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.

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Mumslink shows how online parenting networks are coming of age

Women online are changing the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. 

The habit of “speaking as a mother” came in for its fair share of criticism this summer. Andrea Leadsom’s insinuation of superiority over Theresa May, her rival for the Tory leadership, elicited widespread scorn – not least from those who have done most to strengthen the voice of mothers as a group: internet mums.

Over the past 15 years, the ten million users a month who log on to Mumsnet have been courted by politicians in webchats and speeches alike. The 2010 general election was even named “the Mumsnet election” in their honour.

From the start, parenting networks attracted users interested in comradeship, as much as those after information. 

For Jo Williamson, a mother-of-two, the trigger was the day her second child left for school, a jarring experience. “I went into a blind panic, thinking: ‘Blimey, I’m going to be sitting in an empty house just waiting for everybody to come back.’” In response, Jo and her business partner Jane Pickard came up with the idea for a new site that focuses on the fluid nature of many women’s professional and family lives.

The resulting network, Mumslink, uses carefully edited news feeds to introduce readers to ideas, businesses and charities that complement all aspects of their lives – from recipe tips to volunteering. “There are so many women out there with a plethora of talents but most of the time, because you’re with your children, nobody asks you to get involved,” Williamson says.

Similar feelings of isolation led Siobhan Freegard to found Netmums, one of the UK’s largest parenting sites. Back in 2000, she had barely heard of “social networks”, nor of Mumsnet, which launched around the same time, yet she knew that mothers needed a place “to share their stories and maybe meet up in the offline world, too”.

Such identity-building led to divisions over “the right way” to be a mother. A tense rivalry developed between the slightly younger Netmums and the more educated and affluent Mumsnetters (Tesco and Waitrose didn’t sponsor different networks for nothing). Within the sites’ pages, differences of opinion over working v stay-at-home parenting sparked allegations of hostility and bullying. Still, the media researcher Sarah Pedersen says there’s an argument that these sites have helped produce a reduction in depression and anxiety, as well as greater opportunities for women to negotiate “the tension between themselves and their role as mothers”.

There are signs that this online culture is growing up. The perception of mums as “a bit insular and thick” is more easily countered, says Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet, “now that so many mothers are able to express their individuality, their interests and their expertise in the public domain”.

According to Freegard, the very act of online sharing has helped begin to repair the rifts within the parenting debate. “With social media, we see working mums and part-time mums, and we see mums changing roles as their children change ages, and we understand that there are different angles to things – that everyone has their story.”

This is more pronounced in the world of video blogging, Freegard says. On her YouTube channel, Channel Mum, people talk calmly about controversial subjects that would have been a “bloodbath” on Netmums, such as ear piercing for very young children. “With video, you can see the person in real life and that helps you feel for their story,” she says.

Perhaps the greatest effect, however, has been on how the internet allows parents to work from home. As many as 160,000 part-time ventures have been started by British women in the past two years alone, self-styled kitchen-table start-ups. Sites such as Mumslink (similarly funded by Williamson and Pickard and run out of the former’s front room in Hertfordshire) aim to help this home-based workforce with new clients. One Mumslinker visits the site to write about her own line of natural nail varnish, another to promote her hot-tub business. The company Digital Mums uses it to encourage women to expand their digital skills.

Commercial savvy is something that Freegard is also keen to develop at Channel Mum – equipping her contributors with financial advice and small stipends. “I remember looking at mummy bloggers and thinking, ‘You guys didn’t get properly organised,’” she says. Freegard points out that most early mum bloggers never grew their audience beyond those already involved in parenting online, and struggled to become more professional as a result.

Quite what the future relationships will be between the brands, businesses and audiences for information on parenting has yet to be established. Some users will baulk at being increasingly cast in the role of consumer. At the same time, the networks’ names – Mumsnet, Netmums, Mumslink, Channel Mum – suggest that parenting is still a woman’s domain.

Yet a better balance seems to be emerging in the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. Greater gender equality in the distribution of start-up funding, more job vacancies that allow flexible working, and increasing numbers of prominent women in the tech industry are just some of the things the community is striving to promote. In Britain, which has an ageing population and an ever-growing community of carers, the rise of these networks seems sure to be a net gain for us all. 

For more, visit: mumslink.com

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser