Jacqui Smith: 'I haven't left politics, I've left Parliament'

In 1997 Jacqui Smith entered Parliament as one of 'Blair's babes' on the back of an all-women shortlist. By 2007 she had become the first female Home Secretary and for two years was the most powerful woman in British politics. But she lost her Redditch seat in the wake of the MPs' expenses scandal. Now she is back as chair of Westbourne Communications' public affairs practice. She discusses politics, PR and passion with Anna Reynolds.

What have you been doing since leaving Parliament?

I’ve been enjoying the liberation of not being an elected politician. I am chair of University Hospitals in Birmingham and I set up a charity in Birmingham that works with young girls at risk of gang violence. I still do a bit of radio work and presenting: I made a documentary (Porn Again – an in-depth look into the porn industry). I’ve been doing some international work on political development in the Middle East. I also got to know my husband and my kids again, which was nice.

What appealed to you about your role at Westbourne?

I’m attracted to the way Westbourne works because I’m passionate about campaigning and making a difference. It’s the same approach I always took to my elected politics – building broad coalitions, making arguments and bringing the public along with you. The role at Westbourne plays to my strengths while happening at an extremely challenging and interesting time in the political environment.

What do you regard as the most important issues in public affairs at the moment?

What’s important is how people are interacting with politics. When I went into Parliament in 1997 there was a traditional approach to politics; decisions were made centrally, in London, with politicians and civil servants pretty much a part of what was going on. What we are now seeing, which is a development I welcome, is power being diversified. The public is less committed to individual parties and more interested in specific issues. People feel strongly that they should be part of the political debate. Westminster and Whitehall remain important but decisions are being made regionally.

At Westbourne the development of city regions means the political decision-making environment has become more complex. I can’t ever remember changing my view because of someone offering to take me out to lunch – this is totally irrelevant today.

How will your experience help you in your new role?

I’ve been around a hell of a long time in the political world. I know what it’s like to fight a marginal seat and the pressures on MPs – it’s not from direct lobbying operations; it’s the issues people are talking to them about in the media. I know how the Government operates and I’ve got a more sophisticated understanding of how it makes decisions.

What do you miss about being in politics?

I haven’t left politics, I’ve left Parliament. I still go campaigning and knocking on doors to talk to people about their concerns. I can get engaged with policy development, building support and ideas. There isn’t much I miss about Parliament.

I did enjoy being able to change things – as Home Secretary you’re a powerful person but even then it’s not a case of saying "I rule". The police is a good example – I understand from working with the police how important it is to build a consensus, for example with the development of neighbourhood policing. Policy can’t be delivered from a diktat from the centre.

I used my influence and pressure where there was a bit of resistance. It’s powerful being in Government but it’s not all-powerful. I can show our clients that bringing about policy change is quite a complicated and nuanced thing and you need a sophisticated approach.

What are your thoughts on Labour’s election strategy?

Election campaigning is about being clear about your message and able to communicate it – not just the detail of your policy, but also for people to feel like you know what their lives are like. Communication needs to be made at a local and national level. Ed Miliband is absolutely right when he talks about the four million conversations. There is scepticism among national media about the message political parties are putting out and they quite rightly challenge that – coincidentally when people make mistakes or there are supposed gaffes. It all makes good copy.

But what matters is whether Labour’s message is going to chime with people, and I think its arguments about whether we are all benefitting from an economic recovery, whether people are still feeling the cost of living pressure and if we are living in a society where there are some vested interests who aren’t operating in the best interests of the rest of us – all those things can be communicated at a local level.

The hordes of Labour activists, of which I am one, knocking on people’s doors engaging in conversations aren’t going to hit the headlines but they will be what makes a difference in the seats that matter.

In the light of the Jack Straw/Sir Malcolm Rifkind scandal, what are your thoughts on how ministers should behave?

Look, the supposed Chinese company was not a proper public affairs company so this is not a scandal about lobbying, as were none of the others. In most companies the idea you would make some crass approach to a minister and say "help us below the radar" is just not how things operate.

You change people’s opinion by taking the public with you, not by sidelining them, and by being open about what you’re doing. There’s nothing shady about me bringing my political experience and commitment to the political process to work at Westbourne.

I know them both and I feel very sorry that someone’s distinguished political career can end in that way but it’s a statement about their slight foolishness in what they said, not about the process of public affairs or even politics more broadly.

When you were Home Secretary, were there any issues that arose because you were a woman?

I was enormously proud that I was the first woman Home Secretary – I was the first person to co-ordinate a cross-government approach to violence against women. I was pleased I did this because it honoured some of the things that brought me into politics in the first place. I remember the first 48 hours into the job, when there was a foiled attack in London and then an attack on Glasgow Airport and I had to make a public statement in front of Downing Street. Some of the comments at the time were hilarious; people said I appeared to be very assured and calm. I thought, I’m an experienced politician, spent eight years as a government minister and I’m confident in the police and security forces. Why do you think, just because I’m a woman, that I would come running out of Downing Street saying it’s all too difficult?

When you are able to change people’s attitudes, which to be fair, Theresa May has done as well, and get people to understand that it’s not a big deal for an experienced woman politician to do her job, then it’s great, but it’s what we should be expecting.

We think we have won the battle for women in politics but there’s still only one woman for every three men in Parliament, and it’s still possible for a national newspaper to tell Rachel Reeves that she can’t do a job in the Cabinet because she might have a baby. I had two young children while being a minister. There are some people’s attitudes that still need to be brought into the 21st century.

There are plenty of women without kids -facing discrimination and men with young families, who equally have those pressures – you don’t say to a man, you’ve been up in the night and you’re knackered, so you can’t do your job. It’s ludicrous.

What are your thoughts on positive discrimination?

The idea that you wouldn’t want the widest range of people making everyday decisions, including new mums, is just bad politics. Decisions would be worse if women weren’t able to be an active part of them.

I was selected on an all-women shortlist and I’m proud I was. After the next election the reason why there will be nearly 50 per cent Labour MPs who are women, and a far fewer proportion of Tories and Lib Dems, is because Labour has been willing to put its action where its mouth is.

I’m afraid that in a first-past-the-post political system the only thing that’s been proven to work is positive action in the way of all-women shortlists. People can go on as much as they like about how they wish there were more women in politics, but if you want it to happen you’ve got to make it happen and Labour is so far the only party that has done that.

Why are there not enough women in Parliament and how can this be addressed?

The sort of working practices and pressures expected in Parliament are hard – women look at the treatment other women get in politics and think, I want to make a difference but not in that way. Quite often women will come into politics because they’ve got involved in their kids’ school or are interested in a particular issue and think party politics may be the way they can pursue that.

Opening up political ideas and campaigning more widely is the right thing to do as a company but it also chimes with the way women get involved in politics.

How will the election affect your work at Westbourne?

It’s going to be an enormously interesting election, potentially what happens afterwards in terms of forming the next Government – it could go in a whole range of different ways. Being able to talk to our clients about what that might mean for the way Government operates and what priorities are going to be will be interesting.

What type of work will you be doing?

HS2 is a very good example – ministers don’t operate in a vacuum. When you’ve got MPs asking why you are spending all this money, it’s not enough to simply say it’s a good thing. You’ve got to build support more widely, get the public feeling part of an overall story. We need to develop an argument to put -pressure on ministers and change opinions. People say I’ve gone over to the dark side but everything I’ve seen so far has been pretty open. Honestly, in this day and age, if you keep something undercover firstly, why would you want to? And secondly, you ain’t going to succeed.

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