Three women and one man are in the running to be the next Labour Party leader: Emily Thornberry, Lisa Nandy, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Keir Starmer. Here, Thornberry tells Stylist about her goals for Labour and for the UK – including housing, the NHS, and Brexit – and shares why she thinks Boris Johnson is so scared of her.
Emily Thornberry is the female MP who was raised by a single mother, declared herself “more radical” than Jeremy Corbyn and likes to unwind by watching Doctor Who. She’s known for a razor-sharp wit (remember that viral interview with David Dimbleby?) and you can rely on her to use it to call out Boris Johnson, who she shadowed when he was foreign secretary. In fact, she’s very vocal in saying that Johnson has a “serious problem with women”.
Today, she is the shadow secretary of state for commonwealth affairs and the shadow first secretary of state. In the most recent election, she held onto her Islington South and Finsbury seat.
Thornberry is also one of the three women in the running to be Labour’s first party leader. She’s recently revealed a new housing plan for millennials, her pro-stance on the Gender Recognition Act and the key things government needs to do post-Brexit (despite being a remainer).
So now is as good a time as any to ask: who is the real Thornberry? What does she believe in? What would she do as prime minister? And how would she help improve the daily lives of women?
The Labour leadership hopeful answers Stylist’s burning questions.
Emily Thornberry on female leadership
Why do you think you’re the best woman to take on Boris Johnson?
I think Boris Johnson’s got a bit of a problem with women. He finds it difficult to take us seriously. I think he has a problem with me. I shadowed him for two years when he was foreign secretary, and he just didn’t know what to do with me. He found it difficult to patronise me. He just tries to make women giggle, but I’m not going to giggle at him.
I used to take him on by being on top of the details, and by quoting things to him he couldn’t even remember saying. But I didn’t do that by being completely pan-faced, it’s not as though I don’t have a sense of humour myself, and I think he found that difficult to cope with. I exposed him to be the liar and callous charlatan he is.
Why do you think it’s taken so long for the Labour party to elect a female leader?
I think there’s been a real feminisation of the Labour party over the last few years. It comes from the grassroots: we have a great number of women members, of women counsellors, of women running local Labour parties, of women being taken seriously and becoming MPs. It’s like a wave that’s gone through the party, and the final bit will be that we get a Labour leader who is a woman.
Emily Thornberry on the gender pay gap, abortion rights and gender
What are the most important issues facing women in the UK right now, and how do you plan to tackle them?
There’s quite a lot, I’m afraid. Women still don’t get equal pay, that’s just outrageous. We need to make sure that the law is more up to date to deal with the more complex world of work we now have. We also have to have proper flexible working, that works for the employee, and isn’t just an excuse for an employer to exploit people, but so you really can actually balance work and family life.
Another big issue at the moment is the lack of social care. Nearly 60% of unpaid family carers are women. I looked at this recently and if you had two working-age women in this room, by the age 59, one of them will be an unpaid carer. That’s really serious.
Are you in favour of the decriminalisation of abortion in the UK?
I think if we are going to decriminalise it in Northern Ireland then we should have a rounding up of standards across the UK. We need to make sure it actually happens with the Northern Irish assembly, and make sure that the right to abortion is introduced properly in Northern Ireland.
Perhaps even more importantly, is that women’s rights – their reproductive rights – are under attack all across the world. You see what Donald Trump is doing, for example. The base on which women’s rights have been built, is now under attack. We must not have any slipping back in Britain. We have to fight for what we have.
What is your stance on the Gender Recognition Act? Do you believe trans people should be able to self-identify their gender?
Without a shadow of doubt. Trans women are women, trans men are men.
I met somebody in Wakefield a couple of days ago who showed me her wedding photographs, and she showed me pictures of her husband who she was really in love with and they had this beautiful wedding. But when she married him, she had to say ‘I take you to be my lawful wedded wife’. And I just think ‘what is the matter with us? How can this be?’. We just have to sort this out. We can’t continue to allow people to be humiliated in this way.
