“Hazel Blears? Good luck mate. She’s the most on message politician I’ve ever met”.
“Hazel is a robot. ‘Tony good. Labour good. Tony good. Labour good’. Scratch the surface and you just find another surface underneath”.
Hmmm. Uncut arrives at our meeting with the woman described by one Labour MP as the bionic Blairite with some trepidation. We like discipline and loyalty – in moderation. But we also like a peek behind the curtain. Will we be able to uncover what makes the bionic Blairite tick?
Let’s kick off with Ed Miliband. She voted for him fourth, behind Andy, David and Ed. According to reports, he offered her a job and she turned it down, although Ed’s office officially denies this. Hazel confirms that she had a meeting with Ed and told him she wanted some time out on the back benches. So what does she think of the new leader?
“I would characterise Ed’s leadership as calm, measured, steady, and actually, a surprise to people. I don’t think you have to come out as a brand new leader with fireworks and pazzaz. When Ed won, a lot of people said ‘Ed’s a blank page’. Well in a lot of ways that’s not bad for us, because we need to reflect on why we got the worst result since 1983. I don’t mind a bit of reflection”.
No fireworks. No pazzaz. This could be a long haul.
“But, if we don’t defend our record nobody will. If you walk round my city, it’s not paradise, it’s not nirvana, but it’s a damn sight better than it was. This narrative the Tories are getting traction with, that it was all a disaster, we bust the bank, spent all the money; it’s at our peril that we let that just be the story. People may accuse me of wearing rose tinted glasses, being gung ho; well sorry I’m not going to be snivelling and apologising for what I think in many ways was a damn fine government”.
A flash of passion. Not synthesised. Real, “I’ll see you out side”, anger.
So what about those people who aren’t so keen on Labour’s legacy. Who are relieved they’ve got their party back?
“Back for what? Do I think of my party as a place where I’m comfortable because the only voices I hear are ones that agree with me? Am I comfortable reading my newspaper because my newspaper reflects all of my prejudices and it makes me feel good? Or do I want my party to be an agent of change, give a voice to people who don’t have a voice and empower people who don’t have power? My party’s not for me, my party’s for all those people who depend on having a Labour government”.
Well that’s Neil Kinnock put in his place. But does Hazel really believe that Labour, or, let’s be honest, the New Labour project she so resolutely defended, made no mistakes?
“Look, we’ve got to be prepared to start from stage one. And that’s not something I’d normally say. Yes we’ve got a great record. But we stopped connecting with ordinary families. People thought either we were the party just for the poor and for immigrants, or we were the party for the rich business people. All those people in the middle thought what’s the Labour party got to offer me”?
A party for the poor and the immigrants. That’s challenging language. It’s not the line to take.
“Ed’s go to get out into the community. And he’s got to spend time out there. When I was in the cabinet I went and spent three days working behind a till in Tesco. All the cabinet went out. David went out with some community workers. Andy Burnham went and worked in a hospital. No press. And that’s what Ed’s got to do. But not as a gimmick”.
All politicians like to present themselves as grounded in real life; though not all cabinet ministers go as far as calling for a price check on the frozen peas. Hazel Blears is honest enough to admit that her time in government saw her becoming disconnected from the realties of the world she was elected to represent.
“In government you start to believe your own propaganda. Everybody does. And being brought down to earth actually makes you stronger and a better politician”.
On 3 June, 2009, Hazel Blears crashed to earth with a bang. Her resignation from the cabinet, announced the day before the European and local elections, unleashed a wave of criticism. Her actions were condemned as “unforgiveable” by colleagues. She even faced a deselection motion in her constituency.
Talking about that time brings about a change. Neither defensive nor combative. She speaks without a shield.
“This is one of the most difficult things for me. All I can say is…if you put yourself in my shoes, at that time in someone’s life then you’re not always going to make the most rational, logical decision. It was an incredibly emotional time. I’ve never gone into the detail of that time, and I don’t propose to. I’m not somebody who writes books. I’ve said to everyone I didn’t intend to hurt anyone”.
If she had her time over again we should act in the same way?
“I’d hope if I had my time over again those circumstances wouldn’t arise and I wouldn’t have been placed in that position of having to make a horrendous decision. But I think I would have done everything I could, if I was going to go, to wait until after the polls. That would have been a much better place to be”.
She portrays herself now as the reluctant rebel. But at the time she pointedly allowed herself to be photographed wearing the infamous “rocking the boat” necklace. Was it intentional? Subliminal?
“It wasn’t very subliminal was it? I think it was just indicative of where my mind was. I was in an emotional frenzy”.
Does she still have the necklace?
“Yeah, I’ve still got it. People have offered me huge sums, asked me to auction it on E-bay. Apparently the Manchester jeweller I bought it from got inundated with orders. But that necklace was just another sign of where I’d been placed and what had happened to me”.
She’s open about the fact that she’s been through a dark time. And although there is something ritualistic about fallen politicians returning to their roots, she is compelling when she talks about reconnecting with her constituency.
“I came into politics as a community activist. I was involved in every local community organisation. I was a councillor. It’s who I am. The last 18 months has enabled me to discover a bit more. Do things not at the behest of other people, but the things I want to do and I believe in. I think I’ve found a bit of the genuine feisty Hazel Blears in there”.
Speaking for herself is important. For years she was the indefatigable point woman for Tony Blair. And she admits to a sense of frustration at becoming caricatured as the politician who unthinkingly drove through her boss’s programme, rather than developing one of her own.
“When times got tough, who was on the tele? I was asked to go and defend the government in some circumstances when no one else wanted to. And that lead to a view of me that is understandable, but not necessarily true to my character and personality”.
Nor does she feel, despite her loyalty to Tony Blair, that she was ever really part of his, or anyone’s, inner circle.
“When I first came to parliament a very senior member of the government had me in and said “Hazel, you’re never going to get anywhere here”. I was shocked. I didn’t know anybody, didn’t have any patronage, didn’t have anybody looking after me, and I said, “why?”. And she said, “you’re too cheerful”.
She attributes her ascent to hard work and resilience. Tough. Feisty. They are her favourite adjectives. But after everything she’s been through, from favourite daughter to pariah, no one’s that tough.
“I’m human. And what I went through did affect me… but in a good way. It didn’t make me tougher and harder like granite. It actually made me more emotional. The problem with the party was that we became so managerial and technocratic that we drove out the passion”.
Passion. Emotion. Vulnerability. These are not words associated with the identikit Blairite babe.
But Blair has gone. And Hazel Blears is nobody’s babe. These day’s she’s only true to herself.
But will it remain that way? Can she not be tempted back from the freedom of the back benches to “front line” politics?
“We’ll see wont we. It’s a bit of a test for me this time. I want to see what I can do. I’ve established the social action forum with Jon Cruddas. I’m serving on the intelligence scrutiny committee. I want to get involved in the party’s organisational agenda. When are the next shadow cabinet elections”?
Two years time.
“I’m not ruling anything in or anything out”.
She’s back on message. But it’s too late. We’ve peeked behind the curtain. Caught a glimpse of the real Hazel Blears. And we like her.
Keep rocking that boat.
Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.