Stella Creasy: Could the Wonga-baiting, indie-loving MP tweet her way to No 10?
The MP for Walthamstow is tipped for a bright future on the Labour front benches, maybe even as leader...provided that she can take her eye off her phone for long enough
It's just before midday on a spring Saturday in Walthamstow, north-east London, and the only indication of what's about to hit Cedars Avenue is an agitated MP wearing a striped sash and a rucksack.
As a cluster of her cohorts chat on the other side of the road, Stella Creasy is lining up a century-old photo of the same street with the houses in front of her. In the photo, a considerably larger crowd of women, some of them wearing the same suffragette colours that Creasy sports today, fill the foreground. Creasy peers at it, and peers at the real thing, and peers at the photo again.
There are, she declares, too many cars in the way. They were meant to have been moved already, but the owners don't appear to be in. "That can't be Cos's car," she says brightly. Cos is in the residents' association. "He knows he'd get into trouble with me if he left his car there." Then she marches up to a front door to ask if the owner of the offending vehicle is inside.
It's International Women's Day, and to mark the event, Creasy has settled on this plan: a recreation of a century-old march, celebrating a previous generation and encouraging their descendants to follow their lead. At 11.55am, attendance is looking patchy, but then people start to arrive in large numbers. Creasy, who has been trailing the event heavily on Twitter, becomes a little less agitated. "There's more than three of us!" she exclaims, to no one in particular. "Yay! It's not just us! Hashtag winning!"
Not all politicians are prone to using the term 'hashtag' to denote their mood, and you may think that a relief. On the other hand, it must be said that if turn-out is any guide, Creasy knows what she's doing. And the uses of her distinctively modern approach to politics appear to extend beyond social networks.
Since her arrival at Westminster in 2010, Stella Creasy has been anointed by consensus as one of the brightest lights of Labour's new generation. Others might have beaten her into the Shadow Cabinet, but with her successful campaign on payday loans and vocal opposition to Twitter's most unreconstructed sexists, it is Creasy who has set the agenda. Now Labour's consumer affairs spokesperson, as her star has risen, she has articulated a canny variation on her party's orthodoxies, one that swipes stalwart right-wing themes of personal responsibility and prudence, and yokes them to inescapably progressive outcomes.
No surprise, then, that ConservativeHome.com called her Labour's most interesting MP. She has been talked about as a future leader, and, it might follow, Prime Minister. It's a distant prospect, of course. "When I observe how she does her politics, she's clearly reimagining the work of an MP," says Douglas Alexander, for whom she worked as a researcher. "I look at her work in Walthamstow and Westminster and I see her as a genuine pioneer of a new way of doing politics."
At the same time as winning praise for the originality and intellectual seriousness of her political analysis, Creasy has brandished something else, too: her credentials as a member of the human race. (Even armed with a bacon sandwich, this is a trick that eludes Ed Miliband.) Creasy has achieved the double by the fiendish expedient of talking about politics and indie bands alike, and sounding, to most people, like she really means it – even on Twitter. In this she is indicative of a tone more easily adopted by the most recent intake than their predecessors.
She's on Twitter a lot. I feel as if I'm barely off the thing, and in her six years as a user she's churned out twice as many updates as I've managed in five, which is to say: 43,000, or 20 a day.
"Is exploring whether Twitter is self indulgent or useful," she wrote, in a first tweet. The answer, you suspect, is that it has been both.
What's harder to answer is what effect this level of scrutiny has on a person. With Creasy, whose tone is firmly personal – and who yet remains such an on-brand Labour representative – this is a particularly resonant question. "I think she's quite careful now," says Emily Read, a friend from school who is still in touch. "Whereas before she was pure and unguarded and able to talk openly, now she's a public figure, and there's a party line she has to toe. She forgets, when she's talking to me, that I don't give a monkeys."
Standing 10 feet away from Creasy on Cedars Avenue, there's a curious echo effect: first the heartfelt interaction with a voter, then the record of that interaction on the internet. It wasn't Cos's car, but he's turned up with some chocolates for the marchers, and his picture is soon tweeted by Creasy.
"This is amazing!" Creasy shouts. She notices that her loudhailer isn't working, and shouts louder. "I knew Walthamstow had some amazing women! But I didn't! Know! How! Many!" She's not an orator, really, but as she explains that the group will march to the town hall after posing for a photo in the same place as their "fore-sisters" did, everyone is with her. "And," she finishes, "because it is 2014 we clearly also have to do a suffragette selfie!"
