Stella Creasy is the "indie MP" and scourge of pay-day lenders who wants to change the way Labour does business. Is her prescription what the Party need to return to power?
Stella Creasy wants to be Labour’s deputy leader. But life could have been much different.
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"Music really matters to me,” she says, winding up a lengthy chat about pop. “In a parallel universe where I was a cool kid I would have gone into music. I had a terrible band as a kid. I was rubbish on guitar. I wasn't a very good singer. And even I had more dignity than to be Bez."
There are doubtless many who wish she had succumbed to being the heir to the saucer-eyed Happy Mondays dancer.
Elected in 2010 as the MP for Walthamstow, east London, Creasy rose to prominence as the scourge of payday lenders, leading to the successful campaign to crackdown on “legal loan sharks”.
The "War on Wonga" earned the then backbencher a formidable reputation and the "rising star" mantle, a seat at the party's top table and acres off fawning press. It also reflected a long history of campaigning, from marching against the poll tax as a teen to, when head of campaigns for the Scouts, winning the battle over charities being hit with a new levy on drainage, which she dubbed a “rain tax”.
Repeated references to pop music may seem like a bid for credibility from someone with a PhD psychology. But the self-styled #indieMP (“that was meant as a joke”) thinks it's part of showing politicians are real people too (most MPs, in truth, will talk for hours about their favourite band if you let them).
And her devotion to mid-1990s angst-y favourites The Wedding Present, for whom she wrote the sleeve notes for the re-release of their album, Seamonsters, is telling. She talks of how the band did things their own way, refusing to do encores, for example. “Uncompromising” is the word that best suits the John Peel favourites, we agree. Trite as it sounds, it’s a phrase that could be applied to her politics.
A survey for the LabourList website last week had Creasy in the lead in the deputy leadership race, overtaking bookies' favourite Tom Watson, with Angela Eagle, Caroline Flint and Ben Bradshaw trailing. A YouGov poll, though, reversed the top two, making it a close run thing.
Her pitch to be Labour’s Keith Richards is about harnessing the spirit of the campaigner. Labour needs to be embrace a New Politics or be swept away on a tide of irrelevance. The party “machine” which insists on endless meetings and a rigid hierarchy needs to be scrapped. People instead want to be part of a "movement". They aren’t interested in the old way of doing things in a world of fast-moving social media, where would-be Labour voters gravitate to single-issue groups such as No More Page 3, or get caught up by SNP-mania.
She wants to “change the world” but that can be done beyond Westminster, or what she calls “Hogwarts gone wrong”. She thinks it’s wrong to imagine an MP as a “Mafia don”, there to fix problems. She uses the word “collaborative” a lot, and it makes sense when attending one of her “campaign boot camps”.
The Huffington Post visits a session in Battersea, west London, where Creasy plays the role of conductor, encouraging Labour members and supporters to think of the issues they want resolved, and how they would do it. The MP says very little – unusual for a politician - other than steering the conversation and handing out Haribo sweets.
The thinking behind it is clear: Labour needs to re-connect or face irrelevance to the point of oblivion. The idea is laced in the answers to the most pertinent questions facing her party, from whether leadership frontrunner Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable to why Labour lost the election and the tribalism that is dividing the party.
She also sounds a warning alarm of Labour having to have a “long hard look at itself” if it returns two men as leader and deputy, fears the party is falling into the grip of a “thought police” that does not allow either the right or the left of the party to speak freely, and thinks the SNP's claims to being a "disruptive" force ring hollow.
"I know what I offer is not the easy choice because it’s about changing the whole way we work," she says. "For me, it's about purpose. Why does it matter that you tap into the ideas, the expertise, the energy of your members? That's where you come up with brilliant policy ideas, brilliant campaigns, and you change the world.
"I joined the Labour Party not so I could write a really good essay about why the world was unfair. I wanted to do something about it.
"Too many people think the Labour Party is a machine, whether you are inside it or outside of it. It turns up at election time, it wants your vote. Worries about who sits on the green benches in Hogwarts gone wrong. People feel very disconnected by that. What does that make any difference to me?”
