What do you think is going on right now?
What’s going on … John Woodcock was interviewed on election night – I don’t know if you saw it – and they said to him: ‘What’s just happened?’ And he said: ‘I haven’t got a clue. If you’d told me I’d survive this election, I wouldn’t have believed you, and I still can’t quite believe it now.’
I think you could feel it over the course of the election campaign, the shift that happened. Certainly, in my experience – I campaigned in eight marginals as well as in my own seat in Wigan – in the week the Tories published their manifesto you could feel change in the air. Up until that point people had been saying: ‘I’m really concerned about Labour.’ Some on policy, some on personality, some on division – a whole combination of things that had happened over the last few years had really made people who’d voted Labour all their lives really start questioning whether they were going to do it again.
Then the Tory manifesto came out and that week really did feel like something shifted. That was compounded by a whole series of miscalculations and mistakes that they made. I think it was really interesting how, because Theresa May had framed this as a presidential election, the spotlight inevitably went on to her. And there were quite a few of us in here who thought that was probably a mistake, having watched her at the despatch box over the last year, thinking she’s probably not strong enough to hold this.
As it became clearer and clearer that she wasn’t strong enough to run a presidential campaign, the Tory campaign got nastier and nastier, and much more vicious – and particularly very personal about Jeremy. In the face of that, his natural instinct to respond in a very dignified way, and to rise above it, became a real strength for the Labour Party. That’s the moment when you could sort of feel the thing start to cross over, and feel people start to move back to Labour who’d previously been moving in the other direction.
It was exciting, and I think politics has felt very stuck for a long time. I’ve been in parliament for seven years and at times it’s felt so constrained that it’s claustrophobic. You feel you can’t breathe. The rules of the game were set 20 years ago. There are a whole series of assumptions that were made before that I think this election has busted wide open: that young people don’t vote; that any one person or political party is completely unelectable. I think that’s gone now. I think people have realised that the public don’t respond well to arrogance and assumption.
This election felt a lot, to me, like the members of the public saying: ‘Well, we decide actually who’s electable and who’s not electable. You don’t get to tell us.’ That felt very exciting.
I think the media is now much more diverse and there are lots of different sources of news that people can choose from, and so the power of a small handful of publications has been diluted. I think we saw the impact of that too. Also, one of the reasons for optimism in the Labour Party, for me, is that I think we’ve learned over the last 25 years to tread very carefully and wear our values very lightly. We remembered again during this campaign that actually convictions can inspire and motivate people. That feels very exciting. I think that is where the source of optimism for the future really lies. It feels like it’s become political again in a way that it hasn’t been for a long time.
Obviously the last two years have been a kind of minefield for Labour MPs…
It’s been hell, the whole thing. For anyone involved in the Labour Party, the last two years has been hell.
Do you think that’s going to change now? There are signs that’s not going to change.
A couple of weeks before the election I felt that the biggest threat facing the Labour Party was a historic split. I thought there was a very real prospect of that. It just felt that the two wings of the party – the Campaign Group left and the Progress right – were pulling the party in two completely different directions, and it felt really like the centre wouldn’t hold.
You’ve been saying that for at least a year now…
Yeah. If you’d asked me this a few weeks ago, I would have said to you there’s a real danger that this party is going to split and I think that is going to be a tragedy – not just for the Labour Party, but for the country. Because it will leave a whole swathe of people across this country – including most of my constituents – with nobody in mainstream politics to properly represent them. I think that has gone now.
So the unintended consequence of Theresa May calling this election is that I think she has brought the Labour Party back together again. But now, I think the big danger that we face is the shutting down of debate.
There are lots of reasons to be positive and optimistic about what’s just happened in British politics and – certainly when you look at where we started from on the left – there’s a sense of not just relief but even, at times, euphoria in Labour, and understandably so. But there are still some quite serious challenges ahead for us, so we’ve climbed a very steep mountain but we’ve still got a very steep mountain to climb if we want to get into government.
Yesterday [the vote on the Queen’s Speech amendments at the time of this interview] was a really stark reminder of what it means not to have a majority in the House of Commons. We were defeated by just a handful of votes over ending the public sector pay freeze. Nurses who haven’t had a pay rise for seven years may now not get a pay rise again. That is the reality, the crushing reality, of being in opposition.
That task now – about how we take the best of what we’ve managed to learn and achieve in the last few years, but build on it in order to get into government – that’s what should occupy all of us. There is a risk, I think, that having had a very brutal, hellish two years in the Labour Party – where our politics has become very black and white, very divided – that we now mistake unity for uniformity, and we close down any sense of debate, or challenge, or discussion and adopt a mentality that says: ‘Now we just need one more heave to get back into government.’
