“We’ve had 12 years of a Conservative government who, quite frankly, are failing the people of this country on so many levels,” Paula Barker tells me when we meet for a coffee this week. “But, in terms of housing, they are failing absolutely catastrophically.” The government announced on Monday that it plans to water down mandatory housebuilding targets in the face of a widespread backbench rebellion. Targets will become a “starting point”, with councils able to propose building fewer homes if they face “genuine constraints”.
“It’s absolutely shameful,” the MP for Liverpool Wavertree says, noting that Labour had offered to back the government in a vote on the targets, which would have offset Tory opposition to the plans. “It’s a shame to say that they’re listening to government backbenchers rather than listening to the people of this country who so desperately need decent quality, affordable homes.”
Barker joined the Labour housing team back in October as shadow minister for homelessness and rough sleeping. We meet just after she has taken part in a roundtable with key stakeholders working in the sector. “I wanted to listen to their experiences,” she explains. “What they can tell me to inform my decision-making going forward.”
The cost-of-living crisis was a key theme of the discussion. Barker highlights how local housing allowance has failed to keep pace with the rising rate of inflation. “It’s not bridging that gap now in terms of [people’s] rent, so we’re seeing families who just can’t make ends meet and are now becoming homeless.” She tells me section 21 evictions were also raised as a “major concern”.
Her main takeaway seems to have been the need to take a “holistic approach” to addressing homelessness. “We need a strategy for homelessness as a whole. And it’s quite clear to me that a lot of this is going to require cross-departmental working.” Issues relating to local housing allowance, for example, will require input from the shadow work and pensions team, while shadow Home Office colleagues will contribute to discussions centring on domestic violence and immigration. “This is an enormous challenge for any government,” she says. “But it’s a challenge that I want to ensure that the Labour government rise to and make sure that we get it right.”
“The Tory government’s ambitions are limited. I think they talk a really good talk about ending rough sleeping by the end of the parliament. But they’ve talked a good talk on a lot of things and that is yet to be seen.” She cites research from the homelessness charity Crisis that estimated that 300,000 households could become homeless in the next year without a change in government policy. “It doesn’t have to be this way. And under a Labour government, I have every faith that it won’t be.”
Barker has drawn attention to the heightened risk of homelessness for those living in the private rented sector. “I think we’ve got to look at reform of the sector as a whole potentially,” she tells me when I ask how Labour would look to protect renters, though she stresses that exact policy ideas are yet to be discussed. “All those policy ideas will be starting to take shape early in the new year,” she explains. Asked specifically whether Labour is considering a system of rent caps or a rent freeze, Barker tells me she is “not averse to talking about that”, though she notes: “We haven’t had that dialogue yet.”
Though still new to the brief, Barker’s enthusiasm for her role is evident. “I’d probably say the [Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities] team is my natural home, because I’ve got 30-plus years local government experience.” Prior to her election to parliament in 2019, Barker worked in various roles within local government and public services across the Liverpool City Region. It is an area that she is “really passionate” about, she tells me – something she feels she shares with her colleagues. “It’s a team that’s really passionate and really wants to make a difference. And I know that drives us all forward every single day.”
Barker – then a parliamentary private secretary to John Healey – was pictured on a picket line in June alongside other Labour MPs. Several fellow frontbenchers appeared on picket lines over the summer, including Sam Tarry, who was sacked as a transport minister after he joined striking RMT members back in July. When I ask about the decision to sack Tarry, Barker describes it as an “internal party matter”, adding: “I wouldn’t comment.”
“This is not a subject that is about the Labour Party. This is about our workers in struggle. And that’s what the story should be about,” she argues. “One of the things that we’ve got to put the focus back on is a Tory government who have decimated our communities and our public services for 12 years. 12 long years. This is also a party that could make sure that our workers are protected and looked after rather than losing billions on failed track and trace contracts, failed PPE contracts, having a ‘VIP’ fast lane. If there is money to do all of that, then there is money for hard-working families.”
On Starmer and the Labour leadership, Barker tells me: “This is a time when Keir has come into his own, I think. And he’s getting on with the job at hand, and he’s looking to his frontbench to come up with those ideas that are going to change the fortunes of our communities.”
“It’s an exciting time where we’re looking to develop those policy ideas, looking to go to the country, at some point in the next 12 to 18 months,” she adds. “I’m very much looking forward to being part of that.” I ask whether there are any areas where she would like to see the party being more radical in its offer. “Labour is always better when we’re bold. And I don’t think that we should shy away from those big, bold decisions.”
Barker tells me that the next manifesto will probably be “much more focused” than at previous elections – though she is quick to add that she thinks both the 2017 and 2019 manifestos were “great”. “We’ve just got to make sure that we are focused. We look at the job in hand, we look what we’re going to do,” she tells me. “But one of the things that I will be saying is, we are always better when we are bold and we give the electorate something to really hang their hat on and provide hope. Because without hope, we have nothing.”