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Words: Paul Waugh
Photos: Paul Heartfield
Chris Leslie is feeling old. The erstwhile Baby of the House says his original arrival in the Commons in 1997 feels like it was “quite a long time ago”. Now 41, he’s a relative geriatric compared to Labour’s most recent intake. To cap it all, he’s even had his phone hacked by a pesky youngster who knows his technology better than he does.
Fortunately, however, the hacker was his four-year-old daughter. “She now knows the code to my iPhone,” he explains, adding that Leslie junior was hooked on playing a ponies game. “She’s pretty savvy. The most embarrassing thing was a couple of months back, she tweeted, without me knowing, ‘Do you like my beautiful pink horse?’…to 4,000 people. ”
Just emerging from the first phase of Labour’s ‘zero based review’ of public spending, the Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury will be hoping that there are no further leaks from his phone over the next few months.
Nearly 17 years since he was catapulted into Parliament on the back of the Blair landslide (he took Shipley at the tender age of just 24), Leslie has moved on from being a fresh-faced symbol of his New Labour generation.
Promoted to junior ministerial posts by Blair, he was cut off in his prime by Philip Davies taking back the seat in 2005, but regrouped out of office by running a think-tank and Gordon Brown’s leadership campaign. He returned to the Commons in the safer berth of Nottingham East at the last election and after Ed Miliband’s leadership win was installed as a key member of the Shadow Treasury team.
Promoted to the Shadow Cabinet last October, he has ever since been locked on the twin task of attacking the Coalition while quietly overseeing Labour’s own public spending strategy.
Leslie has become one of the party’s most comfortable media performers, sent out to share the load with Ed Balls in post-Budget appearances. But with the economy the key battleground ahead of 2015, it’s his other less public role as penny-pincher-in-chief that is getting increasingly important.
Earlier this year, the Shadow Chief Secretary made his first big speech (‘Public Spending in Tough Times’), setting out some of the ground rules underpinning the party’s ‘zero-based review’ of spending. He said then that he wanted to ‘devolve and declutter’ some public services, but stressed that the ‘first phase conclusions in the spring’.
Well, spring has sprung (it’s in fact British Summer Time) and we have yet to see those conclusions. Are they close? “Spring may well be in its full flush for you, but for me it’s just a bit chilly round the edges,” he laughs. “They will definitely come”.
One problem has been the lack of actual data from Government on individual project spending and FoIs and PQs are being used to slowly extract the figures. But he’s “pretty much concluded” the long process of bilateral conversations with individual shadow teams. “Those teams have been required to go through a certain number of questions and checking but we are now going through a lot of those returns and making overall judgements about what to do,” he says.
“The key for me is that there are a number of areas where things cut across departments. It’s not just a question of saying ‘what can we cut in Home Office or Transport or wherever’. There’s this business about local service delivery and the notion that actually ‘do we need quite as many agencies out there delivering things in the front line or could we share or merger and amalgamate?’
“That was one example, I’m anticipating that over the rest of the spring there will be another couple of examples that I think we will be able to flesh out. I was never saying decluttering is the total story of what you need to do to get back into balance, but it is one part of it.”
As part of the ‘very big task’ of the zero-based review, Leslie says the party has to work out which cuts will be ‘fairer’, tackle ‘welfare inflation’, assess investment in pro-growth projects and ‘invest-to-save’ spending like early intervention to help pre-school children. He stresses there’s another key decision: on whether some services are needed at all. “It’s a ‘start-or-stop’. Are these services justifiable any more in the new post-banking era or should we just say this is a service that should no longer be going on?”
What about deciding which departments still need ring-fencing? “I think that’s a little further down the road, and we will definitely set it out in the manifesto. But before you get to that you don’t want any corner of Government to not have to go through the same degree of checking on efficiency, even if it has been historically ring-fenced and protected from other reductions.” He’s been as rigorous with Andy Burnham on health and Jim Murphy on international development as with other shadow briefs, he adds.
As well as individual spending departments, Labour has commissioned efficiency reviews of IT, procurement, audit and consultants in Whitehall. There’s a sense of a ‘spring clean’ of the party’s fiscal credibility and Leslie is keen to stress just why it matters politically.
