When I ask Angela Eagle why she would be a good deputy leader for the Labour party, she gives a rather unexpected answer. As well as the three points in her surprisingly-succinct “elevator pitch” – champion members, campaign for equality, fight Tories – she adds another: “I can chair meetings.”
To illustrate quite how good she is at this, she describes what happened at an EU summit in 1998 when she ended up chairing the environment council of ministers. “I got us to agreement on seven directives and finished by 5.30 in the afternoon,” she says, smiling. “Nobody had ever heard of that happening. I actually performed a kind of auction of car emissions to get a deal on what they ought to be… The Germans wanted it to be as big as possible and the Danes wanted it to be zero.” And the German representative who Eagle brought into line so promptly at that meeting? Angela Merkel.
This kind of behind-the-scenes efficiency is a big part of Eagle’s platform. “I’ve been involved in the party since I was 16, through thick and thin and I know how it works,” she says. She was elected as the MP for Wallasey in Merseyside in 1992, the then-youngest MP in the Commons at 31. The list of jobs she’s done since is lengthy: eight years as a minister in four different departments including the Treasury; vice-chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party; at various times chair of party conference, the National Executive Committee, and the National Policy Forum. It’s easy to see where the experience in chairing meetings has come from.
It’s the insight into the party’s internal structures that will help make her a good deputy leader, she argues. “I will ensure that the party works. I also know where it doesn’t work and where it might need reforming or modernising. I’m not obsessed with the party not changing, in fact I have insight into what could be better at Brewer’s Green [the party’s headquarters], what could be better in our structures.”
With the exception of last-minute leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn, Eagle is the longest-serving MP contesting for leader or deputy leader. Given her seniority and experience, her choice to go for deputy rather than the top job is perhaps surprising. “I think the leader’s got a whole load of other things to do that I perhaps am not best suited for,” she says. “You have to be a certain sort of person and want to give up rather a lot of your life…”
Her own ambitions aside, she is watching the race for leader very closely, sizing up who she hopes will be her future boss, should she succeed as deputy. “I hope that I would be a very straight talker to the leader,” she says. “Loyal, but I’d tell them exactly what I thought was happening and give them the benefit of my experience of the party. I think I understand what the party feels and thinks about a lot of things so I could communicate that – but I would only do it behind the scenes – you wouldn’t read about it in the newspapers.”
She cites John Prescott as someone who balanced the public and party-facing aspects of the role well. “He was a reassurance for the party that it wouldn’t leave its roots behind, even as a leader was having to pioneer with voters that we needed to convert.” However, she emphasises that 2015 is not 1992, and the conditions under which Tony Blair became leader are very different to those the new leader will face. “When Tony became leader the party had been through what I call its ‘collective nervous breakdown’ period in the 1980s,” she says. “I was there, I saw it all, so I understand why people didn’t trust the party structures in the way you can now.”
Eagle and Blair didn’t always have a completely harmonious relationship. She didn’t endorse him to become leader in 1994 – as she cheerfully volunteers, “I was the only member of the Tribune executive not to” – and in 2002 he sacked her as a junior Home Office minister, by phone, just as she was about to address a meeting of hundreds of people. Damian McBride has since stated that this was a mistake, and that Blair had “forgotten she existed”.
Eagle was never a comfortable part of the group of women MPs labelled as “Blair’s babes”, especially because she had been in the party longer than Blair had. Her choice of nomination in 1994 reflected this – she chose Margaret Beckett.
“I’d always believed that we should have women running for leadership positions in the party, and it seemed to me that I could do one of two things: I could go along with the tide, or I could nominate someone along with my principles. Margaret is a formidable politician who’d done the job of acting leader when John died with great skill as she always brings to anything she does, and I thought it was really important that she got to fight the leadership election.”
This is a key part of Eagle’s motivation for running for the deputy leadership – the pursuit of equality. “If Harriet [Harman] is going to retire I think somebody needs to pick up that baton, and I’ve always been known for doing that,” she says. “I was involved in getting quotas in the party and all that long before I was elected.”
Later in our discussion, she goes into more detail about her plans for Labour’s equalities agenda:
“What we have to do is protect our legacy and make sure that it doesn’t get rolled back. I think when you’ve got a progressive majority in parliament that’s easy. It’s not so easy when you haven’t, so we have to be vigilant about things coming along the track that might roll back some of the progress.”
Eagle was the first female MP to come out in office, and she’s concerned that the strides that have been taken in LGBT equality are not as secure as we may think. “It’s good that we have a prime minister who is ostensibly in favour of gay marriage, but if you look at a lot of the people in the government they’re not, so we have to make sure and be vigilant that we don’t go backwards.”
Getting balance at all levels of the Labour party is something she cares about very much, and she has been part of trying to make that happen for decades now.
“I’m proud of the work the Labour party did both in its own structures, which I was involved in the late 1980s, to have quotas throughout the roles,” she says. “The toughest one was getting them in the parliamentary party and then having them in selections, and it’s still controversial. But I just think there’s no way in a modern world we should sort of tolerate having male-only environs at the top.” Eagle is, after all, the woman who was at the receiving end of David Cameron’s “calm down, dear” jibe at PMQs in 2011 – something she still points out the PM never apologised to her in person for.
She’s bothered, too, by the idea that there is no way for Labour members to be sure of electing a male-female leader-deputy team – it’s the only part of the party that isn’t “quota-ised”, as she puts it, although she does say that she’d “like to see two women” in charge. She also suggests that the mechanism by which leadership and deputy leadership candidates must secure MP nominations before making it onto the ballot might also need reform, because in a crowded field (there are seven candidates for deputy) it becomes very difficult for everyone to get the nominations they need to make it onto the ticket. “At the moment a dominant candidate rolling in the nominations risks driving other people off and making it hard for the party to have a wide choice, and I think that’s regrettable,” she says.
Eagle’s Merseyside constituency bucked the national trend at the general election, with an 8.6 per cent swing in her direction that doubled her majority to 16,348. “It felt like 1997 in Wallasey,” she says. “But it’s no good, and this is where this argument that we had more votes in England than we did in 1997 won’t wash because we’re piling up in places where we already held. We have to go out… out to places where we don’t have a presence at the moment.”
With Labour so involved in choosing its next leader, the tendency is for the party to pause, reflect and regroup after the election loss until the results in September. But Eagle is anxious that the party not lose momentum while this is happening.
“We can’t just have a discussion about what happens and where we should go now through the prism of the leadership election. That is only one thing. but there is an obvious thing we have to do very very quickly which is deal with the missing millions off the electoral register,” she says. “By 31 December this year the new register will come into effect and the Tories I bet will be wanting to do the boundary changes on the new register. If we don’t get those people in the next six months found and signed up onto the register then millions of people are going to be disenfranchised.”
This is typical of Eagle – pushing an idea that isn’t media-friendly or particularly eye-catching, but which she believes will have long-term implications behind the scenes. In fact, I sense a smidgen of impatience in her when our conversation dwells too long for her on what went wrong at the 2015 election and not enough on what might happen next:
“We just have to get over it and get on with it. We can spend a load of time mourning about what might have been but the fact is that that’s gone. Yes we have to learn the lessons, yes we have to move on, yes we have to do the reform that we need to be fit to win in 2020, but we also have to do the job that we’ve got now, and that is to oppose the Tories.”
If Eagle’s recent jibe at Chris Grayling is anything to go by – she contrasted the dictionary definition of his name as “a small, grey fish frequently used as bait” with her own majestic moniker – opposing the Conservatives is something she isn’t going to wait to be deputy leader to get on with.
Now listen to Caroline discussing the Labour leadership contest on the NS podcast: