Angela Eagle is still campaigning, even though her local Labour party has been suspended. After a summer of death threats and brick-throwing, she talks to HuffPost UK about Labour’s future - and her own.
“I don’t like him, never have. He’s a Trotsky!” Pat, an 82-year-old life-long Labour voter, is telling Angela Eagle exactly what she thinks of Jeremy Corbyn. It’s a drizzly Friday lunchtime and Eagle is out with a team of local Labour party members and councillors, knocking on doors in her Wallasey constituency on the Wirral in Merseyside.
But Pat, who has a sign in her window “Stop! We don’t buy or sell from the door”, is not much interested in Eagle’s wares either. “I’m disgusted with the lot of you. You’re all rude to each other on that programme on the Wednesday [PMQs].” “Can I do anything?” her MP asks. “No,” replies Pat, firmly, before politely closing the door.
Eagle, of course, did try to do something about Corbyn’s leadership. Having quit in July as Shadow Business Secretary in frustration at the direction of the party, she triggered a formal leadership challenge after garnering enough MPs’ nominations. She was subsequently stepped aside in favour of Owen Smith, who went on to be roundly beaten as Corbyn won his second leadership election in a year.
Many in the party are trying to move on from the summer’s bitter events, but in Wallasey the political backwash continues. On the night that Eagle launched her leadership bid, a brick was thrown through the window of the offices housing her constituency Labour party (CLP). Days later, Wallasey CLP was suspended after allegations emerged of intimidation and homophobic abuse. No local party meetings have been allowed ever since.
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A long-awaited report to the party’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) concluded this month: “It’s highly likely that the brick thrown through the window of Angela Eagle’s office was related to her leadership challenge.” It added that the investigation had seen “many hundreds of abusive, homophobic, and frightening messages that have been sent by Labour members to Angela Eagle”. Some party members have been individually suspended.
The NEC felt that the allegations were so serious that it renewed the suspension until the New Year. After its decision, which was opposed by Momentum activists, a spokesperson for the party leader said: “Jeremy wants the issues relating to Wallasey CLP to be resolved so campaigning can resume.”
But out on the streets of the constituency, Eagle insists that ‘campaigning’ has never stopped, despite the suspension of the local party. Canvassing in Moreton West ward, which has three Tory councillors, she points out that Wallasey had long been a Conservative seat until she won it in 1992 from overseas aid minister Lynda Chalker. The Tory grip on the constituency was so strong that Labour had failed to win it in the 1945 landslide, or 1966 under Harold Wilson.
“We’ve always campaigned in Wallasey, we don’t need to have a General Management Committee to decide to campaign. We are an all-round campaigning party, we always have been. I think that’s why I’ve managed to convert a 270 Tory majority in 1992, when this was the most marginal seat in the north west, to a 16,500 majority 24 years later [in 2015]. I doubled my majority at the last general election, which wasn’t our finest our as a party.”
Moreton West is a classic Tory-Labour marginal ward, a mix of public and private sector housing, with lots of former council houses bought under Thatcher’s Right to Buy. Much-needed manufacturing jobs are provided by the nearby food factories, which make Typhoo Tea and Cadbury’s mini-rolls. The Burton’s biscuit factory closed in 2011 after 60 years’ operation (“I tried three times to save it,” she says), but its chocolate refinery remains. Skilled engineering jobs also continue at Cammell Laird’s shipyard in neighbouring Birkenhead, which recently started work on the new research ship, RRS Sir David Attenborough.
With the rain and wind coming in off the Irish Sea, Eagle walks from door to door armed only with an umbrella and a clipboard to note constituents’ concerns. She is confronted with the usual pavement politics, ranging from dog mess (one pensioner keeps finding it on her blind husband’s wheelchair), to broken street lights and problems with social services.
And pensioner Pat is not the only Labour voter who has problems with Corbyn. One woman in her 50s tells Eagle: “He just doesn’t have the get-up-and-go does he?” A neighbour adds: “Don’t mention his name round here. I won’t be voting Labour while he’s leader.”