“From a centre-left perspective we’ve got to realise it’s in our core philosophy to want to live within our means and to want to achieve equilibrium between the income that you have and the expenditure that you have. Why? Because if you believe, as I do, that the common pot, the collective pool of taxpayers money chipping in to that central pot, is quite an important thing to preserve and defend because ultimately we believe that that is the better, more efficient way to purchase health and social protection and schools.
“If you believe that, you have to prove to the taxpayer that ultimately they are getting good value for money and that is the best way to do it. If the taxpayer starts to lose faith and think actually this notion of pooling your money doesn’t work, that is where you then go down the route of private health insurance and private education and all these other things and eroding that common approach. You’ve got to illustrate that you care about these things. There’s nothing left-wing about running a deficit.”
True to his Yorkshire roots, Leslie has a reputation among shadow colleagues for keeping a close eye on costs. Is this Labour’s chance to reconnect with a public who want the Government to watch every single penny, just as households have had to do in recent years?
“Sometimes there’s an instinct, there’s a kind of ‘do you have a nose for what is good value and what isn’t?’ And actually one of the key tests is when you take this area of expenditure of this particular public programme and you show it to a cross section of the British public, what would their reaction be? If it feels like it’s a waste or a bit too much blather and not anything specific, they will know that we can’t afford it anymore. I think that changed quite a bit after the banking crisis. A lot of people now have lower tolerance for a sense of the flabby or something that perhaps is a bit too ethereal or a bit too removed from their lives.”
In Opposition, as in Government, some departments are quicker than others to offer savings. Maria Eagle has identified several quangos she wants to axe already. Leslie says: “What you need to do is make sure that you are relatively strategic about these things because we have 15 different ‘governments’ [departments], it’s not all one Government.
“Maybe because of Coalition, there hasn’t been much machinery of Government change for the last four years. You tend to get these little fiefdoms all with their own budgets and what might seem like a sensible idea for one might just shunt a load of costs onto another. You have to make sure you have an overview.
“I think we are still at the foothills of where we are going. My personal opinions of what could be savings might not necessarily be to everybody’s taste, but I think my job is to come up with options and to make sure that when we say we will get into a surplus as soon as possible in the next Parliament we will absolutely do that.
“Because I’ve been in government before we want to make sure that the next government, if I’m fortunate to get four or five years of government, I want to make sure it will be a successful period. And there’s no doubt the fiscal challenge is going to be enormous.”
He's also scathing about the Chancellor's claim to be tackling the UK's record debt. “He said ‘we are getting on top of our debts’..But the debit is just ballooning, it’s astonishing he has the brass neck to say we are getting on top of our debts. The officials should say ‘that’s not right, you might be making a claim that you are reducing the deficit slightly less than you were but don’t make a claim that you’re getting on top of the debt, because you are not’.”
Under new fiscal rules unveiled by Ed Balls earlier this year, Labour now says it will get the current budget into surplus and national debt falling ‘as soon as possible’ in the next Parliament. Most assume that means 2020 in practice, but could both targets be hit sooner? “It could be earlier, it all depends really on the level of growth that you get. And the amount of social security expenditure you incur,” he replies.
"This is why I think it’s a foolish thing for the Chancellor to set a deadline without recognising that. There’s no doubt he’s been shunting a lot into future years because he doesn’t want to take some of the decisions at this particular stage. That will leave the next government whoever wins with quite a big problem. For those of us that care about public services the other challenge is to prove that you can do deficit reduction but in a fairer way.”
Ever since Yes, Minister, ‘efficiency savings’ have been derided as fantasy figures. But he insists that there’s scope for cuts that go with the grain of service reform. “This is not photocopier contracts and buying your paper from different sources, this is far bigger than that. It’s got to be about not being afraid to push the boundaries in a different way. The more I look at government spending the more I think this is possible to do. But it will require some pretty tough choices.”
As the former head of the New Local Government Network, Leslie made clear he thinks more devolved financial decision making is one answer. And he’s as keen on the idea today: “It is foolish to think that if you just hoard and control at the centre that you can somehow, as a small band of ministers, micro manage and control every little dot and comma of everything that goes on in every single corner. I think one of the keys to management in my limited experience is that the more you trust and delegate the more you gain back in return.
