POLITICS

Kate Osamor Warns Labour Has Neglected Its Heartlands And There Are No Safe Seats Anymore

'I just feel like it’s a civil war.'

10/03/2017 07:01 GMT | Updated 10/03/2017 16:03 GMT
PAUL ELLIS via Getty Images
Shadow Secretary of State for International Development Kate Osamor speaks at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool in September 2016

“No seat is safe,” Kate Osamor warns. “No seat should be treated as safe. Because unfortunately that means it’s taken for granted.”

The Shadow International Development Secretary is fiercely loyal to Jeremy Corbyn and in an interview with The Huffington Post the 48-year-old first-term MP comes out swinging in defence of her leader.

Unlike shadow cabinet colleagues Diane Abbott, Emily Thornberry and John McDonnell, Osamor has been reticent to engage on TV in the “civil war” with Corbyn’s critics. But that camera shyness does not reflect a wavering commitment to the Corbyn cause.

In the wake of the damaging Copeland by-election defeat, Osamor places the blame at the “neglect” of many safe Labour seats by long-serving MPs.

And rather than blaming Corbyn, she says the PLP should instead be following his example of how to win. “All MPs have to be knocking on doors, at least once a week, for an hour. Every MP should be doing that,” Osamor advises.

Where Labour has gone wrong, she says, is to overly commit to a strategy of “looking after our marginal seats” at the expense of those with bigger majorities. “That has translated into us now becoming vulnerable,” she says. “The bottom line is if you neglect something it will eventually turn on you.”

With Labour’s national poll rating tanking, Corbyn must take some of the blame though, surely? Osamor is not without criticism of the leader. “Of course, he has to take responsibility for where the party is”, she says. “I think Jeremy has taken his own responsibility. He is the leader of the party.”

And Corbyn, she adds, can not blame setbacks on the situation he inherited from Ed Miliband. “You can’t sit there and say ‘boo, hoo’, it’s someone else’s fault,” she says. “Jeremy has to take stock of what’s going on.”

But Osamor argues what Corbyn needs to do is show his MPs how it is done - not give up. “Jeremy is out in his own constituency. He still knocks on doors,” she says. “If you are not doing that. You have to recognise that that’s going to go against you. 

“If I was an MP for 20 years, I might not be going out all the time. Jeremy has been an MP for over 20 years, and he does knock on the doors. What he needs to do is to tell people: ‘That’s what I do’. That’s where I would criticise him and say to him: ‘Jeremy, you do it, so you tell everyone they need to do it’. If they don’t do it. Then they must take some responsibility.”

DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS via Getty Images
Jeremy Corbyn speaks at a rally against private companies' involvement in the NHS

Osamor is from a political family, but her experiences of Labour as as a young woman pushed her away from the party. Her mother, Martha, moved from Nigera to Britain in the 1960s. But the life she found in London was not what she expected. Having dived into local Labour politics, Martha was set to be the parliamentary candidate for Vauxhall in a 1989 by-election. But her selection was vetoed by the national party. Osamor says this was purely down to racism. “They removed her because of her political allegiances around black politics,” she says.

“I wasn’t interested in the party because I felt if somebody who is standing up for everybody, speaking out for those people who haven’t got a voice, is being excluded from the top table, then it can’t be a party for me,” she says.

After studying international development - third world studies as it was then known - at East London University, Osamor went on to work for the Women’s Forum, a not-for-profit charity, which helped refugees. Later she worked in the NHS. “I was looking after my son, looking after myself, trying to keep my head above water. It wasn’t against the establishment, it was just survival and politics didn’t come into that at that time. I didn’t connect the two,” she recalls.

But a combination of her mother, her involvement in the Unite union, and a chance encounter with a young man who knocked on her door asking for her vote in a local Labour council election, drew her back into politics. 

In 2012, she narrowly lost out by 100 votes on securing a position on Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee. But in 2014 she made it. “And then in the January 2015, Andy Love retired,” she says.

Love was the sitting MP for Edmonton - in Osamor’s London patch. She was encouraged to seek the seat. And in 2015 was elected to parliament, 26-years after her mother had tried and failed to do the same. It was “very special”, she says, as the impact of what happened to her mother was “long lasting” for the representation of BAME people in Labour and in the Commons.

“It was damaging at the time, not only for the BME members, but for white members who had supported her, who wanted her to represent them, because they knew it was more than just being a black woman. It was that she had politics of progression and politics which, regardless of whether you’re black or white, male or female, straight or gay, you could adopt or you could feel comfortable with,” she recalls.

So when it came to her own election Osamor says “so many people were rooting for me”.

“So many people wanted me to do well. It meant a lot to them because they knew on one level the representation for black women in parliament is almost zero. Diane Abbott was on her own for a long time. Dawn Butler came in and then she lost her seat and she had to fight to get back in. Dawn’s journey was hard,” she says.

“They are two really great sisters, I’ve got a lot of time for them, I am always there for them and they are there for me. Its 100%. There are three of us.

“It’s not fair. It’s not enough. It means you’ve always got to get on. You can’t fall out,” she laughs, before quickly becoming serious.”It’s just the three of us. It’s wrong. It shouldn’t be like that. It should be multi-faith, multi-coloured. 

Once the members do not want Jeremy then obviously we will step to one side Kate Osamor on the leadership

After the 2015 election, Osamor found herself as a newly elected MP for a party stunned by an unexpected defeat and plunged into a leadership contest to replace Ed Miliband. She quickly backed Corbyn.

“I just felt at that time the other three candidates were not offering me what I felt was the direction Labour Party should be going in, especially because we had come to a crossroads,” she says.

“I felt there was opportunity there to have a debate. I didn’t know what the outcome was going to be. No way could I tell you that. It was so hard as well, people were saying: ‘Jeremy is not even going to get on the ballot paper, why are you wasting your time?’ I just ignored it. I said: ‘No, let me support him’.”

During that campaign, Osamor was a frequent speaker at Corbyn rallies, the size of which caught Westminster commentators off guard. One sticks in her mind and she goes back to it when things get “really tough and difficult” to remind her that “there are people who need us to be progressive, to be radical and to be brave”.

“We went to South Thanet, where Nigel Farage was thinking he was going to become the MP. We had a rally down there and I was going to go along with Jeremy and speak,” she says. “I was like: ‘Oh my god, it’s Ukip land. I am really scared. I don’t want to go down there, oh no.’ I thought it would be really rough. I was scared because I was on my own getting a train down there.”

But “everything was fine”, she adds. “I went into the venue, it held about 500 people and I thought there will be no one there. It was packed.

“And that was one of the times when it all started getting through to me. There was something for this man. People are supporting him. Even in Ukip-land we had Labour people that came out and they listened and they were rapturous and they were warm and welcoming.

“Afterwards we were all going back to London and we were walking up the road, people were beeping their horns ‘Jeremy, Jeremy’. This wasn’t London, this was a place they had one Labour councillor. We went to a fish and chip shop, there was a live band and they saw Jeremy walking past. They were singing to Jeremy, it was amazing.” 

Rob Stothard via Getty Images
Jeremy Corbyn speaks to supporters outside Great St Mary's Church in Cambridge on September 6, 2015 as part of his leadership campaign. 

Unfortunately for Corbyn, almost two years on, his national poll ratings are not as all singing and all beeping as his leadership rallies. Is it not time for him to call it a day?

“What informs me more than anything is the members have a choice,” Osamor says. “That is what I have always said to myself. That’s what I say to everyone around us. The members have a choice. Once the members do not want Jeremy then obviously we will step to one side.

“I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t want it for power’s sake. I want it because people want me to do well - they want Jeremy to do well. We need to do well. There are so many people riding on it. It is difficult when there are so many naysayers, so many people who are against this working. But I always remember - I go back to the very beginning of our conversation - it’s been hard for a lot of people that come from my background. I am used to it. I am the last person to worry. I am used to the opposition. I am used to the battle.”

She adds: “I have still got those skills of surviving. I try to be polite. I try to be nice to everybody. But I am not going to give up my principles. I am not going to give up what I believe in.”

One part of the Corbyn movement that looked close to crumbling in the battle was Momentum - the campaign group that grew out of the 2015 leadership campaign.

Labour MPs have long been suspicious of the organisation, believing it to be a Trojan horse for the far-left. And Momentum’s leadership itself has moved to kick out non-Labour members.

“You can’t have all odds and sods,” Osamor, who has long been involved in Momentum says. “It’s not fair. You can’t have people who are not prepared to be in the party getting involved.

She adds: “This is the Labour Party. If you are not going to be in it under Jeremy you never will.”

In June 2016, amid the mass resignations from the shadow cabinet that heralded the leadership challenge, John McDonnell claimed the disintegration of Labour’s frontbench was a good thing as it allowed a “a new generation” of MP to step up. Osamor was one. Having only been in parliament for a year, she found herself sitting round the top table as Shadow International Development Secretary.

The rapid promotion was a reward, perhaps, for having been one of the MPs who helped Corbyn squeak onto the ballot in the 2015 leadership race. But unlike some who have since expressed regret at doing so, she remains loyal to not only the mission, but also the man.

