Charles Clarke: 'Neil Kinnock Had Far More Qualities Than Ed Miliband As A Leader'

14/07/2014 11:49 | Updated 14 July 2014

Charles Clarke is running late for our interview. "I'll be there in three minutes," reads his text to me. Eight years after being sacked from the government and four years after losing his seat in parliament, Clarke is a busy man.

The former home secretary is now a visiting professor at University College London and the universities of East Anglia and Lancaster; co-convenor of the Westminster Faith Debates; a trustee of the Alexandria Trust education charity in the Middle East; and chair of a Policy Network project on public service reform. He spends much of his time jetting around the world to moderate seminars and attend conferences. He is also the editor of a new book called 'The Too Difficult Box' which highlights the short-termism of our democratic system and "the big issues politicians can't crack".

So, is his own political career over? "I think it probably is," he says, once the interview begins over green tea in a plush central London hotel. "I'm not going to stand for parliament again, except in extraordinary circumstances." Such as? "If I felt that Labour might be likely to win an election and if I felt I might have a part in it, neither of which I think is true, then I might think about the situation again. I don't regret not being in parliament. I haven't enjoyed opposition ever."

Clarke likes getting things done, getting laws passed and policies implemented. Nevertheless, he says he was prompted to do the book because of his frustration at the sheer number of people who believe "that politics is only a question of will; ie if you decide you want to do something you can do something".

It's not a view he shares. "I think there are a very large number of obstacles in terms of getting to the end..it's not enough to make a speech or do a tweet or whatever." What motivated him to edit the book - which was based on a series of lectures he organised at the University of East Anglia, under the same title - was the view that "our political system is not equipped to deal with [long-term problems] because it's so short-term, so immediate, so personality-driven."

The former cabinet minister - whose father, Sir Richard Clarke, was a Treasury permanent secretary in the sixties - thinks the only way to resolve long-term political and economic challenges such as climate change, deficit reduction or "the classic issue of our time", the failure to regulate big banks, is through a bipartisan approach, with politicians working across party and ideological lines. "You'll never get rid of adversarial politics..but you have to strive to see where there can be common ground."

Does that mean, then, that he's a fan of coalition governments? Or are they merely necessary evils, something to be avoided if possible?

"I would put it as a necessary evil," he responds. "I think all parties are coalitions, all governments are coalitions." Ultimately, he says, "people want their politicians to solve the problems they experience".

'NO NARRATIVE' LABOUR

Clarke, who lost his own Norwich South by in 2010 by just 310 votes, is interested in political narratives. In 2012, the former cabinet minister told the Telegraph that Labour needed "to have a clear narrative of what we did right and what we did wrong. We're not remotely near that."

Two years on, I wonder, does he think the Labour Party, under Ed Miliband, is any closer to having that much-needed narrative?

"No," he says, bluntly. "It has no narrative."

Clarke continues: "I made this argument immediately after 2010: we had to answer three questions. One, why did we lose? Two, how do we oppose? Three, how do we win?"

alistair darling Ed Miliband is in search of a narrative, says Clarke chancellor?

Clarke himself isn't "clear why we lost" but believes that "a very big reason is we had no vision for the future of the country. We simply said 'Don't vote Conservative!' and, in my opinion, that wasn't enough and we're coming to a position in 2015 where we're basically saying the same again."

The chief critique of Labour's current narrative on the economy, of course, relates to the party's unwillingness to apologise for its spending record in office, between 1997 and 2010. The Tories, the Lib Dems and sections of the press are convinced Labour overspent in office in the run-up to the financial crash, and thereby excessively increased both the national debt and the budget deficit. Shadow chancellor Ed Balls has refused to concede an inch on this particular issue. "Do I think the level of public spending going into the crisis was a problem for Britain? No, I don't," Balls told the BBC's Andrew Marr in January.

The shadow chancellor's political opponents will be delighted to discover that Clarke agrees with them, not Balls. The former cabinet minister and Tony Blair ally believes that Labour "started overspending in 2006. We had very tight control prior to that, we had the situation running well. When we did increase spending, which we did on health, we did it by increasing national insurance."

So what changed, in his view? "In my opinion, the Blair-Brown tensions got greater and greater and Gordon was very fixated on becoming prime minister and didn't want to do the unpopular things which were necessary if you were going to control expenditure.

