Politics

‘Very good with the bat’: A press portrait of Angela Eagle

Politics is very, very strange, and all sorts of strange and wonderful things happen. – Angela Eagle [1]

Shortly after the general election of 1992, Gyles Brandreth, the television star and newly elected member for Chester, approached another new arrival at Westminster in the hope of finding a parliamentary ‘pair’. She was, he noted in his diary: ‘Smallish, youngish, short lank hair, pointy nose, blokeish manner, not my idea of a fun time.’ And he quoted a saying of his friend, Hi-de-Hi! star Simon Cadell: ‘…as Simon would say, “She’s happier in Holland”.’ [2]

The reference was to the number of dykes in that country, the MP in question was Angela Eagle, and the outcome was that she turned Brandreth down as a ‘pair’, since she was planning on staying around for a while and thought – quite correctly – that he was too old, and in too marginal a seat, to be a long-term proposition.

Born in 1961, Angela Eagle was the daughter of the exotically named printworker Andre Eagle and Shirley, a seamstress who went to university in middle age, dying while in her second year of studies at the age of 51. Politically committed from childhood, Angela claimed to have stood in her first school election when she was nine, even before she went to her local comprehensive, Formby High School. ‘I was queuing up to join the Labour Party from the moment I was old enough,’ she later recalled. [3]

She first attracted media attention, though, not for politics but as a teenage chess-player, winning the under-18 British girls’ title.* She was also a campaigner for better recognition of female chess-players more generally; as the press officer (and later secretary) of the British Ladies’ Chess Association, she argued in 1981 that ‘the game is a male preserve and the attitude of its establishment can be patronising to women’. [4] This was, however, merely a symptom of a wider social problem, as she explained in a letter to the Guardian:

Chess is basically a war between two opposing sides, requiring confidence, aggression and ruthless competitiveness. Girls are not encouraged to display such qualities, especially in competition with boys. Thus any girl playing seriously has firstly to overcome years of conditioning which frowns upon a display of such attributes in girls. [5]

Having got a second-class degree in PPE at Oxford, where she was ‘a well-known radical firebrand’ [6], she worked first for the CBI and then as parliamentary officer for COHSE (a health service union, now part of Unison), acquiring a contrary reputation, according to The Times, as ‘an impeccably moderate trade union official’. [7]

In 1990, whilst in the latter post, she co-authored with Rachel Brooks, another union official, a Fabian Society pamphlet titled ‘Quotas Now’, which called for all-women shortlists when selecting candidates for safe Labour seats. It also suggested ‘phasing in early retirement for MPs, preferably by consent. Those in the 65-70 age group would give way to women candidates.’ [8]

Her own selection for the Wirral constituency of Wallasey – the fifth most marginal Tory seat in the country – was not dependent on such an arrangement, though it did attract some controversy. The existing Labour candidate was Lawrence ‘Lol’ Duffy, a shop steward in Birkenhead who’d come within 300 votes of beating the Tory incumbent, Lynda Chalker, in 1987. But he was deemed to be a supporter of the Trotskyist group Socialist Organiser, so the National Executive Committee intervened and deselected him for the 1992 election.

Seizing the opportunity, Eagle navigated the ensuing selection process with ease, beating into second place Mike Groves, a former member of Liverpool folk-group the Spinners. (If you don’t remember them, you’re too young to have watched light entertainment television in the 1970s.) On a swing that matched the national average, she then took the seat from Chalker and entered Parliament at the age of thirty-one as, in the words of the Guardian, ‘a potential bright youngish Labour thing’. [9]

(A brief diversion: I’ve long thought that the case of Lynda Chalker  was one of the most clear-cut illustrations of Britain’s lack of democracy. In case you can’t bring her immediately to mind, she was the minister for overseas development in John Major’s government, until the 1992 general election. At which point, she was promptly given a peerage, so that she could continue in the same ministerial post, where she remained until the government fell in 1997. She was a perfectly competent minister, but really, what’s the point of democracy if, when you vote someone out of office, they stay in the same job?)