Undeterred, Eagle gets on with her local campaigns. She repeatedly points out the contrast between Labour being in government, and out of it. Wallasey JobCentre, refurbished under Blair and Brown, is being closed, forcing jobseekers to travel to Birkenhead instead. Wirral Council and the local Arrowe Park hospital have had their budgets slashed. And now the regional NHS is being asked to cut nearly £1bn by 2020.
In her latest leaflet, she says: “With the clocks going back and Autumn setting in, it’s that time of the year when GP surgeries, walk-in clinics and A&E start getting particularly busy. Our NHS is really struggling to survive the costly Tory reorganisation and the chronic underfunding which followed.”
For Eagle, the clocks appear to be going back to Tory cuts of the 1980s. But for some, the recent Labour in-fighting is also reminiscent of the decade when Neil Kinnock battled with Militant on Merseyside. Her local opponents point out that Eagle won the nomination in 1992 after ‘radical Left’ former candidate Lol Duffy was barred by the national party. They also point out that this year the constituency Labour party opposed the MPs’ vote of no confidence in Corbyn.
Back at her constituency office, in the building where the infamous brick incident took place, Eagle welcomes this month’s conviction of a man who had sent her death threats. Shop worker Steven King, 45, had emailed her the day after her leadership launch, writing “if you become leader of the Labour party, you will split it and make Labour lose…you will die you Bitch…this is my one and only warning. Next time you see me I’ll be with a real gun or knife cutting your life to an end.” King was given an eight-week prison sentence, suspended for 12 months.
“I do think it’s important to remember the context of all this,” Eagle says. “Jo Cox had just been murdered [four weeks earlier].” Asked if she had wanted the magistrates to send King to jail, she sounds resigned to the legal outcome: “The law distinguishes between a contingent threat and a threat. He said he would slit my throat if I became Labour leader, and I think the law makes that distinction.”
But she is passionate about the need to stamp out such abuse. “The authorities have to take seriously this kind of abuse that’s going on on social media and the attack that it represents on our democracy.
“I’m not saying that because it was me that was the victim of that. Other colleagues have been victims of similar things, I think I’ve had more than most, but we all know that this goes on. It particularly seems to affect women and it will drive people out of public life it is not taken seriously. So I’m glad it was taken seriously.”
As for the smashed window, she is also relieved at the outcome of her own party’s official investigation. “Then NEC report said that it was ‘highly likely’ and that’s my view as well, but I’m not accusing any one person,” she says.
The internal report dismissed claims that the brick was targeted at anyone else in the building: the only occupants are Wallasey Labour party and the landlords. The window looks onto a stairwell that directly links the party’s ground floor and first floor rooms.
Some Corbyn supporters continue to deny the brick had anything to do with Eagle’s leadership launch and was more likely a random act of vandalism. Eagle says many of these critics are the same people who “also say that there have been no death threats - when somebody has been convicted”.
Some in Labour have compared such people to Donald Trump supporters, who refuse to believe Barack Obama’s American birth certificate. Does she agree?
“All I can say is that democracies work better when people can get facts and accept that facts are facts - rather than disputing what has clearly happened as not happened. And I think democracy is the result of big historical forces like the Enlightenment, where you can establish truth. Have an argument about values or whatever, but don’t deny the facts.”
The NEC report found a “toxic culture” and “a high level of inter-member abuse” in the Wallasey party. Does its MP think that the suspension is indefinite, until some of those found responsible are expelled? “The NEC have to make those decisions they’ve had a load of evidence given to them about some of what’s been going on here,” she says.
“I haven’t seen that evidence because it’s been taken independently. It’s up to the NEC and the Compliance Unit to check all of that out and decide what the best way forwards is. Meanwhile I’m getting on with it.”
Like many local parties, Wallasey CLP saw a big surge in membership before and during the Corbyn leadership. It has 1400 members now, around two and a half times more than pre-Corbyn, and Eagle says “that’s a welcome thing”.
When asked about if some of the most critical ‘new’ members are part of the old Liverpool left, she is diplomatic, but her view is clear. “There are people that have joined the Labour party who have been active most of the time that I’ve been here in other parties and other organisations. And who haven’t changed their minds about what their political priorities are.