"For me, the most classic illustration of that was the absolutely foolhardy and mad decision to reduce the income tax rate by 2p in the pound in his last budget as chancellor, in 2007, which I thought was completely unnecessary, did nothing on the deficit, went exactly the wrong way.. and it was purely a gratuitous thing which he thought could symbolise where he was."

Clarke reiterates his view on overspending: "From about 2006 until 2008 we did overspend, not very, very dramatically but significantly, and we should have had the controls on and I argued that in government at the time and Gordon was very clear what he was doing."

Brown, while chancellor, had a strong grip on economic policy, to the consternation of Tony Blair and his allies. Clarke once famously called Brown "deluded", a "control freak" and "totally uncollegiate". Does he stand by that description of his former cabinet colleague?

"Er yes basically," Clarke says, with a shrug, before adding that Brown's "handling, after the 2008 crash, of the G20, was absolutely outstanding and nobody else could have done that. He played a role in world leadership which was exceptional which was and entirely to his credit and entirely positive." Then comes the kicker: "Just about everything else [from Brown] didn't past that test."

Does it bother him that Brown tends to spend much of his time at conferences and charity events abroad, rather than in Westminster, where he still sits as MP (for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath)? "Of course! He's an elected member of parliament. If he doesn't want to be an MP he should stand down."

The very Blairite Clarke faults Miliband and Balls - "the sons of Brown," in the memorable phrase of David Cameron - for failing to "set out very clearly their own plan for controlling the deficit. That is not the same as cutting spending. It's a combination of taxes and charges versus spending. That's never been made clear."

The former home secretary says "the choice about opposition" revolves around having "to decide whether you're going to oppose what the government does absolutely or whether you're going to oppose by contrasting what they're doing with what you would have done given the circumstances".

Would he get rid of Balls as shadow chancellor and replace him with former Labour chancellor Alistair Darling, as some in his party have suggested?

"I don't think Alistair wants to do it [but] definitely I think it would be better for Labour if Alistair was there rather than Ed Balls."

He quickly adds, however: "I'm not calling for Ed Balls to go."

alistair darling Would Labour be better off with Alistair Darling as shadow chancellor?

Can Labour turn around public opinion on its economic credibility over the next ten months? Clarke is pessimistic. "I don't completely exclude it but I think it's unlikely."

I remind him that he said at the start of our interview that one of the reasons he wouldn't consider standing for parliament again is because he didn't think Labour could win. What does he think the result of next year's general election will be?

"I think the most likely outcome is a Tory overall majority."

It is a remarkable remark from a former Labour home secretary and bona fide 'big beast'; a damning indictment of how little support Miliband has from certain sections of his own party.

HE AIN'T NO KINNOCK

Clarke's withering assessment of Miliband's leadership continues when I ask him whether he agrees with those critics of the Labour leader who call him the 'new Neil Kinnock'. Clarke served as Kinnock's chief of staff in the 1987 and 1992 general elections, both of which Kinnock lost.

miliband kinnock Is Ed Miliband the 'new Neil Kinnock', as some critics suggest? "Neil has far, far more qualities than Ed Miliband as a leader," he says, adding: "Neil was a fantastic leader and brought Labour back towards victory" before conceding "people didn't see [Neil] as the change".

How about Ed? Can people close their eyes for a moment and see him standing on the doorstep of Number 10 Downing Street? Does he pass the "blink test"?

Clarke's answer, given his earlier criticisms of Miliband, rather surprises me. "He does actually. I think he has a problem with the population, undoubtedly.. he is an intelligent man, he'd be a good prime minister. I don't myself think he's geeky.. I think those are offensive-type descriptions. I don't go along with all that stuff."

So what advice would he give the Labour leader - if, that is, he was ever invited to do so by Miliband or those around him?

Clarke is typically blunt. "Set out a clear statement of what Labour would actually do. Give people a reason to vote Labour.. not an assembly of odd policies like the electricity freeze or whatever."

Clarke believes Miliband lacks an "overall story": "You've got to set out an overall account of what it is. And I don't think we have an account and I think that's Ed's biggest challenge."

I ask him if there are any obvious people in the shadow cabinet he would be willing to tip as future leaders of the party. The former home secretary delivers what sounds like yet another withering putdown of his former colleagues: "I don't know who the obvious people are. I can't see obvious people."

