The shadow local government secretary Andrew Gwynne takes Richard Angell and Conor Pope behind the scenes of the surprise election
‘I’m infamous now’, Andrew Gwynne declares. He was ‘walking along the Embankment’ to parliament recently when he noticed two people shiftily looking over their shoulder at him. ‘They turned around and said, “You’re that guy that took on Boris!”’ That was when he understood that his television antics had made him recognisable.
Gwynne, like fellow frontbencher Barry Gardiner, is another New Labour-era moderate who became an unexpected hit with the Corbynite grassroots of the party during the general election campaign, after a couple of televised bust-ups with the foreign secretary.
During one joint interview with Boris Johnson, Gwynne placed a hand on his opponent’s shoulder and told him to ‘answer the question’ put by Sky News’ Adam Boulton. This, the Denton and Reddish member of parliament quickly found out, really ‘push[ed] Boris’ buttons’. An incensed Johnson turned away from both camera and interviewer to berate his Labour counterpart. The clip soon went viral, to the delight of Labour members, and reached far beyond. ‘It really, really pissed him off.’
The next time the two men were in a spin room together, television producers attempted to get them on camera again, hoping to get a similar reaction. They were swiftly informed by one of Johnson’s aides that this was a non-starter, and the Tory cabinet minister would appear alone.
A Labour press officer nudged Gwynne, and half-jokingly suggested that he simply walk on camera once Johnson’s live interview had begun. So he did.
‘Long time no see. Why won’t you go head-to-head with me, Boris?’ Gwynne chirped. Johnson, once again visibly angry, responded by calling him a ‘big girl’s blouse’. Realising he did not have an ear piece and so could not hear the journalist in the studio, Gwynne began to question Johnson himself, who then hooked an arm around the shadow cabinet minister and started to grapple with him. Another viral clip was born.
Those, though, were some of Gwynne’s easier media appearances during the campaign where, as co-national election coordinator with Ian Lavery, he made plenty. His first was the day the general election was called.
‘18 April,’ he recalls immediately, with the face of a man who will never forget that date. With Labour trailing by 20 points in the polls, he had to traipse down to Westminster’s pop-up news village outside parliament and, in his words, ‘put on the brave face’, telling the country’s media that the party relished the opportunity. ‘I was laughed off College Green’, he admits. ‘That’s the reality of where we were on 18 April. The Tories were heading for the biggest modern day landslide, bigger than Thatcher, bigger than Blair. That’s the sole reason she called the election. The Tories were onto a winner and they knew it. Their tails were high.’
At what Gwynne terms ‘the losers’ debate’ – the television debate featuring a number of leaders from the smaller parties – Jeremy Corbyn decided not to appear. ‘[That] was the right decision’, Gwynne says. However, being held in Media City in Salford, not far from his Manchester constituency, he still had to go and work the spin room. Seconds before going on air, he was informed that due to strict broadcast impartiality rules, he would have to answer the same questions as had been put to the leaders. ‘Shit’, was his only thought.
Worse still, he ‘got the short straw’ and was selected to do the media rounds the morning after the manifesto was leaked, to push the line that it was ‘not quite the disaster that it potentially was’. He did not really believe it, but someone had to do it. ‘Actually, it turned out not to be a disaster’, he says, relieved.
This attitude – not a true believer in the Corbyn project, but determined to make it work for what he believes is the good of the Labour party – has left him with few enemies on the opposition benches, and some respect from all sides. Accordingly, he has conference speaking invitations from across the party, with both Labour First and Momentum’s World Transformed alt-conference approaching him to appear. His office has the same, all-rounder feel to it: there is a greetings card with ‘Orgreave justice now’ on it, a Royal College of Nursing ‘scrap the cap’ placard, an old ‘vote Gwynne’ leaflet featuring an unrecognisable and floppy-haired candidate (he was the youngest councillor in England when he was first elected in 1996) and a coffee table featuring both a New Statesman and a Progress magazine.
Although he points out that there are six shadow cabinet ministers from Greater Manchester to have speaking slots at annual conference, compared to five from London, his seven minutes allowance is well short of what we expect from his zone one colleagues.
However, he believes he has the ears of the membership – so what will his message be?
‘Reminding people that we’re not in government’, he says. As shadow secretary for local government and communities, he is the person at the party’s top table who has to communicate with Labour people around the country who actually are in power. It is a point he is keen to reiterate: ‘If we genuinely want to transform this country, if we want to change the life chances of the people we seek to represent, then we do that by winning power and everything that we should do between now and the next general election should have that sole aim and that sole purpose of us winning power, not for our own sakes, but for the sakes of those we seek to represent in those communities we want to change for the better. And that’s it.’
He also plans to use the speech to delegates to thank Labour councillors for all of their hard work, and being an example of what he believes is an essential need ‘to show that Labour is ready to govern’. However, with a push for reforms to the make-up of Labour’s National Executive Committee expected from the leadership’s allies, he is noncommittal about whether he would push for councillors to have more representatives as part of that, despite currently having just two. Instead, he says that councillors should ‘absolutely’ be more involved in the party’s structures.
On the recent spate of councillor deselections, he says little, but notes that for him, ‘fighting the Tories should be our prime aim and fighting the SNP north of the border should be our prime aim’.
While he is similarly reluctant to say anything critical about the organisation of the conference in Brighton, he does say that Labour’s elected mayors should get the opportunity to address delegates.
‘Do I think that the metro mayors should have a speaking slot? I actually personally do.’ It is perhaps not a surprise that he takes this view: Gwynne ran Andy Burnham’s successful selection campaign to become the Labour candidate for Greater Manchester mayor, and stayed on for the subsequent election, in which Burnham won 360,000 votes – almost three times that of the Tory candidate.
Gwynne also ran the successful byelection campaign in Oldham West and Royton in 2015, which saw Jim McMahon elected with a majority of over 10,000 despite warnings of a challenge from the United Kingdom Independence party.
Despite having those victories under his belt in the Corbyn era, Gwynne says he ‘couldn’t believe it when the exit poll came out’. ‘We sought to try and get a coalition of 40 percent. This was actually said at one of the planning meetings: “our aim is to get to 40 percent”’, he explains, although he was sceptical. ‘It included a leap of faith for me.’
He will not divulge if anyone at the top of the party or in the leader’s office expected the result, but reveals that the decisions taken by him and his counterpart Lavery – whose Corbynista credentials cannot be doubted – were all taken ‘through the prism’ of the initial, ‘dire’ opinion polling, and the disappointing local election results.
‘The English county council results were not great at all, and these were real votes in parts of the country we had to win’, he sighs. ‘We got absolutely battered in Derbyshire. We got wiped out. You would think from that, “well, that’s it, the writing is on the wall”’.
Labour’s electoral difficulties stem from what Gwynne believes is the new divide in British politics: social liberals versus social conservatives. This is where the party ran into trouble in June in places like Mansfield and North East Derbyshire, but also more broadly explains the juxtaposition of the local election results to the general election result. Quoting British Election Survey research, he says that despite the Conservatives now attracting much more support from those with fewer qualifications, the more pronounced age split leaves Labour reliant on the support of people whose willingness to vote is much more temperamental. Much of the huge spike in support for Labour in June compared to May, then, was simply ‘differential turnout’, he claims.
What this means for future elections is uncertain, then. And, as Gwynne points out, next year sees local elections in ‘London boroughs, a third of the mets [metropolitan boroughs], some unitaries, only in England.’ Will Labour’s new socially liberal electoral base turn out? We shall see.
Richard Angell is director of Progress and Conor Pope is deputy editor of Progress