The shadow minister for apprenticeships and lifelong learning explains his unconventional route to the front bench to Jess Staufenberg
Toby Perkins, shadow minister for apprenticeships and lifelong learning, comes into focus on my screen with a huge, unidentifiable flag behind him. I know the Yorkshire flag, but apparently I don’t know the Derbyshire flag, which the county, not to be outdone by its neighbour and cricketing rival, had specially designed some years back.
When Perkins also tells me, with his ruddy cheeks and a big grin, that “Derbyshire Food Day” is also a great parliamentary event, I anticipate an interview with a man strongly proud of his northern roots. But he has just the gentlest Sheffield twang, and, it turns out, is perhaps prouder of his own personal path than his geographic roots.
An A-levels drop-out, he has taken a road not entirely expected by his university academic parents, and as a small business owner and former recruitment consultant, is also perhaps not the usual shoe-in for the Labour Party either. If Starmer wins in 2024, and Perkins keeps his post, this will be the man pushing policy for FE.
The past decade must have been a curious ride for the Chesterfield MP before Starmer’s arrival. He supported, successively, centrist candidates David Miliband, Liz Kendall and Owen Smith in each of the leadership contests, at a time when the party was moving closer to its left wing. But Perkins clearly has a pragmatic streak and, like his colleague in the shadow education team Emma Hardy (who largely handles the higher education brief), seems mainly committed to “Team Labour” and whatever it takes to win an election. He spent only three months on the backbenches as a new MP in 2010 before serving on the front bench under Ed Miliband, and then took the defence brief under Jeremy Corbyn and later offered to serve him again in 2017 having backed his challenger. With Starmer now steering the party back towards the centre, one can imagine that Perkins’ time has maybe come.
His current further education brief came as a surprise to him, he says; but listening to him, there is a certain overlap of his story with that of many college leaders: sixth form didn’t fit, academia wasn’t necessarily his thing, and a training programme set him on the right path. His father worked as a film lecturer, first in FE at the now-closed Bulmershe College in Reading and then at Warwick University, and his mother lectured in sociology at the university too. After his parents split up, a 16-year-old Perkins and his mum moved to Sheffield. Thankfully, he doesn’t try to ham up any working-class roots. “I was expecting Sheffield to be this real inner-city experience and it really wasn’t. The school I was at was a middle-class school. After a few months of A-levels, I decided I didn’t want to do them and dropped out.”
Conscious of having to “explain to my grandmother at Christmas why I wasn’t in school”, he went down to the job centre and joined Margaret Thatcher’s youth training scheme which, a bit like the current Kickstart scheme, saw 16- to 25-year-olds taken on by employers for £25 a week on a six-week job placement. He took a sales role. What did his parents think?
“I think they were a bit disappointed in one regard, but in a way, this was my way of rebelling.” Unlike his parents, he was “more of a doer and a talker, than a reader and studier”. He says he supported the Labour Party in those days like he did Sheffield United – mostly around election time, cheering for his team.
A couple of life changes caused Perkins to follow politics more closely and raise his eyes towards a parliamentary seat. First, an admired boss “got me into self-improvement” through audio tapes and the like. “Positive self-enforcement, you know ̶ I like myself, I’m a good person, that kind of thing.” This included thinking about his own childhood and “the kind of parent I wanted to be”.
Parenting was soon in full swing, with Perkins a relatively young father to his son at 27 years old, and later adopting a daughter. He and his wife had tragically previously lost twins in childbirth. Feeling the family pressure to earn, Perkins had become an area manager in recruitment, overseeing 30 people, but now turned his attention to politics. His interest was particularly piqued after watching Chesterfield fall to the Liberal Democrats in 2001, following the retirement of heavyweight left-wing incumbent Tony Benn. By 2003, Perkins had bagged a seat on the council.
“I think at this point, I had half an idea of becoming an MP. I was someone from the private sector, who hadn’t been to university, hadn’t got a trade union background, hadn’t been a spad. So it was quite unusual to become an MP,” he says, following up, quite frankly, with: “So I partly thought being a councillor would be a route to becoming an MP. And I also wanted to make a local contribution.”
