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Words: Daniel Bond
Photos: Paul Heartfield
“Has anyone ever told you you look like Tsar Nicholas II?” Andrew Tyrie jokes with The House magazine’s photographer as he sets up for his interview shoot.
We’re here to talk to the chair of the Treasury Select Committee ahead of next week’s Budget, but instead Tyrie is reflecting on the manifold and overlapping causes of the First World War; German aggression, diplomatic blunder, and an enthusiasm for militarism exhibited by the leaders of the Great Powers – one of whom seemingly bears a striking resemblance to this publication’s bearded, but entirely peaceful, snapper. “From the neck up,” Tyrie quickly adds. “You don’t dress like him.”
The Chichester MP is clearly well-versed in international diplomacy and European history – he studied at Bruges’s esteemed College of Europe in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But it’s the prospect of a new conflict on the continent in the 21st Century that is his real concern. The mention of the last Russian Tsar inevitably leads to discussion of the man who would be Tsar, Vladimir Putin, and how the West should respond to his effective invasion of Crimea.
After more than a week of uncertainty over the UK’s response to the crisis, and debate over whether any action should drag London’s financial services into the stand-off, David Cameron appeared to ramp up the rhetoric in the Commons on Monday, warning Putin that Britain would back a sanctions package – even if it hits the City.
Tyrie, who spent five years working as a Senior Economist at the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development – a development bank founded after the collapse of Communism to help build up and support the market economies in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc – is no stranger to the politics of the region. He’s clear that a firm and united Western response is needed to the Russian incursion, and that any attempt to leave financial sanctions off the table would be a mistake.
“This is a crisis in which it appears that soft power has met hard power. And initially, hard power won. But it’s not clear that in the long run that will remain the case,” he says. “This is a very important strategic moment for the West, this is a land grab on the continent of Europe, and I think we need to consider all possible steps in response to it. Financial sanctions certainly should not be excluded; including, if necessary, tough financial sanctions.”
But the Western response to the crisis is about much more than the immediate situation in Ukraine, Tyrie adds. He fears that Crimea is not the end but just the beginning for President Putin, a man who regards Russia’s loss of prestige after the end of the Cold War as an international catastrophe. If a Russian annexation of Crimea is ‘normalised’ and allowed to become the new status quo, Tyrie warns, an emboldened Putin will quickly become dissatisfied and up the ante.
“Whatever status quo we find ourselves at, I can’t realistically see that he will be satisfied,” he says, pointing to the 2008 invasion of Georgian territories as evidence that this is far from the first episode of adventurism from the Russian leader. The response from the West this time must be “much more robust”. “If President Putin gets away with this, more will follow. I don’t think there is any one-off adjustment or settlement with respect to this particular dispute that is going to lead to a stabilisation of relations, given the sense of loss that it appears President Putin, and many of those around him, feel as a consequence of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.”
The immediate threat is the referendum in Crimea this Sunday, and whether Putin then effectively annexes the region by accepting a pro-Russian vote as legally binding. The Prime Minister warned this week that if that happens, targeted sanctions will follow “within days”. But it’s what comes next that matters, Tyrie says, warning that a short term sanctions regime followed by a thaw in relations would be a strategic error for the West, which must be prepared to dig in for “as long as it takes to secure a change in behaviour and a recognition that a very important line has been crossed”. This crisis is just the beginning of a new stage in international power relations, he fears. And the West must reassess everything after this game-changing moment of Russian aggression – including rearmament.
“In the longer term I think we, that is the continent of Europe, need to consider how we can reduce dependence on Russian energy – but also to re-examine the very sharp reductions in defence spending that have taken place in the 20 years since the end of the Cold War. Defence spending is very low as a proportion of GDP in most European countries. It’s 1.4% of GDP I think in Germany, it’s 2.5% here.
“We need to think about this and reflect on it and respond to it over a long time period. This is not something that we can quietly resolve and then carry on as if nothing has changed. Something fundamental has changed – this has been a land grab on the continent of Europe by a major power. We’ve had the fragmentation of countries leading to conflict in Europe since the end of the Cold War, we had a little bit of conflict in one or two places and of course we had a civil war that took place in the former Yugoslavia, a very sad civil war. But we’ve not had a land grab by a major power in this time.The West should just be at the start of working out what to do. And in my view President Putin should understand that this is going to continue, and actions and responses will continue for a long time. We cannot let this pass."
This instinct for seeing the bigger picture and looking long-term has marked Tyrie out as one of the leading thinkers in Westminster politics. A career-long campaigner for an enhanced and strengthened Parliament, he was one of the driving forces behind the 2010 move to elect select committee chairs by secret ballot, arguing the change was needed to reverse the ongoing transfer of power to the executive.
After securing the chairmanship of the Treasury Select Committee, he quickly became seen as one of the most effective and influential MPs, with many dubbing him the Most Powerful Backbencher in Parliament. And he is certainly not your typical Conservative. The son of a shopkeeper, and the first in his family to go to university, Tyrie is more comfortable operating outside the elite circles, something that has helped him gain a reputation as an effective scrutiniser of power, whether that’s the power of the Government or of the banking and financial sector. And when the Libor rate-fixing scandal forced David Cameron to set up a Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards in 2012, there was really only one choice for chairman. That commission published its well-received final report last summer, with many of its recommendations on remuneration and the practices of the sector still under consideration by ministers and regulators.
The behaviour and culture of the City has shot back up the news agenda in the last month (if it ever really went away) as we enter the annual end of financial year bonus season. Barclays, RBS, Lloyds, and even the Co-Op Bank – despite its near collapse – have come under fire in recent weeks over their bonus pools. Is this latest round further proof that the sector still doesn’t get the need for change?
