Angela Smith tells Labour MPs: Quit the party and breathe again

It’s been a busy week for Angela Smith.

By Elizabeth Bates
Friday, 22 February, 2019, 16:16
Angela Smith represents Penistone and Stocksbridge as an independent MP after quitting the Labour party.

She began it as a Labour MP but ended it as a leading figure in a brand new political movement, known as the Independent Group.

On Monday she quit the party that she joined as a sixteen-year-old activist, blaming Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and rejecting the left-wing ideology that has swept through the party since he was elected.

But within hours of the press conference announcing the new political group, she was plunged into a race row after appearing to describe people from minority ethnic background as having a “funny tinge”.

Amid the ensuing press frenzy, she was forced to release a video on social media apologising if any offence had been caused - hardly the fresh start the MPs were hoping for.

But despite the teething problems, Ms Smith remains enthusiastic about the project and seems relieved to have finally made the move when she catches up with The Yorkshire Post in her parliamentary office.

“I feel now very humbled because of the response we’ve had,” she says. “It’s been amazing. I am even being stopped in the street by people - here in London - by people saying thank you.”

The Penistone and Stocksbridge MP says her doubts about the party’s direction began after the 2017 general election, which she sees as the tipping point in an irreversible far-left takeover of Labour.

“What we saw after that election was a consolidation of Corbyn’s position and then they started to take control of the party machinery,” she says.

“Until the June election, the party machinery was broadly where it had been before - very supportive. That has now changed.”

Ms Smith sees the replacement of Iain McNicol as the party’s General Secretary last year by Corbyn ally, Jennie Formby, as a “key moment”.

“It is more a reflection of Jeremy Corbyn’s politics and image than it has been before. If the machinery of the party is lost then where does that leave those who see their party being snatched away?

“Ideologically the party had changed and then when the machinery was gone as well - what hope is there? It becomes irredeemable. I’ve drawn that conclusion and so have all of us, that it is completely beyond redemption now.”

Ms Smith maintains that it is the party leadership that has changed its values, not the other way around.

But there are many Labour members locally who would disagree. Last year she lost a vote of no confidence that was brought by members unhappy with her criticism of Corbyn, as well as her stance on fracking and water nationalisation. She described them at the time as a “left-wing cabal”.

And her relationship with Corbyn himself is no better. Asked if she has ever had a productive interaction with him, she replies, simply: “No.”

“It became obvious to me that he is only really interested in talking to those colleagues who share his politics,” she adds.

“When it became obvious that that wasn’t going to change, we knew we had to try something different.”

But despite reaching breaking point with some factions of the party, Ms Smith has spent decades immersed in Labour politics and says the hardest part of a rollercoaster week was explaining her resignation to fellow activists and friends.

“The most difficult part of Monday was in the afternoon when I made the calls to party members who are friends.

“I had drawn up a list of people in the local party that I really needed to talk to - my friends. And that was hard because even though all the conversations were pleasant and there was no animosity, nevertheless it’s a rupture.

“And we have all agreed to stay friends. I think that will be the case but it does change the relationships, and it was quite a painful thing to do.”

Her family, she reveals, have followed her lead in leaving the party, with her mother quitting on the same day, and a niece a few weeks prior.

On the political future of her husband, who is a Labour councillor in Sheffield, she says: “It is his decision in the end and he supports me.”

Turning back to Westminster’s volatile political atmosphere, Ms Smith addresses rumours that more disenchanted MPs are preparing to leave their parties and join the Independent Group, appealing directly to former colleagues to take the plunge.

“What I would say is – take your own time. This is a big decision and I totally understand that there will be all sorts of emotions and considerations in play when our colleagues are going through this.

She adds: “Be brave. If you possibly can find the bravery to break free of the institution that is making you so unhappy, and not just personally unhappy but in a moral sense as well.

“If you are morally and politically uncomfortable with the institution that you are currently residing with and are a member of then be brave and join us, because we need you. And the country needs you.

“Put the country first, join us and help us make this new venture work.

“That’s what I would say. And I know it is difficult. It is really difficult.

“We were being suffocated by our parties. Don’t be suffocated, break free of it, breathe again and come and join us.”

‘Conscience clear’ after race row

Despite receiving fierce criticism over her ‘funny tinge’ remark, Ms Smith insists her conscience is clear on the matter.

Describing the lead-up to the comment, she says she went into the Politics Live studio after “five hours of fairly intense press conferencing” and only found out the topic of the debate with two minutes to spare.

She said: “Ordinarily I would think through the topics under discussion and potential answers so that we can avoid situations like this. I’d had nothing to eat for quite a long while and I was very tired, but that’s not an excuse in any way.

“The hard left has tried to pin this label on me and it does not apply and I am confident that is not what I am.”