Emily Thornberry’s Diary: Brexit paralysis, facing the anger of Jewish voters – and coming home to an empty nest

Our only response as a party must be to listen to the anger, understand it, act on it, and fix the problem we’ve created.

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In this day and age, you can never guarantee the “empty nest” will stay empty for long, but this week it certainly felt like it, as my husband Chris and I took our youngest son off to start his first year at university in Scotland. As I’ve discovered twice before, it’s a strange day. You feel such pride in your child’s achievement, happiness at their excitement and a bit of nostalgia at their nerves. But the sense of loss really tugs at you, and this time hit me especially hard, being the last one. I tried to assume all was well when I hadn’t heard from him, but eventually cracked and rang. He didn’t pick up but texted to say he’d been too busy at the library, which – given I’m not too old to remember Freshers’ Week – I knew was a total fib. But knowing he’s been busy enjoying himself and making new friends is, in its own way, a wonderful relief.

People power

The journey back was made easier by spending a great weekend in Manchester. On arrival, we were hopelessly lost at the station, but a typically friendly young Mancunian lad helped us out. On Sunday morning, we headed to the People’s History Museum in Spinningfields. I was determined not to be impressed, given how much I adored its predecessor, which was next door to me when I lived in the East End, but I couldn’t keep up the pretence. It’s beautifully laid out and accessible, with stunning suffragettes memorabilia. At the gift shop, I loaded my basket with tea towels, cards and gift items, and realised the young lad at the till was our friend from the station. So I can heartily recommend both the amazing museum and its lovely staff.

Blue moves

I headed off to the TUC conference in Brighton to address its annual dinner, a great honour in the organisation’s 150th anniversary year. The menu flyer, trailing the evening’s entertainment, had a Star Wars theme – “May Your Union Be With You” – with me depicted as a lightsabre-wielding Princess Leia and Jeremy as a rather well-cast Obi-Wan Kenobi. I warned my host, the TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady, that I’d prepared quite a blue speech, but even so, I’m told her face was a picture as I delivered it, veering repeatedly from “Surely she’s not going to go there” to “Oh God, she absolutely has”. Nothing repeatable here, I’m afraid!

Touching the void

The next day, I was back in parliament, with an urgent question on Syria followed by an emergency debate on Yemen. One of the consequences of the government’s Brexit paralysis is that no major legislation is going through, so it’s not just that the Speaker wants to give MPs the opportunity to hold the government to account, but that something needs to fill the parliamentary void. Unfortunately, we made little progress on either issue.

On Syria, the government remains joined at the hand to the neocon, nation-building agenda of the Trump administration, and won’t even guarantee parliament a vote on future military action. And on Yemen, it still stubbornly refuses to do its job as pen-holder at the UN Security Council and propose a resolution ordering a ceasefire and peace talks. I got angry about that, but I also struggled not to break down at the despatch box when I read out the account of one couple losing three of their sons in last month’s Saudi air strike on a school bus. Knowing how I’d felt just saying goodbye to my boy, I couldn’t even imagine what it was like for those parents saying goodbye for ever.

At an equally sombre parliamentary event to launch the preparations for Holocaust Memorial Day in January, I met a survivor, who affectionately held my hand, and very carefully and patiently told me her story, urging me to pass it on – in the way that so many survivors rightly feel a duty to do while they still can. Then I met a woman whose late mother had also survived the Holocaust. And like so many Jewish people I have met in recent months, she was incandescent about Labour’s handling of the anti-Semitism crisis, hurling her fury and accusations in my face, and thrusting a copy of her mother’s testimony into my hands. It was a difficult encounter, but it’s no use feeling defensive or hiding away from that anger. Our only response as a party must be to listen to it, understand it, act on it, and fix the problem we’ve created.

And as a reminder of that, I went back and pinned the testimony she gave me to my office wall.

Stars and stripes

Even though I’ve had the odd terse word to say about Donald Trump, I still get invited to events at the US embassy. I always attend, because as long as they’re prepared to hear the opposite viewpoint, then I’ll never miss that chance when I can. I’m the same with Russia, Israel, Iran or anyone else. But this week’s reception was surprisingly empty and I fear many others have given up.

With Westminster in recess again, I was back to the constituency the next day to plough through my casework – hundreds of local residents needing help with housing, benefits, local crime problems and immigration status – and dealing with the sad news that the brilliant, long-standing (he might say long-suffering) chair of my local party is standing down. Over the time Ian McLaughlin’s been in the job, he’s helped take my constituency from the wafer-thin marginal regarded by the Lib Dems as their number one target to a seat with a 20,000 Labour majority. He seems impossible to replace, but I’m sure my local members will find someone up to the task.

Laundry listless

And with the week done, I was back to the “empty nest”, devoid of empty Coke cans and washing on the bathroom floor, now the last bird has flown. He finally called at the weekend, and said he was doing fine. And I finally let the tears out.

Emily Thornberry is a Labour MP and the shadow foreign secretary

Emily Thornberry is MP for Islington South & Finsbury and shadow secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs.

This article appears in the 21 September 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next war