Cat Smith: The EU referendum is where Labour can really gel together

Written by David Singleton on 15 February 2016 in Interview
Interview
The equalities minister and close ally of Jeremy Corbyn discusses how to re-unite Labour’s warring tribes and why nobody should expect miracles in the local elections.

As one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most trusted lieutenants, Cat Smith has no qualms about telling the Labour leader a few home truths.

The MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood was a key cog in the Corbyn campaign team and an early voice pushing for the left wing leadership hopeful to smarten up his appearance. She now sits on the front bench as shadow minister for women & equalities and is often deployed to fight the Corbynite corner on the airwaves. But Smith still finds time to keep an eye on her leader’s sartorial endeavours.

“If Jeremy’s tie is a bit skew-whiff I don’t hesitate to point that out,” she smiles. “Having worked in his office previously, I think that we are both very honest with each other. I’m probably more in a position to say that than some other people might be.”

Some on the right may wish to characterise their left wing opponents as humourless ideologues, but the sprightly Smith doesn’t quite fit the mould. The 30-year-old MP is due to marry Ben Soffa, the tech guru who is said to have worked wonders on the Corbyn leadership campaign and is now Labour’s head of digital.

Are they the first ever Corbynite power couple? Amused by the question, Smith bats it off cheerfully: “Oh God no! Well I’ve never thought about it that way anyway!”

She adds that before the leadership election, the pair were planning to set up home in Lancaster, from where Soffa would run his own business. “Jeremy winning the leadership election has thrown that off kilter somewhat,” she laughs.

Smith is more sanguine about the challenges facing Corbyn’s leadership over the next few years. It would be foolish to pretend that everyone in the Parliamentary Labour Party is getting along splendidly and Smith does not try to do so. Yet she is confident that the Blairites will eventually get over their loss.

“It’s been a shock for a lot of people,” she says of the Corbyn takeover. “If you thought the way to become leader of the Labour party was to follow a very defined route, then all of a sudden Jeremy Corbyn winning the leadership election on the route you’re not meant to take - it tips it all on its head, doesn’t it.

“There’s going to be almost a grieving process that people go through before they can reach acceptance and realise that the main thing the Labour party has to do is hold this government to account and win the next election. And we will win that election by pulling together…. And that has to involve a certain level of mutual respect on both sides.”

But where is the common ground? Smith suggests that the impending referendum on the European Union could be something of a magic bullet, with the ‘Labour In For Britain’ campaign led by Alan Johnson acting as the perfect vehicle for Labour’s warring tribes to come together.

“If you look at the first half of Jeremy’s leadership, where we’ve pulled together on tax credits or police cuts or the Saudi prisons deal we’ve won. And it’s very much when we’re united that we can set the agenda. So coming up I think the obvious thing is going to be the EU. We all expect a referendum this year on the EU, so that’s where the Labour party can really gel together, because we are united on Europe, we all want to remain part of the EU,” she says, enthusiastically.

“We’re not saying that the EU is all we’d ever dream it to be, it’s not ideal, but we want to be part of a reformed EU and I think that’s possibly where we can make a lot of progress because we’re all pushing in the same direction.”

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A devout Christian who sees Jesus as radical socialist, Smith says that her parents were not overtly political. Rather, she found politics through the youth wing of the Methodist church in Barrow-in-Furness.

“I would never have called it politics at the time, but it was things like campaigning against third world debt, campaigns to make trade fair, the Jubilee 2000 campaign that kind of thing – that was really my political apprenticeship, if you want to call it that.”

She joined the Labour Party after a few pints of lager in the Student Union bar while at Lancaster University and went on to work for the Christian Socialist Movement, also working part-time for Corbyn and later as a policy officer for the British Association of Social Workers.

Smith, who describes herself as bisexual, was awarded her current women & equalities brief just four months’ after entering parliament and sees it as a licence to tread on colleagues’ toes.

“Women and equalities as a brief is massive and it covers everything. I view it as a very inter-departmental brief. As far as I’m concerned I’ve given myself permission to interfere in the business of any other shadow teams.

“There’s plenty going on. If you look at the government’s track record on women and equalities, it’s actually really bad. So things like the tribunal fees have seen a drop off in people taking employers to tribunal for unfair dismissal in regards to sex discrimination, maternity discrimination, race discrimination. They seem to have targeted disabled people to pay for the crisis that’s been caused by bankers.

“Where we are making some headway on transgender rights it’s been pushed by the Labour party from the word go. So it’s very exciting to be part of a team where we are totally on the front foot in terms of equalities issues. But there’s plenty more to do.”

But could Labour have a new rival on its hands when it comes to standing up for womens rights? The Women’s Equality Party was launched last year by Sandi Toksvig, Sophie Walker and Catherine Mayer and seeks to achieve equality in politics, business, education, pay, parenting and the media, as well as an end to violence against women.

