Impact interviews Jacqui Smith

In a joint venture between the School of Politics and the Students’ Union ‘Forum’ series, Jacqui Smith visited the university to speak to students on the 18th March. Smith entered Parliament in 1997 after being nominated on an all-women shortlist, and went on to hold various positions in the Labour Government, including Minister for Schools, Chief Whip and Home Secretary. Following a high profile investigation into expenses (the claim for her husband’s purchase of two pornographic films was picked up by the press with the most vehemence) and the general electoral swing towards the Conservative Party, Smith lost her Redditch seat in the 2010 General Election.

Prior to her Q&A with students, Impact got a chance to sit down with her for a few questions.

What was most notable about your time as Chief Whip?

I was Chief Whip at quite an interesting time. Tony Blair made me Chief Whip in 2006, but as he made me Chief Whip it was obvious that he was coming towards the end of his period as Prime Minister. I didn’t know at the time I started, but I sort of oversaw the transition from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown. One of the most difficult tensions within the PLP at that particular time was between those who wanted Tony to continue for longer and those who wanted somebody new (almost certainly Gordon Brown) to take over. So there was quite a lot about being Chief Whip at that time which was less about big ideological policy problems – we had some issues and we had some rebellions, but there weren’t enormous issues of conflict within the PLP, but there were a lot of people just generally feeling concerned about when the transition was going to happen and how it was going to happen.
Of course I was Chief Whip during the summer and September when the ‘letter‘ was written to Tony and pressure was put on him to announce when to stand down, which he then did.

How long do you think that the police should be able to hold people without charge?

My argument has always been, in extremely exceptional circumstances, ‘for long enough for them to be able to do the investigation necessary to determine whether or not a charge is possible’. Some people have argued about the pre-charge detention proposals with respect to terror suspects, and I think there is something specific about terrorism investigations, which justifies a potential longer pre-charge detention period. What’s specific about them is that because of the nature of the threat – mass casualties, no warning – these will likely be plots which are hopefully interrupted before they come to fruition, and therefore before the police have been able to get quite a lot of the evidence which in other criminal investigations they may well already have. Secondly they quite often will be plots that involve international investigations, and will involve encrypted computers for example – those things are likely to take longer to investigate to get to the point of a charge.

I have always wanted people to be held for the minimum possible time, but recognising the specific issues around terrorist investigations I felt it was appropriate to provide flexibility within the system. A judge would oversee it, it would only ever used extremely exceptionally, done on an individual basis and people would only be held as long as necessary. That was an argument that we won in the House of Commons but we would have lost overall in the House of Lords and the current government, probably understandably, has reverted back down to a 14 day maximum. What I thought was quite interesting however about what the current government did in the counter-terror review was they reverted to what was always the legal limit but they said – which was exactly what I said – that they can envisage some circumstances in which it might be necessary to have the opportunity to hold somebody for longer, and if that happens we will bring forward emergency legislation. So, in effect, there is no difference in our position.

That’s what happens when you get into government. In opposition it’s easy to talk in generalities and broad principles. When you’re faced with both the responsibility of protecting people and the detailed understanding about the potential nature of some of the plots that you might be dealing with, you change your view.

So it’s about campaigning in poetry and governing in prose?

Exactly right, the responsibility of government sits heavy on your shoulders, and the sunny uplands of opposition seem a long way away when you are Theresa May (current Home Secretary) and you will be the person that is held responsible if and when something goes wrong.

On the subject of Theresa May, you sent her an open letter where you said “Keeping people safe is real women’s work”. Do you think that the role of women has changed in British politics since the Blair Babes?

Not enough. The reason for me saying that was of course that a lot was made when I became home secretary about the fact that i was the first female home secretary. I myself looked at the rows of photographs of previous Home Secretaries, of all these middle aged white blokes, and I thought I can’t actually understand why a job which is at its heart about protecting people, our families, our communities and our country, why that should automatically be seen as male, and that’s what I mean by ‘real women’s work’. Progress has been made but not enough, one of the things I do now is that I’m on the management committee of the Labour women’s network whose role within the Labour party is to encourage more women into politics, to encourage more women to stand for Parliament and to try to get beyond the position – which we’re still in – where less than 1 in 4 people in Parliament is female.

So people think we made a lot of progress in 1997 (Blair’s Babes etc.) – we made some progress, but we’ve still got a hell of a long way to go.

What do women bring to politics that men don’t?

What I’m interested in is a strong team. I’ve never been somebody for whom ego and individualism is the big thing. In a ministerial team and in a government, what you need is a range of experiences, a range of types of ability to communicate, a range of interests. So when you have a team that is largely or only male, you’re not bringing a lot of experience and a lot of differing styles that help to make the team stronger. So I don’t want to see a cabinet only made up of women (hesitates)…no, haha! But I don’t want to see a team that only has half the population in it. And plus, we want people to have faith in Parliament and in politics, so to have a political elite that looks very different from what my street or workplace looks like is a bad thing. If you have a political elite in which 4 out of 5 are male then that isn’t something that people look at and think, “They understand what’s going on in my life and will make decisions in which I will have faith.”

