Mary Creagh: 'When you live through history, you learn lessons about humanity'

The former Labour MP for Wakefield discusses Keir Starmer, her fondness for Wakefield and what she misses about being an MP

Saturday, 18th April 2020, 6:00 am
Mary Creagh says she's proud to have represented Wakefield for 15 years. Pic: Jonathan Gawthorpe
Mary Creagh says she's proud to have represented Wakefield for 15 years. Pic: Jonathan Gawthorpe

Mary Creagh has made no secret of why she lost her seat in the last General Election.

In December, the former Wakefield MP, who had held the seat since 2005, labelled then-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn “toxic” and “incompetent”, shortly after being beaten by the Conservatives’ Imran Ahmad-Khan.

Predictably, she has not changed her mind.

“I think that the people spoke at the election and their judgement on the direction that the party had taken echoed mine. Myself, and a lot of other Labour MPs were just kind of swept out with the tide,” she says.

“Labour only wins from the centre, it doesn't win from the left. And that was brought home to people very, very clearly.”

What makes her think it’s that simple?

“I'm judging by the hundreds of emails and letters I received after the election. There was a mixture of devastation, heartbreak, shock, anger, not just from Labour Party members, but from people in the wider community.”

Though the General Election, only four months back, was what Mrs Creagh calls a “slogan election” driven by the simple idea of “getting Brexit done”, it seems impossible that Britain will truly leave the EU by the end of December.

She says: “I think Ministers are reluctant to say that but it is absolutely inevitable. And I think it would be the right thing for them to do, to extend that transition period for as long as possible, until we get back to something resembling normality.”

Mrs Creagh feels the recent election of Sir Keir Starmer as Labour leader will usher in a new era.

“I'm obviously thrilled that Keir has won that the Labour leadership election and his stunning victory shows that people across the Labour Party grew very disaffected and disillusioned with the direction that the party had taken.”

Mrs Creagh, 52, speaks with the experience of a varied Westminster career, having spent five years in government, where “it’s much easier to get things done”, five years in the shadow cabinet and nearly four years chairing the Environmental Audit Select Committee, which looks at how government policies impact the environment.

However, poverty in Wakefield was the main focus of Mrs Creagh’s maiden speech, something that ended up rising significantly while she represented the constituency, despite her efforts.

But she doesn’t think it was all for nothing.

She explains: “It has been a very difficult decade, a decade of austerity, of not keeping the engines of the economy running, of some very strategic mistakes.

“And we see now, when the crisis strikes, where some of the fabric has been stretched too thinly in our system.

“There are people in Yorkshire today who don't have enough money to go out and buy the bread and milk and the pasta that they need for their families.

“These are basics, which voters look at governments to get right, and keeping people safe is the first rule of government.

“Keeping people safe means ensuring everybody has enough to eat, ensuring people can access their medicines, ensuring key workers can get to work, ensuring that people don't lose their homes, ensuring that the homeless are housed.”

She says the fact that Boris Johnson’s government has started to tackle these issues “overnight” is a sign of what can be achieved when the political will is there.

She says: “One of the things I hope that will come out of this crisis is that we kind of reset the economy and go back to the basics of what a good society looks like.”

A good society for the former MP involves access to quality public transport, especially in towns and villages, something she worked hard on in her year as shadow secretary of state for transport. She had great success fighting against rail fare rises.

Mrs Creagh leaves a strong legacy on the environment, too, getting the government to U-turn on its plan to sell off 637,000 acres of publicly-owned woodland in 2011.

Some might even say that one of her biggest achievements is being a Labour politician who was not thoroughly disliked by farmers, when she served as Shadow Environment Secretary for three years to 2013, under then-leader Ed Miliband.

“Farmers are an incredibly important part of our food system and they want to do the right thing to feed the nation but also to look after the soil, the woodlands, the uplands, that they own. So I always had a very positive relationship with farmers,” she laughs.

But it is in her own constituency that she feels her best work has been done.

One of Mrs Creagh’s early successes locally was the new Pinderfields Hospital, which replaced Pinderfields General Hospital in 2007.

“And what a relief it is that we don't have people in intensive care being treated in nissan huts, for example, during the Coronavirus crisis,” she says.

On top of this, she gives examples of helping to open the inquest last year into the murder Elsie Frost, 54 years after the 14-year-old Wakefield schoolgirl found dead, and for helping to secure justice for the family of Wakefield children Christi and Bobby Shepherd, who died from carbon monoxide poisoning in a Corfu hotel in 2005.

“Those were more personally important to me than any political achievements,” she says.

Though Midlands-born Mrs Creagh is now based in London, she is “incredibly grateful to people in Wakefield for voting for me, for sticking with me for four elections”.

“It's been the honour of my life representing Wakefield and I still feel passionately affectionate and proud of everything that we did together,” she adds.

Mrs Creagh says she still gets letters and emails from former constituents asking for her assistance, though, as a private citizen, she no longer has any powers to help.

“It’s frustrating not to be able to help people on an individual basis anymore, especially at a time of crisis when people are unemployed and falling into debt.”

Though she misses Wakefield and her work, there are some things she is glad to leave behind.

“I think when you stop living in two different places, you realise just how much energy is required. I don't miss late night votes in the House of Commons. I don't miss some of the late night party political meetings.”

She is now relishing the time she can sit down with her daughter on an evening and watch US legal drama Suits.

Now working as a visiting professor at Cranfield University, Mrs Creagh also works with companies to improve their responsible business practices. She has recently spoken in Paris for the OECD and in Tokyo with Chatham House, and she volunteers at her local food bank.

“I’ve got to find another way to change the world!” she jokes, adding that the current crisis is more than enough to give us perspective on our lives and the lives of people around us.

“When you live through history, you learn very deep lessons about humanity and about yourself. It's a real time to count our blessings and focus on what matters most.”