Having presided over a string of seemingly effortless wins against the government in recent months, the assumption might be forgiven that shadow leader of the House of Lords Angela Smith currently has one of the easier jobs in Labour politics.
She is keen to reassure me otherwise as we take a seat in her grand office as the current, turbulent, parliamentary session draws to a close: ‘It might look like a swan gliding over because we get a victory, but actually there’s been a hell of a lot of paddling underneath’.
Offering me a glass of water, Smith slams down somewhat kitsch plastic coasters to protect the magnificent table – ‘supposedly Pugin’ … an amusing nod to the everyday difficulties of negotiating this anachronistic institution.
From the autumn’s U-turn on tax credits, to David Cameron’s climbdown over child refugees last week, Labour peers have inflicted more than their fair share of setbacks on the Tories during this parliament.
With the Liberal Democrats no longer in coalition, there is a notional anti-government majority in the Lords. But Smith stresses that maximising her party’s impact requires a far more strategic approach: ‘If we just vote things down, they’re just going to vote it down [in the Commons] – ping, pong, ping, pong – and we don’t actually achieve very much.
‘The challenge for us is to find something we think we can sustain.’
Smith argues that Labour’s ‘careful marshalling of argument’ trumps brute force when it comes to votes, offering the trade union bill as an example: ‘I don’t like it full stop. I’d rather not have it. I’d rather vote against it. But that’s not where we are.
‘We had the capacity to make a difference and to change it by bringing on board crossbenchers and making Tories realise the problems with it.’
Smith proposed a crossbench-chaired select committee to specifically consider the party funding elements of the legislation.
‘In the end we won a phenomenal majority because we made clear the need for greater scrutiny to understand what those parts of the bill did. That created the space and the opportunity to place greater pressure on the government to make the changes we’ve recently seen.
‘I’m not sure it’s a centre-left majority. I think it’s a majority for reason, a majority for common sense.’
Smith does not hesitate to highlight tensions she has experienced when trying to work with the Liberal Democrats, implying that the party often favours political opportunism over effecting tangible changes to legislation. She is scathing of their role in the row over tax credits: ‘The Lib Dems put down what’s called a “fatal motion”. If that motion had succeeded, they would have killed it off on day one and that would have been it.
‘Labour didn’t support that because our assessment was that if we did that all that would happen would be that [the government] would bring it back as primary legislation and it would sail through’.
‘We were trying to buy some time to force the government to respond to the pressure it was under, both from within parliament and outside, and to listen to some of its own people.’ This approach, she argues, is what ultimately stopped the changes to tax credits going through. Sometimes it pays to be the tortoise, not the hare.
Smith is adamant that Labour has a responsibility to compromise, despite the many frustrations this can entail while her party is out of government: ‘It’s quite a balancing act for us and it isn’t always easy. We’re looking to find compromises that can make a difference in people’s lives. You don’t always want to compromise because you think it doesn’t seem principled, but if you just vote against things you don’t get anything.’
Citing Alf Dubs’ recent amendment in the debate on child refugees, she emphasises that her pragmatic approach does not preclude Labour drawing red lines when necessary: ‘If you can rub the rough edges off legislation in order to make a difference, then you should. But if what they’re offering makes no difference there’s nothing you can do.’
Labour peers’ battles with the government are, ironically in the unelected chamber, a daily sharp reminder of the importance of winning elected office. As for the former member of parliament for Basildon, Smith’s days of elected politics are behind her. But she agrees that Labour faces a significant challenge to win again in areas like her old seat. Smith lost to the Tories in 2010, following boundary changes. But Labour fell further backwards still in last year’s general election, coming a dismal third behind the United Kingdom Independence party.
Asked why Ukip have grown so strong in areas like Basildon, Smith jokes that if she had the ‘the one answer’ she would probably be Labour leader herself by now.
Labour has fallen victim to a wider disillusionment with establishment politics, she suggests, arguing Ukip have seized upon this: ‘They managed to have people on the ground that weren’t typical party politicians.’
She is angry at what she sees as the second string to Ukip’s fiddle: ‘Playing into people’s fears’. More specifically, she recalls ‘racist overtones’ to Ukip’s campaigns. How should Labour react to this? The party should be frank and forthright with people: ‘We just need to be very confident about our arguments: where migration has benefited the UK, but also where it brings pressure to communities that need extra support.’
Another tonic, she proposes, might be for her party to inject more positivity and hope into its campaigning: ‘I think there’s a huge job to enthuse people about politics. I think there’s an appetite out there. People want to be enthused and excited, but we’ve got to live up to that’.
Smith hints that many of her colleagues in the Lords believe Labour must broaden its appeal once again: ‘I think a lot of people in our group would like to see us more pro-business.’
For her personally, the focus should be on small businesses: ‘If you think about it, they’re the entrepreneurs. They’re the go-getters. Those are traditional Labour values.’
‘Unless we harness those people, who are leading the way in technology and so many other areas, we are not going to get this country to where it needs to be and we’re not where the Labour party needs to be.’
Before Labour can make headway on returning a Labour government, Smith notes the small matter of securing Britain’s future within the European Union. Firmly in favour of staying in herself, Smith praises Jeremy Corbyn for clarifying his stance: ‘People didn’t expect Jeremy to be positive about the EU in the way he has been. I think it’s right that he’s made clear he will vote to stay in the EU and that that’s a Labour party position’.
With the local and devolved elections finally out of the way, Smith urges ‘a major pro-European campaign that shows Labour voices united’. She pours cold water on suggestions that Labour might refrain from being too vocal for fear of a backlash like the one unleashed after the Scottish independence vote. It is ‘absolutely crucial’, she stresses, for there to be a strong Labour identity to the campaign: ‘I think the bigger risk is to the country. That’s the risk we should all be most worried about.’
Ben Dilks is commissioning editor at Policy Network. He tweets @BenDilks
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.