Interview: Hazel Blears

The former minister says a strong Labour response to the government's big society agenda is the party's key to winning back power at the next general election

Hazel Blears
Hazel Blears

The former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will be in charge of putting together Labour's response to the big society in her new role as chair of the party's Social Action Forum, a group of about 20 MPs that will propose policies on the voluntary sector in time for the next election.

Members of the group will spend the next 18 months travelling around the country to meet voluntary organisations. The group will then propose policies to the party and its leader, Ed Miliband.

"We had a very bad election result last year," says Blears. "People felt we didn't connect with their day-to-day lives and concerns. Involving people in community action and showing we support community groups is a key way of helping the Labour Party to reconnect with people."

Blears is scathing about the government's use of the term 'big society' to describe its approach to the voluntary sector. "It's clearly stolen from the The Big Issue and The Big Lunch, so it isn't even new language," she says.

"It's just a convenient piece of political branding. It says to the right wing of the Tory party that you can have a small state, and to the Liberal Democrats that there is such a thing as society, despite what Margaret Thatcher said."

Labour agenda

But what really bothers Blears is a feeling that the government has successfully laid its claim to traditional Labour territory.

"This has been a Labour agenda for a long time," she says. "I feel angry and disappointed that the coalition has been able to say it is theirs."

Brandishing a copy of her 2008 white paper, Communities in Control, she says all of the government's policies on the voluntary sector are covered in the document.

"The coalition is saying asset transfer is a great new idea, but we had 100 local authorities participating in it," she says. "We had participatory budgeting and a strategy to transfer public services to social enterprises and mutuals.

"If this government has had a Damascene conversion to collective action, then I welcome it enormously, but these aren't their new ideas."

Asked why the new government found it so easy to appropriate this agenda, Blears replies: "The government's 'big society' phrase is a neat way of encapsulating the idea. We talked about 'communities in control', and maybe that language wasn't as neat."

Reclaim territory

Blears says she is looking forward to helping her party reclaim the territory. "I'm excited about doing some real grass-roots work," she says. "After nine years in government, it is so refreshing to be able to go round the country and be with people and find out their ideas."

She admits that the Labour government made mistakes in its policies on the voluntary sector. "Successive governments, including ours, didn't necessarily give the priority to community development that was needed," she says.

"I also think sometimes that the default position of government is to set up structures, and that's not always the right thing to do. You can just as easily use existing channels and organisations."

But her list of criticisms of the present government's policies is much longer. "The whole big society agenda is dependent to a large extent on funding from local government, which is being cut drastically," she says. "Philanthropy can certainly play a role in this, but there's no way it can completely fill that gap."

Blears says she is also worried that the community organisers programme will fail because the organisers will be unable to raise the money needed to fund their salaries, and that some Conservative politicians will see the mutuals programme as a halfway house to the privatisation of public services.

Asked which policy areas the Social Action Forum will focus on, Blears says: "It's far too early for that. At the moment, it's just about getting out into communities and finding out what's going on at a local level. Then we can decide what a future Labour government should be doing about it."

Pivotal role

Blears says the policies that the group sets out will play a pivotal role in the party's next general election campaign. "Ed Miliband is keen on this," she says. "He's got a lot of good relationships with the sector from his days as third sector minister."

She refuses, however, to be drawn on the question of whether her role as chair of the Social Action Forum is a first step towards a return to the party's front bench.

"I'm not even contemplating it at the moment," she says. "Empowering local people to take more control over their own lives is my absolute passion and priority."

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