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The future for Labour is female

Many of the brightest prospects of Labour’s new generation are women.

The “Blair’s babes” label might have jarred but the election of 101 women as Labour MPs in 1997 hinted that things could only get better for female parliamentarians; in 1992, there had been 60 but five years later the number doubled. Now, 147 seats (23 per cent) are held by women. Eighty-six of these female MPs belong to Labour; just 48 Tories and seven Liberal Democrats are women. Ed Miliband might have a very male back-room team but he has a chance to redress the balance with a shadow cabinet reshuffle. The “class of 2010” is regarded as a particularly strong year, and here we profile some of the brightest, along with a 2005 entrant, Kerry McCarthy. Rachel Reeves (page 34) and Stella Creasy (page 39) are also part of the 2010 intake. 
 
Lisa Nandy
Shadow children’s minister
 
The way Lisa Nandy tells it, it all happened at breakneck speed: her decision to stand as an MP in 2010 was followed mere weeks later by her selection in Wigan and then victory in the election. After years of working in the charity sector – first for Centrepoint, then for the Children’s Society – she was motivated by an increasing frustration with central government and a desire to change things from the inside.
 
Arriving at Westminster as one of a large cohort of first-time MPs, Nandy, who was 30 years old at the time, was assigned first Gordon Brown and then Alistair Darling as a mentor before taking up the position of parliamentary private secretary to the then shadow minister for the Olympics, Tessa Jowell, in autumn 2010. Though she admits that politically she has little in common with the veteran Blairite, she took a valuable lesson from their time working together: in Westminster, it is vital to make friends on the way up, or there will be nobody willing to catch you when you fall down.
 
Not that Nandy is expected to be on her way down any time soon. As an MP who considers herself to be on the left of most of the Parliamentary Labour Party and who came to parliament mainly to ask awkward questions about children’s issues, she found the call from Ed Miliband to join his frontbench team after Peter Hain’s resignation last year something of a surprise.
 
Now, as shadow children’s minister, she is frequently to be found in the Commons chamber running rings around her Conservative opposite number, the cobbling heir Edward Timpson. A reluctant inhabitant of the Westminster bubble, Nandy is unlikely to have the makings of a parliamentary lifer. Yet she is running for re-election in Wigan in 2015, so, for now, we get to watch how high she can rise.
 
Liz Kendall
Shadow minister for care and older people
 
In Westminster’s tribal culture, it is not always helpful to be admired by the enemy. Liz Kendall is an opposition frontbencher whom Tories find it easy to praise (at least in private), though no one doubts her Labour credentials. She has a reputation for considered and evidence-driven debate that wins quiet appreciation on both sides of the Commons.
 
It helps that she has a background as a wonk, having worked at the Institute for Public Policy Research, a leading centre-left ideas factory, and the King’s Fund, a highly respected authority on health policy. It was that expertise that justified her rapid elevation – she attends the shadow cabinet as Andy Burnham’s deputy and is tipped for further promotion. Kendall has been instrumental in developing the idea of “whole-person care”, an ambitious Labour plan to reconfigure health and social care services, marshalling limited resources to focus on preventative measures and giving people more control over their own treatment.
 
In a series of thoughtful (and inevitably under-reported) speeches, Kendall has highlighted the severe, long-term pressures that an ageing population puts on budgets, quite aside from the fiscal squeeze mandated by the financial crisis. She is one of the few Labour MPs who do not flinch from addressing the painful choices that lie ahead in managing the health service through austerity. She has, for instance, warned against kneejerk opposition protests at every ward and hospital closure, when sometimes those closures might represent reasonable rationalisation. In internal debates, she has provided salutary reminders that Labour needs something more to say about the National Health Service than simply: “We love it; the Tories want to destroy it” (although that message will doubtless figure prominently in the party’s next election campaign).
 
