I’ve never done an interview with a political figure before, and I generally avoid confrontation in most walks of life so it’s perhaps odd that I find myself at the offices of the labour MP Rachael Maskell with a list of (fairly) prickly current affairs questions to ask her for the hour long interview we have scheduled.
On the day of the interview, labour has just lost it’s ninth MP (Ian Austin) to the fresh faced independent group and the party is swamped with tricky questions being asked about anti-Semitism and Jeremy Corbyn’s unclear stance on the Brexit situation (at the time of our interview he’s not yet made public his support of the second referendum). I’ve jotted down a few figures in regard to these questions and have also written, as my big sensationalist question for her: ‘Would you consider yourself an anti-Semite? . Sadly, as it turns out, I don’t quite have the guts to ask her this quite so bluntly in our interview.
I’m ushered into the constituency office waiting room and hang about a bit whilst Rachael finishes her a prep, in what feels like no time at all she appears and we sit down in her office. I feel my heart briefly in my mouth before I remember I’m not David Frost and collect myself a bit. She says hello in as natural manner as I could have hoped and, after getting her permission, I hit the ‘record’ button on my phone.
I try to sound relaxed and start with an easy opener, asking her how she is and what the climate in Westminster is like; this precipitates a long answer where she touches on, among other things, the PM’s handling of Brexit saying that May is simply ‘kicking the can down the road, time and time again’ in regard to her negotiating strategy. She continues on down a similar path echoing a fairly generic point about how people ‘didn’t understand’ the true nature of Europe and the single market when they chose to leave it. She does however make an excellent point about how wages in York fell by about 80 pounds per person last year; a fair indicator of the current situation.
After nearly 10 minutes she wraps up her answer and I’ve failed to interrupt once; I’m going to have to get better at this. I ask about the independent group and the threat it poses to labour’s vote share, citing a recent polling figure. She’s dismissive of the independent group and the poll saying that the breakaway MPs continuing to stand is ‘undemocratic’ given that they’ve abandoned their original policy platform. She doesn’t seem to acknowledge the group as being anything other than a vanity project for the breakaway MPs and has little to say on the new party as a whole.
I’m starting to get wound up, feeling that the conversation is a little too neutral and I decide to bring in the question of anti-Semitism in Labour, pointing to the roughly 673 allegations placed against the party in 10 months. This is where our conversation starts to gain some traction.
She is not dismissive of the allegation, stating she is ‘deeply troubled’ by any of the reported instances of it, but she is staunch in her defence of Jeremy Corbyn, claiming that he is a historically ‘generous’ individual who ‘cannot tolerate discrimination of anybody’ and ‘believes in a world where everyone is treated with equality and dignity’. Maskell does however venture down a bold path, bringing up some of the more controversial military activities in Israel; citing this as a possible source of potentially anti-Semitic rhetoric in the party. She mentions a visit she made to the Israel/ Palestine border she made in November of last year and cites the political climate as ‘disgraceful’ given the segregation and inequality she describes as still being rife there.
From this we go off on an interesting tangent about the rise of the populist right in politics. Maskell speaks passionately about this for some time, describing the rise of this type of thinking and some of the related scapegoating of minorities as being the inevitable result of austerity and, to a lesser extent, some of the ideas floated by the hard-core Brexiteers. She laments the absence of an observable ‘anti fascist movement’ in the current climate, citing Labour and the trade unions as being traditionally at the forefront of such a movement. To bring us back to my initial question, she mentions some of the work her and the party have done to strengthen ties with the Jewish community in York and educate people on anti-Semitism.
Image Credit: Chris McAndrews
Our rapport has become a bit more conversational, but I want us to get down to the current state of the Labour party and the undeniable backlash that seems to have been growing, culminating with the recent departure of Luciana Berger and her fellow MPs. I describe to Rachael the wave of Corbo-mania that had gripped the university campus during the last general election and how the this sort of enthusiasm has largely gone off the boil in regard to Labour; the party being viewed by some as drifting in a niche direction. A long pause follows when I put this conundrum to her and she does seem to acknowledge this as being a genuine concern for the party, she mentions
how, specifically, the murder of Jo Cox had silenced many of the voices among Labour MPs who had been campaigning for more diversity in the society but also in the party’s membership. She reiterates the importance of ‘taking a stand’ regardless of circumstances however, and stresses the ‘need for voices on the ground’; a sentiment that, for me, brings to mind Sanders’ ‘grass-roots campaign’ strategy across the pond.
Our conversation meanders around for a while as we discuss Corbyn’s stance on the EU (she stands by him as a proud ‘remain-reformer’), as well as the changing obligations of an MP in the present day; she’s adamant in her belief that MPs should not be bullied into line by their respective parties and takes a pot-shot at the York Outer MP, Julian Sturdy (Conservative), for being someone whose sure to keep his agenda in line with the chief whip.
As our hour wraps up I feel pleased with our discussion even if some of her answers have caught me somewhat off-guard. The most potentially revealing insight into her character strangely comes when I ask her, by way of a joke,: ‘What’s the naughtiest thing you’ve ever done?’. After quite a considerable bit of dithering she states: ‘I’m much more subtle with my rebellion. That doesn’t mean I’m not rebellious in nature, I just try and do it in a very sophisticated way’.
It’s either an off -the-cuff remark, a statement of intent, or a portentous description of her political career to come. Or perhaps I’m just reading a bit much into all of this.