Angela Eagle has admitted she regrets her vote to support the Iraq war, but said it was outrageous of her rivals for the Labour leadership to use that decision 13 years ago to paint her as on the right of the party.
Eagle, the former shadow business secretary who is challenging Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership, told the Guardian that her decision to vote for the 2003 invasion had been based on “flawed information”.
She said the Chilcot inquiry had confirmed that MPs had received faulty intelligence about the decision to go to war. “We didn’t know it would be flawed at the time,” she said.
Foreign policy is one of the key dividing lines between Eagle and Corbyn. Despite her regrets over Iraq, she said she was not a pacifist and still supported international intervention in the right circumstances, citing Kosovo as an example.
“There are issues with intervening but there are also issues with being absent, as we can see in Syria,” she said. “I’m not a pacifist. I absolutely understand the individual conscience decisions people take if they are personally pacifists. But I don’t think pacifism is a stance you can have as leader of a country.”
Supporters of her rival candidate Owen Smith have said they are concerned that Labour members will not support Eagle because of her vote on the Iraq war.
This attempt to portray her as being on the right of the party has incensed Eagle, a long-time trade unionist, the working-class daughter of a seamstress and the first in her family to go to university.
“What a joke – I was sacked by Tony Blair,” she said. “I have never been a Blairite or a Brownite; I’m not a Corbynista, as you can tell. I’m Labour to my core. If you sliced me in half I would have Labour running through me like a stick of Blackpool rock. John McDonnell [shadow chancellor] signed my nomination papers for deputy leader.”
New prime minister Theresa May’s radical pitch for the centre ground on the steps of No 10 was a deliberate bid to appeal to Labour voters, Eagle said. But the would-be Labour leader is determined to counter that by pointing towards May’s past record in government and her votes for severe austerity measures such as the bedroom tax and tax credit cuts.
“If we were being a functioning opposition, that is what we would be hanging round her neck, in the politest way,” she said. Eagle was on stage, mid-speech, when Boris Johnson’s appointment as foreign secretary was announced. A look of horror crossed her face, and she has barely recovered. The former London mayor makes Britain an “international laughing stock”, she said.
Eagle said it was her frustration at Corbyn’s performance in the Commons against the Tories that had fuelled her decision to challenge him. “We have to oppose governments and we have to put them under pressure. I don’t think Jeremy did that,” she said.
She added that she had been prepared to support Corbyn initially, calling his election last year “an extreme reboot” that could have worked had he reached out across the divisions in the party. Policymaking before his election as leader had become “technocratic, micro stuff that had gone on for too long – there was no actual debate about ideas”.
However, Corbyn had never managed to “make the transition into leadership that you need”. “He is much more interested in the movement outside – that is perfectly reasonable, but we are a parliamentary party. We need that more than ever now, especially in the aftermath of the Brexit vote,” she said.
Her team had tried to set up weekly meetings with McDonnell, but Eagle said that all bar one had been cancelled over the past nine months. “It could have worked if he’d have reached out, but he didn’t reach out. He was marooned in his office,” she said.
Several times, she found policies had been announced in her brief that she had never been consulted on, citing the proposal to bar or restrict companies from distributing dividends unless they paid all workers the living wage.
Eagle was furious, and forced to handle the backlash as the proposals unravelled. “It’s a very good area, but a stupid way of doing it, and if anyone would have asked me, I’d say it was a good aim but you can’t do it like that, it’s nonsensical,” she said.
Further divisions are likely to be exposed on Monday, when Eagle will vote for the renewal of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, in line with what she says is Labour party policy. Corbyn counters that there is no official policy on Trident, with party policy under review, and MPs will have a free vote.
Eagle is no cheerleader for nuclear weapons, but she said the route should be multilateral disarmament. “I’m as in favour of having a nuclear-free world as the next person,” she said. “I regret that over the last few years there hasn’t been more of an effort put into multilateral talks to reduce the stocks of nuclear weapons.”
The abuse she has received since formally declaring she would stand for leader has included death threats and a brick through the window of her constituency office in Wallasey, Merseyside. The tone, she said, had changed considerably since Corbyn was elected leader and was not the normal course of robust political disagreement.
“It’s not robust. It’s unacceptable to have death threats, misogyny and homophobia and it has nothing to do with Labour’s values,” she said. “It’s not enough to condemn it – the people in the Labour party that perpetrate this need to be expelled.”
It has been suggested that Eagle and Smith may face MPs in a hustings on Monday evening after the Trident vote, to agree who will be the unity candidate to face Corbyn. Eagle would not confirm this, but said the pair were in discussions. “We are talking, we’ll see what happens.”
Smith will launch his campaign in his south Wales constituency of Pontypridd on Friday, where he will argue the Labour party is in crisis. “This is a moment of deep peril for Labour. If we carry on as we are, the party I love will end up in a disastrous split,” he will say. “I am not prepared to let that happen.”
The former shadow work and pensions secretary will pitch himself as one of the new generation, and say the party needs to go beyond just being anti-austerity. “Labour needs to set out the details of how we overcome Tory austerity and secure the next Labour government that delivers investment, not cuts,” he will say.
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