Mary Creagh and Emma Reynolds (Labour MPs) on Brexit and #MeToo
Interview with Mary Creagh
On her career
Yorkshire is an industrial manufacturing area in the North of England and I have been the MP there for 13 years. I have had a career which has spanned a backbencher in government and a Whip – in French, a fouet – which is what we used to have to do two hundred years ago to get the MPs out of the pubs and restaurants to make them go vote. I got some legislation through for the Department of Health and we banned the selling of cigarettes in vending machines. Then I went into Ed Miliband’s Shadow Cabinet. I spent three years looking after the environment and preventing the government from selling England’s forests, because they thought looking after them was too expensive. But we managed to turn that one around. That was my greatest campaign, it was fantastic. It was also a lesson for me about Parliament because we had a big debate in Parliament, and a massive vote on it, and I lost the vote. Everyone kept saying: “it’s so depressing, you just lost the vote”. But it’s not over, the vote isn’t the end. It’s politics, right? I thought: how much pain can we give the Conservatives? And the answer was: constant pain, front page news, every week, every day. One week later, they surrendered and we kept the forests!
We also had the horsemeat scandal. I know you like eating horse in France – us, not so much. My advice to you is that it’s not a food animal, it is not properly regulated and it contains all sorts of chemicals that you shouldn’t be eating. I looked into it: it can cause blood cancer, particularly amongst boys, who seem to be more susceptible.
In 2012 we went into another election, and I was Shadow Secretary of State for Transport. We had another election in 2015 and we lost; we then needed to have a new leader of the Labour Party and I stood. I was unsuccessful – it was a very interesting two weeks though – and Jeremy Corbyn took over. He’s a bit more left-wing than me. I stood down from the Shadow Cabinet and I was lucky enough to be elected Chair of the Environmental Audit Select Committee, where we have done reports into micro-plastics and single-use plastics – such as coffee cups, water bottles – in the ocean. We have also done reports into soil, we’ve done reports into Brexit, lots of reports into green growth and how we are going to decarbonise our economy, how we are going to create sustainable world for you all to live in and raise your family in confidence. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet and if the Greenland ice sheet melts quicker than we thought, Miami and New York will cease to exist as cities. And that is definitely within your lifetime – that’s definitely a possibility if we don’t get the Paris Climate Agreement sorted out.
Brexit is mass delusion, it’s a form of collective hysteria or madness. It has taken over and poisoned our country and it’s poisoned both political parties. It started off as a virus of the hard right of the Conservative Party: David Cameron thought he could keep them at bay but they forced him into promising a referendum, which he agreed to do because he thought he wouldn’t win the next election and therefore wouldn’t have to keep his promises. But he did win the next election, so he had to hold the referendum. Places like Wakefield have voted 63% to leave: old, industrial, blue-collar working class areas voted to leave, because unlike London they can’t afford coffee, unlike London they don’t have a global connected transport system. The train service in the North is such a disaster that the Heritage Railway is running trains from the North of England to the Lake districts. So volunteers are running trains instead of the train companies. That’s the disaster of privatisation.
I voted against triggering article 50 – the process by which Britain leaves. The Conservative Party doesn’t have any clue about how we’re going to leave, what their negotiating objectives are and I voted against that. That was a very big problem for me locally because my constituents voted to leave and expected me to respect their vote.
Two weeks later there was a General Election called and the Prime Minister said “Crush the saboteurs”. People like me, who were trying to stop Brexit from happening, argued that we had been growing our economy for forty years and we were really integrated in the single market. We argued that if we did this, we would become a lot poorer. The only question is: “how poor do you want to be?” Generally, when you’re in the middle of an election, you say to people that they will have more childcare, more trains, better schools, better hospitals… No politician has ever gone out on an election and said: “I’m going to make you poorer”. Because that doesn’t get you any votes. Yet somehow, that is the collective insanity that’s infected British politics. The only promise that the government has made is Brexit. They haven’t said it will make you poorer. And now we have Airbus, Siemens, Rolls Royce and BMW saying that they will make different investment decisions. The Conservatives are outraged because these businesses dare tell the truth and say what they’re going to do as a result of hard Brexit. We’re in a very difficult place. There are no political facts about the UK’s future relationship with the EU. Nothing exists, there is no reality. Our biggest summit with the European Council is taking place tomorrow. All the other leaders will be talking about important issues, such as immigration, Iran, Trump, tariffs, trade war, and we will be focused on Brexit. It’s not a great time to leave the EU, especially now, with Trump in the White House and his brave new world of "Make America Great Again"!
