Bridget Phillipson: “We can’t just have one more heave. That would potentially destroy the Labour party altogether”
Not everyone got caught up in the narrative that followed the 2017 general election. Bridget Phillipson raised concerns that her party were not learning the right lessons. With Labour suffering its worst election result in decades, the backbench MP warns the same mistakes cannot be repeated. She talks to Sebastian Whale
Bridget Phillipson was already at her count for Houghton and Sunderland South before the exit poll was due to be published. Volunteers, hoping for the seat to be the first to declare its result, were still bringing in ballot boxes from polling stations around the constituency. Phillipson, hurriedly checking her phone for updates, feared she was about to be proven right.
Three months after the 2017 election, while much of the left was still riding high, Phillipson saw things differently. In an essay for the New Statesman, she sought to dispel the notion that the election result was a “triumph” for her party. “Myths can fix themselves to events with remarkable rapidity,” she began.
Her initial analysis was straightforward – Labour had, in fact, not won the election. It has not done so since its victory in 2005. In the interim, seven years of austerity under the Conservatives had passed. Led by Theresa May, the Tories had embarked on its worst campaign “that anyone can remember”, featuring a self-imploding manifesto and a dearth of positive messaging. “Even in a fight with that, we lost,” she wrote.
Phillipson had three central observations that gave her anxiety about Labour’s trajectory. The first was the changing nature of the party’s vote, which was becoming more disparate and far removed from its traditional base. “Labour is becoming, slowly but unmistakably, a party of the larger towns and cities, a party of graduates and young people, a party of the socially liberal,” she argued, noting the collapse in its working-class support. Secondly, she was concerned that Labour was “blinded” to the bigger picture. She noted the analysis by ConservativeHome in the aftermath of 8 June, dissecting where the Tories’ campaign fell short. “When they fail, the Tories examine their own weaknesses rather than blaming their misfortunes on the Opposition,” she said. Thirdly, she recognised that while Labour’s vote share was high, the Tories was higher. “The test for us at every election is to beat the Tories, not to set a new personal best,” she wrote. Atypical for the time, Phillipson also dissected the much-vaunted 2017 Labour manifesto.
Unlocking her phone, Phillipson refreshed Twitter. Her team were huddled together as the exit poll came through. The Tories were forecasted to win 368 seats, with Labour on 191. A bloodbath. “I knew it was going to be a bad result for us, but the scale of it…,” Phillipson begins, as though still in shock. “It was absolutely devastating.”
Shortly after Labour lost Blyth Valley for the first time in its history, cameras turned to an ashen-faced Phillipson, who had just been re-elected with a majority of 3,115, down from more than 12,000. In her acceptance speech, she described the national result as a “crushing disappointment” and a “devastating blow”.
While the festive break gave her time to spend with her husband and two daughters, the 36-year-old seems forlorn, fatigued by nine years in opposition. “The result we secured in 2019 was the result that many of us had feared would happen in 2017, but for a range of reasons was delayed,” she says. “The problems haven’t gone away. In fact, in many cases, voters had arrived at an even firmer view about the leadership and a sense of disconnection from the Labour party more generally.”
With 140 newly-elected MPs, Westminster has an altogether different feel about it. In Portcullis House, an offshoot of the main parliament building, a string of fresh faces are acclimatising to their new environment. It is here where I meet Phillipson on a Tuesday afternoon, only to move to a quieter, more serene location in the Palace of Westminster, safe from the hustle and bustle of a new parliamentary session.
Phillipson’s softly-spoken voice is well worth taking note of. Those ‘in the know’ have long-touted her prescient, thoughtful offerings. In an interview in 2012, she called for a National Care Service and for the abolition of the Transport Act 1985, which supported bus deregulation outside of London, a policy area she argues has brought harm to communities. She has also gone where many others dare not tread; in March 2018, she wrote a New Statesman piece titled ‘Machine politics is underrated – and essential to winning power and changing policy’. Twelve months later, she renewed her critique of the at times totemic 2017 Labour manifesto.
