This article is from the April issue of Total Politics

For political anoraks of all stripes, Stephen Twigg stands at a pivotal point in British political history. It was 2 May 1997, 3.10am. Were you up for Portillo? Millions still were – celebrating or commiserating – and everyone was shocked. No one more so than the man himself. The image of him looking slightly overwhelmed on the stage at Pickett’s Lock Leisure Centre early that morning. The small ripple of laughter as the returning officer reveals that Michael Portillo’s middle name is Xavier. And then the result: the cheer, the beam growing brighter, Twigg telling the assembled audience that “there is no such thing as a no-go area for the Labour Party”. Portillo’s magnanimous speech. And the knowledge that Labour had emerged from the wilderness – a place with which the Tories were about to become intimately acquainted.

It’s a scene etched on the collective memory of the British body politic, so I didn’t need to watch it again. But I did. Twice. I couldn’t help myself.

The topic stalks Twigg wherever he goes. It’s often the first thing that strangers want to talk to him about, but he wears it lightly, and is happy to reminisce when we meet in his anonymous but friendly Westminster office. “I didn’t think it was going to happen,” he confides.

A week beforehand there had been a poll that gave him hope. He recalls: “I remember a friend of mine was working on one of the Sunday morning political shows, and rang me late Saturday night and said, ‘There’s a poll out tomorrow showing that Portillo is four per cent ahead of you’… that put quite a lot of attention on us, so we produced a little leaflet that we got out, eventually, I think, across the whole constituency. It simply reproduced the poll as a bar graph, and stated: ‘In Enfield Southgate if you want to get rid of Portillo only a Labour vote will count’ – a classic Lib Dem squeeze message – and people turned up to help from all over the country. They asked, ‘Where’s your HQ?’ And we had to invent an HQ in my organiser’s front room.”

Those supporters who came from far and wide included two brothers who he would later get to know far better – the Milibands. “Both Ed and David Miliband separately came and helped. I remember one of them coming back from leafleting, saying, ‘There’s no way you’ll win this; the houses are far too big’.” I’m amused that Twigg says he doesn’t remember which brother said it. Perhaps he’d prefer not to reveal which of the two was lacking in ambition back then.

And what of the Milibands now? Twigg backed David for the Labour leadership, but his star has risen markedly during the leadership of the younger brother. Having failed to secure election to the shadow cabinet in late 2010, Miliband asked him to join the shadow foreign affairs team. Then, a year later, he was – perhaps surprisingly – promoted to the role of shadow education secretary. Twigg believes there’s not as much difference between the two brothers as we are often led to believe. “The policy and philosophical differences are often overstated between the two of them, and there are choices and decisions they both have in this next period that are way above my pay-grade in opposition, but I have great respect for the way Ed is conducting his leadership, and working with him is a real pleasure.”

Above his pay-grade such decisions may be, but Twigg still has a preference, and one shared by many within the Parliamentary Labour Party: he wants to see the elder Miliband back. “David is a big talent,” he confides. “If there’s a way in which we can have, under Ed’s leadership, David back in a role, that would be great.”

For now though, Miliband the Elder is on a self-inflicted sabbatical in the political wilderness. That’s a place Twigg knows more than a little about, having lost his seat in 2005 – a loss that clearly affected him. “It came as a big shock to the system when I lost. It was my home area, I lived in the constituency. It felt quite personal, even though I knew, objectively, that the reasons I’d lost were mostly to do with policy and national issues. But when you’ve done the job for ages… It did feel personal.”

For the briefest of moments the otherwise upbeat interviewee stops smiling, and I’m acutely aware of how swiftly in politics you can lose everything you’ve worked for. Then again, speaking to Labour MPs who served from 2005 to 2010, it’s clear that it wasn’t exactly enjoyable to be part of the slow, lingering death of a Labour government. “It didn’t feel like that in May 2005,” says Twigg.

The election which saw him lose his Enfield seat alongside dozens of other Labour colleagues was the beginning of the end for the Labour leader with whom Twigg is most often associated – Tony Blair. Twigg is often labelled a ‘Blairite’, but as is frequently the case with those to whom labels are attached, he doesn’t much care for it. In particular, unlike many on his wing of the party, he avoids using the term ‘New Labour’.

“The trouble is, between 1994-97, the term ‘New Labour’ had a meaning that was to do with the changes that Blair and Gordon Brown were making in that period. When you’ve been in power with that title for 13 years, you’re no longer new, and people will associate the term then with any particular thing that happened in that period that they didn’t like. So I don’t use the term now.”

If Twigg isn’t New Labour, what is he? He likes the words “progressive” and “moderniser”, although he admits that he gets attacked for using them. Recently, in a debate at Liverpool University, former Labour MP Peter Kilfoyle took apart “moderniser” before Twigg had a chance to use the word. He settles on “a social democrat who is a moderniser”. I’m too polite to point out that most of the modern Labour Party could describe themselves that way. It’s studiously uncontroversial, unlike many of Twigg’s public pronouncements.

So, what would a social democrat who is a moderniser expect Labour to do if the party was in power today? Twigg sticks to his own policy area. “If we were in power, we wouldn’t have cut capital spending by as much, and we wouldn’t be saying the priority for extra spending is free schools.”

Aha. Free schools. He chuckles as I turn the conversation towards them. You get the impression he saw this one coming. Some in the party denote a blotch on Twigg’s record as shadow education secretary, thanks to an interview (just 24 hours into his shadow cabinet stint) with the Liverpool Daily Post. In it, Twigg was quoted as saying: “No politician should be against such schools.” The reaction spread like wildfire. Sections of the party lashed out at him. He was attacked for “capitulation”, and left-wing author Owen Jones wrote of “Twigg’s surrender”. He’d certainly got himself noticed.

Later, Twigg clarified his position: “It’s not about being against free schools. We wouldn’t have introduced them in the way the government has done, but most of these schools will succeed and we’re not going to be in the business of closing down successful establishments.”

He seems – unsurprisingly – disappointed with how his comments were – also unsurprisingly – presented by the Liverpool Daily Post, although it surely wasn’t the naïve error of an incoming shadow cabinet member. Twigg is too experienced for that. He was quite clearly putting down an early marker of his intentions.

It’s not something he’s going to row back from, either. He’s already been clear that Labour won’t be seeking to close free schools if they take power in 2015, but he refuses to be drawn on whether Labour would advocate opening more. Although he accepts that “there are obviously a number of concerns that are widely shared about free schools”, he’s equally keen to stress that “you can’t have a blank approach of saying, ‘they’re all terrible’ or ‘they’re all great’. You’ve got to judge on need, you’ve got to judge on whether they’re serving the community.”

Twigg is perhaps a free schools agnostic, then, but his agnosticism seems rooted in something deeper, and something which (again) is likely to aggrieve many Labour members for whom state provision of schools is sacrosanct. “Where I suppose I have a philosophical disagreement with some in the party and on the broader left is that I don’t think it has to be the state that directly provides the schools.” ‘Provides’? The term smacks of Andrew Lansley and “any willing provider”. But how far would he go with non-state involvement in schools? Would he allow schools to be profit-making?

The answer is an emphatic, repeated and re-inforced “no”, although he suggests that the Tories might not feel the same way. “I worry that there’s a sort of slow move towards for profit… It wouldn’t surprise me to see a commitment in the next Tory manifesto to allow profit-making by schools. I don’t want our system to go down that route. It’s totally unacceptable.”

Yet Twigg is keen to talk up the positive impact of the private sector in education, in particular the JCB Academy in Stoke, which he visited a few weeks ago. He is enthused by what they’re doing. “They’re about improving the quality of practical and vocational education, which for me is a really high priority. If by private we mean closer working between schools and the world of work that includes private industry, that’s a positive thing, and we should encourage more of it.”

So that’s what the future holds for Twigg: shadow education secretary, perhaps future education secretary. Challenging the Labour Party. Pleasing some, upsetting others. But before I leave, I have to ask him one more question about the past. Whenever Labour people talk about Twigg it always seems to come up – why doesn’t he look any older than he did back in May 1997? Does he have some kind of hideous, Dorian Gray-esque painting in his attic? Cue guffaws of baffled and embarrassed laughter. “I’m probably three stone heavier, so maybe that hasn’t aged me too much. It was very funny – actually, this is seriously true… in Liverpool during the election I had several people ask why I coloured my hair?  But I don’t, never have and never would, so it’s a very flattering comment.”

Flattered. It’s a strange note on which to end our interview. I certainly hadn’t intended to flatter Twigg. I hadn’t expected to be quite so charmed by him, either. I expected an ideologue, an outrider, someone who would rile and contest. Instead, I found someone eminently reasonable – even when you disagree with him. Love him or loathe him, you’ll probably at least like him. And that’s a potent weapon for a politician to have in their arsenal.

Twigg’s been away from the dirty world of Westminster politics and he’s come back for more, except this time he doesn’t look like someone who’s leaving anytime soon. Yet somehow, after nearly 20 years in politics, he still looks like a boy.

Stephen Twigg – the comeback kid. It has a ring to it, doesn’t it?

Mark Ferguson is the editor of LabourList

Tags: Education, Free schools, Issue 46, Labour Party, Michael Portillo, Stephen Twigg