Wes Streeting: People in the Labour Party have got to start liking one another again. We've got to build a common cause
Labour MP Wes Streeting has launched new pamphlet for the Fabian Society named ‘Let Us Face the Future Again'
Since joining parliament in 2015, Wes Streeting has weathered an additional two general elections, an EU referendum, and rocked the boat with his criticism of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. The Labour MP sits down with Sebastian Whale to talk about his hopes for the future of the party
All things being equal, the 2015 intake of MPs would now be preparing for their first re-election campaign. But for this group of parliamentarians, nothing has ever really gone to plan.
“I sometimes feel like I’m living in some kind of dystopia and that maybe, on eve of poll in 2015, I got hit by a bus and now I’m in purgatory,” says Wes Streeting, the Labour MP for Ilford North. Along with his contemporaries, he has taken part in three general elections and an EU referendum over the past five years. And his batch have lost one of their own in Jo Cox, and now face the most serious crisis to the country that many can recall.
The beautiful Spring weather that greets us the morning that we meet at the Design Museum in west London belies what is lurking beneath the surface. It is the start of a new week, and concern about the spread of coronavirus is palpable. Though we do not know it yet, later that day Londoners will learn that their city is weeks ahead of the rest of the UK in terms of the spread of the disease, and drastic measures to toughen up social distancing measures are outlined by the Prime Minister. Venues such as the one we find ourselves sat outside on a bench are to be avoided.
In words that will be familiar to many, Streeting says: “Like most people, I’m most worried about my immediate family. I’ve got a grandmother who is, for the second time, fighting cancer. I’ve got other people who are very close to me who are battling cancer and they’re in high risk groups. I’m also a constituency MP who is worried about the impact on other people’s families, on panic buying we’ve seen in supermarkets.”
He adds: “Coronavirus is going to present profound challenges for the health service, for our economy and for our society. It is important as a country that we pull together.”
Streeting laments a “real failure of global leadership” in responding to the crisis. Fearful that the disease could lead to calls for greater “nativism, protectionism and isolationism”, he argues: “Unless liberal democracies work together to defend liberal democracy, I’m afraid it’s not clear whether democracy or tyranny will define the 21st Century.”
Like many of us, Streeting had plans that have been interrupted by the coronavirus. In a speech in Manchester, he was due to unveil a new pamphlet for the Fabian Society, named ‘Let Us Face the Future Again’ (the plan is now to hold the launch online). In the publication, the 37-year-old seeks to set out his vision of how Labour can regain power, starting from the premise that there is no future for the Labour party in “Corbynism without Corbyn”.
Citing five challenges facing the UK – economic inequality, an ageing society, technological revolution, climate change and shifting global power – Streeting floats various solutions. These include increasing spending on research and development to 3% of GDP by 2030; what he refers to as the “biggest devolution of power in British history” by giving local authorities greater control over a broader range of public policy; and the establishment of a Good Work Commission, bringing together the relevant stakeholders to negotiate a new employment rights settlement. Seeking to shift Labour’s message on business, Streeting wants to “work with the best of British business to reform the worst of British capitalism”. He also floats the idea of establishing a “21st Century Beveridge Commission” to reimagine the role of the state in an era where people want to “take back control”.
Streeting, a former member of the Treasury Select Committee, wants to tax capital gains on the same basis as income; suggests replacing inheritance tax with a “lifetime gifts tax”; and calls for an increase in corporation tax. To win back trust from voters, he advocates Labour committing to new fiscal rules that balance day-to-day spending with tax revenues over the course of a parliament. All tax and spending plans, he continues, should be subject to a progressive impact test to ensure they are targeted on helping people on low and middle incomes.
These are a select few of the ideas he has put forward. So why is Streeting doing this now? “The arrival of new leadership brings a fresh opportunity for a new direction for the Labour party,” he starts, before adding: “One of the criticisms that I’ve had from the left of the party who’ve backed Jeremy Corbyn is, ‘You’ve told us what you’re against, but what are you for?’ You know what, of all the challenges that I get, that’s a fair one.”
Born on 21 January 1983, Wes Streeting grew up on a council estate in Tower Hamlets. He was educated at Westminster City school before studying history at Selwyn College, Cambridge, where he would go on to serve as President of the Students’ Union. He was the first member of his family to go to university.
He first made his name as president of the National Union of Students, where he served two terms between 2008-2010. This was followed by a stint as chief executive of the Helena Kennedy Foundation, a charity which seeks to tackle education disadvantage. He was also head of education at Stonewall, the LGBT rights charity, before working at PricewaterhouseCoopers as a public sector consultant. Elected a Labour councillor in 2010, Streeting served as deputy leader of Redbridge Council before stepping down after becoming an MP in May 2015.
At the age of 32, and with an impressive CV in tow, Streeting was tipped as a potential frontbencher. His political career has not panned out how he or others anticipated. He has been an outspoken critic of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership; taking particular issue with various foreign policy stances and his handling of the party’s anti-Semitism crisis. “I haven’t pulled my punches when it comes to the serious concerns I have about the Labour leadership,” he says. Such were his fundamental disagreements with the ideology behind the man that Streeting felt he could not join the frontbench.
We’ve got to rebuild an understanding of each other. Unless we do, we’re not going to win.
“I was asked a few times. I think it’s fair to say that in the last couple of years the phone stopped ringing and the offers stopped coming. That’s perfectly reasonable, right, because in order to be on the frontbench, you have to sign up to collective responsibility, and I didn’t feel I could,” he explains. “So fundamental were my concerns about our tackling of anti-Semitism, and the bullying culture in the Labour party, and my revulsion at Corbyn’s response to the murder of people on the streets of our country in Salisbury, the endless wishlist of promises that I just couldn’t credibly tell my own voters that we could deliver, there is no way that I could have been a part of that.”
