By Matt Foster

06 Jun 2016

This time last year, Louise Haigh had only just become an MP. Now she’s Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow Cabinet Office minister, holding the government to account on civil service issues – and making her voice heard on Whitehall’s diversity record. Matt Foster meets her

It has, Louise Haigh admits, been “a very steep learning curve”.  

Just over a year ago, the 28-year-old shadow civil service minister was one of many fresh-faced candidates vying for a seat in parliament in an election whose outcome few dared to predict. But a mere four months after being elected Labour MP for Sheffield Heeley, Haigh found herself on the opposition frontbenches, going toe-to-toe with seasoned government ministers.

“That was very daunting and you have to learn very quickly,” she tells CSW. “There are good things about being thrown in at the deep end. It makes you take responsibility straight away. Perhaps I would have liked a little bit of a longer lead-in time, because learning to be a new MP while learning to be a shadow minister is quite a tall order. But we are where we are – and I love it.”

Haigh, born and raised in Sheffield and with a CV that includes stints as a call centre worker, a trade union rep, a researcher to Labour’s Lisa Nandy, and at City insurance firm Aviva – is currently her party’s youngest MP. And while she’s certainly no slouch – tabling a prodigious 600 written questions in the past year alone, well above the average – her rapid rise also owes something to another Labour promotion that few saw coming.

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Haigh was one of 35 MPs who nominated Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership, as the party licked its wounds after its electoral trouncing by the Tories last May. But, like London’s new mayor Sadiq Khan, Haigh says she wanted to get Corbyn’s name on the ballot paper to broaden the debate, and eventually cast her vote for Andy Burnham. Eight months into Corbyn’s reign, how does Haigh think this veteran member of the awkward squad is holding up as he tries to stamp his authority on a party against which he’s spent much of his career rebelling?

“He’s up against a lot of challenges – from the media, and from having come from being a backbencher for so long to being rocketed into a leadership position,” she says. “Anyone would find that difficult. But I think he is doing a good job mounting an opposition to this government, providing a clear alternative for the British public.”

"We shouldn’t be airing our dirty linen in public" – Haigh on anti-Corbyn Labour MPs

Haigh praises Corbyn for offering “what a lot of people have been saying they wanted in a politician for a really long time”, describing him as a “distinctive person that stands up for what they genuinely believe”. 

She acknowledges, however, that the Labour leader is still some way off leading a united opposition, and concedes that recent local election results – which saw Labour lose 18 council seats in England – “weren’t brilliant” for her party.

“We could have hoped for more,” she says. “But again, Jeremy is up against severe challenges. We did have some really good results – we had a fantastic result in London, we had a fantastic result in Bristol, we took control of a couple of councils. So, not bad – but obviously, there’s still a really long way to go.”

Meanwhile, her message to fellow Labour MPs considering a move against Corbyn is pretty clear. 

“The electorate doesn’t like divided parties,” she says. “What I’ve been trying to say to a lot of my colleagues is that legitimate grievances with Jeremy should be aired but they should be aired completely in private. We shouldn’t be airing our dirty linen in public.”

Regardless of the broader political picture, Haigh seems to be settling in for the long haul, and says the shadow Cabinet Office brief offers her a “range of really interesting policy areas” to sink her teeth into.

She has already spent much of her time holding ministers’ feet to the fire on diversity at the top of the civil service, including condemning a recent reshuffle of permanent secretaries which resulted in two fewer female departmental heads. Ensuring the civil service has women right at its apex is an issue of good governance, as well as being the right thing to do, Haigh tells CSW.

“That’s what we understood in the private sector, that diversity on board level and through the organisation isn’t just about equality. It’s about making sure you have a broad range of voices at the table so you make good decisions.”

“You are going to have to positively discriminate for women, like we do with all-women shortlists in the Labour party" – Haigh on diversity quotas

Criticism of the latest batch of perm sec appointments prompted cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood to defend the organisation’s wider progress on getting women into key roles, pointing out that women now make up nearly 40% of the Senior Civil Service (SCS) – a rise of almost 5% on 2010 levels – and up almost 25% on the mid-1990s. 

But Haigh argues that the ongoing dearth of female perm secs – as well as the complete absence of any black and minority ethnic departmental leaders – means the time is now right for more concrete measures at the top. 

“You are going to have to positively discriminate for women, like we do with all-women shortlists in the Labour party,” she says.

While Haigh is “not a fan” of diversity targets, she says quotas on interview shortlists would level the playing field when it comes to drawing up the final list of candidates for the civil service’s top jobs.

“When I was in the City, I did a lot of work on women in boards,” she says. “And there was a lot of pushback against quotas in that. But it really was the only way to focus minds and focus recruitment.”

She has no truck, either, with the view that positive discrimination runs the risk of diluting the civil service’s long-standing commitment to appointing on merit.

“Men have benefited from positive discrimination for a long time – if we’re genuine and we’re serious about tackling gender equality in any workplace, then we have to look at quotas,” she says.

It’s not just diversity that Haigh has been keeping an eye on from the Labour benches. As might be expected from a Sheffield MP, she’s also been one of the most vocal campaigners against the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ (BIS) plan to close its St Paul’s Place site in the city and relocate the office’s policy jobs to London

BIS perm sec Martin Donnelly has described the closure of the St Paul’s Place site as “the most difficult” decision of his career. And the department has argued that centralising the policy team will help it to “interact easily” and “respond rapidly and flexibly to ministers, parliament and other stakeholders”, as it searches for £350m of savings by 2020.

