Bridget Phillipson Labour Member of Parliament for Houghton and Sunderland South
Having grown up in poverty as the child of a single mother, Bridget Phillipson knows as well as anyone how much those on low incomes suffer through lean times. It’s why, she tells Laurence Sleator, she’s determined to defend the red wall – and see the return of a Labour government.
The 2019 general election showed that the Labour hegemony in the north-east is truly over. Blyth Valley was the first red brick of the night to fall, the Conservatives stunned pundits in North West Durham and then Tony Blair’s old seat of Sedgefield, Labour since 1935, went to Boris Johnson’s party.
Around 20 miles away in Houghton and Sunderland South, Labour held on – but with a much-reduced majority.
It is a sign of how the once staunch Labour and strong Leave-supporting communities stretched across the old Durham coalfields have changed.
Nobody knows this better than the local MP Bridget Phillipson, who has lived and worked in the area for almost her entire life.
She grew up in a council house in nearby Washington, a town that at the time was beset by crime and poverty with a high unemployment rate.
Her father left her mother, Clare, when she was pregnant and the then-26-year-old raised her daughter as a single parent.
Unable to work while caring for her young child, Clare was reliant on the state and the support of her own parents. They had little to steal, but the family was burgled on several occasions – with the TV and young Bridget’s piggy bank taken.
Despite living locally, her father showed “zero interest”, not paying the family a penny. By the time she was a teenager, Phillipson had still never met him – and had little desire to – when she was told he had passed away.
“We didn’t always have a great deal,” she says now of her upbringing. “All parents do their best to shield their children from the pressures they face, but I do recall we would get to the end of the week and there wouldn’t be any money left. Luxuries were hard to come by.”
Those “luxuries” extended to basic necessities. Seeing the seven-year-old Bridget playing outside in a jumper in the height of winter, a neighbour knowing money was tight pushed an envelope of cash through the letterbox marked, “For Bridget’s coat”.
The recent removal of the temporary £20 uplift in Universal Credit is, to Phillipson, a reminder of those days when her family was forced to choose between heating or sufficient food for the week. As she told the House of Commons last month: “For me this is more than political, it’s personal.”
Notwithstanding the hard times, Phillipson is grateful for her upbringing. “I was always conscious that in many ways I was fortunate,” she says. “For all that life was pretty tough at times for us, I went to a great local school and was able to go to university. Lots of people I grew up with weren’t so fortunate.”
Attending the local Catholic comprehensive school, she threw herself into her studies achieving the grades needed to go on to the University of Oxford, where she was co-chair of the Labour Club having joined the party aged 15 at the apogee of Tony Blair’s powers.
After graduating, Phillipson worked in local government and the charity sector; when an opening came up in the new seat of Houghton and Sunderland South, she jumped at the opportunity.
The selection process was, she says, competitive, but having been taken to Constituency Labour Party meetings by her mother from the age of two, where she would play in a corner of the village hall, she had an advantage over the other candidates. Despite being only in her 20s, she was determined to land the seat.
“You’re more driven when you can’t really imagine standing anywhere else,” she says, “when it’s your community and the chance is there.”
Entering the Commons in 2010 aged just 26 as more than a decade of a Labour governance came to an end, she initially struggled to find her feet. She might have risen through the ranks faster had her brand of Labour politics been in the ascendency. Instead, she consistently backed the wrong horse, first supporting David Miliband for the leadership, then Yvette Cooper and then Owen Smith’s failed challenge to Jeremy Corbyn.
Fourth time round she got it right, and her loyalty to Keir Starmer saw her finally invited into the shadow cabinet a decade after winning her first election. As shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, she works with shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves to set Labour’s economic agenda.
Still an unapologetic fan of New Labour, she and Reeves want to make the party “unashamedly pro-business” and restore some of the economic credibility in voters’ eyes that she believes was lost following the financial crash of 2008.
The first question should be an easy one then: Is there a magic money tree? “Errrrr, no!” She says, conscious of being set a trap. “I think taxpayers and the public expect that their government takes a responsible approach to how money is spent.”
This responsibility includes, as set out by Reeves at Party Conference, a new set of fiscal rules, which would see a Labour government commit to balancing day-to-day spending, aiming to reduce public debt and only borrowing for capital projects, particularly those which would make the UK a greener economy.