Though Eagle was successful, the 1992 election saw Labour suffer its fourth consecutive defeat and Neil Kinnock duly resigned as party leader. In the ensuing election to replace him, she had the good sense to support Bryan Gould, against the winning candidate John Smith, though she was critical of the expense and length of the contest.

‘If we carry on like this,’ she argued, ‘we will become the party of the perpetual ballot, frantically spending our time and money organising elections for everything under the sun. We will have no money left to campaign except in our own internal elections. And the Tories, who have no internal democracy, will laugh all the way to Downing Street.’ As she pointed out, the Conservatives had displayed ruthless efficiency in dumping Margaret Thatcher, a process ‘which had as much to do with democracy as Ivan the Terrible had with tolerance’, but which nonetheless secured victory in the next election. And she suggested, perhaps not entirely seriously, that the Labour leadership should instead be decided on a penalty shoot-out. [10]

Despite having voted against him, her response to Smith’s unexpected death in 1994 saw her break down in the Commons, weeping so much that ‘Tory MPs came over to see if I was okay.’ But this, it turned out, was entirely characteristic; crying came easily to her: ‘I was in floods of tears over E.T. and when Babe was on, I just had to flee the room.’ [11] Those who saw or heard her appearances on the media this past week, after resigning from Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, may be reassured by the knowledge that her lachrymose performances were nothing unusual.

Eagle served her parliamentary apprenticeship during the slow-motion suicide of John Major’s government. She won some media praise for her fierce attacks on the likes of Cedric Brown, the ‘fat cat’ head of British Gas, and Neil Hamilton, the Tory MP who came to epitomize sleaze, but she jeopardized that goodwill when she voted in support of a deeply controversial pay rise for MPs in 1996.

Unsurprisingly she campaigned on issues of women’s representation: ‘For generations women have been expected to be homemakers. Now we want to be lawmakers.’ [12] But she also found time in 1993 to sign a round-robin letter calling for British involvement in the Bosnian war. ‘The time has come to use military force,’ she and her fellow Labour MPs wrote. ‘We believe the Left has a particular duty to stand up against the kind of pure, racially motivated fascism which the Serbian aggressors embody.’ [13]

This readiness to send in troops was emerging as the orthodox soft-Left position towards the disintegration of Yugoslavia, following an editorial in Tribune that denounced the response of the Labour leadership as ‘miserably inadequate’. Even before Tony Blair, the prospect of war was making strange bedfellows; that editorial had started with the heretical words: ‘Margaret Thatcher is right.’ [14]

By 1994 Eagle was being spoken of approvingly in the press – she was ‘rapidly becoming an effective parliamentary operator,’ wrote Simon Hoggart [15] – and when Blair became leader that year, after Smith’s death, she was marked out as a future front-bencher. ‘I’d like to be in government,’ she admitted, ‘but I’m not a Heseltine. I don’t believe in planning my career on the back of an envelope.’ [16]

Which is probably just as well, because it didn’t exactly prove to be a meteoric rise, however well it started. She joined the whips’ office in 1996 and, following the Labour landslide of 1997, she became a junior environment minister; at thirty-six, she was the youngest member of his government. But by the time the party left office thirteen years later, she had risen only to become pensions minister under Gordon Brown, still some way short of the cabinet.

In public perception, however, she was a colourful figure, turning up as often in the diary columns as in parliamentary reports.

There was, for example, the fact that she was the first woman to join the Parliamentary cricket team. A former member of the Lancashire Schoolgirls XI, she was said to be a useful bowler as well as being ‘very good with the bat’ [17], and she played for the Commons in the 1993 season, which included matches against other great democratic institutions, including Rodean School, the Eton Ramblers, the Harrow Wanderers and the J. Paul Getty XI. She also played for the New Statesman’s team in a match against the Huntingdon All-Stars in a match to raise funds for the magazine, after John Major sued it for libel (Huntingdon was Major’s constituency).

Then there was the excitement when her older (non-identical) twin sister, Maria, who had unsuccessfully contested the Crosby constituency in 1992, was finally elected to Parliament in 1997 to represent Liverpool Garston. Twin girls in the Commons was a winner of a story.

