Stella Creasy: "We still haven't got abortion in Northern Ireland, but that was a big step forward"
Despite securing a major Commons victory on abortion rights for women in Northern Ireland, Stella Creasy is keeping her feet on the ground. The Labour backbencher is determined to see the job through, while fighting on multiple fronts. She speaks to Marie Le Conte about women’s rights, pregnant MPs and reselections
Stella Creasy is sitting in a cafe in Westminster and her face beams when her assistant brings her a drink. “Since I became pregnant, I've become really craving of milk,” she explains. “I'm like a child – ‘I want a milkshake!’ – which is not really a good thing for a politician right now…”
Still, she has reason to celebrate; we were due to meet to discuss her uphill battle with parliamentary authorities on maternity cover for MPs, but it is Thursday morning and less than a day earlier, she struck a major victory after the Commons backed abortion rights for women in Northern Ireland.
Given the recent dearth of legislation going through the House, Creasy and Conor McGinn, the Labour MP and campaigner on same-sex marriage, knew they had to leap at the chance to put amendments forward.
“The bill they passed six months ago to give them temporary powers [on the devolved assembly] was a short-term measure, so we knew they were going to have to roll it forward, and the way they'd written it before meant they had to bring it back as primary legislation,” she says.
“We knew something had to come before the end of the timetable but literally, they published the bill on the Thursday at 2pm and by 5pm, you had to get your amendments in, so I wrote several different versions. ‘How about this? How about this one?’”
In the end, their amendments on abortion rights and same-sex marriage were selected and neither was whipped, as they are both deemed to be conscience issues. Creasy wasn’t convinced hers would pass (“Too many Tory MPs were like ‘oh, no, this changes so much – same sex marriage, I understand all of that, but...’”), though she realised something was happening when NI minister John Penrose took her side. “I'm not normally a crier, but I was standing by the door and the minister who’d just argued against it walked past me in the lobby and I thought, ‘oh my god, we’re going to do this’.”
Victory was theirs, as the Commons ended up voting for abortion rights in NI by 332 to 99 and same-sex marriage by 383 to 73, and the government said it would honour the results. The night was a happy one for the MPs and for equalities campaigners, but Creasy is keen to point out that it is only the beginning.
“We've still got a long way to go,” she says. “I've been lucky enough to work with a whole range of grassroots Northern Irish groups, and Irish groups as well. When we first looked at the fact that women from Northern Ireland were coming here and having to pay for their own abortions on the NHS, even though they're paying for NHS services, we always made a promise that that wasn't the end of it.
“So, when we got the scheme to fund people to be able to come to England and Wales, we said that's not a victory, that's a stepping stone to what really needs to happen. And that's what yesterday was as well. We still haven't got abortion in Northern Ireland, but that was a big step forward.”
On top of this, she warns that if law making on this is efficient, women in Northern Ireland may end up with more rights than ones closer to home: “I have a responsibility to my own constituents in Walthamstow to make sure that they're not left behind,” she explains. “People forget that abortion isn't actually legal in the United Kingdom, it's just that you are exempted from prosecution. Now is probably the time to talk about having a medically led approach to abortion for every woman in the United Kingdom, because we should treat everyone woman as an adult capable of making her own choices.”
This conveniently brings us to the topic we were originally going to talk about. In a Guardian column last week, Creasy revealed that she is now pregnant, after suffering from two miscarriages.
Though she welcomed the introduction of proxy voting for MPs about to give birth or who have recently given birth, she pushed for lawmakers to be given proper maternity leave, both for their sake and the sake of their constituents.
As things stand, there is no such thing as maternity cover for MPs; one striking example Creasy gave in the piece was Tulip Siddiq, who went back to doing casework only three days after giving birth by C-section.
“I'm not actually somebody who particularly wanted to share what was just a horrible, horrible experience”, Creasy says. “I thought I had no choice but to come forward, because I was being given the run-around by the parliamentary authorities; if I'm honest, I still think I'm being given the run-around. We still don't have a commitment from them to bring in a policy – they said they'll give me some funding; right now, that funding will just make me one of the most expensive MPs in London, rather than a funding that reflects the fact that my constituents shouldn't miss out on a service because I'm on maternity leave.”
Since the piece came out, Creasy has received support from Theresa May, who personally wrote to parliamentary authorities, as well as Vince Cable, the SNP, and Anna Soubry on behalf of The Independent Group for Change (asked whether her own Labour party had done anything to support her, she says: “not as far as I'm aware at the moment”).
“I've been blown away by the backbench response and I mean, it's also not just about me; I've talked to other colleagues who were pregnant or just had children, and they had asked for help from IPSA and just been turned down.”
Nice as the support has been, she remains visibly frustrated by parliamentary authorities, and thinks that the current disagreement is symptomatic of wider issues.
"I've talked to other colleagues who were pregnant or just had children, and they had asked for help from IPSA and just been turned down.”
“They seem to have a very specific view of what an MP is and does, and they work backwards from there, yet representation surely is about diversity of people. So, when they said to one of my colleagues, ‘well we've never really had to deal with this because there aren't that many MPs it applies to’, that should be a big warning sign to them that the problem isn't the MP asking, the problem is what's going on in terms of people coming forward to get involved in politics. There's enough crap thrown at the idea of women being elected representatives as it is.”
What happens next remains to be seen, but it doesn’t mean Creasy is about to settle into a nice relaxing summer recess. With Labour MPs going for reselection soon and a local Momentum branch itching for a dedicated Corbynite to take over, she now needs to make her case at home.
To her party members she wants to say: “It's a question for everyone about what they want to do in the next couple of months. Where do you want progressive campaigners and activists' heads to be? Do you want them in a room having a fractious argument about freeze dates and who is more perfect with each other, or do you want their minds, their hearts, their energy focused on not just winning an election but winning the argument about what kind of country we could be?”
She appears confident that she will come out on top, but whatever happens, going through very tough times in her personal life has put things into perspective.
“I get a lot of crap from people, I've had some... interesting conversations in my local constituency from people like Momentum, none of that breaks you because you think ‘you know what, I already know what gets my soul and it's not you guys’. Every time I've been abused by these people, I've just thought "I don't care, because the thing I really care about, I now know what that is in my life.”