Streeting made do with his select committee role, where he was able to garner coverage for his scrutiny of George Osborne, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer. Undoubtedly, five years in opposition, during which time the UK left the European Union and Labour missed out at two more elections, has proved a trying time.
“I always said that if ever I walk into work not feeling incredibly privileged to hold this office and to have the opportunity to do the things that MPs do, I’ll know it’s time to quit. But, yeah, I don’t mind saying that there have been days in the last five years where it has felt pretty tough,” he says. The death of Jo Cox, the former MP for Batley and Spen who was murdered in her constituency, was “one of the worst days of my entire life”. A number of his colleagues, including Luciana Berger, the former MP for Liverpool Wavertree, quit the Labour party in early 2019 over Corbyn’s handling of anti-Semitism. Streeting, who admired their courage, did not follow suit: “I believed then and feel that the passage of time has shown that in a two-party system, where the Labour Party will either form the main opposition or form the government, we have a responsibility to stay, to fight and to fix it.”
Despite the party’s better-than-expected showing at the 2017 election, Streeting’s heart sank when Corbyn whipped his party to vote in favour of a general election in October of last year. “How on earth did anyone think that going into an election with the most unpopular leader of the opposition since records began would result in a Labour victory?” he asks. Streeting and colleagues “held our noses” and abided by the whip. “I don’t think any of us seriously believed that we were going into the election with a prospect of winning. Anyone in the Shadow Cabinet who did believe that and continues to believe that it could have been won, you have to question their political judgment, and they certainly shouldn’t be near any major decisions in the future.”
Does he feel vindicated or angry at what took place two months later? “Angry. Vindication implies a sense of satisfaction… I felt genuinely heartbroken, because I saw friends lose their seats who didn’t deserve to. I know how hard Labour members work, and they could not have worked harder.”
Corbyn has said he would be willing to serve in the Shadow Cabinet under a new leader. “I think it’s time to draw a line under the past and to turn our face firmly to the future,” Streeting replies when I put this to him. “My misgivings, serious misgivings to put it mildly about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership are well known and I think now is the time for the party to turn a corner under fresh leadership and a new generation.”
Streeting backed Jess Phillips for the Labour leadership and Ian Murray for the deputy position. He has not formally supported one of the final three candidates to succeed Corbyn - – Sir Keir Starmer, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy - – but is feeling somewhat sanguine.
“It’s given me a lot of cause for optimism about Labour’s future,” he says. “I know Keir; we came into parliament at the same time. I like him, I respect him… Moreover, he’s just a fundamentally decent human being, and that counts for a lot. He’s got integrity by the bucketloads. Given where we’ve been as a party in the last five years, the tone he has struck during this leadership election is the right one.”
He also praises Nandy for running a “very thoughtful and impressive” campaign, and perhaps surprisingly says the Corbyn-backed Long-Bailey has had the best analysis on where Labour fell short at the election. He also warmed to her message on aspiration. “But what she wasn’t able to do is signal a big enough break from the past so that voters from my constituency and others, particularly the constituencies we need to win back, would think, ‘Labour’s got the message, this is the right person for the job’,” he says.
Given Streeting’s new pamphlet calls for Corbynism to be ditched entirely, does he feel Starmer has done that sufficiently in his policy platform? “What Keir has been trying to do is assert mainstream Labour values. And in some ways, there is a job to do to reclaim our understanding of what mainstream Labour values are.”
He continues: “One of the things I’ve found really depressing in the party in the last five years is that when party members have heard people like me criticising Jeremy Corbyn, what they have heard and believe is that people like me want to cut our public services, want to ape the Tories, and when we’re not busy plotting that, we’re looking at maps of the world and looking at which Middle Eastern country we want to bomb next.”
Streeting says he is opposed to austerity and highlights that he has never voted in favour of military action as an MP. He also briefly quit the party while a student in opposition to the Iraq War. “Part of the process the Labour Party has got to go through is about listening to each other and learning to understand and like one another again. I think we’ve lost that,” he says.
Frankly, the foreign policies of the last five years would have Attlee spinning in his grave.
Some Corbyn supporters may smart at Streeting – a known opponent of the Labour leader – calling for unity. But he recognises he needs to meet his end of the bargain. “That’s a responsibility that rests on all of our shoulders. I would accept my share of responsibility for putting the culture of the party right as much as anyone else.”
There are “whole planks” of Corbyn’s platform that Streeting would keep – tackling poverty, homelessness, the rise in foodbank usage, and investing in public services. The worldview and un-credible economic policies are what need to go, he continues. “Frankly, the foreign policies of the last five years are ones that I think would have Attlee spinning in his grave.” He adds: “Most of all, we’ve got to rebuild an understanding of each other, where we’re coming from and try to build a common cause. Because unless we do, we’re not going to win.”
The major undoing of MPs from Streeting’s wing of the Labour party has been a lack of ideas. At consecutive contests in 2015 and 2016, the leadership candidates were unable to articulate a pitch that caught the imaginations of the emboldened party base. In this vacuum, Corbyn thrived. Cognisant of his critics, Streeting has made efforts to address this shortfall.
“What I’ve tried to do with this pamphlet is to set out my response to five big challenges that are going to shape our country and our world for generations to come. I hope that when people read it, they will agree with lots of it, engage where they don’t, but most of all, embrace the core demand of the pamphlet, which is for the Labour Party to turn outwards and to let us face the future once again.”