Best of all was the interview she gave following the 1997 Labour victory to Suzanne Moore of the Independent, in which she announced that she was in ‘a long-term and very happy relationship’ [18] with a woman. As widely reported in the press, this made her ‘the first woman politician to publicly admit she is a lesbian’. [19]

She wasn’t – that would have been Maureen Colquhoun, the Labour MP for Northampton North, twenty years earlier in 1977 – but even so, it was a big deal at a time when there were vanishingly few lesbians in public life. But this, Eagle argued, was the late 1990s and the tide was turning. ‘Attitudes have changed,’ she said. ‘I think people are a lot more sensible than we sometimes give them credit for.’ [20]

Her announcement was seen as potentially risky – ‘Courage of MP Angela as she comes out,’ as the Daily Mirror headline put it [21] – but the fact that the Sun, which a decade earlier would have been vicious in its assault, confined its report to under 150 words suggested that her evaluation was correct. Even the Express felt obliged to sound supportive, saying in an editorial: ‘We have nothing but praise for Angela’s courage in coming clean about her sexuality.’ [22]

Presumably this didn’t come as much of a surprise to Giles Brandreth, and probably shouldn’t have done to anyone else, given that she’d dropped enough hints. ‘I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been invited to functions with the instruction to wear a lounge suit and bring my wife,’ she commented in 1993. ‘One of these days I just might.’ [23]

Nonetheless, a government minister coming out as a lesbian was a ground-breaking move that saw her receive messages of support from, inter alia, Chrissie Hynde, a note she later cited as her most treasured possession. (She’s a big fan of the Pretenders, as well as of other new wave acts, including Elvis Costello.) It also saw her ranked at #7 in the Independent on Sunday‘s list of the Women of the Year in 1997, two places behind Ann Widdecombe, and just one place behind Dolly the Sheep herself.

artwork-Angela-Eagle2a

Angela Eagle (Artwork by Alwyn Turner)

Little after that excited the same level of media interest. And that was unfortunate, because Eagle was no New Labour robot. She played her part in the usual headline-grabbing initiatives that characterized so much of the Blair premiership pre-9/11 (promoting cycling, recycling and better standards in zoo-keeping), but there was more to her than the gimmicks.

So, for example, when Blair announced, in opposition, that he wanted to replace Clause IV of Labour’s constitution – the clause that defined the aims of the party – she was amongst a team on the soft Left who drafted a new version, proposing that Labour should:

…promote a prosperous and fully-employed economy through a mixture of government intervention and private innovation and endeavour, based upon the widest possible spread of democratic control and ownership. Labour recognises that there is a role for both market mechanisms and public ownership and provision to secure economic prosperity, justice and social cohesion.  [24]

None of this commitment to full employment, state ownership and economic planning made it into the final, anodyne text that was adopted, but it was an interesting statement of intent. Shortly afterwards, she became chair of the Tribune Group of MPs; under her leadership, the Independent said, it ‘has become more left-wing again, although hardly the force it once was’. [25] She was part of the Blairite coalition, but far from being an uncritical camp-follower.

With the party in government, she was critical of the mishandling of Ken Livingstone’s bid to be the London mayoral candidate in 1999; she heckled Blair when he was explaining to the Commons why we needed to invade Iraq (‘We sold him arms!’ she exclaimed, as Blair was denouncing Saddam Hussein for the Iran-Iraq War [26]); she voted against foundation hospitals; and she was scathing about the involvement of business in education: ‘I am extremely dubious about the Krispy Kreme donor to the Academy for Nutrition, or the McDonald’s Academy for Childhood Health.’ [27]

In 2003 she co-founded the New Wave Labour group, arguing that the party was on the wrong political track, citing in particular the introduction of tuition fees for university students. ‘The third way has failed to present any genuine alternative,’ she said, pointing out that markets make ‘good servants, but poor masters.’ [28]

It wasn’t just domestic policy. On the most divisive issue of the Blair government, Eagle had supported the decision to invade Iraq. ‘The dossier demonstrates that there is great cause for concern,’ she had concluded. ‘It is important that the will of the international community, expressed through UN resolutions, is enforced.’ [29] Now, though, New Wave came out against ‘neo-colonial adventures’ and no one needed any explanation of what they meant by the phrase. [30]