“I think one of the keys to management in my limited experience is that the more you trust and delegate the more you gain back in return. Yes you have to allow people to take risks in their own way and have a certain tolerance for things not always working out as you thought, but that’s the only way you pick up innovation.
“And similarly in terms of financial management, you can’t spend all your time scanning over £700bn of public expenditure just from two or three key people at the top of the tree in the Treasury or wherever. You have to encourage those in power that they will be held accountable for the financial decisions that they make.
“You can’t improve public service delivery, and we need to start talking about reform of public services again, unless you have those out in the field in order to do that. I’m not saying that we need as many organisations as are currently littering the piece. And we can’t afford that. I think we’ve got to amalgamate, think about mergers, about shared services.”
Would that include merging Government departments and culling some? “I don’t think we should rule anything out,” he replies. Would that result in real savings? “Absolutely. And in terms of shared services between departments as well. Everything has to be on the table.”
But what about the inevitable question: if Labour is so keen on finding value for money, why didn’t it do all of this in office?
“You have to stand on your party’s record. But I think the banking crisis changed absolutely everything and it wasn’t a question of massive overspending necessarily by different departments, it was revenues falling through the floor and that is the story that very rarely gets any airtime.
“Every time I go on Newsnight or wherever you will always hear me say there was a banking crisis.and you can’t pin that entirely on UK Plc at the time. Obviously it had a big effect here but it happened across the world. That is the lion’s share of the story of what happened in that period.”
Will Labour ever win that argument or have voters (polls show many still blame the party for the current economic difficulties) made up their minds? “I think it’s very difficult because the weight of the noise and the airtime from our opponents is very heavy on this. And also do you want to necessarily spend all of your efforts engaging in a sort of historical exercise about what went wrong?”
Having lost his seat, Leslie wasn't in the Commons during the financial crisis, but does that give him an answer when others blame Labour's previous record from 2010? He smiles. "I’ve never really prayed that defence in aid. Only once have I mentioned I wasn’t here in that particular period. That never goes down very well.”
But during his absence from Parliament, he says he gained valuable insight into how business works. Heading the NLGN think tank was a useful learning curve, he says. "I ran a company, balanced the books, we built up quite strong reserves and I enjoyed wining new business and the administration of the business. I know about what it’s like to pay National Insurance, VAT, you learn a lot from that. Not necessarily knowing where the business will go round the corner.
“Even though the topic was more in the public policy area, the basics of running a small company are still quite transferable. So that I think has definitely given me more of an insight into what makes a difference in terms of companies and the sort of policies that ministers can sometimes dream up and you think ‘that has got absolutely nothing to do with what business will care about’."
One area where Leslie believes Labour need to do more is on the plight of ‘Generation Rent’, that cohort of the population who can’t afford deposits for mortgages yet are suffering rising rents. Many of them are also ‘Thatcher’s Children’, born after 1979, he adds.
“This is my current hobby horse,” he says, producing a sheaf of graphs. “Yes we’ve been saying in real terms people’s incomes have been stunted. But in cash terms if you’re under 30 your income has actually fallen. If you are 18-21, by £400. If you are 22-29, by £100.” He reaches for another chart: “And the proportion of your earnings that you spend on essentials is much higher than it is if you are under 30 than if you’re in other age groups. Earnings have been particularly squeezed but prices are a bigger problem for you.”
He adds that although the Budget triggered a lot of attention for its annuities changes and the Chancellor “going after the silver and grey vote for UKIP reasons”, it ignored the problems young people were feeling.
“He was using the annuities issue to put a veneer of long-termism over a Budget that didn’t really address any of those core cost of living things. It was a distraction technique. It didn’t really resonate with Thatcher’s children. He didn’t get into the question of a low wage economy, he didn’t really get into the housing costs and rent rises that people are facing.”
Leslie expands on his theme to say that the fall in unemployment masks other problems for under-35s. “What’s missing from this argument about the labour market is what a sort of fragmented labour market it is becoming for that generation, not just starting but who are already in it, the thirtysomethings too.
“You might be able to pick up a few hours here or there through some agency or some zero hours contract but it’s not in any way what most of the older generation would regard as a career, never mind giving them stability to get a mortgage or plan anything.