A trusted lieutenant often sent out by Starmer to face the media or spar with Conservatives from the dispatch box, Phillipson is resolutely on message. Never once is the word “borrow” said without being followed by the phrase “to invest”, and no opportunity is wasted to attack the government over its hike on National Insurance, the income tax threshold freeze or the Universal Credit cut. She says her constituency is particularly affected by the latter, with around half of all families with children set to lose out.
Where consensus with the Conservatives emerges, it is around the need for a high-wage, high-skill, high-productivity economy.
But while Boris Johnson is prepared for some disruption along the supply chain in hope of getting there, Labour is not.
“We need a plan from the government. There is no plan,” Phillipson says. “They blame everybody else; fail to take responsibility; deny there is a problem, then claim it was the plan all along. We need the government to recognise the situation we face. That will involve making sure we can fill temporary gaps in the workforce on a short-term basis.”
Will this have to come through immigration? “[For] the short-term gaps we will have to look at making sure we have the right number of visas being issued. There is an important role for the Migration Advisory Committee in recommending what action is necessary in the short-term.”
Phillipson’s tone is in stark contrast to the Prime Minister’s rhetoric at Conservative Party Conference, where he said the answer to the “current stresses and strains” was not to reach for “that same old lever of uncontrolled immigration to keep wages low”.
To prove this commitment to improving pay, there have been rumours that the PM may raise the national living wage by almost six per cent to £9.42 an hour – only 58p less than Starmer’s Labour Party is officially demanding.
“We all want to see higher wages that’s what all of us came into Labour Party to achieve,” Phillipson says when asked if the policy of £10 an hour is adequate.
Many in Labour want the demands for higher wages to be more ambitious, with shadow employment secretary Andy McDonald resigning at Party Conference over the leadership’s refusal to support a more generous £15 minimum.
Should this figure be the long-term aim? Phillipson repeats her answer: “In the Labour Party we all want to see high wages and see people keep more of what they earn. Yes the PM should move to increase the minimum wage as soon as possible.”
With an election potentially three years away, and the manifesto still a draft document on Starmer’s laptop, senior members of the party clearly don’t want to be drawn into specifics, especially when it comes to tax proposals.
Should the top one per cent pay more tax? “Those with the broadest shoulders should make more of a contribution.”
Should – in the words of fellow shadow cabinet member Jim McMahon – “regressive” council tax be replaced with fairer system?
“We just need a modern fairer taxation system full stop,” Phillipson says. “The tax system hasn’t kept pace with the economy and the changes we’ve seen in wider society.”
Would, having been so critical of the policy, a Labour government repeal the rise in National Insurance (and the subsequent Health and Social Care levy) if it came to power?
“We will look at the situation facing the public finances then,” she says, stressing that the money the government raises from the levy will not address all the challenges in funding social care.
But Party Conference did see some big economic policies unveiled: a plan to scrap business rates, a review of tax reliefs, cutting tax breaks for private schools and establishing a new Office of Value for Money to “make sure we are always getting best value out of every pound that we spend”.
“We know how hard people work and they expect the government to take as seriously as they do how they are spending their money,” Phillipson says.
While monetary questions are met with businesslike responses, real emotion is evident when the conversation moves on to the government’s approach to violence against women and girls.
Before entering the Commons, Phillipson managed a refuge in Sunderland for women and children fleeing domestic abuse and in her maiden speech she called on the coalition government to “prioritise measures that will increase the number of rape convictions” – 11 years later they are at an all-time low.
“I find it incomprehensible,” she says, visibly moved. “It does make me incredibly angry to see victims so badly let down by this government. When you’ve been through such a traumatic event, or series of events… to have the courage to come forward and then not see justice undermines everything we’ve worked so hard to change over very many decades.”
Putting this right is another reason why those in the top echelons of Labour are so determined to get back into power, and though Phillipson doesn’t mention Blair or Gordon Brown by name, she clearly takes pride in many of their achievements in office.
“We are a great country and a great place to live, but we could be better still,” she says. “Labour always wins when we are positive and optimistic and have a vision for a better Britain and that’s what Keir Starmer has already begun to set out.”
Thrusting both hands forward for extra emphasis, she concludes: “I’m an optimist by nature – and I believe that Britain’s best days are still ahead of us!”