Gisela Stuart is a politician who defies the rules of politics. An ardent eurosceptic who doesn’t come from the non-liberal right or old left. A Labour member who worked alongside Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Andrea Leadsom during the EU referendum campaign. A German, who came to study and work in Britain in the Seventies, campaigning to take the UK out of the single market. A Midlands MP who should have lost her marginal seat of Edgbaston in 2005. And in 2010.
But she’s still here, holding her constituency and fighting for Brexit. “Given that I’ve spent the last 13 years of my life trying to give up the subject of Europe, my career plan is going wrong somewhere,” she laughs when we meet in her poky office at the top of the Palace of Westminster. “I kept telling people like Boris on the 24 June: ‘It’s yours. I’m a backbench opposition MP, leave me alone.’”
We sit at a circular table, upon which she has two cans of Diet Coke and a fluorescent green whistle to hand. Appropriate props for a politician known as a mobiliser. Her community engagement efforts in Birmingham Edgbaston have been an example to MPs in marginal seats of how to hang on against the odds. The seat was a key Tory target in 2010; the most vulnerable Lab/Con marginal Labour managed to hold in that election.
Stuart accuses Labour colleagues with big majorities of failing to learn from 1997 landslide gains like hers. “We [the ’97 intake] were the ones who, in terms of how we fight elections, learned that you need to gather data, knock on doors to have people’s names, phone numbers, voting intentions – you can detect trends,” she says. “But even those marginal seats forgot that, in between election dates whilst you go on gathering the data, you still have to do a bit of the persuading job.
“Whereas the seats which have been held for Labour forever since the day – with some exceptions, but they are a handful – have neither engaged in the data collection mechanisms which we’ve done, nor had to marry that up with just getting opinion, engaging people. And that’s what we have to do, particularly in those Labour heartlands. Or else we will lose them,” she warns.
Does the leadership ever comes to her for such advice? “Saving the Labour party’s well beyond me,” she replies, shaking her head. “I think there’s a younger generation who has to do that, not me.”
Stuart is now 61, and shows me pictures of her grandson – chuckling that babysitting isn’t dissimilar to dealing with the politicians she worked with over the referendum campaign. She was born in Bavaria, and at 18 moved to England from Germany in 1974, to do a business course at Manchester Polytechnic. She worked in the University bookshop. She jokes that when she was selected as the Birmingham Edgbaston candidate, her ten years in Manchester made her more of an outsider to her local party than being from Munich. “That was the real problem!” she laughs.
Her European immigrant past makes her opposition to free movement somewhat ironic. She calls the single market “a political construct from the beginning”, arguing that, “there’s never been a logic to why trade and the free movement of people had to be inextricably interlinked.
“I’d always been puzzled about why socialists in particular thought that there was anything that particularly social-democratic about the single market . . . if you’ve got this kind of uncontrolled movement of people you cannot plan for your public services.”
But Stuart hasn’t always been a eurosceptic. From 2002, she was a parliamentary delegate to the Convention on the Future of Europe, drawing up a draft EU Constitution. It was this tortuous three-year process that led to her decrying the EU project. She saw deeper European integration as the careerist ambition of “a self-selected group of the European political elite”, rather than in European citizens’ interests.
In 2005, she was “on the barricades” demanding an EU referendum – though didn’t support David Cameron’s call for one a decade later, seeing a lack of any significant reform or transfer of power upon which to decide.
Stuart reveals that she is calling for a review into when referendums should and shouldn’t be called. “It’s probably too early to do this now, but in about a year or so, I think we do have to go back and look at, really analyse, under what circumstances you do have a referendum,” she argues.
“I think it almost will take a year because the result is almost like a grieving process,” she adds. “Whether it’s the Public Accounts Committee, or whichever committees look at it, it requires a distance where we no longer decide which side we were on on The Great Vote, but actually look at it in a much more dispassionate way.”
Is this just a politician’s way of saying the EU referendum was a bad idea? “One of the lessons I think, I hope, we learned from that – we should’ve had a referendum on Maastricht, we should have had a referendum on Lisbon,” she replies. “They were significant transfers of power, and that was the original idea of when you have a referendum.”
As it looks like Parliament will vote on triggering Article 50, Stuart says she is more worried by “any attempt in the Lords to overturn” Brexit than in the Commons. “I think that would be very unwise,” she cautions. “There’s this sort of Kamikaze theory of Lords, that it’s the outrage of the Lords’ behaviour which will finally lead to Lords reform. Which puts me the slightly difficult position in that I do wish to have fundamental Lords reform, but I do think there are other ways of doing it. And better ways of doing it!”
Stuart is chairing Change Britain, the successor campaign to Vote Leave, to “make sure that the interests of the Labour heartlands are taken into account at the early stages” of negotiations. Does she receive enough direction from Jeremy Corbyn to have Labour’s voice heard? “Absence of lines to take can be terribly liberating because I can write my own lines to take,” she chuckles.
“I have not yet detected that there is a narrative as to what the Labour party, from the frontbenches, is looking for,” she admits. “[Shadow Brexit secretary] Keir Starmer has made a very good start . . . he’s setting a tone which I welcome. But it’s got to go further than that.”
How can she justify pushing for a full-fat Brexit, when the people who Labour is supposed to represent would be hit the hardest? Communities struggling financially, and migrants who have been victims of racism?
“You have to have a conversation and say, in the long-run, this was the right thing to do,” says Stuart of the former. “Restoring democratic accountability in a way, which makes a society resilient. It gives it that base on which you then become economically successful.”
So it is an acceptance of short-term sacrifice then? “Yeah, I think so. Yeah,” she concedes.
And on migrants, Stuart emphasises that EU citizens’ rights in the UK must be protected, and urges the Home Office to “sort itself out” regarding citizenship applications. “I deeply regret that there seem to have been real xenophobic attacks, which should’ve not happened,” she adds, but also accuses the press of hamming up hate crime stories.
“There’s something which I sometimes find a bit worrying, and it kind of reminds me of when I first came to England in 1974 – this was the end of the three-day week, the UK was a bit of a basket case, to put it politely,” she says. “I always remember foreign journalists would come and say, ‘so where are the slums?’, because they’d come to report about all the bad things.
“I now sort of find, particularly in dealing with foreign journalists, them saying ‘so where are the hate attacks?’ And you feel like saying there is more to write about. There’s a journalistic bubble that talks to itself and, having decided that this is what’s happening, that’s what they go out and look for.”