“Those individuals may count towards some employment statistic that the Chancellor uses but why are people feeling that life is still so hard for them? Because of the new insecure economy, they are getting ripped off from any number of different directions, letting agents ripping them off in the housing market and so on.
“They are not going to be able to get on the housing ladder, pay the tuition fees, the debts are mounting up and they go through all that and they get the degree and what sort of career is on the end of that? Those kind of anxieties will not show up in GDP data or employment statistics but you can see it. It’s not a London hothouse thing, it’s very, very big.”
He raised the issue at the Shadow Cabinet this week. “I said I really want us to begin to talk a little bit more to those Thatcher’s Children who’ve been betrayed in Cameron’s Britain.”
Leslie even comes close to floating the idea of a Minister for Generation Rent. “I don’t think anybody yet is really talking to that generation. I used to get pigeon holed quite a lot when I first came into Parliament, the Baby of the House, and all this, and I used to end up doing a lot of ‘youth issues’. But actually now it doesn’t fall into one Government department, where’s the Government department that are really thinking about this particular generation?”
Yet if younger Britons fail to vote, what’s the electoral logic? “They don’t vote with as much frequency but their parents or grandparents tend to vote more.”
Leslie was certainly not an apathetic youngster, and was fascinated by politics at an early age. Is it true he’s Labour’s teen anorak equivalent of William Hague, attending council meetings for fun? He explains that his early claim to fame was on ITV’s News at Ten opening credits in the late1980s during a key Bradford Town Hall budget setting session. “I was spotted throwing paper aeroplanes down at Eric Pickles as he was setting the poll tax. I was just there, because it was a big occasion.”
As for his own youthful high profile from election night in 1997, John O’Farrell captured the moment in Things Can Only Get Better: “Sir Marcus Fox was particularly disgusted to lose his seat to some twenty four year-old who I think I recognised as the lad who did the photocopying in Gordon Brown’s office.” Does it make him laugh to read that today? “That does crop up from time to time,” he smiles. “I saw Tony Blair the other day and I was having a joke about some of those things. I started off working in Gordon Brown’s office back in 1992, as research assistant doing bits and pieces and that was in 1 Parliament Street.
“Of course – this is how old I am now – Norman Lamont was Chancellor and whenever there was an announcement on interest rates or on inflation, I had to physically go to the back door of Number 10 get the press release, walk it back and show the Shadow Chancellor what had happened because we didn’t have those things called email.”
More than 20 years later, he’s now the one who could have a senior Treasury job if Labour win the election. “I really enjoy the Treasury brief. Yes it’s quite busy and you have to react a lot to the Government’s agenda. But if you can carve out the time to actually think forward and say ‘what will we do with Government if and when we get it?’ you can actually do something with it.
“And having been a minister before, I’m ultra-keen that I don’t want to waste a minute should we get that opportunity again. It’s very tempting, as ministers will often find, to kick things into the long grass. You have to seize the day because you don’t know how long you will be in office for.”
He may be only 41, but Leslie is acutely aware of the way time can fly. Before rushing off for yet another TV clip, he ends by pointing out he attended Tony Benn’s funeral last month and the way it reminded him of the big figures in Parliament when he first became an MP. “Some of my early interventions were on Tony on foreign policy. I remember Sir Edward Heath too. There was this pantheon of the greats, Blair, Brown, Robin Cook, Mo Mowlam.
“But now it’s our generation’s turn really. And we have to step up to the plate.”
LESLIE ON…LABOUR CUTS
“For those of us that care about public services the challenge is to prove that you can do deficit reduction but in a fairer way.”
LESLIE ON…THE ZERO-BASED REVIEW
“It’s not going to be easy for any department or service.”
LESLIE ON…DEVOLVING POWER
“You can’t spend all your time scanning over £700bn of public expenditure just from two or three key people at the top of the tree in the Treasury.”
LESLIE ON…WINNING IN 1997
“I always said that there are as many people who want a bit of youth and dynamism in Parliament as who want age and experience.”
LESLIE ON…LOSING IN 2005
“Losing in Shipley obviously wasn’t a very pleasant experience but actually it did give me five years out in the sort of real world.”
Is it time for Labour to find a new script? For nine months the party has focused relentlessly and successfully on the cost of living crisis. And for nine months the Conservatives have tried in vain to change the subject, highlight the economic recovery and rein in the Opposition’s poll lead.
