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

Photo: Getty
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What will the 2017 local elections tell us about the general election?

In her timing of the election, Theresa May is taking a leaf out of Margaret Thatcher's book. 

Local elections are, on the whole, a much better guide to the next general election than anything the polls might do.

In 2012, Kevin Cunningham, then working in Labour’s targeting and analysis team, surprised his colleagues by announcing that they had lost the 2015 election. Despite gaining 823 councillors and taking control of 32 more local authorities, Cunningham explained to colleagues, they hadn’t made anything like the gains necessary for that point in the parliament. Labour duly went on to lose, in defiance of the polls, in 2015.

Matt Singh, the founder of NumberCruncherPolitics, famously called the polling failure wrong, in part because Labour under Ed Miliband had underperformed their supposed poll share in local elections and parliamentary by-elections throughout the parliament.

The pattern in parliamentary by-elections and local elections under Jeremy Corbyn before the European referendum all pointed the same way – a result that was not catastrophically but slightly worse than that secured by Ed Miliband in 2015. Since the referendum, thanks to the popularity of Theresa May, the Conservative poll lead has soared but more importantly, their performance in contests around the country has improved, too.

As regular readers will know, I was under the impression that Labour’s position in the polls had deteriorated during the coup against Corbyn, but much to my surprise, Labour’s vote share remained essentially stagnant during that period. The picture instead has been one of steady deterioration, which has accelerated since the calling of the snap election. So far, voters buy Theresa May’s message that a large majority will help her get a good Brexit deal. (Spoiler alert: it won’t.)

If the polls are correct, assuming a 2020 election, what we would expect at the local elections would be for Labour to lose around 100 councillors, largely to the benefit of the Liberal Democrats, and the Conservatives to pick up around 100 seats too, largely to the detriment of Ukip.

But having the local elections just five weeks before the general elections changes things. Basically, what tends to happen in local elections is that the governing party takes a kicking in off-years, when voters treat the contests as a chance to stick two fingers up to the boost. But they do better when local elections are held on the same day as the general election, as voters tend to vote for their preferred governing party and then vote the same way in the elections on the same day.

The Conservatives’ 2015 performance is a handy example of this. David Cameron’s Tories gained 541 councillors that night. In 2014, they lost 236, in 2013 they lost 335, and in 2012 they lost 405. In 2011, an usually good year for the governing party, they actually gained 86, an early warning sign that Miliband was not on course to win, but one obscured because of the massive losses the Liberal Democrats sustained in 2011.

The pattern holds true for Labour governments, too. In 2010, Labour gained 417 councillors, having lost 291 and 331 in Gordon Brown’s first two council elections at the helm. In 2005, with an electoral map which, like this year’s was largely unfavourable to Labour, Tony Blair’s party only lost 114 councillors, in contrast to the losses of 464 councillors (2004), 831 councillors (2003) and 334 councillors (2002).  This holds true all the way back to 1979, the earliest meaningful comparison point thanks to changes to local authorities’ sizes and electorates, where Labour (the governing party) gained council seats after years of losing them.

So here’s the question: what happens when local elections are held in the same year but not the same day as local elections? Do people treat them as an opportunity to kick the government? Or do they vote “down-ticket” as they do when they’re held on the same day?

Before looking at the figures, I expected that they would be inclined to give them a miss. But actually, only the whole, these tend to be higher turnout affairs. In 1983 and 1987, although a general election had not been yet called, speculation that Margaret Thatcher would do so soon was high. In 1987, Labour prepared advertisements and a slogan for a May election. In both contests, voters behaved much more like a general election, not a local election.

The pattern – much to my surprise – holds for 1992, too, when the Conservatives went to the country in April 1992, a month before local elections. The Conservatives gained 303 seats in May 1992.

What does this mean for the coming elections? Well, basically, a good rule of thumb for predicting general elections is to look at local election results, and assume that the government will do a bit better and the opposition parties will do significantly worse.

(To give you an idea: two years into the last parliament, Labour’s projected national vote share after the local elections was 38 per cent. They got 31 per cent. In 1985, Labour’s projected national vote share based on the local elections was 39 per cent, they got 30 per cent. In 2007, the Conservatives projected share of the vote was 40 per cent – they got 36 per cent, a smaller fall, but probably because by 2010 Gordon Brown was more unpopular even than Tony Blair had been by 2007.)

In this instance, however, the evidence suggests that the Tories will do only slightly better and Labour and the Liberal Democrats only slightly worse in June than their local election performances in May. Adjust your sense of  what “a good night” for the various parties is accordingly. 

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

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