She says: “We’ve so convinced ourselves about the changes that we need to make that all too often it’s done in a language that voters don’t understand. It’s often in terms of jargon. We lack simple, concise messages that resonate.” She adds: “Far too often we’re telling voters what we think they should believe. We’re not listening to what voters are telling us.”
As for the 2019 election defeat, Phillipson says: “There were lots of reasons the Tories secured such a big majority, but they had a clear campaign, a consistent set of messages. Every day we jumped from one announcement to the next, bigger and more outlandish. You could just feel that voters’ confidence was ebbing away… It didn’t add up to a compelling narrative about the country we wanted to build.”
Phillipson, who is backing Sir Keir Starmer in the Labour leadership race, believes the situation is salvageable. “But it’s not a given,” she argues. Much is at stake in the contest to succeed Jeremy Corbyn, she continues, to determine whether Labour wants to be a “serious and credible force for government” that can change people’s lives, lift children out of poverty and address the social care crisis, or a party that “waves placards”. “We were founded to improve the rights of working people and we’re failing in that,” she adds.
But can Labour win the next election? “It will be a massive uphill struggle [after] the scale of the defeat we’ve just suffered,” she replies. “But when you look at the swings that the Conservatives secured in some seats, it’s not impossible that we could find a way back. But it will be tough and part of that will be understanding how badly we lost and the scale of the challenge ahead, not least in Scotland, but elsewhere too.”
Bridget Maeve Phillipson was born and raised in Washington, Sunderland. She was brought up by her mother, Claire, who she refers to as “mam”. Phillipson attended Labour party meetings as a toddler, with Claire unable to access childcare for her daughter. “I went along and played in the corner of the room and then grew up going to party meetings. If I didn’t go with her, she wouldn’t get to go,” she says.
When Gordon Brown visited Sunderland ahead of the 2010 election, Claire helped to remove a disgruntled heckler from a campaign event. “My mam and another party member who was there encouraged the heckler to let us get on and listen to Gordon Brown,” Phillipson recalls.
Phillipson, like many Labour MPs, became political as a result of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. “It was a time when life was pretty tough for people in the north-east; youth unemployment was very high, child poverty was high, crime was out of control,” she says. “In the street where I grew up, we got burgled many times. You had the shutdown of major industry. I just felt that life could be better and that our country could be so much more, and our community could achieve so much more.”
Phillipson was educated at St Robert of Newminster Catholic School (she remains a Catholic to this day). She joined the Labour party aged 15. A Modern History undergraduate at Hertford College, Oxford, she went on to co-chair the university’s Labour Club, which she signed up to in her first week. Phillipson also played rugby for two years and once caused an evacuation of her halls after burning toast late one evening. She enjoyed meeting people from all manner of backgrounds at Oxford, including from the Conservative Association. “That really helped me to hone my arguments,” she told The Guardian in 2010.
After graduating, Phillipson returned to Washington, where she worked in local government before managing a refuge for women and children fleeing domestic violence named Wearside Women in Need. By 2010, she began putting herself forward for selections and was chosen as the Labour candidate in the newly-created seat of Houghton and Sunderland South.
Phillipson was just 26 when she arrived in Westminster. At her first Prime Minister’s Questions, she asked David Cameron about Nissan’s Sunderland plant, one of the major employers in the region whose future has been in doubt since the EU referendum in 2016 (while the site is not in Phillipson’s jurisdiction, many of her constituents work there). Less than a week later, she made her maiden speech, pledging to speak out whenever she saw injustice. “I will resist any measure that will damage our economy, our families, and the services on which we all rely,” she said.
Despite her talents, Phillipson’s first and only frontbench role came in October 2013, when she was appointed an Opposition Whip. “I absolutely loved that. I worked with some fantastic colleagues. Often in parliament, you don’t feel that you’re working as part of a team, but you do feel that in the whips’ office,” she says. Phillipson left the frontbench in September 2015.
Notwithstanding several select committee memberships under her belt, Phillipson’s talents have largely gone unutilised. This apparent oversight could have something to do with the horses she has backed over the years. In 2010, she supported David Miliband to replace Gordon Brown. In 2015, she came out for Yvette Cooper, and a year later – after becoming one of 172 Labour MPs to express no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn – she voted for Owen Smith. The Leader’s office placed her in the ‘Core Group Negative’ tranche of Labour MPs, one up from those deemed “hostile” to Corbyn.