Creasy climbs the fire escape where the photographer is stationed, and aims her iPhone at the cheerful throng. Then, careful not to obscure the women behind her, she pokes half her face into the foreground, smiles, and hits the button.
The question of the political moment, it seems, is authenticity, and how best to enact it. Quite a lot of people sceptical of Ukip's broader agenda gave them their vote nonetheless, reassured by Nigel Farage's hammy verisimilitude: in Piers Morgan's baffling but acute diagnosis, "He's a regular guy – he's a guy who puts a pint on his head".
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For her part, Creasy's reaction to Farage was firm: without immigration, she pointed out last week, Britain's demographics would be deeply problematic, "unless women like me have a lot of children very quickly". But not everyone finds Creasy authentic, and the critique she faces chimes with a popular cynicism about why politicians do their jobs. "She is hard working, and she cares about her constituents," says one Walthamstow politico, "but she cares about herself more." Considered along these lines, there is an irony to her repeated contention that her work is not to speak for people, but to enable them to speak for themselves. Whatever else the payday loans campaign did, after all, it also made her famous. She has, it has been reported, been given two cruel nicknames within Labour: St Ella, to denote her performative piety; Stella Greasy, to denote her devotion to climbing the pole.
And yet the depth of her political convictions is unmistakable. Her first political activism, her opera-singer father Philip says as the march sets off, was a poll-tax protest in 1990, when she was 13. Not many teens would accompany their parents on such an outing, I observe; "Oh no," Philip says, with an air of vague surprise, "I was away."
Growing up in Manchester to Labour-supporting parents, Creasy picked up a copy of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists at the age of nine, and read it immediately. By the time she was 13, she had also got to grips with Marx. At about the same time, her mother Corinna got a job as a headteacher in Essex, and the family moved to Colchester, an upheaval that cemented a view of the world that was already forming. "I lost my accent," Creasy says, adopting a spoddy voice, "and found my passion."
Speaking in a House of Commons tearoom a few days after the march, Creasy recalls the jolt that propelled her here: not so much the sense that everyone in Manchester loathed the Tories, as the sense that somewhere else there were people who didn't. "When my mum said she had this job in Essex I thought it was in France," she says. "It was certainly a culture clash for me – the place just seemed so different.
"I never wanted to live in a country where you had to be lucky to do well. And being in this very privileged environment in Colchester, I thought, this is not a reflection of capacity, this is a reflection of luck."
Creasy's distinctively modern approach to politics appears to extend beyond social networks (Clare Hewitt)
In Colchester, Creasy passed her 11-plus; in Manchester, she had failed it, providing a counterfactual life story that haunts her politics. The results did not always go down well at her all-girls' grammar school. "It would be fair to say I wasn't every teacher's favourite," she says. "Not all of them were supportive of the idea that it was OK to ask questions."
If this seems like a self-serving narrative of independence, it is corroborated by her schoolfriend Emily Read, who now works for Burberry. "She was a bit of a smart-arse, to be honest," says Read. "She got teased quite a lot before she lost her accent, but she relished it – it was always obvious she likes a debate. I remember liking her straight away." The school's uniform was navy blue; once, Read remembers, Creasy was thrown out of assembly for wearing red socks.
So great was Creasy's zeal that she began to bring her campaigns into school. One attempt to do so, a boycott of Nestlé as part of the Baby Milk Action campaign, proved instructive. "I pushed and pushed for all their chocolate to go, but I didn't think about what would happen next," she says. "Getting all the chocolate removed in an all-girls' school... it was a big lesson in campaigning. Support for the idea that there was something terrible going on didn't last long."
Undaunted, Creasy ploughed on into an internship with the Fabian Society in the dying days of the Major government. Now 37, her sense of nostalgia for that heady period is palpable; today's Labour Party is somewhat damned in the comparison. "I almost think I'm hampered by it," she says. "Yes, I was wide-eyed and 18, but there were amazing people who were determined that Labour would be radical and credible, and they were getting their shit together... how do you pull it all together again? That energy? Because if we're honest, Labour has to do that."
