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Thangam Debbonaire interview: “Labour isn’t quite ready to win an election – but there is a shift”

The shadow leader of the House and Labour MP for Bristol West on opposing Jacob Rees-Mogg, Labour’s prospects of winning a majority, and the best Talking Heads lyrics.

By Anoosh Chakelian and Ailbhe Rea

This interview took place before the shadow cabinet reshuffle and report from the Standards Committee. You can listen to the full version with Anoosh Chakelian and Ailbhe Rea on the “New Statesman Podcast“.

Late into the night on 15 November, before a humiliating government U-turn on suspending the former Tory MP Owen Paterson for breaching lobbying rules, Thangam Debbonaire was preparing her speech.

As shadow leader of the House of Commons, she was at the forefront of condemning the Conservatives’ bungled attempt at changing the standards process their man had fallen foul of.

Hovering over a blank page, the first words she wrote were: “How did we get here?” A lament for the degradation of checks and balances under Boris Johnson’s premiership, but also an echo of a lyric from the iconic 1980 Talking Heads hit “Once in a Lifetime”.

“I’m a big Talking Heads fan, it was literally the first piece of vinyl I ever bought. Actually, the two albums, Remain In Light and Fear of Music remain my two favourite complete works of music – apart from I did mention Schubert as well, I’m a classical musician by trade – but those two albums I think are two of the best albums ever made,” she said, when speaking on the latest episode of the New Statesman Podcast.

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Debbonaire has worked as a professional cellist in the past, and is part of the parliamentary string quartet, the Statutory Instruments – a passion that helped her through the “dark time” of Brexit turbulence in British politics.

“‘How did we get here? How did I get here?’: I realised I was playing the song in my head as I was writing a first draft of the speech. And I realised that the words, ‘This is not my beautiful house’ were also really appropriate… The lyrics really resonated with me,” she smiled.

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“And it is a beautiful House. Democracy is a beautiful thing. I’m cheesy. I love parliamentary democracy. I think you can always make it better… But it’s a thing worth treasuring, it slips away at your peril. And one of the ways it slips away is if you change the rules because it suits you for sorting out one of your mates.”

Debbonaire expressed scepticism about MPs working second jobs, arguing “if you’re doing your parliamentary work, constituency advocacy, reading the overwhelming volume of material there is to read, if you want to be a well-informed MP, you could work 24 hours a day [and] still not tick everything off your list”.

The speech, in which she also recited the Nolan principles of standards in public life, was her chance to critique how her opposite number, the Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg, had behaved.

After all, she credits her rival as “an extremely courteous, communicative opposite number to have”, and someone who has “great respect for parliament and parliamentary tradition, and understands how parliament works and the importance of standards”.

It “surprises” her that “somebody who is so knowledgeable about parliamentary process and history and tradition” tried to force through a rule change to protect a colleague who should have been suspended for wrongdoing.

Calling herself an “idealist” about public life, Debbonaire joked that she was “busy being surprised by everything” in terms of the government’s latest missteps over corruption allegations.

“Do you know what? I’m not sure why I’m surprised. Maybe I should be more cynical… There’s been a rule against it [paid advocacy, which Paterson was found to have committed] since 1695. And those rules were broken. It seems now we’re going to have to make them even stronger because we can’t trust the government not to just try and rip up the rulebook.”

Having served as an opposition whip between 2016 and 2020 through the punishing votes of the Brexit days, she has learned a great deal about party management. The recent back-bench Tory rebellion that slashed the government’s majority from 70 to 26 on social care reforms are a sign of things to come, she suggested.

“I learned as a whip, and talking to government whips, rebellion hurts the first time. People don’t want to rebel against their own party… You are expected [not] to as well, because my constituents elected me not because of my shining personality and stunning wit and ability to quote Talking Heads, but because I stood on a Labour ticket, so I’m not fooling myself!

“But what I have observed is that it hurts the worst the first time, but not the second, not the third… I’d be worried if I was a government whip.”

Is this Labour’s moment, then? It has been a difficult few weeks for No 10, and her party has inched ahead in the polls.

[See also: Labour now leads the Tories in most polls – but it should avoid celebration]

“It’s difficult to tell how long the storm’s going to last, isn’t it? There have been plenty of moments which have not led to the downfall of government… if you think about the illegal prorogation, I thought we were done then. And then we weren’t. And then there was the whole series of votes… all sorts of things happened then, which didn’t lead to the downfall of the government. And in fact, it was quite the opposite, wasn’t it.”

Yet Debbonaire, whose constituency of Bristol West is one of the Green Party’s top targets, believes Labour is receiving a “different reception on the doorstep” than it did during the “awful” election of December 2019.

“There’s a list of things that people are no longer saying to us that they were saying to us in 2019. And that’s a shift. We’re not quite ready to win a general election but I can see it now. I can see it’s there.”

Listen to the full interview with Thangam Debbonaire on the New Statesman Podcast.

[See also: Chris Bryant interview: “Labour should put the ministerial code into law”]