Bridget Phillipson, Labour’s shadow education secretary, grew up in the kind of place where Liz Truss used to pretend she’d grown up: a terrace in Tyne and Wear with a disused railway line at one end and a flattened wasteland at the other, where a chemical plant used to be. “There was an air of decline about the place,” she says. “Youth unemployment was very high; as time went on the houses were increasingly in poor condition. Rotten windows, no heating upstairs. Yet at the same time, I was by no means the worst off.”
If she were a new-breed Tory, she would be tooting her own horn about her proximity to the beating heart of the British voter. But instead she is new-breed Labour: self-effacing, sometimes frustratingly so, practical, the kind of person who loses the credit when surrounded by people who constantly grab at it. Last week was a case in point: Phillipson has put childcare at the centre of Labour’s thinking, and made the education beat into something bigger than GCSE results and class sizes, able to carry the party’s values. Then Jeremy Hunt waltzed in with his budget and pinched the issue, or thought he did. More on that later.
Her mother set up a domestic abuse charity, Wearside Women in Need, in 1983, the year Phillipson was born. She never met her father, despite him living in the same town and working as a teacher nearby. “He played no part in our lives, and never gave us a penny,” she says, neutral but still quite puzzled. “For someone in an otherwise respectable job, I cannot understand why you wouldn’t seek to contribute to your own children financially, even if you don’t want to play a full part in their lives.” He died when she was in her teens.
So she was right in the eye of the social storm that was the 80s and early 90s, the place where Thatcher’s degradation of the public sphere met Thatcherite moralism. “The government were very clear that not only were you on your own, but that they didn’t much like the shape of families like mine. You do absorb that, as a child. It changes and shapes how people judge you. I was always clear that we were just as much a family as anyone else. But that wasn’t the view that the Conservatives held.”
None of this is misery memoir: her mother was a force of nature, very involved in Labour politics and the women’s movement, looking after not just Bridget but loads of kids in the area, “feeding some of them because they weren’t always getting fed”. There was a lot of support from her maternal grandparents, who weren’t party political but were fierce proto-feminists. Her grandfather trained nurses in colleges across north-east England and “had a really strong sense of social justice, talked a lot about his frustration at all the things holding young women back”.
But she does describe herself as having grown up “at the margins”, and says: “I know my mum was acutely aware of making sure that I was well presented, well turned out, because you got enough judgment without people making further judgments about you on that basis.”
Fair play, I tell her. You’re still weirdly well turned-out, for a Labour MP. “Well, I’m also from the north-east,” says the member for Houghton and Sunderland South. “We take these things seriously.”
She went to a Catholic comp, then to Oxford, where she was co-chair of the university Labour group, having joined the Labour party three years before, at 15. After university, defying the graduate norm where you migrate to London, she went back to the north-east and worked for Sunderland council for two years before becoming a manager at the charity her mother had founded. She was selected as a prospective parliamentary candidate in 2009, and elected in 2010, at the age of 26. She is, in other words, absolutely everything you’d want in a Labour MP: connected to the causes she’s fighting for, rooted in the place she represents, dyed-in-the-wool red.
If she’d been one of Blair’s Babes (it still sometimes astonishes me that people called them that; God bless the 90s), she’d have been looking at 13 straight years of pure political sunshine, I’m sure. But she was still in year eight in 1997; the first election she was old enough to vote in was 2005. Not only has she never been in government, but her political tribe hasn’t even been dominant in her party until now – in the previous Labour leadership elections, she voted for David Miliband when Ed won, Yvette Cooper when Corbyn won, Owen Smith when Corbyn won again, and finally Keir Starmer.
She and Starmer have a very similar outlook and way of expressing it: both fashion themselves as problem-solvers rather than idealists, and shy away from big, bellicose statements. You wouldn’t catch Phillipson calling anyone “scum”, put it that way. “In setting out Labour’s plans around childcare, around support for families,” she says, “everything we’re thinking is: how do we ensure that this time around, change lasts? Because it was so easy in 2010 for the Conservatives to come in, close down Sure Start and dismantle all of that infrastructure. And Sure Start was amazing. But we didn’t embed that change so that it became as deeply rooted as, say, the NHS.”
I think Labour is in the grip of a kind of Stockholm syndrome, frankly. Sure Start was destroyed, deliberately, by the Conservative party; child poverty targets enshrined in law were abandoned by a government that will also, given the chance, destroy the NHS. There’s no extra layer of competence and foresight that can protect public services from governments that don’t believe in them. But I’m torn between admiring Phillipson for her reflective, careful self-criticism and wanting to tell her to wise the hell up.
The budget was delivered the day after we met, and Hunt announced the extension of free childcare hours to children older than nine months. I go back to Phillipson for comment. “I think it shows that Labour’s winning the battle of ideas,” she says, “on the need for childcare to be front and centre.” She added that he hadn’t shot her fox, anyway – Hunt’s plan is still on the “broken hours model”, an allocation of free nursery hours per child, and not only does it not kick in for some years, there’s nothing bottoming it out, no plan for the nursery care workforce in terms of training and career progression, and no plan for nurseries themselves, which are expected just to “magic up” new places. “It’s just adding more pressure into an already broken and fragile system.”
The other thing that happened the week we met was the two-day teachers’ strike, salient for Phillipson as she has two school-age children, a daughter of 11 and a son of seven. Her husband, Lawrence Dimery, works in financial services. I guess he looked after the kids, as she’s been flat out, but I didn’t ask her on feminist grounds: people only ever ask women who’s looking after the kids, never men.