Populism is infecting all of our cultures. Just look at Russian propaganda, bots, fake news infecting social media, factories of trolls on Twitter working in St Petersburg and tweeting 17 million times about Brexit in the days before the Brexit vote. People think there are real people behind those tweets, but that's not the case: it’s psychological warfare against our country. It’s part of Russian cyber-attacks and hybrid warfare, the aim of which is to divide people up. The European Union is weak, the nation states are strong. We are infected by populism and Trump is the ultimate example of a “strong” leader: he believes there is no need to talk to Kim Jong-un about the details of denuclearisation, because they’ve shaken hands on it and because he’s a great guy, we can trust him. We are living in very extraordinary times.
Question: You said you voted against triggering article 50 whereas most people in your constituency voted for Brexit. Do you think the referendum is something democratic?
Answer: No. Clement Attlee, who is our great Labour post-war Prime Minister, said referenda are the tools of fascists and demagogues. And he’s right. We have parliamentary democracy in this country. People don’t want to be thinking about those things: they want to go to work, earn a living, buy a car, have a house, have a beer in the garden, watch football, go to yoga. They also want to be safe and have hospitals when they need it. They don’t want to be thinking about our relationship with a massive trading block. They say to me now that they’re sick of Brexit and that we should just get on with it. To which I reply: “It’s like being dead: we all know we’re going to die, but how soon do you want to be dead? How soon do you want the long, slow puncture of the British economy to start? Because that is what is about to happen.” It is great news for Macron and the French economy though. All of our industry will go to France, welcomed by Macron, who is undoing labour laws as fast as he can so that our industry can go over there.
I’m totally against referenda, but we’re going to need another one in order to undo this one. Now seems to be a sort of super-democratic moment, as opposed to a sub-democratic moment. The only way we can stop Brexit now is to have another referendum and say to people: “you didn’t know what Brexit was, you were told in 2016 there was no downside to Brexit, only upsides. You were told it would be a “frictionless trade” by the Prime Minister, but now she says it will be “as frictionless as possible”, which essentially means there will be “loads of friction”. Knowing what you know now, do you want Brexit to happen?” We have to hope people will see the light.
But there are two massive problems with another referendum: one, the Conservative Party. Two, the Labour Party.
The terms of the deal will be terrible, because Theresa May has trapped herself into a corner: we will have no customs union, no single market, no European Economic Area (EEA). They’re thinking about a customs partnership, the preferred model of which is called “maximum facilitation” (Max-fac). It’s going to cost us 20 billion pounds a year, which means that nothing will get exported anymore, and nothing will get imported either. Some of the worst case scenario analyses of Brexit say there will be no food in Scotland and Cornwall, down to the South East. The Same thing with petrol. If we don’t have a customs partnership, essentially flights will stop, food trade will stop, pharmaceutical industries will stop, trains will stop. The crisis will not only affect our country, but also the whole of Europe. But it will be less of a problem for you than it is for us.
Question: What do you think about #MeToo and sexism in Parliament?