The Nestlé debacle had a lesson, too, about picking your battles, and picking how to fight them. About 15 years later, as head of campaigns for the Scouts, she was presented with the unsexy proposition of a fight over proposed changes to the way charities were charged for drainage. She rebranded it as the rain tax, and kicked up a fuss when Cubs were barred from a visit to Parliament to lobby politicians, and she won. "She took this very complex issue and distilled it into something everyone could understand," says Wayne Bulpitt, Chief Commissioner for the Scouts.
The campaigns on payday loans and Twitter trolls both arose, likewise, from a recognition that these subjects could capture the public imagination. If her critics see something cynical in the impact on her profile, Creasy might retort: well, it got something done, didn't it? What have you got done?
"It goes to that question – what do we want our politicians to be?" She gesticulates impatiently at the wood-panelled tearoom. "Do we want them to just be in here? Or do we want them to be out there, working with people to change things? I absolutely defend the idea that to change things, that ownership of change, how you bring people together, that's what the job should be."
Apart from payday loans and Twitter, the other thing you may remember about Stella Creasy: big music fan. Her tweets often feature the hashtag #indiemp, alongside an account of her listening habits, and she is surely the only MP to have written sleeve notes for an LP by her favourite band, The Wedding Present.
All of this gains her a lot of Normal Person points, and as such it can seem a bit convenient; Creasy, who holds a degree from Cambridge and a PhD from the LSE, certainly needs them. Shortly before visiting her, I read a blogpost by the Independent on Sunday's John Rentoul in which he referred to a running conversation Creasy had held with Tory MP Steve Baker, during a committee meeting, about philosophers and economists such as Habermas, Kropotkin, and Hirschman. These names are less readily aired on Twitter.
Creasy's 'suffragette selfie' on International Women's Day (Clare Hewitt)
Creasy insists that the more frivolous stuff is as fundamental a part of her as the academia. And there is something winning about her tone of voice, a kind of geekish enthusiasm that brings to mind Alan Bennett's affection for Footballers' Wives, or Terrence Malick's for Zoolander. There's a detectable, self-conscious defiance there, too, of the idea that a serious person is obliged to always and only be serious. "I think she's probably the most intelligent person I've ever met," says Rob Halkyard, a colleague from the Scout Association who now works as head of engagement at the Tate. "I don't think she wants to keep that under wraps, but she does want to say, I'm a normal person, too."
Whatever else, it rings truer than well-known political assaults on pop culture of the past; Tony Blair's love of Newcastle United, Gordon Brown's obsession with Britain's Got Talent. "It's just what and who I am," says Creasy, when I raise all this. "One of the massively important things for me is that people have to have confidence that you are who you say you are, which means good and bad. I'm an obsessive geek about music, I'm crap at cooking. I refuse to stop being a human being.
"It's a problem that people have this sense of politicians as other-worldly. What you're talking about, that thing of politicians saying, 'Hey kids!' – no, just be who you are. It breaks my heart that some politicians I would call friends, people I care about, people see them in a stilted way. It makes me sad because I know they're lovely people."
One politician who famously suffers this problem, of course, is Ed Miliband. Creasy – who supported his brother in the leadership election – is not really the sort of politician to criticise her own leader, but earlier this year she got in a bit of hot water over an interview in which she appeared less than wildly enthusiastic about the 'One Nation' slogan as a doorstep proposition. "If you ever met people from Walthamstow you wouldn't tell them anything like that," she was quoted as saying. "I ask for their help. I don't tell them anything."
Her eyes roll vigorously at the memory. "I was talking about the Big Society," she says. "Interesting one in a press sense... I didn't say that. We were having a broader conversation about the language of connection." This is fair enough, but also doesn't quite answer the point, so I ask, fearing that this may end up being another interesting one in a press sense, whether she would use that phrase on the doorstep. "You don't go to people saying, here's what I think, yes or no, because it's a very linear conversation," she says. "Actually we want to build a relationship – what are you interested in, what are you working on... now within that, that stuff that the One Nation campaign is talking about – the cost of living – that's what payday lending is all about."
Then she's off on one about the cumulative impact of Government policy on household bills, and I find myself a bit confused, unsure as to whether I'm being a cynical, shit-stirring hack, or whether she has just evaded the question again. It's curious – what she says is entirely sensible, as part of the way that normal human beings talk to each other. But being a politician isn't like being a normal human being, and if I were her and I wanted a quiet life, the first thing I'd say would be, "One Nation is a great slogan". So there are two possibilities. Either Creasy is trying to do some incredibly subtle undermining, or she can't help veering towards the truth. I think it's the latter. This is a good thing; we need more of it. But there is no doubt that it makes politics harder. And it's a pity that it can be mistaken for a calculated move.
