Is this Labour’s “Year of the Eagle”?

13th December, 2013 10:39 am

“I’m a democrat so I always believe that the public are right even if they give me a great big raspberry. And if you don’t like what they’re telling you, you should listen even more closely”. – Angle Eagle

According to the Chinese calendar, we’re currently in the year of the Snake. Amongst other things it denotes mystery as well as acumen. But in the Labour Party, are we in the year of the Eagle?  Angela Eagle could certainly be said to have acumen – but she’s not without mystery either.

Having been an MP for 21 years, and lacking the media profile of some of her Shadow Cabinet contemporaries, some may doubt her influence. But this year Eagle has a number of potentially key roles all at the same time, and during a year that may determine Labour’s General Election success (or failure) too.  Eagle’s most public facing role is as Shadow Leader of the House. Her performances in weekly business questions – jousting with the perpetually embattled Andrew Lansley – are both steely and light, funny and quick.

Which means it’s a great shame nobody watches.

angela eagle

Someone told me last week that they’d considered Eagle to be a bit “square” – and that’s probably not an unfair description of her reputation. And yet it’s manifestly unfair as she’s anything but.  There’s a glint in her eye that suggests mischief when I meet her in her Westminster office to talk about her two less public (but arguably more important) roles. She’s the Chair of Labour’s National Policy Forum, but for this year she’s also the Chair of Labour’s NEC. That means she’s tasked with a combination of cajoling and head banging in what will be an “interesting” (to put it lightly) year for the party.

And what’s really bothering Eagle is how disillusioned with politics people feel. Eagle attributes some of that to “a closing in of  how politics work in the past few years”:

“[In the past] it was easier to find out how to I get involved. There was a lot more informal knowledge, which used to be handed down in families or communities and a lot of that has gone. People feel that politics is a closed off thing that they don’t know how to get into.”

And making the Labour Party more open is the driving force behind her “People’s Politics Inquiry”, which sees MPs across the country going out into communities and finding out what it is exactly that people find so off-putting about politics.

But what about changing the Labour Party to make it more open to the public? Eagle is sympathetic to suggestions that the categories of Labour Party members and supporters needs to change:
“I think alot of these boundaries need to be blurred, because people move in and out of these categories over their lives. People move in and out of activism in their lives.”

She notes – with a half-smile, that not everybody would leap at the opportunity to “sign your life away to the Labour Party for the next forty years”. Unlike she has, is the unspoken punchline.

And what about the way the Labour Party is organised around meetings, procedure and bureaucracy?

“We have to go out and meet people where they are rather than expecting them to come to us. And that does imply a different way of doing things that isn’t so structurally hidebound. I think that’s probably an old model. Now you can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, but we have to move with the times or we’ll be left behind.”

Much of this thinking obviously meshes with the work that Ray Collins is doing on party reform and the union link. Eagle says she’s keeping in touch with Collins, and “kicking a few thoughts around and that work goes on”.

There are certainly plenty of thoughts that require a good, sharp kick.

As we’re talking about what alienates people from politics – does Eagle agree with John Bercow, who tells MPs at every opportunity how much the public hate the yelling and shouting at PMQs. As Shadow Leader of the House Eagle may one day be responsible for reforming some of the more arcane aspects of the Commons – but I suspect PMQs won’t be one of them. “Everybody watches it”, she tells me – although she’s clear that “everyone” applies only to those who are already passionate about politics. As for the heckling each Wednesday, only a sporting metaphor will do:

“It’s a bit like a rugby scrum, you can tell who’s going backwards and who’s going forwards and that is quite important for party morale.”

Speaking of the chamber, Eagle has to dash off to sit on the front bench (which, it turns out, is quite a large part of being Shadow Leader of the House). Before she goes though, I ask her how things are in her constituency. Talking about how her constituents are suffering and people are being driven to foodbanks, she sighs, “It’s far worse than it was in the Eighties.”

For a Merseyside MP that’s not something said lightly. And yet turnout in her Wallasey constituency was 20% lower in 2010 than it was when she was first elected in 1992. People are suffering, but they don’t think politics is the answer. Trying to solve that is the challenge Eagle has set for herself and the Labour Party.

Good luck Angela – you’ll need it.

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