Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Bracketing Blunkett

Simon Alcock thinks there’s more to David Blunkett than meets the eye after reading Stephen Pollard’s biography

David Blunkett by Stephen Pollard (Hodder & Stoughton)

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The chattering classes’ view of David Blunkett, at least before he resigned, was that he was the most rightwing home secretary since Michael Howard. It never occurred that there might be more to the policies that emerged from the Home Office under David Blunkett. This is due in part to Blunkett’s remarkable ability to say what people outside the chattering classes think. Admitting that you were pleased that Harold Shipman had ‘topped himself’ is, bluntly, what most people think. Hence his new role in the election campaign, touring marginal seats and getting the Labour vote out.

The other side of his record at the Home Office, and what this timely and highly readable book shows, is the belief that where prison is not necessary, community punishments are most appropriate. Here, as Pollard points out, Blunkett vastly increased the range of options, such as tagging and intermittent sentences, where a convict is allowed home at weekends or for some specific, regular purpose. American experience shows that these can help protect family relationships which can otherwise fracture, often at the expense of children who end up suffering the most.

These policies do not mean David Blunkett as home secretary was another lily-livered liberal just as ensuring that ‘life must mean life’ is not populist, or a sign of being viciously rightwing. They are both part of a mixed approach which is, it seems, too nuanced for many critics to grasp. Life is so much easier when we imagine that people conform to a stereotype. Stephen Pollard’s book shows us that David Blunkett is much more complicated than his caricature.

The rise of Blunkett’s career is astonishing and this book gives you as full an idea as possible of the obstacles he has overcome. His childhood was truly Dickensian. It is shocking to read how, as a four-year old, and against his parents’ protests and without appeal, he was sent to a boarding school on the other side of Sheffield, where they could visit him just once a month.

His father was killed in a horrific accident at work, and it took his mother years of legal battles to win any compensation from the Gas Board. Finally, successive blind schools did all they could to obstruct the ambition she had planted in him. It is amazing to read of how Blunkett took O-, then A-levels, and won a place at the University of Sheffield. He achieved this only through sheer will and determination. He was already a Labour councillor when he took his degree, and became leader ten years later at the age of 33.

David Blunkett’s ideas and policies are rooted in the harsh injustices of his childhood and his persistent refusal to be defeated. There is a great description of Blunkett, the young Sheffield councillor, listening to constituents’ illnesses and problems, knowing he has overcome far worse but cannot say ‘pull yourself together’. There is an amusing anecdote when as education secretary, at his first policy briefing with the Prime Minister he finds his officials have set the new Braille machine on to the Swedish translation by mistake. He shrugs it off.

Pollard argues convincingly that Blunkett has never been as easy to pigeon-hole as his labelling as a ‘loony left’ council leader in the 1980s tried to insist. For one thing, he was pivotal in Labour’s expulsion of Militant. Pollard suggests that Blunkett’s career up to his resignation is a metaphor for Labour itself. In the early 1980s he was regarded by all but his party allies as a dangerous leftwinger with disastrous policy prescriptions. Over the past twenty years he has learned from his mistakes, realised the importance of both means and ends and grasped the way the majority of the country thinks and behaves.

Blunkett engages with people. He answers their questions. He doesn’t fear being caught out because he says what he genuinely thinks, not what he has been forced by party orthodoxy to think. As Pollard points out, he has only ever been on his own intellectual journey, a journey which sometimes leads him to a difference of approach to the New Labour coterie, but which is nonetheless down the same road as that travelled by the Labour party as a whole.

This is an excellent book that takes the reader through the different phases of his career in a style that will suit both the general reader and the policy wonk. It is a gripping story and one that isn’t finished. At every stage of his life David Blunkett has heroically confounded those who would put a limit on his ambition. Can he come back? After the mess of the past few months it may be hard to see a way back but reading this book, you have to believe that he can, and hope that he does. 

 

 

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Simon Alcock

is a parliamentary researcher

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