Margaret Beckett: “People put you in a box, and sometimes they change the box”
Margaret Beckett has had a front-row seat on political history for over 40 years. The Labour stalwart could be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu as the current EU wranglings rumble on. But, as she tells Sienna Rodgers, just like in 1975 she’s still on the side of a people’s vote
It’s a tumultuous time for the Labour party, to put it lightly. The last few weeks have seen a number of MPs quit, most of them to form a new ‘centrist’ grouping in parliament, and those parliamentarians who remain are deeply divided over its direction, particularly on Brexit.
We’ve seen panic about a hard-left takeover and MPs splitting off from Labour; a recession and a minority government; fighting about the UK’s relationship with Europe, an enormously contentious issue that has not run along party lines and has resulted in a referendum. There are differences, of course, but the current state of affairs is undoubtedly reminiscent of the 1970s. And that makes Dame Margaret Beckett the perfect person to interview today.
The longest-serving woman MP – Beckett has spent more than 40 years on the green benches over two stints, 1974-1979, and 1983-present day, but misses out on the Mother of the House title to the longest-serving continuous woman MP, Harriet Harman – got her first big break in politics thanks to a Labour party split over Europe. In 1973 she was selected to stand against sitting MP Dick Taverne, who had resigned from Labour after clashing with the local party over membership of the European Economic Community. He was pro-membership; they were not.
Those with short memories – or who were born in the 1990s, as I was – might find it peculiar to think of Beckett, now a leading pro-EU voice, as a sceptic. But that she was, and soon went to campaign for a ‘No’ vote in 1975.
How does she explain her journey? “Our argument was that these six little rich capitalist countries were not Europe,” Beckett tells me as we sit on the stumpy Commons-green armchairs in her parliamentary office. “Well, you only have to say that to see how totally different it is from where we are now.”
I go in wanting to understand how and why she has evolved from Eurosceptic to People’s Vote campaigner, but the MP for Derby South puts me right. “Ted Heath had said that he would not take Britain into the European Community unless there had been either a referendum or an election in which that was the principal policy choice. And then of course he did precisely that,” Beckett says drily. “Many of us felt – and it was Tony [Benn] who came up with the referendum idea – that people ought to be given the final say.” In other words, she was a People’s Vote campaigner then too.
Beckett is also keen to point out that the body has changed. She cites two “turning points”: the Scandinavian countries joining – “they brought in a very different political tradition, much closer to our own” – and her involvement in climate change negotiations. As Defra secretary in 2001, she says, she realised that EU countries could come to a “cooperative and constructive agreement” and that the UK could wield influence on the world stage by being part of the effort.
Has she discussed some of those benefits with Jeremy Corbyn? “No, to be honest I haven’t, and it hadn’t struck me until you said that,” she replies. “I don’t have much in the way of policy discussions with Jeremy.”
So what of her shift from the so-called hard left to the so-called Blairite wing? Although Beckett backed Tony Benn’s deputy leadership challenge in 1981, she then supported Neil Kinnock against Benn in 1988 – but contends that her position hasn’t changed.
“Politics and people’s categories have moved around me,” Beckett argues. “People put you in a box and sometimes they change the box.” And if you do something outside of the box? “People get quite cross about that.”
During the 2016 leadership challenge against Corbyn, Beckett gave an emotional BBC radio interview. She had nominated Corbyn in 2015, but a year later said he had “no experience” and called for his resignation. Does she now regret having nominated him? “I don’t know,” she decides after a long pause. “I was content to have nominated him because I thought it was a very valid point that ... the field of choice ought not to be too narrow. And I thought it was right that the argument he was putting about austerity should be heard. It didn’t occur to me, to be honest, that he would become the leader.
“When he did, I did regret nominating him because it was such an enormous learning curve for him. He’d never taken any kind of frontbench responsibility and it’s a really hard job. A really horrible job.”
Beckett speaks from experience: after serving as deputy leader under John Smith for two years, she briefly stood in as interim leader when he died suddenly.