So it is with political analysis; so it is with indie music. The irony is that being honest doesn't make it less of a performance. It can't be helped: when you're on a stage, being yourself is bound to become a bit of an act, just as Nigel Farage really does like beer a lot. But to those who know Creasy, it doesn't seem false. "She was a girl of contrasts, really," says Emily Read. "Highly political from the beginning, yes, but this encyclopaedic knowledge of music and TV – I'm sure she could still recite episodes of Jerry Springer." Rob Halkyard recalls the occasion she led a colleague to believe that an event required staff to dress in full scout uniform – a tricky look for a grown man to pull off when everyone else is in business-casual. Edward Andersson, who worked with her at the think-tank Involve, testifies to her "gleeful participation in office karaoke". None of this should matter a jot, of course, but it probably does.
A teenage Stella Creasy. By 13, she'd been on her first political march
In this entire pre-political life, it's hard to find a colleague who didn't like her. The same is not true of her time on Walthamstow council, or in the House of Commons, as those nicknames suggest. In Walthamstow, where she was a councillor and, briefly, mayor – as well as being deselected for a while, the consequence of one of those arcane and footling bits of local politicking that is never worth looking at too closely – she developed a reputation for self-interest that proved hard to shake.
Two people recall a habit of opportunistically jumping on issues of the moment for a quick win, and being reluctant to share the credit. "The post office?" a conservative councillor was overheard muttering as she gave a triumphant speech on one such occasion. "Since when has Stella been interested in fucking post offices?" And, as you might expect in council politics, some of those devoted to the local scene were wary of her grander ambitions. "We call them tourists in Waltham Forest," one of them says. "Stella definitely was one." Picked out as one of the stars of the 2010 Westminster intake, her only major setback so far came when some of her contemporaries reached the Shadow Cabinet ahead of her, a turn of events, one Labour insider says, that was the result of "pushing a bit too hard".
There's something notable about that critique, a feature shared in Walthamstow and Westminster alike. Besides "pushing", here are a few of the terms I heard her detractors use: "haranguing", "aggressive", "too big for her boots". It is hard to think that any would be applied to her male counterparts; and, in a game where everyone is ambitious, it isn't that surprising if someone who advances quickly draws resentment from those who would like to do the same but cannot.
"She arouses jealousies," says another senior Labour figure. "It's a major theme – because she's seen and written about, people who think they're not being sufficiently recognised get the hump." Caroline Criado-Perez, who got to know her when both were facing a torrent of online abuse (and who still gets texts from Creasy checking up on her), agrees. "It's just not allowed for any woman to have any ambition," she says. "If you have enthusiasm as a politician it can't possibly be because you care, and obviously that's redoubled if you're a woman."
Friends say Creasy is more sensitive to this than she will admit. After all, it's not just from nameless colleagues: it's also on Twitter, and in public. "I was in Walthamstow the other day and a bloke came out and started shouting at me," she reflects. "That's hard. I'm not inhuman. People say if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. But maybe we need to change the way in which we perceive that infallibility.
"What can I do?" she says, exasperated. "If people are going to say stuff, they're going to say stuff. I do have friends, I do get birthday cards, it's fine. [She has a boyfriend, too, about whom she remains quite properly discreet.] I can hear my mother in the background: you're not the important thing here, Stella. The important thing is what you're doing."
Perhaps this is a bit corny. Perhaps there's even something self-serving in removing yourself from the picture with such a flourish. But a few days earlier, back in Walthamstow, she had said something similar, something that stood in sharp contrast to that image of constant self-promotion. Hundreds of women were marching, encouraging cars to honk; a group of little girls brandishing suffragette banners were gleefully jumping on a policeman's feet. "You start something off and you think it would be great if 50 or 60 people came," Creasy said. "And then you look and you're like, oh my God!
"This," she said, "is how politics has to change. The idea that the only contribution these women can make is to vote every four or five years? They've got so much to give. The idea that this is about me – this is about Walthamstow!" Then, noticing a silence, she started clapping rhythmically. "I'm going to start," she shouted, "and I need you to help me out!" It's a bit embarrassing, to be honest, but Creasy appears to be unembarrassable; and, in moments like this, entirely herself. After a moment, the women of Walthamstow started to sing.
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