Her allies were the likes of Jon Cruddas and Jon Trickett on the soft Left, but her comments were also greeted with some enthusiasm by those further out. ‘It’s a breakthrough to see that large numbers of the Parliamentary Labour Party, who, up until now, have shown blind allegiance to New Labour, are now speaking out forthrightly and demanding change,’ observed John McDonnell. [31]

This was no way to make progress in her career, and may explain why she never built on her early promotion to the extent that might have been expected. Or possibly it was because she had already been sacked from the government in a reshuffle in 2002, and it took her some time to clamber back. ‘I take Angela with a pinch of salt,’ noted Chris Mullin in his diary the following year, ‘since she is one of the Disappointed.’ [32]

The facts of that dismissal remain a little murky. At the time, the Guardian‘s Simon Hoggart reported that ‘she was sacked because [David] Blunkett finally agreed with his civil servants and decided that she was not up to the job’. [33] A decade later, though, Damian McBride, Gordon Brown’s former adviser, claimed that it was simply an oversight: ‘Tony forgot Home Office minister Angela Eagle existed, gave someone else her job and effectively sacked her from the government by mistake.’ [34]

As a backbencher, she served on the Treasury select committee and as vice-chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party, but her career didn’t seem to be headed anywhere in particular. After Blair’s third election victory in 2005, she was rumoured to be among those plotting the downfall of the prime minister, partly because she was a supporter of Gordon Brown, and partly because she saw deep structural problems with the party’s direction of travel. On the occasion of Blair celebrating a decade in office, she reflected on the government’s record thus far:

There is the minimum wage, a doubling of spending on schools and hospitals and far fewer people on the dole. I can see the difference in my own constituency. However, the Labour Party has lost four million votes and half of our membership, which means we have a real challenge. [35]

When Blair did finally step down, later in 2007, Eagle joined the campaign team for Brown at a time when there was still speculation that David Miliband might also stand. He didn’t, of course, and after Brown was duly returned unopposed, Eagle was rewarded with a junior ministerial job as exchequer secretary.

‘Local political talent poised for a glorious year,’ read the headline in the Liverpool Echo in January 2008, singling out Eagle as being in line for promotion. [36] Sadly it didn’t work out like that. Instead there was a financial crash and global recession, and her minor role in the Treasury didn’t seem very relevant somehow. Nor did she make much impact in a final ministerial position at pensions.

In the leadership contest after the loss of the 2010 general election, she backed David Miliband, despite him being seen as the Blairite candidate. ‘I think that era is over,’ she said. ‘I am interested in the situation now, rather than looking backwards.’ And she added, correctly: ‘David has the chance to develop his thinking and looks like the next prime minister.’ [37]

Nonetheless, she professed herself very happy with the party’s eventual choice of Ed Miliband, particularly after his first speech as leader: ‘He introduced himself to the country and he has put us back on the path to power. He showed the people that he understands why Labour lost five million votes.’ [38]

In opposition, she served as shadow chief secretary to the treasury and then shadow leader of the House, though her most newsworthy moment came not through her own actions, but as the butt of one of David Cameron’s less felicitous put-downs. ‘Calm down, dear, calm down’ he told her during exchanges at prime minister’s questions in 2011, sparking a fury for his supposed sexism. ‘I don’t think any modern man would have expressed himself in that way,’ she told the press later. [39]

Cameron wasn’t, however, the first to notice her sometimes noisy presence on such occasions. Fifteen years earlier, the Independent’s David Aaronovitch had written of ‘the pale, squat, constantly heckling figure’ who looked ‘like Jodie Foster’s bad-tempered older sister’. [40] A couple of months later, he tried another formulation: ‘the pale, slightly squat Angela Eagle, dressed all in scarlet, and looking like the eponymous terminator from Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.’ [41]

Following Labour’s even worse election defeat in 2015, she entered the race to be deputy leader of the party. She came fourth in a field of five, but she was seen to be sufficiently sympathetic to the Left that she was included in Jeremy Corbyn’s team as shadow business secretary. And then, when it was noticed that all the top jobs had gone to men, she was hurriedly given the additional title of shadow first secretary of state, a largely honorary role, though it did give her the right to deputize at prime minister’s questions.

