The Jessica Asato interview

30th June, 2009 9:38 am

Jessica AsatoJessica Asato is Acting Director of Progress. She met Alex Smith on Sunday, 28th June, 2009.

The honorary President of Progress is Alan Milburn, who announced his intention to stand down as an MP over the weekend. How do you feel about his decision?
I think Alan has had a very long and illustrious career in Parliament and he’s bought a lot to Labour politics over the years. He’s certainly served Progress very well and has always had a lot of time to talk about where he thinks the Labour Party is going. He’s a visionary person, much derided by people in the party but seemingly by people who don’t actually look at his policies very closely. So he will be a loss to parliament, but he’s made a decision on the basis of his future career. Sometimes people don’t want to spend their whole life in the Commons and I respect that. It’s also important that people move on and make way for a new generation of people – and at the moment, after expenses, it’s more important than ever that we have MPs in Parliament that people can have trust in. So it will be interesting to see who goes for Darlington in the selection that will open up shortly.

Progress has frequently supported Blairite ultras who have regularly undermined Gordon Brown, most recently Hazel Blears, Caroline Flint and James Purnell. How do you feel about the resignations of those people?
It’s important to take a step back from personality. The fact is that all the people you’ve mentioned are senior Labour Party figures, who have contributed a lot to the Party since they came into Parliament and even before they came into Parliament. I don’t think we should be in the business of deriding people for decisions that are not taken easily or lightly. It may be hard to understand their reasons and we might be angry with them for the ways in which they resigned or didn’t resign. But I’m quite clear that Hazel Blears in her time as Communities Secretary pushed forward an agenda that I feel it would be a real shame for the Labour Party to lose, which was very much about empowering communities from the bottom up rather than top down. It’s about taking on board this notion that you can’t always do things for people; people have to take decisions on their own to make their communities work. The state can help in that, but the idea that the state directs everything people do is not the sort of socialism that people like Hazel got involved with. I think she did lots of great things in government: introducing community budgets, for instance. That will be a really important legacy of her time at Communities. Similarly with James Purnell: a lot of what he was doing has been criticised by people, but actually it was about lifting people out of poverty; it was about saying “if you want to work, the state will give you all the resources and help they possibly can to allow you to lead a fulfilling life in work.” As for Caroline Flint, I think she’s someone who has been very vocal, but also a woman who has balanced work and a family life. These people need to be admired in their different ways, even if you disagree with them on politics. But I won’t put people down for what they do or the decisions they make.

But people need to have Labour representatives on Councils, in Westminster and in the European Parliament in order for those things to be achieved, and what Hazel Blears did in resigning the day before an election was a betrayal of that.
Yes and I think she recognises that herself. She’s given an interview and she said in that interview that she recognises that she’s let people down. That’s the end of the story.

Under your directorship, Progress seems to have become less of a cheerleader group for Blairite politics than it was when it started. Was that a conscious decision on your part, or the result of events?
Look, the fact is that a lot of people think they know what Progress has been doing. They’ve been happy to pigeonhole Progress as whatever they want to make of it, as simply Blairite or New Labour. But actually we’ve been relatively consistent in the things that we espouse on our side of the Party. For example, Constitutional Reform and PR have been very long term issues we’ve pressed in magazine after magazine after magazine. It’s not as if those are new things we’ve only just started working on now. We’ve always been an organisation that’s been about promoting new progressive ideas, not necessarily to the detriment of having a stale debate about single issues, but by saying the only way in which we think Labour wins elections is when it can show that it is sticking with what the public wants to see from a Labour government and when the party looks hungry for governing with new ideas and ways of trying to make the world a better place. Progress has always been that organisation, right from when it was set up in 1996. Our founding statement was to promote political education in the party, and that is what we continue to do today with the magazine and the debates we hold. So I don’t think I’ve done anything differently from what Progress has always been about. I just think that other people are now looking at us more closely, quite rightly, and are drawing their own opinions on what we’re doing. And I think our members think we’re doing well, based on the number of people we get writing for the website and people we get to our events.

Do you think the concept of the Progress magazine as a place for political education is dated in the way it provides a platform for the leadership to speak to the party, when actually what we need is a platform for the party to speak to the leadership?
I don’t think the magazine is there for the leadership to speak to the party.

