Interview: Jim Knight

politics.co.uk talks to the employment minister about party conferences, Labour spending cuts… and Banksy.

By Liz Stephens

Jim Knight is a bit of an enigma. New Labour through and through with an almost unmatched obedience to party policy in his voting record, you could get easily get the wrong impression about him on paper. However, in person it appears less that he’s just trotting out the party line and more that that line just happens to happily coincide with his own thinking and he can’t believe his luck. He’s either the most brilliant actor, breathing an exuberant life into spin that would make Daniel Day Lewis tip his cap or he’s still genuinely in love with the party he first sought to represent in 1997. Whether it’s method or madness one thing is for sure: Knight is a conviction politician.

With a wide-ranging portfolio – Knight is currently minister for employment and welfare reform and also minister for the South West – he’s also a man of many interests. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a former arts centre director, one of his big passions is the arts: “I recently went to the Banksy exhibition in Bristol which was inspiring,” he said, quickly adding: “It was one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of free access to the arts really motivating people and providing a brilliant economic stimulus to the city as a result.”

You almost get the impression with Knight that he could stare at a blank wall and see socio-economic policy in action. Although his constant sledge-hammering home of ‘the message’ can be frustrating to interviewers, it has lead to possibly the most unusual attribute ever granted to a maverick graffiti artist.

Knight’s exuberant defending of New Labour extends to the principle of party conferences. Recently it was revealed that nearly one in four MP’s don’t bother with party conferences any more not Knight. He lists an exhaustive number of things he is looking forward to doing at this year’s event. I ask him whether party conferences are just an opportunity to preach to the converted and he seems genuinely appalled at this cynicism: “I’m not sure that’s true. There is debate at conferences at all party conferences”

His loyalty to his party never wavers even when, as employment minister, he is caught between a rock and a hard place over balancing public spending cuts and rising unemployment. I ask him if he believes that employment and welfare should be sacrosanct from cuts during a recession.

“Nothing should be sacrosanct,” he says sounding momentarily like Vince Cable “We will have to look at how we do business, how we can work more efficiently The Department of Work and Pensions spends a lot of public money.”

What about public sector pensions should they be part of the efficiency savings? That is apparently a step too far for Knight: “I would reject the notion that public sector workers are in any way feather bedded,” he says. The Cable-esque moment has passed.

However, while he may be forthcoming about impending spending cuts, he is less forthcoming about the details of what that may entail: “We’re in the middle of discussing with the Treasury a lot of what we do is for the most vulnerable people in society. It’s complicated. A lot of our spending is demand-led”

“If we turn off public spending quickly that would mean unemployment would rise much further and higher. We cannot allow that to happen.” I blinked and he’s back on message again.

Employment is obviously a pressing concern at this time with one in five young people currently out of work, surely it’s not possible to put a positive spin on this?

Knight spiels off a dazzling array of government initiatives, barely pausing for breath. I decide to test his conviction: Knight has voted very strongly in the past in favour of introducing student top up fees – with a big increase in young people going to university to escape rising unemployment is that a stance he is willing to stick by, even if it seems to some an opportunistic tax on the young? “Absolutely” he says.

“The taxpayer is paying for more higher education than they used to but the fundamental is if 50 per cent of students are to go to university that will still mean there are 50 per cent who aren’t. Should they have to pay for those that did through their taxes even though they’re not getting any benefit themselves?”

Repeatedly during our interview, Knight calls on employers to do more, to be engaged more on pensions, on unemployment, on the economy: “Naturally it’s important that employers have their say on whatever we do because in the end we will always be reliant on employers keeping people working and the economy going. There is only so much the government can do.”

So what are his views on mandatory pay audits? For the first and only time during our interview there is a palpable sense of discomfort, of being not quite sure footed. “I think getting information from employers is a useful way of moving things forward. We’ve seen, for example with environmental audits that when they’re carried out it focuses the mind,” he stutters. Then, finally, with a note of hesitation he says: “I spent ten years working in a small business so I’m quite aware of the burdens that can fall on small business we have to make sure that those are manageable.” A small chink in the New Labour armoury, barely perceptible, opens up. I’m almost disappointed. It seems like a blemish on an otherwise untarnished record.