But last month’s Budget, at least for now, appears to have changed the subject. Ed Miliband’s response was seen by many as predictable and repetitive; the Labour leader was accused of relying too excessively on the cost of living attack line, even of “banging on” about it. And with forecasts suggesting people may soon start to feel the benefits of the recovery in their pocket, suddenly everyone is asking: is the cost of living strategy running out of steam?
Miliband’s case hasn’t been helped by the polling, either – several polls in the last week have shown Labour’s lead cut to just one point. A sense of alarm has begun to develop, and more than one backbencher has expressed concern about the clarity of the party’s economic message.
But the new mood of panic has not infected everyone.
“Erm, sort of – I’m usually bathing my children or something,” an unperturbed Lucy Powell replies when asked if she’s been keeping up with the latest developments in the supposed crisis of confidence at the top of Labour. “They’re not conversations that I’m party to, but then I’m getting on with my job and the life that I lead.”
The Shadow Childcare Minister is certainly close to the party’s top brass; she ran Miliband’s leadership campaign in 2010, and spent two years as his deputy chief of staff before her election in the Manchester Central by-election in 2012. On the day she speaks to The House from her parliamentary office, a YouGov poll puts Labour’s lead at just two points, and several unnamed MPs have briefed the press about concern in the rank and file over the party’s direction in general, and the response to the Budget in particular.
But Powell remains resolute. “The Budget is always the point in the calendar where the Government can get themselves back on the front foot and set the agenda. It is their big moment of the year,” she says. “Maybe on the Labour side we’ve forgotten that because George Osborne has messed up a couple of Budgets in this Parliament, not least the one from two years ago. So we’ve kind of forgotten that actually Budgets are always a way for the Government to seize back the agenda; that’s just part of what’s priced in.
“If you’d have asked me, or most people in the Labour Party, whether they thought that we would have ended up with a significant poll lead for most of this Parliament, nearly all of us would have said ‘absolutely not’. When you lose a general election and you lose it with such a low percentage of the vote as we did in 2010, to have come out of that with such strength over such a long period of time is the surprising thing, not that the polls are now closing – you would always expect the polls to start to narrow at some point. It doesn’t worry me. I’ve never been complacent about the general election, I don’t think Ed Miliband is complacent about the general election. We always knew it was going to be a hard, tough fight. But that we’re even in a position that it’s ours for the taking is pretty incredible really.”
As for claims the cost of living strategy is running out of road, Powell is adamant: the squeeze in living standards will be the fundamental issue facing the country on election day next year.
“I think it leads you to what is going to be the central question, which is who’s benefitting from the recovery? Whilst some families might feel like they’re starting to benefit, I think the vast majority of people in this country, people I speak to, feel that this is an imbalanced and unfair recovery that’s benefitting housing speculators and people in the City and the other usual suspects, far, far more than it’s benefitting ordinary hardworking people up and down the country. That’s the context of what the question will be at the election.”
But even some of Ed Miliband’s closest allies have expressed concern. In a letter to The Guardian last week, 19 leading figures, from groups including the Fabian Society, Progress and Compass, urged the Labour leader to be bold, warning that a narrow focus on squeezed living standards and Tory unpopularity would not grant him the sort of mandate for transformative change he needs in 2015. Instead, they argued for a radical manifesto aimed at devolving the power of state institutions and reforming public services.
Powell backs calls for the devolution of public service decision-making, calling it an “absolutely critical” agenda and praising its effects in Manchester, one of the pilot areas for community budgets. But on the doorstep, she says, it’s cost of living, not public service reform, which cuts through.
“I think if we are wanting to really transform the shape of and the quality of and the responsiveness and the effectiveness of public services – once in government – I think that community budgets and devolution agenda is critical to that,” she explains. “But I’m not sure that it would be a central issue in a general election, because it’s more for kind of policy people to understand those things than necessarily something that I think the public is yearning for.
“I don’t think those sorts of speeches are designed to be the doorstep offer. I think we have a sophisticated enough political system in this country that sometimes you’re delivering speeches and messages for the policy world and for the commentariat, about how you’re going to deliver some of the change you’re talking about, and then you also have a vernacular and a set of policies that are what you’re really trying to cut through to the wider public with. And at times you’ll use different languages for different audiences.”