Other early cheerleaders have lost faith. Owen Jones, The Guardian columnist who last week said the time had come for Corbyn to step aside in favour of another leader on the left as a way to save the movement, is told to be quiet.

“The thing is with Owen Jones is,” Osamor pauses. “You see, Owen has said a lot of things about what he wanted. What he felt we needed - a revolution. We needed to change things, we needed someone who was progressive to come forward. And we’ve got that now. And it’s not suitable for him. It’s not what he wants. It’s not the way it should be going in his eyes. So now he is commentating on that.

“A lot of the opposition, a lot of the people who are against Jeremy or feel it’s time for Jeremy to move to one side are people who are not used battling. 

Addressing Jones directly, Osamor was clear: “You are used to writing. And commentating. And reading. And looking through a lense. This is my reality. And I am used to it. And I know it takes time for things to work. It may take many years for people to accept that Jeremy wants to say something different on behalf of the majority.”

Jones, Osamor says, needs to “accept” that Corbyn is the leader or “stop commenting” about the party. “A lot of that is because he’s an academic, it’s not because he actually understands what struggle is,” she says.

“The real struggle for most people is not having money in their pocket, and you are inspired when you hear someone say: ‘Yes it’s wrong that someone goes to work but they have to go to a food bank’. Jeremy says those things. That might not be good enough for Owen. That might not be good enough for people in his camp. It’s good enough for me now. 

She adds: “Because I know that when Jeremy is the prime minister those things will change. We have to let that happen.”

Ian Forsyth via Getty Images
Guardian columnist and activist Owen Jones 

Labour’s agony over whether or not to vote to trigger Article 50, has been difficult for many of her colleagues, Osamor acknowledges. But Corbyn’s decision to whip MPs to vote to trigger Article 50 was “the right position to take” even thought as a a Remainer, it was “not nice”.

Inevitably the slow-burn resignation of Clive Lewis from the shadow cabinet over Corbyn’s order to vote for Brexit set off fresh rumours he was angling for the leadership. And shadow cabinet ministers Rebecca Long-Bailey and Angela Rayner also saw their names pushed to the fore. Perhaps thanks to her lower profile, Osamor’s name was not mentioned in the same breath. But would she fancy a pop at the top job? “No,” she replies quickly. “No.”

“I think what’s happened, because I’ve ducked, I’ve missed a lot of all of that which is good. It’s worked,” she adds.

Osamor says she “totally respects” Lewis’ decision to quit given the strong ‘Remain’ vote in his Norwich South seat. “His is like a four way split, his seat, it’s very difficult for him. He’s got a lot of students there, Rachael Maskell’s the same, Dawn Butler the same,” she says. “That was survival for them.”

In Edmonton, the referendum result was a more “muddled” narrow result, with a narrow victory for Remain which Osamor says made it easier to follow the whip. “There were some who did it [voted against the Whip] maybe to be bad to Jeremy and others did it because they didn’t agree with it,” she adds. 

PAUL ELLIS via Getty Images
Kate Osamor with Jeremy Corbyn 

The apparent “soft coup”, which John McDonnell warned of in a piece bashed on out his late night typewriter was a criticism of the media as well as moderate Labour MPs.

And Osamor says the hostility between Corbyn and the press, set in the early days of his leadership, is probably irrevocable. 

“We become victims to our circumstances. We know someone doesn’t like us. So we don’t really talk to them. ‘Oh you are not really favourable to me so there is no point me giving you a story’.

“A lot of that stems from when he first became elected. Everything was against him. There was nothing he could do. There was a short window of opportunity and I think what happened during that period of time was it got so bad that he now doesn’t trust them and that’s meat they don’t report on him and the relationship has broken down.”

Osamor acknowledges the relationship between Team Corbyn and the media “has to improve” but adds its “got to a point now where it’s not going to. I think it’s too late”.

As one of Corbyn’s strongest supporters in the shadow cabinet, why is it that unlike Abbott, Thornberry and McDonnell, Osamor does not tour the TV studios to defend him?

She laughs. “You noticed? I think it’s me really. I just feel because Jeremy gets attacked a lot I just feel they are going to want to attack me.

“It’s not for the want of asking. It’s not like they have forgotten me,” she adds with another laugh.

Corbyn and others want her to get on the air more. But Osamor says she remains reluctant. “I just feel like it’s a civil war a little bit. It’s a bit aggressive.”

Her position at development also helps her stay out of the internal—Labour wars, she notes. “It’s actually one of the good things about my brief, I bring all sides of my own party together. I work really well with people on the right.

