The shadow education secretary on what the UK can learn from Estonia, snobbery at Oxford and whether she wants to be Labour leader.
Bridget Phillipson was, as Labour frontbenchers often are these days, campaigning in the sort of marginal seat that her party needs to win in the next general election. The shadow education secretary was dressed in a dusty pink overcoat, and her immaculate brown bob swished as she marched smartly from door to door in Penistone and Stocksbridge, South Yorkshire.
The MP for Houghton and Sunderland South, 39, knows the drill only too well, having joined the Labour Party aged just 15. “Because my mam was a single parent and there was no childcare – a problem that continues to this day – she would take me along to Labour Party meetings and I became more and more interested,” she said.
If Labour wins power, Phillipson wants to follow in the footsteps of David Blunkett, who grew up near by in Sheffield, and become a reforming education secretary. Phillipson is firmly on Labour’s moderate wing having backed David Miliband for the leadership in 2010, and then spent years in the wilderness under Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn.
Her mission is to build a modern childcare system, modelled on Estonia’s, which guarantees a nursery place and care from the end of parental leave through to primary school. At the heart of the plan is an ambition to help more parents, especially women, into work to help to grow the economy. It will mean “rethinking the entire education system” and a major expansion of state-run nurseries. But the prize, Phillipson explained, is ending a patchy and expensive system, which means parents pay the third-highest childcare costs in the developed world.
“When I have been campaigning in seats from Watford to Stevenage to Thurrock, it comes up time and again that they are being held back by a childcare system that just doesn’t work,” she said.
Phillipson aims to embed childcare support into the system so it cannot be undone by a future government. Tony Blair’s reforms, she believes “didn’t go far enough” in that regard. “Take Sure Start centres: the Tories came into government and oversaw the closure of over 1,000,” she said, as we warmed up with a coffee.
It seems childcare will be one of the few areas in which Rachel Reeves, who will become the country’s first female chancellor if Labour is elected, will be prepared to spend big. “Rachel is a force to be reckoned with,” Phillipson said. “She has an incredible intellect and a real sense of social justice.
“And I know she is drawing heavily on the work of [the US treasury secretary] Janet Yellen on what modern supply-side reforms look like. It’s not the Tories’ approach, which is reducing quality and changing ratios, it’s looking at a much bigger understanding of what families need to be, and Rachel understands childcare has to be an important part of any country’s economic strategy.”
Those close to Phillipson praise her “healthy scepticism of nostalgia”, and of those in Labour who have a “sepia-tinted view” about “the good old days” of a highly industrialised economy, when women had fewer choices. Her own experience of education, at St Robert Catholic comprehensive school in Washington, Tyne and Wear, as a teenager and later at Oxford University where she studied modern history, was transformative for a working-class girl from the north-east.
Her deputy headteacher was “really fierce” and had high expectations. When Phillipson failed to sign up for a day trip to Oxford it was deemed unacceptable. “I hadn’t got round to it, even though I was thinking about it. I then got a message saying the deputy head wanted to see me immediately in his office, and I was told he expected me to put my name on the list by the end of the day.”
Phillipson’s upbringing was a stark contrast to that of many of her university peers. She was brought up in a council house in a terrace of former railway workers’ homes by her mother, Clare, who would later found Wearside Women in Need, and money was short.
“I always felt I had as much right to be [at Oxford] as anyone else but it was a culture shock,” she said. “It was less the very wealthy types but more those who had experiences of gap years and skiing holidays and second homes in France.
“People would ask what school I went to and when I said I grew up in Washington, they would say ‘do you mean Washington DC?’ They didn’t even know the town, never mind the school, because they were used to moving in a certain kind of circle. It would make for an awkward conversation because you’d have to justify where you were from. You would get the usual, well-intentioned rude joke about whether electricity had reached the north-east and a lot of stereotypes that didn’t connect with reality. But it just made me more determined to succeed.”
Phillipson saw echoes of what she endured at university in a recent incident at Eton College where girls visiting from a state school were reportedly subjected to misogynistic language, racial slurs and jeering. “It was appalling and shocking,” she said. “No one should be made to feel that way. Eton College has apologised and they were right to do so but it cannot ever happen again.”
Phillipson would go on to co-chair the Oxford University Labour Club and build a network of valuable political connections. She recalled campaigning in southern marginals such as Reading and Oxford East, which instilled in her a sense that Labour has to modernise to win.
After graduating, she could have chosen a lucrative career in London but instead returned to Sunderland to manage a women’s refuge. “I was really determined after university to move back. The north-east has such a sense of community and I wanted to make a difference and be involved in some of the changes in that time. There was a total shift in how we treated violence against women and girls and it’s heartbreaking to see how so much of that has gone backwards,” she said, citing the Crown Prosecution Service’s record low rates for prosecuting rape.
She met her husband Lawrence, who works in financial services, at a pub in Newcastle. The couple have two children, a girl, seven, and a boy, 11.
She recalls how the region was hit hard in the late 1980s and early 1990s by the decline of heavy industry, with unemployment and crime soaring as a result. When she was seven, a neighbour posted money through the letterbox labelled “for Bridget’s coat” after seeing her outside in midwinter in a jumper.
“My mam brought me up on my own,” she said. “My dad wasn’t involved. I never met him despite the fact he lived locally. He made absolutely no contribution. And that wasn’t a source of any unhappiness because you don’t miss what you have never had.”
It did, however, make her “increasingly angry” when Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government showed hostility towards single-parent families. She vividly remembers Peter Lilley’s “I have a little list” speech at the Conservative Party conference in 1992 when the social security secretary berated single mothers “who get pregnant just to jump the housing queue”.
“I found a lot of that rhetoric around single parents really offensive,” Phillipson continued, “because I knew my mam worked really hard and we were just as much of a family as anyone else. My view is still the same, that families come in all shapes and sizes and it isn’t for the government to judge what is right.”
On one occasion the Phillipson family home was burgled, and after her mother reported it to the police their windows were smashed twice and a man carrying a baseball bat attempted to intimidate her into withdrawing the allegations. “My mam was a tough character and was prepared to stand up but then it wasn’t simply about us,” Phillipson said. “She was doing that on behalf of others in the street who were too frightened. Looking back, it was just what I knew but no one should have to go through it. It is working-class communities that suffer most when there is no action on crime.”
Her Houghton and Sunderland South constituents voted 62 per cent for Leave, but Phillipson supported a second referendum on Brexit. Yet she managed to hang on to her seat in the 2019 general election despite Boris Johnson’s sweeping the Red Wall.
“I felt that members of parliament had a responsibility to say what they think is right and that is what I felt at that time,” she said. “We have left the EU. There are big problems with the deal the government negotiated and it is our job now to repair that deal and plug the gaps in it.”
Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet is a close-knit team – “we WhatsApp each other all the time”. Phillipson is “big friends” with Jonathan Reynolds, the shadow business secretary who also grew up on Wearside, and she seeks “wise counsel” from the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Pat McFadden, a close ally of Peter Mandelson’s during the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown era.
After a warm reception on the doorstep, Phillipson was cautiously optimistic but painfully aware that Labour has “lost four elections on the bounce”. As she prepared to head back to Westminster, I noted that many see her as a future Labour leader.
Phillipson shook her head and smiled, but did not rule the prospect out entirely. “I want to be Labour’s next education secretary and I hope Keir is prime minister in Downing Street for many years to come,” she said. “All I’m thinking about is being a reforming education secretary in the next government. That’s a big enough job.”
This article originally appeared in The New Statesman