POLITICS

Meet Jon Trickett, The Most Influential Labour Politician You've Probably Never Heard Of

04/04/2014 09:16 BST | Updated 04/04/2014 09:59 BST
Yui Mok/PA Wire
Shadow Minister without Portfolio and Deputy Party Chair Jon Trickett outside the Houses of Parliament, central London.

In the summer of 2005, the Labour MP for Hemsworth in West Yorkshire, Jon Trickett, bumped into a fellow MP, who had just been elected to parliament in a nearby seat, outside his Commons office. He told the fresh-faced backbencher he should start seeing himself as a future Labour leader. Rather than laughing off the suggestion, the younger man invited the older Trickett into his office and asked him to elaborate.

The ambitious young MP was Ed Miliband, who was elected to parliament in Doncaster North in May 2005. Fast forward nine years and his friend Trickett now sits in his shadow cabinet, as shadow minister without portfolio and deputy chair of the Labour Party, having played a key role as a behind-the-scenes adviser during the younger Miliband's leadership campaign in 2010. It was his analysis of the party's vote share which helped convince Miliband Jnr to ditch the rhetoric of New Labour.

These days, Trickett attends meetings of the Labour leader's inner circle, every Monday, to discuss party and strategy issues with the likes of Ed Balls, Harriet Harman and Douglas Alexander. He is a friend and confidante of Miliband but doesn't do much media. You might say he's the most influential Labour figure you've never heard of.

FROM PLUMBING TO PARLIAMENT

I meet Trickett in his office in Westminster's Portcullis House for his first in-depth, sit-down interview. He is a tall, bearded Yorkshireman with a mischievous smile, who was first elected to parliament in a by-election in 1996.

The shadow minister without portfolio is perhaps the most left-wing member of Labour's frontbench. As a backbencher, rebelled against his party over the Iraq invasion in 2003, joining demonstrations against the war in London and Yorkshire. In 2006 and 2007, he was a key figure in the campaign inside parliament to prevent a decision to replace the Trident nuclear weapons system being made. A long-standing critic of New Labour triangulation and neoliberal economics, Trickett is a former chair of the centre-left pressure group Compass and ran Jon Cruddas' insurgent campaign for the deputy Labour leadership in 2007.

jon trickett

Trickett rebelled against Blair and New Labour over the Iraq war and nuclear weapons

On a Labour frontbench full of middle-class, privately-educated, Oxbridge graduates, Trickett stands out. He left school in Leeds aged 15 with no qualifications whatsoever. "I was told by the head teacher that I ought not to come back after the summer holidays."

In the eyes of the young Trickett, the system had failed him and other people from similar backgrounds. "That was the start of my political consciousness and that's what made me so passionate about inequality, social justice and social mobility." He points out that "back then, society had ladders to help you up, such as [university] grants, all of which have now been removed and chopped away".

With the aid of grants, Trickett continued his education at a FE college and gained a BA in politics from the University of Hull and then an MA in political sociology from the University of Leeds, where he met and studied under the late Ralph Miliband, father of David and Ed. He had to cut short his PhD, however, "when the money ran out".

He started working as a plumber and a builder to support himself and tells me how, when he arrived as a new councillor at Leeds City Council in 1984 still wearing his builder's overalls, he was asked to go round the back and enter through the tradesman's entrance. "They couldn't believe I was a councillor."

By 1989, however, Trickett was leader of Leeds City Council and went on to be elected a Member of Parliament in 1996. Despite his left-wing views and working-class background, he served as a parliamentary private secretary (PPS) to Peter Mandelson between 1997 and 1998 and, a decade later, as PPS to Prime Minister Gordon Brown in Number 10 between 2008 and 2010. "I was appointed the week we nationalised the banks," he recalls, smiling.

At home in West Yorkshire, his phone rang at 7am and Trickett assumed it was his wife or daughter. "I said: 'Hello love.' And the voice on the other end said: 'It's not your love. It's Gordon here. I want you in Downing Street this morning.'" Trickett raced out of his house and jumped in the car.

He may have worked in Number 10 twice - first for Mandelson, then for Brown - but the shadow minister readily acknowledges that such opportunities aren't available to most people from his background. He refers to a "feeling in the country that there's a closed circle which runs Britain from which most people are excluded. And there are all kinds of cultural, financial and constitutional ways in which that’s done.

"It's absolutely the Labour Party’s most important duty to make sure that those closed circles are opened up. That’s what I am so keen on trying to achieve."

He points to the success of all-women shortlists in boosting gender diversity in parliament and heaps praise on the party's Future Candidates Programme for giving people from poorer backgrounds "the self confidence to get out there and sell themselves".