And we also have to face the fact that trans people are the most vulnerable, the most likely to be attacked, to be marginalised, they have really high suicide rates, and they deserve our support and we need to put our arms around them.
Emily Thornberry on saving the NHS
Boris Johnson has promised to make the NHS a priority. How would you convince voters that Labour is the party to protect the NHS?
Don’t pay attention to what Boris Johnson says; only pay attention to what he actually does. What people actually need to do is find out if the National Health Service is getting better under the Conservatives or getting worse. We know that it’s getting worse. The NHS is really difficult to get access to and to get doctors’ appointments. People have to wait for hours and hours in A&E. We know our health professionals are underpaid and overworked, our health service is creaking at the seams. It needs proper investment.
And the other element of all of this, which we never really talk about, is mental health. I think young women being sent away from mental health services, being told that they’re not thin enough yet to justify seeing a psychiatrist for an eating disorder, is just terrible.
Emily Thornberry on better housing for millennials
You’ve had some bold ideas about how to help millennials get on to the property ladder. Can you tell us about your policy plans for addressing housing equality among millennials?
We need to be building more social housing right across the board. One of the problems is: where do you put it? We get that argument, but on the other hand, we see all of these empty flats, and all of this empty land. We need to put more money in and be much tougher on those who are hoarding land. It needs to be clear that if they don’t use it, they will lose it, and a local authority will take over it to build housing.
But the truth is that new housing is never available to 20 year olds. That’s because young people are not considered priority needs in social housing. They can’t afford to buy anywhere, because the prices are so high. So what do they do? They end up in the private renting sector where they don’t get any security, and it is very difficult for them to put down roots or have kids.
We need to get younger people involved in the housing debate, and get them demanding to have housing for them as well. One of the things I thought, as a start and not an end, is to give an obligation to local authorities to build a block of one and two bedroom flats that would be for young people in their 20s. If it was oversubscribed, which I imagine it would be, the allocation would have to be based on a lottery, and the deal is that you would pay half your income.
As I say, it’s not a solution but it’s the beginning of the solution and part of bringing things in. Once local authorities build one block, I’m sure there would be a lot of pressure to build more.
Emily Thornberry on post-Brexit life
You voted remain in the EU referendum and campaigned for a People’s Vote. How do you feel about that position now following the 2019 election?
We’ve got to have a continuing relationship with Europe, half of our trade is with Europe. We have a whole lot of trade deals with the world based on our being in the European Union, so if we are leaving all of that behind in a year, who knows where we are going to be?
Boris Johnson says he’s going to have it all done by the end of the year. I fear he may not be telling the truth. He needs to be held to account on that and we need to be sure that we are looking after jobs in the economy.
Do you think you’ll be able to attract Leave supporters who voted Tory 2019 back to the Labour party?
If we have a competent and credible Labour party – it shows that the Conservative way is not the only way, and there is a better way. We can stand firm and tall and talk about the importance of having a safety net without holes in it, that are currently so big that whole families would fall through it.
We are a party of opportunity. I believe they will come back to us. But they have to believe in us.
Emily Thornberry on the UK’s part in the climate crisis
How do you think the UK should be tackling climate change? Can you discuss the key points of the Green Industrial Revolution?
We, as the country that had the first Industrial Revolution, can lead the way with the Green Industrial Revolution. There are ways of producing energy that don’t produce carbon, so you don’t compromise the world.
You need to be on the front foot with that. We are a small, craggy island but we have great entrepreneurs, great ideas, and we need to harness that and there are many sources of energy in Britain that we are just not using at the moment. There is tidal power we could be using, I think it is an absolute outrage that the proposals in Swansea were just shelved by the government when they could have produced huge amounts of energy.
We could show the world that this country, which had the first Industrial Revolution and caused so much carbon to go in to the atmosphere, has transformed itself. And you have to have a government that understands this, you can’t do it with a free market. The government has to step in and have a lead. The government has to have a proactive role.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity