He is the undoubted pretty boy of the Labour frontbench. I’ve often wondered just how much substance there is behind those eyelashes, and exactly where he stands on some of the great issues of the day. On the face of it, he’s down-the-line ‘New Labour’, but there’s a certain amount of ’old Labour’ perspective there, too. I have also never met a politician who quotes his constituency so often in order to reinforce his point. Read on...
ID: How did you first get into politics?
AB: I joined the party when I was 15, in 1985. It was the whole climate of what was happening at the time. I grew up in the north west. The miners’ strike was quite a big event in my life, and I remember coming home every night and seeing Derek Hatton holding forth on the TV. It was an intoxicating time.
See, that would have made me Conservative…
It made me very politically aware. My parents weren’t members then, but I decided to join the party. I stood as the successful Labour candidate for St Aelred's Catholic High School in the mock election in 1987.
Why did you find Margaret Thatcher so toxic?
My parents did, and they passed that on. My mum, who'd always been a strong Catholic, remembered her going into Downing Street and quoting St Francis of Assisi. Mum kept coming back to it. “How could she have talked about, ‘Where there is discord, I will bring harmony…’, and do all the things she was doing?” [Thatcher] was a very divisive figure, particularly in the north west. 'Maggie Thatcher, milk snatcher' was around up there, and the folklore behind it built up quickly.
So you got into politics at an early age. You joined the local Labour Party, presumably?
There I was at Culcheth, Warrington, spending most of my Friday nights doing what teenagers do… and I went to my first Labour Party meeting, attracting all these bewildered looks. It was weird for a 14-year-old to go and sit above a pub and discuss politics.
Many youngsters think politics is just a lot of old people sitting around arguing about things that don’t matter to anybody. You obviously weren’t put off.
It was exactly like that! But they made me and my brother, who joined at the same time, feel welcome. I was made membership secretary – the classic experience: first meeting, get made membership secretary. I didn’t engage with politics at uni; student politics is a bit synthetic.
When did you first think about becoming an MP?
The 1992 election was an incredibly life-changing experience. That was a moment of utter despair for lots of Labour people. After coming through the election, as we were picking ourselves up the next morning, I decided I wanted to dedicate myself to politics. But I came from a very mickey-taking culture. You didn’t say anything too ambitious out loud because you'd get knocked back down. So I was hesitant to make that commitment. It was only after I came and worked in Westminster as special adviser to Chris Smith – I was 28 or 29 – that I said: 'Right, I want to be an MP and I’m going to try to find a seat.'
From that period, from special adviser to now, how do you think your own politics has changed?
They haven't much, if I’m honest. I was a strong believer in what New Labour was doing in the early years, and still am. We had clarity then in what we were saying, and talking to people who should always have voted Labour. Tony finally got through to them. That positioned Labour where I thought we really should have been, locked onto the concerns of ordinary people.
But, even in government, I was never in the eye-watering vanguard of New Labour. If you’d followed what I said on football down the years, I had an old Labour approach, but was constantly presenting a different narrative and critique of the game. I was 'New Labour' in outlook, but had a sense of the party’s traditions, roots and collective principles. I’ve never really changed from that.
Do your family and friends back home think you’ve become a southerner?
Some do, but I know many think I’ve becoming a professional northerner!
You’ve kept the accent, and you’re clearly of the north, but if you spend a long time away from where you grew up, you become ‘southern-ised’ – you don’t get any of that?
A bit. I get it from my brothers a lot: ‘You’ve been in London too long!’ I’m very struck by the big north-south divide. I regret that we said in government that it doesn’t really exist any more. It does.
In what way? How does it manifest to you?
Life's very different, in terms of the opportunities, what it may offer young people I meet in my constituency and London. The physical environment is different.
I’m always working hard to raise aspirations and ambitions. That’s why I’m worried about some of the things Michael Gove and the government are doing. It'll hit constituencies like mine very hard.
But I don’t want to present the north-south divide as the big issue in politics. One of the biggest revelations and issues that kept coming up everywhere during the Labour leadership contest was housing. Going forward, Labour needs to be speaking to people in both parts of the country.
The people Blair got to vote for Labour – many of whom voted for Thatcher in 1979 – are the ones Labour lost at the last election. How do you appeal to them now?
Some looking at the current government have already decided it's not doing a good job. There was some evidence of switch-back, but not enough, at the local elections. A buzzword at the moment, the flank they’ve already left [unguarded], is aspiration. It’s a key thing, [as discussed in] Giles Radice’s Southern Discomfort pamphlet. Politicians showing they're on the side of people who want to get on, who want their children to do better than they did.
Labour commissioned the Browne report, which said there should be no limits on university fees. Are we to believe that Labour wouldn’t have done something similar to the coalition?
They clearly gave steers to Browne that led him to change the overall thrust of his report.
That’s a serious accusation.
