‘Je ne regrette rien’

First published on Progressonline

We should not stop apologising to the voters who really wanted us to win, Mary Creagh tells Richard Angell and Adam Harrison

It is less than 48 hours since the deadline for nominations to be leader of the Labour party closed. Just a week ago Mary Creagh had hoped to have secured a place on the ballot by this point. But the shadow international development secretary pulled out of the contest last weekend, firing off a parting shot at the last leadership’s abysmal relationship with business as she went.

How is Creagh feeling now, in the wake of what must have been one of the most demanding episodes in her political life? ‘Je ne regrette rien’, she says, citing the ‘messages of support’ she has received despite stepping out of the race, and the stories party members and more communicated to her in response to her call to create ‘a Britain where everybody can get on’.

Creagh does seem to regret, though, where her bid for the top job – launched more or less from a standing start a week after polling day – finished up, and one senses that she feels that, had circumstances just arranged themselves slightly differently, then she might have secured the numbers to reach the 35 nominations necessary. For a candidate ‘coming out of the shadows’, as she puts it, to seek a clear path to 35, the plethora of internal elections all currently taking place created a messy, tangled web of relationships which proved impossible to cut through. ‘It’s unfortunate having the leadership nomination process running alongside the select committee chair process and the mayoral process as well and the deputy leadership so, although superficially the numbers looked very positive, what I hadn’t realised is that a significant number of people were hoping to not nominate anybody.’

She is also not afraid to express her dismay that Labour members of parliament were keen to widen the debate to place Jeremy Corbyn on the ballot. ‘I am disappointed that Jeremy is on and I am not’, she says. The member of parliament for Wakefield simply adds, ‘I learnt a huge amount about myself and I’m sure all the candidates are going through that process. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate your strengths but also you can be sure that your weaknesses will be found out’. She does not divulge whether she will eventually swing her weight behind any of the candidates, but hopes that ‘the winner will become apparent as the campaign goes on.’

The parliamentary Labour party is, of course, still coming to terms with what for many came as a shock: a return to opposition instead of a seat on the Treasury benches. ‘In the parliamentary Labour party people are still grieving about what happened. I think that people are uncertain about the future and quite apprehensive about what the future holds’, Creagh admits. The effectiveness of not just the Tory message but also the Tory campaign is now also starting to sink in. Recalling a meeting with party members in Plymouth where Labour not only failed to gain a target seat but actually lost one of its seats, Creagh recounts that ‘people realised we were outorganised in some way in a below-the-radar way … So we were out having our however many million conversations – or contacts not conversations really – and the Tories were doing something much subtler, much cleverer. We are going to have to change the way that we organise’.

One of the most obvious-sounding but perceptive observations about Labour’s attitude to electoral success was made by Michael Heseltine to Marxism Today in the late 1980s after Labour’s third defeat in a row: ‘Labour will win again when it wants to’. If winning is a question of mentality, the current question is: Does the Labour party really want to win again? ‘Yes, I think the members that I’ve spoken to really want us to win.’ Creagh thinks, however, that the party owes an apology to many in the country. ‘I still don’t think at this point that we should stop apologising to the nine million voters who really wanted us to win as well, or to the voters who left us.’

On Labour’s business problem she identifies the individual worker for whom ‘the world and nature of work is changing, particularly in the southern seats that we need to win. We’re seeing more and more people doing digital work, technology businesses, anyone can be an international business and sell on eBay pretty much instantaneously, and that was not possible when I was teaching [at Cranfield School of Management] 10, 15 years ago.’ The lives of these people are yet to be properly understood by the party, ‘those people who are usually not on massive incomes, who do have pensions and who are worried about their retirement, who do not get sick pay when they have a day off, who often work six or seven days a week’. She goes on, ‘You’ve [also] got the high street retailers, the small businesses, the shops, the self-employed tradespeople and I don’t think we know how to talk to those people’. Almost as an afterthought she reveals her intention to ‘go back to Cranfield and sit with my colleagues on the MBA but also to sit with the business growth programme … as a bit of an undercover spy’. Creagh could perhaps by a little less spook about it all and take PLP colleagues in the open along with her to send a signal about Labour’s readiness to engage with business.

Creagh appears acutely conscious that support slipped away from Labour in some of its historically most supportive parts of society. During her reflections on the small businesspeople Labour lost and who the party needs to win back, she identifies ‘BME voters [who] left us in this election and that’s because some of those [are, for example] shopkeepers [who] might be happy to work an 18-hour day in their shop … to send their kids to private school to make sure their kid ends up as a lawyer, an accountant, a doctor, a teacher in a completely different job to them and I don’t think that we spoke to their aspirations, for their hopes and dreams for their family’. The reflection perhaps unintentionally draws together the related weaknesses for Labour on business and education: one widely disdained, the other an area in which many feel the Tories stole a march on their opponents.

Creagh is crystal-clear in her views on education. Asked if Labour holds too much nostalgia for the notion of schools run by the local authority she pauses and cuts straight to what she feels matters: ‘It’s not a question of nostalgia. The Labour party should have zero tolerance of schools that do not do not do well by their pupils. So I am only interested in school standards. I am interested in there being some form of oversight, preferably democratic, but I am not tied to a particular set of structures and we in the Labour party writhe and torment ourselves with the structure debate instead of having a laser-focus on standards.’ There is still a way to go on the status of teachers, and paying more attention as a party to parts of the education beyond secondary schools, Creagh believes. ‘We also don’t celebrate teachers. So World Teachers’ Day is not recognised or celebrated in this country. We talk about schools but we don’t talk about preschools and FE colleges and sixth forms and the disparity of funding there, so I think the whole kind of – some academies failed. In Islington we had schools that were local authority schools then the became academies, then they failed as academies. So the structure does not equal success’. The reality of making education work is very different, if often much more difficult to get right every time: ‘What equals success is committed long-term leadership and support and that alchemy of how you transform a school, if you could bottle it, sell it, we’d all be millionaires. It’s actually complex and it’s to do with management and it’s to do with leadership, it’s to do with the granularity of how organisations function and I think we are, and this is back to ‘bootstrap Labour’, we are always thinking at abstract levels and structural levels and actually not listening to the people at the coalface on the ground who are trying to deliver things … We go “No, no, no, no – we’re the thinkers, we’re going ahead, we know the answers to this.” Actually nobody ever knows the answers and you only get the answers by sitting with people, listening to them, having a kind of dialectic process about you say that, he says that, and then testing out what works.’ Even if Creagh is not leaping to the defence of local education authorities, she retains a positive view for councils as a whole. ‘Some of the ways councils have innovated over the last five years are blueprints for how we as a country can continue to deliver public services at a time when there’s less money around.’

On one of the biggest questions facing business and the country as a whole, Creagh distinguished herself during her time as Labour leadership contender with her fervent pro-European Union stance. She was the only one of the five to unambiguously state she would share a stage with David Cameron as part of an In campaign. How far, though, should Labour run with its pro-Europeanism – if the country votes to leave the EU, should Labour in 2020 stand on a pledge of re-entry? Creagh perhaps wisely anticipates such a situation to be too complex to give categorical answers about five years out from the next general election – ‘I don’t want to get into speculating on hypotheticals because you immediately cut off the debate that we have not yet begun to have’. Equally the prospect of falling out of the EU seems does seem virtually inconceivable to Creagh: ‘I think it’s unthinkable that we leave’. What is not unthinkable is that Creagh has set down a marker as a figure in the party passionate about returning Labour to power and playing a full role in bringing that about.

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