One beef with "machine politics" is "you fight to be in the right gang to do that that rather than to change things”. "Most of my life in the Labour Party people have tried to put people into gangs, groups and tribes …"
A new-look Labour has to ditch the tribalism, the old labels of "Blairite" and the rest, she says.
"Whether people come from the hard left or the hard right of the party, they have ideas. And if you create a process where they can work together they come up with some brilliant suggestions.
"Old labels don’t mean anything in a world that's moving this quickly. There's a risk for Labour we hold ourselves back trying to compare what's coming ahead of us with what’s come before.
“I joined the party 20-odd years ago as a teenager and 20-odd years ago and there really wasn't any other place I could put my (name to). Now there are lots of places. It’s now ok to say in a pub on a Friday night you are a campaigner for Greenpeace or No More Page 3 campaign – it’s sometimes made up – but if you say 'oh, I'm a Labour Party member' it doesn't get you many rounds."
So could “hard-left” Jeremy Corbyn and “Blairite” Liz Kendall work in the same party?
"There shouldn't be an issue with that. The challenge for both of them on either analysis they offer is 'well, now what?'. Is Labour now moving forward and saying 'oh, this is what we are going to work on, this is why it holds what we have all agreed on, what we all stand for.'
"Values matter, purpose matters. It's not just about not being the Tories. It is about being a party that champions social justice, fights for fairness, equality. How we do that has to be as a movement.”
Part of what is past its sell-by-date is the "tribalism" on display in recent weeks as Jeremy Corbyn has unexpectedly soared in the polls. Alastair Campbell calling for “Anyone But Corbyn”; left-wingers damning anyone but him as a Tory.
"These debates have to happen. All of these people have a role to play. We can't afford to keep being tribal. Part of the problem with tribalism is you don’t talk to people who have good ideas, because they are in the wrong gang. It’s also those people who don’t have any responsibility or accountability with what happens.
"Clem Attlee said the Labour party is what the members make of it. That's all of us. What I would want to do as deputy is make sure everyone felt responsible and accountable. That includes Tony Blair, that includes Jeremy Corbyn, that includes Len McCluskey. No more shouting from the sidelines.
"We can have a debate if it's respectful. If it’s curious. If we can fund the point of agreement. Not if it's full of ultimatums and swear words, and 'that's it, you're a traitor'. We've lost the ability to think that having a debate is part of coming to a really big conclusion.
"Thinking that everyone has to think the same is the mistake people make. That's being a cult. It’s not being a political party, it’s the thought police. People have been tweeting me for having the temerity to be a member of lots of different organisations because obviously I must think the same as everyone."
She’s far too smart to criticise or laud Jeremy Corbyn, but says he is “tapping into” something.
"They get it. People out here don't want to be bystanders in their future. The Labour Party at its best is that vehicle for a better world."
She elegantly dodges whether Corbyn would be “unelectable”.
"My problem with that question is that it diagnoses the problem as being who the leader is. That election result was not just about leadership, it was not just about policy, it was a fundamental sense as well of 'who are these people? Why should I care?' Yes, a new leader, and of course leadership matters, and an exciting policy offer. Also a movement of people who can involve other people. I wish it was as simple as one person – get the right person in, job done."
Many moderates in the party argue power is all-important, though Creasy takes a more nuanced view.
"Winning power, of course that's an important part of it. It gives you a whole suite of tools to make that happen. It's just for me the idea that all the changes that we need to see happen to make the world a safer, fairer place for everyone can happen in just one place over the road (Westminster) - there doesn’t make any sense to me. For me, it’s a bigger, more radical project for Labour. It’s very much about where the world is going. "
But is there not a danger without power Labour becomes a debating society?
"There's no rule the Labour Party has to exist. It’s what we make of it. We should have a debate – I like the clash of ideas. I had to win the debate on legal loan-sharking. That’s good and healthy. What isn't healthy is that either we all have to agree all the time, or that we can’t make a decision. You can either have different opinions, somewhere in the middle is where we meet, and doing that is somehow a betrayal rather than saying 'right, let's get on with that'."
