Stella Creasy, a candidate for the deputy leadership. Photo: Getty Images
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Stella Creasy rages against the political machine, but can she break it?

Helen Lewis talks public services, Jeremy Corbyn and ladyballs with Labour deputy leadership candidate Stella Creasy.

Stella Creasy is fascinated by how things work – the texture of politics; its levers and logjams. At a cafe in her constituency of Walthamstow, she whips out her iPad to show me the bespoke software she uses to record her constituents’ interests and concerns. It’s a step forward from the standard Labour voter database, Contact Creator (although, thanks to its continental developers, quite a few of the instructions are in French).

On the day we meet, a LabourList poll has just suggested that she might be in with a chance of winning Labour’s deputy leadership. This is significant for several reasons. First, it is a challenge to Tom Watson, videogame enthusiast and union favourite, who has led the race from the very start. Second, it is interesting for what it suggests about the mental calculations of Labour supporters. How many of them are voting for Jeremy Corbyn for leader, but feel they cannot pick another man for deputy? And how many anti-Corbynites are voting for a deputy they expect – perhaps even hope – will take over if the left-winger gets whacked by a shadow cabinet coup?

Creasy won’t be drawn on the Kremlinology, but confirms that she would be happy to be  deputy to Corbyn, or any of the other candidates: “I’ve worked with all these people, because what I want to be is part of a Labour movement.” She praises the enthusiasm of his supporters, saying he taps into “people's sense that they want being involved in a political movement to mean more than leaflet rounds”.   

She joined the Labour party in 1994, aged 17, because “I thought, I want things to be different”. After working in a think-tank and as a parliamentary researcher, she became MP for Walthamstow in 2010 and increased her majority substantially at the last election. She now asks herself whether she would join the Labour party again if she were transported back to her teens. One of the conclusions from this line of thought is that Labour needs to connect more with single-issue campaigns – she cites No More Page 3 – and other political movements, such as the Women’s Equality Party. But the latter plans to run candidates against Labour at the next election, I say. “I look at the Women's Equality Party and the challenge that they set about who's championing equality . . . it is a danger for us that people will find other outlets for engaging in progressive campaigning and policymaking and change.” When I suggest that Labour has been poor at capturing the recent energy of the feminist movement, she points out that there are constituency parties where only one in four members are women. “I am of that generation of feminists who dropped the ball, because we looked at the gains our mothers and fathers had made, and thought 'brilliant, we're on the road now', and somewhere along the way, not only did progress stall, it went backwards,” she says. Referring to George Galloway’s notorious remarks on Julian Assange, she adds: “So we're having debates again about whether rape can exist within relationships, it's ‘bad sexual etiquette’ apparently. It really is not.”  

Creasy’s approach to feminism is distinct from other politicians of her generation because it is so uncompromising. She says that she was told that calling herself a feminist was “career suicide” and that she wants to scream when people ask if she was inspired by Margaret Thatcher. (“When I get asked that, mainly by men, I ask if Berlusconi inspires them.”)

It is hard to imagine her laughing off a question from an interviewer about her weight, as Liz Kendall did with a joking “fuck off” to the Mail on Sunday. At the end of the interview, I ask her two light-hearted questions: does she get the night bus, like Jeremy Corbyn? And where does she get her vests? “That is such a gendered question.” No, it’s not, I say. Jeremy Corbyn famously gets his from a market stall in Islington. “But here's the thing - we do live in an unequal world and when women are asked those questions, it is implicit that if you look a certain way people are more likely to trust you. . . . and those kind of questions is like being asked if we should have two women at the top. All my life it's been men and no one has batted an eyelid. Now there's the possibility of two women, people are saying 'whoa, steady'.”

I am chastened, having thought the vest question was mildly diverting, but that is not the end of my transgressions. A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece which – inter alia – praised Liz Kendall for saying unpopular things at hustings, saying this showed “ladyballs”. The Independent on Sunday’s Jane Merrick picked this up in an interview that weekend with Kendall, who liked the phrase.

But Creasy was not impressed. She first put out a campaign poster which said, “When people ask of women, ‘have you got the balls?’ I say, ‘We can do better – we’ve got the guts’.” Now, she shows me a Grazia piece she has written about sexism, which observes, “Some think women aren’t ‘up to’ the role or that we need ‘balance’ in our leadership team . . . Indeed, some ask if we have ‘ladyballs’ – as though women in senior positions are OK as long as they mimic men.”

