Emily Thornberry talks Brexit, crime in Cally, air quality and leading Labour
PUBLISHED: 07:57 15 April 2019 | UPDATED: 17:12 15 April 2019
Emily Thornberry was collared three times by constituents asking her about Brexit before she’d walked the Gazette back to her Barnbury constituency office on Thursday.
But beyond Brexit and being on a constant campaign footing in case a snap election is called, the would-be foreign secretary still makes time to fulfil her role as Islington South and Finsbury MP.
Ms Thornberry did a shift sorting donated clothes at Upper Street's Save the Children store – in aid of Yemeni youngsters bombarded by a Saudi-led coalition – before walking the Gazette through the biggest issues facing her constituents.
“People come and lobby me over political issues,” she said. “But what I do more than anything else on a day-to-day basis is just get people listened to.
“So many of my constituents get the run around from authorities and I write a letter and suddenly the authorities kinda go: 'Oh, that's what Mrs Smith was talking about'. I'm an advocate for them.”
She'd held a surgery at St Luke's community centre that morning where issues raised included immigration, over-crowded housing and benefit problems.
Ms Thornberry said she doesn't “get anybody anything they're not entitled to”, but bemoaned how much harder it's become to help people since she was first elected in 2005 due to a lack of resources.
“The housing situation just gets worse and worse,” she said. “No matter how hard the council tries it can't build enough housing.”
She also lambasted “terrible changes to the benefit system”, namely the new online-only Universal Credit system combining five working age benefits into one monthly payment. Ms Thornberry believes Islington Council's services are being “overwhelmed”.
On immigration disputes, she said: “The Home Office has always been terrible and takes far too long to answer, loses documents, makes stupid decisions.
“So lets say someone has been given the right to remain in the country, I'll get constituents coming to see me months later and they still won't have the piece of paper from the Home Office. Happens all the time.”
But when she isn't trading policy blows with Tories from the commons' dispatch box, she's being griped at about broken light bulbs.
“People do ask me to do some pretty [silly] things to be honest,” she said. “So people write to me and complain about the light in their hall not being replaced and there are certain people who seem to find it quite difficult to cope with life's problems and so get into the habit of coming to see me on a regular basis,” she said, with a laugh, before clarifying this was only the case with a handful of constituents.
Amid a slew of knife crime across the capital the Cally has made headlines about Islington for all the wrong reasons over the past few months.
This is where 17-year-old former St Mary Magdalene student Nedim Bilgin was stabbed to death in January.
“Nobody can think about the issue of gang violence without accepting that drugs are a major driver in this,” said Ms Thornberry. “We have lost 300 police officers from Islington. This makes a big difference.”
Cuts to mental health services also make it “really hard” for young people to access the help they need, argues the MP.
She added: “Shockingly I was talking to somebody recently who pointed out that youngsters involved in gangs now are nearly always identified by the authorities when they're as young as three. And they can say: 'This child is in really difficult circumstances, has behavioural problems, and even at that stage it can be anticipated what will happen to them.
“There was once a time when Cally Road was seen as neutral and you used to get kids from everywhere going there because it was safe...”
Ms Thornberry also think plans touted by Islington Council last month to shut Old Street and Clerkenwell Road to through-traffic by creating a new cycle route are a “great idea”. But she added: “I'm not sure I'd necessarily think the same if I lived in Hackney” – where traffic could potentially be pushed.
She also commended “brilliant” plans to improve air quality in the borough, saying its a “big issue” . and one she can personally empathise with as both her kids went to school “at the bottom of the A1”.
The dreaded gentrification has been blamed for pricing well-established family businesses like M, Manze pie and mash shop out of Chapel Market – does Ms Thornberry think the beloved market will survive?
“Islington has always been a really mixed community,” she said. “And the market has provided good quality and relatively cheap fruit and veg, services like key cutting, and clothing. [..] I think it's really sad to see the way the market has been shrinking.
“I've been going for 25 years and people are right: it isn't what it used to be.”
But she suggested it needed to host a variety of stalls, selling new wares alongside the old, in order to be a “successful” and modern market”.
Perhaps the question most frequently put to Ms Thornberry, other than her Brexit stance, is whether she has aspirations to be Labour's first female leader.
But she said: “There is not a vacancy for leader of the Labour Party. Jeremy is a very popular and good leader.
“I used to shadow Boris Johnson: he spent a lot of time thinking about the job he could be doing rather than getting on with the work].She wants to get on with the “overwhelming honour” of her current role and hopes to soon become only the UK's second foreign secretary. Despite laughing at the Gazette's repeated line of questioning, Ms Thornberry wouldn't be drawn further than this.
“Quite a lot of people are coming to see me about Brexit at the moment,” said Ms Thornberry.
“Which is a matter of great concern to my constituents.
“Brexit impacts on the lives of people in Islington because they are concerned about what's going to happen to jobs and the economy, the small business that export to Europe.
“I get European citizens concerned about whether they're going to be allowed to stay here or not, saying: 'what's going to happen in the future?'
“And then people who are concerned about not feeling European anymore.
“A lot of Islington people feel British but also European and they think we're making the wrong decision – I rarely get people contacting me who think we're making the right decision, I have to say.”
Theresa May recently reached out to Jeremy Corbyn in a desperate bid to get enough cross-party bids to pass he Brexit bill –but what does the shadow foreign secretary make of this?
She said: “I think it's good that she's reached out to Labour now and she's asking us what we think but I have to say she should have done it a couple of years ago.
“And to do it four days after we are supposed to have left the European Union couldn't have been later.
“And the idea that she can't fix Brexit over a period of two-and-a-half years and she thinks over a period of three days speaking to the opposition it will be able to be sorted out is not realistic.”
The Gazette asked what Ms Thornberry thinks should happen next?
“When the music stops,” she said.
“I think whatever decision is suggested as the way we should leave the European Union and what our continuing relationship with Europe should be – I think it should be put back to the people to just have confirmed with them: 'Is this what you wanted?'
“When half the country voted to leave did they want this? And if they didn't then let's stay.
“I think it should be whatever the viable option is that has been negotiated both in Europe and in Britain and is the agreed way forward, then that should be put against remain and we should just make sure, before we take this drastic step, that this is what the public wants.
“And if they do fine, but they may not.”