Kendall’s pragmatism should not be mistaken for a lack of radicalism. It comes from a determination to make sure Labour wins power with a mandate to undertake difficult but vital reforms – and thereby stands a better chance of staying in power for longer. She knows about the practical challenges of government, having served as a special adviser to Patricia Hewitt in the Department of Health and Harriet Harman in what was then the Department of Social Security. It may not be the most original route to the parliamentary front bench – think tanks and special adviser roles – but Kendall is no stickler for Westminster’s clubby protocols. Friends say she is sometimes exasperated by the bloke-heavy, stuffy, public-school atmosphere in the Commons.
 
She had not been in parliament long after her election in 2010 when she got into trouble for posting a photograph of the State Opening of Parliament on Twitter – and then tweeting about the reaction. It was an unintentional breach of the rules, but something about the episode suggested she might have an appetite for stealthy subversion of the established way of doing things.
 
Gloria De Piero
Shadow minister for crime prevention
 
Last year, Gloria De Piero set out to discover why politicians are so hated by the public. She asked a “jazzercise” class in Billericay, Essex, a mothers’ meeting in Manchester, a residents’ association in Deptford, London, a bingo club in Derbyshire, warehouse workers in her Nottinghamshire constituency and golfers in Yorkshire. They all came back with the same answer: politicians aren’t “like us”.
 
De Piero found that the expenses story had “cut through” to the public – people saw MPs as insulated, privileged and used to a level of wealth and job security that was out of reach for most voters. They were turned off by politicians shouting at each other. PMQs was “like Jeremy Kyle with posh people”, one of them said.
 
The 40-year-old Ashfield MP duly wrote a report for Ed Miliband and claimed not to be too downcast by her findings. “We have a particular responsibility in the Labour Party – we’re the ‘people’s party’, for goodness sake – but do we look and sound like Britain? I don’t think so,” she told the Independent. “If I could do a tiny little bit for getting normal people into parliament and if I lost my seat, then I would say: ‘Well, Gloria, you know, you did a little bit.’”
 
De Piero is acutely conscious that her time in parliament could be short. She was elected in Geoff Hoon’s old seat, Ashfield, in 2010 with the slimmest of majorities – 192. The swing to the Lib Dems was 17.2 per cent, the second-largest in the election.
 
After three years in parliament and two substantial junior posts – first as shadow minister for culture and media and now a role in the Labour Home Office team under Yvette Cooper – she will at least go into the next election without the negative media coverage that dogged her in 2010. “Glamorous former GMTV presenter” were the words most commonly applied to her campaign and there were numerous stories about local activists being disgruntled by her selection.
 
Perhaps as a result, she kept a low profile as a new MP, refusing to capitalise on her formidable television skills to become a “media performer”. That has led to the impression that she is more clubbable than her peers in the 2010 cohort Stella Creasy and Chuka Umunna, though it has also meant that she has largely failed to distinguish herself from the pack. She is clearly determined to be taken seriously in her constituency: her Twitter account hosts a blameless collection of doorstep campaigning photos and her most recent local newspaper column addressed the problem of potholes on Brynsmoor Road.
 
There are many in Labour who would like to see her pushed forward, as the PLP is hardly awash with northern, working-class, stateeducated and telegenic women. Yet perhaps she prefers to spend her downtime at home with her husband (the former Guardian journalist James Robinson, author of The Larry Diaries, a spoof memoir by David Cameron’s cat) than touring the TV studios.
 
Luciana Berger
Shadow minister for climate change
 
Luciana Berger, who was born in London, began her parliamentary career in a flurry of controversy, amid complaints that she had been “parachuted” into her Liverpool Wavertree constituency to the detriment of local candidates.
 
Yet Berger has gained respect for her work as an MP and was praised last year by the Conservative MP Rob Wilson in Total Politics magazine as a “grafter” who is “serious about her politics, her causes and her constituency”. As the shadow minister for climate change, Berger has criticised the Prime Minister for not living up to his early promises about “green” government and she has linked environmental causes – sometimes seen as a middle-class preoccupation – to issues affecting people’s everyday lives, such as rising fuel costs.
 
Writing for the New Statesman’s politics blog in August, she identified a need to “break the dominance of the energy giants” and called for “a tough new regulator with the power to force energy companies to pass on savings to consumers”.
 