Having a public dig at two female journalists while running on a feminist platform is not, shall we say, orthodox political behaviour. But once my miffedness has subsided, I’m oddly impressed. Stella Creasy is not interested in smoothing off her edges in order to get on, or becoming “clubbable” by flattering political journalists. This is me, take it or leave it, is the message.

There is a streak of iron running through her, demonstrated by this unwillingness to let what she perceives as sexism slide. Early in her parliamentary career, she told a story of being mistaken in a lift for a secretary, which ruffled many feathers among established MPs. A few years later, she became the public face of Twitter abuse, after speaking out about rape threats she received on the platform. (Other female MPs receive similar tweets – indeed, a man was jailed for sending Luciana Berger anti-semitic abuse – but most are reluctant to talk about it for fear of seeming weak or whingeing.)

But Creasy is nothing if not fearless, which is what has given her a reputation as an individualist - “a cat who walks alone,” in Gaby Hinsliff’s memorable description. But her supporters reject the idea of a loner, saying the characterisation is driven by her refusal to rely on networks of patronage in the party. “Stella's gone about politics in a different way - not being in shadow cabinet but making her name with more freedom running her own campaigns on the back benches and in junior positions,” says a member of her campaign. “I think the loner thing is nonsense and comes from the fact she just isn't tribal and that unsettles MPs stuck in an old way of doing politics that reduces people to which gang you are in. Some tribal elements of the party feel threatened if you are not in a tribe and so she becomes like a disruptive technology to them - popular with people, found unsettling by established elites and then ultimately embraced by them too.”

Creasy says that her reputation comes from the fact “I do things differently”. She describes the payday lending campaign, which took on companies like Wonga which charged borrowers eye-watering interest rates, as an example of her ability to bring disparate groups together for a common cause – credit unions, trade unions, local councilors and activists. “It was building teams of people who were working in a different way,” she says. “But this is not how Westminster operates.”

To bring more of that spirit into the party, she has an idea: instead of a national manifesto, the party should have a list of priorities. “If you have a campaign idea that is an answer – and when I say it's an answer, it's not "someone should do something about this" but "here's something that would help make a difference" – then you should be able to get matched funding from Labour to be able to campaign for that to make it happen.” This is part of her vision for a less factional party. “We can't afford to waste anyone in the Labour party,” she says. “Most of my adult life in the Labour party it has been Brownite, Blairite, Trot. . . It's a machine on all sides, that says ‘unless you can conform to our gang, we're not interested in working with you’. That has got to stop.”

Some of this feels like a veiled criticism of Tom Watson, who was accused of masterminding a Brownite coup to topple Tony Blair. He has spoken in the hustings of working in the “engine room” of Labour, while the leader is on the bridge. But Creasy’s vision for the deputy leader’s role is different: “You can't do that in back offices in Westminster, you have to want to be out in the field on the front line with people, because it starts with people.” For several years, she has run leadership training sessions for women who want to get into politics, and seminars called “Circular Firing Squads”. Her own feminist connections are impressive: she is friends with Times columnist Caitlin Moran, who is backing her for the deputy leadership, and stand-up Bridget Christie.

But back to how things work – because Creasy has public services in her sights. She tells the story of a woman in her constituency who had 18-month-old twins, who desperately wanted to spend her personal independence payments, part of disability benefit, on a morning’s childcare on a Thursday. “For her, in spite of all her conditions, a morning without the children was gold.” A friend who used the same Sure Start centre wanted the same thing, and together they could have afforded a whole day. “The answer was 'no, that money is supposed to be spent on you and not your children' . . . People power is about giving those women the help and support to be able to make the choice that's right for them.”

But isn’t that a problem people associate with the left? That the state knows better than you do how to spend your money? “What did the last Labour government get wrong? It did lots of great stuff on choice, but nothing on voice. You need choice and voice to work together.” She is passionate about “mutualising services” – OK, but then how do you do that without using the phrase “mutualising services”, I say, which makes me want to cry? “People power.”

There is no doubt that Stella Creasy’s politics differ significantly from Jeremy Corbyn’s – you might once have called her a Blairite, although that term now seems to encompass anyone to the right of Che Guevara – but they are in essence both offering the same vision. It’s the idea that even without power, Labour might make a difference. In Jeremy Corbyn’s case, that is by moving the national conversation to the left. In Stella Creasy’s, it is about working on progressive campaigns with anyone who will muck in. That represents a stark difference with the way the party is used to functioning. She might rage against the machine – but can she break it?

