It’s often said that the toughest job in politics is that of leader of the Opposition. And as his party trails in the polls and his own leadership has come under scrutiny as never before, Keir Starmer knows more than most how difficult his role is.
But given the public’s decade-long distrust of Labour on public spending, it’s arguable that in fact Bridget Phillipson has possibly an even more daunting task than her leader. As the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, and the person who oversees the party’s policy costings, she has to persuade the voters that their money is safe in her hands.
To make matters more difficult, the Tory government is spending and borrowing the kind of sums that it once ridiculed Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell for, while retaining its traditional reputation as the best party to run the economy and manage the public finances.
Yet 37-year-old Phillipson, seen by many in Labour as one of its rising stars, believes that the government’s handling of the pandemic has actually shown there is an opportunity for the party to reconnect with voters. And “sleaze”, in the sense of waste and misuse of public money over things like PPE contracts, is an issue she’s grabbing with both hands.
Speaking in a socially-distanced room in the Commons, Phillipson says the David Cameron lobbying row is part of a wider story that will harm the Conservatives over the long term. “What’s different now compared to what we’ve seen before in Tory sleaze in the 1990s is the scale and the significance of what’s happening.
“Back then, you had ‘cash for questions’, you had people being unfaithful to their partners, but with Greensill you have a company seeking to insert itself between the government and how it pays its employees, inserting itself into the NHS. It also goes hand in hand with incredible waste and mismanagement of public money.”
Phillipson points to Rishi Sunak’s decision last November to ditch the Job Retention Bonus, a programme to pay bosses £1,000 for every worker they kept on the payroll. Many manufacturers preferred the scheme to furlough as it allowed staff to keep working. “It was announced with some fanfare in the summer, £9 bn of public money, by the winter that’s gone,” she says.
“I get to see how money is spent right across all government departments. And what I’ve tried to bring to it from Opposition is a sense of rigour about making sure that it is used to transform our society. Yet we’ve seen the sleaze-ridden Towns Fund, the creep that into freeports, which again appears to have had a wholly opaque process that won’t deliver economic revival in every part of our country.”
And there’s a wider political point, she adds. “Spending lots of money is not the same as spending it wisely or spending it well. We’ve seen large numbers of people excluded from government support at a point at which the government was seeking to give all the money to employers that were intending to bring the workers back anyway.
“All too often from Sunak, and from Johnson, seen a really cavalier approach to public finances. For those of us who really care about how public money is spent, because we know the good it can achieve, and believe in government as a force of good in people’s lives, it risks eroding public confidence in both those things.”
For Phillipson, the idea of fiscal prudence, the characteristic that defined Gordon Brown in opposition and as chancellor, is hard-wired into her own background. Born and raised in the north east in a family with little money to spare, she says she knows the value of making it stretch as far as possible.
“Growing up, we would get to the end of the week and wouldn’t have anything left. When you’ve had to think really carefully about how you’re going to spend money and managing all of that, it gives you a real sense of purpose in making sure that money is always spent to best effect,” she says.
“But equally you know the real positives that government spending can achieve. I was part of [New Labour’s] education maintenance allowance pilots, back when I was doing my A levels. Not a huge amount of public money, but in terms of the impact it would have on individual young people and families, a tremendous success.”
Although waste is her focus, for Phillipson there is however one element of the 1990s Tory sleaze saga that she remembers all too well: the hypocrisy of the moralistic ‘back to basics’ theme and the way cabinet ministers like Peter Lilley would ridicule single parents. And as the child of a single mother, the attack felt personal.
“When I was growing up in the 80s and 90s it was a time when there was real judgment around single parent families. And that made me incredibly angry, the way in which we were judged, the way in which society regarded us as somehow not a complete family, and that the children of single parents were not destined for a good life.” She pauses, the memory clearly still fresh.
Phillipson also owes her Labour roots to her mother Claire, who would take her daughter to Labour party meetings because she lacked childcare. “My mam was a single parent, she brought me up on her own, so she would always take me along. I confess I wasn’t massively interested as a young child and I would do my best to sneak off and hang around outside. But as I got older, I became more interested and involved.
“And for me, being a part of the Labour Party was about wanting to change my local area, and it was a time when the youth unemployment was really very high, and crime was very high. There were limited job prospects. I feel very fortunate because I’ve been able to have a great life, but that often is by luck rather than by design. And for many of the people that I grew up with, they weren’t so lucky.”
Encouraged by her teachers (some of whom she is still in touch with), she won a place at Oxford, where she co-chaired the Labour club. After graduation, she managed a women’s refuge. Then aged just 26, she was elected as MP for Houghton and Sunderland South.
Having spent her entire time in parliament in Opposition, Phillipson is impatient for a change in government but says Labour has a huge task still in re-establishing trust with the voters.
“It’s incredibly frustrating because for so many of the people that I represent, life over the course of those 11 years has got harder. When I was first elected food banks were barely talked about, now we’ve seen a big proliferation of food banks.”
The first 14 years of her own life were under a Tory government, she points out. “And my eldest is on course for a similar wait.”
“I think we’ve made tremendous progress as a party. People are far more receptive to Labour than they were 18 months ago, the conversations are very different, and people are pleased to see us, happy to chat and that anger has ebbed away. But the scale of the defeat meant that it was always going to take time to earn that trust, we’ve begun on that journey but clearly there is still much more that we need to be doing.”
Yet, like many in Starmer’s shadow cabinet, she also insists that the problems don’t just cover the Corbyn era but the Brown and Miliband ones too. “I don’t think we should pretend that our problems began and ended in 2019,” she says.
“The voters are never wrong... We’ve lost four general elections on the bounce now, we haven’t won an election since 2005 and the world is a very, very different place since 2005. If we are to win 2024, that’s 20 years since we last won. I think what we need to be doing now is a focus on the future in the country that we want to build.”