What's the biggest single obstacle to people from poorer, less-privileged, working-class backgrounds getting elected to parliament? Why, for instance, is he the only former plumber on Labour's frontbench? "There are all sorts of institutional things," he says, "but, in the the end, it’s a matter of self belief." Trickett adds that he "never ever thought.. people like me could become Members of Parliament. I was completely astonished when somebody said you ought to be in the House of Commons. I had only been here once or twice; I’d only been to London half a dozen times."

He cites the decline of the trade union movement as a key factor in hindering the rise of working-class politicians. "The system has to make it possible for those kind of people to be able to get into parliament. .. There always used to be a big miners' group in parliament until the mining industry was destroyed.. there are now three or four times as many people working in call centres than worked down the mines and, yet, I don’t think we have a single call centre worker [as] a Member of Parliament."

Parliament these days seems to be the plaything of professional politicians. The number of former party operatives, researchers and special advisers in the House of Commons is estimated to have quadrupled between 1979 and 2010. Does that not bother him? "Well, there are 19 [Tory] MPs who went to a single school," he says, referring, of course, to Eton College.

Yet a recent poll by YouGov found voters were more upset with politicians who "never had a 'real' job" (55%) than those who were Old Etonians (38%). I ask him again: how much is the professionalisation of politics a problem for him?

"I was a full-time politician before I came in here," he says. "I was leader of Leeds City Council. In general terms, I think there are probably too many people from a professional political background getting into parliament across all parties."

He doesn't, however, believe it is a Labour-specific problem. When I list the number of former special advisers, or spads, on Labour's frontbench - from leader Ed Miliband to Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper, Douglas Alexander and Andy Burnham, among others - he laughs. "All with brilliant minds and Labour values." There's a pause. "The point is to make sure we have a diversity across the range."

ed miliband balls

The two Eds, Miliband and Balls, were both special advisers before entering parliament

The shadow minister believes there is a relationship between "between the kind of people who are in parliament and the policies that come out". For example, on the issue of housing, he says: "If more MPs had lived in a council house, we might have built more council houses."

DOWN WITH CORPORATIONS

The PLP has few former businessmen or businesswomen in its ranks - and Ed Miliband's plan to ban MPs from having second jobs, outside of parliament, could result in fewer entrepreneurs or company directors putting themselves forward as Labour candidates.

Trickett, who says he was "the first person to propose" the ban, tells me he did so because "there is a danger of parliament becoming an instrument of the corporate world". He continues: "I felt that if you’re a member of parliament your primary function must be, demonstrably, to represent the people who elected you. But if you were also receiving money from a large corporation it would give rise to doubts in people's minds [as to] who you were serving.. Personally, if you ask me personally, I think it’s wrong."

What about MPs who happen to be doctors or lawyers? What will happen to them? "If you are a doctor, you may have to do so many hours a year to retain your skills.. that isn’t really an issue."

Trickett makes it very clear that the second jobs plan is targeted at the corporate sector: "We want to stop people from working for corporations, receiving money from corporations, as members of parliament."

So what would he say to Jack Straw, the former foreign secretary and Labour MP, who has earned around £136,000 for, among other things, consultancy work in the private sector? "I can’t answer for any particular individual," he replies, rather diplomatically, before adding: "What I will say is this: if you stand as a Labour candidate at the next election you will not be allowed after that election to continue receiving money as an employee of a corporation." Trickett's researcher intervenes to confirm that the crackdown will apply to "company directors, employees of corporations or consultants [to corporations]".

Trickett's colleague, the shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna, is ultra-keen to recruit entrepreneurs as Labour parliamentary candidates and present an image of the PLP as pro-business. Isn't there a contradiction between Trickett's message and Umunna's?

"Well, there will be some business people coming into parliament [for Labour] but, after they have become an MP, there will be a short transition at the end of which they will not be allowed to work for, or be a director of, a company. A choice has to be made by Labour as to whether we want parliament to be a reflection of the people whom we represent or be perceived as an instrument of the corporate sector."

chuka umunna

Labour's Chuka Umunna wants more candidates from the business community

He tells me that the Tories have made a big mistake by opposing Labour on this issue. The polls suggest Trickett has got the public on his side: voters support a ban on MPs holding second jobs by 56% to 25%.

"Ordinary people think this country is run by a closed circle of people - and to some extent they’re right," he says. "Labour has to show we’re going to break with that kind of practice."

GOODBYE SERCO?

Trickett is a politician who is keen on breaking with past practices and beliefs. "What is needed is a rupture with the last 30 years," he wrote in a Guardian article in April 2013, suggesting Prime Minister Miliband would aim to emulate Attlee and Thatcher's transformational premierships. Labour's task, the shadow minister explained in his piece, "is no less than to create a vision of a new way of governing Britain. We need to build a movement that is capable of sustaining a one-nation Labour government of a new kind."

But is Miliband's agenda ambitious and bold enough, in policy terms, to match this lofty and radical rhetoric? "We want a new settlement for the country.. and we have tried to capture it in a single phrase, which is 'A government which works for working people'."