“I think the early signs from the bonus round is that the banks haven’t grasped the scale of reform that’s required to the structure of remuneration,” Tyrie replies. “Pay, and particularly bonuses, can be a powerful tool for higher standards and protecting shareholders, and we need a remuneration structure which incentivises better behaviour. And to do that rewards need to be matched to the maturity of the risk. That is, we need to find out whether a particular transaction really has been beneficial to a bank in the long run, before all the bonus is released to the person who did the transaction.”
Tyrie says “quite sizable further reform” is needed in this area, and criticises the “new consensus” among banks to introduce three-year deferral periods for bonuses – way below the 10 year deferral period recommended by his Banking Commission, and backed by the Prudential Regulation Authority. Much longer deferral periods, he says, would “more accurately reflect the maturity of the risk”.
One of those banks introducing a much shorter deferral period is RBS. The bonus round at the part state-owned bank sparked particularly sharp criticism from politicians in all three main parties, with close to £600m paid out, despite the bank making a loss of £8.24bn in 2013 – its sixth successive year in the red.
RBS has been a “disaster area” for several years, Tyrie says, warning the bank still faces “huge challenges” before it can get back on its feet. The announcement of that £8.24bn loss forced the Government to push back its plans to sell a first batch of its shares in the bank, originally due to begin this year. Does Tyrie think there’s now any chance of a sale this side of the election?
“I think probably not,” he replies. “It’s possible that some part of RBS, a relatively small part, might be sold off, might be hived off for sale. But there’s a lot of further reform required before it can be put back in shape.
“They’ve got huge challenges ahead; the IT failures, the small business lending – the so-called Large Report [former Bank of England deputy governor Sir Andrew Large’s review into RBS’s business lending]. They probably will have to provision for further payouts for [the alleged manipulation of] forex, more on interest rate misselling and other allegations of misconduct, and of course the balance sheet remains weak. But they’re also hampered by public ownership, and the sooner that RBS is back in the private sector the better, for all concerned.
“But this isn’t just a matter for RBS or even RBS and their past customers. What matters most is that we have a banking sector healthy enough to be able to give the kind of support required by the small business sector in Britain. And the small business sector has historically relied heavily on lending from RBS. It isn’t getting what it needs at the moment. Without that it will be difficult to sustain the recovery. So these further reforms, internal reforms to RBS, are essential.”
Another issue that could further complicate matters for RBS is September’s referendum on Scottish independence. Bank of England Governor Mark Carney this week told Tyrie’s Treasury Select Committee that EU rules requiring a bank to be based in the same jurisdiction as the bulk of its activity meant there was now “a distinct possibility” that RBS would have to relocate to England in the event of a Yes victory.
Tyrie is an ardent Unionist, and speaks of the “deep affinity” he feels for Scots and for Britain. But just as importantly, he says the continuation of the historic link also makes sound economic sense for all involved. He has argued for over a year against the idea of a currency union between an independent Scotland and the remainder of the UK, and welcomes the cross-party decision to rule out any chance of a formal deal. But the SNP still claim a currency union would be “overwhelmingly” in the best interests of both countries, with Scottish Finance Secretary John Swinney just last week insisting there would “have to be a negotiation” over currency in the event of a Yes vote. Is it possible for the Chancellor to definitively rule out any deal before those negotiations take place?
“We’ve just had the eurozone experience which has shown how dangerous it is for countries to be involved in a currency union without very strong fiscal rules to underpin it. And it’s difficult to see how one can devise fiscal rules that are strong enough to make a currency union work, without the risk of challenge sooner or later by the markets, while at the same time enabling the countries involved to feel that they’re fully in control of their own affairs. That’s the problem the eurozone is now facing, and it’s a problem that a currency union between England and Scotland would face.”
Tyrie says the most likely solution to the question, in the event of Scottish independence, is an informal currency board “in which the Scots use the pound, but not as part of a currency union”.
“A currency board has been used in the past by a number of countries, and is being used by Hong Kong, for example, now,” he says. “But it’s an expensive and tough option for the country doing it. We should be under no illusions – this is not an easy route.”
From banking to taxation to Scotland, Tyrie is able to speak from a position of authority on all matters across finance and the economy. And when he talks, people listen. Since 2010, when he became the first elected chair of the Treasury Select Committee, Tyrie’s stock has risen. The move to an elected chairmanship was something the Conservative MP had been endorsing for more than a decade, arguing that it would “change the terms of trade” between the legislature and the executive, and lead to a revival of Parliament. The evidence since 2010 is that his suspicion was correct.
“People associate the decline of Parliament with the expenses scandal, but actually the decline of Parliament in response to increasing executive power had been going on a very long time,” he says. “I think it has been reversed, a little, and I think that’s healthy for democracy. There’s been an increase in not just a sense of accountability, but something that I think matters a lot, which is requiring the executive to explain its actions.”
And having increased the accountability of ministers, Tyrie isn’t done – he now has the quangos in his sights. He says the UK is now in many respects “a quango state”, with the Government essentially able to exert huge influence in all areas of society through “the power of patronage”.
After talks with the incoming Coalition Treasury team in 2010, Tyrie was able to secure for his committee the right to have a greater say in the appointment of the chair of the new Office for Budget Responsibility. The unprecedented move was a success, he says, and should replicated across other quangos and public bodies. “The problem with quangos is that they are in practice accountable to nobody, unless select committees are vigorous in taking an interest in what they do,” he explains, arguing that making more public appointments subject to approval by the relevant parliamentary select committee would “trigger a direct form of accountability”.
