Emily Thornberry: “It always comes back to your childhood”

The shadow foreign secretary on ambition and leading the Labour Party.

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Emily Thornberry was seven years old when she was made homeless. In 1967 her father deserted the family without warning and, with her mother unable to pay the mortgage on their home in Guildford, the bailiffs arrived.

With the help of a local Labour councillor, Thornberry, along with her mother and two younger brothers, were provided with a council house. The next few years were a gruelling ordeal of precarity, food parcels and clothing donations. Her father, meanwhile, went on to become assistant secretary-general of the United Nations.

Thornberry, who serves as Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, has recounted these formative years in interviews many times before. But it’s almost impossible to begin otherwise. “Sorry,” she says when we meet in her Islington constituency office, “but it always comes back to your childhood, doesn’t it?”

When asked how she maintains her resilience, especially at a time when female MPs are being subjected to a growing number of threats, Thornberry is quick to stress that she’s “been through so much worse than this”.

Thornberry has been targeted recently. She points to a mugshot pinned on the wall of a man the police have said needs to be looked out for. “And you saw the bars on the windows of the office. You can draw your own conclusions as to the level of day-to-day threat that I’m under.”

But she nonetheless remains steadfast in her enthusiasm for front-line politics. “I really don’t want to be a victim, and I’m not a victim. I want 14-year-old girls thinking about going into politics to look at Emily Thornberry and think, ‘That looks such fun. I want to be involved in politics.’”

Thornberry insists that, despite our diminished political culture, she still finds being an MP fun. She is campaigning for “the honour” of being re-elected as the MP for Islington South and Finsbury in London, and has stumped across the nation in support of a Labour majority government under Jeremy Corbyn.

Even though the polls are narrowing, there remains a possibility that Labour could lose seats on 12 December. If that happens, Corbyn’s position as party leader would come into serious question.

Yet Thornberry is determined to focus on the election, rather than on Corbyn’s future. “We’re not even thinking about that. What we’re thinking about is fighting to win it, and to win a majority.” Polling, she repeats several times, is unreliable. “It feels a bit like 2017 all over again. Nobody knows what’s going to happen.”

Thornberry has been a vocal supporter of a second EU referendum and in September this year warned Labour that it could lose up to 30 per cent of its Remain-voting supporters to the Greens and Liberal Democrats unless the party was “clear about where [it stands] on Europe”. But she wasn’t surprised when Corbyn equivocated on the question of the UK’s EU membership. “He’s been saying behind the scenes for a while that he would take a neutral stance on this.”

Many in the party regard Thornberry, 59, as a future Labour leader. She says that her focus remains on foreign affairs and how she might “make a difference at a time like this, when the country has vacated the international stage”.

Nor is she impressed with the constant speculation about her leadership ambitions, which she describes as “a way of disempowering people. If you do your job well then people say, ‘Ooh, she is only doing that because of the leadership.’ Guess what, it might be because you’re talented, and you want to be a good foreign secretary and you’re putting a lot of effort into it, and you want to be a good professional and someone that the party and the country will be proud of… One step at a time.”

Would she consider running if Corbyn did have to resign after the election? “I am concentrating on getting Labour into power, and hoping that Jeremy will do me the honour of making me foreign secretary.”

Would she rule out a leadership bid? She pauses. “Good try! I suppose if the next leader of the Labour Party is going to be a woman, then that’s what’s important. It’s not necessarily a good look for us to continue to have men as number one and women as number two.”

During her childhood, Thornberry would see her father every now and again. Wherever he was in the world – Cyprus, the Middle East, the former Yugoslavia or Somalia – he would periodically “gather his family in”, as Thornberry describes it, to join him. “He would pick us up [from the airport] in the car, and lecture us about what were we doing with our lives and ask why we weren’t being more ambitious.”

Apart from what she and her brothers called the “trip from the airport” conversation, their father would not speak to them for the rest of their stay. These discussions were Thornberry’s only exchanges with her father.

These experiences say a lot about the making of Emily Thornberry. Would she consider herself ambitious now? “Yes, of course I am. You’ve probably heard this, but I don’t just have one chip on my shoulder, I have two. I have one on each shoulder. It gives me my balance, it gives me my drive. I have a lot to prove, and I’m proving it.”

But has she not already proved herself? “I’m considerably more relaxed than I was! But I feel as though I’m getting into my stride. To quote [the Muriel Spark character] Jean Brodie, ‘I’m just getting into my prime!’”

Ailbhe Rea is an NS  political correspondent

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman

This article appears in the 04 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What we want

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