Lord Falconer: People who rock the boat are not helping Labour’s cause

Written by Sam Macrory on 14 March 2016 in Interview
Interview
The shadow justice secretary discusses Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the need to make more of New Labour’s record – and fitting in with the shadow cabinet’s facial hair trend.

"I’m in company that hitherto I hadn’t kept. But I’m proud to be there…"

Charlie Falconer, one-time flatmate of Tony Blair and a man once described as being like a brother to the former prime minister, could easily be talking about his unlikely position in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. Instead, he’s assessing his recently grown beard.

It’s the latest step in his physical reinvention. During the New Labour years Lord Falconer, who was ennobled by Blair shortly after the 1997 general election, tipped the scales at over 16 stone, but a daytime diet of diet coke and apples - his puritanical intake ends with an evening meal of his choice - has seen an incredible drop to 11.

However it’s Falconer’s political rejuvenation which is a greater  cause of fascination.

In New Labour’s first term Falconer was appointed to so many ministerial committees that one colleague called him "the eyes and ears of the Prime Minister", and when Blair resigned a decade later Falconer followed suit, quitting front line politics and returning to his legal career. He re-emerged when Harriet Harman, Labour’s interim leader after the 2015 general election, appointed Falconer as her shadow justice secretary. And it’s in that role, even after Corbyn’s shock election as Labour leader, shadow cabinet resignations, removals and  refusals to serve, that Falconer remains, looking ever more like something of a Blairite cuckoo in the Corbyn nest. Perhaps the beard provides cover?

"It fits in very well with the leader of the Labour Party,” he suggests, smiling. “Around the shadow cabinet table there are four of us with beards. Myself, Jeremy Corbyn, Jon Trickett and Jonathan Ashworth - but he, in a lurch back to the centre, has shaved his beard off. It indicates the shadow cabinet is going the way of Great Britain generally, which is that facial hair is more to be seen. And we’re nothing if not connected to the facial hair trend of the country." 

Whether Jeremy Corbyn’s brand of New Old Labour is connected to the wider trends of the country is the rather more pressing question.

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We meet in an hotel just across the road from Labour’s HQ where, in the run up to the general election, Falconer was employed by Ed Miliband to prepare for Labour’s transition into government.

Overnight his work turned from practical plan to historical artefact, but Falconer has also confined that bruising defeat to the past. Amongst journalists he was one of the more popular members of the New Labour ministerial ranks, not least, as he has noted, because "I felt that I was the only new Labour minister who would drink at lunchtime". The tipple has softened - he orders a diet coke, of course – but Falconer is as upbeat and engaging company in opposition as he was in office.

He insists that he isn't the sole survivor of a very different era - shadow cabinet colleagues "like Andy Burnham, Hilary Benn, Rosie Winterton… I’m not sure that the word Blairite is used by them but we're proud of our record" - and says a period of relative tranquillity has set in amongst Labour’s J-team.

"Since the reshuffle, yes, it’s been much, much calmer and much more focused on getting our domestic policy together. The mood in Labour is very, very focused on fighting the elections and fighting to win the EU referendum," Falconer stresses, before warning that "there is a very, very profound sense right throughout the Labour Party that those people who rock the boat are not helping Labour’s cause".

But any boat-rocking has often run in parallel with the Labour leader’s ability to make the type of waves that put Her Majesty’s Opposition in decidedly choppy waters. Falconer pleads patience.

"What Jeremy has done in the interviews he has given, is he has been willing to answer questions on every single issue” he explains of Corbyn’s musings on the Falkands, shoot-to-kill orders or to whether he would press the nuclear button.

"When Andrew Marr asks him a question about Argentina and the Falklands… what Jeremy does, unlike, as it were, more conventional leaders of the Labour Party, is instead of saying ‘look I’m not going to talk about it, I’m only going to talk about the things that are really current at the moment’, Jeremy, consistent with the idea of open politics, gives a completely frank answer."

It’s a long way from the New Labour school of political communication: does Falconer approve of the Corbyn’s stray-from-the-line approach?

"That is a new way of doing politics, and the media and other politicians then fall upon that and there are lots and lots of hares left running. You end up in a situation where there might not be the focus there would be in a more conventional sort of politics, but Jeremy was elected to do politics in a different way. The public have got to form a view about what his basic politics are."

Labour’s review into the future of the UK’s nuclear deterrent is ongoing, and Falconer insists that it "will determine what Labour Party policy is, and then I assume the leader will then accept what the Labour Party says".

And that could mean the leader accepting he or she might have to press the nuclear button? "Yes. As I understand it, the way the deterrent works is you never know what is going to happen."

Clearly there will be a few more hares set running yet, but Falconer insists that on the issues that matter to voters, Labour is increasingly as one: "It’s part of the current politics that there are evident divisions within Labour on foreign policy, on defence policy, whereas the issues that may determine an election are the domestic issues. There is probably a wide degree of agreement in relation to the EU, in relation to the question on anti-austerity."

And ahead of this week’s budget, Falconer says the shadow cabinet is united on opposing further austerity measures, although he acknowledges that Jeremy Corbyn - who will reply to the Chancellor - faces a tough time at the Despatch Box.

"It is the toughest thing you could possibly do. You have to listen to over an hour of complex statistical material, followed by, inevitably with Osborne, a number of rabbits that come out of the hat which look incredibly healthy at the moment they come out of the hat but look more chronically ill by the time the next day’s papers are out."

