POLITICS

Caroline Flint Interview: Labour Must Move To The Centre And Gain Tory Voters, 'We Exist To Win Elections'

17/08/2015 15:12 BST | Updated 18/08/2015 00:59 BST

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Caroline Flint speaks to The Huffington Post about why she has the "inner steel" to be deputy Labour leader, why the party needs to win back Tory voters, the importance of power, the leadership election rules, why the party lost the election in May and warns the new leader if they can't "hack it" she will tell them.

In the early hours of May 8, Caroline Flint was at Doncaster Racecourse watching the bizarre spectacle of her son's Norwegian girlfriend giving an interview to Danish television about what it was like to see the British Labour Party lose a general election up close.

"I spent the rest of Friday basically having a duvet day on the sofa and every now and again watching a bit more of what happened the previous night - and feeling pretty depressed by the whole thing," she recalls.

In the wake of Labour's defeat, the shadow energy and climate change secretary decided it was time to "step up" and run for deputy leader. She has a straightforward response to what the party needs to do between now and 2020. "We definitely have to attract more people who vote Conservative back to Labour," she says. "Our party is not a pressure group, we exist to win elections."

It is clear the the 53-year-old, who joined Labour aged 17, has no time for the romanticism or ideological purity of Opposition. "You can be passionate and have convictions. But there is nothing bad about wanting to have some power," she says.

"Governments shape the country. They shape the centre ground. That terrible place people think should be disparaged. The centre ground is full of ordinary working class and middle class people doing their jobs in the public services and private sector who pay their taxes and elect governments to do great things. We need them. We need them again."

Flint adds simply: "If you don't have power you can't do stuff".

The first 18-years of Flint's time in the Labour Party were spent in opposition. "The 17-year-old Caroline would like to talk to the 17-year-olds today about what that is like and what you have to deal with," she says. A message that will be seen as directed at an apparent surge in youth support for leftwing Labour leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn.

Flint recalls attending sold out "massive" Michael Foot Labour Party rallies in the run-up to the 1983 general election. "We all went out feeling fantastic," she says. Foot and Labour lost the 1983 election. Badly.

A leftwing Labour candidate packing out mass meetings full of enthusiastic supporters? Does Flint have a sense of déjà vu? After all, the story of the leadership campaign so far has been the sight of Corbyn speaking to hundreds of enthused fans.

"There is nothing wrong with packed out rallies, don't get me wrong, I'd like to play to a packed out rally certainly," she laughs.

"But we should always be mindful about the people who are not coming to the rallies – because they are in their millions. There are millions of people out there that we have to reach out to. I think this is not rocket science."

She adds: "It is one thing to win in the party. We actually have a responsibility as the party to make sure we have a leadership team that can win in the country."

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Jeremy Corbyn speaks hundreds of supporters at a rally in central London

Flint's Don Valley constituency neighbours Ed Miliband's Doncaster North seat. The count for both seats was held in the city's Racecourse over the night of May 7 and into the early hours of May 8. But by the time Flint arrived at 1am she knew the game was up. Unlike some, she believed the exit poll that showed Labour had fallen short. "It was so obvious it was going to be far worse than we imaged. There weren't going to be any deals. I know we were thinking let's see how this plays out. But at that point it really did feel the whole thing was over bar the shouting."

At the count, Flint watched Miliband arrive, "there wasn't really any small talk going on", to deliver a short speech after winning his seat before he was driven down to London. He resigned as Labour leader few hours later.

Was Flint, who was first elected in 1997 and has held a number of ministerial jobs, surprised at the outcome of the election? "I was surprised how bad it was," she says, but adds: "I do think that the polls leading up to the election, where we were polling in the 30s with the Tories, that should have set off alarm bells."

Flint is also critical of the "misjudgements and misunderstandings" of "some advising Ed" who believed Lib Dem voters would all move back to Labour. "I met members of the Lib Dems who basically were very clear they would rather vote Ukip than vote Labour. Such was their hatred of the Labour Party," she says.

Flint says she was supportive of Ed Miliband. But says under his leadership the party did not have enough to say to the working class and middle class. Too much time, she says, was devoted to speeches about foodbanks and abolishing the bedroom tax.

To win in 2020, Flint says, the party needs to win back votes from people outside the big cities who feel "left behind".

"I might meet a guy on the doorstep, he is middle aged and he doesn’t say it, but effectively what he is saying to me is, 'my life is not going to get much better than this, what have I got to look forward to?' And that is where either people may go back to Tories or the SNP in Scotland.

