Emily Thornberry was one of the stars of Labour’s election campaign. Now she wants the party to prepare for power, she tells Kate Murray
It was one of the highlights of election night: Emily Thornberry, grinning like the Cheshire Cat, telling David Dimbleby that the Conservatives were heading for their very own coalition of chaos. The exchange, which saw Thornberry hailed on social media as the “Queen of Sass”, was a fitting end to an energetic campaign by the shadow foreign secretary in which she made scores of constituency visits and robustly promoted the Labour cause on radio and TV. But, as she admits, it had all begun very differently.
“We started off very low. I remember being in the tea room before the election speaking to MPs who genuinely thought they weren’t coming back,” she says. But then, two weeks out from polling day, the mood changed and Labour seemed to have “won permission to be heard”.
“The manifesto was the star – it gave us something we all coalesced around,” she says. “We showed Britain what Labour can be when we are united and what an unstoppable force we can be. It was like a snowball, getting bigger. People were genuinely wanting to listen to what Labour stood for. Jeremy continued to campaign in the way that only Jeremy does – and then there was a big enough turnout and those who said they were going to support Labour actually did come out and vote Labour.”
Thornberry is perhaps an unlikely Corbynista and indeed voted for Yvette Cooper in the 2015 leadership election. But she rejects any factional label – “I just believe I come from the heart of the Labour party and I believe I always have” – and says the decision to become, and remain, a shadow minister, was a simple one. “My view is that the party is the membership. That party of more than half a million people had overwhelmingly voted for Jeremy and it seemed to me that it was our duty to be a proper opposition, to be an alternative government and to make Jeremy the best leader he could be. That was what the membership wanted and what the country deserved.”
Not all of her parliamentary colleagues agreed, with the pre-election period being, Thornberry concedes, often ‘dreadful’ thanks to Labour’s very public spats. But arguments within the party, she believes, should have been seen off by the election campaign. “The major difference between us, in terms of the PLP, was ‘Is Jeremy electable or not?’ That is now sorted – so there is no real reason to have these major differences now. Of course there will be differences in terms of policy. There always have been, there always will be and that’s healthy. I don’t want the unity of the graveyard – but I do want unity. So where there are differences, let’s debate them, but let’s not do it in a silly personal way out in the media, fighting.”
For her, it’s disappointing then, that just weeks after the election and with a sense of optimism and new-found unity in the air, three Labour frontbenchers were sacked and another stepped down over an amendment calling for the UK to remain within the single market and the customs union.
“It’s unfortunate. I don’t quite understand why Chuka [Umunna] thought it necessary to put down that amendment as a backbencher to the Queen’s Speech,” she says. “It
seemed to me to be a brilliant opportunity for us to show the differences in the Tory party, to highlight the need for a public sector pay rise, for our alternative vision for fighting austerity. All of those things could have happened, but instead a lot of that space was taken up by debate about what was meant by Chuka’s amendment.”
In reality, she insists, there isn’t a “huge amount of difference” between the different positions within the party. “I think there’s a bit of tickboxing – ‘oh I’m in favour of the single market therefore I’m more pro-European than you’,” she says. ”What we’ve been trying to hone in the leadership is an approach to the negotiations which is flexible but which gets maximum benefit for Britain in terms of our priorities – and our priorities are different from the Tories.”
What’s not in question, she suggests, is that the UK will leave the European Union. “I’m first and foremost a democrat. If we have instructions from the British people we do as we’re told,” she says. “It does seem to me that we have to go into this in good faith, on the basis that we have to leave the European Union. In my view we don’t have to go very far but we do have to leave. People need to hear that and believe us.”
But what about those who firmly believe that the people they represent want something very different? “Fitting a referendum into a parliamentary democracy is very difficult. But we’ve had a referendum and, while I respect those whose constituents overwhelmingly voted for remain and feel they must do everything they can to fight for remain, we are a national party. There has to be a party that tries to pull the 48 per cent and the 52 per cent together. We are not picking a side, we are trying to act on behalf of Britain and the best way to act on behalf of Britain in my view is for us to leave but to remain close.”
But the election, she says, was not so much about Brexit, as about austerity, and the lack of ideas that austerity represents. “It was about giving people confidence to believe it doesn’t have to be this way, that there is an alternative,” she says. And since the poll, there has been more evidence of the need for change, and for better government, in the shape of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. “How can it be that in the 21st century a tower can burn down, that people can leave in their t-shirt and knickers with nothing and have to run to church and hope that somebody donated a mattress? This is Britain in the 21st century – we are not a developing nation. It’s appalling that this is happening,” she says. Here, she adds, Labour can offer a real alternative. “We have to be a party that believes in government, that believes in red tape, that believes in people’s rights. It’s not red in tooth and claw capitalism. We do need to temper capitalism, we do need to make our world fairer and that does mean putting in rules, that does mean investing in public services. All of these things are what make our lives rich and what make our communities work.”