Answer: I think the #MeToo movement is really exciting. I spoke out about my experiences of being sexually assaulted at my school, which was totally normal at my school. I was sexually assaulted when I was 8 years old, in the playground, and nine years old in the classroom. When I was seventeen years old, I was assaulted by my teacher. The first sexual assaults were boys, and then it was my teacher, an adult, who took me to his house and tried to kiss me. When I spoke out, it was on the front page, which surprised me because I didn’t think it was news: this has happened to every woman of our generation. I don’t know if it’s the same in France. I worked in Italy for a while and I was sexually assaulted on the train every single day. I’m fifty years old so that was normal for girls growing up forty years ago. Things are enormously better and it’s thanks to young people and great teachers. There’s a much better understanding of girls’ and women’s rights. However, in your country and in mine, we don’t have enough women in Parliament, and we don’t have enough women in the workplace at senior levels. I think it’s great that young women and women of my age are able to talk freely about things that in the past we were made to feel were our fault. It was shameful: somehow if we got drunk with a man and he sexually assaulted us, it was our fault. What happened with Harvey Weinstein and the destruction of his company shows other businesses that they can’t have this happen in their boardrooms or workplaces because it will kill their business. But as well as looking at those events linked to the relationship between men and women, we, as politicians, need to look at structural issues: how are we going to break down the barriers so that women who go to the Grandes Écoles and want to go to the highest level of government can do so? What structural barriers are we talking about? If you want to have a family, it will be your job to look after it, not your husband’s. How do you stop the barriers in your own head? The cultural barriers that say: “I can’t imagine women speaking in the House of Commons; I can’t imagine women running big companies.” Those cultural barriers are really hard to break down. I raised the issue with train drivers, because there aren’t enough women train drivers, and there was a massive backlash against me. 95% of train drivers are men. Why aren’t women doing it? Because there is no place for them to go and have a pee, there’s nowhere for them to have a shower, and men make sexist comments about them. They don’t see any women train drivers, so there are no women train drivers. The structural barriers are just as important as the cultural barriers. I think the #MeToo movement has a lot further to go. But I think it’s like a revolution, and revolutions have phases: we’ve passed through the decapitation phase, we’ve taken out some influential men, and now we settle down into our new relationship of liberté, égalité et sororité.
Question: We know the Brexit vote was won by the fear of immigration. What’s your opinion on immigration?
Answer: My dad came from Ireland and my mum came from Northern Ireland. She is British, and my dad was Irish. We’ve always had immigrants in this country: they came in the fifties from Ireland, in the sixties from the Caribbean (the Windrush generation), in the eighties we had the Uganda Asians. Each wave of immigrants has been a problem at the beginning and then they were integrated. It’s always a problem, and then everything settles down. But you’re absolutely right: immigration was the reason people voted for Brexit. People also voted for sovereignty, because they didn’t like Jacques Delors or Donald Tusk, or whoever it was telling them what to do, because they didn’t understand how the EU works. Immigration was indeed seen as a problem – particularly Polish and Eastern European immigration. We have over a million Eastern Europeans now working in the UK. There was a perception that they depriving people of their jobs.
The Tories chose austerity when they came to power. They cut everything: they cut schools, so people can’t get places for their children at school; they cut housing, so people can’t get on the housing ladder and they can’t get social housing; they cut the NHS, so you now have to wait two weeks to see a doctor. In people’s mind, that austerity, that reduction and shrinking of public services, was because the Polish immigrants got a house, and the Polish kids got into schools. So it became “blame the immigrants”, instead of Tory austerity and I think that’s a real shame. There are undoubtedly more things we could have done in the past and can do now to reduce people’s fears about immigration. But it’s very difficult in areas like Wakefield and Wolverhampton in the Midlands where people have not profited from the globalisation boom. When we talk about how much Brexit is going to cost, we need to bear in mind that we’ll lose all those good jobs in manufacturing (Airbus, Rolls Royce, Siemens). Financial services are all going to go to Paris. What are we going to be left with? The immigrants will actually go home; a lot have already gone home because of the devaluation of the pound, and more will go home if we have an economic shock. At the moment, there’s a front page headline in the Times: “Airbus Warns of Thousands of Job Losses?” and underneath, “Farmers Say: Nobody to Pick Our Fruit”. So we lose our aerospace jobs, but we can all go pick strawberries for 6.75£ or 7.50£ an hour. That is not the future we want for our country. We have been balancing this difficult line of constituents who have voted for Brexit and MPs who do not want Brexit and how we square that difficult circle.