"The people we seek to represent for the most part can't pay their way out of any situation. If we lose contact with them we are losing contact with the essence of what our party is about."

"Thinking back to 1997, we were able to say on the one hand we will stick within the government's spending limits for two years, we won’t raise income tax during the parliament, but we are going to have a national minimum wage and we are going to have windfall levy on utilities to pay for a programme to get young people into work," Flint says.

The first Labour figure on TV after the exit poll was released shortly after 10pm was Harriet Harman. The party's deputy leader was left trying to spin the unspinnable. "I absolutely felt for Harriet," Flint says. After the dust had settled, Flint says she was told the party leadership had sketched out lines to give its spokespeople based on four or five scenarios. "One scenario they didn't have was 'really lose'," Flint sighs.

Harman, while currently standing in as acting leader, quit as deputy. Following Miliband out the door. Flint now wants her job. It is a packed field. The frontrunner in the race is Tom Watson, with Stella Creasy, Angela Eagle and Ben Bradshaw all vying for the position.

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In her bid for the deputy leadership, Flint places a lot of emphasis on her experience. In politics. And in life.

Flint says it should not be up to the media to determine who are the "rising stars" in the party. "It's not only just about I think I have the experience. I also think I am someone who comes from not the typical life of the top of our party. That is something I have got to offer. Coming from a background that is working class but not, if you like, political.

"My mum had an alcohol problem, it did eventually kill her," she says thoughtfully. "I am very grateful to my mum, and my grandparents for that matter, because they supported her. Thinking about that period, how many young women had to give up their babies. I am very proud of the fact my nan and granddad stood by my mum.

"But it wasn't easy growing up. We never owned a home. Later on in the second part of my childhood and into my teens it was pretty difficult. And it was really a bit of a rollercoaster throughout my teen years."

Flint had to live away from home twice when she was a teenager, once during her A-Levels "just to get some space so I could concentrate on passing my exams".

She was the first in her family to go to university. "I didn't quite know what it was all about and all that sort of thing, I just liked history at school so I did history at university and literature." She says as a young girl she felt getting to university would mean she would "have some more choices" in the future. "I just had this sense about, your postcode and your parents shouldn’t determine everything for you in life."

Her first introduction to party politics was the Labour club at FE college. "I didn't develop my politics out of books or dinner parties around a table," she says.

But her experience of Labour politics during its period in opposition was sometimes frustrating. "It was bizarre when I went to my first branch meeting after that 1979 election when the item under discussion was 'how to deselect your Labour MP'. In a party that didn't even have a Labour MP."

Jeremy Corbyn is on the verge of a monumental upset in the leadership race. And it is spreading panic through the party establishment. But the apocalyptic warnings from Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and others do not, so far, appear to have halted his momentum.

There are predictions that Labour could split if Corbyn becomes leader, or that he would face a coup on day one in the office. Given Flint's plea that Labour needs to occupy the centre ground and win back Tory voters, can Corbyn really win the next general election?

"Whoever is leader of the Labour Party, they are all going to have to broaden our base and appeal. Whoever is elected, and that's including Jeremy, how are they going to go about and do it? They will all be under the microscope on that," she says.

Flint says the leader will have a "huge responsibility" to set Labour on course to win the election in 2020. She warns the party will be more ruthless than in the past. "If they can't hack it, if they're not doing it, the party should be able to let them know," she says.

"This isn't an ego trip. This isn’t a vanity project. This is about huge responsibility to put the party first and in doing so putting the country first. We can't do things for the many people we want to help if we are not in power.

The new leader, whether it is Corbyn or someone else, "will come under a lot of scrutiny" for the things they have said over the summer.

"It is about recognising that our party is not a pressure group we exist to win elections and they will have to prove whatever way they are going to run the party, the policy ideas they have for the party, do they hold up to public scrutiny? Does the public want them?

Flint adds: "Part of the job deputy leader is to make sure whoever is leader is making sure they can account for that."

One policy has Corbyn floated during his campaign is the re-nationalisation of the energy companies. As shadow energy secretary, it is not a idea that Flint has much time for, having examined the idea during the last parliament.

"If we re-nationalise them, we would legally be obliged to pay some compensation back. Are we talking about £70bn, £80bn, £90bn, £100bn? Nobody knows quite for sure. But we are talking about a massive amount of money," she says.

"You have a choice," she says, of where to spend your money. Flint would rather spend the billions of pounds on "things that are important" like "paying down the debt, or money on schools and making sure every child gets a decent education".