Smith refrains from a sisterly embrace of Toksvig, Walker and Mayer, arguing instead that the Women’s Equality Party is politically irrelevant because only Labour can deliver.

“The Labour party, it’s taken us over 100 years to get to where we are. And I’m not prepared to wait that long for gender equality which is - if you’re starting a party from scratch – what you’re basically setting yourself up for. I’m a bit more impatient for equality.

“The Labour party’s the only party that’s delivered anything for women’s equality. Going back, you look at the equal pay act. But actually in the last Labour government, increasing maternity leave, rights at work, introducing the national minimum wage disproportionately helped women and children, child poverty targets – things like that delivered actually tangible changes to peoples’ lives. So I don’t think the Women and Equalities Party frankly are very relevant.”

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We are meeting in Portcullis House in the Palace of Westminster as Labour continues to tear itself apart over Trident. Shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry is leading a review of the party’s defence policy and has urged MPs to keep an open mind on the replacement of the nuclear deterrent. But it is no secret that many Labour parliamentarians are deeply unimpressed with the leadership’s stance, to put it mildly.

Despite the backlash, Smith insists that it is right to have a debate about the party’s position on Trident.

“I think it’s an interesting one because you can’t say that you’ll hold a position forever. So I think that supporting Trident was the right decision to make in the 1980s… but we should review where we are. Not just on Trident but on all policies, you can’t commit to one form of defence for ever and ever. And I think it’s right that we’re looking at it.”

But no matter how wide-ranging the debate is, Smith does not suggest that the Labour leadership will be able to persuade all MPs to back its anti-Trident stance.

“There always will be different views within the Labour party,” she says. “There are people in very entrenched positions who will never be shifted, nor should they be. We can’t possibly expect some MPs to vote against the renewal of Trident any more than we can expect others to vote for it.”

And it is not just Trident. What should happen to those pesky MPs who continue to oppose the new leadership at every twist and turn?  Would she be devastated to lose a few of the so-called Blairites?

“I wouldn’t want to see anybody leave the Labour party,” insists Smith. “As far as I’m concerned you can have a Tory government or a Labour government and I’ll have a Labour government. And whoever was elected leader in September last year, I’d be pulling behind to fight for a Labour government at the next election, which is what I’m doing with Jeremy. I’m not behaving any differently now to how I would be if anyone else had been elected as leader of the party. I suppose in that sense I’m quite tribal.”

So what does she make of those Corbyn supporters who talk of deselecting MPs who they don’t agree with? Smith politely advises such comrades to shut their mouths.

“I don’t like that talk…. You’ve just got to recognise that as a Labour party we can only ever win if we’re united. I think all this talk is unhelpful and just plays into the hands of the Tories.”

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Critics of the Labour leadership might argue that Corbyn and John McDonnell are doing are doing a good job themselves of playing into the hands of the Conservatives.

A recent Ipsos Mori poll showed the Tories taking their biggest lead over Labour since records began on the question of which party has the best top team.  David Cameron remained the party leader with the highest satisfaction rating, with 42 per cent satisfied with his performance.  Three in ten (31%) are satisfied with Jeremy Corbyn. Ongoing vote intention figures put the Conservatives on 40% compared to Labour with 31%.

But Smith is having none of it. She insists: “I stopped trusting polls at about 10pm on May 7, actually…. Forgive me if I don’t award these polls the prominence that some of the media might like to give them. I don’t believe them.”

She reaches for the classic political cliché that “the only polls that count are elections” and points to the Oldham West and Royton by-election in which Jim McMahon triumphed for Labour with fewer votes than his predecessor Michael Meacher, but a substantially bigger share of the overall pie.

Does that mean it will be valid to judge Corbyn’s leadership on the local elections in May?

“I think it’s valid to look at them but I don’t think you can base everything on them,” she says. “It is early days. In Scotland for instance we’ve got a mountain to climb. We can’t expect miracles to happen, but hopefully we’ll be moving in the right direction.”

As non-believers argue that the local elections and the London mayoral contest are the big tests for the Labour leader, Smith’s answer suggests she is keen play down expectations, handing Corbyn a Get Out Of Jail card in the event of a poor performance.

But then again, the MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood Smith has never been one for predicting big wins for her comrade in Islington North.

She may be able to take credit for getting Corbyn to smarten up his appearance during last year’s Labour leadership contest. But despite winning this battle, Smith is not afraid to admit that she had not seen the landslide victory coming until it was too late to capitalise on it at the bookies. And it still pains her to this day.

“I didn’t put any money on it… Part of me regrets that,” she laughs. “Having never placed a bet in my life, I think I probably should have put one on Jeremy being leader of the Labour party.”

 

 

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