In the 2007 election, he watched Labour lose his constituency again by about 3,000 votes. Again speaking frankly, he observes: “My personal view was that I could do a better job of being the candidate.”
At this point Perkins set up his own business selling rugby kits (he’d always been into sport) in order to free up time for a political career. As new prime minister Gordon Brown “ummed and ahhed” about an election in 2007 – eventually deciding against – Perkins took the time to build up his local reputation ahead of the 2010 election. He managed to fight off the UKIP threat in the post-industrial, largely white town and won the seat. “Labour lost 80 seats that day, and I was one of the very few that turned the tide! On arriving in parliament, I came in very much thinking, ‘No one has given me this on a plate, I’ve earned it.’ I went in with confidence.”
His very first role was in the education team as shadow children’s minister overseeing social care and youth services under shadow education minister Andy Burnham. “I hadn’t necessarily asked for the education brief and at first it seemed like a square peg in a round hole. But I actually found I knew a lot more than I realised, especially as an adoptive parent.” When he was later moved into the business team, he found the opposite was true: “I thought I’d know a lot and found there was a huge amount I didn’t.”
Since then, Remain-supporting Perkins has witnessed the rise and fall of Corbyn, whose leadership he says he was “deeply concerned” by. But again with surprising frankness, he admits to admiring the support the left-wing leader inspired among many. “You couldn’t dismiss the fact he generated a huge amount of enthusiasm. So I thought, maybe there’s something in this that could lead the party, and I decided to be on his front bench when a lot of my colleagues chose not to.”
I decided to be on Corbyn’s front bench when a lot of my colleagues chose not to
Perhaps it is this flexible (as well as ambitious) nature that explains why Perkins is damning of his experience with Corbyn in 2017 after he’d backed Smith in the leadership challenge the year before. “There was a moment there where he could have chosen to be the bigger man […] I went to see him straight after the election and offered my services, but he didn’t take that approach. I think the approach he took was to double down on seizing control of the party. It was unnecessary.” The splits in the party continue to rumble on, with Corbyn-supporting members of Labour’s governing body staging a mass walkout of a Zoom meeting just this week. One can imagine Perkins has little time for it.
Not that Perkins has never been involved in conflict and controversy himself: just this year he apologised after his campaign materials said he was “disgusted” that traveller communities were “extorting” thousands of pounds in illegal camps. He had also previously said he wouldn’t want travellers living near him – and has since said sorry for his “inappropriate” and “careless” language.
We move on instead to what he would do in Gillian Keegan’s shoes, rattling off a list of policy priorities; focusing on massively expanding apprenticeships instead of its “poorer cousin” the Kickstart scheme; a “huge renewed investment in adult education and the value of careers guidance”; and, inspired by his old boss Burnham in Manchester, “a greater recognition of the role devolution can play”.
Meanwhile, he supports T Levels in principle but accuses the government of being “complacent” about whether they are a path to university. “There’s a real danger here the government has got a new toy and will spend a huge amount of time on something that will have microscopic take-up. Almost certainly if T Levels are a success, they won’t look like they do now.”
There’s something about Perkins that almost reminds me of education select committee chair Robert Halfon: certain of his own mind but not overly dogmatic, committed to helping individuals, and really most comfortable in the centre of their respective parties. One could even imagine Perkins in the committee chair role, if Halfon ever relinquishes the reins.
Only at the end of our chat does Perkins return me with a sudden passion to his roots. “Perhaps unlike many in politics, having been a 17-year-old on £25 a week, I know what it’s like to be the lowest of the low in a company, and be a nobody. I know what it’s like to go to the ATM and wonder if it’s going to be able to give you any money, or run your own business and have any food tomorrow […] A lot of the people I meet in politics did great at school and got great university degrees, they were important from the moment they left university, or even important when they were at university. This is an entirely different perspective on life.”
If there was an FE flag, I’m pretty sure Perkins would have it on his wall. Perhaps he’ll have one by 2024.