Since 2010 Andrew Tyrie has been relentless in forcing what he calls “government by explanation” up the agenda. And the work of the Most Powerful Backbencher in Parliament is far from finished.
TYRIE ON…THE UKIP THREAT TO TORIES
"People always talk about left and right. The most important issue at the next election, by a street, is going to be sorting out the economy."
TYRIE ON…THE 2015 ELECTION
"The battle lines will be about who can best demonstrate that they can secure the prosperity of the British people in the years ahead, with further reform of the economy. That’s what’s needed."
TYRIE ON…TAX CUTS
"I think taxes are too high and too complex. Therefore tax simplification and reduction are in principle the right way to go to secure Britain’s long-term prosperity. But we’re only a relatively small part of the way down the road of stabilising the public finances, and there isn’t much room for manoeuvre."
Buckle yourself in, get ready for the ride, it is now just a matter of days until the Chancellor’s big moment of the year. Yes, if you haven’t already drawn a big red ring around the date in your diary, we are, in case you’ve missed it, just days away from the Budget.
For parliamentary fanatics the usual Budget pub quiz questions will be posed and debated. Who gave the longest budget? Gladstone it’s normally assumed, with a record breaking 4 hours and 45 minutes, fortified by a delicious mixture of egg and sherry. Yum. Who was the aide carrying the Budget sheaf of papers in an anonymous folder while his boss waved the Budget box around for the photographers? The current Foreign Secretary, William Hague, whose then boss, Norman Lamont, had taken the actual budget out of the box to make room for a bottle of Highland Park whisky.
This year we will, excitedly, be able to add to the jousting over trivia the fact that this will be the last budget before we are in full on, hammer and tongs election mode.
But isn’t this year’s Budget right there already with the overall message mattering just as much as the money? Sure, at root the Budget is an important update on the Government’s progress on their main initial goal, trying to balance the books, where they’ve made less progress than first promised but have made some inroads. But for a trio of reasons, the red book with its graphs, tables and appendices could feel much less important with parties starting to think more about next year’s manifesto.
First, with the economy turning a corner, and Ed Balls in search of new hand gestures to make in the Commons, the Budget statement may lack the urgency of the last few years. Be clear, I’m not suggesting it is of no relevance but there is little question that with things looking up the Chancellor’s moment feels well, not quite so big.
Second, as MPs bemoan, it appears that the powers that be aren’t really interested in doing much beyond what they have already set out to do. Delivery is now what matters they complain they’re being told – “we’ve got nothing to vote on any more, I’m not sure why we’re here,” one says.
Others say Downing Street is reluctant to do anything that doesn’t tick one of their five political boxes – time for adventurous major new policies in the Budget? Long gone. That’s even without mentioning the very real and increasing difficulty of getting the Coalition parties to agree on getting anything done at all. Now much of their initial agreement is either in train or has been junked, what to agree on next? Perhaps not much.
Lastly, given that there is an election to try to win soon, and not much money to spend, George Osborne would be sensible to store any real goodies up for nearer to May next year.
Next week there will be some announcements, lists of progress on infrastructure projects, jostling over the rise in the personal tax threshold, and more crackdowns on ne’er do well tax avoiders. And in keeping with the fine traditions, there will be at least one policy that is a political surprise.
There will be officials and ministers in a flap in the 72 hours before as last minute bright ideas from the centre suddenly emerge. But this year more than ever, policy will surely play second fiddle to the political message. Unless George Osborne finds a taste for an exotic drink at the Despatch Box or outlandishly carries his papers in a handbag, the 2014 event does not look likely to find a place in Budget history.
Laura Kuenssberg is BBC Newsnight’s chief correspondent
Last weekend Commons & Lords RUFC took on the Welsh Assembly at Staines rugby club in what was supposed to be a curtain-raiser for the Six Nations International that afternoon – but with the fantastic free-flowing rugby that was on display in the west London heat, it could have been the main event of the day.
Commons & Lords RUFC came flying out of the blocks, led admirably by Lord Addington, with a series of sustained attacks inside the first 10 minutes. Newcomer at stand-off, Ty Sterry (Regional Development Officer for the RFU), formed an instant partnership with scrum-half and ex-Loughborough MP Andy Reed OBE, and both controlled the game from the off.
Andy and Ty looked like they had been playing together for years, and it wasn’t long before Commons & Lords crossed the whitewash, with a slick backs move meaning Ty split the Welsh defence open to score.
As the sun kept beating down on the hardening pitch, and not a breath of wind in site, the Welsh Assembly, led by Joel Steed (office of the Presiding Office), took a leaf out of the Commons & Lords’ book and started to play some passing rugby themselves. Brave tackling by Alun Cairns MP on the wing stopped some certain tries, but the Welsh finally scored to tie the game mid-way through the first half. The match then opened up and fans were treated to some champagne rugby with hardly a dropped ball in sight – a rare achievement for parliamentary rugby. Crucially however it was the Welsh who scored next on the stroke of half-time, meaning that they went into the break in high spirits with a 12-7 lead, whilst Commons & Lords were left sodden in sweat after putting everything into the first half.
Changes at half-time meant fresh legs for both sides, but it was the Welsh Assembly who looked fitter (and a lot younger!) in the second half as they scored 3 tries without reply. The game looked lost at 27-7, but rallying calls from club captain Lord Addington spurred on his forwards, as Chester MP Stephen Mosley put in a Man of the Match performance and dominated up front to give the Commons & Lords a way back into the match. Team captain on the day was Welsh MP Stephen Crabb, and if anybody thought that he might have a conflict of interest and go easy against his countrymen they were wrong, as his ferocious tackling made certain that the Welsh Assembly wouldn’t score again.