Clarke, like most card-carrying Blairites, backed the elder, not younger, Miliband in the 2010 Labour leadership contest. Could he envisage David, now based in New York, returning to Westminster, perhaps to pick up the pieces after the general election defeat for Labour next year that Clarke predicts?

"He is a great man [and] has a great deal to contribute but I cant see him coming back into British politics."

How about Tony Blair? In a recent BBC interview, Clarke said Blair was "in quite a tragic position" because "he finished as prime minister relatively young" and can't now seem to find find a route back into British politics. But would voters want to see the return of such a divisive and polarising political figure? After all, one in five voters, according to YouGov, thinks the former prime minister should be tried for war crimes.

Remarkably, Clarke believes Blair still has massive electoral appeal. "Were he a Labour MP, I think he'd have every chance of being elected leader of the Labour Party, which is quite extraordinary, and were he elected leader of the Labour Party, I think he'd have every chance of being elected prime minister, which is also extraordinary."

The loyal Clarke concedes, however, that his former boss is indeed "very divisive and he is very divisive because a significant body of opinion.. thinks he's completely terrible. I don't think they're right to think he's terrible but the fact is they do think he's terrible and they say that all the time."

What about Blair's post-prime ministerial career? The millions he has made in the private sector, as well as the rather dodgy decisions to work for the Kazakh government and, allegedly, offer to advise the Egypt's generals? Does the former PM have no responsibility for his own poor image with the public?

tony blair Tony Blair is a 'divisive' figure because so many people think he's 'terrible'

Clarke defends Blair's foreign activities ("I'm, in general, in favour of engagement with other countries, not non-engagement") before admitting: "If you're talking about his reputation, there is no question that he has damaged his reputation. The money has damaged his reputation, some of his contacts have damaged the reputation, some aspects of the way he's spent his life have damaged his reputation."

DISAGREEING WITH DAWKINS

Clarke, like Blair, has made faith a focus of his post-parliamentary career. In 2012, he co-founded and co-chaired, with Professor Linda Woodhead of Lancaster University, the Westminster Faith Debates. Is he a man of faith himself?

"I'm certainly not a believer," he tells me, as he sips his tea. So why the interest in religion and faith? "When I worked in inner-city politics in Hackney in the late seventies, early eighties, I came to appreciate that a lot of the people who were behind the community movements were, in many ways, people of faith and they were doing it not as a recruitment drive for their own faith; they were doing it because they believed in [society]."

Clarke says his period in government, as education secretary and home secretary, reinforced his view of the importance and centrality of faith to British public life: "It was apparent that faith was a very big factor. In the case of education: faith schools, the RE curriculum; in home [affairs]: community tensions, terrorist attacks." He continues: "Religion was a big aspect but very few people in government, including myself, understood what religion was, what it was about. There was a kind of secularism that said we should pretend Britain doesn't have religions in its society. But it does have religions in its society."

Does he disagree with the 'new atheists', the likes of Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, who believe religion is a force for evil?

"It's generally a force for good." He pauses. "On balance.. a force for good. I don't agree with Richard [Dawkins]."

In recent months, however, religious faith has been seen as a threat to 'British values'. In Birmingham, for instance, Muslim hardliners have been accused by the education secretary Michael Gove and by Ofsted of trying to infiltrate and take over local state schools. 'Operation Trojan Horse' is the rather alarmist title given to the supposed plot.

"I'm glad you said supposed plot," Clarke says. "I'd like to see the facts. It's clear that some of the Ofsted inspections haven't been as effective as they need to be but I do think we need to see the facts."

He continues: "Even if it were demonstrated that there was a plot to take over certain schools.. I would say it is a very, very small number of schools we're talking about, out of the 25,000 schools in Britain."

How does the former education secretary think the current incumbent has handled the whole affair? "I think he has done rather badly in the whole approach." Clarke doesn't have a problem with Gove's invocation of 'British values' ("I don't think there is a real contention about what those values are") but says the education secretary's "'draining the swamp' metaphor isn't right and I think he has an ideology here which is based on an enormous Manichean view of society, which is simply not right, and he is transmitting his own ideology and views into the way in which he looks at [this]."