I had no evidence, but it looked like it. He started looking at universities in the light of back-filling a budget that had been cut. I’m not saying he was pressurised, but the issues he was looking at were changing with the new government. We wouldn’t have cut the teaching budget by 80 per cent, or introduced a system where some degrees were fully privately funded. We would have kept the principle of a partnership, the state place or the individual place, and we broadly would have stuck to that.
But the drop-out rate in some universities is much too high. In some places it's a quarter in the first year. Those students shouldn’t have gone at all. Haven't we got out of kilter with the level of university entry?
Young people are going to change jobs more often than you and I would have expected when we went to university. They have to be all-rounders, self-starters, resourceful, creative thinkers. A university education is a good preparation for that.
It’s time to do a much better job for the 50 per cent who are unlikely to go. Demos calls them the ‘forgotten half’. I’ve made this a theme since I took on the job. We need to talk more about them. Could they first go into the workplace, learn an apprenticeship, then go to university in later life?
Part of the problem was converting the old polytechnics into universities, which are seen as being not as good as the older ones. How do you change that perception?
I was uncomfortable that the Wolf report played into the media myth that a vast number of vocational degrees are worthless, or that any degree outside of the Russell Group is a valueless, Mickey Mouse degree. Some of the courses at the new universities are sought-after and have more application to the world of work.
One of my big criticisms of Gove is that the English Baccalaureate is, basically, the requirement of the Russell Group being applied to schools. It says very little to the young people who want to do a more vocationally-focused course.
What kind of relationship do you have with Michael Gove? He seems difficult to dislike, but, if you shadow people, there should be a bit of edge.
Even Ed Balls rather likes him.
We’re very different. I admire his oratory in Parliament, but I worry about his elitist instincts… he’s got a plan for some schools and some children, not for all. And he’s doing things at a reckless, almost dangerous speed. He’s breaking things, and I’m worried what might get lost in the process.
Blair admits he didn’t do things quickly enough. Much of the analysis of the coalition's first year talks about them hitting the ground running, that they did more than Blair did even in his first three or four years.
Reforming public services is complicated and challenging. There’s nothing like getting on with it. But not piloting anything is problematic, never having evidence to justify anything, never consulting on anything. The baccalaureate, for instance, has been applied retrospectively – it’s a badly thought-through, damaging reform. In opposition, Gove promised freedom, autonomy and choice, but the baccalaureate is much more top-down, more narrow and more prescriptive than we ever were.
Because local authorities are hollowed-out, the services central to any school system – school improvement, behavioural support, specialist provision, speech and language therapy – are basically being dismantled.
They seem to being doing something about a big bugbear of mine: language teaching. It was taken out of the national curriculum for GCSEs in 2004 and since then French and German have seen a massive decline.
Languages are important. While I value them, I struggle with the choice that says Latin or French is more important than business studies or ICT. Families and students should be making these judgments, not politicians. Do they really believe in student-parent choice?
Kids are beginning to make more hard-headed assessments of what they might do, and how they might prepare for it. In parts of my constituency they struggle to see the relevance of learning French or Spanish. They’re not going to go on holiday there, they don’t want to work there… they're being very rational when they argue that a language wouldn't necessarily place them in the strongest position when entering the workforce. While I agree with you in principle, student choice is really important.
And where is creativity in the Gove view of the world? Some – and I'd include my daughter – are clearly inclined to creative subjects such as drama, dance, the arts. For these not to feature at all in the baccalaureate is unjustifiable; you need a flexible system with breadth that allows you to connect with all children, whatever their enthusiasms or passions.
Looking back, would you have done something other than politics? Would it have broadened your outlook?
Probably. It puts you in a stronger position. But conversely, politics is a younger person's game now. People’s expectations of what you might do, your energy levels, are pretty high.
But isn’t that only the case here? In America, France and Germany, if you’re 50, that’s when you start getting involved. Here, if you’re not in Parliament by your early 40s, forget it. It’s madness.
You’re right. When we went to various parliaments as backbenchers, I was struck that in the Spanish and German chambers there were many younger MPs. There’s an increasing trend in politics, as turnouts decrease and predominantly older people vote, to focus on older people’s issues. At the last election, the promises were nailed down on older people’s benefits, such as bus passes, TV licences, winter fuel – although they’ve rolled back on some of those.
When James Purnell quit, did that make you sit down and think?
I agree with Purnell that Parliament isn't the be-all and end-all, but I’m Labour to the core, and want to help with the difficult bit. I’m not saying he didn’t, but we now have the difficult job of rebuilding the party, and I want to be part of that. I want desperately for my constituency, when I hand it over, to be a solid Labour seat.
You talk far more about your constituency than anyone else I’ve interviewed.
I represent where I grew up, and it gives you a different sense of connection with the place.
Why did you stand for the leadership?
Because I wanted to win. I thought I could win.