Commons & Lords RUFC would score however through Ben Powell (researcher to Andrew Stephenson MP) to make it 27-14, and after more powerful forwards play and a succession of penalties, Ty Sterry took a quick penalty and crashed under the posts, something England scrum-half Danny Care would later emulate that afternoon, to put Commons & Lords within one score of victory.
Time ran out for Commons & Lords however and they could not find a winning try, and the well-spirited match ended 27-21. After the match Commons & Lords RUFC Chair and MP for Rugby, Mark Pawsey, praised both sides for their sportsmanship and for putting on such an excellent rugby spectacle.
Jack Dyas is researcher to Seema Malhotra MP
Words: Paul Waugh
Pictures: Paul Heartfield
Caroline Flint would like to make clear that she is not Robert de Niro. As she recounts how Labour avoided leaks of its surprise energy bills freeze plan last year, the Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change can’t resist a reference to Hollywood. “What was really great about it was that everybody was in the ‘Circle of Trust’ for four and a half months…” she explains, quoting the phrase made famous by the movie Meet the Parents. But she stops herself, laughing. “I’m not saying I’m de Niro! But because we all knew how important this was, it was a small group of people from my team and Ed’s working together.”
Having been kept firmly under wraps, Ed Miliband’s electrifying announcement in his conference speech certainly changed the political weather at the time and Flint says that it continues to influence Government policy today.
With both Ed Davey’s competition audit and Labour’s Green Paper consultation due to be completed at the end of this month, energy is once again hotting up as a big issue. And while counting down the days to the general election, Flint says that her party will use the coming months to unveil more eye-catching policy to hold onto the momentum it gained last autumn.
A former Health, Employment, Housing and Europe Minister under Blair and Brown, she knows that the devil will be in the detail, but stresses that her guiding principle is translating ordinary people’s concerns into practical policy.
“People want to know that the bill they are paying is a fair bill. I’m really proud that it’s Labour’s ideas that are generating such a massive debate on energy. I know the energy freeze at conference got a lot of the headlines, but we have a pretty thought-through package of reforms to the energy market which I have no doubt kicked the Government into thinking it had better be doing something about it.”
Labour’s ideas include breaking up the generation and supply sides of energy companies, having a pool of transparent electricity sales, a new regulator and establishing a new independent Energy Security Board.
The Flint team has been conducting round-tables with industry experts and academics. “I’ve been very much focusing on where we want to be by the summer recess, and have the outlines of what an Energy Bill will look like under a Labour government.” A further Labour Green Paper on energy efficiency is scheduled for Easter and she offers a teasing remark on further radical measures. “We’ve been thinking about where we need to be by conference. Who knows? We might have a few more policies to surprise everyone with – watch this space. My ambition is that, should we win the election, our team has some ready-made stuff from Day One.”
Flint is used to the backlash from those Labour has in its sights, from Ofgem to Ed Davey to the Big Six energy firms. But she’s determined to press on. “If you’ve got a regulator and that regulator hasn’t got enough clout to expect these companies to operate in a good practice way, that they’ve got to be asked, either they don’t respect the regulator enough or the regulator isn’t asking the right questions and pushing at them. And the one thing I’ve come to a view of during the last two and a half years I’ve been doing this is if you don’t push hard, you don’t get people to justify themselves. Ofgem hasn’t done that and they are in a piecemeal way trying to catch up.”
She cites the recent revelation that the Big Six hold up to £400m in millions of accounts closed after customers switched suppliers or moved home. Flint can’t see why that cash can’t be returned swiftly. “It seems between Ofgem and the energy companies they want to make it as complicated as possible. There’s not one reason why you shouldn’t do something – get on with it. ‘There’s a thousand reasons why you can’t do it’. That’s what we hear all the time. I’m afraid Ofgem have been complicit with that.”
Flint also points out how surprised she was that Energy UK, which represents the industry, had appointed Angela Knight as its chief executive. “No offence to Angela, but I couldn’t believe that they gave the person who was in charge of the British Bankers Association the job of the Energy UK. And at a time when their popularity and public confidence in them is so low, that they thought that was the best way to go. You couldn’t make it up. Sometimes in politics, it’s hard work making your luck. But in political terms, they’re the gift that just keeps giving.
“We sit here as this small outfit, we are like a little start-up business in Opposition, we don’t have the massed ranks of the civil service. We are having to get help from think-tanks and others. And we are set against the might of these big companies and their massive PR machines, public affairs agencies and Energy UK. And I still sometimes have to pinch myself how we hold our own.”
She adds that Knight was a minister at the time that John Major decided to allow energy firms to “vertically integrate”. “So she’s got previous. Also, when you are the voice of the energy sector, don’t say ‘that was before my time’, that’s usually a bad move.”
Ed Davey has stepped up his own repeated attacks on Labour too, claiming Flint doesn’t understand the market or the progress made by the Coalition. “I’m amazed how much time in his speeches he spends having a go at me,” she says. “We’ve obviously hit a nerve. I’m not going to apologise for being tough on this issue. It warranted the visibility we’ve given to some pretty rum things that have been going on for a number of years.” But she scents a change in the air despite the rhetoric, and predicts the Davey audit will call for a further review.
“We watch very carefully the statements of Government ministers and we’ve noticed in recent weeks a certain dilution of their animosity towards our proposals as they are heading towards maybe a more public acknowledgement there are further reforms of this market that’s needed.”
As for the price freeze policy, it was kept so secret before party conference last year that even Flint didn’t know the party was producing its ‘ice block’ memento (complete with frozen bill) until she emerged from the conference hall and saw delegates handed them.