What of the current constituency system then, which seems to gravitate more towards middle/upper class white men? Won’t it be very difficult to get towards a more representative Parliament in this system, unless we use more all-women shortlists for example?

I’m a supporter of the constituency link; I think it brings something quite important to our political system. I wouldn’t want to see that disappear, although I take your point that one of the ways in which we ensure greater representation of women is particularly if we were able to have some kind of list system. For example, in the Labour Party we alternate between women and men in our European lists. I do think we need – particularly in the short run – to put in place institutional ways of ensuring there is more equality. That’s the reason why I support all women shortlists, and the proof of that particular pudding is in the eating because of course in 1997 when we had all-women shortlists we saw a great increase in Labour women MPs. In 2001 when they had been ruled illegal, despite the training and people wanting to get more women, we saw a reduction in the number of female MPs in Parliament. When we legislated to allow all-women shortlists, the number of female MPs went up again.

I can understand the argument that people make about choosing candidates on merit; I just don’t believe that there are four good men for every one woman. Does this weaken the position of women? I have to say I never found that and I became Home Secretary. A more representative and more equal Parliament is extremely important.

What do you think of AV?

I’m not a supporter of AV, I have to say I tend to take Nick Clegg’s previous approach to AV which is that it’s a “miserable compromise”. I think that there is an intellectually coherent argument for a much more proportional system, but for reasons I’ve already expressed (such as not wanting to lose the constituency link) I’m not convinced I want to shift to it. That is a legitimate position to take and it does understand the shortcomings of our political system. AV has the potential to create more disproportionate results (the Labour landslide in 1997 would have been even greater than it was) and I don’t accept some of the arguments used for AV, such as that somehow or another candidates are able to ignore part of the electorate. Maybe, because my seat was always very marginal, I understood that I wouldn’t win unless I reached out, but even so I’m not convinced that AV will change people’s behaviour. Most ridiculous is that somehow we wouldn’t have had the expenses problems or disgraced MP if we had AV – that’s a crackers argument. If you look at the most serious offenders, you’ve got people in extremely marginal seats and extremely safe seats – there’s no correlation.

To what extent have you been able to put the expenses fiasco behind you?

The truth is that I don’t think I will ever put it behind me. Michael Portillo has explained it really well, he said that what happens in the media in this country (I suspect everywhere) is that people create a little pigeonhole for you and put in everything that fits, and leave out everything that doesn’t. People have a short hand for public figures that it’s very difficult to shake off, and I’m realistic that I probably won’t manage to shake it off. So the fact that in the end I repaid less than the average of all MPs, I was asked to repay less than all of the Tory MPs around me in my constituency, all of that is forgotten, because what I did – particularly with the films – was high profile enough to mean that it will almost certainly always be associated with me.

Your documentary, Porn Again, aired earlier this month. Was it an attempt to draw a line under it all?

Partly it was. First of all I think it’s an interesting issue, and I very much enjoyed making it and the opportunity to talk to the people I talked to. But it was more about taking control than it was about drawing a line. I’m not naive enough to think that people will all of a sudden not associate me with porn films anymore. It was about the fact that – particularly in the media – a lot of people feel it’s perfectly ok to associate that with me (usually in a slightly sniggering and underhand way), so why can’t I take control of that and talk about it. So I could either slink away, or front this up, and I’m more the sort of person to front things up than slink away.

When preparing for this interview, everyone I spoke to suggested I ask about porn. After years of public service, do you worry that this is the only thing that people will remember you for?

Yeah, of course. I do in one way, but in another way why worry about something that – to a certain extent – is inevitable? Why not use the position I’m in to do something that I hope will change the situation, even if it’s only to inform people, which I hope the documentary (and the discussion around it) did. That’s not to say that I can’t work on other things as well, but of course it’s inevitable that this will stick with me. I can fret about it or I can make the most of it.

Has the coalition made the right decision in scrapping the national identity scheme?

No, I don’t think they have, not least because it’s not going to save very much – if any – money, because the vast majority of the cost was associated with two things. Firstly it was with introducing biometric passports and four or five years down the line when British people have a passport which is less safe and secure than everyone else in Europe (and are potentially facing new visa requirements to go to the USA) then I think that will be seen as a false economy. Secondly of course the ID card element was always going to be funded by people paying for them. Theresa May said as much, this was about a statement, and not about saving any money.

Are you more a casualty of expenses, or the general swing towards the Conservatives?