On major votes in recent years, Phillipson backed the renewal of Trident, supported the triggering of Article 50, and was one of the first Labour MPs to come out for a second referendum. She was against proposals to ban Donald Trump from addressing parliament and was one of two MPs on the Standards Committee to support an investigation into allegations of bullying against John Bercow. Three others opposed.
Her support for Starmer is eye-catching. Critics of the Holborn and St Pancras MP argue the London-dwelling former director of public prosecutions is in no place to win back voters in the north. Phillipson has little truck with this argument. “We have just seen the second old-Etonian in recent years become prime minister of our country,” she says. “For voters, what matters most is having a credible leader with authority who can bring the party back together and can make the changes that we need to see. We can’t just have one more heave. That would potentially destroy the Labour party altogether.”
She adds: “I don’t believe that voters need their politicians to seek to imitate them. They need to understand their concerns.”
Phillipson argues Starmer has the “authority and credibility” to reconnect with former Labour voters and win over those required to secure power. “We shouldn’t just be looking at who we want to lead the party – important though that is – we should be looking at who we believe can lead the country and cannot just unite the Labour party but the country too, at a time when our country and our politics are very divided,” she says.
Nearly twelve months ago, seven Labour MPs jumped ship, including Luciana Berger, over the leadership’s handling of claims of anti-Semitism within the party. Phillipson insists that she was not close to following suit – “I was never going anywhere” – but says it is a running sore that people like Berger were “effectively forced out”. “It makes you feel compromised in staying at times. But I believed that I needed, along with many other people, to be a part of making the change,” she says.
“Anti-Semitism has been a terrible stain on our party. We haven’t done enough to tackle it,” Phillipson continues. She adds: “We have a big task ahead of us in rebuilding our relationship with the Jewish Labour Movement but also with the Jewish community. That task will be a very difficult one because we have caused immense distress and we have caused harm to the Jewish community in our country. Apologising won’t be enough to demonstrate that we understand that there needs to be massive change within the party.”
While Phillipson concedes that Brexit is inevitable, she has not rescinded her views about the risks involved.
She takes some solace in that Boris Johnson’s Conservatives will “completely own” what comes next. However, should leaving the EU have negative economic consequences, she predicts blame will start to be spread. “We’ll hear all kinds of stories about how the decline was going to happen anyway,” she says. On the threat to jobs at the Nissan plant, Phillipson claims Tory MPs have told her the workers “should just relocate and get a job in the City of London because at least our financial services sector will be leading the world post-Brexit”. “That level of disconnection with the reality of people’s lives is, frankly, staggering,” she says.
Starmer’s time working as Shadow Brexit Secretary is, in part, why he holds Phillipson’s support. “We’re going to see the Government seeking to do much of this behind closed doors where they shut out MPs and we will have to fight to make our voices heard to represent our constituents. I believe Keir will lead on that,” she argues.
As for her own aspirations, I’m curious as to why Phillipson did not put herself forward for the deputy leadership, if not the top job. “All I’m focused on is doing what I can to get the Labour party back into a position where we’re a credible force once again, where I can knock on voters’ doors and look them in the eye and not have to apologise for our party’s failings over and over again, where we can command the trust of working people, and where we can get back to winning elections,” she says.
This might seem a typical answer for an MP looking to dampen speculation about their own ambitions. However, it comes across as genuine with Phillipson, as though it is and has always been party first, career second. Although she is brimming with ideas, she does not exude the self-aggrandising confidence of some politicians. Her more reserved disposition is in tune with her considered and articulate assessments of where the Labour party has gone wrong, and where it needs to be.
“I’ve been frustrated in recent years that we’ve not been in the position to be the credible alternative government that I believe our country needs,” she says. “We now have a chance to put that right, because I don’t simply want to be talking about doing something about child poverty, I want to be doing something about ending the scourge of child poverty. It’s only through winning elections and getting into government that we can ever make the happen.”