Armstrong, Hilary (2 of 2). The History of Parliament Oral History Project
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House of Lords, London
Armstrong, Hilary, 1945- (speaker, female)
Peplow, Emma (speaker, female)
Part 2: Continue discussion on all-women shortlists (AWS) for Labour candidates. Hilary Armstrong (HA) chair of women’s committee on National Executive. Discussion about press and women MPs – ‘Blair’s babes’. Felt AWS made difference in 1997. Continued issue for women in politics. HA felt pressure herself but not concern. [05:30] Discussion relationship press – “not wonderful”. Felt not good at ‘spin’ and protective of others – press thought she was boring. [06:50] Further discussion about relationship with John Smith (JS). Very sociable (possibly issue health). Liked to know what going on in party. Enjoyed position she had as his PPS. [09:45] Discussion of his death, was in hospital with his wife. “Grim”. Knew unwell for a time and thought he wasn’t “as bubbly” in weeks before his death. “Shock” for the party. [12:50] New leader (Gordon Brown (GB) or Tony Blair (TB)) clear, were close at that time. JS expected one to follow him, not expressed preference. HA supported TB – “more rounded”. Discussion attempt to keep communication with GB open, especially as worked on Treasury team. [15:40] Difficult relationship, GB found it hard to include those he did not think was his “intellectual peer”. If entered meetings between GB, Ed Balls and Charlie Whealan they would stop speaking. Happy to work elsewhere but not want to ‘pick sides’. Believes she was ‘cast out’ – “a bit pathetic really”. [17:40] Move to local government team. Job to invest in public services and reform local government. Change how contracts tendered. Felt shift “subtle”. Then also housing/homelessness and later regions/homelessness. Worked to reduce numbers of rough speakers. [20:15] “Proud” of work. [20:40] Relationship between PLP and leadership – not all see that she was between both. Enjoyed teamwork, working with others, ‘gossip’ etc. Parliament “bad” at that, MPs can’t always use their experiences, but at times MPs are naïve about power/influence/abilities. Inductions for new MPs/support mechanisms etc. [24:00] Discussion Parliament’s limits and issues ambition. HA wanted to enjoy work/party to succeed. [26:40] Discussion constituency work and ministerial work – split time, only did ministerial work in London etc. Sunday night with husband. [29:50] Discussion finances, “never good” but not lose out when MP. Discussion MPs pay. “Wary” of drinking in Westminster, tea rooms instead. Friends not in Conservatives – “tribal”. [33:45] Discussion ‘gossip’ – people have lives outside, need to understand them. Relationships hard at Westminster. As Whip, important not to leave persuasion too late. In first term Labour made mistake sending MPS home for long periods: away from centre when decision-making. [28:30] Discussion 1997 election. Thought would be close, but campaign very good. Husband campaigning – he suggest could win landslide. “Unbelievable” to watch. [40:00] TB already thought about his Cabinet. HA knew would keep portfolio, not all did – Frank Dobson. John Prescott “big job”. He “shy” person, HA good relationship. Had responsibility of own portfolio. Trust. [44:15] “Fantastic” to be in government and make change. Try to help constituency but in local government reform national/local priorities clashed. Huge expectations despite “modest” promises. Work with Local Government Association good. Housing policies – now criticised for not building more but refurbishing, argue houses in “bad state”. [50:10] Loved job, especially regeneration work. Social Exclusion Unit. Had to build legislation, compromise to pass Lords.[53:30] Time as Chief Whip (second term) very different. Wanted to change ‘stereotype’, less intimidation. TB sometimes “naïve”, believed people won over debate only. Her deputies perhaps more forceful but won’t “confess” it. Discussion leak when head of MI6 addressed them. Try to treat whips as “grown-ups” and explain what happening, keep in touch with PLP. Whips divided between regions and ministerial teams. [59:20] Discussion how to organise a big vote. Numbers every morning. Discussion of Iraq War vote. Knew who might be difficult and would work on those people – others who might ‘persuade’ them not whips. Foreign/Defence Secretaries involved. Ministers thought had more impact than did. Iraq vote “incredibly stressful”. Very divided. Helped by two amendments. Conservative vote important – Americans persuaded them. [1:05:00] Attacked by Chris Mullen in book – he lost job in vote and in next reshuffle HA reminded TB about vote. Done for TB only. [1:08:10] More discussion Iraq War: TB “believed” in it. Try to win over others. Worked hard at UN, blame French President Jacques] Chirac for failure. Dossier not ‘sexed up’ – presented for public. Security “uncomfortable” with language. [1:11:00] Good relationship with TB and his team. Not feel slighted if saw others in his office. He want to know numbers and gossip. Help look after his constituency, discuss football rivalry. Try to make “hell on earth job” easier. [1:13:30] Issues pushing through gambling bill (Methodism – attempt to expel HA from church over it). Now think are some mistakes should correct. Happy to argue with constituents if they not agree with her policies. Issue over Catholic pro-life movement in constituency (HA very pro-choice). Her approach to be honest about motivations and loyal to Labour party – voted for party, not her. [1:16:50] Discussion influence Methodism. Constituents aware. Values from faith but not discuss all time. [1:18:05] 90 day detention vote loss – she says expected and not a problem. Attempt to “send a message” to security services/police. One regret losing on religious freedom, lost by one after TB brought in to vote, he “furious”. Not expecting loss. Then party “wise to our methods”. [01:21:50] Discussion New Labour and press. In opposition worked for better relationship and press office well managed. Tories criticised for this but they were worse. Felt government press awful. Example night shelter for homeless Christmas 1997 badly organised. Needed press to get message across, deny was ‘spin’. Alistair Campbell very good at that. [1:28:40] Not stand down as chief whip but discussed alternatives. Job at cabinet office, difficulties over GB succession. Review next steps – ministers from both camps – Pat McFadden (for TB) and Ed Miliband (for GB). Part of this social exclusion job. Wanted to do more on this. Issue bottom 2%. Involved in handover. Knew had do it before TB leave. Handover “difficult”, communication broken down. Thought TB’s end “dignified”. Help by-election campaign. [1:34:25] Then HA chose to leave government, and afterwards would leave Parliament. Natural time. As Chief Whip learned about process and organisation. Believe need parties and organisation. ‘Political class’ more professional, but issue relationship representation. [1:37:55] Period on backbenches “fine”. Back operation, plan future. When started wanted to “change the world” – cannot do that. A “privileged” time. Enjoyed constituency and ministerial work. Enjoyed influence. No regrets. Still live in north and divide time, but have weekend back, pressure off if just as busy. Involvement voluntary sector. [1:42:00] Lords as Chief Whip – longest serving Chief Whip. Last year in government Chancy of Duchy of Lancaster, speak to Queen about her tenants. [1:43:35] Discussion how Parliament changed between her father’s career and hers. Cannot be like any other job. Change hours mean difficult for MPs to know one other and harder political education/compromise. Relationship with public “always been pretty bad”, but now worse. Social media (HA not like – want life outside). Discussion traditions and why they are there – if good should be kept. Family life. Have to be aware of those they represent. [1:50:50] Proud of rough sleepers, changes in local government. Social exclusion work.
Life story interview with Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top (1945-), former Labour Member of Parliament.