She did not emerge as the candidate, but Angela Eagle sparked Labour’s leadership contest after Brexit led the parliamentary party’s uneasy truce to collapse. She tells Conor Pope why Labour can’t go on as it is – and why there is hope for the future
It was the EU referendum result that was the final straw. It led to “a collective snapping of the parliamentary party’s patience” with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Angela Eagle tells me. Labour MPs had watched in horror as entire regions that have traditionally formed the party’s base simply ignored the warnings and opted to leave the European Union.
Having seen what had happened with their colleagues in Scotland, and how the independence referendum had acted as a trigger for Scottish Labour’s collapse, revealing deep-set and long-term problems about the way the party communicated with its core support, many saw a grim parallel.
Within hours of the result on Friday morning, moves were underway to organise a vote of no confidence in Corbyn as leader. On Sunday, after the middle of the night sacking of Hilary Benn, 12 shadow cabinet ministers resigned. A day later, eight more followed. All in all, there were more than 60 resignations from Labour’s frontbench over the course of just a few days.
Yet Corbyn held on, and he is still firmly in place by the time I meet Eagle in the office where she is planning her leadership challenge, three weeks after the Brexit vote which signalled the beginning of 21 of the most remarkable days in British political history.
Having just moved in, the only thing notable about her campaign base at this point is the familiarity of the faces: the staffers and volunteers largely appear to be former aides to shadow ministers, recently made redundant by their bosses’ resignations. It is they who, over the last 10 months, have been trying to ensure Labour maintains a functional opposition to the Tories in increasingly difficult circumstances. It is they, perhaps, who have the most right to be aggrieved by the ways things have turned out.
Currently, the job of leader of the Labour party does not look particularly appealing. It would be an incredibly difficult task for even the most gifted of politicians. The party feels like it needs piecing back together; that a safe pair of hands would only be looking after the shards.
Eagle makes no attempt to gloss over the trouble the party is in. After announcing her challenge to Corbyn that week, a brick was thrown through her constituency office window, her staff had to stop answering the phones due to the level of abuse, and a man was arrested for threatening to kill her.
But all of that has only appeared to stiffen her resolve. “I saw it in the 1980s. I fought it in the 1980s, and I’m fighting it again.” Only this time, she adds, it’s worse: “We didn’t used to get death threats in the 1980s.”
This animosity and vitriol has only fed a sense among those sceptical of the Corbyn project that they are wresting back control of the party, on behalf of Labour voters. “MPs up and down the country [are] being intimidated for expressing their genuine views about Labour voters’ needs and wants. There’s nine million Labour voters. We’ve all got our mandate from the people,” Eagle says, wryly referencing the common defence against criticism of the leader. “I think what’s happening is utterly deplorable. And it should stop.”
And she is not the only victim of this. Local Labour party meetings have been suspended nationwide because of growing concerns about unwelcome atmospheres and bullying. “How can we say we are a democratic party when people are being chased away from meetings because they’re so intimidatory?”
The problem is within the new membership, she says. Not the vast majority – arguing that more ought to be done to “engage” properly with the new joiners – but the large numbers involved has meant that “there’s been a move back into the party by some of the elements thrown out in the 1990s, and they’re back doing what they always do.”
Having overcome these problems before, however, she is adamant that Labour can do so again without the need for a split. What is needed, she says, is a rediscovery of Labour’s raison d’être: parliamentary representation.
That idea, it seems, has fallen by the wayside under Corbyn: “I think we’ve got to reaffirm the purpose of the Labour party. The Labour party was created – Clause I of its constitution – to get representatives into parliament so they could legislate in the interest of working people. We’ve always been a parliamentary party and a movement. I think Jeremy’s only interested in the movement outside. He’s not interested in parliament. I’ve come to this conclusion from months of trying to make being on his frontbench work and realising he’s not interested.
It is an appeal to the party’s rich heritage that makes up much of Eagle pitch. “I’ve given my life to the labour movement and the Labour party,” she says. “When I was growing up I saw the Labour party as the only vehicle through which we could make our society work better for the majority of people and I still think that. That’s why I’m doing this. We cannot let the Labour party, as a vehicle for change, just turn into a protest thing that turns up, waves a few banners, sells a few newspapers and then disappears.”
It is a smart strategy, and one which Corbyn himself executed to great success last year, positioning himself not in the centre of modern British politics, but at the centre of the Labour party historically. It is one of Blairism’s failings that, by styling itself as a ‘New’ Labour apart from the old, it wrote itself out of the party’s traditions and allowed itself to be portrayed as an entryism of sorts. Through that, it has lost its claim to a medium-term legacy in its own party.
That is one reason why the challengers who put themselves forward to take on Corbyn are several notches to the left of Ed Miliband. After the first hustings of the contest, which featured Eagle, Corbyn and Owen Smith in front of the parliamentary Labour party, the excitement from one MP was palpable: “The rest of the Labour family right across country are in for a treat, a huge surprise. They will begin to realise that they have their party back from New Labour.”
Eagle is certainly not shy about placing herself on the political spectrum. “I’m on the left. I’ve lived my politics, I didn’t learn them. I was born into a family that was working class, where there hadn’t been anyone with any privileges and I was fortunate enough to get my education and go on and do the things I did.” She’s also clear that “any Labour government led by me would be anti-austerity.”
Here is where another of her dividing lines with Corbyn comes – she is furious about the incompetence she sees in Labour’s top team. Not just in terms of media communications and campaigning, but in terms of policy formation and getting the basics right. “We have to have a proper anti-austerity policy rather than just a slogan,” she says.
“Jeremy is full of nice notions about peace and justice but no hard policies have emerged. John McDonnell, his council of economic advisors was a really good innovation, but they’ve all resigned or told him that they can’t work with the current set-up. We haven’t got detailed policy after nine months of John. They’re just not doing the day job.”
This frustration is clearly borne out among a number of former shadow ministers. MPs such as Lilian Greenwood and Thangam Debbonaire, neither known for having confrontational attitudes, have shared their stories of poor management, and Angela adds her own.
“I had a weekly meeting with John McDonnell as shadow business secretary cancelled every single time except for one, in nine months. I would wake up and read things in the papers about areas that I’m meant to be covering, as policies that were just put in behind my back into Jeremy’s speeches. Absolutely no attempt to co-ordinate, to bring me on board in any way. You can’t have a collective shadow cabinet capacity to have a compelling policy offer if that’s how you behave.”
It is easy, then, to feel a little hopeless about Labour’s current fortunes. The party faces huge difficulties communicating with its own supposed core base – a problem which Eagle says they knew existed under Ed Miliband and is “worse” under Corbyn. After six years of austerity, Labour is still struggling to get its message across, and it has a leader the majority of its MPs would publicly say will never become prime minister.
But, says Eagle, it is still too soon to write off the next election. “Particularly after Brexit,” she says. “Those who wanted remain to win are aghast and very, very worried,” while on the other side, “leavers who were expressing what I’d call a howl of pain about the economic situation and their prospects are expecting all this extra money to the NHS and an end to immigration, and they’re not going to get it.”
The flux in British politics looks to many to be working against Labour in almost every conceivable way. Yet in the face of what some would see as an existential crisis, she sees an opportunity. “We are at a stage in our politics where voting patterns are completely up for grabs,” she says.
At a time of division, animosity and austerity, maybe Angela Eagle has landed on the one thing that can turn it around for Labour: ambition.