House of Lords Question on Syria

Peter Hain asked the Foreign Office Minister the following question in the House of Lords on 1st February

“My Lords, is not the very problem with our foreign policy that, to use our own phrase, we have tried to dictate what should happen, not having learned the lessons from Northern Ireland that you do not impose preconditions when trying to resolve a conflict? To demand at the beginning with a bit of bombast and bluster that Assad must go-he was never going to-then say that he should stay for only six months, and now say that he cannot stand for re-election, is a failed strategy which is contributing to a disastrous catastrophe. Why do the Government not change course and recognise that he has to be negotiated with and a transition agreed?”

For the full debate, click here.

Talking to voters on the doorstep is more important than ever in this election

Western Mail

Getting out on the doorsteps and meeting voters face to face is more important than ever in this election, according to former Welsh Secretary Peter Hain.

The ex-Neath MP is convinced that in this tightly-fought election personal contact is much more effective than cold-calling or social media campaigning.

This is the first general election since 1983 that the former anti-apartheid activist has not been a candidate.

He admitted: “It’s slightly weird in one sense.”

Mr Hain has been knocking on doors in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire in an effort to turn the seat from blue to red and send Delyth Evans to the green benches of the Commons.

Underscoring the importance of meeting voters in person, he said: “I think that this election is more about doorstep work and personal contact than any in my experience. I’ve always believed direct voter contact is much more important than telephone canvassing or digital communication.

“But in this election that is exponentially more the case because there is so much volatility. You can feel it on the doorstep.”

Mr Hain tried to defeat Conservative David Mellor in Putney in the 1983 and 1987 elections but won Neath in a 1991 by-election.

He dismisses comparisons with 1992, when Labour and the Conservatives were deadlocked in the polls until John Major got on his soapbox and secured a majority.

Mr Hain grew “really worried” on polling day that year when he heard turnout in Sussex was “unusually high”.

But he said: “[This] is completely different. This is multi-party politics.

“That was two-party politics and there is an anti-politics mood in the country which is completely different from 1992. The political situation is much more fragmented.”

His “gut feeling” is that Labour will emerge as the largest party and he doubts whether his party will experience the meltdown in Scotland that has been forecast at the hands of the SNP.

However, he said: “The irony is the more people vote SNP the more likely David Cameron will lead the largest party. That’s simply the reality.

“They say that they are an anti-Tory party but in fact that consequence of Nicola Sturgeon doing well is David Cameron remaining in No 10.”

He argues the campaign has been diminished by the absence of head to head debates between Mr Cameron and Ed Miliband, saying: “You can see exactly why David Cameron refused to debate head to head with Ed Miliband because Ed Miliband has surprised people as I always thought he would by the strength of his performance in the election and on television as well…

“He’s confounded his critics and I think if there had been a head to head I think Cameron would have come off the worst and I think that’s why they didn’t do it.”

Describing the type of leadership he hopes Mr Miliband will provide, he said: “I think he will be a very strong prime minister and I think he will show real guts and vision.

“He’s somebody who has a really commitment to social justice and fairness as well as economic prudence and in that combination I think he will be a real breath of fresh air.”

In the meantime, he is coaching a new generation of canvassers on the basics of doorstep campaigning. In particular, he drills them on the importance of pushing leaflets all the way through letter-boxes.

He said: “It’s amazing how many people don’t do that. Other parties come along and pull them out behind you.”

A further word of advice is to stand well back from the door and give voters plenty of personal space.

He said: “You’ve got to remember that for most people political canvassers are a distinctly odd breed.”

Of mandarins and ministers: Securing power, not just office

Fabian Society

Ed Miliband’s Labour government will take office in the toughest of circumstances: our public services on the rack because of cuts, a weak economy with hesitant growth based upon personal debt, housing assets and consumer spending, and with a record trade deficit. Despite the constant Tory mantra, ‘it’s the deficit, stupid!’, all their targets on borrowing, debt and the budget deficit have been missed. Their neoliberal austerity agenda is failing, like elsewhere in Europe. Labour will also face the small problem of ruling without a comfortable majority – or, if the pundits and pollsters are to be believed, no majority.

