Wes Streeting: "You don’t offer an olive branch whilst holding a baseball bat"
Wes Streeting has been among the Labour leaderships’ strongest critics. After the general election, he says Jeremy Corbyn deserves the respect of all wings of his party – but still has work to do to convince the public that he can make the final step into government
Wes Streeting bumped into Jeremy Corbyn on the escalator at Portcullis House minutes after the first meeting of Labour MPs of the 2017 parliament.
The Ilford North MP, whose majority had soared from three figures to more than 9,600 just days earlier, joked that Corbyn might want to “give the Tories a rest” after the Conservatives’ devastatingly poor general election that had seen them only return a minority government having once been 21 points up in the polls.
Corbyn turned to the former National Union of Students president and said: “No, this is when we go after them and force another election.”
“He’s got fire in his belly,” says Streeting, 34. “He’s clearly up for it, I don’t think I’ve seen him quite so driven and hungry for another election.”
Streeting has been one of Corbyn’s most outspoken critics since the veteran left-winger seized the Labour leadership in 2015. Streeting further confirmed his standing as the great young hope of the right wing of the party when none other than Blairite favourite David Miliband handed out leaflets at school gates in his constituency on polling day last month.
Streeting concedes Labour’s civil war among its parliamentarians must end following a campaign that saw Corbyn’s reputation soar as a credible prime minister-in-waiting. He says: “For Jeremy Corbyn’s critics in the Labour Party - and I count myself among them - I think there’s an acknowledgement that he has not only won two leadership elections, but he confounded expectations with the gains that we made at this general election. I think by any fair and reasonable assessment has earned the right to lead the Labour party.”
Many on the left of the party sneer at how so many former critics now speak so approvingly of a leader they have openly schemed against.
Streeting is conciliatory, but does not shy away from continued opposition to many of Corbyn’s policies and core supporters. While he says he would “think about” any offer to join the front bench, Streeting laughs that he “does not expect” to be asked. He also has not courted a role in the top team like other so-called ‘moderates’ in recent weeks.
Chris Williamson, a close confidant of Corbyn who retook Derby North this time around, has said the likes of Streeting should be “down on their bended knees apologising… not just to Jeremy but the entire Labour movement”. Another Corbyn ally, party chairman Ian Lavery, has raised the spectre of deselections of disloyal MPs, warning Labour might be “too broad a church”.
Streeting shakes his head, pointing out the party “needs both wings to fly”. He adds: “One of the things we need to do to build a greater sense of unity is to drop all this nonsense about deselections, rule changes and sacking party staff. We have a simple choice: do we want to spend this parliament fighting the Tories or fighting among ourselves? You don’t offer an olive branch whilst holding a baseball bat.”
Streeting says the Labour manifesto painted in “primary colours… with hope and optimism”, including investment in public services. He believes this contrasted perfectly with the Conservatives’ document, which infamously backfired with harsh-sounding plans on social care for the elderly.
“As one Labour Party member put it to me recently, Theresa May sounded a bit like the white witch from the chronicles of Narnia, promising always winter but never Christmas,” says Streeting. “Theresa May ran a presidential election campaign. Clearly, someone in Tory high command forgot that in order to run a personality-based campaign you need a candidate with a personality.”
Streeting’s warning for his own leadership is the Conservatives will not make the same mistakes twice. He thinks they will not want to face a Labour that is now six points up in the polls anytime soon and will replace May before they do finally call another election.
Labour’s leadership cannot adopt a “one more heave approach”, he says, and move further to the left. Streeting wants the manifesto to be “refined” and address public concerns that it contained what the Conservatives claimed was a £58bn “black hole” in the public finances.
“We’ve got to convince the public that Labour can be trusted with the economy,” says Streeting, who sat on the Treasury select committee during the last parliament. “We can’t just rely on the Tories being bad at running the economy, we’ve got to show that we would be demonstrably better and trusted with the money.
“The fact is that the Labour Party coming into this parliament needs the right combination of celebration and humility. Celebration because we did better than expected – and we’ve got lots of new MPs here and they are rightly smiling from ear-to-ear off the back of their achievements – but we also need some humility. We did just lose a general election and, arguably, it was a general election we could and should have won given the shambles of the Tories.
“If we build on the strengths of the last campaign and address our vulnerabilities then there’s no reason we can’t win the next general election.”
One potential weakness, he thinks, is Labour ruling out membership of the single market on Brexit. Streeting accepts “the politics is difficult” for the party, given many of its MPs represent constituencies that voted to leave the European Union. Those voters were particularly angry over immigration from the freedom of movement principle that underpins the single market.
“I take the old-fashioned view that the right policy is the right politics and we’ve got to put the national interest first,” he says. “If we get this wrong, the country’s going to be saddled with a bad and hard Brexit for many decades to come and that is not in the best interests of the people the Labour party was founded to protect.”
Streeting often cites the historical importance of Labour, arguing it is the “only vehicle for social change” in the UK. This is why he opposes the notion of forming a new centrist party and laughs off left wing jibes that he should join the Conservatives.
Perhaps the biggest social change the party could signify is electing an LGBT leader. Streeting is openly gay – he once said he’d kiss Tony Blair in a radio dare of “snog, marry, avoid” - and says there will be an LGBT prime minister “within my lifetime”.
“I think being gay isn’t a barrier to the highest office any more. That’s not to say there aren’t still some attitudes that we need to challenge, but I think Britain is ready for a gay prime minister.”
Streeting would need that Blairite wing to fly once more if he was to be that LGBT prime minister: he is 80-1 with Paddy Power to become Labour’s next leader.
But there are plenty of ‘moderates’ who have noted Streeting’s potential, particularly now he holds a comfortable majority.
And, wryly, they note that one Jeremy Corbyn once represented a faction that was viewed as long since dead, only to take the crown.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.