Angela Eagle is a Labour MP who does not shy away from speaking her mind. We discuss Brexit, Boris, and of course, Labour’s burden that is Corbyn.
How much do you think young people’s voices are being heard with regards to the Brexit negotiations?
Well, they’re not … and I always say if you don’t do politics you get it done to you. What young people don’t get taught at school so much in England is how you engage in the political process to get your voice heard.
Young people now get most of their news off phones, and I said to them, ‘why wonder what Donald Trump is doing’? In general, they didn’t really know; one said if the economy went down because of the ‘Muslim ban’ then that will affect us. And I said, well how about that he has got his finger on the nuclear button? Maybe that is something of concern?
So then we had a discussion about the interconnectedness of the world. Because of what has happened in Syria we now have millions of people trekking across Europe, and we have the politics of grievance on the one hand saying, ‘keep out and go away’, and the politics of compassion on the other.
And Brexit was something to stir that pot?
Well, I think it was used to show the possibilities of outsiders coming in and destabilising our system. When people are under pressure they worry about that.
In Merseyside, three out of five areas voted Remain, which was good for Labour’s IN Campaign. But why do you think it was so different when places like St. Helens voted Leave by about 15 per cent?
Well, everywhere has their local characteristics. In quite a lot of places, those that were struggling economically, where prospects are not as good as I’d like to see, [there was] worrying about immigration and people coming in and putting pressure on already low wages.
Obviously some of those people that have shared in the proceeds of globalisation in terms of their economic and career choices, will know it is important to Remain. Those who haven’t don’t appreciate that, and why should they? I also think that the areas hard hit by austerity used it as a way of kicking the Government.
We could not get ourselves decent coverage during the Remain campaign on the national press, it was all about Boris’ spat with Cameron. So I think a lot of Labour-supporting areas thought this was just internal Tory rubbish, let’s kick the Government!
Well you had Gisela Stuart, but she wasn’t on the ‘Labour side’…
Well there were a tiny minority of Leave Labour MPs, but that isn’t the point. They never got the prominence that the battle between Boris and Cameron got.
As a young Remain voter, I listen to Tim Farron and I think ‘he gets what I am thinking’. I listen to Corbyn and I think ‘he doesn’t have a chance’. Do you think the Lib Dems could come and sweep up Corbyn’s student base in the run-up to 2020?
Well I would point out what the Lib Dems last did when they got into Government; tripling student fees when they actively campaigned not to. I take that kind of Lib Dem opportunism with a pinch of salt and I hope I’d be able to get that across.
I think the important thing going forward is that we try to realise what a break it is. We need the best deal, and I think at the moment the Government are going for an impossible deal. They seem to think the EU will grant them all of the advantages of being in the single market without any costs. It won’t happen.
More has come out now about the Tory Brexit. But a lot of it at the start was about ‘not giving a running commentary’, and Labour’s response was to demand one. Why does the PM need to give a running commentary when this just reveals your bargaining hand?
Well no, I think we were in a situation where the previous government had done no preparatory work whatsoever for what might happen if the referendum went against them. That is the biggest dereliction of duty I can think of in post-war Britain.
I think that having been to Brussels and talking to quite a lot of people in various parts of EU institutions, they are astonished that we didn’t do any preparation. They’re fully prepared and I think it’s going to be hard to drive a good bargain given our state of unpreparedness. They’ve tried to avoid being accountable to Parliament, they went all the way to the Supreme Court to try this.
This has nothing to do with disrupting their bargaining hand. I’m sorry, but if we’re ‘taking back control’ then Parliament has a role to play.
Don’t you think after we voted Leave that we were always going to get a hard Brexit because technically it isn’t up to us?
Absolutely not. Politics is full of opportunities, there are a string of things the Government could have done to reassure our partners. They could have guaranteed the rights of everybody who was here at that date, which would have created goodwill to do the same.
Instead, it was ‘lists of foreigners’ and an increase in hate crimes against anybody perceived to be different. The Government should have given a lead in terms of values.
You tweeted after the ‘rabbit-hole’ speech: ‘Kenneth Clarke making a total mince-meat of his government’s position #chaoticbrexit’. If you and him are fighting for the same thing, shouldn’t you admire him for standing up to the Government?
I do admire Ken Clarke. He’s always been a Tory that is very pro-European. He comes from an older generation of Conservative Party members who were pro-European.