Powell’s childcare brief has emerged as one of the key battlegrounds of the cost of living debate, with all three parties engaging in a policy bidding war over the past year. The Government recently introduced 15 hours of free childcare to all three and four year olds, and last month the Chancellor again made the issue a key theme of his Budget, announcing plans to meet 20% of the costs of childcare – up to a limit of £2,000 a year per child.
The cost of childcare is a doorstep issue which comes up again and again, Powell says, pointing to a Family and Childcare Trust survey, out last month, which showed that for most families the average cost of a nursery is now greater than the average cost of a mortgage.
“It just goes to show what a huge part of a family budget childcare costs are,” she says. “The vast majority of people think the system is just not working for them; it’s really expensive, yet it’s still quite inflexible, hard to find the right kind of childcare, and for most families the cost of going back to work is greater than the earnings you would get. So it is going to be one of the key issues of the general election.”
And Powell has her own ideas on the sort of big, bold offers her party should be making. While she welcomes the ‘tax free childcare’ policy announced in the Budget as a step in the right direction, she says the sector is now becoming increasingly complex and confusing for parents. As a “personal ambition”, she would favour moving towards a system of universal free childcare for all pre-school children. Labour is already committed to using a levy on banks to increase free childcare for three and four year-olds from 15 hours a week to 25 hours a week. Powell says the move is a “clearer direction of travel” for parents, and suggests she would like to see further moves to increase free childcare for under-fours over the long term.
“My case is that what we’ve seen over the last few years, in Labour’s time in office and now under the Coalition, is a lot of incremental change, and a lot of new bits of policy here and there that in themselves don’t add up to more than the sum of their parts. So we’ve got some free entitlements, we’ve got childcare vouchers, we’ve got tax credits, we’ve now got a tax free scheme, all of which cost the taxpayer a lot of money, but to a parent is an incredibly confusing environment, and it’s very hard for a parent to work out ‘will I be better off in work or not, with this complex situation?’
“So I think moving towards a framework where you’re offering parents an extension of free entitlement, which is what Labour’s doing – so the extension of the 15 hours to 25 hours for three and four year-olds – is a clearer direction of travel for parents and is more clearly understood.
“It [universal free childcare] is a personal aim. It’s a personal ambition. And there are different ways you can interpret what that means. I think the voucher scheme, the tax free scheme, tax credits, they’re all dependent upon lots of variables, so it’s quite hard to really understand what it is you’re going to be entitled to – but free entitlements are a much more transparent way of delivering that for parents, [delivering] a clearer understanding about what you will be entitled to. So I think it’s about moving to that agenda.”
Powell stresses that any move to universal free childcare would be a long term ambition, introduced in stages over a “10 to 15 year period”. “I think politics is nothing if it doesn’t have big, bold, radical agendas that are transformative over time,” she says. “But you can’t transform things really in one term – transformation usually takes 10 to 15 years. So you have to have a clear direction of travel, but alongside that you have to have detailed, costed policy proposals that get you there. One without the other, either way you look at it, is meaningless. A big bold vision without any costed polices to get you there is meaningless, and a policy offer that’s costed and real without a wider direction of travel is not really worth bothering with.”
Alongside further measures to ease the cost of childcare, Labour are also looking at ways to broaden support for parents in the workplace, and make British businesses more “family friendly”. Appearing on ITV’s The Agenda last week, Ed Miliband hinted that his party would look to extend paternity leave for fathers and support for part-time and flexible working. Powell says policy makers must start to look at the “whole journey” parents go on, “from the time they conceive through to their kids being old enough to look after themselves”.
“Maternity and paternity leave is part of that, flexible working is part of that, childcare is part of that, but we also have to look very carefully about those transition points, and how we can support families through that,” she says. “We’ve got the advances in shared parental leave, and we need to look at how that’s going to make life better for families, and whether dads will actually take up that option or not, and if they’re not – what are the things stopping them from doing it? There are issues for dads as well in terms of flexibility working – dads are half as likely as mums to get flexible leave working requests accepted.