Flint says just as important as the announcement was the way it didn’t unravel in the days or weeks afterwards. “It is not a gimmick, it is an integral part of an energy policy that’s about reforming the way the market works. And we need a line in the sand where the public can start feeling more confident about the way this sector is regulated. Energy is one of those things, like water, where I think people do expect a higher order of management and regulation.”
She says that while none of the Big Six were happy with the freeze idea, but already live with similar measures in Europe. “This is a temporary freeze, a number of these companies have to work with permanent price controls in some of the other markets they operate in, about 15 of the EU 28 have some sort of permanent price controls. This idea we are doing something different is just not the case.”
Flint adds that on other Labour plans, the party has “had massive engagement” with the energy industry. She has also insisted that on areas such as Contracts for Difference “we haven’t sought to be Oppositional just for its own sake”. On nuclear energy, she says Labour in Government wanted a new generation of plants at a time when David Cameron was saying it should be a ‘last resort’ and the Liberal Democrats were against it. “They’ve now come round to saying it is going to be an important part of our supply for the future.”
On fracking too, Flint say she’s been constructive. “It’s boring I know, but we’ve been a very reasonable voice in this debate because it’s got a lot more polarised than I think is healthy. I wouldn’t set my face against realising a source of energy that means we can have more home-grown energy, we are a net importer of gas and have been for some years now,” she says.
“The difficulty is that the Government, particularly George Osborne, has hyped it up in such a way that I think he has overestimated not only the amount we could realise but the timeframe we could realise it in. We are nowhere near at the moment, as far as I can work out, the point of production, which is why I think things like offering tax breaks – me and Peter Lilley are at one on this apparently – seems a bit odd, given that they may not need tax breaks.
“The danger has been that as soon as the Government started talking up shale gas it was also used as an anti-renewables message. That is heard in the boardrooms of companies who want to invest, like Siemens and others. Our investment into renewables in this country has halved from just over £7bn five years ago to £2-3bn now.”
She says that Labour’s Climate Change Act, with only five MPs voting against it, had been “a world first” that triggered inward investment because “investors said the UK seemed really serious about this”.
“That consensus has fractured somewhat over the last four years. A number of projects that have come online including the London Array [wind turbines] and power stations were projects started under Labour. Much as I regret it, it’s the Government cutting the ribbon but the truth is they started under us and we haven’t seen a matching amount.”
With the Budget coming up, the CBI is urging the Chancellor to freeze his carbon floor price and Flint says “I sympathise with business” on the pain that UK energy-intensive industries feel on the subject.
“I couldn’t really understand to be honest why given everything else the Government say about the EU, why they would want to create a disadvantage for British business compared to the EU trading scheme,” she says.
“Ironically, it has united industry and green groups against it. We wouldn’t have done it. The problem is that it has created a pot of money coming into Government so we are not in a position to turn round and say [we can abolish it].”
Flint is keen to get UK industry more compensation from Europe, however. “Whether it’s steel, glass, ceramics or chemical industries, energy usage is massive for them and there has to be a way in which we can work with these sectors.”
Representing a former mining community that still relies on heavy industry, Flint constantly tries to connect energy policy with jobs, bills and other bread and butter issues.
Her recent call for Labour to attract ‘Aldi woman’, who cuts her bills by shopping at the no-frills store, is part of her campaign to ensure the party reconnects with the voters. She recently visited an Asda in her constituency to talk to customers and staff and found the cost of living agenda dominated.
One man, paid not more than the minimum wage, had to take two buses to work and bus fares were his big priority. Another Asda worker and his wife worked separate shifts for the supermarket because they can’t afford the childcare.
“All the people I spoke to there were in work but they were all in different ways saying ‘it seems like you are just working to pay the bills’. And for people who do work hard, life should be more than that. Life should be being able to go and have fun with your well earned money.”
Flint’s own working class upbringing, as well as her constituents, ground her in daily life. “Your background does inform you as a politician. My family background, I think it helps me enormously,” she says.
“My brother has always been my ‘White Van Man’. He’d hate me for saying that, he doesn’t drive a van but he’s a driver. When I started to get involved in politics, my family thought I was a bit weird and at the time I thought ‘you don’t understand’ but I have to say as I’ve got a little bit older and wiser I have to say appreciate that more than ever.
“I realise that my family background is a huge asset to have. You can’t say you’re Everywoman or Everyman but it’s a great asset to have contact with people who aren’t that closely involved in politics and Westminster. I’m not saying I agree with them all the time by the way, we have some nice rows about things, but it’s a great touchstone to have.
“It’s about a politician having the checks and balances within yourself to get beyond the usual people who have access to you and that think-tanks aren’t the be-all and end-all: what does it feel like out there?”
Flint herself has certainly experienced life at the sharp end. Born in a home for unmarried mothers in north London, she never knew her biological father. She was adopted by her stepfather but he split from her mother when she was 12. Flint and her siblings lived in a one-room flat, and had to cope with their mother’s alcoholism (she later died from liver damage).
Despite everything, Flint did well enough at school to go to university. She herself married young but when the relationship ended in her 20s, she had to bring up two young children, both aged under two, single-handed.
She applied for a job on the tills at Woolworth’s, but was rejected because she was seen as too well qualified. “I just wanted to get any job because we were on benefits. I just wanted to get back to work and I was absolutely prepared to do whatever job I could do,” she says. Undeterred, she got a job at ILEA, moving on to Lambeth Council and the GMB before becoming MP for Don Valley in the 1997 landslide.
Her views on welfare policy stem from an empathy with those struggling, combined with a hard-headed view that claimants have responsibilities as well as rights.