Is he referring to the neoconservative, 'clash of civilisations' thesis advanced by Gove in his 2006 book, 'Celsius 7/7'? "All that stuff, which I think is massively overstated."

michael gove 'Manichean' Michael Gove has handled the Birmingham plot allegations 'badly'

So, hold on, the former New Labour home secretary doesn't buy the Gove/Cameron/Blair-endorsed 'conveyor belt' thesis, which says radicalisation is a linear process, with the adoption of radical or ultra-conservative beliefs inevitably followed by an embrace of violence and terror?

"Not really," he replies. "I think there are many people who are very conservative in the religious sense who wouldn't dream of using violence. I think it's very exceptional."

Clarke's view is that "all religions have within them an element of people who can turn into a sect.. and are ready to resort to killing people.. but I think it's a very big mistake to relate to that to the faiths from which they claim their authority. And certainly to argue some kind of a linear line of behaviour is quite wrong."

Unsurprisingly, the former home secretary doesn't accept that Labour's raft of anti-terror laws - from detention without trial to control orders to greater surveillance and the rest - played a role in radicalising young British Muslims. "I'm obviously extremely familiar with the argument.. but I didn't believe it then and I don't believe it now."

If he was still home secretary, would the sheer number of young Britons - estimated at around 500 - who have gone out to fight with Isis and other jihadist groups in Syria keep him awake at night?

"I wouldn't say [it would be] keeping me awake at night but I'd certainly be worried about it. But I'm nearer to [former MI6 chief] Richard Dearlove's position, when he describes them as a relatively unimportant group of people who have lost their way in life."

How can the British government prevent young Muslims from going out to fight in the Middle East for Isis et al?

He shrugs. "I don't think there's much we can do at all."

'IGNORANT AND ILL-INFORMED'

The current coalition government is much more focused on stopping people coming into the country, than stopping people leaving it. The Labour opposition, too, has taken a much more hardline stance on immigration under Miliband, promising to keep the "cap on skilled workers" and expressing regret over the last Labour government's failure to introduce transitional controls on new EU migrants in 2004.

Clarke, who was sacked as home secretary by Blair in 2006 over a scandal involving the release of foreign prisoners, thinks Miliband and shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper are "completely wrong" to repeatedly issue apologies on this issue. "They are basing their critique on too-weak transition controls when the A8 countries came in. I think the absolute reverse is the case. The fact is that the decision to widen the EU was the right one, that did involve freedom of movement of labour within the EU [but] I think the case for doing it immediately was extremely strong. Our economy was very strong at the time and we were were far more resilient to deal with people coming to work in this country from Poland and elsewhere. I don't believe that it had the big damage to our economy that some people argue."

The former home secretary continues: "One of my restraints over the last three or four years has been to not attack particularly Yvette and Ed Miliband on what I think are ignorant and ill-informed statements about what happened in this whole process."

miliband yvette cooper Miliband and Cooper are guilty of 'ignorant and ill-informed statements' on immigration

Clarke is passionate and disputatious. In the course of our hour-long interview, he has disagreed with Eds Miliband and Balls, with Michael Gove and with Richard Dawkins, among others. He remains a Labour big beast and politics flows through his veins. So is life as an academic, author and commentator enough for the former cabinet minister?

Why not become a peer and make his voice heard in the House of Lords, like other former home secretaries such as Michael Howard and John Reid?

He shakes his head. "I don't want a pererage," he replies. "I could have had a peerage. Gordon should have offered one but didn't - but that's his affair."

Clarke then adds: "But I'm glad I'm not there now."

What about the job of London mayor? The next mayoral election isn't until 2016 and Labour has yet to decide on a candidate. Would the ex-cabinet minister - and former Hackney councillor - consider throwing his hat in the ring?

"Not at all," he says, rather dismissively. Referring to Tessa Jowell and Andrew Adonis, among others, he explains: "Other friends of mine are considering doing that but its not a job I'd enjoy [and] my basic advice to my friends is not to go for it." Why? "I don't think its a real job.. The question is what do you do with it? What can you change?"

For the former Norwich South MP, parliament is where the real political action still happens. He is, however, adamant that he has no plans to return there, partly because he believes his party won't win the next election.

The polls, of course, suggest otherwise. If Miliband wins in May 2015, and Labour returns to office, Clarke may regret his decision to stay on the sidelines.

CONVERSATIONS