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On the road with Caroline Flint: the authentic face of Labour’s right?

After a weekend following the deputy contenders, I'm forced to admit Andy Burnham isn't entirely wrong.

By Stephen Bush

As much as it pains me to admit it: Andy Burnham isn’t entirely wrong about the accents thing.

A few days after the election, I was on television to talk about the runners and riders in the leadership race. The make-up lady was distressed that Chuka Umunna had just pulled out, and even more perturbed at another absence from the race.

Why, she wanted to know, isn’t Caroline Flint in the running? She told me that she’d seen the shadow energy secretary on TV “in all weathers”, holding the line.

A few months later, I spend a weekend on the road with Flint and Phil Cole, her husband of 14 years and her partner for more than 20. She is on the campaign trail again, this time for her own deputy leadership campaign. Instead of a big Labour campaign coach, the battle bus now is a Citroën Xsara Picasso, giving the whole affair the air of a small family business. (James Kilmartin, Flint’s long-time aide, comments that on one occasion, a member came up to him after an event and said “Your mum’s very good, isn’t she?”)

Barring an upset that would put YouGov out of business, Flint is likely to finish third, behind the bookmakers’ favourite Tom Watson, and Stella Creasy. Over the course of our day together, we visit members across the South: in Crawley, in Brighton, and Woking, to a hustings in London.

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These are places where Labour was, for the most part, beaten badly in May 2015 or wasn’t in contention at all. Flint’s background – born in Twickenham, her mum aged just 17, she lived in the private rented sector, sharing a room with her mum, stepfather and sisters, becoming the first in her family to get to university – is a foot-in-the-door where a more well-heeled version of Blairism might be met with hostility. Even so, it’s an uphill struggle.

When we arrive in Woking, one plummy-voiced gentleman is furious – almost incoherent with rage – that Flint refuses to back Syriza-style socialism. Another believes the path to victory is embracing proportional representation.

“The Tories have a majority of 12,” she says, “We can have a conversation here about changing the electoral system, but unless we have a majority for that in parliament, that’s all it is.”

In Crawley, one woman is angry at Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall for talking “too much about the centre ground”.

“How many people here own houses?” Flint asks. Every hand goes up. “How many are in work or retired?” Again, every hand goes up. “Well, you’re the centre ground yourselves. All the voters we need want the things that you have.”

The contest seems to require, on the part of all five contenders, astonishing patience. They are almost second, and the leadership hustings – “the warm-up act” Flint quips in Crawley – have a tendency to overrun or start late.

To make matters worse, there seems to be little understanding within the party of what the deputy’s role is. At a hustings in London, all five candidates stress their organisational abilities, their willingness to work with whoever wins – at this point, all the candidates are privately preparing to work with Jeremy Corbyn – but the questions seem suited to a leadership race, not a support role. After an interminable round of questions on Britain’s productivity puzzle, Ben Bradshaw, the likable MP for Exeter, says, with a note of exasperation, “Well, this is a contest for deputy leader. I think one of our tasks will be to support the leader in their efforts on areas like this.”

“The party is feeling a bit bruised,” says Flint, “It wants a bit of love.” But, she says, she’s been surprised at how few of the questions are about “why we lost – how do we get more elderly people to vote for us, why didn’t we even get [a majority] in the private rented sector”.

The thing she does exceptionally well is deliver what is a fairly hard message in a more conciliatory way than, say, Liz Kendall.  Most of the people we meet are drawn to her because of her five long years as Ed Miliband’s “minister for the Today programme” – she chalked up more appearances on Question Time than any other politician, even the ubiquitous Nigel Farage – which might yet draw more of the undecideds in the deputy race than is widely expected.

But it feels to me at least that the things that Flint is good at are skills that Labour members have forgotten matter – the ability to survive even the toughest interviews, to, in that hated phrase, “speak human” – and that her pitch would have been appreciated in 2007 or even 2010 but seems out of step with the party’s mood in 2015.

That said, she was the first frontbencher to talk about Labour’s problem with what she called “Aldi Mum” – the lower-middle class voters who did so much damage to the party not just in the marginals but in seats Labour held in 2010 but lost in 2015, like Telford, Plymouth Moor View, or Ed Balls’ seat of Morley & Outwood. She’s not softening her pitch like Burnham in the leadership race but she wasn’t leaving the members of Woking or Crawley feeling bruised and ignored like Kendall. It feels – to me at least – that she’d have provided a more “authentic” face for the party’s right than any of the three moderate candidates have managed.

And I look at her, with her South London accent – and the candidate favoured to defeat her, Tom Watson, with his Midlands accent, who could also have mounted a bid for the top job – and I’m suddenly not so sure that the fact Burnham made it to the Cabinet and was a special advisor means that his point about New Labour neglecting those with accents is entirely wrong. I’m not sure that the answer to that make-up lady’s question isn’t “because she doesn’t speak RP”. 

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