He mentions the party's headline-grabbing proposal to freeze energy prices for twenty months. "Freezing fuel bills might look like a small policy in some people's eyes but I think it's transformational in character.. It requires strong, active government to break the closed circle in the power industry to the beneft of the 99%. This is a 1% vs 99% argument." It isn't often you hear a member of the shadow cabinet breezily invoke the language of the Occupy movement.

So, I ask again, does he believe in his heart of hearts that the two Eds, Miliband and Balls, have an ambitious enough agenda to achieve the kind of radical "rupture" he wants? "Labour has to be ambitious," he replies. It's not quite the answer to the question I posed. There's a long pause. "Our framing is ambitious," he adds. " The government want to say there is a recovery so let’s continue on the path towards a golden future and our argument, the cost-of-living argument, is that it’s a recovery for the few and not the many."

He reaches for the the language of Occupy once again: "The kind of rupture I want to see is a government and an economy which works for the 99% and not simply for the 1%."

How will Labour achieve such a rupture, given it has signed up to Tory spending plans, the Tory welfare cap and a Tory freeze on public sector pay? He laughs. Uneasily. "I'm not sure that's exactly right." He pauses. "What we’ve said is a number of things about the government’s economic strategy. Their strategy is austerity for the many and fill[ing] the boots of the big corporations with gold."

Trickett becomes more animated. "Cameron talks about a global race, he thinks you win the race by a race to the bottom." He lays into the "old-fashioned, ideological, trickle-down, Chicago School economics which the Cameron lot are engaged in", adding: "None of that is going to work. You’re gonna have to rebuild the economy from the bottom up and from the middle out."

This is the sort of left-populist rhetoric which some of us have suggested Miliband deploy in his own speeches and interviews. Trickett is keen for Labour to speak up on behalf of the little guy, on behalf of working people outside of closed circles and Westminster bubbles.

Nor is he afraid to make the case for state intervention, where necessary. These days, he leads for Labour on the thorny issue of outsourcing - and he doesn't pull any punches. "There is a tendency both in this country, and worldwide, to assume that 'private is good, public is bad'. When you look at the facts, there is no empirical evidence to show that whatsoever. To some extent, it’s the reverse. We will stop this ideological assumption that services ought to be outsourced as a way of either saving money or providing better services."

Will we see an end to the Capitas and Sercos of this world gobbling up public contracts? Again, Trickett's response is refreshingly blunt: "In some cases, some of the companies have committed fraud against the public sector [and] in our view that should preclude them from being able to bid for those contracts." If companies are found "not be paying tax in the UK at an appropriate level", he tells me, "that would be unacceptable" as well. "They will be facing a much more tough and rigorous regime in the future."

In recent weeks, Trickett has also been speaking out over the coalition government's decsion to allow Labour to start 'road-testing' its plans for government with senior civil servants only six months ahead of the next general election. Having analysed previous parliaments and elections, the Institute of Government thinktank has said "the contacts should begin at the end of May 2014".

Tricket is visibly irritated. "The government is trying to really utilise the state, in ways which make me feel very uncomfortable, in order to achieve their political objectives." He continues: "One of the things they’ve done is launch an all-out assault on the neutrality of the civil service. The British civil service was always renowned as neutral."

"We’ve had indications from senior civil servants..they feel uncomfortable about the present arrangements.. I believe [Cameron] has made this [decision] against the recommendation of his civil servants and it’s the wrong decision."

david cameron

Cameron is opposed to Labour meeting with civil servants too far ahead of a general election

But will Labour even win the next election? There has been much talk of 'panic' on Labour's frontbench and backbenches as the party's poll lead over the Conservatives has narrowed over the past few months. A group of leading centre-left thinktanks wrote an open letter on 24 March urging Miliband not to play safe by going into an election campaign with a cautious manifesto.

DOUGLAS ALEXANDER'S DAZZLING MIND

There are also whispers that there is a campaign to try and have Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, removed from his post as Labour's general election campaign co-oordinator. Alexander is accused, by unnamed party sources, of wanting to "shrink the offer" at the next election, of safety-first politics.

Trickett and Alexander are on very different wings of the Labour Party and backed different leadership candidates in 2010. Does Trickett believe the shadow foreign secretary is being bold and radical enough in his approach and strategy? Labour's deputy chair says he is confident that Alexander is promoting policies that are "both credible and radical". So he isn't worried, as some within the party seem to be, about whether Labour is targeting 35% or 40% of the vote at the next election? "I want to see more than 40%," Trickett says, with a broad smile.

And is Alexander the right man to be running Labour's general election campaign? Trickett dodges a simple yes/no question, and replies: "Douglas has a dazzling mind."

