This lioness will go out hunting for Labour’s next victory, says Caroline Flint
The personal is clearly political for Caroline Flint, Labour’s shadow energy and climate change secretary who is seeking to succeed Harriet Harman as deputy leader of the party.
Her opening campaign message to party members was, ‘You may think you know me’, and it continued: ‘Going to university was not my destiny. It was an escape. By my mid-twenties I was on my own with two children under two. I know what it’s like to be on benefits, to worry about money, to need a job, childcare and a secure roof over your head.’
When asked if there are too few people in the Labour party who, in Flint’s words, ‘know what it’s like to need a Labour government’, she agrees that, ‘I don’t think there’s enough of us at the top of the Labour party, for sure.’ And for those who have made it there, ‘We don’t do enough actually to talk about where we’ve come from and why we got into the Labour party – particularly for those of us who didn’t learn their politics out of a book or dinner-table discussions with the proud and the good of the Labour movement.’
Flint is a familiar face to many party members and the wider public, having been the spokesperson regularly sent in to bat for Labour over the course of the last parliament. Reflecting on that time, the former minister recalls, ‘On a personal level, I have absolutely devoted the last five years to doing what I can to help the Labour party … I am the person who was at every single one of those flippin’ spin room debate things. I have been the person, more than anybody else, to go on Question Time – from any political party – over the last five years, and that’s because I’ve always been someone that’s seen it as part of my responsibility given the privileged position that I’m in to go out and fight for our party and to give confidence to our members.’
Even so, despite the member of parliament for Don Valley’s 18 years in the House of Commons, the campaign for Labour’s number-two job has been something of a ‘getting to know you’ experience. ‘Even in the hustings, party members who’ve seen me on Question Time countless times, they’ve had no idea. [I am] the daughter of a lone parent. [I had] quite challenging things to deal with in my childhood and teens, but I think it sort of helps you to understand about my politics and my values. For people who aren’t that close to politics [they have been] thinking, “Wow, God, I didn’t know that about her”.’
Flint has the self-assurance to talk about the ‘no go’ issues – social security being one of the trickiest areas for any Labour leadership team to navigate. But she is unafraid to spell out her views: ‘Look, I think there is a need for welfare reform. I don’t think the welfare system is working for people. I see enough of it in my own constituency to think that, actually, some people could get better support and better help to get off the dole queues into work.’ The practical, rather than the theoretical, is a source of strength in guiding such debates. ‘I don’t think the services are good enough at the moment for them and I suppose when I’ve said things like that people have come back to me saying, “How could you say that?” Well, you know, I say it because I’ve been on benefits. There were no tax credits. There was no childcare help for me. It was hard and I think I know something about what’s it like to worry about money and want to find a way back into a situation where you can look after yourself and your family. So, I’m not going to take any lectures from people about somehow the fact that we think that some things could be reformed while at the same time opposing some things [done by] this government, [that this] is somehow not part of being a democratic socialist.’
On party reform, Flint backs inclusion of the leaders of the Scottish and Welsh Labour parties on the National Executive Committee, as well as greater representation of councillors – going further than many to add, however, that ‘I would also like a little voice for the town and parish councillors in all of this … In some parts of the UK, we haven’t got any Labour people on the district council, but we do have on town and parish councils.’
On why Labour lost this year, Flint remarks that, ‘the lessons of every sort of defeat of a Labour government or win of a Labour government has been that, unless we have broad-based coalitions that speak to people, more classes, backgrounds, if we haven’t got that we don’t win. When we do have that, we do win and that wasn’t just under Tony Blair. That was under Harold Wilson and Clement Attlee as well.’
Could she have done more to avert this year’s disaster? No one can doubt Flint’s loyalty to the Labour leadership over the last five years. She recalls identifying a chink in the armour of the strategy the party was chiefly relying on. ‘I remember at a Progress conference a few years ago I publicly said that I didn’t think that thinking the Liberal vote was going save us was a good idea. I hate to say that I’ve been proven right, but I was. I’ve always said that the idea that there’s a Liberal vote that would automatically come to Labour rather than the Tories is misjudged. We saw that in the south-west. We’ve seen it in the north. We’ve seen Liberal votes go to Ukip, rather than come to Labour.’ She alludes too to her July 2013 essay for Progress which argued that Labour needed to pay attention to ‘Aldi mum and Crawley man’ – ‘parties win elections when they pay attention to voters and their priorities’, she wrote then.
We set Flint the task of imagining what animal the Labour party would be under her deputy leadership. The shadow cabinet minister, revelling in the exercise and her answer, offers an insight straight into her own deep devotion to the party she has served for over three decades: ‘Now, some people might say, the lion, the king of the jungle. But the truth is, the lion’s usually asleep while the lioness is out. The lioness is the one who goes out from the pride to find the food to put on the table. To keep the pride together.’ Keeping Labour together and preparing it for possible lean years ahead will be a critical job of the deputy leader. ‘I think I have a bit of a lioness into me. You know, I’m not just sitting back, waiting for the supper to come to the table, I’m going out there. And if I can help to get the votes on the table for Labour by 2020, then I’ve done a good job.