“Most people who find themselves on benefits desperately want to get back into work. The problem is how long you leave them. It seems to me blooming obvious that the longer you are out of a situation the more difficult it is. Then there are others who will be chancing it.”
Flint in many ways embodies the aspirational culture that she wants a Labour Government to engender. Looking back at her career she says her late mother “would be really proud” of her. She this week took part in an exhibition encouraging young women in Yorkshire to fulfil their ambitions and was asked to write her own advice to those struggling.
“I would say ‘invest in yourself’ and think about what you can do to help yourself. But also always be open to a helping hand. That has helped me through my life, different steps of the way. There will be times when things are tough and people let you down but if you do those two things then that’s a pretty robust way for helping you get on. That’s what I’ve tried to do with certain knockbacks, it is I hope what I try to do not just as an MP but as a person to other people in situations that are somewhat similar to my own, giving them that support and encouragement.”
Through her various knockbacks, was she ever tempted to track down her natural father? “I never knew my father because my mother had me when she was 17. I don’t want to set a storm going from this interview where there will be various friends from the media hunting down Caroline Flint’s natural father.
“I know he’s Scottish and I sort of know his name. My mother had me at 17 and then later she married and then I was adopted by her husband. Later on when that broke down, he really didn’t want to have anything to do with me. Having said that, the first 10 years of my childhood were a very nice childhood. I think I got to the point where I just felt I have to get on with my own life, and what was more important to me than anything else was the situation I was dealing with my own family.”
Her innate resilience and needs of a young family trumped any urge to trace her own origins, though at times she was tempted. “It’s about being confident in yourself…you may not find the answers you are looking for. Who I am is as much to do with the choices I’ve made as much as my genetic makeup – and you should always get that in balance,” she explains.
“I’ve lived without my natural father for 52 years. Occasionally when I was younger, I used to sometimes think I could find out where he lived and I could turn up on his doorstep like those market researchers and not say who I am. Ask a few questions. ‘So, who are you living with in the house, have you had any ill health problems?’ ‘Who do you vote for?’ I sometimes had a romantic fantasy about that sort of thing and then depending on what I saw in front of me decide to take it further or walk away.
“But whoever my father is, he’s had a whole family life and so I tread with caution on this. My husband does sometimes say ‘Caroline, you’d be really great on Who You Think You Are?’, so they could do all that work for me. But no, I’m not looking for something. I am who I am. For good or bad, my life has made me who I am today.”
Caroline Flint is in many ways a comeback kid, often defying her circumstances and her critics. If she can help her party reconnect with struggling families and restore the ‘circle of trust’ with the voters, Labour could make its own comeback, come 2015.
FLINT ON…. THE ENERGY BILL FREEZE PLAN
“Wholesale cost went down by 45% since 2009 and were never really passed onto the consumer. So we wanted to give something back to the public.”
FLINT ON…SPLITTING POWER GENERATION AND SUPPLY
“I don’t want six different versions of what that looks like. The Big Six have gone off and done their own variations and it almost makes matters worse”
FLINT ON…CLIMATE CHANGE TALKS
“We are working on this, because one of the first things that will be in my in-tray should I be the Secretary of State is the COP meeting in Paris [in 2015].”
FLINT ON…THE COST OF LIVING
“In politics we are so focused on the macro stuff but it’s the small things that make a difference.”
FLINT ON…THE WESTMINSTER BUBBLE
“You can make laws here but with the best intentions in the world, by time things get delivered on the ground, sometimes things get lost in translation.”
Words: Jess Bowie
Pictures: Paul Heartfield
Industrious MPs frequently find themselves clock-watching, wishing there were more hours in the day. The Member for Harlow, Robert Halfon, is a time-poor clock-watcher too – but, unlike his peers, he’s also a watch clocker. If this devoted horologist clocks a timepiece he likes, chances are he’ll buy it.
“I’m a watch fanatic,” he says. “Since I was a kid, I’ve loved them. I’ve got loads – Casios, Citizens, all kinds. I play with them and I read watch magazines. I’m really sad.”
Halfon’s Brazilian partner Vanda, whom he met via Facebook in 2008 and who lives with him in Harlow, is now used to seeing various watches strewn on the living room table – and even to the sight of the 44-year-old Halfon launching a Casio G-Shock out of the bedroom window, just to prove that they never scratch.
“I shouldn’t really admit any of this stuff,” he says with a grin.
His favourite watch is the Omega Speedmaster – President Kennedy’s timepiece of choice and the only watch ever to be worn on the moon (an old poster featuring Kennedy and the Omega adorns the back wall of Halfon’s parliamentary office). Halfon, who was born and raised in North London, clearly enjoys it when his passions – watches and politics – come together, and goes on to describe a subset of his collection: watches depicting political figures. “I’ve got a George Bush watch, a President Nixon watch, one with a picture of Winston Churchill on it...” Halfon also boasts a Chairman Mao watch, bought from a street seller in Beijing.
It’s a fitting collection for someone who’s been linked to a British ‘Tea Party’ movement but who is also fascinated by communism. After completing a Masters in Russian politics, the young Halfon approached one Michael Fabricant MP, who shared his interest in communist Russia. Under the guise of wanting to discuss Eastern European politics, Halfon asked Fabricant for a job. (He describes working for the famously flaxen-haired politician as “amazing” and says he is not at all surprised by his old boss’s conversion to social media star, saying Fabricant is “made for Twitter”.)
But has Halfon, who has made his name since he was elected in 2010 by championing the causes of people on low incomes, ever flirted with the left?
“Oh yeah, I think about it all the time. I always think that socialism is an incredibly noble ideology because people who become socialists usually do so for one reason, which is that they want to help the poor.