I know that there’ll be people who read Red Pepper who will hear me say that and think: ‘My God, she’s a Blairite, she’s a red Tory, all she wants to do is turn the clock back to 1997.’ I think there’s virtually no one in the Labour Party, even now, who wants to do that. I’ve certainly never considered myself – or been considered – to be on that wing of politics until the last few months. But what I mean by that is that obviously we don’t know the full extent of what happened in this election, and we won’t know properly until the British Election Study is published and properly dissected.
It seems very much that a group of younger, largely middle class, professionals moved very, very strongly towards Labour in that election; and that combined with our traditional support base is what helped to propel us to 40 per cent in the final result. But I represent a town that is largely made up of that traditional, working class support base, and there is still a long-standing scepticism about whether Labour genuinely represents their interests, and those concerns often centre around what are really tricky areas for Labour, things like immigration and national security, defence, and so on.
There is a big question, that we need to deal with: what is the agenda that unites those two groups? If that is the coalition that Labour is going to build on in order to get into government whenever the next election comes, then the big question that we need to answer is not just how do you unite those two groups – the young professionals and the older, more traditional Labour voters – over issues like public service investment, but how do you unite those two groups on the more difficult areas like immigration and defence, without abandoning our core values of tolerance and internationalism, and striving to make the world a much more peaceful, safer place.
Do you know the answer to that question?
I don’t know the answer. I don’t know all the answers, and I think any politician that says that they have all the answers is wrong – because the truth is that we haven’t listened to communities like mine for a very long time. But what I do know is that it has to start with a sense of mutual respect for both sides in that debate. Having represented Wigan for seven years, I have learned a real respect for the people that tell me that they’re concerned about immigration and defence – despite the fact that before I was elected I spent five years at the Children’s Society working with refugee and migrant children, and have consistently championed their rights since I’ve been in parliament.
The reason for that is this: if you are on a low income, if you are working class, if you do come from a town where a lot of young people choose the military as one of the options available to them for their future that offers the most prospects, then you will obviously place a premium on decisions that are made around immigration and defence – because it’s your children that will go to war if we get our foreign policy wrong. It’s your children who may not come back from Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s your children that may pay the price if we make the wrong decision about nuclear deterrent. It’s your children who will be competing to try and get jobs in our local health service and may not do as well because the opportunities aren’t available to them.
That’s why I think we have to, first of all, take seriously the concerns that people have, listen to what they’re actually trying to tell us, and secondly, think how then do you solve the actual problem, not the problem that is perceived.
Just to give you an example around immigration, during the EU referendum I did a lot of campaigning and there was a week when a senior Labour politician had been on TV saying: ‘You’re more likely to be treated by a EU migrant in the National Health Service than you are to be queuing behind one.’ It’s quite a smart line and neatly encapsulated the point, but there was a constituent of mine who said to me on the doorstep: ‘That’s all very well, but you’ve just abolished the nursing bursary. So I’m really glad that people come and work here, but I want to work there.’ It was a hospital you could basically see from her house. ‘And I can’t because you’ve just taken away any prospect that I may be able to.’ That very real sense of grievance arises from a lack of investment in skills and training, a lack of priority given to young people in towns like mine.
After the EU referendum I went to a number of other countries, including France, Germany, Holland, and heard the same thing from a lot of young people in those countries as well – about a system of free movement that had allowed the skilled or the highly mobile to gain advantage at the expense of the rest. That doesn’t mean to say that you suddenly decide that you believe immigration and free movement is a bad thing. Immigration is an incredible force for good. It makes us more diverse, it makes us more open, it makes us more tolerant, it makes us richer as a society, and it’s also good for the economy. But you also have to understand that when there are a group of people who really haven’t seen that investment, and that support, and those opportunities, they want to know: ‘Well, why should I feel grateful to you for it?’
They have to be heard and they have to be listened to and those concerns have to be acted on. So, no, I don’t have the answer in a nutshell but I think it starts with having some respect for both sides of that argument.
The remarkable thing about this election was that everyone thought that Labour was going to get decimated on those issues, between UKIP and the Tories picking up the UKIP vote. It was exactly on that – on immigration, on Brexit, on defence. It didn’t happen… it was a gamble, and it appears to have paid off. The wind hasn’t changed for you? You still think those underlying issues are still problems?
This election was almost unique. I’ve been stuffing leaflets through doors since I was about seven years old. So I’m old enough to remember all the way back to the 1987 election, and remember all the elections since well…
We’re the same age. I remember when I met you here, you introduced yourself saying you were born in 1979. That’s always been my line.
It was a historic year, not for good reasons, but it was a historic year. Basically, I don’t know about you but I’ve never felt an election like this. It felt unique in the sense that… In fact, politics feels like this at the moment. It feels like everything is moving at speed and that things have very much turned on their head several times in the last few years, and probably will again.
So immigration, defence – including the nuclear issue – they just weren’t issues in this election. It was expected that they would become issues, but they weren’t. Perhaps because the Tories didn’t make them into issues, because they thought they had the whole thing in the bag; perhaps because actually, I’ve definitely felt the sense in the past two years that people are getting tired of cuts and under-funded public services, in a way that even two years ago they weren’t. For whatever reason, those issues weren’t top and central of people’s priorities in this general election.
In a way, I suppose that helped Labour, because they’re the tricky issues for us on which we don’t have the answers about how to unite the different parts of our supporter base or even our party. But I don’t think we can make the mistake of thinking that all the conditions that produced this election will be there again, and that as a party that aspires to government we can shy away from those difficult questions. Because that sense, that concern – that has existed at least since I was elected in 2010, and probably before in towns like mine – hasn’t gone away.
Fair enough, it’s a good response. So when you talk about uniformity and the potential to shut down debate, that’s fundamentally what you’re talking about? You’re talking about bringing in these harder debates about immigration and defence?
I think in the last couple of years what’s happened is that the debate has become so vicious in Labour, and so personal, that it’s felt there’s been two Labour parties almost. I have always been characterised as being on the soft left, and for those of us who don’t really sit in either camp – who see the world in shades of grey and not in black and white – you don’t fit in either of those spaces. It hasn’t felt like there’s any room, really, to take part in a debate that is so vicious, so personal.
Now it feels like that has gone. It feels like now there is an understanding and an acceptance that it harms everybody when we behave like that, and that we need to treat each other better and conduct ourselves much better towards one another. But that can’t mean that we’re afraid to challenge, that we’re afraid to have these debates and have them quite openly. I think the public, for a long time, have wanted to see a much more adult type of politics and they’ve wanted to see those debates within parties and not just between them. I think we shouldn’t be afraid of doing that.
For me, the moment that you really shone was Labour Party conference two years ago, and your speech as shadow energy secretary, where you were bringing this message of democratisation. It’s interesting, I thought where you were going to go when you were talking about uniformity, is this bigger, structural goal for the Labour Party – will it change its own structures? Will it actually democratise internally?… So, in a way, I was surprised that you were taking it to the immigration-defence corner of the debate.
Let me use the climate change example as one that really struck me when I was the shadow energy secretary. If you talk to a lot of my constituents about climate change, they will say two things. One is that I’ve lost my job in the fossil fuel industries – coal in my area, but others elsewhere. The other is that means my energy bill is going to go up.
As shadow energy secretary, I felt very torn between these two wings of the party. On the one hand you had people saying we need to go further and faster in tackling climate change, and they were absolutely right. On the other hand you had people saying: ‘Well, hang on a minute, I’m losing my job, my community’s dying, my bills are going through the roof, and who are you with placards telling me that I need to make more sacrifices.’
The job of the Labour Party is to bring those two interests together. The Tories thrive, and win, when we allow those two groups to be divided. It’s exactly the same on immigration on immigration and defence as it is on issues like climate change. The truth is that what you need is an industrial strategy that prioritises jobs in clean energy. It’s not just handing those jobs to communities, but actually working with those communities in order to create that themselves.
That’s the power of what Labour councils have been doing across the country. It’s helping people to set up energy co-ops, and funding the investment in that themselves, so that communities are then in the driving seat of what those jobs are, how they’re created, where that investment goes. You don’t just hand people power, in terms of energy, you hand people power in terms of control over their own lives. That’s when it gets really exciting. That’s how you knit those two separate interests together.
For too long we’ve pursued policies that are very centralised, where we think that we know best – exactly as we were saying about uniformity – that there is one right way of doing this and we will divise it in Whitehall and hand it to you. But actually, there is a much more organic, much more innovative, much more radical way of doing this, that helps us to fulfil our historic mission – that is not just about redistributing wealth, but about redistributing power in this country. That’s how you embed lasting change.
Feminist futures: Red Pepper’s feminist special issue: ● Our bodies, our choice ● Is the future xenofeminist? ● Women and the new unions ● Feminists on the anti-fascist frontline ● Plus: Left politics and the generational divide ● Decolonising museums ● Book reviews ● and much more
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