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    Interview: Lord Falconer

    Be careful who you share a flat with: you never know where it might lead. In the late 1970s, Charlie Falconer found himself sharing a flat with fellow trainee barrister Tony Blair. Thereafter their paths diverged, Falconer into law and Blair into politics. But Labour’s 1997 election victory brought Falconer into the heart of government initially as Solicitor-General; then Minister of State with responsibility for Millennium Dome (or “Dome Secretary”); next Minister of Housing, Planning and Regeneration in 2001; and in 2003 he joined the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and Lord Chancellor. Then Secretary of State for Justice, Falconer stepped down when Gordon Brown became Prime Minister in 2007, but in May 2015 he was appointed to shadow the Justice portfolio.

    Falconer remains proud of his 10 years as a Blair minister, believing Blair “fundamentally changed Britain by making it much, much fairer”, pointing to the minimum wage, the Human Rights Act, the Freedom of Information Act and the increase in the funding of NHS. He believes a key Blair achievement was a move from a philosophy of “hand out” to “hand up”. “We made the public sector, health and education, really allow people to transform their lives. Instead of it being a sort-of second-rate safety net it became instead a means of enabling people to change.”

    Not surprisingly, he names the Iraq War as the Blair Government’s greatest disaster, “It was based on the proposition that [Saddam] had Weapons of Mass Destruction and he didn’t. And it has obviously had an effect on defining the government.” For all that, he thinks Blair, who he describes as a man who “achieved so much for the Labour Party and the country”, has been treated “incredibly unfairly”. He believes “history will be much kinder than the present view”.

    Whatever else Labour now feels about the troubled Blair legacy, his election-wining abilities must be the envy of any current Labour politician.  Falconer attributes Labour’s 2015 defeat to the fact that “we didn’t convince the public we should be trusted with government again”.

    “There’s a whole series of reasons for it but I think at bottom they trusted the Tories more than they trusted us on the economy”.

    Although more guarded in his language than some, he seems to share the view of Liz Kendall and Chaka Umunna that Labour was insufficiently aspirational in its offering. “I believe that it’s really important for any political party, obviously Labour included, to convince the electorate that if you want to do well for yourself and your family then the environment the government is creating will allow that to happen. And if people think that a government is going to stand in the way people doing well and achieving then that government will have difficulty in attracting votes.”


    However Falconer has lent his backing in Labour’s leadership campaign not to a candidate like Liz Kendall who is fairly ostentatiously draping herself in Blairite clothes, but to Andy Burnham, seen as a more “old Labour” candidate. “I think he’s the best person to lead the Labour Party at this particular juncture,” Falconer says. “I think what Labour has got to do is convince people that it is connected to the hopes and fears of people … Andy Burnham is the best person to do that.”

    Falconer worked closely with Burnham in connection with the campaign to re-open the inquests into the Hillsborough Stadium disaster, and was clearly impressed by Burnham’s tenacity, “Andy was under some considerable pressure from time to time to not persist and even though it was damaging for him in many respects he persisted and ultimately was able to deliver an inquiry… that revealed the truth. Andy has got really good values and when the test came he passed it with flying colours. He was a politician who was brave and did the right thing.”

    In what in Labour Party terms is a very large tent, Burnham has attracted the support not only of a key Blairite such as Falconer, but also Len McCluskey, head of Britain’s largest Union, Unite. Falconer rejects the suggestion that Burnham risks being perceived as being in the Union’s pocket (a criticism made of Ed Miliband after Union votes delivered an unexpected leadership win over his brother David). “Anyone who knows Andy Burnham will knows he most certainly is not Len McCluskey’s man. He will, I’m absolutely sure, be able to convey that.”

    Falconer is one of a very large number of Scots who have achieved prominence in UK Labour, a tradition stretching back to Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald. He talks optimistically of Labour finding its way back from the catastrophic 40 seat loss in Scotland, “Our job for Labour now I believe is to explain the benefits for the whole of UK including Scotland of union and be a clear and well-regarded opposition to the SNP in Scotland. Scotland is not a one party state.”

