Angela Eagle speaks at the Labour conference in Manchester in 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Angela Eagle interview: Labour needs a "decisive break" with neoliberalism

National Policy Forum chair urges boldness as the party gathers for crucial meeting. 

In a week in which Westminster’s focus has been on women in politics, Angela Eagle stands out as one of the most quietly influential. As well as serving as shadow leader of the House of Commons, the MP for Wallasey (elected in 1992) chairs both Labour’s National Policy Forum and its ruling National Executive Committee. “I’m alright, still smiling,” she tells me when I note her voluminous workload.

Eagle, whose most famous moment to date came when she was told to “calm down, dear” by David Cameron during Prime Minister’s Questions (“I was right as well, actually, I was making a point that he got wrong”) is scornful of his belated decision to increase female representation in his government. “If he were to say, ‘Ok, I got it wrong about affecting women in the first Budget, that hit women four times harder than men, and I’m going to do something that will put that right’, I might start listening, I might even prick up my ears, but I’m not holding my breath.”

Labour, she adds, is “way out ahead” of its rivals on representation. “Thirty three per cent of our parliamentary party are women now. Actually, well over 50 per cent of our candidates in key marginals are women. and we will continue to make progress in this area because of our use of women-only shortlists...The other parties are nowhere near taking the decisions that you have to take to ensure that you include women properly and adequately in public life.”

Does she agree with Harriet Harman that she would have become deputy prime minister in Gordon Brown’s government had she been a man? “I think that’s speculation. If you actually look at Harriet’s lecture, it was a very substantial and important piece, that obviously some newspapers picked a particular bit out of to have screaming headlines.”

Would she like Harman to become deputy prime minister if Labour win the general election? “Well, that’s for Ed,” she says, before offering a fulsome endorsement of her colleague. “She’s the deputy leader, she has her own mandate, directly-elected in the Labour Party, I was one of the people that supported her. She’s been a doughty performer for women by her own experience, by the example that she’s given since the early 80s. She’s a great feminist, she’s a fantastic communicator for the Labour Party and I don’t see any reason whatsoever why she shouldn’t be the deputy prime minister in a Labour administration.”

I meet Eagle in her Commons office in the wing of parliament known as the “Yellow Submarine” (owing to its resemblance to a marine vessel), a few days before the opening of the National Policy Forum in Milton Keynes. When Eagle became chair of the body in 2012 she called for the party to abandon its “controlling and top down approach”. Does she feel that’s been achieved? “I think we’ve made some good strides. If you look at the Your Britain website we’ve had 200,000 unique visitors to that, one visit for every member of the party, which is not bad, it’s better than we’ve had previously and I think it will strengthen the fact that it’s there.

“We’ve had thousands of people up down the country in meetings considering the commission documents and policy in general. We’ve had 1,300 amendments, all of which is a significantly greater flow of interest then we had in previous years.” 

She adds: “That increasing transparency and openness about what we’re doing, I hope, has made a difference, we’ll be having debates and we won’t be avoiding subjects where there’s disagreements, actively seeking to come to consensus arrangements at the conference.

“We’ve begun to dismantle that top-down approach which sucked the life out of the Policy Forum ... It might look like things are suddenly announced to a media script by the leader, but all of those announcements have been through the relevant commissions, so the duck is paddling away madly beneath the water even though it might not be obvious it is there.”

When I mention activists’ unhappiness at advance briefing over the party’s rail policy, which will allow the state to compete with private firms for expired franchises, but not to take them over automatically, she replies: “Briefing happens; I’m too old in the tooth to know that people don’t go to the newspapers and brief things. What gets briefed isn’t always accurate. I think the important thing is that the people who decide are those who are going to be at the NPF at the weekend.”

Eagle, a prominent critic of New Labour before Miliband’s election, who was closely associated with the Compass group, tells me that the party needs “a very radical platform” to secure election victory. “The need for a decisive break with the Thatcherite policies of the past is fairly obvious to anyone who looks at what happened to the neoliberal model of economics and politics. We are a progressive party, we don’t want things to stay the same in terms of people’s access to a fair society and social justice. We’ve soon social justice rolled back in the last four years, 60 years of progress under threat from some of the decisions that the Conservative-led government have made.

“We have our values, and following the problems in 2008, we realise that kind of model doesn’t work to create social justice, it doesn’t work to create sustainable economies in terms of the fairness between different members of an economy.

“It’s part of what Ed was talking about when he talked about the ‘cost-of-living-crisis’, that increasing numbers of people are working more and more hours and still not being able to make ends meet at the end of the month. That kind of a model, which has increasing levels of inequality ramping up in it, simply isn’t sustainable into the long-term future and it’s our job as a progressive, social democratic party to come up with a radical alternative. To do that we have to work on those drivers of inequality that have operated so successfully to make our society even more unequal than it was 30 years ago.”

In an echo of the defining theme of the Policy Forum - “big reforms, not big spending”, she adds: “What we can’t do is just assume we can spend our way out of all those difficulties, we simply can’t. The size of the economic cake is smaller than it used to be, we have to look at what we can do with the money that we’ve got, if we can reallocate it, that’s why Chris Leslie is doing his Zero-Based Review. What is absolutely clear is that Conservative values, and this government’s values and priorities, wouldn’t be the same as a Labour government’s values and priorities, and so we can do things differently with the same level of expenditure.”

Eagle tells me that despite the “volatile” electoral landscape, she is “very confident” of victory for the party next year. But when I begin to ask her how Labour should act in the event of a hung parliament, she immediately interjects: “You’re going to ask me a hypothetical question about who we’re going to have a coalition with. I’m not going to answer that. It’s like asking Germany whether they were going to win the World Cup or not, just before they went out on the pitch. You’ve got go out and play to win and that is what we’re doing. We will do with any situations that occur afterwards, but what should guide us is our values and the fact that we have an absolute duty to do the best for the people that we represent.”

She later adds, in reference to the Tories’ recent fundraising efforts: “They’re looking for a way to win. I’m sure that the Brazilians thought they were going to win when they went out on the pitch with the Germans for the semi-final. They had home advantage, everything looked hunky dory, it doesn’t always work out that way.”

Even the most optimistic Labourite doesn’t believe that the general election will resemble that semi-final. But after Cameron’s reshuffle prepared the Tories for war, Eagle leaves no doubt that she is ready for the fightback. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Warner Brothers
Show Hide image

Nigel Farage's love for Dunkirk shows how Brexiteers learned the wrong lessons from WWII

Film has given Britain a dangerously skewed perspective on World War II

For months now it’s been hard to avoid the publicity for what seems like an epidemic of new World War Two films for 2017. June brought us Churchill (starring Brian Cox), which concerns Operation Overlord and the allied invasion of Normandy in 1944. A month later, in July we were pushed back four years, to Dunkirk, with Christopher Nolan’s film of the evacuation of Allied troops from French soil in the summer of 1940. April had already brought Their Finest, a comedy about making a - let us not let the irony go unacknowledged -  stirring film about the evacuation of Dunkirk in the event’s more or less immediate aftermath and November will bring us Darkest Hour, some events in which will predate all three earlier films, as Gary Oldman’s Churchill struggles through the earliest days of his war premiership.

This glut is peculiar. There are no significant round anniversaries to commemorate (e.g. Dunkirk is 77 years ago, the Normandy landings 73). More, we’re meant to be in the middle of a series of commemorations of the horror and waste of the Great War of 1914-18, but that seems to have slipped away from us in the political turmoil that’s engulfed this country since 2014. Instead, it’s to the Second World War we return yet again. To modern Britain’s founding myth.

It’s a coincidence, of course, that these films should come along together, and at a seemingly odd time. They were developed separately, and films takes so long to conceive and produce that no one could have anticipated them arriving together, let alone arriving in a toxic Brexit Britain where they seem like literally the least useful things for anyone in the UK to watch right now. As works that will inevitably, whatever their own creative intentions and merits, be hi-jacked by a press and political culture that is determined to gloss its opposition to the UK’s membership of the European Union, and its appalling mishandling of the process of exit with garbled references to, the conflict the films portray.

This is an impression that is not exactly dismissed by Nigel Farage posting to twitter of an image of himself standing next to the poster for Dunkirk, along with a statement in which he encourages all young people to see the film. For what reason, we’re entitled to wonder, does he make this encouragement? Does he admire the sound design? Or the aerial photography? Or is he just a big fan of Mark Rylance and Harry Styles? Or perhaps he is, inevitably, indulging in a behaviour that some might call "nostalgic"? Of pining for the past. Except, of course, nostalgia requires an element of pain. The suffix "algia" the same as employed when referring to chronic conditions. For Farage and his ilk there is no pain in this behaviour, just the most extraordinarily banal comfort.

Farage is asking us and asking the young who voted against his chosen cause by an overwhelming majority, and who are are sickened by where he and his ilk have brought us - to share in his indulgence. To enjoy, as he does, those fatuous analogies between the UK’s isolation between Dunkirk and Pearl Harbour with its imminent failures in European politics. To see that "escaping from Europe with nothing is at least better than not escaping at all". Or to believe, once again, in a "plucky little Britain, standing up against the might of a wicked mainland European tyranny, its back against the wall".