But, the fact is that the Conservatives have been taken over by a load of right-wing Eurosceptics who have obsessed about this for years, and who seem to have quite a nostalgic view of Britain as an Empire.
You’ve been open about the levels of abuse that you’ve received and other MPs receive. What do you think can be done to tackle the abuse that MPs face online, in person etc.?
There’s a lot of anger out there being directed at MPs. I think people are right to be angry, but social media has amplified violent thought. We know that before Jo Cox was killed by a right-wing semi-fascist person, that she had been receiving death threats and had been at the centre of a lot of chatter from extremist right-wing parties in and around her constituency.
Now there are many other MPs receiving death threats, it isn’t just women, although they are particularly targeted. LGBT MPs are targeted too, and I just think an attack on any MPs is an attack on a democracy.
Yes, but what can be done to stop it?
Well the police are taking it seriously; more seriously than they did before Jo was killed. This isn’t only about MPs. Social media has unleashed this effect into all kinds of areas.
I think we need to get a grip of the effect that social media is having, and we need to clamp down much faster on threats of violence and come to a sort of way of dealing with social media; [one] that accepts that the norms of speech between people in person need to also apply online.
After Copeland, Keir Starmer said ‘I am very straightforward that if things don’t improve, there is no prospect of us winning a general election’. Do you think he is right?
Well Keir can explain what his thinking was in his own way. We’re 18 per cent behind in the opinion polls, and you can’t win elections unless you’re ahead, so we need to fix that as soon as possible.
So is anything needed to change those fortunes?
A lot needs to change. We need to listen to people, where they are now in terms of their pressures. We need to have a more open look about our existing values: the belief that people who work get a reasonable reward for the ‘fruits of their labour’, and that an unfair amount of the benefit gained from economic activity doesn’t go to the owners [but] the workers.
That’s all very important but it translates into a twenty-first-century economic structure differently than it did in the nineteenth century. So the parties that succeed are the ones that have a plan for the future. In a post-Brexit Britain, we need a complete economic renewal because the way we make our way in the world is going to be different.
Does Corbyn see himself and his values as ‘21st Century’?
I’m not going to get into some ongoing commentary about Jeremy. People know what I did last year; the members of the party decided to keep him as leader and we will work with him.
In the end it isn’t all about individual leaders, it’s about whether you have the ideas and confidence to move forward in a way that the population wants and we will prosper.
Sticking with leadership, is it time we saw two women at the despatch box?
I’ve always said female leadership is very different to male leadership, so long as there are enough women involved to sustain difference. I think the traditional view of leadership as a single man in power, powering over everything else, is not something that I identify with.
I think we’ve seen effective international leaders; Merkel is effective and much more collaborative in general. I think women will bring different ways of doing things. Obviously I am a feminist. I’ve been involved in fighting for equality all of my life. I’d like to see Labour have a female leader sooner rather than later.
What does the future hold? Can you ever see yourself running for leader again?
I want the Labour Party to prosper and that is all I care about. When I go into my advice surgeries and people are in tears because they have no food, this isn’t the kind of society that I came into politics to see developing. So I want to do my part to change that, in anyway possible.
You’ve been an MP for over 20 years now, what would you consider to be your greatest achievements either constituency or parliament based?
It’ll be my 25th anniversary later this year. There are so many! I think [of] when I was a minister, seeing Sure Starts grow to people who had been isolated and giving young kids the start that they never had. It’s a pity that many of them are now closed.
Every week in the constituency we manage to help people. I’ll give you an example; years ago we had a long day, and I don’t do this very often but we went into that pub across the road to have a drink before we finished up. We went in and there was a young girl sat at the bar. The bartender came over and said the girl was homeless, and had nowhere to go tonight.
So we got a hold of the duty social worker. I often wondered what had happened, and years later I was walking through Liverpool and somebody shouted, ‘Are you Angela Eagle’, so I turned round and she said, ‘I’m that girl’. She explained that she had left an abusive family but that she had not only recovered, but she had a family of her own and she was incredibly thankful.
Come on, there is nothing better than that for job satisfaction.
One final question — you may or may not know this. But your reaction on stage when you found out that Boris was Foreign Secretary became an Internet hit. Your reaction was everybody’s reaction, dare I ask how he’s doing?
Crap! As badly as I thought he would. He’s an embarrassment and this is part of the trouble. I don’t think he’s got the seriousness to be in the post he’s in. I think it demonstrates the sort of government that we have, [the fact] that he’s been put there.