It’s full of Parliamentarians.
If you look at the last year’s worth of magazines, I think you’ll find that contributions from members have easily dominated the number of government representatives. Yes, we’ve interviewed David Miliband for this issue and Caroline Flint has written a piece about our policy on Europe that is quite striking, but apart from that most of the pieces are by ordinary Labour party members like Rachel Reeves and Andy Pakes, who have done a really interesting piece on the road to Copenhagen. We want the magazine to be high quality and that means we won’t have a free for all. We commission people we think that our readers will be interested to read and we don’t make any apologies for that. But certainly the leadership could listen more closely to its activists, although that doesn’t mean necessarily following everything they say. That’s always been a problem in the Labour Party, that when people say they want to be listened to, actually what they want is to basically write government policy.

So what’s the sort of “Progress” your organisation envisages?
“Progress” for Progress will always be about whether we remain relevant to our members in the debate about the future of the Labour Party. If anything our role becomes more and more important the closer we get to a general election. For me it’s about whether we are putting together events and arguments that people are stimulated by and excited to go to; things that leave people thinking about policies and ideas and issues for days to come. “Progress” for Progress is to continue doing that. It would be lovely to grow and have a much larger membership, but money’s tight. But we’ll always recognise that we are part of the Labour movement, so judging success on having thousands and thousands of members is not really what concerns us. It’s about convincing Labour party activists to adopt some of the progressive policies that we support, on constitutional reform, childcare, more emphasises on building social housing. We feel that the government recently has lacked a narrative for the mess that we'[re finding ourselves in. Maybe that’s because it looks like issues are being picked on in order to sway a particular part of the electorate or to box the Conservatives into a difficult position. But we haven’t got a vision of what we want British society to be like in ten years time and how as a Labour government we want tot achieve that. Progress can’t do that; that has to be up to the Labour Party in government to find that narrative. We will push the Party on the areas we strongly care about. It’s good to see Gordon Brown concentrating on public service reform, for example, and the idea of one-to-one tuitions and public service guarantees. But I think it needs to go much further. It’s sad that the policy hasn’t been pushed as a way of creating greater social mobility amongst the disadvantaged. It seems to be more about attracting middle class voters and tempting them to keep their children in the state sector.

That’s what the New Labour project has always been about, at least electorally.
No, New Labour was always about uniting different parts of the electorate in a broad-based coalition of support. The idea that it’s simply about attracting the middle class is nonsense. Issues like the minimum wage are core vote issues, whereas issues like increasing aid to developing countries is a Guardianista middle class issue. I just don’t think it’s helpful to say that New Labour was all about courting the middle classes. Actually it was about winning, because if you’re not in power, you can’t make the change that you want to.

That’s ironic, because now unless we find a vision we will lose power.
Absolutely – we’ve got to get that vision, because we won’t win without it.

You touched on international development. Karen Pollock said that Progress helped lead the debate on the Sudan, Zimbabwe and Burma. Why do you think this Labour government avoided humanitarian intervention in those places, but was so compelled to send forces to Iraq?
I think the politics of foreign policy is far too complex for a broad-brush approach to humanitarian intervention. But it’s quite clear that Tony Blair was very courageous with the interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone. His Chicago speech is a fantastic underlining of why it’s important that the world community should intervene to save people’s lives when they are threatened by human rights abuses. I supported the war on Iraq in the basis that Saddam Hussein murdered his people…

That wasn’t the basis for war. The basis for war was that Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction.
Indeed, and I don’t think that was an adequate justification for the war. But the fact is that there needs to be a mechanism for stopping brutal dictators and regimes. The sad fact about Iraq is that it has left Labour unable to put a strong case for humanitarian intervention in other countries. On the other hand, there are reasons why military intervention in some places wouldn’t be appropriate – particular in Zimbabwe, where it would be completely counterproductive, not least because of our own colonial history there. So it’s not as easy as simply saying we can’t go and intervene in other countries now because of Iraq. But it does make the argument more difficult for people like me who strongly believe that, as an internationalist party, we should be standing up for our brothers and sisters who are being suppressed and persecuted across the globe. That’s always been the Labour way. I think it’s important that we stick up for people wherever they are and don’t let our own baggage weigh us down or stop us doing what’s right.

Moving on, earlier in the year, you put yourself forward for selection to be Labour’s candidate for Erith and Thamesmead, but then withdrew a month later. Why was that?
Two reasons. The first was that to do a selection properly, you’ve got to work bloody hard. You’ve got to spend a lot of time talking to members, quite rightly. And the fact is that once I’d done a month, I realised it was something that time-wise I couldn’t give my full commitment to. But the main reason I withdrew was because the selection also coincided with the anniversary of my husband’s death. All of that was a bit too much for me.