Thornberry’s own Islington South constituency has, she underlines, a high proportion of social housing and high levels of deprivation – a far cry from the privileged metropolitan bubble it’s sometimes suggested to be. The ‘north London elite’ tag is one that has been thrown at her, particularly in the wake of her resignation from Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet over a tweeted picture from the Rochester by-election campaign of a house complete with white van and English flags.
But she says misconceptions about her patch are often matched by misconceptions about her.
“I was brought up on a council estate – my parents divorced when I was seven, we were made homeless and we went on to a big council estate. My mum was a single parent and lived on benefits and I failed my 11-plus and went to a secondary modern,” she recalls. “On the other hand, I’m a barrister, I live in Islington and I’m successful. Things are never as they seem.”
Does she feel women politicians get a particularly hard time, particularly in the social media age? “It’s definitely different being a woman politician,” she says. “We tend to be seen as being more colourful but I also think there’s something about our personality, our family and our background which seems to be more relevant in people’s minds. The whole personal package seems to be more important than a man in a grey suit with a blue tie and grey hair who is able to be almost a blank canvas. There are positives but there are also negatives.”
Her background as a lawyer, she says, runs like a thread through her approach to politics: in the importance she places on good government, good regulations and above all fairness. In her role as shadow foreign secretary, it means she is determined to shape an ethical Labour foreign policy, where the UK works collectively with other countries in accordance with international law.
“We need to be less arrogant, more confident in our own ability, the talents that we have and our ethics. For me these are the British values I’m proud of,” she says. “At a time like this we could step up and give a lead. Against all the background of international noise, we could be the ones saying let’s work together, and move forward.”
In particular Thornberry would like to see the UK, which ‘holds the pen’ in the UN Security Council over Yemen and so is responsible for drafting resolutions, do more to stand up to Saudi Arabia over its role in the conflict there. “We continue selling arms to Saudi Arabia despite what’s going on in Yemen – despite the atrocities, despite the bombing of fields and infrastructure and weddings and funerals which seem on the face of it to be in breach of international law. We shouldn’t be selling them arms in those circumstances and yet we seem fearful about dealing with it, about standing up to them and saying this is wrong.”
Similarly, she believes the UK should drop its ‘embarrassingly obsequious’ attitude to Donald Trump and hold the current US administration to account on issues such as climate change. “We are putting all our eggs in the Trump basket, he’s just smashing them up and there doesn’t seem to be anything the Tory government can do about it,” she says. “If they can’t even influence one country on climate change, how strong and stable are they when it comes ton negotiations on Brexit?”
But whether the current government will be the ones handling those Brexit negotiations is far from sure, Thornberry believes. She likens the mood to the dying days of the John Major government, with a tired government clinging to power and ‘tearing lumps out of each other’. “The problem for the Tories is that they have talked up people’s expectations to such an extent that they going to have a great deal of difficulty bursting all those bubbles. That’s very unfortunate and very reckless,” she says. “We don’t know how long this government is going to last, whether it will be weeks, months or years. What we have to do is be on election footing all the time and Keir [Starmer] and his team and I and my team have to be ready to go. We have to make sure we have continuing conversations with European friends so they have good understanding of what we want to do and how different we would be.”
It’s a prospect she relishes, whatever the challenges ahead. “I believe that we are so much better in government than the Tories and that it is better for our country to have a Labour government no matter how difficult the circumstances are,” she says.
In the meantime, Labour needs to continue campaigning and ‘deepening and developing’ its policy offer. What enthused voters, particularly the young, so much, she believes, was the authenticity of Corbyn’s Labour. She also points to the shift in the political debate, away from ‘triangulation’ back to ‘what the Labour party is about.’
“What [happened in] the general election is not just that we did really well and got the biggest increase in votes since 1945 which is pretty damn good, but politically I feel we have moved the centre of politics back to where it ought to be,” she says.
“We needed to move the centre ground back again – things had moved so far away they just needed to be brought back. I am enthused by this and it does seem to me to be absolutely mainstream Labour politics said with confidence and true belief.”
For Labour then, there is all to play for. “We did really well in the general election – we just didn’t do well enough and we’ve got to make sure that next time we do win. As long as we do what we ought to be doing, deepen our policy offer, keep united and make sure that we are campaigning properly in Tory seats and SNP seats up and down the country without fear, knowing there are no no-go areas any more, we’ll win.”