“The NEC will have to decide whether their membership is compatible with being in the Labour party. But we know that all political parties have to have a boundary around which they allow members in, it’s a debate about where that boundary should lie and it’s a matter for the NEC.”
With Wallasey so much in the spotlight, does she feel as if this is a test case for the party? “That might be the case, but we will just have to wait and see”. As for the threat of a trigger ballot for her deselection, she seems sanguine. “I’m one of the people that thinks I’ve done a good job here and I’m carrying on doing it.”
One of the more disturbing elements of the bitter battles in Wallasey is the allegation of homophobic abuse directed at Eagle as a gay woman. Some eye-witnesses say that, in her absence, she was referred to as a “dyke” during an annual general meeting this summer.
The NEC found no evidence that the party is “institutionally homophobic” or that members failed to take action, but it says “some members have truthfully claimed that homophobic instances occurred during the AGM”. It is pursuing claims of abuse “specific to individuals”.
When she came out in 1997, Eagle was only the second openly gay woman MP in British history. The first was Maureen Colquhoun, Labour MP for Northampton North, who was outed by gossip columnist Nigel Dempster in 1975. Two years later, she was deselected by her local party, whose chairman declared at the time: “She was elected as a working wife and mother ... this business has blackened her image irredeemably.”
So, how depressing is it that nearly 40 years later a Labour MP is being attacked for being a lesbian? “I don’t think we’ve gone back to 1977,” Eagle says, although she adds that some on the Left have been as slow as some on the Right to move with the times.
“I think we’ve got a Government that wants to go back to the 1950s and we’ve got some people that were politically formed in the 1970s that aren’t looking at the kind of era we are in now,” she says.
“Things happened there [at the Wallasey AGM] that the NEC are looking at. And it is depressing, but largely I don’t think that most members in the Labour party would think that way and I don’t think that most members here would think that way. And I certainly don’t think that most members of society would think that way.
“But we do have to see what’s happened post the Brexit vote, where we’ve seen a 41% increase in hate crimes for black and ethnic minority people. And we’ve seen a huge increase in crimes against LGBT people as well. And I think that kind of move towards intolerance and what’s been unleashed is not very pleasant. And we can only rise above that by reasserting our values on the equal dignity of all human beings.”
So does she think that the far Left is as guilty of homophobia as it is of misogyny, as some have claimed? “In some places, that’s absolutely true. They are pretty unreconstructed some of them, yes.”
Eagle says that civil partnerships and anti-discrimination rights for gay people are “one of the proudest bodies of legislational change that the last Labour government was responsible for”. So what did she make of the criticism of PinkNews for giving David Cameron an award recently?
“I’m a forgiving kind of person, but I don’t think forgiveness should be used to cover up the history. I think it’s clear that the Labour Party as a party did all the heavy lifting when it was difficult, on gay rights. I’m glad that David Cameron, who had voted to keep Section 28 and had accused the Labour party of obsessing about minority issues when he was getting elected, I’m glad he changed his mind, good for him.
“But I would also point out that he only got gay marriage onto the statue book because of Labour votes. His party was split down the middle and that law would not be there if it hadn’t had been for the Labour party. So let’s try not to write what I think is one of our most heroic achievements in the last Labour government out of history completely.”
Yet on the decision to award Cameron ‘Ally of the Year’, Eagle isn’t keen to criticise. “I don’t agree with people being abused. It’s up to them…I wasn’t on the judging panel.”
Eagle voted for SNP MP John Nicolson’s Private Member’s Bill, to create a so-called Turing Law to pardon all those, living and dead, convicted of same-sex offences before the law was changed. How disappointed was she that more Labour MPs didn’t turn up like her? “Yeah, it would have been nice to get more people there, but I don’t think to be fair the SNP talked. Normally when you have a Private Members’ Bill and you need 100 MPs there’s an email campaign to let people know it’s on so they can clear a space in their diary.”
