Shadow cabinet minister and senior adviser to Ed Miliband, Jon Trickett, speaks in parliament. Photograph: BBC.
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Jon Trickett: Labour must remember every day that it's a "democratic socialist" party

In an exclusive interview, the left-wing shadow cabinet minister discusses his new role as a senior adviser to Ed Miliband. 

Few Labour MPs know Ed Miliband better than Jon Trickett. It was in 2005, shortly after Miliband was elected to parliament, that he told the Commons newcomer he would one day lead the party. "He found it a surprising thought, but so it proved," Trickett recalls when I speak to him. The shadow cabinet member, whose Hemsworth constituency neighbours Miliband's seat of Doncaster North, was taught by the Labour leader's father Ralph Miliband while studying for an MA in political sociology at Leeds University. "I vaguely knew him and David when they were children," he tells me. 

Trickett went on to play a defining role in Miliband's leadership campaign, providing the psephological analysis (the five million votes lost by Labour between 1997 and 2010, just one million of which went to the Tories) that convinced him that a break with New Labour was not just a moral necessity but a political one. In 2011 he entered the shadow cabinet as shadow cabinet office minister and was later named shadow minister without portfolio and deputy party chair in the 2013 reshuffle.

The Yorkshireman has long been one of Miliband's most trusted consiglieres, often used as a sounding board before major speeches and policy announcements. Now, with six months remaining until the general election, this role has been formalised with the left-winger joining the Labour leader's office as a senior adviser in Wednesday night's reshuffle

"I’ve been around a long time," the 64-year-old reflects. "I was the leader of the council [Leeds], I worked for Mandelson for 18 months and I worked for Gordon for about 18 months and I was on the backbenches for a long time. I think I’ve got a wide experience of the labour movement. I was first elected in the middle of the miners’ strike in 1984 as a councillor and I think I can bring to the table a lot of practical experience and hopefully an understanding of economic and social trends." 

Before entering elected office (he became an MP in a 1996 by-election), Trickett worked as a builder and a plumber for 12 years, making him one of the few senior politicians with experience of blue collar labour. "There was no money and I had to have a job," he says. But he adds: "I also had a university degree, so I’ve got an unusual background and it’s hard to say that I’m either fish or fowl from that point of view. I did work for a long time and for most of that time I was self-employed or working as part of an SME and I think I’ve got a good insight into what it’s like."

Trickett, who left school aged 15 with no qualifications before returning to education, adds: "Everything that I’ve achieved in life was by the support of a loving family and by pulling myself up by my bootstraps, basically." One of his greatest political passions is Labour's Future Candidates Programme, devoted to recruiting more people from working class backgrounds to the party. 

After serving as Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to Peter Mandelson between 1997 and 1998 (departing following Mandelson's resignation), Trickett distinguished himself as a backbench radical, chairing the left-wing group Compass and campaigning against the Iraq war and the renewal of Trident. He later ran Jon Cruddas's deputy leadership campaign in 2007 before returning to government, 10 years after his first job, as PPS to Gordon Brown. 

With the election of Miliband as leader in September 2010, Trickett was gifted with a new opportunity to exercise political influence. When I ask what qualities he identified in the Labour leader, he tells me: "There are two things about Ed which are remarkable. One is his capacity to absorb huge amounts of information without seemingly even working at it. He’s got an enormous brain, a very, very powerful mind.

"The second is a capacity to empathise with others, which isn’t always well represented in the media. He does have a capacity to encounter people and somehow be able to immediately relate to them in a very human way. It’s not something we often see but I did find that remarkable in a world in Westminster where everybody’s busy, preoccupied with their own selves, projecting their own images. Ed always seemed to take the time to find out about other people. That combination of qualities is very, very rare."

More than perhaps any other member of the shadow cabinet, the comradely Trickett is an unabashed socialist. "I read somebody say the other day that it’s an old-fashioned notion. I do regard myself as a socialist and I always have, a democratic socialist. For me the ideas of socialism are what inspired me to join the Labour Party. Clause IV of the Labour Party constitution, which Tony Blair agreed, starts off with the words 'The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party' and I think it’s important that we remember that every day in every way.

