It hasn’t been, to put it mildly, the best of weeks for Ed Miliband and the Labour Party, who have angered everyone from big business to nuns and now seem to be staring at catastrophe in Scotland. If Michael Cockerell’s documentary, screening now on BBC2, had filmed Labour MPs in the House of Commons in the past few days, instead of last year, it would have been a window on despair.
Yet one member of the Shadow Cabinet is having none of this talk of calamity. Angela Eagle, the shadow leader of the Commons and a veteran of five parliaments, is the party’s Berocca tablet (slogan: “You, but on a really good day), fizzing in the morning and shaking off the mid-winter gloom. She’s Labour, but on a really good day.
Of the poll by Lord Ashcroft showing an SNP sweep of Labour seats, she warns her colleagues: “First of all you’ve got to keep your heads.” And asked about any hung Parliament deals, the MP for Wallasey says: “If you’re in a football team or a cricket team and you’re going out on the pitch to play one of the most important games in your life, you don’t spend all your time worrying about what will happen if you don’t quite win. You go out and you do your best to win, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Labour, she says, shouldn’t be swayed by the prospect of fighting the election on several fronts – the Tories nationally, the SNP in Scotland and Ukip in northern working-class seats. The MP, who is helping to write the party’s manifesto, says: “I don’t think there’s a tactical issue there, there’s a vision issue. So long as we get over – which I’m convinced our manifesto will – what our vision and our values are, then we can assert them. You have to have a bold assertion of your own policies and I think Ed’s being doing that.”
On Scotland, Eagle says: “What we’ve got to do is just very calmly assert the truth: that the general election is going to be about whether you have a Labour government or a Conservative government. People who are thinking of flirting with voting Scottish nationalist in Scotland should remember that. The polls are sobering but there’s still time to turn them round.”
After a stream of City figures came out last week critical of Labour, can Eagle declare that the party is on the side of business? “Of course we’re on the side of business, but we’re not on the side of friends of the Tory party who the Chancellor seems to tap up at Davos and ask to engage in an orchestrated campaign in the Conservative papers slagging us off.
“The Labour Party, right the way through from its foundations, hasn’t been against business or growth or people striving to create value and make things.”
After the Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, struggled to remember the name of Labour’s business supporter Bill Thomas, Eagles invokes another Bill Somebody – even though he lived 150 years ago. “William Morris was a well-known early pioneer in the Labour movement and he was a businessman who actually, oddly, made wallpaper, among other things, rather like George Osborne’s family.”
Despite her bullish tone on striving for a majority, Eagle does not think that the continued leadership of Nick Clegg should be a deal-breaker in any coalition negotiations; decisions must be based on “values not personalities”.
Yet Eagle is scathing of the Prime Minister: “He wants to use his Facebook adverts and the huge tsunami of cash from the hedge funds to buy the election, and I have more faith in the British people to see through that kind of stuff.”
Eagle and Cameron have history. Everyone remembers the moment four years ago when the PM, after being goaded by Eagle, who was sitting a few feet away at PMQs, snapped at her: “Calm down, dear.” There were cries of sexism, but Eagle clearly relished drawing out Cameron’s anger. “I just thought, ‘Ooh, now, I’ve got him, I’ve got him, I’ve obviously put him off.’
“When you’re under that kind of pressure it does reveal something about your character. The smoothie mask slipped.”
It is unsurprising, then, that Eagle – perhaps in a minority of women MPs – often enjoys the adversarial nature of PMQs. “Sometimes it’s awful in terms of the sheer volume of noise. It’s good theatre, but a lot of people get very turned off by it, especially women.
“Do I enjoy yelling at the Prime Minister occasionally? Well I have to admit, sneakily, yes.”
Eagle has her own weekly Commons combat with William Hague at business questions every Thursday. She has developed a repertoire of snappy one-liners to match, some say, the parliamentary skills of her opponent, including that Lord Rennard was “the only person in the whole country who would take legal action in order to become a Liberal Democrat”.
On the walls of her Commons office, in a turret overlooking the Thames, there are totems of New Labour – a colourful painting of Mo Mowlam, above a PinkJack, a striking emblem of the gay community. Eagle was the first woman MP to come out. She married her partner, Maria Exall, in 2008.
Eagle says she loves Parliament, but, if Labour is elected, she has some radical ideas on how to reform the Commons, including allowing the public to scrutinise Bills and forcing the legislation to be debated fully on the floor of the chamber. Forcing ministers to field questions from any MP on a proposed law would see the current “Test cricket” way of doing things transformed into “Twenty20 cricket”. Like Twenty20, this would also make the Commons more accessible to voters who normally feel like they get only one shot at democracy every five years.
“There is a crisis in our politics, in our democratic system now…. There’s inevitably some machinations in politics, but I don’t think they’re ever as bad as they’re portrayed. One of the glories of democracy is that it’s there to decide which competing interests should win, but it’s also there to protect the people who don’t win.”
As a teenager Eagle was junior UK chess champion. So who would win in a match between her and Rachel Reeves, that other keen player in the Shadow Cabinet? “Well, naturally me.” She adds: “We’ve never played together. We’re both too busy trying to save our country from the Tories to worry too much about chess. We’re on the same team.”Reuse content