In 2012, Berger made a short film, Breadline Britain, to highlight the explosion in numbers of people forced to use food banks following the financial crisis.
 
Her professional experience includes a stint as a management consultant in the City. She has been active in politics since she joined Labour as a student, and she spent three years as the director of Labour Friends of Israel. And her pedigree goes even further back: her greatuncle Manny Shinwell was a Labour MP who served as a minister in the Ramsay MacDonald and Clement Attlee governments.
 
Rushanara Ali
Shadow international development minister
 
On the dismal night of the 2010 general election, Rushanara Ali provided one of the few high points for the Labour Party. After George Galloway ousted Oona King, her former boss, in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005, Ali reclaimed the East End seat for the party and turned a Respect majority of 823 into a Labour majority of 11,574. In doing so, she became Britain’s first MP of Bangladeshi origin and one of three Muslim women to enter the Commons (the other two are Shabana Mahmood, the MP for Birmingham Ladywood, and Yasmin Qureshi of Bolton South-East).
 
Ali, 38, grew up in Tower Hamlets after immigrating from Bangladesh at the age of seven and read philosophy, politics and economics at St John’s College, Oxford. In 2010, she spoke of how she had become radicalised by the “greed is good” mantra of the 1980s and by the mass homelessness and unemployment that the Tories viewed as a “price worth paying” for reducing inflation.
 
She began her career working as a research assistant for the Labour luminary Michael Young, the author of the party’s 1945 manifesto (one of her most cherished possessions is his annotated version) and of The Rise of the Meritocracy. She was later a research fellow at Labour’s intellectual boot camp – the Institute for Public Policy Research – and in the community cohesion unit at the Home Office. Her potential was quickly recognised by Ed Miliband, who appointed her as shadow international development minister in his first reshuffle in 2010.
 
Because of the bipartisan consensus on foreign aid, Ali has had fewer opportunities than some of her Labour colleagues to land blows on the coalition, but she led the fightback against the Ukip MEP Godfrey Bloom this summer after he criticised British assistance to “bongo bongo land”, demanding that Nigel Farage take action if he is “serious about getting rid of racism and intolerance in his party”. She has also won media attention for her campaign against the plan by Barclays to close a large number of the bank accounts kept by remittance companies.
 
Miliband’s desire to promote what he has called “the new generation” makes it likely that Ali will soon join her fellow 2010-ers Rachel Reeves and Chuka Umunna in the shadow cabinet.
 
Kerry McCarthy
Shadow Foreign Office minister
 
Labour’s “Twitter tsar”, Kerry McCarthy, has a fiery relationship with social media. After falling into a pothole in Burma in March this year, she observed on Twitter: “I knew it! Twitter more interested in me falling down hole than me spending historic day with ASSK [Aung San Suu Kyi].” In 2010, police cautioned her for reporting the numbers of postal votes cast per party in her constituency, Bristol East, and she provoked further scandal when she broadcast her thoughts about a “lager-drinking oaf” who was sitting next to her on a train.
 
Beyond the news stories, however, the 48-year-old former solicitor is a financial expert and a staunch defender of Gordon Brown’s exchequership. She began a doctorate exploring Labour links with the City and then worked as a lawyer in the banking sector, specialising in financial markets law and cross-border transactions.
 
Elected as the MP for Bristol East in 2005 through an all-female shortlist, she rose to the Treasury select committee, where she focused on the mechanics of globalisation and the IMF – experience she brought to bear as private secretary to Douglas Alexander during his time as secretary of state for international development. McCarthy supported Ed Balls’s unsuccessful bid for the leadership and, reshuffled by Miliband to shadow Foreign Office minister in 2011, she has extended her work to cover human rights, migration, the drugs trade and the End Child Poverty campaign, in which she is a leading figure.
 
McCarthy once put the case for veganism to parliament and she was often seen campaigning with Brian May and others against Defra’s badger cull in the south-west. She continues to blog and tweet about her daily work and was the first MP to give a speech in parliament with the aid of an iPad.
 
Writers: Rafael Behr, Caroline Crampton, George Eaton, Helen Lewis, Sophie McBain, Kate Mossman

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.