“So when you knock on a door if you’re a socialist, immediately the person looking at you thinks, ‘ok you may not get the economy right, but your heart’s in the right place because you’re there for the underdog’.
“Every time the Labour MPs speak in the Commons, it’s always about the underdog and so I’ve always thought ‘what an incredible philosophy’.”
The problem, Halfon says, is with its implementation. He also “can’t stand the authoritarian, Fabian, statism/metropolitan PC-type-left where they think the state can run everything like Davros the Dalek… I’ve always rejected that and that’s why I didn’t become a socialist.”
Another nuance of Halfon’s politics is his attitude towards trade unions. He is a proud member of the Prospect union and, in 2012, published a pamphlet called Stop the Union Bashing: why Conservatives should embrace the Trade Union movement. And, while he didn’t agree with the recent Tube strike over ticket office closures – “the tube is a public service and the strike made the lives of the millions of people who depend on it a misery” – he argues against changing the law on majority strikes, pointing out that “if you say 50% of unions have got to vote, then you’ve got to apply that to every election.”
“Twenty per cent of people vote in Euro elections, local government elections and so on. I don’t think you can have one rule for trade unions and another for everyone else,” he adds.
Sitting proudly on Halfon’s coffee table, near a small handmade cushion given to him by one of his constituents, is the ‘Transport Campaigner of the Year’ award which the Harlow MP won at January’s Dods Parliamentary Awards. The accolade recognised Halfon’s long-running campaign on petrol prices, which was credited for influencing the Government’s decision to scrap planned fuel duty increases in 2013.
Halfon, who has also targeted the excessive profits of water and energy companies, has just launched a new campaign against the extra charges utility companies impose on customers who don’t pay their bills by direct debit, saying they are tantamount to “a stealth tax on the poor”.
Nor does he have much time for the utilities regulators.
“On the whole, they’re terrible. They’re like company secretaries and auditors rather than consumer bodies. The regulators have now said they’re going to look into this direct debit issue, having said before they thought the costs were proportionate – and they’re investigating one energy company, Scottish Energy, about this. But they need to be much more hands on. I’ve had huge arguments with Ofgem, and the OFT – who won’t investigate the petrol market properly – and I think they’re just cocooned in their worlds of being regulators rather than consumer bodies.”
Halfon’s solution would be to give new powers of oversight to Which?. “They’re the most incredible organisation on the planet, I think. I guarantee if Which? were running the regulator, every consumer would be hundreds of pounds better off every year.”
Close your eyes and it could almost be Ed Miliband speaking. There is undoubtedly an overlap between Halfon’s message on cost of living issues and the Labour leader’s. Does he have time for Miliband’s policy proposals?
“I think Labour suddenly woke up last year, because they were in this kind of weird two years where they were going on about predistribution and really bizarre stuff that I can’t even spell, let alone that the average person in the street could understand,” Halfon says. “But they’ve obviously got good advisers because suddenly they woke up to things that many of us – not just me in the party – were saying about the cost of living.
“The problem is that they’ve come up with ‘motherhood and apple pie’ solutions which sound amazing but actually don’t work in practice,” he says, before enumerating the reasons Labour’s energy price freeze couldn’t work in reality.
Thanks to his tireless cost of living campaigning, Halfon has reportedly been dubbed “the most expensive MP in Parliament” by the Prime Minister. Just last week he and a band of his constituents were marching on Downing Street, calling on the Government to lower bingo duty. He certainly seems to have become a key voice within his party for blue-collar voters.
“First of all, I hate the phrase ‘blue collar’. It’s patronising and it reminds me of those old Tory grandees who would come down from the mountains and say to the workers in the factories, ‘have some bread’. I hate all that. I prefer ‘white van Conservatism’,” Halfon says, before explaining that ‘white van Conservatism’ is not about ‘white van man’, a phrase which can mistakenly be understood to mean “a big burly guy, kinda like Brutus from Popeye”.
Halfon, whose Jewish Italian father became a fruit and vegetable seller in London after fleeing Libya in the face of Gaddafi’s pogroms, is in fact writing a book called White Van Conservatism. The cover picture is a woman in a white van “because there are so many women who have micro businesses and small businesses – huge amounts”.
Tory modernisation is something Halfon supports, but for him it should be about one thing: “being the party for the working poor. And everything else should follow.” He even thinks the Tories should re-brand themselves The Workers’ Party.
While a name-change may be a tall order, Halfon’s ideas seem to be taking root; in a speech last week Grant Shapps referred to the Conservatives as “the workers’ party” – to the horror of some Labour MPs who pointed out that this niche was already occupied, and that the ‘clue was in the name’.
Halfon would also change his party’s logo, replacing the tree with the image of a ladder. “The Labour Party give people safety nets, whereas we give them ladders,” he says. “What I said before about socialism having a noble aim, knowing you’re about the poor. The problem for Conservatives is always: what are we about? Freedom – well what does that really mean to the person on street? Sovereignty, Europe... it’s all esoteric stuff. Partly Conservatism is a way of life – by habit you tend to be more traditional and so on. But actually the thing that we’re about is the ladder.”
Halfon refuses to say whether he is better equipped to speak to white-van voters than others in his party. “I don’t like to say that, not in a million years,” he says. “People have their own emphases and there are so many people who can talk better than me on all kinds of things”. But he does think the Conservatives need to create a stronger identity. “We’re slowly doing it, saying we’re the party for hardworking people, but we’ve got to build a real narrative around it, a real passion that we’re there to help the working poor and not only that, we’re there to help people who aren’t working get into work.”
Would this narrative be easier to promote if the party’s upper reaches weren’t so dominated by Eton and Oxbridge types?