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

CREDIT: CREATIVE COMMONS
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A group of men united only by sport was once my idea of hell. What changed?

It struck me, during the course of our team’s annual pre-season dinner, how much I like my team-mates. 

To the cricket team’s annual pre-season dinner. Although I’ve been playing for them for ten years or so, I’ve never been to one of these. This is because when I say “I’ve been playing for them for etc…” you’re probably not getting the right picture. What I mean is: I have played ten matches for them, and last year not at all, with a highest score of 22, and an average of 10.17. If you think that’s unimpressive, it’s a lot better than when I was a schoolboy, and I am just 26th placed out of 50 people who have played ten or more matches for them. Last year I was 25th, I see. Well, I’m going to have to do something about that.

The idea is that if I go to the dinner this time, it will inspire me to get in shape and play a game or two this season. I almost invariably enjoy it when I do, especially the time I was in a record-breaking tenth-wicket partnership of 72 while batting with a broken hand. (Well, finger. But a finger’s a part of the hand, isn’t it? Even the little finger.) I suppose there are times when I don’t enjoy it so much, such as when it’s raining hard enough for the cows in neighbouring fields to sit under a tree, but not hard enough to send us back to the pavilion or, better still, the pub, and the opposition are clouting us all over the ground despite the weather, and if we’d batted first – we never bat first, in my (limited) experience – the other lot would have polished us off about an hour ago, and we could now all be cosily inside the pavilion or, as I said earlier, even better, the pub. Then again, the team is called the Rain Men, so what did I expect?

So signing up for games involves considering a number of factors: some kind of mystic calculation about what the weather will be like, an assessment of how far away the ground is (we’re a nomadic team, so we don’t have one of our own), and how fit I think I’m going to be on the day. That’s the troublesome part. There is, of course, the melancholy of coming back, aching and knackered, at what is usually well after nine in the evening on a Sunday, lugging a cricket bag, like someone who has not been able to let go of his childhood and is out after his bedtime.

The fitness, as I said, is problematic. I got slightly out of puff going for a pee between the second and third paragraphs of this column, so I think there is going to be a lot of tedious spadework in store for me. My dumb-bells are in East Finchley, which I don’t go to, although as my cricket stuff is there too I suppose I’m going to have to bite that bullet sooner or later. If I eschew the dumb-bells then there will always be the floor, gravity, and push-ups. There will always be stairs, somewhere, I can run up and down, while I have the use of my legs. While there is an earth I can walk upon, I can walk upon it. The upper body strength, so I can pick up a cricket bat without falling over, is the thing to aim for, but right now the main goal is to be able to get out of bed and go to the loo without getting winded.

Anyway, the dinner. I decided that I’d walk to the restaurant. This was largely because the restaurant is about 200 yards from where I am holed up at the moment. There is, literally, only one restaurant closer to me. I walked a bit more than 200 yards because I had to swing by Sainsbury’s to pick up a couple of bottles of wine (the McGuigan’s Reserve Cab Sauv at £6.50 a bot, special offer, being the sedative of choice these days), as the restaurant is unlicensed. We met at the pub first, of course.

It struck me, during the course of the evening, how much I like my team-mates. I am by no means the oldest, so many of them are rich in wisdom and experience. (Amazingly, the team won more games last season than it has in its history, but that might have been because I hadn’t played for them.) Two of the people I am particularly fond of couldn’t make it, but at least I got to have A Long Rant About Life In General with Marcus Berkmann, author of two extremely amusing books about the team (Rain Men and Zimmer Men), as well as the greatest book about Star Trek ever written (Set Phasers to Stun).

Imagine: a long table sat at by a group of about 15 men, united only by a sport. It would once have been my idea of hell. So why is it not now? Is it because I actually like these guys? They’re not the typical idea of a cricket club gang, I have to say that. And we do, admittedly, talk about cricket a fair amount. But still. (I even liked I—, who gave up smoking and then had a rush of blood to the head last year and sent a round-robin email to the team saying how much he hated A—, one of our most lovable players. I— couldn’t make it to the dinner, largely on the grounds of not having been invited.) Or am I that lonely? 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war