The thing about being one of the original “Blair Babes” is that it dates you.
Not only was Caroline Flint one of the class of ’97, taking her parliamentary seat when New Labour claimed victory with a record number of women MPs, she also proposed to her husband, Phil, using that antique mode of communication, a fax. Try explaining that to Labour’s young crop of new female MPs on 7 May. Maybe some of them will help to resuscitate the Division Belles, the tap-dancing troupe that Flint founded, which fell quiet when several members lost their seat in 2010.
What the shadow Energy Secretary claims to have gained from 18 years in Westminster – and 36 years as a member of the Labour party – is some perspective.
“I have seen what it is like when the party tears itself into two and three and four and what have you,” she says, sitting in a Portcullis House meeting room. “Ed [Miliband] has brought the party together and I think he should take credit for what he has achieved.”
Come 8 May, here is the woman who might get the chance to cause havoc for British Gas and its rivals. Tackling the energy providers has become a hallmark Labour strategy, which proves that Flint, 53, who stormed out of Gordon Brown’s Cabinet accusing him of using women for “window dressing”, is now known at least as much for her policies as for the photo shoots and outfits that have created tabloid headlines in the past. But before she can get her teeth into the Big Six, she first wants to hit back at the boss’s critics.
“There have been some pretty horrendous personal attacks on Ed which I think have been unfair. We are in touching distance of winning this election because of Ed, not in spite of Ed,” she says.
Regardless of whether Mr Miliband has been caught out by one bacon sandwich or two kitchens, Labour’s support has been steady in the polls.
“We have all been there with photos,” Flint adds. “Photographers take a thousand photos and pick out the one where you look absolutely the worst. That is the name of the game. It has happened to me.”
The Conservatives will try to frame the next six weeks around their stewardship of the economy, but where Labour has a chance is appealing to voters who still feel worse off, whatever the Chancellor’s Budget numbers say.
“When I go out on the doorstep, it is amazing how many people volunteer energy bills as part of their concerns,” Flint says. “The facts speak for themselves: energy bills have gone up four times faster than wages, twice the rate of inflation, and for a lot of people it is really serious in terms of choosing whether to heat the home or eat.”
She rejects claims that Mr Miliband’s promise to freeze prices as soon as Labour takes office put off some energy suppliers from cutting prices as wholesale costs fell – as well as breeding fears that a Labour government would be distinctly anti-business.
Now, on top of a freeze until 2017, Labour will give the energy regulator, Ofgem, additional powers to force through cuts in annual fuel bills before winter, to separate retail and generation assets, and to shake-up electricity-trading rules. Soon after, Ofgem will be replaced with a new body.
“There has been such a falling in confidence in the energy sector and the regulator over the last five years that I think to go forward with confidence people have to have a real sense that things are going to be different – a different regulator with a different sense of purpose,” Flint says.
Meanwhile, the Coalition has asked the Competition and Markets Authority to investigate the energy market, a route Flint says was a method of catching up on the issue.
“I don’t think we would have been having the Government call on the CMA unless Labour hadn’t pushed on an area of debate they were sadly lacking to respond to.”
Energy and climate change is not the first brief Ms Flint has got to grips with. She was shuffled across from communities and local government in 2011 and served as minister for public health, employment and housing in the last government.
She quit as Europe minister when Gordon Brown’s premiership was hanging by a thread, claiming that “several of the women attending Cabinet, myself included, have been treated by you as little more than female window dressing”.
Mr Miliband’s leadership swiftly brought her back into the fold. The Electoral Reform Society predicts Labour will end up with 114 female MPs this time, almost twice as many as the Tories’ forecast 59.
“In 1997, half of our target seats were women-only shortlists. I am very proud of that policy. I happen to have been selected on an open list but the truth is I think we had to make a change (rather than) carrying on talking about it year in, year out. That was a major leap forward.”
This time around, there are even more women selected in key seats. Where a Labour MP is retiring, two-thirds are women, she says. That means equality is close: “We are heading to a parliamentary Labour party that is practically there, at 50 per cent.”
When Flint was selected for the Don Valley seat, the voting system of “one member, one vote” had just been introduced. She was the first woman to represent the constituency and the first local MP not linked to the coal-mining industry. Trying to pull the wool over her no-nonsense constituents was never going to work, so the first line of her election brochure said something like: “I am not going to kid you I’m from South Yorkshire: I’m not.” In the time she spent knocking on doors, Ms Flint developed a soft spot for Morrisons’ all-day breakfasts.
These days she fits in to the extent that people in the street misremember being in the same class as her, or think they went to nightclubs with her as teenagers. “A guy has been going around one of the bingo halls claiming he is my brother and things like that. I take it as a compliment in a way.”
In fact she was born in London, in a home for unmarried mothers near Regent’s Park, but spent her early years in Twickenham, south-west London, where her grandparents ran a pub. After they gave it up, they took on a newsagents’ shop in Wandsworth, where she would be perched at the counter on a stool. “My job was to make sure that nobody nicked the penny sweets,” she says.
Her grandparents were a big influence as she grew up because her mum struggled with alcoholism and died when Flint was 28.
By then, Ms Flint had already met her first husband, a Tunisian stock trader, with whom she had two children and raised them alone when they divorced. She juggled jobs at Lambeth Council and the GMB union that propelled her closer to frontline politics.
Now she is there, in addition to reforming the energy market, she would put a decarbonisation target for 2030 in place some time next year to encourage the greening of supply.
“I like to see things through,” she says. “I am quite a practical person.”
The CV: Caroline Flint
Education: Twickenham Girls School and Richmond Tertiary College. BA (Hons) in American Literature and History from University of East Anglia.
Career: Began work in 1984 as a management trainee at the Inner London Education Authority, later becoming a policy officer. Equal opportunities officer at Lambeth Council from 1989. Joined the GMB union in 1994 as senior researcher. Elected as MP for Don Valley in 1997. Minister for public health, employment, housing, Europe and then shadow minister for communities and local government, and energy and climate change.
Personal: Lives in Doncaster with second husband Phil, a former Labour Party regional officer. She has three children: stepson Nick, 29, Karim, 28 and Hanna, 26.
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