‘My mother was a lovely person; drink overwhelmed her and undermined her... I think about her every single day’
Caroline Flint tells Susannah Butter about her mum’s death from alcoholism, why she decided to become an MP and how she’s fighting to improve the lot of women.
When a man flashed Caroline Flint on the Tube, she made a “split-second decision”. “God knows why but I followed him when he got off the train at Camden and chased him down,” says the MP for Don Valley, who is 56, wears an on-brand Labour red top and has an immaculate blow-dry. “We managed to get him. Nine months later it got to court and there was another woman he’d done a similar thing to.”
There are two messages here, the first being don’t mess with Flint. The second, she says, is “that there is no right and wrong in these situations. I could easily have frozen and done nothing. What is wrong is the men doing it in the first place, whether it’s a flasher on the Tube or men harassing you at work, as with the allegations of sexual harassment at Westminster. Judgments are being made about women who felt they couldn’t do anything at the time.
“A dam has been bust. I’ve never experienced this level of discussion in my lifetime. Silence allows it to carry on so this must be a good thing.”
Whether discussing trans rights, Brexit (Flint was minister for Europe from 2008-2009) or her favourite couple on Gogglebox, Flint is “not afraid of robust points of view”. We’re in her office at Portcullis House, which is minimally decorated but for a red Keep Calm and Carry On cushion. Her husband and office manager Phil Cole makes her a milky instant coffee in a Peston on Sunday mug and she thanks him with a flash of her winning gap-toothed smile.
Flint is concerned that women are getting left behind in the trans debate, while asserting as a caveat that she “absolutely supports trans rights”. “Young women have told me that they have been in (gender-neutral) toilets and men have come in, not trans men or women but men, and been abusive and intimidating. These are everyday things, like Topshop making its changing rooms gender-neutral,” she says.
“With the best will in the world, in a changing room there are young girls wandering around in bras because it’s seen as safe. Having men there would change that. I don’t know why debate around this has become adversarial. We need to think through how to support those from the trans community but not in such a way that compromises women’s and girls’ rights.”
The other aspect is women-only services, such as domestic violence centres. “It’s important that women feel safe there. It’s difficult to judge if someone says they define themselves as a trans woman but for all intents and purposes they look and sound like a man,” she says.
“There’s also a worry when people start to impose the idea that children are acting a certain way because they don’t want to be a boy or a girl. There’s nothing wrong with a boy wanting to be a pirate one week and a princess the next.
“We need to make sure we don’t end up undoing the work to give women the space they need to be safe. There is some concern that a wider group of voices wasn’t heard on the women and equalities committee.”
She is firm about Labour not doing enough generally. “The latest polls say we’re 1% in front — we need to be a lot further ahead. Labour isn’t filling the space it should. To make a difference you must win elections.”
Would she like to be Prime Minister? “Oh gosh,” she titters. “Jeremy will be PM, and for him to do that I need to make sure I win my seat again.”
The recent bullying allegations in her party is “completely out of order”. “Some people thought that having joined because of Jeremy becoming leader meant they had the right to say things that are unacceptable.”
Theresa May, meanwhile, is losing ground fast. “When she became Prime Minister I thought we needed to be mindful of her trying to come onto Labour territory. That’s been undermined. She didn’t just lose her majority, she lost credibility and it’s been an uphill struggle since then.”
Is it significant that May, a woman, has been given the unenviable job of post-referendum clear-up? “Perhaps. I had tough jobs at the Home Office.”
Flint joined the Labour party at 17. Her family weren’t political and “my brother and sister used to think I was odd going to demos in my second-hand clothes”. Her mother, Wendy, was a typist who was 17 when she had Flint. She never knew her biological father.
Her upbringing “toughened me up”. Wendy was an alcoholic and died aged 45. “There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t see something that reminds me of her,” says Flint. “I’d have loved for my mum to see me become an MP but it wasn’t to be. You think ‘is there something else I could have done?’, but in truth there is nothing.
“My mother was a lovely person; drink overwhelmed her and undermined her. I’d get angry because this was happening to someone I loved. You don’t want to go home, you don’t want to tell your friends.”
Wendy tried to give up alcohol. “But there were times where you’d find bottles hidden in the laundry basket. She became incapable of doing things. You always worry but never think she would die. When she did fall ill it was so quick and a huge shock. Things happen in your childhood and you carry that for the rest of your life.”
Now Flint is campaigning against the low duty on white cider. “Cider is as strong as some beers but it attracts the lowest duty of any alcohol product. You can buy a three-litre bottle for £3.50 and that’s equivalent to 22 shots of vodka. Ed Miliband and I have written to Philip Hammond about it and hope to see it in the Budget on Wednesday.”
Flint herself isn’t teetotal but “the rule I’ve always had is I never drink alone”.
She decided to run as an MP in 1997 “partly because I saw a few MPs and thought I could do as good a job as them”. “Whether it’s women trying to enter male-dominated professions or get past class barriers — it’s about self-belief, especially when you don’t know anyone else with that job.”
She met Cole through the Labour Party; he is a councillor who used to work in public relations and they married in 2001.
“He can tell me things no one else would,” says Flint. “We wanted to find a way to work together, be with the kids and find balance.” They unwind by going to the cinema. Flint’s record is six films in a row, fuelled by nachos.
While she speaks forensically about more transparency for big companies and caps on energy tariffs, she enjoys extracurricular activities. She and Hazel Blears started a tap-dancing group and used to break into the basement of Portcullis House to practise. “It’s great because you can’t think about anything else when you are trying to get your footwork right.” She wistfully adds that there’s a tap class she’d like to go to if she had time.
The bell announcing that it’s time to vote interrupts us and Flint leaps up. As she darts out of the room, Cole tells me they will be there until around 10pm: “She works so hard.”