She is a big supporter of the £3 supporters scheme that has helped fuel the party’s three-fold increase in membership since the election, despite fears of "infiltration" from the hard-left and even Tories. But she sees it as a "staging post" to them being full members.
"Right, you've said you support Labour and you're local community are doing this work on x date. Would you like to be involved, how do we get you on board? We're looking for people who are designers, who writing things. All the skills our membership has but we very rarely tap into.
"What we have to do is make sure that the supporters scheme has people's confidence and it is robust.
"If all we ask of them is to get involved once every five years or ten years in a selection process then it’s quite a narrow offer. I’d like to make much more use of our membership and I don’t think we have to wait until an election to do that."
A lack of economic competence emerged in MP Jon Cruddas’s review of the election defeat. But Creasy thinks Osborne-omics is not “the only approach you can take” since he is making "bad decisions that are very dangerous for our economy".
"You look at personal debt in this country and it's shocking. It's gone up to £48 billion since March this year. That is not mortgage debt, that is unsecured lending. Why have I always been obsessed by this, why did I worry the last Labour government wasn’t on top of this as much as it should have been? If you have that financial precariousness at the heart of your economy you are always going to be at risk.
“Our whole economy is teetering on some very unstable foundations, and this government is completely silent on personal debt. We are a country where one in seven of us are ‘zombie debtors’ and paying interest off the capital. Any rise in interest rates and you know what is going to happen.
"It's also about people who can't get access to the money they need to. If you're going to tackle the productivity gap, we're going to have to learn to do new things. Which is training courses, maybe setting up of our own new businesses. Well, if you haven’t got the bank of mum and dad behind you good luck with that.
"The way George Osborne is running the economy is not for the future. All of those issues are to do with collaborating."
So no cuts? "No, I'm saying there are ways to save money and get better outcomes. Osborne isn’t doing any of that. One of the ways you can save money is tackling housing benefit, but you don’t do that by cutting housing benefit apart from the fact people are having to claim it.
"George Osborne has consistently come back to the public, every budget, and said he has got his sums wrong. In any other industry you would sack them.
"I don’t accept the terms of the debate that's George Osborne's analysis is the only approach you can take. There are other ways you can do it. You can do it through savings to invest. None of that has happened. He's spending more, wasting more, and the results are poorer as well. That’s why we need not just an opposition but an alternative.”
Labour’s decision to abstain on the key vote on welfare cuts in the Budget was a mess, she seems to concede. "I don’t think that week covered us in glory as a political party,” she says, indicating it was a result of not involving members in the alternative proposals.
“You talk to our members and they know what was in the papers, but that's completely different to what was in the Bill. And they know what they read online. To some extent the confusion and frustration is fed by the fact we need to do our politics in a different way.
"This Bill was at second reading. If you meet a Tory who say they capped the cost of credit, ask them about the five times they voted against capping the cost of credit. Because we use Parliament to campaign and to put forward an argument. What I want us to do on welfare reform, on the Budget, is to put forward our alternatives. You do that in Parliament, you do that in the media, we do that out on the ground. We have to fight to be heard."
While the SNP’s success appears to be off the back of capturing the public mood, she is deeply unimpressed – suggesting they have been “this great disruptive force” but “still sit in Westminster”.
"What I think the SNP do, and Ukip and also the Greens, is it’s not really about any individual policy. There was some interesting academic research the other day that bears this out. They tell a very powerful story about it, about how if your life's not how you want it to be, here’s someone to blame for it – the English, the immigrants, the capitalists – and here's a group of people who will defend you from it. It hits you here, it hits you in the heart.
“Now nationalism to me is the enemy of solidarity. If you are going to tell me what matters is my passport, not my principles, not what I believe in, you are never going to make any progress.
“It speaks to the challenge we face. That people think it’s a transaction. That we turn up, we present them with a leaflet, we go away again. What the SNP did do that we should learn from is they said 'we don’t just want your votes, we want your voices. You tell this story for us. You be part of showing how it makes a difference to your community’.