The way things panned out with the selection, though, you must have been relieved not to have been involved to the end.
It was such a shame that it became such an awful selection. I don’t think it ever needed to go that way, but when you’ve got people who are so determined to wreck a process in favour of their preferred candidate then there’s not much you can do about it. I would have loved to stay in the race. I really enjoyed the people I met in Erith and I would have been very keen on putting myself forward. But as I say, events conspired against me.

Erith was an All Women Shortlist and there are very different and strong opinions in the party about how productive those really are. How do you feel about them?
I think All Women Shortlists have been the main reason why we’ve got more women in Parliament. You can say that talent will always rise to the top, but the fact is that we know it doesn’t. People don’t like to admit it, but there is a lot of sexism in the Labour Party. You’d think the Labour Party stands for equality and so sexism shouldn’t exist there, but it does. Politics is a very male game, which means that women don’t necessarily always see it as something they should do. It’s not that women don’t just win the race, they often can’t even get to the start of it. So, yes, for the time being, AWS should remain and we should defend them vigorously. Women do win in open shortlists – Emma Reynolds did, for example – so I don’t think women should feel like they can only go for selection under AWS. But I fear that we will continue to pick men if we were to take them away. I don’t think that’s because of a lack of female talent, I think it’s the result of the party is structure as it stands.

You say the Labour Party stands for equality, but there are a lot of people in the country who are under represented, not just in Parliament but in all professions. If we have All Women Shortlists, shouldn’t we also have all Black or minority ethnic shortlists?
I don’t believe in the politics of representative quotas. The fact is that women make up 51% of the population, so trying to get women’s representation up to around that mark is something that people can understand. But I don’t believe that only a black person can represent a constituency that’s got over 50% ethnic minority population, just as I don’t think only a white person can represent a largely white constituency; the colour of your skin should not determine where you are or are not allowed to stand in this country. The most important thing is to get more BaME people standing, and that’s why yesterday Progress held an event specifically dedicated to helping BaME candidates considering going for selection. That’s something we’ve been doing quite a lot of – training, busting some of the myths around how easy or how difficult it is to get selected. It’s the same with getting people to join the Labour Party – they don’t join unless you ask them, and often when you ask them they do want to do it.

Finally, around International Women’s Day you set up the LabourWomen blog. How’s that going and what do you think can be done to get more women involved online where so much of the political debate is now occurring?
I’ve thought about this alot and I think women are just busier than men; they take on a lot more sometimes than men do. Men seem to be better at just doing one thing, like just blogging and doing it every day. There are some notable exceptions – Sadie Smith and Antonia Bance, for example, regularly go online as a way to connect with people. But a lot of the women I speak to just don’t see internet communication as a priority. I also think women seem to be more worried about personal attacks online. I absolutely hate the angry men on LabourList who comment. They’re not being deliberately sexist – in fact they go to great pains to say they’re not at all – but the way in which they conduct their debate puts women off. It’s just too macho and too “look how clever I can be and look how I can tear what you’ve written to shreds”. Often they don’t even read what you write and they don’t intellectually engage – they just come pre-loaded with an armful of bile and pre-judgement. But I strongly believe that if women don’t engage on the internet, where so much more of our news is now being consumed, and which is a place that will become more and more important in formulating policy and influencing government, they won’t get their voices heard and they will get left behind. So it has to be taken it seriously. That means us girls are going to have to get blogging more and not be scared to try it out.

The problem is that there are often good arguments made in comments, but they are book-ended by the sort of aggression you mention. You can’t moderate those comments out because that’s stifling debate.
I wasn’t having a pop at LabourList, I just think that it does make engaging online not a particularly pleasant activity, and I think women are put off by that more than men. The comment Derek made at the Progress 2.0 conference earlier this year about women needing to develop a thicker skin wasn’t helpful either, because actually women don’t want to have to develop a thick skin. I want to be as normal as I can be. People out there say “this politician doesn’t seem anything like me” – well, often that’s because they have had to change their behaviour in many ways. We have to know that if we want more ordinary people and ordinary activists in politics, then actually they’ve got to be treated with more respect. So women do need to be braver, but we don’t need to develop a thicker skin – we just need to change the space, and you can only do that by getting involved in it.

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