Emily Thornberry: My answers to five key leadership questions

Emily Thornberry

My colleague Alison McGovern tweeted a series of very important organisational and political questions yesterday, which she said every candidate for the Labour leadership needed to answer. As the first candidate to declare, I’d like to answer them – and I hope that other candidates will follow suit.

My apologies that this is a longer article than LabourList would normally publish, but these are vital questions, and I think it’s important for every candidate to answer them properly.

Question 1. What will you do to get resources where we need them – i.e. where we need to win elections – not hoard them close to you in London?

There are two issues here: where do we employ Labour staff, and where do we focus our campaign funds and our deployment of volunteers? On staffing, there are some jobs that – for logistical reasons – need to be done close to parliament, but that’s certainly not the case with all jobs. As long as it’s cost-effective I’d want, at the very least, to strengthen our existing regional offices around England, and those in Glasgow and Cardiff.

I’d streamline the leader’s office immediately, and redeploy those staff numbers to bolster our operations elsewhere – including giving better support to shadow cabinet members, our whips office, and the PLP office. All of whom are racing to keep up every day.

There’s also the issue of the community organiser network we’ve employed since 2018. In theory, they are doing exactly what Alison is talking about, and I met some outstanding people doing those jobs. But it’s only fair to say I’ve had some complaints from MPs, CLPs, and heads of region that the organisers were not always given clear instructions, or that it wasn’t always clear why they’d been deployed where they were.

If we’re going to have a community organiser network, it should always be the heads of region who decide where they need to be based and what they need to do, in consultation with that region’s MPs, not someone operating out of London. And let’s be clear as well, those decisions need to be based on winning local, mayoral and general elections – not national executive committee (NEC) elections and leadership elections.

In terms of the deployment of funding and volunteers, I totally agree there were some very odd decisions made during this Brexit election in terms of directing resources towards unwinnable seats, not just in London but throughout the country, while those seats we needed to save felt starved of support. There needs to be a serious inquest into why that happened, and why it was allowed to go on for so long, even when the outcome was becoming so glaringly clear.

Question 2. What is your personal experience of going toe-to-toe with our political opponents and beating them in a hard fought election?

When I first stood in Canterbury in 2001, a seat where we’d lost to the Tories by 4,000 votes even in the 1997 landslide, I increased our vote share by 5.5 percentage points to almost 37%, by far the highest we’d ever achieved in that seat. I reduced the Tory majority to 2,000, and turned it into a marginal. We went backwards after that, but Rosie Duffield and the local party have been kind enough to say it sowed the seed for her success in 2017, and I was so proud to be there campaigning with her, even though Labour HQ told me it was a waste of time.

In 2005, when I stood in Islington South and Finsbury, it was the top Lib Dem target in the country. They’d already taken the council, there were no Labour councillors in my constituency, and – after the Iraq War – they poured huge resources into winning the seat where Tony Blair lived. At the start, that was a lonely, hard campaign. So many lifelong volunteers felt they couldn’t do it that time, but I flogged my guts out, knocking on 11,800 doors myself. On election night, the Lib Dems were so confident they brought a celebration cake to the count. But I won by 484 votes.

And when it comes to going toe-to-toe with our opponents, I’m the only Labour MP apart from Jeremy Corbyn who’s ever gone toe-to-toe with Boris Johnson at the opposition despatch box, something I did successfully for the entire two years he was Foreign Secretary. I know how to get under his skin, shoot through the bluster and expose him as the lying charlatan he is.

Question 3. What will you do as soon as you are leader to make sure that there is not one single antisemite in the Labour membership?

Well, most importantly on antisemitism, we need to start calling it out from the top and being utterly ruthless in how we deal with it. No indulgence, no excuses, no warnings or training sessions. Just kick them out. I think I was the first frontbench speaker at the 2018 conference to call out antisemitism from the conference stage, and call for these despicable individuals to be drummed out of our party. And I did that in front of a hall full of people waving Palestinian flags, because those two things are not and should never be incompatible.

But the leader needs to do more than that. They also have to lead the charge in calling it out online as well, and say to people who call themselves Labour but disseminate antisemitic tropes or abuse that they do not belong in our party, and report them straight away. The leader also needs to defend people who raise concerns about antisemitism, and then get attacked and traduced for doing so. I don’t care which party they support. If they feel hurt, angry and fearful as a result of antisemitism on the left, then our only duty is to apologise, listen, and kick it out of our party.

On a practical level, we need to get the recommendations from the EHRC inquiry, which should be coming soon, and implement them in full. Anyone exposed by the EHRC for wrongdoing in the handling of antisemitism cases needs to be out the door immediately. We’ve got the 19-point plan from the Jewish Labour Movement as well, most of which I entirely agree with, especially in terms of transparency, education and independent decision-making. But I’d like to sit down with them and discuss the suggestion of having exclusive affiliate status because, in an ideal world, I’d want us to have lots of Jewish affiliates.

And if he’s willing to do so, I’d go back to Charlie Falconer and ask him to oversee the implementation of all those changes and also look into our internal procedures himself, which should have happened months ago.

Question 4. What is your plan for Labour to have economic credibility?