Should the Labour leader follow John McDonnell’s Spending Review stunt and come armed with Mao’s Little Red Book? Falconer smiles: "I think, you know, state our basic case…"

The smile remains when I ask what effect Corbyn’s recent appointment of the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis to an informal economic advisory role might be. “Has he actually been appointed to something? "Well, er, I don’t know. I didn’t know that…"

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With the impending EU referendum and intermittent outbursts of Labour’s strife drowning out most other Opposition activity, Falconer has been allowed to focus on his justice brief relatively undisturbed. He shadows Michael Gove, a man described by Blair biographer John Rentoul as the most Blairite minister in government, but Falconer is not impressed with Gove’s "empty rhetoric," on prison reform.

"I was genuinely optimistic something might change but …you can do nothing that is significant if you're keeping the same education budget in prison and not reducing the numbers", Falconer complains. But surely he finds Gove more palatable than his predecessor Chris Grayling, a man Falconer describes as “probably the worst Lord Chancellor since Judge Jeffries" - James II’s notoriously harsh ‘hanging judge'.

"Chris Grayling was just so truly awful [as justice secretary] that of course it is better to have Gove than Grayling, but if what Gove does is emollient words with no change in the funding policies, then maybe it was better to see the beast as it was truly was than nice phrases and words wrapping it all up."

Falconer has three priorities, all of which place him at odds with the justice secretary.  Defend the Human Rights Act, under threat from Gove until he “got lost in an EU vortex”, develop policies that bring down the prison population, and improve access to justice “shamefully allowed to decline” under Grayling.

In 1995 Tony Blair came up with a memorable if now rather hackneyed  phrase to define the New Labour approach to law and order: “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.” Two decades on, how would Falconer crystalize Corbynite thinking?

"We are extremely keen to be tough on crime - we never departed on that - but very keen to address the cause of reoffending." Less catchy, yes, but perhaps more meaningful.

With Falconer operating in what he calls the ‘B-Movie’ of the House of Lords, two of the sharpest brains in Westminster can't face each other at the Despatch Box. "We meet from time to time but we’ve never debated any of these issues since he became Lord Chancellor", Falconer says when asked about taking on Gove. "I strongly wish that we could debate. I would really invite him to debate the EU with me and those three justice issues."

So is Gove a Blairite? “I wouldn’t say that,” he replies. “Being in favour of leaving the EU does not feel to me either Blairite or Labourite. If that’s the best they can do..."

In contrast to Gove, Falconer is a keen supporter of the UK’s membership of the EU. And in contrast to Jeremy Corbyn’s dismissal of David Cameron’s renegotiations as a “theatrical sideshow,” Falconer says the PM has done “not a bad job in what he’s got.”

He insists that Corbyn’s "position and my position are exactly the same", but you wouldn’t hear Corbyn saying of Cameron that "the things that he’s obtained are significant". Falconer goes on to praise the emergency brake as "indicative of a prime minister who is aware that there are significant numbers of communities in this country who feel that immigration from the European Union is making their position worse rather than better", and describes changes to child benefit and exclusion from ever closer union rated as "sensible… I don’t attack the deal he’s done".

Falconer admits that Cameron’s deal won’t guarantee a drop in immigration – "You have to accept free movement of labour when you’re within the EU" – and calls for increased domestic support for communities affected by high levels of immigration,and he also wants to hear a distinct Labour case for staying in the EU.

"There has got to be a Labour case for staying in, which I think is a very different case which Cameron may be making. If we leave the EU that will lead I think to a dip in the country’s trade, it will mean the focus,  for an unspecified period of years, will be on renegotiating all these trade deals, it will lead to a real drop in the prosperity in the country."

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Before the EU referendum, elections are held for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the London mayoralty and a series of English town halls this May.

"I don’t know what is going to happen”, is Falconer’s non-bullish non-prediction, but whatever the result he insists that Jeremy Corbyn’s position should not be under threat. "He will only have been leader for nine or ten months, so no, I think we’ve got to accept that Jeremy is the leader. The issues aren’t about Jeremy but about how well the government has performed."

Unlike Tony Blair, who recently admitted that he doesn’t “fully understand” the current political landscape, Falconer appears to have accepted Corbyn’s ascent. He recognises that a key factor in Corbyn’s rise were the many people who had become "completely fed up with the way politics was done - they didn’t like the over-spun, zipped up dialogue with politicians - and many communities [who] felt the political settlement was not working for them".

But he also recognises that political outsiders can only go so far without broadening their appeal. "You have, against the run of play, David Cameron winning an overall majority. Why is that? Because people, when they see somebody connect with the disaffected, many of them take comfort with the safest alternative."

So how can Jeremy Corbyn persuade  voters to feel safe with him? "For the leader of the Labour Party... it is the ability to speak to the heartland, which our leader can do, but also the ability to speak to the centre which will determine success going forward", Falconer replies. "It’s the people who feel they have been left behind and the great centre who wonder where security lies. That’s what any Labour leader has got to do."

Perhaps he’d like Corbyn to make more of New Labour’s ground hogging, triple-election winning record?

"I think we’ll hear more about that” Falconer intriguingly replies. "We are increasingly aware, in the Labour Party, that we made huge strides in relation to public services and the economy. We became a more liberal country. There’s a huge focus on Iraq, Chilcot is coming, a huge debate over what Tony Blair is doing now, which is a block on making a judgment about what the government between 1997 and 2010 achieved. Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were very, very, very significant, effective leaders and colossuses in the world."

Perhaps Falconer’s belief in defending New Labour’s legacy explains why he has decided to fight on inside Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition tent, but one wonders if his former flatmate approves of his current role. "You have to interview him, not me," he bluntly replies when asked.

Perhaps Blair would admire his old friends’ shape-shifting durability. He may well be the last Blairite standing, but these days, beard in place, Lord Falconer looks increasingly at ease working for Jeremy Corbyn.

 

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