I'd thought that David Miliband and Ed Miliband would stand, and that there might be space for someone to come through. I believed I had something different to say and offer, and that would give me a reasonable chance. The day Ed Miliband said he was going to run, I thought: 'That’s my space gone.' But it was empowering to go forward. It was rejuvenating to be able to say, in my own words, what I wanted to say. My party is second only to family, and I wanted to be a part of who we are, what we're about. It was important for a different voice to be in the leadership contest.
Who did you give your second and third preferences to?
David and Ed Miliband, respectively.
There isn't going to be another contest for a while, but presumably if there were, you’d want another go at it?
I’m 100 per cent loyal to Ed. I had my go, and was incredibly pleased with how many ordinary party members gave me their support. I’m not plotting away. Opposition is a hard job, but I want to be part of the team. I can hold my head up and say I'm a party team player.
I don’t remember you being fingered in the papers during the Brown-Blair years.
I wasn’t, and proud of it. I was equally loyal to Blair and Brown latterly. On the day of the ‘Snow Coup’, you’ll find, as Peter Mandelson’s book recounts, I was the first out to voice my support.
It must be true, then…
I’m a big believer in conducting politics along football principles. Say what you want there, but when you’re in public, you back each other up and debate your differences behind closed doors. In the latter days of our government, it worried me that so many didn’t see it that way. They were running factional or personal agendas, gobbing off to the media and not thinking anything of it.
When I told people I was interviewing you, all of them wanted me to ask about how the media cover your appearance and your eyelashes.
I don’t bother with it.
Image is important in politics: you’re more likely to be successful if you look the part.
They imply that I don’t. Dough-eyed, with slightly… I don’t bother that much about it. The make-up thing really started… again, I’ve learnt to live with it.
Ed’s right not to create a huge amount of policy from the start, but if the coalition collapsed in the next few months, and Cameron called an election, it would be a difficult position for the Labour Party.
Not necessarily. You might not have seen how much work we’ve done on the Labour policy review. I’ve been doing the schools policy review, and after quite a few meetings, I’m getting clearer about what [to do]… People are starting to judge our record in a different way, as they see this government in action.
As general election co-ordinator I don’t fear an early election. We’ve gained over 50,000 new members since the general election, including new blood, young people who are very enthusiastic. We’ve had a real grassroots renaissance in the last year. We'd be ready.
But you couldn’t have expected the Conservatives to get as many councillors as they did in the last election.
We didn’t fully anticipate how the collapse in Lib Dem votes in some areas would put the Conservatives in. But we won where we needed to win, and got more councillors than we were hoping for or expecting. In Lincoln, we won back a lot of seats and gained control of the council.
North Warwickshire, Gravesham, Ipswich, Swindon, Warrington South, Blackpool: these were places where the arithmetic said we couldn’t win back councils. We made big gains a year after losing a general election.
Free schools: totally against or not?
In a speech to headteachers in March, I said it was possible for an academy or free school to be truly comprehensive. This government is saying that there's only one model for new schools. It's not letting communities create other kinds of schools.
Inevitably, some will [work within the] opportunities and create schools that would be truly comprehensive, with a broad, balanced curriculum. They'd have a fair admissions policy. They'd employ qualified, not unqualified, teachers, even though Gove has given them that power. They'd follow the national curriculum, even though they don't have to. It’s possible for a free school or academy to be set up in a way that we'd support. On a national level, the government’s drive towards a competitive, divided, atomised education system will cause long-term damage.
It was your government that set up academies.
That was a largely-successful policy that targeted failing or underperforming schools. It’s very different from an all-academy world that bypasses the local authority.
The government seeks to portray itself as continuing our – or the Blairite – ethos, but it's doing something very different. Blair said if you give more autonomy to schools, which in general is a good thing, you must also empower the public.
But surely giving parents the power to create schools is the ultimate empowerment?
But the gateway has been narrowed, so it’s even less likely, and unrealistic, that parents will do so. Most parents just need to be protected on a daily basis.
It's worrying when the schools adjudicator speaks of the weakening of the schools admissions system. The government is presiding over provider-led reforms, in health and education, and the public voice is being weakened.
And the way money is being showered on free schools and academies is outrageous. It’s an unfair, unequal approach to resource allocation. I have one new free school in my constituency, and one of my other schools has a roof falling in – what will they think when they see Gove giving £8m or £9m to the school down the road?
What are you reading at the moment?
The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.
Who’s your political hero?
Andrew Lansley – I’ll never forget what he did over care for the elderly.
Last film at the cinema?
Most embarrassing song on your iPod?
1984 Everton Cup Squad song: Here We Go.
Your best Everton moment?
1984 semi-final, Highbury. We scored in extra-time against Southampton and I invaded the pitch.
Looking out across Goodison.
San Miguel beer.
Fish, chips and gravy.
Opposition politician you most respect?
Charles Kennedy; a very decent person.