It is hard to imagine much that Jack Cunningham hasn’t seen in his 34 years as a member of parliament. He has witnessed five prime ministers come and go, the virtual meltdown of the Tory party and the birth of New Labour. Thus Cunningham is able to survey the political landscape and offer something that seems very obviously lacking at the moment – perspective.
He is, for instance, dismissive of speculation about Tony Blair’s future as prime minister and the polls indicating he is a vote-loser for Labour.
‘I do not believe these polls, I don’t accept the premise and I believe Tony Blair will continue as prime minister through the next general election and beyond.’
The Copeland MP swats aside suggestions that New Labour remains essentially a ‘project’ advocated by a few in the party. ‘At the general elections in 1997 and 2001, Tony Blair, his ideas and policies literally swept the country and trickled over into constituencies that we didn’t even win in 1945. I don’t think there is any doubt that his vision and his strikingly different view of the way forward for Britain was hugely endorsed.’
The Prime Minister’s recent troubles have coincided with the tenth anniversary of John Smith’s death, provoking a spate of ‘what if?’ stories in the media. Cunningham is well-placed to venture his opinion on what kind of prime minister Smith might have been: ‘John was a more cautious man than Tony Blair, though he certainly shared his strong convictions [and] he clearly understood the need to rejuvenate British society. I believe he would have been an outstanding prime minister.’
Cunningham also contends that while Blair is ‘a much more bold and forceful character’, Smith’s experience of government and parliament would have been an advantage that the current prime minister, who Cunningham served as both agriculture secretary and Cabinet Office minister, initially lacked.
Cunningham not only wants to see Blair remain in office, he is also keen for him to fight the next election on a radical agenda: ‘We need a new Labour manifesto; this is not the time for consolidation – whatever that means,’ he argues forcefully.
The manifesto, he suggests, needs to focus on giving Britain ‘the very best public services in Europe’, while ‘increasing choice for people in all the services, especially health and education’. He also wants to see the party ‘continuing to expand employment opportunities for all our citizens’ with a promise to ‘create new, better rapid transport systems using new rail technologies to expand the regional economies in England’.
Finally, he believes that Labour should not shy away from its support for Britain’s role in Europe: ‘We must play a full role at the centre of the European Union. It seems to me brainless that somehow we would be better off outside the EU.’
Unsurprisingly, Cunningham is unforgiving of those whom he describes as ‘hanging onto a sentimental and nostalgic view of the party and its past’. His impatience with such attitudes clearly boiled over earlier this year when he attacked those leading the rebellion against the government’s higher education proposals as ‘a party within a party’ and compared them to Militant. ‘George Mudie [one of the rebel leaders] and I have been very close and strong friends for 25 years but I do not understand why George, and other former ministers, were engaged in trying to defeat the Labour government. That’s not what people voted Labour for.’
Given his attitudes, one wonders if Cunningham is finding it difficult to support Ken Livingstone in the London mayoral election, given that he ran against the Labour candidate in 2000? ‘Ken’s a kind of political cheeky chappy and has always been bit of a chancer. I have often been very strenuously opposed to his ideas and policies, and for that matter his conduct and behaviour. But I am also the kind of person who wants to attract more people to the party. If he’s recanted and accepted the manifesto, principles and policies of the party, then fine.’
While on the theme of reconciliation, how does the former cabinet minister view the current squabbling between Labour and the trade unions? ‘I still strongly believe in close links between the unions and the Labour party and I’m sorry to see in some cases one or two union leaders and some of their members take a different view. Reform of this relationship was necessary, though, especially of the historic arrangements at conference, which were completely outdated and unrepresentative.
Overwhelmingly, union members benefit from a Labour government and if any of them believe that the alternative would be better then they are on a different planet.’
Cunningham is equally robust in his views of the difficult local government and European elections that Labour will be fighting this month. As a former campaign co-ordinator under Neil Kinnock, he is dismissive of suggestions that the party’s campaign has been too negative: ‘I believe we are being positive about the issues but I do not have a problem reminding people about Michael Howard’s abysmal record as Tory cabinet minister.’ He clearly feels the importance of ‘reminding people about the policies Howard endorsed’ and stressing the Tory leader’s role in presiding over ‘the biggest rises in unemployment we have seen since probably 1945’.
If Cunningham appears eager to take the Tories on, he also seems keen to adopt a strident approach to anti-Europeans in the run-up to the referendum on the European constitution. Cunningham was PPS to foreign secretary Jim Callaghan during the last European referendum campaign: ‘In 1975 those people who were opposed to the EU, as they are today, said we should have a decision once and for all. When there was one, they didn’t like the result and have never accepted it.’
So, does he believe the government made a mistake in agreeing to a referendum? ‘I think in the end the PM decided to let the people make the decision, and it’s significant that both these opportunities to allow the people to vote have been provided by Labour governments.’
Labour has spent a large amount of its time in government on constitutional reform but some parts of the agenda seem unfinished. Cunningham served as chair of the joint committee on House of Lords reform. Why does he believe reform stalled? ‘Those who were in favour of 100 percent election just wanted a kind of big bang approach, let’s do it all at once, and history is littered with examples of how that has never worked and always failed.’
How, though, does he see a final decision being made on this issue? ‘No one can defend a situation where the opposition party, a minority in the Commons, has the largest number of seats in the upper chamber, so we should have Lords reform in the manifesto and on the agenda for the next parliament and the next general election.’
Cunningham also reflects on the way in which the Commons has changed during his time there: ‘It was certainly a male-orientated and dominated place when I was elected in June 1970 and was regretfully very slow to change. However, having more women around has certainly been a positive influence on this place. I have always been a huge critic of the ridiculous hours that suited no one. I want to see that process of modernisation and change, with more and more women coming into politics.’
Cunningham will not, however, be drawn on what he views as his greatest political achievement: ‘I tend to think of my political achievement more in terms of what I have been able to do for my constituents than what I have been able to achieve for myself. That’s what they elected me for and the fact that the quality of life, the levels of employment, the state of the environment, the general health of the local economy have improved significantly since 1997 is a great achievement for everyone.’