Labour heavyweight Emily Thornberry warns Hitchin and Harpenden Conservatives parachuting candidate from outside area to fight Peter Lilley’s seat means Tories face ‘standing start’ in General Election campaign
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It is standing room only. A politician is holding court to a packed room. A line of people snakes out of the building and onto to the pavement outside trying to catch a snippet of her speech.
The speaker is bullish, even if she is preaching to the converted.
But Emily Thornberry – one of Labour’s powerhouses as Shadow Foreign Secretary and tipped for the top by many – is taking nothing for granted.
She has briefly left her constituency of Islington South and Finsbury to travel the 30 miles north to the marginal seat of Stevenage to aid her party colleague and PPC for the town, Sharon Taylor, in her bid to take the seat in the forthcoming General Election.
But she also slams the Hitchin and Harpenden Conservatives for ‘parachuting’ in three candidates to fight Peter Lilley’s seat who have no links to the area.
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Ever the consummate politician, Ms Thornberry shows her understanding that the area you are campaigning in is vital. She says: “What people need everywhere including Hitchin and Harpenden is local champions.
“They need people who understand the area. Who speak like local people speak, who understand the concerns of local people – so obviously it’s a major advantage to come from the community.
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“I’m not saying you can’t move into a community and learn about it, but why have a standing start? If you choose a candidate that’s local already then they already know.”
Mrs Thornberry visits the new town in North Herts to give a passionate and eloquent speech to the Stevenage party faithful warning of the dangers of a Tory government, before going on a walkabout in the Old Town to canvass support, not only for councillor Taylor, but for Labour candidates in today’s local elections.
Returning to the subject of today’s local election, Ms Taylor chips in with praise for local Labour candidates in nearby Hitchin, saying: “What is important is that people who run are fully aware of local issues. Judi Billing who is campaigning in Hitchin North is the most wonderful local champion, and Frank Radcliffe and all the other candidates today, as well as John Hayes as Hitchin and Harpenden’s PPC.”
Mrs Thornberry is in the mood for a fight – which is just as well as political scrapping is what Labour need to do if they are to win the seat from the incumbent Conservative Stephen McPartland – the Tory rising star who holds a slender majority of just under 5,000. The seat is high on Labour strategists’ list of winnable seats.
She walks purposely from the room to our interview outside the unprepossessing Stevenage Labour base at Popple Way near the picturesque Old Town – a far cry from the council housing and its accompanying social problems that make up large parts of the surrounding New Town.
Resplendent in a red jacket, but armed with a serious message, she speaks exclusively to the Comet.
Bearing in mind there is no love lost between her and PM Theresa May for lots of reasons – both professional and personal – it is no surprise she targets the Tory leader immediately.
“Theresa May has gone in saying she wants a blank cheque. She wants no opposition. She wants to do whatever she wants to do with our country when it comes to Brexit – and we say no.
“We say: ‘If you want to call a General Election that’s fine by us, bring it on. Because a General Election is holding you to account and what you have done.
“And what have you done? What are you going to do about the crisis in social care? How can it be that elderly people are waiting until lunchtime to be got out of bed because of cuts to local authorities – and therefore cuts to social care, which then puts local hospitals under pressure.
“We have to say enough is enough. We are one of the richest economies in the world, we can look after our old people.
“We should not be cutting back on police officers, we should not be giving tax cuts to the very richest in this country and ignoring the needs of the poorest.
“There is another way – a Labour way, and that’s why I’m here.”
Sharon Taylor, who is set to take on Mr McPartland in the contest for the Stevenage seat for a third time, backs it up with another criticism of the Tories – this time on a local angle.
“We shouldn’t have all six of our secondary school heads in Stevenage having to write to the government about funding cuts because they’re worried about their school. It’s a disgrace,” she says.
She is referring to the fact six local school heads took the drastic step of putting their names to an open letter to the government opposing cuts – a story which the Comet ran as a front page with the headline ‘Help Us Help Your Children’.
The Shadow Foreign Secretary immediately picks up the baton: “It’s a real worry in this day and age. Labour is based on the idea that everyone should have an equal chance. It is vital people have a proper education and the idea of cuts is worrying.
“We should be investing in our kids and investing in our teachers so that they have a proper chance in the world today.”
Ms Thornberry who has a majority of 12,708 in her seat of Islington South and Finsbury will be one of two Labour front bench politicians who will be tasked with negotiating the thorny subject of Brexit with the European Union on behalf of the country – if – and it is a big if – they are elected on June 8.
Yet Stevenage was one of the many towns across the land that voted with a resounding majority to ‘Leave’ in last year’s fractious EU referendum. The town voted for Brexit by 27,126 to 18,659 on a whopping turnout of 73.7 per cent – nearly seven per cent higher than the number who turned out to vote in the 2015 General Election.
And to win the seat for Labour the party has to appeal to those who voted Brexit.
Mrs Thornberry, who was also Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union from July to October last year, explained: “The point is everyone has made a decision. Labour campaigned for us to Remain – but we do what we’re told. The public wants us to leave Europe.
“We want a strong Brexit. Which means the best deal for our country. What it does not mean is standing on the steps of Number 10 Downing Street and stamping your feet and saying ‘I want, I want, I want - you lot are conspiring against us’.
“What extraordinary behaviour. Once you say these things you can’t unsay them. We have to come to a deal with European Union.
“It means we have to be saying to them: ‘Look we have a problem, we can offer you a solution. Labour understands this’.
“Whether you voted to Remain or Leave you did not vote to be poorer or vote to lose your jobs.
“Whatever deal we have has to help our economy first and foremost.
“We are talking about the future of our children and our grandchildren. PM’s should not be throwing tantrums and think that is in some way in the interests of our country – because it’s not.”
The thorny subject of her boss Jeremy Corbyn, and his leadership raises its head. An issue which is continually quoted by those on the doorstep as one of the reasons for many turning away from Labour.
She bats the question away, as she has done numerous times since he became leader, saying as if having learnt it by rote: “We’re a team. Jeremy is a good and decent man who understands we work in teams. If we win the election then the people who will be negotiating Brexit for us will be Keir Starmer and me. Because Jeremy will have to do a whole load of jobs.
“Theresa May’s problem is that she thinks she can cover everything herself. She’s not doing well – she’s failing.”
And what does she think of her erstwhile colleague and Shadow Home Secretary, Dianne Abbot’s car-crash interview on police numbers.
A knowing smile briefly creeps across her lips.
“Diane made a mistake. We’re only people. It’s hard. The fact is, do people want a government that cuts Capital Gains Tax for the very richest – and doesn’t spend money on police officers?
“We have had 20,000 police officers cut.
“We will reinstate them. We will be giving back the CGT and using the money to spend on police officers.”
As the interview draws to a close I ask Emily if she has a message for voters.
She turns and says with feeling: “It is vitally important people come out and vote Labour today and in the General Election.
“Stevenage is one of the places that holds the key to us getting back into power.”
If this important marginal seat stays true to form on June 8, the televised result of the town’s count will be essential viewing for those who wish to understand the outcome of this tightly contested General Election.