This week: Emily Thornberry MP
Why she matters: Emily Thornberry was first elected the MP for Islington South and Finsbury in 2005 and has been shadow foreign secretary since 2016. Formerly a lawyer, she has a long interest in health and social care. She sat on the bill committee for the Health and Social Care Act 2012 and has also been a shadow social care minister. She was the first Labour MP to announce her candidacy for the party’s leadership following last year’s humbling election defeat.
Emily Thornberry was one of the best performers of the 2015-19 ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’ Labour project. Her relevance to the current party leadership contest is undeniable.
The Islington MP is a forensic and no-nonsense performer, delivering her broadsides with a rare panache and wit. She could offer her party the benefits of a first female leader, with significant experience and a proven track record of scoring points off the current prime minister when he was foreign secretary.
Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour went down to its worst defeat in a general election for many decades, losing seats it has held for over a century. Does Ms Thornberry think Labour’s decision to make the theoretical “sell off” of the NHS a central issue, instead of focussing on the service’s widespread NHS operational and financial crises, was a mistake?
She does not.
“We [the shadow cabinet] were all veterans of the campaign against the Health and Social Care Act, and the threat of privatisation from that, and [had] a fear that something fundamental was going to change in our NHS.
“For us in Labour, the NHS is an expression of our social politics and beliefs. We believe that the public agree with us on it. In the end, British people want to look after one another, and if they hit hard times or crises, they want a system there that looks after everyone in that situation. We felt that was under threat. When we heard about the trade discussion meetings with the US negotiators, we were very alarmed indeed.
“And don’t forget, Donald Trump said ‘the NHS is on the table’ [when first discussing a] trade deal [with the UK]. That was a frightening prospect, and we had to resist it.”
Instead the shadow foreign secretary blames the defeat on Labour’s decision to back a general election which was always going to be dominated by Brexit, trust issues with the party’s leadership and an overstuffed manifesto which convinced few and confused many.
So, given the prospect of five years in opposition and a government promising to spend big on the NHS, how does Labour hold Boris Johnson to account on the NHS?
Ms Thornberry believes the government’s promises will soon appear as empty as Labour claimed during the campaign.
“They seem curiously determined to hang on to their assertion of ‘40 new hospitals’. If they hang on to that lie, part of our job is to expose it [as] just seven biggish refurbishments and money for new plans for the rest.
“We need to focus on important big issues like that and hold the government to account not for what they say but what they do — and crucially, always ask ‘is it making a difference in people’s real lives?’. People experience the NHS being under huge strain currently, and they definitely don’t want it to be.”
What should Labour’s health policy look like in 2025? I am given One Of Those Looks: “I’m not going to say now what it should be come 2025, but the NHS will always be safe with us.
“We created the NHS, we believe in it and we will make sure it can endure as something strong and stable, and worthy of the British people.
“What lies ahead now is five years of the Tories doing who knows what to the NHS and the British economy. So, we’ll listen to experts, and to the public and patients about how they want the NHS to develop.”
The collapse of social care will be one of the greatest challenges for the next Parliament. How will Ms Thornberry approach the problem?
“My own experience on social care was formed as shadow social care minister, and through having had two elderly parents whom I looked after till they died. I know the issues; I feel them in my bones.
“In Britain, there are those who understand and are true believers in social care — and those who do not know about it yet. I think it’s a national disgrace that elderly and disabled people are looked after in the cheapest way, and not got up and dressed and washed at regular intervals. If people really knew the extent of the chaos, they wouldn’t tolerate it.
“So, one priority of mine will be to talk more about social care. We know as our population ages and struggles that it will be women, women of my age, who take up the burden. And so, we need to think whether we want our daughters to spend decades dedicating their lives to looking after us, or to create a system where older people needing care can live with dignity and some help, care and love from their families. A system that also allows choices to be made, and not only out of a sense of duty or desperation. We need an independent system to assess people’s needs for care, and to look after them if they need it.”
What does she make of the government plans to legislate to force itself to increase NHS funding?
“It’s one of those things some clever adviser tells them to throw out there hoping it’ll resonate with the public, but I think the public will just laugh at them legislating to make themselves do what they’ve promised.
“Yet it’s also not funny; it hints at the Tories’ shift towards becoming a populist ‘People’s Party’. Having seen those sorts of nationalist/populist parties in action in Hungary and Poland, it’s hard to say they bolster healthy democratic pluralism. It also displays fundamental self-mistrust.”
Corbynism was welcomed/feared as a return to higher borrowing, nationalisations, greater state control and regulation: a set of 1970s political solutions. What can we expect from Thornberryism?
Thornberry refuses to accept the premise of this question. “I think Jeremy and John [McDonnell, shadow chancellor] wouldn’t mind me saying that we were really just proposing basic European social democratic politics.
“On the railways, the public don’t understand why we do not own our railways.
“When we’re asking for trade unions to have greater role in companies, and proposing cross-sectoral negotiations, this is what the Germans do; it’s hardly a throwback to the 1970s.”
As a country, Ms Thornberry contends: “We’ve drifted so far to the right, that any attempt to move back to the centre seems really radical. But it [the manifesto] was not that radical: we were just trying to put things right.”
A proud ‘girly swot’
It seems only polite to invite Ms Thornberry to set out her leadership pitch.
“The Labour Party has to ask itself a big question in this leadership election: who does Boris Johnson least want to see across the dispatch box every week? And frankly, it’s me. I shadowed him for two years when he was foreign secretary, and consistently got on top of him by being on top of the detail — a proud ‘girly swot’. I was also able to ask him about things he’d said, but to do it with a sense of humour, not being too pompous, but being steely on what the facts were and forcing him to answer tough, relevant questions.
“He can’t flirt with me, or make me giggle, and he knows it. He doesn’t know how to handle me, which is handy.”
If she becomes leader, who would Ms Thornberry choose as her shadow health secretary and why? She grins: “The best person! We need a shadow cabinet that reflects our country and United Kingdom. So, we need all communities represented around the table: people from all ethnic backgrounds, and a good gender mix.
“But most importantly, we need the best people there — to show that Labour is united, and whatever part of our tradition people come from, we agree on most things — and where we disagree, that’s nothing as compared to our differences with the Tory party.
“I’d want to have sufficient confidence to say to someone, ‘I think you’re the best in this area — go engage with the experts, hold the government to account, keep in touch with me, remain loyal! Engage with the stakeholder, get on and do it, come back and tell me what you’re up to — we’ll have the occasional review, but I will not micro-manage you.’
“I don’t think in the end that policymaking should be wonk-led: it should be MP-led, and under me, it will be.”
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