When I visited Australia earlier this year, where the Labor Party was reeling from a surprise third election defeat in a row, the explanation from my counterparts was clear: we threw too much at the voters; it was all too complex; and there was no single message or set of clear priorities. I think we could say exactly the same here, and it didn’t help that the Tories were able to stick relentlessly to one message and one issue in respect of Brexit, which was always the risk.

To be fair, item-by-item, there’s nothing in our 2019 manifesto that I disagree with. But when you put it all together, it did look like we were promising to deliver the earth, the moon and the stars, and we didn’t need to worry about explaining how we’d pay for all of it, because the Tories were driving a campaign battle bus through their own fiscal rules.

It’s a small example in the great scheme of things, but I’ve had to continually argue against commitments to increase the Foreign Office budget – not something the Shadow Secretary of State would usually do – because I thought we needed to wait until we were in government, and see what the wider priorities were. But even that argument was lost for this manifesto, and a £400m spending commitment was chucked in by Jeremy’s advisers, which – to my mind – would have been far better spent on our pledges to increase the numbers of police officers or nursing staff.

As for what happens next time, there are three key points for me. Firstly, we’ll almost certainly be dealing with the aftermath of a Boris Johnson Brexit, which will totally change the economic and fiscal climate we’re facing coming into the next election. So we’ll have to be realistic. If we’re in a deep recession by then, our economic plan will first and foremost need to be about recovery, so some of our bigger goals will have to wait for the long-term.

Second, Alison will remember the row from the campaign when the Tories were blocked from publishing the Treasury’s analysis of Labour’s plans. That was treated as a victory for us, but I thought the whole thing was the wrong way round. We’ve got to have the confidence in our costings to invite the Treasury, the OBR and the IFS to audit our plans, and give their official verdict on our manifesto’s credibility, then turn the screws on the Tories to pass the same test.

Third, there’s our relationship with business. I’ve met dozens of business figures over the past three years, either by myself or with my colleagues, Anneliese Dodds and Chi Onwurah, and my constant refrain when they’ve disagreed with Labour’s economic policies has been to say to them: ‘Let’s start with the problem we’re trying to solve’, whether it’s energy tariffs, the gender pay gap, problem gambling or anything else. Then I’ll say: ‘We’ve proposed a solution. If you think that won’t work, or it’ll do more harm than good, or it’ll cost jobs, explain why, but then come up with a better solution instead. Because either way, we need to sort the problem.’ I think that kind of constructive dialogue with business is going to be essential, especially if we are in a post-Brexit recovery period.

Question 5. What is your plan for the challenges ahead – climate change, an ageing population, technology, for example – or will you seek to define yourself via the battles of the past?

I am steeped in Labour history, and I talk about it a lot in my articles and speeches, so I’m never going to turn my back on our past; whether it’s the early party activists who fought for universal suffrage and workers’ rights, the international brigades who fought Franco in Spain in the 1930s, or the striking miners I fought for in court in the 1980s.

We can never forget those wars the Labour movement fought against elitism, fascism and Thatcherism, and we have to learn from them in dealing with the challenges we face today. But no, what I’m not interested in doing is re-fighting those battles now, or thinking that the job of a Labour government is somehow to turn back the clock.

Alison is right – we need to be entirely focused on the future challenges we face as a country, including the issues she mentions. Almost exactly two years ago, I wrote about the exciting possibilities but also the grave dangers of rapidly-advancing AI technology. Exciting because of the potential rapid problem-solving capacity of computers able to learn for themselves and test theories that humans have never considered.

But dangerous because the more ingrained that technology becomes into our infrastructure, the more power we are investing in computers capable of independent learning and decision-making that is beyond our comprehension, and to some degree our control – let alone the risks of that power being used by hostile countries to interfere with our infrastructure. It is high time that handling this issue is on the agenda of every major international summit.

On ageing, again, it was more than two years ago, at our Women’s Conference in Brighton, that I talked about our ageing population, and the fact that by 2041, the need for unpaid care of elderly relatives will be double what it is today, even though we are already in a position where so many millions of Britons – 60% of them women – are creaking under the weight of their caring responsibilities.

I worked in a care home as a young woman, and I looked after both my mum and dad towards the end of their lives, so I know how hard it is, and how little support there is – if any. So if Alison will allow me to re-fight one past battle, it would be the one launched by Barbara Castle in the 1970s to fully integrate the NHS with social care services, something that was never achieved, and which Tory cuts have unpicked even when NHS Trusts have tried to make progress at local level.

On climate change, I was part of Ed Miliband’s delegation at Copenhagen ten years ago. I’ve believed since long before then – and even more now, as we near the point of no return – that it’s the most important issue for anyone who wants to lead a country. Especially so when we have fanatics like Trump and Bolsonaro actively boasting of their disregard for it.

I believe a future Labour government must be not just a world leader – but the world leader – when it comes to fighting climate change. Just as we led the world in the first industrial revolution, we can lead it in the green industrial revolution, ensuring that every country has the capacity to use the natural resources best available to them – whether that’s tidal, solar or wind power, to convert to a zero-carbon economy. Back in February, I called this ‘the globalisation of the Green New Deal’, an acknowledgement that this is a crisis none of us can solve on our own.

There are many more issues about the future I’d like to discuss, however I’d better save something for the hustings! But I hope I have given Alison’s questions the attention they are due, and I hope all other candidates will do the same.

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