    A one party state it may not be, but the Scottish election disaster seems to evidence a shifting of the electoral tectonic plates of far greater significance than Falconer is prepared to recognise. His current view is that the Labour Party should remain “the only party that crosses the border effectively”, and that “we both need each other, the Scottish Labour Party and the English Labour party, we should stay together”. He rejects the suggestion that Labour faces an impossible conundrum, being insufficiently left-wing for voters in Scotland, and too left-wing for voters in England, “I do not accept that the Scottish or the English populations are in particularly different places. There’s a long road back but it’s a road we can go down and get to the end of.”

    After stepping down from Ministerial Office in 2007, Falconer devoted much of his time in the House of Lords seeking to bring an Assisted Dying Bill onto the statute book. The bill would allow terminally ill but medically competent patients to request life-ending medication from a doctor. His interest in this cause originated in personal experience, “Like very, very many people I have experience in my own life of people’s death and I have become incredibly struck through that experience of how there wasn’t this choice, that subject to proper protection, that when people were dying they should have.” That experience was reinforced by the many people he met who had very similar experiences, including a number of people themselves suffering from terminal illness and their families. His bill reached the Committee Stage of the House of Lords before the general election. This interview took place the day before the House of Lords ballot for private member bills for the 2015 Parliamentary Session. Falconer was drawn 21st on the list of 44 bills, and will re-introduce his bill on 4 June 2015.

    However formidable obstacles remain before there is any prospect of it becoming law, including strong opposition in the Lords itself. Three senior legal figures in the House, Baroness Butler-Sloss, Lord Carlile QC and Lord Brennan QC said the proposed change would leave vulnerable people at risk of abuse and threaten “public safety”. Falconer trenchantly rejects these criticisms.

    “They are completely wrong. I think they’ve been closed in their minds about the bill.” He points to the numerous safeguards the bill provides for – two doctors have to be satisfied that the person is suffering from a terminal illness, that it is the person’s firm and settled intention to commit suicide, that the person has the capacity, and that it is a voluntary decision. A judge then has to confirm the decision is indeed voluntary. “That is so much more protection than now where there are absolutely no safeguards”, Falconer says. “People go to clinics in Switzerland without anyone ever looking at what the position is.” He complains that “The people who can take own life [now] are those who have the where-with-all, financial and emotional, to go to Switzerland. So it’s something for a very small group of people and there are no safeguards in relation to those who go there.” He describes the current law, in which those who accompany a patient to a Dignitas clinic may face a five to six month police investigation to decide whether they should be prosecuted, as “an absolute nightmare” and says “I don’t think anybody sensible wants that to continue”.

    In October 2014, newspapers were agog with the news that Falconer had managed to shed 5 stone in two years on a diet regime of one meal a day, supplemented by Diet Coke and apples. Private Eye greeted the story with the headline, “Shock: Lawyer Loses Pounds.” While Falconer resists both Diet Coke and apples during our interview, six empty cans of the slim line version of “The Real Thing” litter the office. Unlike that other famous dieting politician, Nigel Lawson, he has not been asked to write a book. “One literary agent rang me up and said `Tell me about your diet’ and I said it was Diet Cokes and apples and you could eat anything you like in the evening. `There’s not much of a book there’, they said.”

    So dramatic was Falconer’s weight loss that when he introduced his Assisted Dying Bill into the Lords, a number of his colleagues thought he was doing so because he was suffering from a wasting illness himself. He says “when they were told that I wasn’t … they said `Well pretend that you are, so you get sympathy for your Assisted Dying Bill’. That was a joke. I think”.


    Although no longer the physical heavyweight he once was, Falconer looks set to be a key Labour figure in opposition. As Shadow Justice Minister, he will have the lead role in opposing Conservative plans to repeal the Human Rights Act in what looks to offer Labour its best prospect of defeating a Conservative manifesto commitment. He describes the Conservative policy as “appalling”, accusing them of “trying to fool people into believing that you can have only those Human Rights that the government want you to have … If that is the position then of course that’s no Human Rights at all”.

    He accuses the Conservatives of telling “a series of lies”, including suggesting that the Strasbourg court determines UK law when it is the UK Supreme Court which is the final arbiter of compliance, and the UK Parliament which decides whether the law should be changed. There is clearly a strong personal desire to prevent the Conservatives dismantling what Falconer sees as a key part of the Blair legacy.

    Supporters of the Act will hope the Diet Coke and apples provide Falconer with sufficient stomach for what will be a tough fight.

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