Halfon answers the question with one of his own: “Guess how many people in my constituency have asked me about David Cameron’s background?”
The answer might disappoint Team Miliband. “Not one. In 10 years. And nobody – I guarantee – nobody really cares that David Cameron went to Eton. In fact many people would love to send their kids to a school like that. What they do care about is that we’re on their side – when they wake up at 5am, go to work all day in their van, come back at seven or eight at night and their wife then goes to work in a factory or in Tesco or whatever it might be. They’ve got two kids, they live in a small house. They don’t go on holidays, they’re earning 25-30k a year. They want to know: is the Government going to make their lives easier? Are we going to cut fuel duty, are we going to make their energy bills easier, are we going to make them put all this environmental stuff on their van which makes them double the cost of buying the van? These are things that matter.”
He adds: “We may get into coalition again, we may even win a small majority of 10 or 20 MPs, but we’ll never have a big majority unless we have a real narrative and working people think that we are speaking for them.”
Surely Robert Halfon is just the man to help the Conservatives achieve this. Does he have ambitions within the party?
“I know you’re not going to believe me, but this time around...my seat is a very tough one, so I’ve got to work very, very hard in my seat. I love campaigning so if there was some kind of campaigning position, I would do it. But other than that, ahead of 2015 I need to... I’m very happy doing what I’m doing.”
But after 2015? What would be his ideal ministerial post? “I’m not going to go down that path,” he says with a smile. “I always think it’s so arrogant people saying that kind of thing. I would love a campaigning role one day within the party. That’s all you’ll get from me on that.”
The Tories’ problems with representation don’t stop at white-van voters, of course. There’s a much larger demographic at stake: women. They still make up less than one in five Conservative MPs, and even many traditionalists in the party are mulling the possibility of all-women shortlists.
Halfon says that while he would be “tempted down that route”, he “can’t get himself to agree with it”. He draws an analogy with his own experience as a candidate.
“I had to fight hard to get a seat. I’ve got leg issues, as you can see [Halfon suffers from osteoarthritis and a form of cerebral palsy and walks with the help of crutches] and I would have hated it if there had been three disabled people in the final shortlist and I’d got there because there was a disability quota. In fact, I wouldn’t have gone for the seat. When I was being interviewed for seats, I knew I couldn’t just be an a A candidate – I don’t mean A list, I’m talking about A grade – I had to be an A++ candidate to get over people’s worries about whether I’d keel over if I went canvassing. Not because they were evil, but because they were worried about whether I’d be up to it. The idea of being on some disabled shortlist would have been horrific, because I would’ve known I’d only got there because I had a disability rather than because I’m good. That’s what worries me about the women’s shortlist thing.”
This said, Halfon admits his party “has to do something” about its woman problem. “Let me put it this way, if you had suggested all-female shortlists to me two or three years ago, I would’ve said ‘absolutely not’ and now I’m saying ‘not’, but without the ‘absolutely’”. His preferred solution would be bursary schemes – not just for women candidates but also for those from lower income backgrounds who are put off by the huge costs associated with running for Parliament.
It’s yet another way in which Halfon wants to do politics differently – a thread that runs through almost everything he says. But one key area where the Harlow MP is challenging orthodoxies has so far escaped mention: his clothes. In addition to his hoard of watches, Halfon boasts a dazzling collection of colourful suits.
“Today I’ve got a boring thing on. I should have remembered to wear something colourful for this. I just get fed up with wearing boring grey suits all the time. There’s such inequality here; if a woman wears a colourful dress, everyone says how wonderful that is, but if a man doesn’t wear a grey suit it’s seen as something abnormal.”
Halfon’s resplendent wardrobe takes in purple, a shade he calls ‘Hamas green’, and tangerine. The latter suit’s outing in the Chamber last summer, and the parliamentary banter that greeted it (“One knows when one’s been tangoed,” Eric Pickles joked in response to a question from Halfon), shot Halfon to the top of that day’s most viewed videos on the BBC website.
Halfon promises never to ditch the day-glo ensembles, even if he’s one day made a minister. “Absolutely not, no way,” he says. But does he think some of his male peers dress in a dull way?
“No, I wouldn’t say that about anyone. It’s just convention, not just in Parliament but everywhere, that men wear dark suits. And we look identikit. So I do bring a bit of colour.”
HALFON ON...SAME-SEX MARRIAGE
"I felt I didn't want minority groups – Christian and other faiths – to be under constant fear of persecution. It was a very, very difficult issue for me because...there is a liberal side, but I also have a Conservative side as well, and they're constantly battling in these issues."
HALFON ON... HOMEOPATHY
"Just three EDMs I think I've ever signed [on it] since I got in. And you'd have thought I had called for the burning of every hospital in Britain. I've had unbelievable abuse and it's bizarre because I've never spoken on it in the House, I've never said anything. All I did was sign these innocuous – I thought innocuous – EDMs."
HALFON ON… UKIP
“To me there are two kinds of UKIP – the Godfrey Bloom guy who’s like a cross between Sid James and Bernard Manning, and then there's a much more sinister element, like the MEP who said every Muslim has got to sign a declaration of non-violence, which to me is literally akin to the Nazis saying Jews should wear a yellow star. I genuinely find it abhorrent and frightening. I'm amazed that man is still an MEP. How someone could say such a thing and then not apologise for it.
“In many ways UKIP have done us [the Conservatives] an enormous favour because they're cleansing people from the Tory party that had these kinds of views, which is great because I don't want people who have those kinds of views in my party. So good luck to them, really.”
HALFON ON... THE PM 'REINING IN' ERIC PICKLES
"I don't think anyone would dare rein in Eric Pickles because he'd just biff them one, basically."