“I have got people who are on my phone list and I can call them and they will do things and vice versa. That helps, especially when there is a fight going on somewhere else.

“We will be talking about helping young women in Uganda - and over there they are like ‘pow, pow, pow’,” Osamor punches their air, acting out the infighting happening around her.

Osamor faces Conservative international development secretary Priti Patel across the Despatch Box. Patel, she says, is not “rude” and is willing to talk. But adds: “She’s not really in it for the brief, she is in it to make a name for herself. That’s not the brief to do it in. That’s the brief you should have compassion and care.”

I just feel like it’s a civil war a little bit Kate Osamor on Labour

Labour faces another by-election test soon in Manchester Gorton. The death of veteran MP Sir Gerald Kaufman means the party has to defend its seemingly earthquake proof 24,079 majority. But Osamor repeats her caution that “you’ve got to be mindful and take nowhere for granted”.

The party has yet to select its candidate, and she says whoever is picked must be local and have a “different energy” to Sir Gerald.“It can’t be a national Labour campaign there.”

“What I would hope for is we get someone with energy because if we don’t it could be seen that as the same old same old,” she says. “Whoever is the candidate for Labour, they need to be a local person who can speak to people abut local issues.”

She adds: “We have neglected many areas. So now we need a local person to fight for our local seats. It’s no longer we have safe seats. We don’t have safe seats anymore. We have seats we need to protect. We have to recognise Scotland. We have to look at our heartlands and say: ‘How are they are going? How have they been treated?’”

Jack Taylor via Getty Images
Theresa May with newly elected Copeland MP Trudy Harrison 

The Labour leadership is open to accusations that it is stuffed full of the metropolitan liberal Islington elite, munching on croissants and drinking flat whites while the rest of the country looks on in confusion bordering on contempt. As former shadow energy secretary Lisa Nandy recently warned in a blog for The Huffington Post: “With five times more members in Islington than a town like Wigan, there is a risk that Labour’s perspective will be skewed away from the needs and aspirations of people in towns across the country.”

The make-up of Corbyn’s top team does little to fight that image. Shadow home secretary Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington), Thornberry (Islington South) and shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer (Holdborn and St Pancras) are all north London neighbours to Corbyn’s Islington North. McDonnell looks almost exotic with his Hayes and Harlington West London seat. But Osamor, the Edmonton MP who grew up in the capital, says her city should be defended. The critics, she says, are “ignorant” of what London is.

“If you know London, in one ward or in one constituency you’ve rich and you’ve got the poor. For you to think that that’s something you shouldn’t mention that’s a worrying thing. It’s lack of understanding of London,” she says.

“One of the positive things about London is we represent so many different walks of life that’s a positive. We need to hold on to. We shouldn’t be pushing away London, we should bring it in more so. You can be anybody in London and we will support you, we will embrace you, we will look after you. Whether you want to be skinhead, whether you want to wear a hijab, you are welcome. Where else can you say that in the UK? It’s not possible.”

“So stop pushing London away and making us come across we are not friendly and we are this elite, it’s not like that, it’s the opposite.”

Osamor says if London has got a bad reputation in the rest of the country it is down to “the Islington elite going outside of Islington” and “representing in Sellafield and all the rest of it”.

She adds: “Even Ed Miliband, where’s he representing, Doncaster? This is more what it stems from.”

There is one area where Osamor is more open to the idea of parachuting in candidates - when it comes to increasing the number of BAME MPs. White people, she argues, will vote for a non-white candidate - but they need to be given the opportunity to do so.

The party has recognised it has a problem with a lack of non-white MPs, Osamor says. But recognising the problem is not the same as fixing it. The key, she argues, is forcing change on local parties – the people who choose the candidates. “We have to say to selection panels: ‘Your panel needs to look a certain way’. And if they say: ‘There is no other person in the constituency, everyone is white’, then we send someone from the NEC, or wherever it is, who doesn’t look like them.

“Because if the panel doesn’t look like what you are trying to find, you keep getting that problem.”

Osamor says Labour should learn some lessons from the Conservative Party and introduce an A-list of non-white pre-vetted candidates to impose on constituencies when a vacancy opens up.

“Unfortunately, more and more, you see all the key stakeholders in the CLP are white men or white women who sign up to the same agenda. That doesn’t help.

“We need to have a group of people who have been trained. The Tories do this. They bring people from a list. They get people ready. You are on the list, you are waiting. And if we call on you, off you go. It can be done.”

* * *

Following the turmoil of Labour’s last two years, Osamor reflects on how to get on in Westminster. “I am still myself. But I know that I have to understand If I don’t get the rules then I will fall. And no one will catch me,” she says.