If I had kept my seat it would have been a miracle. In all my time I had the most marginal seat in the cabinet, so I was always going to lose. My swing was large, but others – with no expenses scandals around them – had larger. It made it more difficult to talk to people about other issues when campaigning, but in the end it wasn’t the deciding factor. This is an interesting example of the way the media works though. “Expenses cause shock loss of Jacqui Smith’s seat” according to the Birmingham Post. Just bollocks. Any look at my majority and the change in my boundaries which made the majority even smaller, would have told you that I was going to lose that seat. They know that, but that’s not the story they want.

How do you think the coalition is getting on?

I can understand there being a coalition, I think it’s completely legitimate. I don’t think people voted for a coalition, but the way they voted it was always going to happen. I think it’s the end of the line for the Liberal Democrats but I don’t think they had any alternative but to go into it. But it’s quite nice when you’ve been in government to sit outside and look at the government ministers. I have to say those ministers don’t look to me as if they’re having much fun and people like Vince Cable have almost been crushed by government. Here’s someone who was extremely lively until he became a minister and now it all seems as if it’s become a bit of a nightmare. And there are only a few (and Ken Clarke is one of them) who are in a position where they look as if they’re enjoying themselves. Ken is in a bizarre and almost untouchable position which means he can say and do things on prisons that are in many ways far more liberal in the broad sense than we would have wanted to do, things that as far as I understand some Tory backbenchers absolutely loathe. But he can just do it because what can happen to him?

So there are some interesting contradictions in terms of some of the individuals in the coalition. You need to separate the way the government is doing from the way David Cameron is doing. Up until about a month ago, I think Cameron had quite successfully set himself up in a position that looked reasonably fresh but statesman-like that could vaguely hover above the mess of government but you can’t do that for very long and you will get dragged down into issues. The NHS reforms: if I was looking for one thing that’s going to go tits-up in the next six months, I would say it’s that. He’ll be tied to that and he will have to take responsibility when it goes wrong.

So the Liberal Democrats have peaked?

It’s an impossible situation in many ways for them, because they couldn’t have walked away from going into coalition. Arguably they should have not conceded what they did on higher education, because that’s toxic, for Nick Clegg in particular. But that’s not the be all and end all, and I may be wrong and in four years time the worst elements of the economic situation may be through and they may get credit for sticking by the ‘tough decisions’. It just seems at the moment like they’re taking the flak and not getting any credit.

Dave Jackson

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7 Comments on this post.
  • Stuart Neyton
    25 March 2011 at 13:05
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    “Just bollocks”

    Thanks for avoiding flowery language there.

    Still an awful figurehead of the awful New “Labour” government though.

  • Mea
    25 March 2011 at 14:13
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    I really wanted to go and see this speaker’s event. I went to the Jeff Randal one last year and thought it was really interesting. However, this one was not publicised in the least so, although I knew she was coming to talk, I didn’t know it was last week. Even if people don’t like her she’s still a prominent figure in British politics so SURELY this event should have been BETTER PUBLICISED!

  • Emma
    25 March 2011 at 14:23
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    Loathesome, reactionary woman. And I’m a labour voter. Anyone who thinks that 90 day detention without trial is sensible and rational needs to be stuck in a cell for that long themselves.

    For my part, I’m cheering Ken Clarke every step of the way – I hope he manages to get some much needed proportion into our bloated prison system.

  • David
    25 March 2011 at 16:57
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    Glad you actually got to ask questions, given the room itself at the event barely got a chance! I’ve really liked the Forum series of events this year, but this for me was arguably the most disappointing, given it’s the one that I had high hopes for.

    Sitting on the left of the political spectrum, I have a real dislike for her given her scarily authoritarian stance on a lot of issues, and that she pushed them (along with certain other New Labour types) within the Labour party during her time as Home Secretary is not good at all. I’d agree with her that it’s ‘just bollocks’ that her seat was lost because of the expenses stuff. I’d say it was probably lost because she wasn’t representative of what people want from the party she was part of.

  • Phil
    26 March 2011 at 10:23
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    To say scrapping the ID Cards scheme “isn’t going to save very much” because they would be paid for directly by citizens just reveals the New Labour attitude that the public finances are the only ones that matter. Actually scrapping it’s going to save me and everyone else upwards of £80 (not to mention a modicum of privacy), which is quite a lot for most people! Glad to be rid of the previous government.

  • Phil
    26 March 2011 at 10:29
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    Gosh, missed this gem on first reading:

    “In 2001 when they had been ruled illegal, despite the training and people wanting to get more women, we saw a reduction in the number of female MPs in Parliament. When we legislated to allow all-women shortlists…”

    Leaving aside the issue of women in parliament, does anyone else think this just demonstrates a complete disdain for the law and the judiciary? “If something the party in government wants to do is illegal, just change the law!”? Twelve years of legislative madness. My goodness, I really am glad to see the back of New Labour.

    • Rob
      31 March 2011 at 14:04
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      I hate Labour, but I would rather some vaguely elected government with at least miniscule claim to representing popular will making laws in stead of Posh unelected twats in the Judiciary. Oh and I hate anti-democrats like you.

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