But Haigh says BIS has failed to provide an adequate financial justification for the move, and is scathing on the message she believes the closure sends out to the North.

“This department could have been the eyes and ears of the Northern Powerhouse, giving that regional perspective and experience,” she says. “Now we’re only going to have Whitehall advisers doing that. And this is the department that’s meant to be delivering devolution. You cannot do that effectively unless you have that knowledge and experience of the communities which you’re trying to devolve power to.”

“This department could have been the eyes and ears of the Northern Powerhouse" – Haigh on the closure of BIS Sheffield

The government’s wider estate plans, however, make clear that there is much more of this to come. The Cabinet Office wants departments to be based in fewer, larger sites, making use of shared space. With 75% of government offices earmarked for closure by 2023, isn’t there a risk – on the basis of the BIS Sheffield reaction – that local MPs end up taking a “not in my backyard” approach to an issue that doesn’t have an easy answer?

Haigh denies that MPs fighting closure plans are oblivious to the tough choices facing departmental leaders. But she says BIS’s handling of the Sheffield decision “showed real disrespect for the workforce”.

“They should be sticking to their usual processes of consultation. But having that wider debate with MPs and with communities would help. There doesn’t necessarily have to be NIMBYism around it. If we can all appreciate the cost pressures and understand that the civil service does need reform, then that should be part of a consultation. But certainly, just rocking up and announcing it – BIS has reaped the consequences of that.”

Labour has sometimes been accused of having a bit of an attention deficit when it comes to the machinery of state – indeed, the party’s 13 years in government saw 11 different occupants of the minister for the Cabinet Office post. Can Whitehall-watchers expect a bit more consistency this time around as the opposition tries to flesh out its wider policy platform?

“I hope so,” Haigh laughs. “I hope I’m staying here in this job, although it’s not necessarily up to me. I’m really passionate about this brief. I find it really fascinating. And I think the way that we run the civil service can help inform the way we run the country. 

“It’s vital getting this institution right in order to deliver our policy aims. And I think the Conservatives have always understood that. That’s why we saw secretaries of state go in in 2010 with very aggressive agendas for change, which were reacted to by various parts of the civil service. But they understood the need to reform their own departments in order to drive through their policy agendas.”

Haigh acknowledges that her party will have to develop “a proper alternative” to the government’s civil service agenda, which she argues has become too focused on “outsourcing and hollowing out”, leaving the organisation lacking “the capacity and the in-house expertise” it needs to perform effectively.

“We’d need to build that back up again, were we to come into government in 2020,” she says.

“It’s vital getting this institution right in order to deliver our policy aims. And I think the Conservatives have always understood that" – Haigh on civil service reform

Haigh also believes it’s time for a rethink on civil service pay and conditions following years of pay restraint. She is particularly critical of the Cabinet Office’s recent decision to revisit the 2010 deal struck with unions on the Civil Service Compensation Scheme.

“It was a deal that was promised would last a generation and [civil servants] have just had the rug pulled completely from under their feet,” she says. “Even aside from the ideological argument about civil servants’ pay, it’s a completely unfair and disrespectful way to treat the workforce.”

Unsurprisingly, criticism of government pay policy also features heavily at the annual conference of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, which takes place days after CSW meets Haigh, and features a fairly major policy announcement from Corbyn.

The Labour leader tells PCS delegates that he’s backing one of their long-running demands – a return to a system of national pay bargaining last seen in the mid-1990s, effectively calling time on two decades of departments setting their own pay levels for officials.

It’s a big shift for Labour, which kept delegated pay bargaining in place through 13 years in government. And it ties Haigh’s party more closely to PCS, coming on the day the union’s general secretary Mark Serwotka urges members to consider formalising ties with the Opposition.

Speaking to CSW just after Corbyn’s speech, Haigh makes it clear that the policy change has come from top of the party. “He ran it by me the day before but that’s the level of conversation we’ve had,” she says. “He’s obviously been a big supporter of PCS over the years so it will have been made in full consultation with them.”

Haigh has undoubtedly had a lot to take in in just eight months. And while being a relatively young woman in Westminster presents its own challenges – Haigh reveals that parliamentary staff have prevented her from entering the chamber on a few occasions because they “didn’t quite believe” she was an MP – she says her early fears that the Commons might still be home to “rank sexism” have proven unfounded.

These may be fractious times for Labour, but Haigh says there’s also been some “really good comradeship” in the parliamentary party, and a recognition “that it’s a particularly tough time to be a new MP”. She’s even made friends with the neighbours, Tory MPs (and fellow newbies) James Cleverly and Will Quince. “Most people in here are here for the same reason,” she says. “We just differ drastically on how we achieve it.”

But while she may be starting to settle into the groove of Westminster life, Haigh says she’s determined not to become a creature of the place.

“It’s a real cliché to say it’s a bubble. But it’s based in truth – it is a very strange atmosphere. I think the challenge is to not enjoy it too much here. I want to get home as quickly as possible. Sheffield is very much my home.” 

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