Labour’s first task will be to abandon the growth-choking austerity, as I have argued in my new book Back to the Future of Socialism, where I set out a coherent, evidence-based alternative, focusing initially on capital spending. But the key will be for incoming ministers to grip their briefs and departments in a way too many in government never do.

When I was appointed a minister by Tony Blair in May 1997, nobody had really taught me how to be one. Although during the 1997 election campaign I had read Gerald Kaufman’s instructive if somewhat satirical book How to be a Minister, I relied upon my own experience, instincts and political values.

Crucially important for an incoming minister is to have a plan; otherwise, the private office, diligent and supportive though I found all of mine in twelve years of government, quickly takes over and fills the diary, prompting busy hours of worthily processing papers and shuffling between meetings. Most important is to arrive on the first day with a sense of political priorities, even if the detail needs to be filled in. Otherwise even the most able ministers find themselves running to keep up, and sinking under piles of routine paperwork.

Many in our ministerial cadre, particularly though not exclusively below cabinet level, seemed more captured by their departments than not. However, Charles Clarke was a notable exception. In 2000, when we were both ministers of state, he in the Home Office, me in the Foreign Office, we had a meeting to discuss getting retired police officers to help with the transition from military peacekeeping to local civilian security, especially in African conflict zones. My officials had been frustrated by lack of co-operation from their Home Office counterparts and recommended a ministerial meeting to resolve the impasse.

Often on such occasions, a ministerial colleague would regurgitate their brief and the meeting would end, with officials happily going off to do what they love doing: reflect, write a fresh paper and prepare for another meeting. ‘Departmentalitis’ is rife within Whitehall, the Treasury by far the worst offender, so I was briefed up to persuade Charles of the merits of the proposal.

He arrived, plonked his burly frame on my office sofa, eyed up the grand old colonial surroundings, and politely interrupted my opening remarks: “Peter, I have looked at this carefully – and I completely agree with you.” His officials looked more startled than mine. “Now shall we tell them all to work out the details as quickly as they can, and let’s discuss some politics?” As the room emptied, we reflected upon what proved to be a common perspective on the shortcomings and successes of the Blair government and how to make it better. How refreshing it was to deal with Charles.

It is pointless being a minister unless you are prepared give political leadership. Although the legendary Yes Minister television series, where civil servants run rings around their hapless minister often comes uncomfortably close to the mark, my experience was rather different. Officials, I found, valued strong political leadership and direction – ministers who knew their own minds – provided they were willing to take advice. The best private secretaries ensured delivery of my ministerial decisions whilst keeping a wary eye for propriety and telling me things I might not want to hear. The best officials had a ‘can do’ rather than a ‘can’t do’ attitude and, if the civil service only adopted that motto as the norm it would be massively more efficient and immeasurably better at delivery.

Maintaining a grip on the ministerial brief involved striking a balance between the routine and the significant. My years in government suggested several lessons.

Around 80 per cent of the pile of papers and files in your in-tray or red box was straightforward and could in principle have been handled by the departmental machine. You needed to keep a weather eye on this bulk because it might contain elephant traps or plain mistakes. It might also contain what I called ‘piss-off’ messages to MPs, couched in turgid prose by drafting officials blissfully oblivious to their impact. You couldn’t simply sign off this material even if tired or late at night. However, for me, doing the job successfully meant focusing as clearly as possible on the 20 per cent where a difference really can be made. I also ‘did my red boxes overnight’, keeping on top of the workload, leaving more time to prioritise and focus on the politics.

Are we in office but not in power? That age old question for Labour governments will be worth every one of Ed’s new Labour ministers asking themselves every day.