Wes Streeting: On Labour's leader, aspiration and why commuter Britain rejected Miliband
It may have come as a shock to the leadership, but for those on the front line in marginals the warning signs were there. As we entered polling week and Ed Miliband seemed destined for Downing Street, Wes Streeting was tied to a phone bank in his Ilford North campaign office ringing undecided voter after undecided voter, and the trend was becoming depressingly clear. “There was one afternoon where it was just one after another saying ‘you’ve run such a great campaign, I think you’d make a great MP, but I can’t vote for you’,” Streeting sighs, reliving the frustration of those closing days.
Ilford North, 83rd on the party’s target list, is what Streeting calls a “classic commuter belt seat” – Zone Four, suburban, won by Labour in ’97, retaken by the Tories in ’05. It had been subjected to an 18-month campaign to build Streeting’s local reputation. But as he spoke to voters in those frenetic final hours, he feared it could slip agonisingly away thanks to a Tory surge beyond his control. “What they were basically saying to me was ‘you’re having a great campaign but it’s not making a blind bit of difference’.”
As it turned out, Streeting’s last-minute efforts did make a difference, as he defied the grim national picture and took the seat with a majority of 589. As he sits down with The House a few weeks on, the new MP for Ilford North still feels a mix of pride and “shellshock” at the circumstances of his victory, but is in no mood to bask in his personal success. Already one of the most well known of Labour’s new intake – the 32 year-old first rose to prominence as president of the NUS between 2008 and 2010 – his feat earlier this month, particularly in a southern marginal, has given his profile an added boost. Introducing Streeting at Progress’s recent post-election autopsy, John Woodcock praised his win as an “extraordinary, shining example” on an otherwise bleak night for Labour, and he has quickly found himself marked out by pundits and colleagues alike as ‘a talent to watch’.
So where did Labour go wrong, and what did he get right? He puts his victory down to a combination of a “phenomenal ground campaign” and his team’s ability to carve out a message based around his own backstory which compensated for his party’s blind spots.
“There was a definite hole, and I think the personal story helped to fill it,” he explains. “Ilford North is an interesting, north-east London/Essex border seat. A lot of people who live there have gradually moved out from east London. They moved because they were ambitious for their families, for their kids; they want to get them into good schools; they want to get bigger homes; a lot of them run their own businesses or commute into London in successful jobs.
“We worked really hard to get across a bit about who I was as a candidate and my own background that I think resonated with people. I was born in Tower Hamlets, grew up on a council estate, in a single-parent family, on free school meals. And yet I made it to one of the country’s top universities and now have become a Member of Parliament, and I think lots of people who move out to Ilford North identify with that story of ambition and aspiration.”
He adds: “I think with the campaign Ed was absolutely right to identify inequality as one of the central issues facing the country. The problem was we had a sharp analysis of the excesses of the top 1%. We had a sharp analysis and some really good solutions about how to tackle poverty at the bottom. But I think there were lots of people in the middle, who aren’t particularly well off, but they work hard, they play by the rules, they’re constantly striving to do better, and I found when I was knocking on doors that although we had some really good policies like cutting business rates or helping first-time buyers, that didn’t necessarily come across in the overall message. I think the tone of the campaign didn’t reflect the strength of some of our individual policies; they didn’t hang together in a sort of overarching story.”
“Aspiration” has become the key word of Labour’s post-election soul-searching. But where its use can sometimes seem platitudinous, Streeting speaks with a fresh and frank authenticity about a group of voters he seems to instinctively understand.
Growing up in London in the 1980s, he experienced “the sharp end of Thatcherism”, he says, before being swept along in his teens by the tide of enthusiasm for Tony Blair in opposition to John Major’s tired government. “I got involved in the 1997 campaign and it was a really exciting time to be involved in politics, and I thought ‘this is a really great way to make a difference on issues that I care about’.”
He may have cut his teeth in the New Labour era, but he was politically influenced, too, by a “very leftwing maternal grandmother”. With a hint of familial pride, he recounts tales of his nan’s firebrand activism that would give a Blairite cold sweats: supporting striking workers, occupying County Hall in protest at Tory plans to shut down the GLC; even, he adds, “throwing a brick at Murdoch vans” during the ill-tempered Wapping strike. “I think some of that rubbed off on me – although probably not to the extent that she would have liked.”
It’s hard to imagine Streeting adopting his nan’s projectile-lobbing tactics in the Palace of Westminster, but he won’t be afraid to ruffle a few feathers. He calls for a candid and open debate about what’s gone wrong for Labour which leaves no area unexamined; even if that means discomforting press stories about ‘bitter infighting’ and division. “I’m sure every disagreement is going to be seized upon as an example of Labour infighting; it’s not, it’s the robust and rigorous debate we need to have after such a serious defeat. There will no doubt be disagreements, but that’s a healthy thing.”