“But there isn’t any doubt that Jeremy Corbyn has grown to the job,” she adds. “He is the leader, overwhelmingly so, and we have had our successes. The 2017 election was quite a revelation, I think, to a lot of people.” And this is where she becomes most passionate. This Tory government is “wrecking the country”, Beckett asserts forcefully, and Labour in power is needed “more than anything”.
How, then, does she feel about the decision taken by colleagues to form the Independent Group? “I’m extremely disappointed. I’m sorry to see all of them go – there’s not one of them I think, ‘good riddance’. Also, to be honest, I’m really quite angry with them. Because it seems to me that the time at which they’ve chosen to go is just so wrong.”
Her voice rising again, Beckett says: “This is no time for internal party wrangles, it’s the future of the country we should be concentrating on. I really strongly disapprove of the fact they’ve done it now.”
Beckett says she “completely” sympathises with their reasons for leaving, aside from claims that Corbyn in No 10 would be a threat to national security, a concern she dismisses as “way over the top”.
But she doesn’t accept that their concerns are impossible to address. “With regard to Brexit, if they’d waited five minutes then the argument that Jeremy wasn’t going to support a confirmatory ballot of the people would have been negated.” She adds damningly: “Perhaps that’s why they went when they did – because if they’d waited, they might lose that as an opportunity.”
Nor does she accept that TIG precipitated the shift towards another referendum. Some Labour MPs have expressed frustration at the idea that they could influence party policy more effectively by leaving than staying. But Beckett disputes this and says the party was “moving in that direction”. “He was going to end up there. It might have made a difference of 24 hours or something.”
Nonetheless, she reckons it is “entirely possible” that further resignations will follow. “It did look very much, especially early on, as if it was a kind of planned exercise with people trying to do the maximum amount of damage. I hope that’s not the case or, if it was, I hope they’ve thought better of it.”
What Westminster really wants to know now is whether this split is more existential than previous ruptures. Beckett, who sat on Labour’s ruling body, the National Executive Committee (NEC), at the time the SDP was formed, seems like the person to ask. “No,” comes the reply. “It would obviously be ridiculous to say the Labour party could never disappear – no political party has a right to go on existing.” However, there is a “very real life” to the party, the MP says.
One of the main threats to that livelihood is antisemitism. Still today a member of the NEC, Beckett will have seen some of the disciplinary cases and how they’ve been handled. “I’m not in any doubt whatsoever that there is some antisemitism in our ranks”, she says, describing it as “extremely unpleasant” and “absolutely indefensible”. Yet she doesn’t agree that the problem can be classed as institutional.
“I’m very conscious of the fact that people like me are not allowed to say that, if you know what I mean, because it’s people who are experiencing racism who are allowed to take that view. But it doesn’t feel to me that the Labour party is institutionally antisemitic. There may be bits of it that are.”
Beckett claims the problem varies by region. “London politics is different; very, very different from elsewhere in the country. Scottish politics is different. And Liverpool politics is different.” She says this explains why “you get some people saying ‘I’ve never seen any evidence of antisemitism’ and people start howling them down. But they haven’t necessarily.”
She says she hasn’t seen antisemitism in her local constituency, Derby South. “But sitting on the NEC and seeing stuff that comes in from other places in the country, I’ve definitely seen it. But I can understand some people might say quite genuinely and quite sincerely that they have not seen evidence of antisemitism.”
Looking to the future, Beckett says she is “extremely frightened” of the direction Brexit is taking. She is a passionate advocate of holding another public vote to avoid Theresa May’s “incredibly bad deal” going through. Or being passed unchecked, anyway. She says she is “heavily involved” with Labour backbenchers Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson, who are proposing that opposition MPs allow the deal to pass on the condition that it is “put to the people”.
“I don’t want to vote for that agreement because it’s crap,” Beckett asserts. But she suspects that the prime minister plans to carry the process right to the cliff edge and force the Commons to choose between her deal and no deal. There is no other option but to “bite the bullet” earlier and impose conditions, she concludes.
“Of course it’s not just a matter for me, it’s a matter for my local party,” the MP notes modestly when I ask whether she’ll contest her seat again. But whether the next general election is held this year or in 2022, Beckett intends to continue representing Derby South. The longest-serving female MP isn’t planning to stop now.