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Lucy Powell interview: 'The Tories were found to be on the wrong side of modern Britain'

Lucy Powell (Michael Garnett)

10 min read

Amid a Tory leadership race and a great British summer of sport, shadow digital, culture, media and sport secretary Lucy Powell talks to Sienna Rodgers about politics and play

A weakened Prime Minister is being booted out of Downing Street to make way for a new Conservative leader who will hope to represent a fresh start. But Lucy Powell, Labour’s shadow digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS) secretary, is not worried about the departure of Boris Johnson – in fact, she believes it will help the opposition.

“Boris in his heyday was a very formidable campaigner who was able to reach parts of the country that other Conservatives haven’t and wouldn’t be able to reach,” Powell says. “What’s likely to come next is probably going to give Labour a bigger opportunity to reach back into the so-called ‘Red Wall’ voters who on the economy are much more interventionist.”

They’re likely to elect somebody who’s led a very well-off life

The Labour front bencher claims not to fear any of the Conservative leadership candidates – although she thinks Defence Secretary Ben Wallace could have been a threat. As a proud Mancunian who reckons she knows northerners well, she says neither fiscal conservatism nor tax-cutting economics will appeal to voters wooed for the first time by the Tories in 2019.

“Their voter coalition is actually very split when it comes to the economy. They’ve got their traditional base – which is where most of their members are – who want low taxes, a small state, everyone left to their own devices, the winner-takes-all approach. And they’ve got their new voters, many of whom are in the North and the Midlands, who went with them on Brexit but, on the economy, do want to see a big realignment.” The contenders to succeed Johnson “don’t seem interested in that part of their voter coalition”, she adds.

Isn’t the diversity across the Conservatives’ field of candidates embarrassing for Labour, given the party of the left has consistently picked male and pale leaders? “Well, I disagree. They’re likely to elect somebody who’s led a very well-off life, who is incredibly well-off and not leading the life that most of my constituents – or most of their own constituents, frankly – are leading,” Powell replies.

“Let’s see who they pick in the end. But if you are incredibly wealthy, super, super wealthy... can you really understand what it’s like to not top up your electricity meter, your gas heater, or not be able to go to the shops and buy enough food to feed your children, or what it’s like when bills go up even £100 a month and the impact that can have on some people’s lives? Can you really relate to that? I don’t think so.”

One person who does not fit the mould of city-banker-turned-Conservative-politician is Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, a former nurse and Liverpudlian who has been a faithful ally to Johnson but criticised the “posh boys” of her own party. What does Powell make of her opposite number? “She’s been the most uber loyalist of loyalists – that’s clearly affected her judgment at times,” Powell says, pointing to the prioritisation of policies such as privatising Channel Four. “She’s not across the detail a lot of the time and makes lots of well-known mistakes.”

Yet Powell also praises Dorries for increasing the profile of their brief. “She’s definitely not your stereotypical politician. She’s come in with an agenda and tried to make that agenda happen. But I think she’s taken on too much. She’s not been questioning enough of what’s been asked of her.”

Dorries has been mocked at times for her loyalty to the Prime Minister, with photos of her admiring looks on the government front bench shared widely on social media. There are no such memes of Powell gazing at her leader, Keir Starmer, adoringly. “I’m very loyal to Keir, too. But I think loyalty has to come with a certain degree of frankness and honesty as well, doesn’t it?” she says. “I’m not trying to go after his job or anything and I really, really want him to succeed, but you can at times have frank conversations.”

Does that mean she has delivered tough words to Starmer on occasion? “No, I wouldn’t describe them as tough. But we have an honest relationship,” Powell replies. “Keir is very, very receptive. He’s very open – perhaps too open, sometimes. Some people use that against him and tell journalists things they shouldn’t be telling them.”

When Starmer appointed Powell to her DCMS role in November, the move came as a surprise: she had been in charge of housing for only six months and was clearly enjoying the post. “I was very surprised to be moved so quickly. And it wasn’t really a job I’d ever thought of for myself,” she admits.

“But very quickly I got my feet under the table. It’s a massive, massive department – that’s the main thing I’ve found. And because Nadine was determined to get quite a few things out the door, there’s a lot of legislation.” From online safety, big tech and broadband to creative industries, charities, youth and the Queen’s Jubilee, there has been plenty to get to grips with quickly.