“Culturally parents really suffer from poor branding, that somehow you’re kind of a worse employee because you’re having to meet the demands of your home life as well as your life at work. But actually what you hear time and time again, testimony after testimony, is that businesses find they get higher productivity out of people who work flexibly and part-time. What good businesses will tell you is that being family-friendly is actually good for business – and I think that’s something we should be advocating.
“Some of these things are not just about legislation, they’re actually about cultural change. I think having people in politics pushing this agenda, leading this agenda, advocating these issues is just as important as any policy or legislative change, because that’s often how you bring about different perceptions.”
Appearing on The Agenda alongside Ed Miliband, Sarah Vine, the Daily Mail journalist and wife of Michael Gove, dismissed calls for more paternity leave, and claimed mothers of newborns often didn’t want their partners around. What did Powell think of her comments?
“Maybe I wouldn’t want to have Michael Gove around. In fact I definitely wouldn’t want Michael Gove around. But I’d want my husband around,” she replies with a smile. “I don’t think that’s the vast majority of people’s experience. When you first have a baby you want to share those first few days together, because it’s a very, very special time, but also because very quickly it’s a very tricky time, you’ve got sleepless nights and you’re not sure what you’re doing, so I think having husband or partner around to share that is what the vast majority of people want to do.
“I think what we are doing, and Ed’s leading this charge and I’m sort of coming in behind in support, is offering a bigger vision for how the country can be a better place, a place where parents aren’t stressed and depressed and struggling to make ends meet because their work won’t pay enough for them, whether it’s childcare costs, or low pay, or short hours. And then they are working all the hours god sends, so they’re not actually spending enough time with their kids either. So I think trying to say that we want to support parents at the times when it’s hardest for them to both be successful at work and successful as parents – that’s is the vision that you want. And the policy offers have to meet that vision.”
Childcare will remain the real “doorstep issue” as the 2015 election approaches, Powell insists. And she doesn’t intend to stop ‘banging on’ about it any time soon.
POWELL ON...THE TORY ‘WOMEN PROBLEM’
“It’s not just about looking like you’re representing the country, it’s about shaping agendas and policies that reflect the country. If you have very homogenous groups of people, whether that’s all-male groups or all Eton male groups, the policy you develop is all the poorer for it”
POWELL ON…MARGARET THATCHER
“We both went to Somerville College. We both studied chemistry. I think we’re both the same star sign as well. But that’s where the similarities end. Although maybe I’m as bossy as she is.”
POWELL ON…UKIP’S THREAT TO LABOUR
“The lesson from Wythenshawe is if you put in the work all year round, do the job and stay close to your electorate then you can stave of the threat of the anti-party, which is what they are”
There is no such thing as bad publicity – all publicity is good publicity. The old adage is, of course, rubbish. Just ask Fylde MP Mark Menzies who was forced to quit as a ministerial aide after he was splashed across the front pages of the Sunday Mirror and Sun on Sunday at the weekend.
But Nigel Farage is, for the moment at least, a moth attracted to the flame of publicity whose wings don’t singe. The UKIP leader’s poll ratings don’t appear to be harmed by allegations of riding first class on a European gravy train he tells voters he wants derailed or the matrimonial discomfort of an MEP accusing him of losing his trousers.
Then there is the founder chairman of the Vladimir Putin international fan club heaping praise on Russia’s new Tsar. Vlad the Impaler of Ukraine can’t believe his luck, Ras-Putin’s TV station Russia Today presenting Farage a season ticket to praise their man and demonise the European Union.
Closer to home I enjoyed the hour-long Channel 4 programme Nigel Farage: Who Are You? but wondered how the PR puffery could be broadcast so near May’s European and council elections. Now this was good publicity for the UKIP man.
More Hello! or OK! than critical investigation – a fanumentary made by an admirer wearing kid gloves as he waved a feather duster. The Daily Telegraph’s TV reviewer described it as cloying. I think that’s about right. How Tower Hamlets’ controversial Mayor, Lutfur Rahman, duffed up the same night on BBC1’s Panorama, must’ve wished he’d enjoyed the Farage-Channel 4 treatment.
I recall Piers Morgan awarding Gordon Brown the soft-soap treatment on an ITV Life Stories special ahead of the 2010 General Election. It fell into the “is there anything you would like to tell a grateful nation, Prime Minister?” category.
The show was better for Morgan than Brown, as it so often is when this particular TV personality is involved. But the Conservative Party was understandably miffed and complained with justification that David Cameron deserved a similar advert. The result was Trevor McDonald Meets David Cameron which, unless my memory fails me, wasn’t nominated for a Bafta.
I look forward to the series Ed Miliband: Who Are You?, Nick Clegg: Who Are You? and David Cameron: Who Are You? on Channel 4 to complement the UKIP slot. Or maybe a rival broadcaster could commission an alternative series in the near future headlined Cameron: Who Were You?, Miliband: Who Did You Want to Be? and Clegg: Who?
But back to Farage. I’m typing this column on the eve of the second Farage-Clegg debate and anything could be about to happen. Yet there was one moment in the first bout that confirmed to me that most broadcasters and newspapers continue to treat Farage differently, seeing him as a cheeky upstart who likes a fag and a pint when the others are scrutinised closely.
Germany, asserted Farage in Round One, produces better cars than Britain. We can argue about whether this is actually true, and I would point out the Jags, Land Rovers, Toyotas, Nissans, Hondas and Vauxhalls rolling off production lines in Britain are top quality. Motor manufacturing in our country may be foreign owned but the workers and plants in Britain turn out great cars.
My point is Clegg (or Cameron and Miliband) would’ve been accused of running down Britain if they’d said the same. Farage, the great patriot, gets away with it. He isn’t subject to the same accountability. This week’s hour on Channel 4 was part of an easy ride.
Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (politics) on the Daily Mirror
Spare a thought for Jeremy Hunt, who this month finds himself without either of his special advisers.
Last year, the Health Secretary appointed the impressive Christina Robinson to cover for his long serving media SpAd Sue Beeby while she was on maternity leave.
Now Robinson herself is off with a newborn, and Beeby has yet to return. Hunt has had to draft in yet more cover.
It says a lot about Hunt – who has two young children himself and a third on the way – that he was willing to get himself into this predicament. To his own detriment (because the relationship between a Secretary of State and SpAd is very personal and one of great trust) and to the potential detriment of his media coverage, he nevertheless hired a second woman of childbearing age to stand in for the one he had temporarily lost.
All credit to him. Many employers recruiting for core positions would simply avoid this risk. Since they are quite rightly prevented by law from asking female candidates about their private lives, they must either gamble that a woman of childbearing age has no immediate plans to start a family – or hire a man with equivalent, or even weaker, credentials and avoid the risk.
Statistics published by the Ministry of Justice this month revealed a sharp fall in the number of sex discrimination tribunals. Yet official figures never tell the real story. The truth is that many employers, particularly those running small firms or recruiting to sensitive posts, make a rapid mental calculation when a woman of childbearing age presents herself for interview.
Unable to ask a straight question of the potential candidate, bosses will go with whatever flimsy clues are available, to figure out the odds of a woman taking maternity leave any time soon.
A well known PR company chief once told me straight up that he would never hire me, because I was recently married and bound to have children. I was dismayed, but in a way I admired his honesty.
This is what ambitious young women are up against. Getting hired is just the first hurdle: retaining and building a career which is interrupted by one or more periods of maternity leave is an extraordinary challenge on so many levels. That’s just how it is.
As for getting promoted while pregnant, save in the most progressive workplaces, you can pretty much forget it. I once hid a pregnancy for months while a boss dithered over whether to give me a big job. There was no hard evidence that I would be discriminated against but I knew my growing bump would not help.
By the time I reached 26 weeks, he still hadn’t made up his mind and I was forced by law to reveal my condition. In the preceding weeks I had near enough taken to walking backwards out of the office so he would not see me sideways.
He ended up promoting me anyway. Perhaps the risk of discrimination had been all in my mind, but we all know babies are no asset to women trying to climb the ladder.
Sadly there’s no easy answer. Women applying for new jobs or promotions who plan to have children in the short or even medium term would be mad to show their hand.
But women who do not want children in the near future or have already completed their families should do themselves and employers a favour by removing the guess work. They should simply volunteer the information.
That way bosses will know they’re not likely to suffer a Jeremy Hunt – and they can succeed or fail on their merits.
Isabel Oakeshott is a political journalist and commentator