Interview with Emma Reynolds
I am a Labour MP for Wolverhampton, which is in the Midlands, near Birmingham. Like Mary [Creagh], my constituency voted around 62% for Leave. I campaigned to remain in the EU – not very successfully – in my constituency. I am very sad, and I was also very angry at the time, about the Leave vote because a lot of lies were told and a lot of promises were made by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove and others. None of those promises are being kept and now Theresa May, who voted Remain, is presiding over Brexit and is being pressured by maybe 40 conservative MPs who are Brexiteer ideologues: they want a hard Brexit at all cost. They don’t care about jobs; they just care about their ideology. The government is actually using the argument of “Brexit at all cost” to change immigration rules and they’re putting it above jobs and the economy. That’s the kind of Brexit they are going for. Theresa May is finding it difficult to bring her Cabinet together, whereas the EU has 27 member states and 3 institutions (European Parliament, European Commission, and the Council): they don’t usually get on but for the time being, they seem to be doing a much better job of getting an agreement between 27 member states, 3 European Institutions than the PM is getting her Cabinet and her government in the same place.
Question: I understand you’re not sure about the attraction of Paris for businesses. Do you think businesses will stay in London or go somewhere else in Europe?
Answer: I think some jobs will go to Paris, Frankfurt, and Dublin maybe – and already have. I know that banks and insurance companies need the EU passport to trade in their services around the EU; they need to be in an EU country and they have to plan in advance for the next two years. We probably have lost some jobs but even though I’m not a fan of Brexit, I don’t think we’re going to lose the whole City. London has strengths beyond being in the EU and it may be that over time, we’ll lose a lot more jobs but I think in the first few years, the City will continue to remain an important financial centre. We’ve got a great time zone, we’ve got great legal services and professional services to underpin the financial sector. London has other strengths for financial services that are not necessarily all related to whether we remain in the EU or not. I’m not being complacent; I’d rather we were not leaving the EU, but we need to be realistic as well. And it’s not just about London, because our banking sector is strong in Edinburgh and Leeds, and in other parts of the UK.
Question: Prince Harry said he doesn’t recognise his country any more. Do you agree with him?
Answer: The Brexit vote highlighted tensions, divisions and discontent in my own constituency, in Mary’s and in other parts of the UK that were already there. It was not a cause, but a symptom of people’s unhappiness. I think France has been much more successful at spreading opportunities further than Paris; you have other big successful cities, such as Lyon, with their own traditions and identity. The UK is the most regionally unequal country in the OECD and most of the wealth creation and the really rich people are here in London – which is not to say there isn’t poverty in London. But the jobs and the wealth are concentrated in London and the South East of England. As a result, a lot of places in the West Midlands, the Midlands and the North feel as if they have been overlooked and everything goes to London. One of the reasons for the Brexit vote is that people felt that the economy wasn’t really working for them. If you look at the vote in London, where people largely feel that they have opportunities, the Remain vote was very high. Birmingham was very 50-50, Newcastle was marginally Remain, but the smaller towns and cities like Wolverhampton and Sunderland voted for Brexit, even though they have manufacturing. Nissan has a massive car factory in Sunderland and Brexit isn’t in the company’s interest. Lots of people who worked at Nissan and lots of people in the area voted for Brexit. There is this sense that people aren’t doing well in the Midlands and in the North and that created this feeling that we ought to change things and that somehow either immigration or the EU was the problem, or both of these things.
I don’t know what the context of Prince Harry’s remark was but we have had a very divisive campaign around the referendum and that division continues. If I stand up in Parliament and say that I am worried about jobs and manufacturing as well as the car industry and the aerospace sector – both of which create job in my constituency –, people send me messages on Facebook or Twitter saying that I am denying the will of the people. We get this a lot. Anytime you say anything about people’s concerns, it’s as if you’re trying to subvert democracy. On the Tory side, some of the leading Remain voices have had death threats. There is a lot of division and a lot of abusive language and threatening behaviour. As you probably know, two years ago, on June 16th 2016, my colleague Jo Cox was murdered by somebody on the far right because of the views she had expressed about the referendum and wanting to remain in the EU. Perhaps that was what Prince Harry meant when he said he didn’t recognize his country. That was very, very shocking. This was a different kind of terrorism: this is right-wing extremist terrorism. People think terrorism is all one flavour, but it’s not.