And on the failure of Jeremy Corbyn to turn up for the vote, especially as he is a London MP who could have made the vote? Eagle is diplomatic once more.
“It’s a good thing, especially if your views about gay people are under some sort of suspicion, for you to just go there and make the case, and make sure you’re there. That would have been good. But there you are…” Foll the failed SNP Bill, Corbyn told PinkNews that a Labour government would enact a Turing Law.
As for her own coming out in 1997, Eagle explains that the first person in Government she told was John Prescott, then Secretary of State at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, where she was a junior minister.
“I told John first because I was in his department and I thought he would be upset if I didn’t tell him first. And so I tried for ages to get to see the Secretary of State of this sprawling department. He was the Deputy Prime Minister and his private office kept saying ‘well, what do you want to talk about?’ And I said ‘well it’s just private’.
“I finally got to see him after a lot of trying and I told him that I was gay. And he went ‘Tell me something I don’t know already, love!’ And then he told me that he’d had an aunt who was gay. And then he told me when he’d first been on the ships it wasn’t thought of to be a reasonable thing but he’d come to learn that that was wrong. And then he said ‘can I give you a hug?’ So I said yes and he gave me a hug and that’s it. It was quite nice, because it was quite an emotional thing to do.
”I didn’t know whether I’d stay in Parliament, whether I’d lose my seat as a result of it. Maureen Colquhoun was the only other example - and that hadn’t ended well. Now looking back it you can say, oh it’s fine. But nobody knew. I didn’t know it would be fine.”
Eagle explains that her family and most of her friends already knew she was gay. “It wasn’t a surprise to anyone apart from the gay men I talked to. They don’t notice. Heterosexual men notice, because you’re not doing those things that most women do with men, those signals. So all the heterosexual men were like ‘oh yeah, we knew’ and the gay men were like ‘what?!’
Her coming out didn’t bother her constituents, but she does remember one national newspaper getting very interested in the issue of her sexuality. Mr Brown, the former head of St Peter’s Primary School in Formby, which the young Eagle sisters had attended, was approached by a reporter.
“The Daily Mail tried to talk themselves into their front room, to find out about me by pretending they were going to do a nice piece on us as twins…And then they tried to find out if I had a girlfriend when I was at primary school. No, I didn’t. They were thrown out. Mrs Brown said ‘she was 11, get out of the house!’ All that crawling over your life…”
It was as teenager that a young Eagle first got involved in politics and had her first encounters with the hard left. “I went to a Young Socialist meeting and it was full of Militants. I walked into this room and they were slagging off our Labour government and I put my hand up and pointed out we didn’t have a majority and that didn’t seem to bother them. I thought ‘well I’m never going back there again’.”
Her earliest memory of fellow Liverpudlian Len McCluskey stems from around this time too. “I was 16. I had just joined the Crosby Labour Party. He was involved at the GC [General Committee meeting] at the back, signalling things. He’s got a lot more right-wing in his old age, is probably the easiest thing to say. He won’t mind me saying that.”
Relations between the two of them deteriorated sharply this summer when Eagle launched her leadership bid. The Unite General Secretary claimed that her “histrionic” resignation was part of “a political lynching , designed to bully and bludgeon Jeremy Corbyn, this deeply decent and kind man”. She retorted at the time that McCluskey “sounds like he’s gone to too many Am Dram performances”.
It was reported recently that the Unite chief had seen Eagle at the party conference in Liverpool and told a colleague: ‘you hold her, I’ll hit her’. Is that true? “It was a private conversation that I’m not going to discuss,” she says. “But I have known him since I was 16, so, you know, he might have a chat with me in a way he wouldn’t with someone he hadn’t known for that length of time.” So it was a joke? “It’s impossible for me to know…I’m not going to comment on a private conversation.”
Since his second landslide leadership election, Corbyn has appointed a new Shadow Cabinet. It’s a reminder that only a year ago Eagle was given the plum role of not just Shadow Business Secretary but also Shadow First Secretary of State. As a result, she was soon deputising at PMQs “and loving it”. How does life compare now?