All this, confused, indeed nonsensical, as it is, is being invoked, as surely as the anti-EU right have always invoked Churchill. This is despite his own family recognising him, as the EU itself does, as the fervent pro-European he was. Indeed, he was one of the founding fathers of the whole post-war pan-European enterprise.

What Farage and his behaviour demonstrates, yet again, is that British culture, in many ways, learned not merely the wrong lessons from the war against Hitler, but exactly the wrong lessons. It’s a lesson that found its most enduring, poisonous expression in Margaret Thatcher’s breathtaking assertion that the European Union was a "third attempt" by Germany to take over the world.

In contrast to the rush of war films in cinemas, television has recently given us glimpses into theoretical worlds where Nazism did succeed in conquering the planet, in Amazon Prime’s The Man In The High Castle and BBC One’s SS-GB. There are lessons too, in these alternative histories, proper lessons that we have collectively failed to learn from the real one. Which is that fascism or authoritarianism are not diseases to which anglophone countries are somehow miraculously immune due to [insert misunderstood historical fetish of choice].

The Man in the High Castle, particularly in its more subtle first series, goes out of its way to show Americans that their lack of experience of collaboration with Nazi occupation is a result of circumstance, even luck. Not because collaboration is a peculiarly European tendency. SS-GB also worked hard to demonstrate the helplessness of occupation, and how that leads to the sheer ordinariness of collaboration. Both show the understanding that while fascism from the outside is funny accents and funny uniforms, fascism from the inside is your neighbours informing on you and the absence of the rule of law.

That experience of occupation, of subsequent complicity, and humiliation, felt by many other other European nations, is absent in Britain. Farage’s fellow Leaver Liam Fox, without anything resembling self-awareness, asserted that "the United Kingdom is one of the few countries in the European Union that does not need to bury its 20th century history". Fox’s remark summed up, again seemingly unintentionally, the oafishness of the principle Brexiteers. A group who exemplify a culture that boils a vast and unimaginably complex conflict down to the title sequence of Dad’s Army - an animation in which a Union Flag is forced off the European continent by a trio of Nazi triangles, and after returning home bobs around defiantly. A group who, in a strange and witless inversion, have fantasised themselves into a position where they see the Britain’s membership of the European Union as the occupation the country once avoided.

This is the UK’s postponed tragedy. At a timethat European countries experienced national humiliations which fundamentally reconfigured their understandings of their place in the world, the UK got yet another excuse to shout about how much better it was than everyone else.

I’m a child of the very late Seventies. I grew up in a world where (British) boys’ comics were dominated by war stories rather than science fiction or superheroes, where literally everyone knew several people who had fought in World War Two - and almost everyone someone who could remember World War One. That war was the ever-present past. I am, as a friend who teaches history neatly phrased it "Of the last post-war generation." After me, the generations are post-post-war. They are free. The moral clarity of the war against Hitler has, in the end, been a curse on British culture - a distorting mirror in which we can always see ourselves as heroes. 

But, not, of course, all other generations. The war generation collectively (I make no claim that there were not exceptions) understood what the war was. Which meant they understood that the European Union was, and is, its antonym, not an extension of it. Unlike their children and the eldest of their grandchildren, they had real experience of the conflict, they hadn’t just grown up surrounded by films about how great Britain was during it.

The Prime Minister who, or so he thought, had secured Britain’s European destiny had also, as he related in his autobiography, seen the devastation wrought by that conflict, including by shells he himself had given the order to be fired. Like Helmut Kohl, whose worshipped, conscripted older brother died pointlessly fighting for Hitler, and Francois Mitterrand, himself captured during the fall of France, his experience was real and lived, not second hand.

This can be seen even in the voting in 2016 referendum. That the young principally voted Remain and the old voted Leave has been often noted. But if you break that over-65 vote up further, there’s a substantial flip to back towards Remain amongst the oldest voters, the survivors of the survivors of World War Two. After all, someone who is 65 today was born nearly a decade after the war ended. It was their parents’ war, not their own. A war that has been appropriated, and for purposes of which those who fought in it would, collectively, not approve.

Let’s return to Dad’s Army, after all, BBC Two does often enough. Don’t Panic! The Dad’s Army Story (2000) a cheerful history of the sitcom great written and presented by Victoria Wood contains a telling juxtaposition of interviewees. The series' surprising continued popularity is discussed and Wendy Richard (born 1943) expresses a nostalgia for the war years, and how people banded together during them. This is a sentiment which Clive Dunn (born 1920) bluntly dismisses. “Like most people I had a foul war,” he says, and disgust and horror briefly pass across his face.

It’s the difference between those who remember war, and those who only remember war films.