After keeping quiet for the first few weeks, he’s recently thrown his weight behind Liz Kendall’s campaign after being impressed by her “rare combination of being both a great listener and possessing incredible steel”. “We need someone who understands the scale of the defeat and why we lost, who is thinking deeply about the voters we need to win over, who doesn’t retreat into Labour’s comfort zone, and is looking to the future and the future challenges facing the country,” he adds. “The candidates now need to think beyond the coalition they need to win the Labour leadership and start thinking about the coalition they need to win the country. Britain is a more fragmented place, and there are so many varying factors about the economic uncertainty and instability in play in different parts of the country. We need an industrial strategy and an economic policy that really speak to people in different parts of the country and recognise the different challenges we face. There are huge areas outside London where the recovery has been barely felt – or where there is a recovery, it’s fragile – and we need to speak to those people’s concerns. And we’ve got to start planning now about where we think the country will be in five years and how we answer those challenges.”
But this does not mean simply repackaging Blairite policy from the 1990s, he’s quick to add. “I think people who properly understand how New Labour won in 1997 understand it wasn’t about having a particular mantra or a dogmatic commitment to certain policies. It was about understanding that your starting point is where the country is and you work from there, and you identify the challenges ahead and you don’t win the next election by fighting the last one. It’s about a forward-looking approach rather than a set of dogmatic policies. That’s why a reheat of the 1997 manifesto won’t work. We need to move beyond New Labour, but we need to have a similar, fresh, forward-looking approach to the country’s challenges.”
Streeting is clear that the eventual winner will receive his “full backing”. But he also says Labour have historically been far too squeamish about removing leaders heading for electoral defeat, and warns the party that they must not make the same mistake again.
“Where Labour needs to learn lessons is that twice now – and I say this with no personal animosity to either, I respect them both greatly, they’re remarkable people – but twice in a row now we’ve gone into a general election campaign with leaders that we knew to be unpopular with the public, and people weren’t prepared to speak out, and when they did they were attacked for disunity,” he says. “I think in Ed’s case we had the worst of all worlds where people were refusing to back him or sack him. You have to do one or the other. I think it was unfair on Ed, unfair on the Labour party, but most importantly it was really unfair on the people of the country who desperately needed a change of government and a Labour government on their side.
“I’ve been quite uncompromising with the leadership candidates I’ve already spoken to. I will absolutely back whoever is chosen as the next leader of the Labour party. But if we’re a couple of years out from a general election and we’re not doing well enough, then we can’t carry on demanding that people are silent in the name of unity. There is nothing inevitable about Labour’s place in British politics in the 21st century. There’s nothing inevitable about a change in government; you have to work hard for it. You need the right leader to do that, and in modern politics not just the message but the messenger is absolutely crucial.
"We’ve got very credible leadership challengers, and they’re standing to lead us into the next election. We’ve got to give them our support to do that, and help them to be the very best they can be. But if the time comes and they’re falling short, then we need to reconsider their position.”
As for his own role over the next five years, the former NUS president says education reform remains his “really big passion”. He’s “convinced” that at some point this government will look at raising tuition fees further, and accuses ministers of failing to push through efficiency drives in higher education and overlooking the “ticking time bomb of unsustainable debt” that students will struggle to repay. “I want vice-chancellors to spend a bit more time justifying the money they’ve already got, rather than constantly doing their usual round of special pleading for more and always looking to students as the answer,” he adds. “Looking at vice-chancellors’ pay and being critical can be a bit glib, but it’s the tip of the iceberg of what is a bloated and inefficient sector that hasn’t undergone public service reform in the way that everyone else has had to.”
The post of NUS president has traditionally served as a good stepping stone for Labour cabinet ministers. Does Streeting hope to follow in the footsteps of fellow student leaders like Charles Clarke, Jack Straw and Jim Murphy and become a Cabinet minister?
“I’m just spending my time finding my feet and learning the ropes,” he replies. “I’ve arrived here at the age of 32 with more experience professionally than lots of 32-year-olds would have. But at the same time, there’s so much to learn about this place and how it works and what makes a good MP.
“For the next five years I need to focus on being a good constituency MP. Beyond that, I’ve always said my dream job would be Education Secretary. But I think I’m some way off that. And actually the big challenge is making sure that there is a Labour Education Secretary in five years. I want us to turn this ship around in one term, and I want to play my part in doing that.”
STREETING ON… LABOUR IN 2020
“This talk of ‘oh, it’s going to take two terms’ – that’s not good enough. People want a Labour government sooner than that. There are plenty of disappointed people who put their faith in us at this election and we let them down. We need to get back into government sooner rather than later.”
STREETING ON… THE POLITICAL CLASS
“I think the growth of the professional political class is causing real difficulty. We need to broaden out our candidates, we need to broaden out our leadership team and we need to make sure that we’ve got people from all backgrounds reflecting the country that we want to represent.”
STREETING ON… LEN MCCLUSKEY
“The Labour party needs to stop debating the union link through the prism of Len McCluskey. He is one leader of one trade union. And there are many, many, many more voices in the movement. They may not be as prominent as Len McCluskey’s, but they deserve to be heard as well.”