Question: You were talking about divisions; it seems that Britain is introducing new divides within the traditional British parties. Within the last two years in France, we’ve lost two of our main political parties: do you think this might also happen in Britain because of Brexit?
Answer: My husband would say “Yes please”, but I am not so sure. He wants to us to go and set up a new political party, and I obviously think there is a big gap in the centre. The Conservative Party has become much more right-wing and the Labour Party has become much more left-wing, and there is this big gap in the centre. I think it is unlikely for the time being that that will happen. But it’s certainly the case that the Conservative Party is divided on Brexit, and we in the Labour Party are also divided, because it’s frankly difficult as members of Parliament to work out what is the best thing to do. I think Brexit will happen and I have not told my constituents that I think we shouldn’t leave, because I think we will leave. The question is: how? But that in itself is divisive, so we’ve had votes on how to leave, how we should leave, whether we should stay in the single market or not, and that has divided the Labour Party and the Conservative Party. In a presidential system, it is easier because it is all about the figurehead. In France you have your parliamentary elections right after the presidential election. What’s remarkable about Macron is that not only did he win, but his party did very well in the parliamentary elections. In our elections, it’s all about Parliament. The person who becomes Prime Minister is the leader of the party that is in majority. Last year, Theresa May had a majority, which she had inherited from David Cameron, but she decided that she was so far ahead in the opinion polls that she wanted a bigger majority so she held a General election. She was very poor at campaigning and Jeremy Corbyn was much better than anybody thought he would be. She didn’t do very well in the election and she lost seats. Now the only way she can rule is to take ten MPs from the Democratic Unionist Party, which is a right-wing pro-Brexit party in Northern Ireland. That’s the only way she can govern.
Labour has a brand that’s a hundred years old and we still have people vote Labour even if we don't always agree with our leader, and people will still vote for the Conservative Party even if they don't always agree with their leader: we still have party loyalty, regardless of policies or leaders. I am not sure we can break through that.
Question: Do you feel the Commonwealth might gain more importance due to Brexit?
Answer: This is the big claim of the Brexiteers, that we’re no longer going to trade with our neighbours and we’re going to trade with the Commonwealth instead and that’s going to make up for any trade loss with the EU. I don’t believe it. If we have a free trade deal with Australia and New Zealand, how much would that increase our GDP? Very little. Today we’re discussing being in a trade deal with Canada, which is a great thing, but compared to the value of EU GDP, it’s minuscule. It’s progress, but it’s not going to replace a trade we might lose with the rest of the EU. The EU has tried to negotiate a trade deal with India but they are hard-nose negotiators, they want visas, they hold back because of Brexit and immigration. In order to get a free trade deal with India, which would be worthwhile because of the historic links and because India is a growing economy, the Brexiteers are going to have to go against what they were saying about immigration and grant lots of visas for Indian workers, professionals and others to come to the UK. I’m not against that, by the way, but that’s not an easy thing to do and again, even if we had the best trade deal with India, I don’t think that would make up for the loss of trade if we leave the Customs Union and the single market in the EU. I think in trade, geography matters.
Question: You mentioned the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the alliance with the Conservatives: we have been following, with the students, the abortion referendum in Ireland and we were wondering if there would be a referendum or at least a parliamentary debate to have the same rights in Northern Ireland? It seems difficult because the DUP is opposed to abortion.
Answer: I have a colleague, Stella Creasy, who has been pushing the government on this because in this Parliament, we make legislation for the whole of the country, and Northern Ireland is part of our country. But because of some weird agreement, abortion is illegal there, even in cases of rape or if there’s a problem with the embryo. We are trying to remove that bizarre agreement that led Northern Ireland to be in a totally different position than the rest of the UK, to the extent that women in Northern Ireland who want an abortion have been travelling to England or Wales to have an abortion. Now they’re travelling to the Republic of Ireland because it’s been legalised there. I’m really impressed with the social progress in Ireland because it’s a very Catholic country and it’s always been less ready to move with these social reforms, like gay marriage. We have done these things before them but they are really catching up. They had a referendum in 2015 on gay marriage and that was won very decisively. Northern Ireland looks even more isolated now: not only from the rest of the UK but also from the Republic which is moving in a socially progressive direction. I hope we will solve that soon. But the problem is that Theresa May doesn’t want to upset the DUP MPs because she needs them for her majority.