"We are a democratic socialist party, we’re the party in Britain that has the largest number of socialists in it. As far as I’m concerned, that’s what we’re about. Now, there'll be debates about exactly what we mean by that, but it certainly means a society which isn’t obscenely unequal and it also means not being afraid, if a market is failing, to intervene to protect the public interest."

He cites Miliband's plan to radically restructure the energy market as an example of socialism in action. "The idea that five or six companies should effectively control almost the manufacturing and the distribution of energy, then between themselves drive up the cost of the energy is demonstrably not in the public interest.

"Our policy to freeze fuel prices, it’s not widely understood. We’re going to freeze fuel but then we’re going to do structural reform because prices rising is a symptom of the underlying problem, which is that the market in energy isn’t working."

The challenge, he acknowledges, is communicating these ideas in a way accessible to voters. "I know I can fall into the trap of using what you might call Westminster language, but it’s not how I communicate with friends, neighbours and work colleagues at all ... I like to think I speak Yorkshire, that’s the language I try to use. I try to speak in a very plain, northern, Yorkshire dialect hopefully it’s my way of communicating." Labour, he says, must speak in "the plainest language, in primary colours, so that people understand exactly what it is that we’re saying." 

Among Trickett's many roles is a seat on the party's new anti-Ukip strategy unit, which also features Yvette Cooper, Caroline Flint and John Healey. He attributes the rise of the Farageists to "insecurity in an uncertain world, pressure on jobs, the decline in social mobility, a feeling that the future looks pretty bleak for a lot of people. The coalition are offering a future of cuts and more cuts with no end to it. It feels pretty bleak." 

"Our answer has got to be that this is a complex problem. It’s not unsolvable but it does mean radicalism and boldness, radicalism and boldness rooted in the centre of British politics and prepared to take on vested interests and the other obstacles to change," he adds. 

"It's not saying there’s a single answer to this, or a group of people who you can scapegoat and say 'They’re responsible'. But the truth is, most fair-minded people, when they sit down and you speak to them, they get it straight away." 

The key to reducing anxiety over immigration, the pre-eminent cause of Ukip's surge, is dramatic labour market reform, he argues. "There’s effectively a reserve army of cheap labour in the east of Europe who are being brought over, often by unscrupulous employers and agencies, to do work on the cheap and that can’t be right either for the people who are being shipped across or for the people who are already here.

"You often hear anecdotes or come across examples where the employers are using cheap migrant labour to undercut existing conditions - that can’t be right and Labour’s been clear that we’re going to stop all that."

Few weeks have been as taxing for Trickett's friend and ally Miliband as this one. Just six months before the election, the Labour leader has been forced to publicly dismiss threats to his position. Trickett's message to the rebels is unambiguous: don't feed the flames. 

"We’re the Labour Party and we are the labour movement and one of our founding principles is that an attack on anyone of us, by the forces of darkness, our political foes, is an attack on all of us. If one of us is attacked then all of us are attacked.

"The truth is that Ed Miliband has been subject to the most sustained level of attack and critique by the forces of reaction, our political foes, that I’ve ever seen and I was first elected 30 years ago this year. I’ve never seen anything like it.

"I think there’s an absolute duty on us, when anyone of us is under attack, particularly somebody we’ve elected to lead us, not to allow that and not to feed the flames.

"My own judgement, for what it’s worth, is that I will stand by anyone who is under attack. That doesn’t mean there can’t be a debate about policy options, we are a democratic movement, but that’s entirely different to feeding this frenzy of attack that has really been created by the right-wing in our society against our leader and that is completely inappropriate."

But as well fighting the fires fuelled by Miliband's foes, one senses that Trickett's greatest mission will be to keep the flame of socialism burning in the Labour leader's soul.  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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