failed deputy leader campaign, to go for the second preferences. We always knew we would be behind on the first preferences, and we were. But we always knew we could win on the second preferences, and the third, and we had a very clear strategy on that”.

As he talks, about the innovative ground operation, the capture of the unions, the winning strategy he helped mastermind, dull Peter rises, and quietly leaves the room. Hain, our Hain, Peter Hain takes his place.

On child benefit:

“Universality is non negotiable. If you start driving a coach and horses through universality you’re effectively saying to middle Britain you’ve got no stake in the welfare state. I think the Tories and Liberals are making a very big mistake on child benefit. There’s an answer to people on higher incomes and that’s they pay higher taxes. And that is the answer to squaring that circle”.

On New Labour’s divisive briefing culture:

“Attending the first shadow cabinet this morning, Ed made it clear he will not tolerate briefing, counter briefing and factionalism. There’ll be none from his office and he doesn’t expect it from anyone else. That’s very welcome because throughout the last fifteen years the briefing culture’s been absolutely endemic in the way were operating and it was very debilitating”.

On red Ed:

“You’ve got to remember, we’ve got a rabidly right wing press at the present time. The red Ed tag is a lazy right wing tag from the Mail and the Sun. What else would you have expected. If Ed’s politics are regarded as red then where is the space left in British politics for a sensible serious coherent argument from the centre left”.

Pushing the boundaries on personal taxation. Slapping down the briefers. Piling in to the Tory press.

Hain has not changed. Only his circumstances. For decades he has been an insurgent. Battlements were there to be scaled, castles stormed.

Now roles are reversed. He is captain of the guard. While his King sleeps, it is Hain who is charged with keeping the barbarians from the gates.

If at times he seems uncertain, unsure of his new responsibilities, that’s understandable. The Hain biography is an impressive one. But there’s nothing in it to quite prepare him for the trials ahead.

Bombs. Arrests. Conspiracies. Small beer. Steering Ed Miliband safely to the steps of Downing Street? Now that really will be a journey.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.

Tags: , , ,

3 Responses to “A man for all seasons: Dan Hodges interviews Peter Hain”

  1. Paul W says:

    The great survivor. Whatever you think of him, very few politicians could ever match that CV.

  2. Dan Hodges says:

    …or that tan…

  3. Neil W says:

    Ed could not ask for a better suited Pratorian in my opinion. Peter has seen much and done more.

    His appointment is yet another example of the intelligent and worldly moves Ed has made to date. Long may it continue.

Leave a Reply