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the Labour leadership candidates, Liz Kendall, Andy Burhnam, Yvette Cooper and Jeremy Corbyn

Over 600,000 people are eligible to vote in Labour's leadership and deputy leadership elections. A huge surge since May, in part driven by the opening up of the process to people who can pay just £3 to cast a ballot.

However the system has been dogged by allegations that it has been infiltrated by the hard left as well as Tories who are opposed to Labour and want to subvert the process. It worries Flint. "I am very concerned," she says. "The integrity of the process is very important here."

And she calls on the Labour Party machine to make sure it can sift through the applications quick enough and thoroughly enough.

Flint says she has had messages from people gloating they have joined the party to vote and sent "horrible offensive comments" that "do not fit in with the values of people who we want to be part of our Labour family".

And she worries that the process of weeding infiltrators out. "We have four weeks. It may be by the time we receive information about who is legitimate to be involved in the contest they have already had their ballot paper and voted," she says.

"I think the issue here given the timespan, the schedule the Labour Party has allowed itself, to verify whether they really been able to do it now. I can't answer for that."

Flint adds: "I do not want a situation at all when the leadership team is announced that there is any question that the process had any shadow over it. That wouldn’t be great."

However she rejects the suggestion she would quit the deputy leadership race if she thinks the party has not been able to ensure the process has not been compromised. "I am in the contest I am staying in the contest," she says.

Flint backs the "one member one vote" change to the voting system brought in by Ed Miliband, noting that under the previous system she had at multiple votes.

But she agrees the "registered supporters" approach, which allows non-members to sign up for a small fee, has rubbed many longtime Labour Party activists up the wrong way. Some of whom feel it is unfair their voice is diluted by a rush of new people who have not dedicated their time to the party over the years. "I think it would be honest to say some members do feel that. I have met members at hustings who have said that to me," Flint says.

The party leadership should be sensitive to the feelings of "those people who have really done all the leafletting, done all the door knocking" who had "the wind knocked out of them" by the election defeat.

"Sometimes nationally we should put ourselves in the shoes of ordinary party members who have worked so hard over the last five years, how demoralising [the defeat] it must be for them."

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Flint says either the deputy or the leader should be a woman - at least

The rise and rise of Corbyn has also been met with an increase in bitter social media infighting. Liz Kendall, the more Blairite candidate in the race, is frequently branded a "Tory" - as well as a lot worse.

Flint is disgusted by the attacks. "I think all of that sort of stuff in hateful. I have been called 'Red Tory' by Cybernats," she says, thinking back to the Scottish independence campaign.

"They don't know me. And they don't know Liz. There are no Tories, as far as I am concerned, in the Labour Party."

In 2009, Flint quit as Gordon Brown's Europe minister, accusing the then prime minister of using women as "window dressing" in a government dominated by men.

The party has changed since she joined, Flint says, but there is a "long way to go" yet. And with Corbyn and Watson the frontrunners in the leadership and deputy leadership contests it is highly possible that the party will have no women in its top two positions.

"I would be really disappointed to be honest," she says. "It may happen. I think it would be bad for the Labour Party.

"I know this contest difficult because they are both running simultaneously, but I think for everything we stand for as a party it would be a missed opportunity to not have at the very least a balance in terms of gender."

Flint says party members have also said to her "we mustn't end up with two men, but actually I could live with two women".

"Now I am not coming out for anyone [in the leadership contest], but I am just saying I think it would be sad, on top of everything else that has happened over the last six months in terms of losing the election, if we didn’t have a woman in one of those positions."

She adds: "The important thing about the leader and the deputy leader is they are directly elected by the membership. Therefore they are different from just being in the shadow cabinet. I think it would be a huge shame and a missed opportunity."

Flint returns to her theme of the importance of having senior figures in the party who are not from a traditional politicians background. "Maybe some people with a bit more of a sense of the rough and tumble of life might be not bad thing," she says.

She recalls the story told by a former special adviser to the Lib Dem chief secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, who revealed on the radio he wanted to be an MP when he was four years old.

Flint says laughing: "I was thinking, 'I don't know what was going on in your house but that certainly wasn’t the discussion going on in my home'.

Speaking of rough and tumble, one of the jobs of deputy leader could be standing in at prime minister's questions against George Osborne. Would she like and expect to be given that job should she win the race. "Definitely," she exclaims.

"I would love the opportunity to be across the Despatch Box with George Osborne. I am someone who is known actually as being a very effective Commons performer. It is not about shouting all the time. I think have that inner steel and good line of attack to forensically unpick the government on a number of occasions.

"I would like to take that from what I have been doing over last four years on energy and aim it at George Osborne. A lot of people out there would like a Flint-Osborne showdown."