“Is there a little regret in terms of not being able to do Prime Minister’s Questions? Well yeah, I guess there is a little bit. But you’ve got to do politics in the place you’re in. And I don’t regret resigning because I think I had just reached the end of my tether with the coherence of what was going on…I don’t want to sound like Edith Piaf, but you know what I mean. There’s loads of things you can do from the backbenches.”
Given the backlash against her, is she even a little bit relieved that she wasn’t the one who went head-to-head with Corbyn in the leadership ballot and hustings?
“I’m not convinced that the level of abuse that I’ve been receiving is any less than it would have been in the leadership race,” she replies, dryly. “And at least I would have had a chance to make the case I wanted to make.”
She is also determined that her own experience is seen as a wider lesson for the way politics is conducted. “I do think we have got to get to a place where that kind of abuse doesn’t feature in our politics. It began in Scotland during the Scottish independence referendum. We’ve seen it in and around in UKIP, we’ve certainly seen it going on in the States.
“We’ve seen it happen here. I just think we’ve got to get to a stage in development of social media where that kind of stuff is stopped. What it’s doing is it makes it even harder for people to think about public service. It just makes our discourse so poisonous that it is impossible to talk about ideas. You can’t have a proper contention of different ideas in a democracy if you don’t have a safe space.
“It’s true within the Labour Party, it’s also true outside the Labour party generally. The thing about democracy is that people respect those who had a view and lost and democracy respects and protects those with minority views, that by definition have just lost. That’s the essence of democracy. It’s got to stop.”
As a former chair of the party’s national policy forum, and a key player in the drafting of the 2015 election manifesto, Eagle knows Labour policy to her fingertips. She also knows that the party failed to connect with voters.
“Applying Labour’s values to the future and near future is the way that we will get people to listen to us. We got into a bit of a rut in terms of its policy angles and also the way the party organises. I think that needs to change and some of the frustration about that was reflected in the votes in the leadership election.”
She also says that the voters’ unhappiness with the status quo, one of the driving forces behind Brexit, ought to be fertile ground for Labour.
“In the last 40 years in all advanced societies, the balance has been shifting from those who work to those who own….that’s led to there being a massive increase in inequality in our society. We know our societies are unsustainable environmentally because of what’s happening with climate change. Now our societies are beginning to be unsustainable socially.”
In an interview with HuffPost UK this year, Corbyn said it was not “inevitable” that he would resign as Labour leader if he lost the next election. Party members would control what happens, he stressed. A BMG/HuffPost UK poll found a majority of Labour supporters agreed he should be given a second chance, just as Neil Kinnock was allowed to stay on after his 1987 defeat.
What does Eagle think? “It depends what sort of election loss it was and how the whole team perform,” she says. “In ’87, Neil Kinnock made progress, had a very good and professional election campaign which everybody thought was going to win and it didn’t win.”
She remembers knocking on doors in London in two constituencies, Battersea and Mitcham and Morden. In both, Labour’s defence policy “caused us huge problems on the doorstep”, she said. “After that, Neil realised he had to do something more drastic in terms of our policy offer.”
So Jeremy Corbyn could survive as leader even after a defeat? “It depends on what sort of election you’d had, what sort of result. There would have to be progress.” She smiles: “It’s not usual to stay on.”
While Eagle takes time out of the front line to focus on policy on things like the ‘gig economy’, robotics and manufacturing, the Shadow Cabinet continues its work without her. Now 55, and having served in the last Labour governments, does she think she will ever be a minister again?
“You’re not in the Labour party, and I joined in the 1980s, if you’re not an optimist. If the Labour party can get to a stage where from a policy point of view it can represent the needs of those who work and those who require a proper looking-after by society. and can knit those together, then yes.
“We are living through the most volatile political times I can think of and things can change very quickly. If you were thinking in the old ways, I would say it’s very, very tough. But at the same time politics has this way of suddenly changing.
“It’s going to be tough for Labour unless it transforms its approach to the electorate to win in the next few years. So it depends how much longer I’m going to go on.” She laughs. “If 50 is the new 40, I think I’ll be fine…”