On 12 April last year, Boris Johnson’s fixed penalty notice was dominating the news. Few noticed another, perhaps equally seismic political story in Bournemouth: a member of Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet was being booed by the unions. Speaking at the National Education Union’s annual conference, shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson faced a revolt. She had reneged on a Corbyn-era pledge to abolish the schools inspectorate, Ofsted.
‘It began with heckling and then it became louder and there was a mass walkout. They continued the demonstration outside the conference hall,’ Phillipson says nonchalantly. Was she put off? ‘I was taken aback by the degree of hostility. If they are not prepared to listen then that’s rather disrespectful – but that’s on them.’
The 39-year-old Gateshead-born MP for Houghton and Sunderland South has stuck by her policy. A Labour government will instead look to reform the watchdog by handing it greater powers to sanction failing schools. ‘It’s working-class kids who lose out when there is a failure to deliver high standards in our schools,’ she says.
Phillipson isn’t afraid of riling the Labour base. When we meet in her Commons office, she is preparing for a speech next week about childcare to the centre-right thinktank Onward. It comes after her colleague Jonathan Ashworth caused panic in No. 10 by addressing the solid Tory policy of welfare reform. The message from the Labour frontbench is simple: if there is a shortage of ideas, Starmer’s party is keen to fill the void.
‘I’ve got to win the next election and that means making sure that we’re speaking to the voters we need to win over next time around,’ Phillipson explains, insisting that despite Labour’s consistent 20-plus poll lead, victory should not be taken for granted (‘we’re still a long way out’). Part of the pitch will be to focus on areas that the Tories seem to be struggling with. Phillipson wants to make childcare a dividing line at the next election. Starmer has included it in his five missions for a Labour government. ‘When it comes to childcare and family policy, I think Labour has the ideas and the vision for the future. We are the party of family.’
With childcare costs in the UK the third most expensive in the world after New Zealand and Switzerland, it’s an easy attack line. After Rishi Sunak scrapped Liz Truss’s plans to slash childminder ratios (the legal minimum number of adults to children in nurseries), the Prime Minister is facing pressure to unveil a new offer in next month’s Budget.
Phillipson recently returned to Bournemouth and says that she was struck by the shifting demographics, which means the city is now within reach of Labour (both Bournemouth constituencies have been solid Tory strongholds since their creation in the 1950s). ‘It’s changing because of the number of young parents that are moving there.’
Those kinds of changes are guiding the party to reconsider some of its positions. ‘Labour always does best when we reflect the lives that people live today, so the challenge we face going into the next election is looking to the world that we want to build in 2024 and beyond and not looking back to, say, 1997,’ she says. ‘It’s about looking at the needs of the society and how things need to change today. When it comes to women in the workforce, [the country] is unrecognisable now even from where it was in 1997.’
What would Labour’s childcare policy look like? So far, it involves universal free breakfast clubs for every primary school child and moving away from the current pre-school model, in which three- and four-year-olds get a minimum of 30 hours of free childcare a week. ‘We need to look very differently at how we have a system that brings together all of the different pots of money. It’s very complicated, very fragmented,’ she says.
Phillipson is looking abroad for inspiration. She has praised Estonia for its guaranteed access to early years childcare, and wants to replicate it here. ‘It’s about making a permanent change to the system that we have right now… we had lots of success in government in terms of putting in place extra support for families, such as with Sure Start Centres, but it was so easy for the Conservatives to come in and unpick that.’
She is just back from a fact-finding trip to Australia, where she met with the new Labor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. ‘The Australian Labor party won an election on the basis of a really future-facing programme for government where childcare was cheaper. High-quality childcare was a key part of how they won,’ she explains. It formed part of the party’s growth strategy. ‘Politicians often see growth as being stood around in hi-vis jackets and hard hats visiting rail lines – it’s about the social infrastructure that we need to build for the modern era and under-standing what we mean when we talk about infrastructure.’
But the Australian Liberals attacked Labor for pitching a policy that could cost $63 billion in a decade. What would her party’s policy cost? ‘Every part of what we set out will be fully funded and fully costed,’ she insists, refusing to be drawn into specifics.
There were wider lessons from Australia too: namely, don’t fall into culture war traps. ‘Labor were very focused and very disciplined, and they didn’t allow themselves to be blown off track, which I think is crucial for us as well,’ Phillipson says. ‘They had a clear plan going into that election about the messages that they wanted to convey to voters.’
There’s a reason Phillipson worries about complacency over the polls. Entering parliament in 2010, she has only ever known Labour defeat. She backed David Miliband for leader and soon found herself in political Siberia when her party moved leftwards. Now the Tories see her as a future leader who could cause them problems.
Despite her constituency voting to leave the EU, Phillipson was one of Labour’s most vocal backers for a second Brexit referendum. As she sips a Diet Irn-Bru – which she says is as popular in the north-east as in Scotland – she reveals that politics divides her home life too: her husband is a Brexiteer. ‘Lawrence was a proud Leave voter and like lots of couples, lots of families, we don’t agree on everything,’ she laughs. ‘When he got the desired outcome that he sought from that referendum and I was on the losing side, I went quiet for a little while and let him enjoy his moment.’
One of Labour’s most popular policies, at least according to polling, is to abolish tax relief on private schools. The party has been accused of class war – Jeremy Corbyn wanted to all but abolish fee-paying schools. Does she think they offer a positive contribution to society? ‘I won’t ever criticise individual parents for seeking to do what’s right by their children, and if they choose to send their children to private school, that’s absolutely their choice and their right,’ she says – but she goes on to criticise the way private schools have become ‘the preserve of the very wealthy and the global elite’. ‘Lots of middle-class parents cannot send their children to private school and they want Labour’s focus and the focus of government to be on driving up standards in state schools, and that’s what we’ll deliver.’
Won’t Labour’s policies price even more parents out of private education? ‘I think private schools would do well to consider whether they could cut their fees rather than complain about Labour’s policy when it comes to ending their tax breaks. They have put up their fees way beyond inflation for many, many years and they have priced parents out.’
One of the big issues of concern for parents relates to how schools approach gender. With no rulebook, different schools diverge widely. What would a Labour government advise? ‘When I speak to school leaders across the country, what they say is they really do want to see guidance on how to deal with what are very sensitive and often difficult issues for schools,’ she says. ‘What has been disappointing is that it’s been used as a political football by the government, when we are talking about quite sensitive areas of wellbeing. It is about making sure we’ve got a system that properly supports all of our children.’
What should happen if a 16-year-old pupil wants to change gender? ‘I think the distinction I would draw is that where it comes to irreversible changes. I do think 18 is a more appropriate age.’ What about pronouns? If a pupil wants to use they/them, should the teacher oblige? Phillipson suggests doing so is simply good manners. ‘Whether it’s in terms of their pronouns or the names that they use or for adults, for example, the titles that they choose whether that’s Ms or Mrs or Miss, I think it’s seeking to respect people’s rights and choices. That’s what teachers will always strive to do. It’s a balance that needs to be struck but I think it’s a straightforward question of respect.’
Before I leave, the subject of faith comes up. The interview takes place as the SNP leadership hopeful Kate Forbes finds herself criticised over statements about her Christian faith. As a Catholic, how does Phillipson’s faith interact with her politics? ‘I’m not the world’s best Catholic, but once a Catholic always a Catholic,’ she jokes. ‘It shapes your values – and the school that I went to, what they instilled in all of us was that every-one had value and worth and it was a really strong sense of social justice, and that matters to me in my politics.’
This article originally appeared in The Spectator