Miliband has also been criticised for lacking outriders, for failing to develop and nurture a cohort of die-hard loyalists to go out and bat for him in public. Loyalists like Trickett don't tend to pop up on Newsnight or Question Time. There is no 'Milibandite' group of supportive Labour MPs on the backbenches. The vacuum thus tends to be filled with critics of the Labour leader from within the party, especially on the right.

jon trickett

Does Ed Miliband have enough 'outriders' in his shadow cabinet?

"I don’t accept this argument [about outriders]," Trickett says, reminding me of how united the shadow cabinet has been behind Miliband in public. "Ed is a very strong leader. He’s done some remarkable things. He's completely reframed the argument.. he's challenged vested interests, whether it is Murdoch or the energy companies."

Trickett, who often advises the Leader of the Opposition on speeches and strategy and is one of his closest allies on the frontbench, says the TV debates between the party leaders, if they happen, will help boost Miliband's image. "I don’t think Ed needs to be afraid of anybody. When they see him close up, in the flesh.. people warm to him. I think he has nothing to fear from a debate with Cameron or with all the party leaders."

So he isn't worried that polls suggest voters see the Labour leader as "weird"? Or that they don't see him as prime ministerial? The shadow minister shakes his head. "If you ask the general public, who is more prime ministerial, the prime minister of the leader of the opposition, they’re going to say the prime minister."

What advice would he give his leader, if any? "He needs to continue on the track he’s set and it’s up to [Miliband's] whole team, including me, that we get out more often and make the case for big change, radical transformation and a reconnection with those people who left Labour sometime prior to 2010".

In March, former Labour cabinet minister Hazel Blears told BBC2's Newsnight that the party had to start "talking in normal human language". And Labour backbencher Simon Danczuk told BBC Radio 4's Westminster Hour that "our communication has to be much stronger ... I think we have to move beyond abstract concepts like 'one nation'".

Trickett tells me that he accepts the party has to "communicate in the most direct language we possibly can and in primary colours".

He adds: "Labour needs to speak with all the accents and dialects and different rhythms of speech which the English and the British speak with. That is what Ed is assembling together, whether is it [shadow ministers] Michael Dugher or Gloria [De Piero] or Douglas [Alexander]. Each speaks in a different accent in a different way.

"I try to be very plain spoken, I try to use simple language to communicate complex ideas, I do it with a Yorkshire accent and I don’t apologise for that."

MURDER MAYBE, DIVORCE NEVER

Much has been made in the media of Ed Miliband's relationship with the trade unions. The Tories repeatedly accuse the Labour leader of being 'in hock' to 'union barons'. In October 2013, the Labour Uncut website suggested the appointment of left-wing Trickett as deputy chair of the party proved "Ed Miliband wants to do a deal with the union bosses".

Trickett, who joined a union before he joined the Labour Party, is dismissive of such comments. "Both Ed want and I want to create a mass party of working people which will help to elect and then sustain which will work for working people. That means having a relationship with individual trade unionists not simply with the people they elect as their leaders."

Do Labour's recent reforms to its historic link with the trade union movement indicate the party is heading towards an inevitable split with the likes of Unite, Unison and the GMB? Trickett disagrees. "The truth about Labour and the unions, as [former union leader] Jack Jones famously said, is 'murder maybe, divorce never'." He chuckles. "We listen carefully to our friends in the trade union movement they accept that we make the political judgements and they make the industrial judgements."

On Tuesday, Len McCluskey, general secretary of Britain's biggest union, Unite, told a group of journalists in parliament that he "fear[ed] for the future of the Labour Party". Is Trickett worried that union leaders such as McCluskey and the GMB's Paul Kenny, who played a pivotal role in elected Miliband as Labour leader, are now so upset with him and his direction of travel? There's a long pause. Labour's deputy chair chooses his words carefully. "What's Ed's done is challenge trade unions to build a mass movement.. when I speak to trade union leaders they get it, they understand it."

Again and again, our conversation turns to the issue of the economy. For Trickett, rebuilding and restructuring the UK's economic settlement is the priority. The shadow minister speaks passionately, and at length, about the need to tackle the scourge of inequality, which his party leader has called "new centre ground of politics". He reels off statistics: "In the 1970s, 64% of GDP went to wages and salaries. By 2008, it had gone down to under 56%. So the relationship between growth and the share which goes wages has been decoupled."

I remind him that Lord Wood, his shadow cabinet colleague, has said that reducing inequality will be "central to any government" that Miliband leads. If, therefore, inequality increases on the next Labour government's watch, will it have failed?

"Yeah" is the blunt reply from Trickett. "We’ve got to tackle inequality. It's at the core of what we want to do."

For Labour's deputy chair, the issue of declining social mobility, and the gap between rich and poor, is very personal. "I've ended up with a comfortable life. I've worked in Downing Street. But there are millions of people like me who don't make it in the same way."