She hasn’t always had the best relationship with the teaching unions, heckled at last year’s National Education Union conference for rowing back on Corbyn’s promise to abolish Ofsted. In fact, it was more complicated than that: she told the ASCL school leaders’ earlier this month that Labour plans to replace Ofsted with a “report card” system, and even though the details are scant, this has heartened the profession for two reasons. First, because the Orwellian absurdity of the Ofsted system, in which “outstanding” is the only acceptable grade and even “good” means “bad”, is putting headteachers and their staff under intense pressure. The death by suicide of headteacher Ruth Perry, after her school was downgraded from outstanding to inadequate, spurred her MP, Matt Rodda, to comment: “Ofsted must now ask themselves some tough questions about their role.” (This is really unusual; it’s against convention to look for a culprit, after a death from despair.) And the second reason educators warmed to Phillipson’s “report card” plan was because she wants to realise it in consultation with teachers and parents. This respect for the profession must feel fresh to teachers.
Plainly, Phillipson supports the teaching unions; sure, the strikes are inconvenient, she says, but she’s “incredibly frustrated with the secretary of state, that she didn’t do more to avert these strikes”, not the teachers themselves. She underlines how hard they worked to get kids through the pandemic, all they’ve had to deal with since then, with rising child poverty and surging rates of mental illness, besides the low wages and punishing hours. Yet her language is so careful and measured – “I’ll always work with unions, teachers unions and affiliated unions. They want what’s best for their members; they want a fair deal around pay and conditions. I want to make sure they get a better deal. Labour governments always deliver a better deal” – that she somehow sounds like she’s letting them down gently even when she’s voicing her support.
Actually, her thinking about education is socially ambitious: she doesn’t buy into the simple economic case that early years care is important so parents can get back to work. It’s bigger than the economy, she believes: it’s about closing the attainment gap that poverty creates before kids have even started primary school, which then gets wider, not narrower. Nor does she think the battle for equal access to university is anything like over. “There’s a lot of talk about the 50% of young people going into university; that masks big regional variations. In Sunderland, it’s nowhere near half – it’s around a third. Young people are just as talented there as they are elsewhere.”
She refers to, but doesn’t elaborate on, Labour’s fully costed plan for a complete childcare package from the end of parental leave to the end of primary school. Some of this has been announced over the past year, with £1.7bn saved by axing the tax breaks for private schools to go towards after-school clubs.
There is more to come. She reminds me fleetingly of Corbyn’s 2017 manifesto when she talks about the importance of having lifelong educational opportunities, so that higher education isn’t limited to the university classes. And she goes on to underline that a lot of students are struggling financially, so significant inequalities open up even during the undergraduate years, and people who need to take paid work can’t take up internships.
With a more firebrand delivery, she could sound like Corbyn – which is ironic, because she really, really isn’t a fan, as I find out when we have a brief skirmish about the 2019 election, when Boris Johnson won his landslide. “I remember I had one voter,” she says, “a former miner, who’d sent off his postal vote, voted Labour, and wanted me to convince him he hadn’t done the wrong thing. He was almost in tears, saying: ‘Can you please reassure me I haven’t made a terrible mistake?’”
This kind of talk about Corbyn and how thoroughly he alienated the voters, such that a grown man might start crying, is nodded through so often by interviewers that I don’t think MPs even ask themselves any more whether it sounds a bit daft. Why was he crying, I ask. What was he so upset about? “He was worried about the prospect of an incoming Labour government.” But what did he think Labour were going to do? “He thought we wouldn’t stand up for national security, that we wouldn’t keep communities safe.” Did Phillipson herself think similarly – that Corbyn’s Labour party posed an actual security risk? It seems pretty remote, and also, isn’t it weird to stand alongside him, if that’s what you think? “I didn’t feel we were in great shape as a party” is all she’ll say, though.
Why were we talking about Corbyn? It started with a conversation about Brexit. Phillipson was a staunch remainer, though she now toes the party line, saying she’s resolved to make Brexit work. “We do need to fix the Brexit deal. What we’ve got isn’t working as it should.” She will emphatically not be trying to rejoin the EU: “I don’t think people want to see a kind of a return to the division that we’ve lived through. There’s a real weariness about those years.” This is the division among red-wall-ologists – was it the perception of remain tendencies clinging to MPs like Phillipson that put voters off Labour in 2019, or was it Corbyn himself? It feels like such a cruel paradox that the party that created those divisions of which we are now so weary has largely moved on, while the rest of us, remainers especially, are still tearing ourselves apart over it.
The other thing rumbling on in the background when we spoke was the SNP leadership election, which has taken an unexpected turn into a debate about whether an opponent of same-sex marriage should be allowed to run a country, and whether, if you say that’s not ideal, you’re then discriminating against people of faith. Phillipson is a Catholic, but has no problem at all squaring her religion and her politics. “For me, being Catholic has always been about a wider sense of social justice, social action, the value and worth of every individual, the right of everyone to be treated with dignity and respect. But I’m not the world’s best Catholic. I part company on issues around abortion, contraception …” She ends with a confident wave of the hand, as if to signify “all that stuff”.
When she’s confident, she is plausible, likable, relatable; the kind of person anyone would vote for, whether they were Labour or not. I just wish she and her colleagues were all a bit less self-effacing, a bit slower to swallow the idea that, somehow, everything is still Labour’s fault.