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.