She lasted nine months before she joined in the exodus from the shadow cabinet on 22 June 2016, tearfully saying that Corbyn’s leadership was ‘just not working’. In so doing, she put herself at odds with her local party in Wallasey, who had written to her asking her to ‘make a clear statement of support’ for Corbyn. [42]

It’s been a fragmented and frankly unsatisfactory parliamentary career. She is now fifty-five years old, which should mean that it’s now or never if she’s to achieve high office, but her c.v. scarcely justifies such aspiration. Nor has her progress matched her early promise or her undoubted abilities. And yet she is one of Labour’s more impressive performers, and she has remained true to her principles throughout her 24 years in the House, seen, wrote the Independent way back in 1995, as being ‘uncompromising, intelligent and discreetly left-wing’. [43]

Whether any of that matters rather depends on how Labour now sees itself. ‘The Labour Party has changed,’ she declared in 2007. ‘Our members are pragmatic and they want us to be in government.’ [44] Certainly she herself has always been aware of the need to reach out beyond the ranks of the faithful. Whether that thinking is shared by the rest of her party, we shall discover soon enough.


* This piece originally came with the claim that Angela Eagle was ‘Labour’s best chess-player’. We have now dropped this, following information received from Justin Horton, who knows more about the subject than we do. He tells us that, based on current knowledge, Maria Eagle has achieved the highest grade of current Labour MPs – though he adds that they all pale in comparison to Julius Silverman, a Birmingham MP 1945-74. Our thanks to Mr Horton.


As with all the portraits in this series, this piece is drawn almost entirely from contemporary newspaper accounts. It is liable, therefore, to be wildly inaccurate.


ALSO AVAILABLE:


[1] Sunday Times 31 January 2016

[2] Gyles Brandreth, Breaking the Code: Westminster Diaries May 1990 – May 1997 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999) p. 89

[3] Guardian 17 October 1994

[4] Guardian 16 January 1981

[5] Guardian 20 January 1981

[6] Sunday Times 12 April 1992

[7] Times 22 February 1992

[8] Guardian 25 September 1990

[9] Guardian 11 April 1992

[10] Guardian 22 May 1992

[11] Independent 11 September 1997

[12] Guardian 30 September 1993

[13] Guardian 17 April 1993

[14] Independent 17 April 1993

[15] Guardian 9 February 1994

[16] Guardian 17 October 1994

[17] Times 16 July 1993

[18] Independent 11 September 1997

[19] Express 12 September 1997

[20] Independent 11 September 1997

[21] Daily Mirror 11 September 1997

[22] Express 12 September 1997

[23] Independent 17 July 1993

[24] Independent 10 November 1994

[25] Independent 27 September 1995

[26] Chris Mullin, A View from the Foothills (Profile Books, 2009) p. 311

[27] Sunday Times 22 January 2006

[28] Morning Star 16 December 2003

[29] Daily Post 25 September 2002

[30] Independent 24 November 2003

[31] Morning Star 16 December 2003

[32] Mullin, A View from the Foothills p. 378

[33] Guardian 12 June 2002

[34] Express 30 September 2015

[35] Daily Post 11 May 2007

[36] Liverpool Echo 5 January 2008

[37] Daily Post 10 June 2010

[38] Liverpool Echo 29 September 2010

[39] Daily Telegraph 28 April 2011

[40] Independent 31 October 1996

[41] Independent 14 February 1997

[42] Times 30 June 2016

[43] Independent 27 September 1995

[44] Express 4 May 2007

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “‘Very good with the bat’: A press portrait of Angela Eagle

  1. Pingback: Tomorrow belongs to May | Lion & Unicorn

  2. Pingback: Tomorrow belongs to May | Lion & Unicorn

  3. Pingback: After the Plausible Young Men | Lion & Unicorn

  4. Pingback: A long month in politics | Lion & Unicorn

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s