‘No one wants to be called a “predator”’. Angela Eagle talks exclusively to Richard Angell and Adam Harrison
The office of the shadow secretary of state for business is no easy place to find. Hidden doors lead to long corridors and spiral staircases as if we have stepped into the magical castle made famous by the Harry Potter series. We find Angela Eagle in her eyrie at the top of a turret, her view a vantage point over the parliamentary estate; it is almost like Eagle is looking out for the party in the current precarious times.
If parliament is Hogwarts, then Eagle as shadow first secretary of state is Professor McGonagall to Jeremy Corbyn’s Dumbledore. The member of parliament for Wallasey is ‘looking forward’ to her ‘first bout with George Osborne’. The appointment means she will step up to do prime minister’s questions when the government puts up the chancellor.
On hearing that many of us were hoping she would be made shadow chancellor after Corbyn’s election, ‘Ah, well!’ is all she will say. As a ‘great feminist’ she says she ‘think[s] it is important that the Labour party has women at every level in the shadow cabinet’. She continues, ‘But that is not a matter for me.’
Instead, it is her sister, Maria Eagle, the shadow secretary of state for defence, who has been in the news recently with Corbyn appointing Ken Livingstone to, in the words of a Maria ally, ‘mark her homework’. ‘I am proud of her’, says the older twin. But, be in no doubt, ‘she can look after herself’.
It has been a long year for Eagle, including a general election ‘we were hoping to win’ and a deputy leadership campaign. ‘We started the year full of hope … that the polls were correct and that we might be able to get ourselves in a situation where the policy that we developed, and there was some extremely good policy, might be able to be put into effect.’ But, ‘that was cruelly exposed as not an accurate assessment at 10 o’clock on polling night.’
The fallout from Scotland was overwhelming. ‘I think the SNP issue [was] the thing that gave the Tories their majority’, Eagle argues. ‘The catastrophe that happened in Scotland … was a magic bullet for the Tories because it had a huge effect in England as well.’ Angry at the ‘contemptible’ way the prime minister used the ‘English nationalism card on the day after [the referendum] instead of uniting’ the people, she concedes its effectiveness: ‘My God, it worked, from a purely Tory party point of view’.
Within hours of the defeat, Miliband resigned. Eagle regrets this decision: ‘Ed should have stayed on and given us a little bit of time to recover’. She believes the party needed ‘a sober, sombre reflection’ and time to think ‘deeply about what had gone wrong and what we should be doing about it, instead of being plunged straight into a leadership election.’ ‘We’ve lost two elections on the trot. We cannot pretend that we don’t need a root-and-branch look at why’, says the National Executive Committee member. But does that explain the truly extraordinary events that unfolded this summer? ‘New Labour politics had come to an end, it had almost kind of eaten itself and didn’t have a lot to say [any more].’ ‘I think’, she continues, ‘a lot of party members over the summer thought we might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb’. Corbyn’s victory was the membership crying out for ‘someone to stand up and tell us what our values are’. Repeating the critique of both Gordon Brown and Miliband’s leadership of the party being all ‘tactics rather than strategy’, Labour’s business spokesperson argues, ‘we [had] got ourselves into a groove that was so deep we couldn’t leap out of it. And I think Jeremy’s election was a leap out of it, wasn’t it?’
So where next? ‘I’m not one of those that wants us to be a protest party, I want us to be a governing party.’ ‘We are now in the second Conservative administration really, and this is an administration that got a majority, is just about to take a massive axe to the public realm’. It is time to ‘go back to some fundamental questions about how our social democratic values can actually be made to be relevant in the 21st century in Britain.’ It is not like the ‘European Union is full of social democrats that are in government’. So we are on our own.
Eagle is hunkering down to her new core role. We meet her just after she has spent a morning with the London Stock Exchange. Recently Richard Burgon, the shadow City minister, was embarrassed on Channel 4 News when asked by presented Cathy Newman about any visits to City firms. His ‘busy diary’ had prevented such meetings. Not so with Eagle. ‘I have got an open door when it comes to discussing with any business leaders’, she says.
Eagle’s vision is not dissimilar to Miliband’s aim of a reformed capitalism without the rigged markets and lack of returns for working people. We ask why the shadow business secretary thinks the politics of the issues were handled so badly. ‘I’m not sure that it was communicated properly.’ She continues, ‘I think the “producers” and “predators” language was unhelpful.’ Miliband’s ‘caricatured’ speech failed to make ‘the distinction between those companies that give back’. Taking a very different tone to the leader she served for five years, she says, ‘no really good companies exploit their workforce’. More importantly, ‘no one wants to be called a “predator”’.
Proving why she would have made such a good fit as shadow chancellor, Eagle makes clear, ‘there are a whole range of things you can say about how the state can properly have an input into ensuring that you have a more vibrant rebalanced economy and that you minimise the chances of those who are exploiting their workforce, driving good employers out.’ A future Labour government would ‘incentivise proper and good behaviour, and try to work with the grain of those that know exploitation when they see it.’ She champions the role of ‘social partnership between trade unions and employers’. ‘The best, most successful, companies, particularly in manufacturing … work together [with employees] all the time.’ ‘We need to paint a picture of what that looks like, not just get into some slanging match,’ she concludes.
Shadowing Sajid Javid is going to be no easy task. Tipped as a future Conservative party leader, how he performs in the chamber and beyond will put Eagle in the limelight too. She is keen to get stuck in. ‘We’ve got a BIS secretary that won’t let the phrase “industrial strategy” pass his lips, who has boasted that it would be quite a good idea to abolish the BIS department. Now, I hear he has sort of stepped back a bit from that in the last few weeks’, but will the ‘levers of growth contained within that department’ remain? What about ‘the good work that Peter Mandelson started at the end of the last Labour government, carried on it has to be said by Vince Cable? How much of that will be intact?’
Labour is getting a tough time in the press at the moment. She reminds party members that, ‘the Daily Mail are never going to like the Labour party.’ She seeks comfort from the wise words of Labour’s only three times election-winner: ‘I thought Tony Blair probably got it about right when he said that all you could hope to do was neutralise them, in terms of their attacks.’ What worries the Wallasey MP ‘is that we are getting the broadcast media doing similar things’ that the newspapers [are doing]. She insists that it ‘is very difficult at the moment because the media … want to pursue a load of tittle-tattle about what is going on in the Labour party.’ You cannot help thinking that throwing a little red book across the dispatch box might not be a good case in point.
Her wise words and watchful eye will hold Labour in good stead in the weeks and months ahead. Just like McGonagall, Eagle in her turret is not one to be underestimated.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.