Compared to some of her colleagues in the shadow cabinet, designed to be “sensible” – critics might say boring – in Starmer’s image, Powell comes across as an easy-going, fun-loving politician. She went to Glastonbury Festival this year: “I’m now the shadow culture secretary. One has to go to Glastonbury, doesn’t one?” Maybe, but this was her 20th year at the festival, having first attended in 1993.

“My Glastonbury experience has very much evolved from being an 18-year-old getting in with no ticket, as most people did those days, turning up with just a tiny tent and a sleeping bag, to now very much doing it as an older lady who needs her facilities,” Powell says. Asked whether she stayed professional this year or went and got drunk, she replies with a grin: “Bit of both.” She also has strong opinions on ITV’s trashy reality TV show, Love Island, including which couple should win and which contestants are too “wet”.

Powell has the culture side of her brief covered, but is she sporty? “Am I sporty?” she repeats. A pause. “I’m into sport.” She goes to see Manchester City play football and watches other sports on TV, but is more of a spectator than a participant – though has signed up for the new parliamentary netball team. 

Regardless of her sporty credentials, or lack thereof, the Labour front bencher is keen to talk about the great British summer of sport – Wimbledon, the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, the Women’s Euros hosted by England and the 10th anniversary of the London Olympics – and how all these events present an opportunity she believes is at risk of being squandered. 

“These are moments that don’t come around very often – they really are a point to galvanise and re-engage people, especially after the pandemic, where we’ve seen activity and sport engagement levels fall off a cliff. The government’s record on that is pretty poor, to be honest. They didn’t capitalise on the Olympic legacy in the way they should have done. Participation was down three years after the Olympics, by quite a bit, which is a real travesty.” 

According to Powell, Covid has made the mission to reverse this trend all the more urgent. “We’re going to have a massive crisis coming up the track unless the government really does now focus on how we can ensure a sporting and wellbeing legacy from the opportunities that this summer brings.”

“Bring it on – whoever is the next leader and prime minister”

She is also critical of delays in implementing football reforms promised by ministers. “The regulation of football is just another example of how the government aren’t really prepared to take on some of the tough issues that are necessary,” she says. “They did the Tracey Crouch review. We don’t need another white paper. 

“We’ve had a formal government review, we’ve had select committee reports, we’ve had a lot of work gone into that. And now – to use a footballing metaphor – to kick the ball into the long grass at this stage? It was a sign of weakness. They didn’t want to take on some of the vested interests to make that happen. It will be our lower league football clubs that will pay the heaviest price for that.”

Many of the English Football League (EFL) clubs most in danger of collapse are in “Red Wall” towns – like Bury FC, which went into administration two years ago. “These are the hearts of their community. They’re not just about football. They’re about a place, a sense of purpose and belonging that people get from their football club,” Powell says. Here, Labour spies a chance to speak directly to voters in marginal seats where football means so much. “The politics of football and the football of politics is now front and centre because of where a lot of the EFL clubs are situated, and they are very big political issues when they are under threat or being precariously run.”

Powell is baffled as to why the government has not introduced an independent football regulator when there is such broad cross-party support for the move. She also believes Conservatives badly misread the country’s mood when some MPs criticised players for taking the knee in protest against racism. “Your one from Ashfield”, she says referring to Tory MP Lee Anderson, was “left looking like a right royal idiot at the end of the Euro finals last year”.

“The Tories were found to be on the wrong side of modern Britain,” Powell declares. “The vast majority of people in this country are live and let live, love and let love; are tolerant and open. We’re not going to be drawn into these false divide issues just because that’s the ground on which the Conservatives want to try and fight the next election.”

The other big conversation in sport is around trans inclusion. Powell maintains that a nuanced position can be taken without shying away from the subject. “Inclusion should come first. But in the case of sport, you’ve also got to respect fair competition, you’ve got to respect safety issues, and in some sports those issues are more to the fore and more paramount than issues around inclusion.” Powell suggests that inclusion may not suit cycling or swimming but a “different conclusion” could be reached for snooker and equestrian sports.

Powell’s overarching argument is that the Tories have distastefully sought to stoke divisions while shunning real opportunities to improve lives through sport, showing that they don’t understand modern Britain. This feeds into a broader narrative by Labour: that Starmer’s party is in fact the genuinely patriotic one. 

“I’ve been talking about Labour’s view on patriotism and why we’re the party that believes in Britain’s future and Britain’s institutions and British values. Keir has been making that case himself as well. Maybe now we’ll get a little bit more of a hearing,” Powell says. “Bring it on – whoever is the next leader and prime minister.”

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