The dithering is over; just when it seemed the Eagle had floundered, she’s finally confirmed she’s going to mount a challenge to Jeremy Corbyn after all. The woman who swiftly followed Hilary Benn out of the Shadow Cabinet a couple of weeks ago was pushed forward as an early challenger, yet seemed to exhibit the same lack of bottle that afflicted many of those who threw their hats into the ring when Ed Miliband quit and then hastily grabbed them back again. But the right wing of the Labour Party, desperately lacking any evident vote-winner, have turned to the eldest of the Eagle twins (by 15 minutes) because it would appear nobody else will dare to step forward.
Her challenge must present the left wing of Labour with something of a moral dilemma. Angela Eagle is a woman and a lesbian to boot, one of the first female MPs to come out (as far back as 1997). She ticks a fair few of the requisite boxes that should, in theory, earn her the admiration of the hug-a-minority brigade; but by daring to stand against Jezza – which, to the hardcore Corbynistas is as unforgivable as criticising Muhammad is to Fundamentalist Muslims – she will forever be painted as Labour’s Lady Macbeth, especially if she succeeds in toppling the Messiah. She also has to contend with the trade unions, furious that their man in Westminster could be ousted, an anger personified in arrogant threats from the General Secretary of Unite, Professional Scouser Len McCluskey. And then there are the online recruits to the membership, joining in their thousands day-by-day, as Corbyn’s attack dogs are fond of constantly reminding us. Even her own local Labour party in her constituency of Wallasey are opposed to her challenging the leader they support. I can’t say I hold out much hope for Ms Eagle.
Then again, who knows? The last two-and-a-half weeks have taught us not take anything for granted or to make assumptions based on the pattern of a past that can no longer be depended upon to predict the present. What’s most remarkable in this particular case is that a large proportion of Labour MPs have actually got round to challenging Corbyn’s leadership. Rumours of challenges to Brown and Miliband never even got as far as presenting those respective leaders with a candidate to stand against them, though in retrospect they were both deserving of a serious challenge to their fairly inept leadership.
Angela Eagle may seem a strange choice to challenge the radicals’ radical, however. To break down the intimidating wall of parties who have a vested interest in Corbyn’s continuation needs someone with considerable charismatic clout. Like the current Tory contender Theresa May, Eagle has a thin, reedy voice – all treble and no bass. One of the most convincing attributes a leader or prospective leader requires is the ability to broadcast their beliefs in a vocal manner that implies strength and imbues confidence. Listen to recordings of Margaret Thatcher before she became Tory leader and then after; out went the Home Counties housewife and in came the Iron Lady. The conscious deepening of her voice changed the persona she projected to the public and convinced many doubters she had what it took to be entrusted with the keys to No.10.
Such things may sound frivolous, but they count for a lot when a party leader has to get his or her message across to those members of the electorate who have yet to believe the hype. It’s arguable that had Ed Miliband looked like or spoken with the same voice as, say, a young David Owen, the great mass of floating voters may have fallen for him. But what were perceived as his odd looks and even odder voice worked against him as much as any policy he espoused. The collected bald heads of Kinnock, Hague and IDS probably didn’t do any of them any favours either. Like it or not, these are the kind of visual emblems that people pick up on in the beauty contest that politics has become.
Elected to Parliament in 1992, Eagle held a series of junior posts in the Blair Government from 1997-2002 and achieved a prominent ministerial spot under Gordon Brown, promoted to Work and Pensions Secretary in 2009. After the 2010 General Election defeat, she served as a member of Miliband’s Shadow Cabinet, eventually becoming Shadow Leader of the Commons; when Miliband fell on his sword last year she aimed for Deputy Leadership of the party, but only finished fourth. Under Corbyn, she was Shadow Business Secretary, the post she quit a fortnight ago. It’s fair to say she hasn’t exactly set Parliament alight over the past couple of decades; in fact, it took until 2012 before the general public noticed her by default, when David Cameron used her as the butt of his hilarious Michael Winner joke. I admit I myself only recently realised she had a twin sister, let alone that Maria was alongside her in the Commons.
So, it would seem the real challenge here is not to convince the necessary number of Labour MPs that Angela Eagle can lead her party and then, as is hoped, her country, but to convince the membership. Good luck with that, dear.
© The Editor