"I will take them on in terms of their ideas. I was listening to Mhairi Black’s speech and she offered no answers about communities, and I believe I have a duty to my community to help with answers, not just to wriggle my hands and say isn’t it all awful. That means we can’t be controlling from the centre and say ... a Mafia don. Here’s some largesse. I have fixed your windows today. You must vote for me. That's not how it works."
One of the most prominent politicians on social media, she thinks Twitter and Facebook too have changed how politics does business.
"I estimate I got maybe 500 votes in 2010 for being on Twitter, by reaching out to people, talking about Walthamstow. Now it's maybe 5,000, maybe more. That's just a sense. But it’s at a level now of expectation of being able to maintain those contacts. The number of people who’d say 'oh you didn't respond to my tweet'. I literally didn’t see it."
It’s not without its negative side-effects. Death threats were issued when she campaigned for a woman to appear on banknotes (Jane Austen was chosen for the £20) and she mentions another bout of misogyny when she posted an infographic showing how the Labour party is only 38% women. It reflects a wider problems that exists in society, she says, and makes clear her frustration at the prospect of two men being at the top of the party.
"If the Labour Party yet again has two men, that is part of the wider problem about why is it when we are the party of equality but in parts of the country only one in four of our members are women? For me, someone should be down there saying 'what's going on?' The rest of the country isn’t like that.
"It's telling in this process I have had lots of people saying to me 'oh, two women'. And some of my competitors have said we need to have balance. Most of my adult life you have had two men running the Labour Party and nobody has said anything about it at all. Two women and everyone’s like 'oh'.
"Even if we get two women we will still be under-representative of the British public. The fact that people are asking those questions tells us how far we have to go. I am very clear I am standing as a feminist, as a co-op person, as a socialist, as a democrat. Because these are battles I have chosen to take on. And I’m not prepared to keep asking nicely about it.
“Whatever happens to me, I am frustrated absolutely that we are still at that point.
“I think my generation of feminists dropped the ball here. Why is that when people talk about women’s issues it starts with childcare. It takes a man and a woman to make a baby, it’s not a women’s issue it’s a parent’s issue.
"It speaks to the bigger issue. In an election where the majority of candidates are women, if we end up with two blokes? Labour needs to take a long hard look at how equality is best manifested. What I'm saying is that's not just an issue at the top, when we've got local parties in that state as well, it’s an issue for everywhere. For the party that brought in all women short-lists for the party and the Equal Pay Act, equality is not here. And if we act as if it is we have a big problem."
There’s a question she gets asked about heroes, and the suggestion is often "Harriet Harman".
“Harriet is an icon, but I am my own woman. Just as John Prescott is an icon and I am my own woman. For women, it is too often somebody has to have gone before you before we can see you doing it. We have to put the word 'yet' at the end of a sentence otherwise we'll still be asking nicely in 20 years. "
"I would not need to fund raise for my campaign if I had a pound for every time someone said to me 'did Margaret Thatcher inspire you?’ To which I would say back 'did Silvio Berlusconi inspire you?'”
There are more campaigning irons in the fire, regardless of the outcome of the election.
"I would like to keep the campaign up to end unpaid internships. Too many young people don't get a foot on the ladder to get a job because they don’t have the bank of mum and dad behind them. Businesses are missing out on young people.
"I still think there’s a case about fees for landlords and tenants. There's a conflict of interest. How can you pay a fee to a letting agency whose also getting a fee from the landlord? What if something goes wrong?
"I would like to see credit cards – there's predatory leading. I'd like to see debt management plans being fee free. Why do you have to pay to get out of debt in this country?"
Many have asked why she hasn’t stood for leader, which she has said was down to the deputy gig being a better fit. But does she want to be leader in the future?
"Hogwarts is going to have to change a lot," she says. "You have to jump up and down like a rabbit to raise a question. You can’t call anyone by their first name. You don’t involve anyone else in that process. It’s not where change is happening. I want to change the world."