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Could This Be The Labour Party's New Leader?

Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images.
Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve all watched scenes unfolding at Westminster that the writers of House of Cards might have rejected for being too implausible. And, as the removal vans pulled up outside Downing Street yesterday, we might still see more heads roll. That is if Angela Eagle is successful in unseating Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party.

Buoyed up by the Conservative Party’s selection of Theresa May, many commentators have been calling for Labour to follow suit, appealing to the public’s feminist credentials. “I’m a strong Labour woman”, said Angela Eagle, launching her campaign this week, wearing a pink jacket, standing against a pink sign (hint hint). But, before we throw a massive cross-party, er, party, and start jumping around to Beyoncé's "Run The World (Girls)" to celebrate women leading both front benches, it’s worth asking what Eagle would mean for women and for the future of the Labour Party.

Eagle represents a more moderate stance on many key policy issues than Corbyn, and says that she’ll be able to “bring the party together again”, after strained relations between Corbynistas and the rest of the PLP have basically brought Labour to a standstill.

Eagle has been MP for Wallasey since 1992. She comes from traditional Labour stock, born in Yorkshire to working-class parents – a seamstress and a printer. She attended her local comprehensive before studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford. Eagle’s career has been marked by a series of firsts. She was the first in her family to go to university, the first female MP to come out as gay while in office, and she and her sister, Maria, became the first set of twins to hold office simultaneously.

Despite keeping a relatively low public profile, Eagle has consistently held government and shadow cabinet positions since the 1990s including Minister of State for Pensions and the Ageing Society, and Shadow Chief Secretary of the Treasury. She was also Corbyn’s Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills – until she changed her mind about the importance of his democratic mandate after the referendum.
Eagle’s campaign has, so far, been strong on colour-blocking but pretty light on policy. She’s here to win, she says. She can “unite the party”. She’s a “strong leader”. But looking at her campaign website, what kind of party she’d be leading remains a bit of a mystery. The one policy she has announced is her commitment to defending workers’ rights in Brexit negotiations.

We can make some informed guesses, however, based on her extensive voting record and policy decisions since 1992. She has consistently voted for legislation extending LGBTQ+ rights, and for laws promoting equality and human rights, such as opposing the repeal of the 1998 Human Rights Act.

She’s also consistently voted against cutting welfare payments, and in favour of trade union rights, entering the Labour Party from a union background herself, describing herself as a “unioninst to her fingertips”. However, unlike Corbyn, she followed the party whip and abstained on the Tories’ Welfare Bill back in May, which included cuts to tax credits, capping child benefits to two children, and reducing the benefit cap.

Questioned by John Humphrys this morning about her record on welfare, she defended herself by saying, “I’m a loyal Labour party member”. Throughout her career, Eagle has rarely defied the party line, which explains some contradictions in her voting record – such as voting for the introduction of tuition fees under Tony Blair, and voting against raising them to £9,000 when in opposition. This is in stark contrast to Corbyn, who’s spent his career campaigning from the backbenches, and has often defied the leadership on issues such as tuition fees, Trident, and Iraq.

As a feminist, I’d love to see a woman lead the Labour party; I’d also like there to be a woman prime minister. But a female leader doesn’t have feminist credentials or women-friendly policies as some kind of birthright. Buying a t-shirt doesn’t actually make you a feminist, it's your policies that count.

Corbyn has vocally championed migrants' rights, and has clearly stated that he would shut down all immigration detention centres, including Yarl’s Wood, where asylum seeking women have repeatedly reported a culture of abuse and assault. Eagle, on the other hand, has generally voted for a stricter asylum system, and voted in favour of Blair’s plan to detain terror suspects for up to 90 days (again following the party line).

He’s been one of the most consistent parliamentary critics of the invasion of Iraq, a war which has killed and displaced hundreds of thousands of women. Eagle voted for the Iraq war, which has been one of the most common criticisms of her leadership credentials – a decision for which she has subsequently apologised. She also, however, voted against investigations into the war in 2003, 2006 and 2007.

It’s also important to remember that Corbyn has, along with John McDonnell, almost uniquely worked for sex workers’ rights – the kind of women Westminster has historically patronised and ignored – to be put on the political map, something I’ve written more about here. Eagle has been silent on this issue.

So what might Eagle mean for the Labour Party? She says she’d lead an anti-austerity party, but a move towards the right is definitely on the cards. A retreat from Corbyn’s pro-immigrant position would be likely. But in the end, it’s hard to know what a politician who’s spent the vast majority of her career toeing successive party lines would be like as a leader who has to actively shape policy. One thing is clear – now that the National Executive Committee has announced that members who have joined the Labour party to support Corbyn will need to pay £25 to vote for him, she’s going to need every bit of her much-touted “strong leadership” abilities to ride out the anger from the grassroots. The carnage might not be over for a while yet.