Question: What is the atmosphere between the Shadow Cabinet and the current government? In France, the MPs sometimes look like kids shouting at each other; does that also happen in the UK?
Answer: Even more, I would say. Your Parliament, if I’m correct, is set in a semi-circle. The layout of our Parliament is meant for fighting! It’s designed to foment conflict. We shout at each other, it’s ridiculous. The whole culture of the place is in favour of heckling. The Speaker, who is a kind of referee, is always trying to get people to stop shouting. But some people do like shouting. It’s one of the few Parliaments to be set up like that, rather than in a semi-circle. There was a fire and they could have rebuilt it to be bigger, to accommodate the growing number of MPs, but they deliberately built it to the same size so that it wouldn’t feel empty. If everybody is in the Chamber, some people have to stand, there is not enough room for everybody.
Question: Could you tell us about the ongoing debate about criminalising upskirting?
Answer: In our Parliament, every Friday, we have Private Member’s Bills and essentially, there is a ballot every year, and you put your name in, like a raffle. I could be drawn top, and if I’m number one in this ballot, it means that my bill will be considered first on the first Friday in the year that this happens. If I can get a majority, then I could make something law. One MP chose this Private Member’s Bill which would make it illegal for somebody to take a photo up your skirt and make it a criminal act. The key thing is that she had gained the support of the government: if you get the support of the government, it’s likely that your draft law will become a real piece of legislation. But a Conservative MP, Christopher Chope, objected and stopped this draft law becoming law. This was very badly seen because he stopped the Private Member’s Bill coming through, even though it was supported by his own party. When the government came back last week, they said they would make it law anyway and they acknowledged that there was a big support for this measure. I hope this makes him and the other Tory MPs who opposed the bill – all men, by the way – think twice about destroying Private Member’s Bills on something like this.
Question: We were talking about the #MeToo movement with Mary Creagh earlier, and we’ve read the article she has published in The Guardian dealing with this incident in Parliament when Philipp Hammond asked her to stop being hysterical. What’s your opinion on this? Do you think there’s a lot of ongoing discrimination in British politics?
Answer: Yes, and I think there’s a lot of discrimination ongoing in your politics too. Sexism is alive and kicking; when I was your age, I didn’t think so. I had opportunities and I went to one of the best universities. I had a baby last year, and some people told me that I should have stood down from being an MP. Mary is being called ‘hysterical’, other female colleagues have been called other things that are pretty sexist. I’m afraid women are still discriminated against, very much so. And it’s going to take a long time to change it. I think we all are making progress, but it’s engraved. People say these things and they don’t realise they’re being sexist. There’s a lot of pregnancy discrimination. Has anyone seen the story about Serena Williams? They’re not going to let her go into the first round at Wimbledon, she’ll have to play all these smaller matches before because she’s just had a baby. If her partner had been the tennis player, he wouldn’t be in this situation. And if my husband had been the MP, people wouldn’t have said “you just had a baby, why don’t you step down?” Sexism is indeed alive and kicking, unfortunately.
Question: Do you think the #MeToo movement has helped move things forward?
Answer: Yes! I’m lucky in that in all the time I have been an MP – it’s been eight years now, I was elected in 2010 – I’ve experienced sexism, but I’ve never experienced harassment at work. It happens to MPs, but it also happens to assistants who work for MPs, because of the power imbalance. There has obviously been a lot of bullying and harassment in Parliament and in other sectors. It’s still absolutely right to keep shining a light on that and to empower people who have suffered abuse to come forward. So it is definitely a good thing.
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"Mary Creagh and Emma Reynolds (Labour MPs) on Brexit and #MeToo", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), septembre 2018. Consulté le 04/12/2023. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/domaine-britannique/mary-creagh-and-emma-reynolds-on-brexit-and-metoo