Politics has to be about more than wringing one’s hands, Stella Creasy tells Robert Philpot and Adam Harrison
It is a bold and unexpected claim. We are in the middle of a conversation which offers little cause for cheerfulness – ranging, as it does, over the financial challenges an incoming Labour government would face, the public’s disengagement with politics, household indebtedness, the snail’s pace increase in women’s representation in parliament, and the dispiriting nature of Nigel Farage’s pitch to the British people – when Stella Creasy suddenly declares, ‘I’m incredibly optimistic about the future.’
That optimism is no doubt fuelled by the fact that, alone among opposition members of parliament, she can claim to have changed government policy. When George Osborne announced at the end of last year that the coalition intended to legislate to cap the sky-high interest rates charged by payday lenders, few gave the chancellor any credit. Instead, the plaudits went to the high-profile campaign Creasy has waged since entering parliament in 2010. And those plaudits have come from both left and right. LabourList named her MP of the year in 2012, while the Spectator magazine awarded her the epithet of Campaigner of the Year in 2011, calling her ‘an example of how to do opposition politics.’ ConservativeHome described her as ‘Labour’s most interesting member of parliament.’
For Creasy, victory over the likes of Wonga offers a way to start to puncture the pervasive sense of pessimism about whether any party can make a difference which she believes is Labour’s biggest challenge. ‘People say to you “Does it really make a difference?” and we have to have that argument with them and I think when we do we have a case to make. We can show the difference it makes. That’s the thing for me on the payday lending stuff: we’re showing by being strong about what you stand for that just because we’re not in office you don’t [not] have power.’
But the campaign also showed, she argues, the need not simply to have ‘an analysis but to have answers.’ ‘I could have sat around the frontbench or backbench wringing my hands going “Ooh, yes, payday lending is terrible”. [But] as soon as we started saying to the government “here’s an alternative, here’s a way you can tackle this problem”, they’ve got to make choices, and as soon as you are pushing people to make choices, that’s when change happens.’
Creasy has no intention of resting on her laurels, however. She views the fight against payday lenders’ exorbitant rates as simply ‘the start of a conversation about consumer credit.’ Britons have £1.6tn of personal debts, a figure which is rising even without the increase in interest rates which is expected this autumn, and servicing those debts is part of the reason why many struggle to get to payday without a loan. ‘We have this big bubble of personal debt coming up and … it will drag us all down,’ she argues. While the long-term solutions may be complex, the starting point is simple. ‘We have to stop being British and coy about talking about debt because that’s where these companies do well, [it] is people feeling ashamed … It can’t be a silent source of shame any more, it’s got to be something we talk about and which we manage together as a community.’
If Labour wins next May, it will not only inherit this personal debt bubble, but a Treasury whose finances remain firmly in the red. As shadow minister for consumer affairs, such matters are beyond Creasy’s brief but her call in 2012 for Labour to adopt ‘zero-based budgeting’ – a line-by-line re-examination of every item of public expenditure – may have initially irritated the party’s Treasury team, but it was later adopted by it. While she jokes that her passionate advocacy of it makes her sound like a ‘killjoy’, Creasy’s optimism allows her to turn what many regard as a painful necessity into a virtuous cause. ‘If we get our economy wrong, it’s the poorest who miss out and they pay the most comparatively in taxes so that’s why, for me, zero-based budgeting is such a progressive thing,’ she suggests. It is also, Creasy believes, critical to Labour’s chances. Lack of trust in politicians is nothing new, she argues, but it has been compounded by a more recent ‘lack of a sense of efficacy’ about politics. Voters need an answer to the question: ‘Even if you say you want to do this, could you really make it happen?’ Creasy says. ‘What zero-based budgeting does is show that we are absolutely determined to be able not just to come up with good ideas but to put them into practice and pay for them and that’s why it is so important.’ She also sees opportunity in austerity. ‘Everyone’s very negative about this idea that we’re going to face difficult financial challenges,’ Creasy argues. She sees instead the chance to ‘reshape services to get better outcomes for people. Actually it will be cheaper.’
Before entering parliament Creasy had stints as a speechwriter and researcher for Charles Clarke and Douglas Alexander, but it is her time as deputy director of the public participation thinktank Involve, as well as her PhD research into social exclusion, which appears to have done most to shape her thinking. In recent months, Labour has begun to talk much more about its plans for ‘people-powered’ public services and a radical devolution of power. But this is a common refrain for all opposition parties. What makes Creasy think Labour will be any more willing to give power up once its frontbench are ensconced in Whitehall? ‘Let’s be very clear,’ she responds, ‘the next Labour government should not be organising lots of meetings for people because meetings and minutes are not empowerment and engagement.’ Creasy also draws a sharp distinction between accountability and participation. She is less interested in people’s ability to be ‘in a room with the person who’s made the decision to tell them why it’s a good or a bad thing’ than in ‘how we can give you the direct ability to be able individually and collectively to make decisions and shape things around you, because you will know best for yourself what works for you.’
But before we have the opportunity to test whether Labour will make good on its commitments to give power away, it needs to win it next May. Creasy appears outwardly unconcerned by the party’s weakening position in the polls and her relentless optimism does not founder in the face of the United Kingdom Independence party’s challenge. ‘Nigel Farage is seeking a reaction and in that sense he shares some similarities with people on the left who just want to wring their hands and say “Isn’t it all awful?” I think Nigel Farage is actually, frankly, deeply unpatriotic because he’s basically talking about managing the decline of Britain. He doesn’t seem to think that we can compete with German inventors or that we can compete with the French capital … he seems to have written us off.’
Creasy side-steps questions about whether Labour needs to do more to challenge Farage but her prescription for such an attack is clear: ‘I don’t think he offers anything for the future – he only offers a cry of pain for the past and a fear of change. Change is scary, we need to acknowledge that, but change can also bring opportunities that we wouldn’t previously have had.’ She is also unwilling to give any ground to Ukip on immigration. ‘Talk to Nigel Farage not just about the immigrants who come here and create jobs but the immigrants who come here and create skills and create opportunities for people and create new ideas for people,’ she argues. ‘There are now more people over the age of 65 than under the age of 16 in Britain,’ she continues. ‘So unless women like me have a lot of children very quickly our ability to sustain our economy, to sustain our public services [will come under threat]. It’s not just that these guys want to charge you to use the NHS, it’s that their policies will actually mean the NHS will not exist by [Britain] not being able to have an economy than can support it.’
Soon after being elected, Creasy was entering a lift in parliament when a Tory male politician stopped her and told her it was reserved for members of parliament. It was an early, probably unnecessary, warning to her of the institution’s ingrained, albeit at time unintended, sexism. Tweets from the Sun’s political editor about her clothes when asking a question at prime minister’s questions – she responded by asking whether he would also be commenting on David Cameron’s tie – as well as a fight with Twitter last summer about its seeming indifference to violent misogynistic messages (of which she later became a victim) have done little to assuage Creasy’s concern. ‘Society is rife with sexism and the Commons and politics is no different,’ she reflects. She notes that female representation in parliament has increased by just four per cent in the last 15 years. It ‘horrifies’ her that, at the current rate of progress, her three-year-old niece will be drawing her pension before there is parity in parliament. She would like to see a ‘timeline’ set to show ‘when we are going to see change.’ ‘Parliament, like society, is full of all sorts of unconscious barriers to equality,’ she argues. ‘You know, if I hear another person saying that “leadership takes balls” … This is not being disrespectful to Mr Balls, but surely we should say leadership is about guts. It’s not gender-specific.’ As the fourth anniversary of her election to parliament passes, Stella Creasy can lay some claim to having proved that point.
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